I’ve heard friends and students say this plenty of times, and might have thought it myself.
Why do we equate medicine with mediocrity? Why do we think more health could mean less talent?
Maybe because of what I’ll call “Sylvia Plath syndrome.” We learn in English class that Sylvia Plath (or another writer, painter, or musician) struggled with mental illness and ultimately took her own life. As we progress through the Norton anthology, we find various manifestations of despair to be a theme.
The literary theme of despair, if not perceived correctly, could be understood as prescriptive (“Writers must be depressed”). This can make us think of depression as an image to maintain. It’s more accurate, however, to take a descriptive view (“Some writers are depressed”). This lets us think of depression as an illness to manage.
In fact, I would argue, it’s an illness that we must manage.
Fiction writer, Elizabeth Moon, has said:
“Speaking from experience (several bouts of clinical depression), I can guarantee that depression beyond the very mildest level … destroys creativity–and that treating depression enhances it. Why? Well, depression doesn’t just make you miserable. When you’re depressed, you have no energy–and writing books takes hard work, which takes energy. When you’re depressed, you find it hard to start new things (like books, chapters, the day’s work), and hard to make decisions (like which book, or which character, or even which way Albert will turn when he leaves the throne room…) When you’re depressed, everything seems futile–you are sure the book will be lousy even if you do write it.”
Psychologically, as Moon says, treatment can improve energy, initiative, concentration, and outlook — which, in turn, can improve the quantity of an artist’s output.
Artistically, too, treatment does not have any notably negative impact on the quality of an artist’s output. When I hear the suggestion that “antidepressants will make me boring,” here’s what I’ve decided to recommend:
- You can write about topics other than depression. Believe it or not, it’s true! Just consider the sections of a typical newspaper; you can write about current events, sports, food, the arts, religion, you name it.
- You can write about getting treatment. Write a memoir about your first visit to a therapist, a short story about a character who discovers a unique self-care strategy, or a poem about your pills (not glamorizing them or demonizing them…just describing them).
- You can write about depression and pursue joy. Because, newsflash, depression and joy are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. As Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower puts it: “I am both happy and sad, and I’m still trying to figure out how that can be.” You might use writing to figure out how that can be.
None of those topics are boring. On the contrary, they’re interesting, they’re likely therapeutic for the writer to write, and they’re likely eye-opening for readers to read.
So, to the depressed artist: go ahead and heal. There’s too much life to be lived — and, yes, to be written about — to let a manageable illness hold you back.