#MyLife, #WriterLife

Writing with Mental Illness

adult-black-and-white-dark-551588

Mental Illness and Creativity: A Mini-History

How many of us have imagined the “tortured artist?” A poet or novelist battling with their demons in a dark, solitary room as they pour out their pain onto the page. After hours, weeks, months, they collapse on their desk and breathe the words, “It is done.”

Numerous famous writers, from Sylvia Plath, to Tolstoy, to J.K. Rowling, not only suffered from mental illness but spoke freely about it. Many “Great American Writers” have committed suicide (Plath, Hemingway, and David Foster Wallace to name a few). Countless scientific studies have been done to understand the connection between mental illness and creative minds (results vary).

Somewhere along the way, the “tortured artist” was born. Mental illness became a precursor or predictor to artistic talent. Depressed people are naturally more creative than those who aren’t. People who are creative are more likely to be depressed, or manic, or schizophrenic, or bipolar. At least that’s what our cultural collective subconscious tells us.

While the idea that mental illness may be an asset to creative endeavors seems innocent enough, what’s dangerous is when suffering becomes glamorized or required for “good” art.

While researching for this post, I came across way too many articles that romanticized a writer’s mental illness or attributed their artistic success to their illness. None specifically encouraged suffering or self-harm (except poet Anne Sexton, who said “Good for him” regarding Hemingway’s suicide), but many downplayed the tragedy, treating a lifetime of illness as a key tool to successful creative process.

I had a high school creative writing teacher tell the class, “After [poet] received treatment, the poems weren’t any good. So they stopped treatment and their work improved. Unfortunately they killed themselves. What a shame.” I’m sure he followed up with some speech about the importance of getting proper medical care (actually, I’m not sure, but I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt).

I shouldn’t have to tell you why that statement is so dangerous. Especially directed to a room of impressionable teenagers.

The message was clear: Depression made that person a better poet and anyone serious about their art should be wary of treatment.

shocked

Say it with me:

UNTREATED MENTAL ILLNESS DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER WRITER.

BEING HAPPY AND WELL-ADJUSTED DOES NOT MAKE YOU DOOMED TO CREATIVE FAILURE.

My Experiences

I have been creative my whole life. All of my interests are artistic in nature. I’ve struggled with clinical depression since puberty. Do the two have anything in common? I don’t know.

Honestly, the idea made me feel better about my mental illness. Wow, I’m miserable, but at least I’ll be great at art/writing. I’ve even joked that you can’t be a great writer unless you have either mental illness or a drug addiction. It was stupid and I regret it. If anything, my early attempts at writing 100% disprove a connection between the two.

Besides, let’s be real. I have written stuff while ragingly depressed. It sucks. Sure, much of what I write while my depression is managed also sucks, but that’s what practicing, studying the craft, editing, and revising are for.

And do you know what is really hard to do when your mental health is in shambles?

EVERYTHING.

But also practicing, studying the craft, editing, and revising.

You want me to write every day? I can’t even brush my teeth every day.
#realtalk

I know everyone’s mental health journey is different. Some people find it impossible to write on the dark days. Some people use writing as a way to stay sane during the hard times. I fall into the first category.

I say my depression is “managed.” By that, I mean I generally feel OK and I no longer actively plan my untimely demise. I am in no way “cured.” Some days are better than others. Some days, or months, are worse.

If you want to know how productive my “managed” mental illness makes me, look no farther than the last time I posted on this site.

August 22, 2018.

255 days.

Eight and a half months. No blog posts. Pretty ironic following my Follow Your Passions post.

I’ve written several blog drafts, and started work on a second novel and most of a short story. So I’ve not done nothing, but certainly nothing to indicate artistic success.

And trust me, it’s not my antidepressant that’s holding back my “creative genius.” It’s the faulty wiring in my brain that makes basic tasks overwhelming. Even if it’s that same faulty wiring that will one day make me a celebrated literary giant (doubtful), that doesn’t make it worth romanticizing, nor should it be left free reign.

Let’s say it again for the kids in the back:

UNTREATED MENTAL ILLNESS DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER WRITER.

BEING HAPPY AND WELL-ADJUSTED DOES NOT MAKE YOU DOOMED TO CREATIVE FAILURE.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ll be posting more mental health related content this month, specifically a closer look at what my “managed” depression looks like and self-care tips for creative types.

But, you know, no promises.

2 thoughts on “Writing with Mental Illness”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s