Being a depressed writer, I was instantly intrigued by this article by William Grimes for the New York Times (isn’t that fun to say?) about the links between writers, depression, and suicide.
Apparently, a group of people met to talk about the subject :
In a daylong conference at the 92d Street Y on Friday, several scholars and writers explored the links between depression, creativity and suicide, primarily in the life and work of Sexton, Plath and Ernest Hemingway. The conference,”Wanting to Die: Suicide and American Literature,” was organized by the American Suicide Foundation.
I am impressed that the American Suicide Foundation (I assume they’re against it) organized such a thoughtful and potentially useful conference.
This statement here caught my eye :
In rereading his work, Mr. Styron said, “I began to realize all my work was of an incipient depressive personality struggling to prevent the demons of mood disorder from crowding in.”
Writers being the sort of people that instantly relate everything to themselves, I immediately pondered whether there were signs of depression in my own work.
I don’t think so. Nothing definitive, anyhow. What I write is sometimes tragic and/or sad, but then again, a lot of the time, it’s funny. I am generally a positive writer, looking to make the reader happy.
Then again, I have this space in which to talk (incessantly) about my depression, so perhaps that frees me somehow from putting it into my writing. Who knows.
And if you really want to go down the endless twisting road of psychosocial literary analysis, absolutely anything can be construed as a sign of anything. It just takes imagination and a will to believe in your own bullshit. Much like religion, really.
But if there is a link between being a writer and being suicidally depressed, I suspect it has to do with the sort of person who becomes a writer, as opposed to something about writing that makes people depressed and maybe even suicidal.
I have said this many times before : writers are not normal people. If we were, we would likely not be writers. Writing means spending a heck of a long time completely alone, typing away, sweating little details and making whole worlds come to life with nothing but our words as tools.
All because we have this deep down feeling that we have something we want to say.
And yet, it is often the case that we have no idea what it truly is we want to say, and have to write story after story, book after book, just to find out.
And meanwhile, we are spending all that time alone. And that leads me to my first conclusion : to write, you must be an introvert.
Extroverts simply would not have the patience to spend that much time alone. They would want to be out interacting with people. Whatever they had to say, they would say it to their wide circle of friends. They would not feel the need to write it all down and make their point through narrative or essay.
Of course, nobody is one hundred percent introvert or extrovert, and I am sure there are lots of extroverted writers out there.
But just as not every old sailor was gay but there was a certain sort of person who didn’t mind spending months at sea with only men on board (women are… um…. bad luck?), I think you will find that the sort of person willing to be a writer is a lot more likely to be introverted.
There has to be something that makes us communicate with the world by this elaborate, laborious, and extraordinarily indirect route, instead of, say, just saying things.
Now let’s look at depression. One of its most salient attributes for this discussion is that it tends to make people want to isolate themselves, and makes it hard for the depressive to connect with others.
At least, not in the normal way. But perhaps, through writing? That way the over-stimulating, frightening others are kept safely far away, and the writer can mostly engage with their richly detail inner life.
Thus, the others are a largely imaginary inner audience, and this provides enough distance for the writer to write for an audience which is mostly a reflection of their own imagination and standards.
But some day, if things go way, the writing will be read, and that tiny amount of social connection is low enough in wattage that the introverted, depressed writer can handle it.
Then add in the sensitivity that is required to be any sort of decent writer. This is another factor which selects towards both writing and depression. Being extremely sensitive is both a gift and a curse. It allows the writing to develop the kind of deep understanding and true compassion required to write realistic worlds with living, breathing characters that good writing requires.
But the curse is profound. The world is a very rough and dangerous and painful place for the truly sensitive. Like the doomed denizens of the House of Usher, the sensitive person finds the world loud and bright and harsh, and often must go through elaborate measures to turn that volume down enough to let them function and cope.
And sadly, for many writers, those measures include drinking or drugs, also a sign of depression.
So to somewhat sum up, I think the link between writing and depression mostly has to do with the sort of people who become writers in the first place.
Happy, cheerful people brimming with optimism and faith are too busy living life and socially connecting with others to spend dozens of hours writing.
Sad, depressed people full of pessimism and despair, on the other hand, are left with writing.
Of course, these are all broad and in some cases wild generalizations. I am trying to define why there might be more depressives than the statistical average in the writing game, rather than explain every single case of a writer who is depressed.
That said, writing is a good profession for the depressed.
Or at least, I hope it is!