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The Writer and Depression
One enduring myth is that creative genius and depression go together, and thus a writer who tampers with endogenous depression is going to damage her creativity. "I don't want to be drugged into a numb state where I can't feel anything," says the suffering writer.
The facts are otherwise. Yes, writers do suffer from depression at a higher rate than the rest of the population. No, it doesn't do their writing any good. Writers suffer from depression for all the usual reasons (innate biochemical susceptibility, early life experiences, etc.) but they also live lives full of contributing factors. Isolation, introspection, lack of physical exercise, irregular hours, less than perfect diet, and lack of exposure to sunlight--all may cause a depression, or worsen one. So also do financial and professional uncertainty--the lack of control of events which writers experience in every aspect of their work. To these, some writers add alcohol or drug addiction (yup, these do contribute to depression); others are taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs which enhance any tendency to depression.
In fact, if you wanted to make a cheery person with no predisposition to depression depressed, you could stick him in front of a typewriter or computer for hours a day--feed him a typical writer's diet--forbid him to exercise, isolate him from friends, and convince him that his personal worth depended on his "numbers." Make him live the writer's life, in other words, and watch him sag.
So writers are prone to depression, which shouldn't surprise anyone. What should surprise even writers is the affection we have for depression...the belief that being miserable gives us some mystical insight into creativity, and that if we weren't depressed, we either could not write, or we could write only Pollyannaish drivel. We see nothing between Dr. Pangloss and Raskolnikov...and by the way, black and white thinking like that is typical of depression and does nothing for your characterization.
Speaking from experience (several bouts of clinical depression), I can guarantee that depression beyond the very mildest level (which makes you just miserable enough to stay home and finish the book rather than go out and have fun) 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. When you're depressed, you have less courage, less resilience, less ability to handle ordinary stressors. So...you can't summon the energy or the courage to write...every little comment throws you back into your misery...and the next thing you know you're in the midst of a full-fledged writer's block.
But don't undepressed writers write lightweight mind-fluff? Well...no. I wrote the The Deed of Paksenarrion when less depressed than I'd been for years, most of it while taking anti-depressant medication. While I dare not claim it's great literature, nobody yet has said it was lightweight, fuzzy, or lacking in emotional depth. I could not have sustained the energy and organization it took to write that monster if I'd been as depressed as I had been (and have been since.)
So--how do you know if your writing will improve if you are less depressed? I recommend that people take a look at David Burn's book on cognitive therapy, Feeling Good. Among other good things, it has a copy of the Beck Depression Inventory, where you can self-score your depression. From personal experience, I know that if someone scores over 7, depression is having an adverse effect on their writing. The cognitive therapy exercises in that book can be done at home, in private, and will both help with a depression and help prevent one between bouts. If you can get your Beck score down below 5 (honestly below 5, no cheating) with these exercises alone, then do it, and heave a sigh of relief.
But what if you're so depressed you can't do the exercises, or you can't get your score that low? Time to consult a professional. You may need an anti-depressant medication as well as cognitive therapy (at home or with a therapist) and/or additional forms of therapy. Anti-depressant drugs come in different chemical classes; you can look them up in medical books and find out which side-effects you'd most like to live with. (None have no side-effects, but you can choose--all you have to do then is convince a physician that your choice makes sense.) My personal favorite is trazodone, for several reasons (no extrapyramidal side effects, mildly sedating if taken at bedtime, half-life long enough to allow once-daily dosing, and--most of all--for me it works quickly at low dosages.) It may not be right for you. Among the things your doctor needs to consider are the health of your heart, liver, and kidneys, and your other drug use (medical and recreational.)
Be sure that what you get is an anti-depressant and not a tranquilizer or an anti-psychotic. Drugs in those classes do depress emotional responsiveness, have more serious side-effects, and do not correct depression. Some doctors do not diagnose clinical depression correctly, and some--even if they know it's depression--prescribe an inappropriate drug. If your doctor prescribes tranquilizers or anti-psychotics for depression, go somewhere else. I have a strong personal bias against electro-shock therapy (which has been making a come-back in some circles); it's known to cause memory loss which may be permanent, and writers need all their memories (even the bad ones.) As for self-medication--alcohol and recreational drugs will make a depression worse; you may not feel the pain for awhile, but you will also not write to your potential, and in the long run your talent will die.
It's important to do more than just take the drug (if one is prescribed.) Cognitive therapy exercises will help overcome the influences in a writer's life which push toward depression--and as a bonus, the insight into thought processes which this therapy provides are useful in character development. Your depression didn't ambush you from nowhere; it developed over time as a habit of thought--to get rid of it takes building new habits of thought. You can expect relapses from time to time (the first one feels like failure--you hoped you were cured for ever--but after a few of them you're less panicky. It's like the yearly cold: "Here it comes, get out the chicken soup.") Try to arrange a working routine that eliminates the worst of the "writer's life" risk factors: exercise every day, eat reasonably, stay in contact with friends and the outside world, learn to reward yourself for what you do right (rather than wallowing in guilt for every mistake.)
So, do I practice what I preach? Pretty much. Having horses ensures that I'm outside doing something physical every day (even when I don't ride there's feeding, grooming, mucking out.) I'm involved in community and church activities; I have friends with interests other than writing, as well as writer friends. I'm homeschooling a teenager (in itself a full-time occupation) and when really upset I take it out on a batch of bread dough. (Bread dough is the only thing I know which gets better the more you beat on it.) Still...depression sneaks up on me every now and then and ruins a story I'm working on, or sucks the life out of a novel. I start feeling frantic, trapped, helpless, hopeless. I can't write. I don't want to ride the horses; I don't want to make bread; I don't want to do anything but brood. When the penny finally drops, and I realize what's going on, and work on it--the depression lifts again, and the writing rolls on.
Contents of these pages ©1996-2014 Elizabeth Moon
This essay ©1998 Elizabeth Moon