I do suffer from depression, I suppose. Which isn’t that unusual. You know, a lot of people do. —Amy Winehouse
I’m not sure that I have known any artist, regardless of their medium or level of skill, or financial success, that hasn’t battled with depression. Some more frequently than others, perhaps. Some seem to live in that state to such a degree I’m not sure they could function otherwise. All of us, though, endure those depressive periods where all seems hopeless.
Tales of great beauty and art coming out of depressive fits are cliché. Could Hemingway have written Old Man and the Sea if he’d been sober the whole time? Would the songs of Amy Winehouse have struck such a deep chord if she had been happier and more “well-adjusted?” Coming up with examples of famous creatives who had their bouts with depression is about as easy as walking into Starbucks and ordering coffee: you have plenty of choices.
Those stories are all anecdotal at best, though, if not somewhat apocryphal. Is there actual science behind this theory, and is our depression for the better or the worst? One of the books I’ve read this summer is Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. There is much in this book that I might reference at another time, but what strikes me most this morning is his chapter dealing with drug use and depression among creatives. What is generally perceived as antisocial behavior may, from a scientific standpoint, be part of the very thing that makes us creative.
Lehrer approaches the subject of creative depression by examining how creative inspiration develops in the brain. He notes that observation of “sadness” among creatives has been observed for centuries, even as far back as Aristotle, who said:
… all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.”
If all creatives have this problem with “melancholia,” however, how do we turn that into something creative? The answer lies in how that depression causes us to focus. Our perspective during moments of depression, especially when things are at their absolute worst, puts us in a position to see solutions we would not otherwise consider.
Joe Forgas, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales has demonstrated multiple times that moments of depression “sharpens the spotlight of attention, allowing us to become more observant and persistent.” To some degree, one might even say that the state of melancholia forces us into a creative place because it is necessary for us to survive.
Is depression absolutely a critical part of creativity? Not in every case, of course. Still, there is a lot of evidence that it is periods of sadness and worry, both long and short, that lead us to create a perfect masterpiece. Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa in the early 80s, found that 80 percent of writers met the diagnostic criteria for depression. Why?
Because being creative isn’t easy. Nietzsche, in Human, All Too Human, referenced the notebooks of composer Ludwig van Beethoven noting the countless revisions he would make to his compositions. Over and over and over he would work a phrase until it was exactly what he wanted to hear. What came across to the public as inspired genius was actually the result of hours of dedicated, highly skilled work. Granted, it was the work of a musical genius, but the fits of melancholia he suffered, his fear of failure and rejection, drove him to refine this work until there were no errors.
Too often, I think, we expect creativity to just come flowing out from us like turning on a tap. We don’t stop to think that those hours spent filling in the details, proofing and re-proofing a text, editing and re-editing and even re-re-editing an image, are all just as much a part of the creative process as the initial burst of putting something on paper, or canvas, or pixels.When we are depressed, it is actually easier for us to linger over a piece of art, a line of poetry, or a phrase of music and play with it until we have it just right.
Being creative isn’t all this romantic smarminess that one imagines might come with public acceptance of one’s work. Creatives have for centuries relied on drugs, alcohol, and sex to fuel them through the struggle and pain of the creative process. Our work is more than just a moment of inspiration. Once we have an idea or concept, it can be a prolonged battle to actually turn that idea into something ready for public consumption.
Creatives are, as a group, highly disturbed individuals. Lehrer references recent research by Hagop Akiskal showing that “nearly two-thirds of a sample of influential European artists were bipolar.” We swing between that moment of “Aha! I have an idea,” and the malaise of depression that comes with actually following through on that idea. Not all of us make it. Many wonderful projects are dropped because the emotional and/or mental pain of seeing them through is too great. We chase our depression with more drugs, more alcohol, and our addiction to the high that comes with the moment of inspiration ultimately kills us. We overdose looking for that next perfect music hook, or that next great lyric, or that next world-changing photograph.
Creative life isn’t easy. We need encouragement. We need camaraderie. We need places that are safe for us to work through the details. We need friends who understand this process, this whole thing about being creative has the power to kill us if not kept in check. The shadow is always looking, waiting to drag us to the depths.
Creative depression that becomes too severe can ruin us. We lose sight of what we were creating. The pain prevents the work from being done. We need help, not just from professionals (though, that is certainly an option more of us should consider), but from a supportive community, both online and in person, that has the ability to understand and be supportive.
Creativity can kill, but it doesn’t have to. Now that we understand a little better, perhaps we can be more communicative in being and finding that support we all need.