Are you a writer? Do you want to be a writer? Do you also suffer from clinical depression? Then you should know that you will find yourself in very good company. Here is a very, very brief list of writers who have committed suicide: Jerzy Kosinski, Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima, William Inge, Hart Crane, Guy Debord, Virginia Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson and Spalding Gray. Then there’s John Kennedy Toole. This is a guy who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces before the age of 30! Imagine what Toole could have written in his 50s or 70s if the idiots in the publishing industry had recognized the genius of his novel the way they recognized the commercial viability of crap like Peyton Place or Valley of the Dolls . Ah well, nobody ever complained that those with the job of picking out books to published are equipped with brains too large for their heads.
The thin line between madness and the ability to produce written material is still yet thick enough to be seen even by those who don’t write themselves. People who don’t have to keep producing written material day after day after day tend toward not realizing just how very difficult the job of being a writer actually is. The ability to construct sentences that make sense while also offering, it is to be hoped, some bit of information not readily available anywhere else or, should that fail, to be able to offer that readily available information in an entertaining way not readily available elsewhere is not as easy as it looks. Even doing it badly takes a great deal of effort. Just ask Stephenie Meyer.
Depression is a natural state of mind for those who kill themselves. And it would seem that writers are preternaturally disposed to depression. Of course, it could be merely correlation than causation. Either way, trying to write on your best day is hard enough; imagine trying to write on your worst day. Now imagine that your worst day is replicated dozens or even hundreds of days out of the year. That is what many writers must do and it is beyond belief to imagine that those who fancy themselves a writer because they can on occasion string words and sentences together in a creative way could ever do the same while suffering the consequences of a deep depression. Trying to write while you are in the midst of a serious clinical depression seems to me to be akin to trying to play football with your helmet on backwards.
And yet, if you are really serious about being a writer, you have to learn how to get up every day (or every other day, at least) and write. Doesn’t have to be great. Doesn’t even have to be good. But it does have to be done.
Advice to those seeking to write their way through a major depressive episode from someone with more experience writing his way through a major depressive episode than he cares to admit should perhaps be viewed with some suspicion. After all, if I am writing this career advice from the perspective of being depressed, can or even should you really take it to heart? That said, I can only come up with three possible outcomes for the writer trying to write while riding low upon a deep depression so cavernous that he can’t even be happy when it rains.
Some writers are capable of tapping into the artistic spirit that often comes in concert with depression. It is hard to imagine reading the works of Edgar Allan Poe without realizing that you are reading the artistic output of a man trapped in a polar vortex of depression. Would the later works of Sylvia Plath be taught in college literature courses if Prozac or Celexa or Wellbutrin or any of the other antidepressants that have failed me personally, but have been shown to work well on others had been available and effective on her brain chemistry? “Sophie’s Choice” is a towering achievement in the history of 20th century literature, but in retrospect it is clear that both Sophie and Nathan Landau are personifications of elements of the depression that haunted William Styron. So, if you are currently in the grip of a depression, you can always grasp it between your clenched fists and force it into memorable works of art. If you are capable of doing this and then also avoid killing yourself, I salute you.
Another route is to simply give in to the depression and give up on the writing. This may seem like the easiest route. But that would true only for those who have never made a career of writing. I’d rather die than not be able to write. I think that is probably where those who did kill themselves found themselves before the moment of truth.
The final option requires one of my patented diversions that annoys some readers and entertains others.
When I first started writing non-fiction in the early part of this century, I quickly noticed a key component that separated what I consider to be my best work from the rest of my work. I have on occasion compared by own ability to churn out the thousands of articles I have published on Associated Content and elsewhere to that of John Nash, the mathematical genius profiled in Ron Howard’s Oscar-winner film A Beautiful Mind. The way that Howard portrays Nash as making logical connections in the patterns of everyday life that end up as formulas for explanation provide insight into the way a highly trained mind works when not corrupted by madness. As Peggy Hill once observed on King of the Hill, genius is about as far away as you get from idiot before reaching madness.
I hardly consider myself on par with John Nash when it comes to genius (the madness not so much), but I instantly recognized a fellow traveler in his ability to make socio-poetic leaps that concretely connect seemingly disconnected entities. Nash used the logic of mathematics to find these connections whereas I use anything but logic, I suspect.
At the present time, my ability to make those connections has reached a low point. In other words, I’m not currently writing at the top of my game. Artistry is missing in much of my most recent writing in my own opinion. I can still produce words…on most days. And that is why for the nonce I have chosen to go with the third route available to you if you are trying to write through a major clinical depression.
Trade in art for commerce. Write for money. It’s far less taxing on the brain and the ability to make money-possibly more money than you made when trying to produce great writing-may just be enough to help lift you from the fog.
One last piece of advice for authors attempting to write through a depression: Don’t make the tragic mistake of thinking that your medications are the key to your ability. Depression comes on sometimes because medications that once worked have stopped being effective. This can trick you into thinking it was the medicine that made you write well in the first place. The result can often be that you convince yourself you can’t write until you find a medication that works in the way your original effective medication works.
You are doomed to failure if you decide to wait until you find a drug that makes you a writer again.