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Weekly Musing: Madness and the Written Word – Part Two

Note: Part One can be read here.

Last week I explored the topic of writers, mental illness, and creativity. This week I relay my own personal experiences with mental illness and creativity.

I have gone through several periods of depression and have General Anxiety Disorder. I’ve been in therapy on and off to help me deal with both and to work through life events. I’ve also been on and off anti-depressants, been suicidal, and currently on anxiety medication. While I feel like I’m in a much better place, I see a therapist every once in a while when either my anxiety or depression or both flare up.

By now I recognize when either one or both creeps in to take over my life. The biggest signal is when my desire to write is too overwhelming. It’s not the normal writer insecurities and gremlins; it’s something far more crippling. My whole body seizes up. My breath is shallow. My heart races. I’m afraid of words and writing. Since writing is what I do, I find this upsetting. It’s not unusual for this feeling to last from a few days, if I’m lucky, to several weeks.

But in researching last week’s blog post, a study trying to determine if there truly is a link between mental illness and creativity caught my eye and got me thinking. The researcher discovered mental illness for some isn’t great for creativity. Schizophrenia, for example, doesn’t lend itself well for written word expression but can be useful for other artistic pursuits. Other forms of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, can greatly inhibit creativity when the writer is in the middle of a bad spell. It’s not until one feels better that their creativity can flourish.

From my own experiences, and anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be treated as gospel, when either my anxiety and/or depression take over it is pretty much impossible for me to write. I try and sometimes force myself, but my already overly analytical personality quickly dismisses anything written, any idea, as utter shit. Again, this feels different from normal concerns. It’s more intense and saps any joy or motivation to write. This in turns feeds my anxiety and/or depression and quickly I’m stuck in a giant cycle that is difficult to break.

Until early last week I felt as if I was the only one who went through this. Then I stumbled upon an Op Ed piece in The New York Times. In it author Julia Fierro relays her own recent experience where she admitted to an audience at a reading she’d stopped writing for 8 years due to battling OCD, anxiety, and depression. Like so many, she bought into the myth suffering fuels creativity. But for her it stopped altogether.

During those years she taught writing, conducted workshops, got married and had children, and ran a small business. She’d convinced herself clearly there weren’t enough hours in the day to carve out even a minute for writing. However, the truth was she needed to become well enough. Once she understood her mental illness was a lifelong condition and found the right medication, she was drawn back to writing. She rediscovered the joy of setting fingers to keyboard and her creativity flourished.

This was refreshing and freeing to read. It helped put my own struggles into perspective and lessen the extreme amount of guilt I feel every time I got through my own creative halt. Other people find their creativity lost when their mental illness acts up? You mean it’s not laziness? For me, and I suspect others like Fierro, it’s impossible to openly state, “Yes, I can’t write. Not at the moment.” After all Rule #1 of Writers Club is ASS IN CHAIR NO MATTER WHAT! A writer cannot simply come out and say this without incurring at least a few eye rolls and advice to write no matter how bad you feel.

Another thing I’ve noticed while my creativity is halted, I still do write. I just write more in my personal journal. And that is still writing. I’ll write in it for hours and usually daily. In addition to being therapeutic, journal writing helps me work through struggles and uncomfortable feelings. The act also frees up brain space gradually allowing for more productive thoughts. When I’m in a good space, I don’t write in my personal journal because I’m too busy working on my creative writing.

Over the past two weeks I have learned creativity and mental illness may go hand-in-hand in both a positive and negative way. Some are able to work through troubles and use the pain to spur their art. Others are paralyzed by it until they can get themselves in a good place. Either one is okay. What’s most important for anyone with mental illness is to get the care you need. Whether through therapy or medication or both, realize you do matter and that your health, both physical and mental, are important to live a productive and creative life.

Front Page, Musings

Weekly Musing: Madness and the Written Word – Part One

Note: This is part one of two posts regarding mental illness, creativity, and writers. Part one discusses what research has to say on the subject. Part two will relate my own personal experiences.

 When people hear the word writer most immediately think of a tortured, mad, insane, person who toils away in poverty. One day he or she dies, usually by their own hand, their art undiscovered and unloved until revealed to the world post-mortem. This gives the impression all artists, especially writers, must have some form of mental illness. After all we’re in a profession where rejection is the maddening norm, characters talk to us all the time, and we imagine new worlds. As someone who is both a writer and has both depression and anxiety I got to thinking. Is this really true? Is there some correlation between creativity and mental illness? Are writers a bit more off the deep end than the general population?

Curious, I decided to do some research and see if there were answers to these questions. After I poked around the internet and discovered studies have indeed been done I came to the conclusion the answers were mixed. Some psychologists and psychiatrists have used control groups to study the matter. Others have examined retrospectively the lives of famous authors, both those who committed suicide vs. those who did not, to see if there’s a correlation.

One of the first in-depth studies was conducted by Dr. Nancy Andreasen in 1987. In her study she used participants in the famous Iowa Writers Workshop and examined them against a control group. Her results indicated a higher occurrence of mental illness in the writers than the control group. In particular bipolar disorders, depression, and alcoholism were higher for the writers vs. the control group.

In 1997 Dr. Arnold Ludwig concluded people in artistic professions were more likely to have mental illness. In his study he examined several different artistic professions studying biographies published over a 30 year period.

Following the method of retroactively examining the lives of famous writers, Dr. James Kaufman also concluded writers, in particular female poets, suffered from higher rates of mental illness. In fact the rate of mental illness was so noticeably higher than male poets and other kinds of writers of either gender it earned the nicknamed “The Sylvia Plath Effect” after the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath who committed suicide at the age of 30.

But do these studies show a correlation between creativity and mental illness? Does one cause the other? Articles I read disagreed. Some believed yes, while others, including one written by Dr. Albert Rothenberg, argued against drawing such a conclusion. Yes, some writers fit the stereotype of “mad” writer, but for every Sylvia Plath or Ernest Hemingway there are writers like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Anton Chekov who did not suffer from mental illness. Was they’re creativity affected by not having a mental illness?

There seems to this tendency to romanticize suffering from mental illness as fueling creativity. We see it as people turn to drugs or alcohol to jump start the muse. Other may refuse treatment because to receive help will interrupt the fire of creativity. I need to be able to feel pain and suffering dammit!

But for others, having mental illness and it being the sole source of creativity isn’t the case. For example, depression and anxiety, when more active, seem to suppress the level of creativity. When the mental illness is being treated, the writer’s stress level is low and he or she is in a “good place”, creativity usually flourishes. Other kinds of mental illness, like bipolar and schizophrenia may help creativity.


While the evidence seems to lean toward writing, creativity, and mental illness going hand in hand, it’s vitally important for every writer to realize 1) just because you are a writer it doesn’t mean you have a mental illness, and 2) if you do have a mental illness, do not ignore it. Do not eschew treatment. Suffering doesn’t make a person nobler or stronger. Suffering does not equal great art. Your mental illness is not responsible for your creativity. You, and you alone are responsible for your words.

Front Page, Musings

Weekly Musing: Date Much?

One of the more puzzling pieces of advice given to writers, especially new ones, is to discourage the use of details which could “date” a piece. What this means are references to TV shows, movies, songs, people, books, dances, etc. anything which is considered a cultural reference. The reasoning is when future readers read the piece they will not understand any of the references and will stop reading.

But let’s stop and examine this piece of advice. Does it honestly make sense? No. No, it doesn’t. Not in my opinion and I’ll explain why. Think about all the books written by authors long dead set in a time period future readers would not have been alive for. Now think about the references to clothing, musicians, dances, people, what have you. Did you ever feel this dated the story enough you couldn’t even begin to understand what was going on? I daresay your answer is “no.” Why? Because it’s the story and characters you make a connection with more than knowing (or not) who Scott Joplin is or what a farthingale is or how the dance the Twist goes.

Now let’s look at our own lives. Are there bands or singers you love which pre-date even your conception? Are there old movies and TV shows you love? Is your favorite book written by Jane Austen? Love to dress up and go to Renaissance Fairs? So, why in the world should writers refrain from tapping into the culture of its characters and setting? We all have a favorite something from long before we were born.

Adding in cultural references characters would know doesn’t “date” a story. It gives the reader a little more insight into what kind of people the characters are. For example, say a book is set in the 1990s. One character is into classical music, but maybe his or her best friend is all about grunge. What does this tell us about these two people? How could two people with such divergent musical tastes be best friends? What else about characters is so different?

Cultural references also add depth to the story’s setting beyond just physical background. For example, a story is set during apartheid South Africa. In addition to describing the living conditions of characters, having a character listening to the radio, noting his or her favorite songs, or reading a book by a particular author allows the reader to get inside the mind of the character.

As a reader who enjoys historical fiction and has read some of the classics, there are frequently references I don’t understand. My lack of understanding ranges from being ignorant to common, everyday terms to more complex references to history and people. Does this bother me? At times a little depending upon the level of detail I’m given or not. It’s not the culture I’ve grown up with after all. Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there were an easy way to be able to look up information! Oh, wait. There is. Off to the internet we go!

And that’s one of the main reasons why this piece of advice irks me and one which I wish would stop getting passed around. To me it’s very similar to not using big or uncommon words in prose. This idea that to do so slows down some readers is insulting and a bit much. If a reader honestly stops reading to look up a word or Google a reference and gets discouraged from reading on, that’s the reader’s problem, not the author’s.

If writers don’t add in those cultural references, it risks turning the story and characters into something generic, basic, and bland. Would anyone want to read such a thing? Personally, I don’t. How is a reader supposed to get to know the characters and see them as individuals? How can I better understand the world the story is set in if I don’t have details unique to it? As writers, let’s not be afraid of adding cultural details into our stories. At the end of the day it is our job is to tell a story and use whatever details which will bring the world and characters in the story to life.