Posts tagged ‘depression’

June 7, 2009

Wanna stay mentally healthy? Don’t become a writer!

by caroanna

   Upon reading a collection of interviews with German writers about their profession, I noticed yet another writer who suffered from a fragile mental health condition, adding up to those I read about in the last few months. I was surprised at Elfriede Jelinek’s honesty about her social anxiety disorder and the ease with which she mentioned it, as if it was just a character trait that has to be accepted and not faught. At that, I was hopeful that we transcended the social stigma that is put on people whose behavior diverts slightly from those of the so-called “masses.” My hopes were vain because the only people that afford to have mental issues, that are even desired, are writers.

   Trouble with dealing with life seems like a veil that adds mystery to a writer and his work. It is an old fantasy that fiction writers turn to invent stories and character because they try to deal with their own problems, and use it as a kind of therapy, or because they try to create a parallel universe that fits the writer’s needs. Certainly, this is not the primary reason for imagination and story-telling. It is, however, striking that many famous writers suffer from mental diseases, mostly depression, and many have committed, or tried to commit, suicide. The mystery of Silvia Plath and the incidents and consequences surrounding the Plath/Hughes family and the recent suicide by David Foster Wallace are only two examples of writers who chose to free themselves from life’s burdens.

   A few weeks ago, I read a compelling essay by the writer Daphne Merkin who has suffered from depression for decades and went through a series of therapies. While Daphne mentioned that she couldn’t write a word during attacks of depression, other writers seem to be driven to writing when they feel overwhelmed by their surroundings. Surprisingly, or maybe not, writers seek privacy and solitude during their writing process but hang around in the urban landscape in order to get ideas for stories. After all, it is difficult to create characters when you cannot observe the diversity of real people’s behavior.

   The important question is: Where does this correlation of mental health issues and writing fiction come from? Is it the writer’s occupation with research in how the world functions and the meticulous observation of other people’s relationships and lives that leads them to overcompensate and realize how insufficient they are prepared for the complexity of the world? Or is it the sheer despair and fear of this complexity? Do authors overreact or is it common to be afraid when they realize how dysfunctional and dangerous the world really is and that most people are just too naive to see?

   A few days ago I had the strong urge to get away from concrete, metal, and throngs of people while I was surrounded by it without recourse to more peaceful and tranquil places. I was disgusted by the mechanic movements and repetitive reactions both by machines and people. At that moment, I was longing for the wild and frantic dancing of leaves and branches during a storm or silent waves roaming in the river. I suddenly realized how much I enjoy spending time on the meadow and in the woods while I never lived outside big cities. Am I just fed up with this environment and need a change or did I just realize the stupidity of this civilization that values the choice of more than ten kinds of sausages in one supermarket or at least one cell phone store in each alley in downtown?

   But coming back to what I was talking about earlier, I wonder if mental instability is the source of imagination and creativity. Does it sharpen our perception of what is happening around us? It is plausible when we consider that fear makes us notice danger much sooner than when being calm. But do we notice more than the danger? Ergo: are we biased then because we don’t see the whole picture?

   I guess every writer has different sources of creativity; and as art lives by its subjectivity, we don’t need to answer all these questions. But it gives me hope to hear about writers who are confident enough not to be underestimated because of their personal problems. I hope this message also gets through to those who don’t bother to look beyond their limited horizon.