Postcards From the Margins: Ruminations on Depression

Vincent Van Gogh's "Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate)"; St.-Remy, 1890
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate)”; St.-Remy, 1890

I’ve finished reading Steven King’s On Writing and I planned to rave about it in this week’s blog until yesterday’s news of Robin Williams’s death, possibly from suicide. I’ll come back to a general review of On Writing next week.  Today I’ll reflect on one aspect of King’s book and consider the poorly understood relationship between creativity and mental illness.

The relationship exists, without a doubt.  In a study referenced in this New York Times Magazine article, of 30 writers interviewed at an Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 80% met the criteria for some kind of depressive disorder. In another referenced study, British artists and writers were 8x more likely than others to suffer from depressive illness.

But what is the connection between depression and creativity?  It seems depression is associated with a thought process called “rumination,” a kind of compulsively focused attention in which a depressed person becomes uniquely centered on his or her own pain and struggles to think about anything else. (As a worrier, I was interested to read that rumination is similar to worry, and both are associated with anxiety, with one major difference: ruminators tend to dwell on the past, while worriers fret about the future.)

It turns out that depressed people have higher-than-normal activity in parts of their brain that specialize in concentration and focus.  Many types of creativity, the article suggests, benefit from the relentless focus (often ruminative–inward-turned and downward-spiraling, but acutely focused even so) depression appears to facilitate.

One of the researchers likened successful writers to “prizefighters who keep getting hit but won’t go down.” Writers familiar with rejection know that one of the most important qualities in the creative process is persistence. Which brings us to Steven King. I’d never read a book of his until On Writing (although now The Stand is on my bedside table) but I had, like many others, heard of his remarkable focus on daily writing.  He shoots for an unbelievable 2,000 words/day, and once lied to an interviewer that he writes every day except his birthday, Christmas and New Year’s (he writes those days, too).

In On Writing, King says “I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided (again, so far as I was able in my distraught and depressed state of mind) that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up.  If it came to that.”  Luckily, it didn’t.  Nonetheless, it is not so difficult for me to see this laser-beam focus–intense, exclusive, acute–as a nearly uncontrollable force.  A force applied as easily to the use of drugs and alcohol, as easily to the NYTimes article’s “recursive loop of woe” as to writing words on a page, every day of the year, for four to six hours or more a day. As to putting out 50+ books in a writing career.

As to making people laugh as hard and as often as Robin Williams made us laugh.

Some people suggest that there is some evolutionary validation for depression in this ability to so acutely focus.  Considering the suicides of people like David Foster Wallace, my own Vincent Van Gogh, countless other writers and artists and now, possibly, Robin Williams, this much of an “upside” to depression I may not be willing to grant.  Suicide is loss based on hopelessness.  We deserve better, for ourselves and each other.

Even so, does it ever hurt to see some ability in disability? Grace and tenacity in illness? Humor in despair?

It may be the least we can do, but we do it anyway.








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