In my experience, there’s a dark secret most writers share—either they have a history of being depressed at some point in their lives, or they are currently in the midst of battling it. Maybe a dark mood comes and goes like a ghost in the attic of your mind, haunting you on those dark nights of the soul, or at its worst, perhaps it besieges you in your waking moments, making you feel like everything is hopeless for weeks. In either case, this demon is undoubtedly a curse, but dare I say it, it can also be a blessing: without it, there would be no catharsis to being creative.
Though there are no specific studies on writers and depression, UK stats suggest one in six 18 to 64-year-olds take some form of antidepressant, so mental health is a widespread issue. The impact this is likely to have on the perspective of writers is bound to be considerable. There is a reason why the greatest works of literature tend to be tragedies which explore negative emotions. If we’re dramatising our struggles and our setbacks, writers will forever be fighting fires that can never be put out.
Other studies suggest writers are twice as likely to commit suicide as non-writers, thus painting a picture of the human cost of being a writer throughout history. Ernest Hemingway lived up to his dictum: “The world breaks everyone.” Sylvia Plath echoed her own words: “Dying is an art, like everything else.” Virginia Woolf proclaimed: “I cannot go on.”
Are writers, then, essentially doomed to be depressed? Is there something about the writing profession which almost demands us to straddle the line between depression and able-mindedness? Do depressed people gravitate towards writing, or does writing itself make you depressed? It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons, but the following are some factors as to why the black dog has its claw marks on all of us.
We Feel Isolated
Writing is a solitary pursuit, and an introverted soul who slaves away on a novel will doubtless be spending many an hour inside their own head. Mulling over your own thoughts, making observations, joining the dots of tangential ideas; it’s a lonely life being a writer. Only you can understand yourself—at the end of the day, nobody else can. This makes it easy to fall into the trap of feeling misunderstood. People might be in your life, but they don’t occupy your brain, so depression can descend upon you as a sorry by-product of solitude.
We Have Money Troubles
We all need to earn money and make a living, of course. However, even full-time writers can have erratic incomes. Freelance writing brings its own set of problems, making you worry month-to-month about whether your finances are sustainable, as well as having to tailor your writing style in soul-distorting ways. If you’re working a salaried job, you’ll have two main worries—either you’re not earning enough, meaning you can’t afford to pay the rent, to eat, or take care of yourself; or you work too many hours, leaving you with zero energy to do what you really want to do, which is write. No matter which way you slice it, that loaf looks rotten, and the metaphorical threat of eating mouldy toast risks making you depressed.
We Don’t Get Enough Exercise
Speaking personally here, I was never a kid who enjoyed Physical Education. I always used to “forget” my kit, so that I could sit indoors and do some reading instead of getting my knees muddy. This view has persisted into adulthood. The older I get, however, the more people try to encourage me to join gyms, go on park runs, do marathons. If you’re not sporty, it’s hard to see what makes these people tick. Of course, it’s healthy to keep fit and do exercise, I get it. Doctors are forever asking us: “How often do you exercise?” But writers value time they spend alone, preferably behind a desk bashing out their thoughts. Maybe this is why taking long walks alone, or jogging, are the best types of exercise for writers. Even that, though, can be a big task if you don’t really enjoy it, and you’re only really doing it to keep heart attacks at bay.
We Doubt and Criticise Ourselves
Depression also comes when you yo-yo between the rush of endorphins which comes with successfully fulfilling your creative desires and the self-pitying flagellation which comes with second-guessing your talents on day two. Self-doubt, in this sense, is a writer’s biggest enemy, which is why feedback can often feel like such a personal assault at times, as if it’s mortally wounding you, even if it’s not intended that way. The trick is to turn criticism into motivation, even if this means improving your work is just a roundabout way of saying “Fuck you” to those who doubt you.
Of course, these are just a handful of underlying reasons behind depression. There are others which are deeper, more personal. But why do writers have this problem? And how can we overcome it? It’s important to highlight the difference behind sadness and depression: one is a passing mood whereas the other is a debilitating cloud of hopelessness which takes a lot more to dissipate. I’ve been there; it’s a nightmarish swamp to trudge through, one which even Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has experienced:
Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. […] It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.
Generally speaking, Myers-Briggs personality testing suggests creative people tend to be high in trait openness. This makes writers more likely to explore new ideas, wax poetic, or experiment with free expression. Creative people are also, however, low in conscientiousness, which risks making them disorderly, lazy, or even disorganised. Therefore, it’s possible this clash between a desire to express themselves versus an incapability of meeting their own high standards makes writers susceptible to self-esteem issues. As the author David Foster Wallace put it: “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
Let’s try and see another side to depression, if it’s even possible to do so—regard these bouts as obstacles we must overcome in order to improve ourselves. For generations, a state of melancholy has provided a ground spring of inspiration for storytelling, poetry, and art. This suggests in itself that sadness can be a superpower for writers. That’s why unrequited love has been such a potent topic since ancient times—pain, longing, and despair are all part of the navel-gazing which goes into contemplating a philosophy on which writers can build their ideas.
Like culture cells growing in a petri dish, it’s the cultivation of suffering and woe which cuts right to the heart of the human experience. Even if misery is only observed rather than directly experienced, no one can deny a writer’s morbid compulsion to read meaning into misfortune. As long as we find a way of managing our own demons and keep our self-destructive tendencies at bay, it is possible writing can be born of darkness but imbued with something beautiful. At least, that’s the hope, which is all we’ll ever have really.
© 2019 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.