Do You Have To Suffer For Your Art? Or Can Happy Writers Be Successful?
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
The list of authors who have taken their own lives is tragically long and reads like a who’s who of the literary world: Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, and hundreds of other authors have been stolen from the world by suicide. The list of those who have battled serious depression is even longer: Hans Christian Andersen, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, J.K. Rowling, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Baudelaire, John Keats, Walt Whitman, and countless others.
Because of the tremendous talent of the tortured souls who’ve dealt with these issues, there’s a dangerous tendency to romanticize sadness and perpetuate the stereotype of the melancholy, alcoholic, suicidal writer. But the romantic notion of the struggling artist loses something during the inelegant translation into reality. Propping yourself up on tear-soaked couch cushions and drunkenly wallowing in self-pity while reruns of Judge Judy play in the background…well, that’s far from romantic, but it is the reality of depression. Misery is not glamorous.
I ran across the comic below the other day, and it made me wonder: Are writers truly less happy than the general populace? Do we need to grapple with hardship, personal demons, trauma, and broken homes to produce the best stories? In short, can we be both happy and successful?
Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy.
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Let's start by looking at serious clinical depression and other mental illness rather than "I'm bummed out this afternoon"-style stuff (we'll get to that). Is it more prevalent among writers? It seems so. Research does indicate a strong correlation between creativity and certain types of mental illness. Health.com put writers on its list of the top ten professions most likely to face depression, and a study conducted at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop found startlingly high rates of affective disorders among the writers who participated—a 43 percent rate of bipolar disorder (compared with 10 percent in their control group) and a 37 percent rate of depressive disorders (17 percent in the control).
A massive Swedish study of nearly 1.2 million psychiatric patients and their families at the Karolinska Institute found that writers not only had a higher risk of bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, they were also more than 50 percent more likely to kill themselves when compared to the general public. This is a real feel-good read for your Thanksgiving break, huh?
What's interesting is that the same medical university found fewer dopamine receptors (used for filtering information before it reaches the cortex) in the brains of both highly creative people and schizophrenics, suggesting that schizophrenia and creativity may simply be different points on the same scale. If that's true, it's easy to see why the connection between genius and "madness" exists.
So when it comes to the classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: Does writing cause us to become unhappy, or does unhappiness cause us to become writers? The studies we've talked about so far and many like them would suggest the latter—that those who suffer from these disorders are drawn to writing because their creativity came pre-packaged with an unwanted "bonus." The same way that you just wanted Microsoft Word, but by God, you're gonna get PowerPoint and Outlook too.
But there's another perspective...
You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.
—Jonathan Safran Foer
What if you're not genetically predisposed to clinical depression or some other gnarly mental illness and you've managed to dodge the other possible triggers (things like traumatic events, environmental and social factors, viruses, and God only knows what else)? Well, first off, congrats! Don't get too excited yet though. Irregular hours, social isolation, lack of exercise and sunlight, crippling perfectionism and self-doubt, financial worries, and the feeling that the fate of your career is in other people's hands—the typical stressors facing writers are enough to suck even the most obnoxiously cheerful Pollyanna down the drain of despair. It's not an easy life, but there are things you can do to make it more pleasant.
You can choose not to opt into the mythos of the misery-stricken author. You can start an exercise program, get a good therapist to help you deal with all that self-doubt, set a regular work schedule, take medication if appropriate, and have actual face-to-face conversations with someone other than your cat. Also, consider putting on pants from time to time. Real pants with a zipper instead of an elastic band. I'm not talking about every day—let's not get crazy here—but maybe twice a week.
You can't fix every potential downer that stems from the writer's lifestyle, but these steps, given time, will bring a little light to your dark artistic soul. And when you're dealing with the aspects of your career that those tips can't solve, just remind yourself that you could be an investment banker, Hostess baker, or guy who has to milk the venom out of killer spiders to make the anti-venom. Being a writer isn't so bad.
Any fool can be happy. It takes a man with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep.
― Clive Barker, Days of Magic, Nights of War
We've already determined that depression is not glamorous, but the important thing to remember is that it's also not motivating. You are never less productive than when you are weeping uncontrollably or staring numbly at a wall. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that lost productivity caused by depression costs American companies $44 billion a year. We all know that all the writers in the world combined don't make $44 billion a year, so we can't be blamed for much of that, but the fact remains: If you can't concentrate, summon the energy to complete a project, or make yourself believe that what you're working on stands any chance of getting published, you're not about to hit your deadlines or finish that novel.
If an internal monolog of "you're worthless," "you shouldn't be a writer," and "your ideas suck" is so loud that it's keeping you from getting useful words on paper, reach out for help. Today. Don't tell yourself that it's just part of being a writer or that it's the fate of every artist because that's bullshit. Do what you can to claw your way out of that fog and get back to work.
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
—Henry David Thoreau
Hang on a second though, here's the big question, the real question: Without all that drama, pain, and Nine Inch Nails music, will your creativity just dry up? Are you, as a happy writer, doomed to a life of writing marketing copy for yogurt companies?
Wait, what? I just said we should all get sunshine and therapists and be jolly, right? Sure, but there is a difference between conquering the hardships you're facing by treating clinical depression/steering clear of avoidable productivity destroyers and taking the easy path through life. "Road less traveled" and all that.
If you have never experienced strife, how are the characters you create supposed to deal with it in realistic ways? If you've never felt the extremes of human emotion, including pain, how can you make your readers feel it? I don't think you can, and that's where some of you will disagree with me. That's okay, sound off in the comments because it's a good debate to have. I don't think you can take your reader to dark places if you've spent all your time in the light. Writing is about documenting the human experience or, as David Foster Wallace put it, "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being." That means you've got to experience both ends of the spectrum.
When I look back at the things I wrote when I was fifteen, I'm embarrassed—and not because of the quality of the writing itself (though that's cringe-worthy at times) but because it reads, for good reason, like the work of someone who hadn't experienced much of life. I had yet to endure significant trauma, serious loss, or deep betrayal. I was a brace-faced, strawberry-lipgloss-wearing ball of innocence. My biggest concern was whether MTV was going to play the new INXS video after school, and my writing reflected that.
Have your adventures, make your mistakes, and choose your friends poorly—all these make for great stories.
Even as adults, some writers take the easiest route through life—avoiding risks, playing it safe, and being nauseatingly wholesome. Can they be great writers? Sure... but only if they want to write that marketing copy for a yogurt company. Being a great writer in the sense that you understand the intricacies of grammar and are able to convey your thoughts with clarity is different from being an outstanding storyteller. Being a storyteller requires you to truly live, to go out on the edge, to deal with the pain when it comes, to fight through the sadness, to embrace the joy, and to come out the other side with amazing stories to tell.
What do you think? Let's talk about it in the comments. Can you write incredible, engaging fiction without sadness? Or do you need to suffer for your art?
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