Do You Have To Suffer For Your Art? Or Can Happy Writers Be Successful?

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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

—Ernest Hemingway

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?

Maybe.

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.

—Chuck Palahniuk

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?

Image of Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament
Author: Kay Redfield Jamison
Price: $9.98
Publisher: Free Press (1996)
Binding: Paperback, 384 pages
Image of Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression
Author: Nell Casey
Price: $11.08
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 320 pages
Kimberly Turner

Column by Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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Comments

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies November 20, 2012 - 8:20am

I write very well when i'm at my happiest but the stories i wrote in the depths of sadness are much better.

Kevin Maddox's picture
Kevin Maddox from Melstrand, Mi is reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut November 20, 2012 - 9:20am

This is one of the best articles I've ever read here at Lit. Much of my writing especially in music talks about intelligence and insanity running hand in hand. I think everyone is crazy, but a true artist uses it as a creative outlet.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade November 20, 2012 - 10:05am

Very glad to see Touched with Fire at the end of the article. 

My feeling on the matter are that the pathologically-driven writers are desperate to create, or recreate, or reorder their worlds via fiction.

As the deaf person who strains to listen and therefore listens closer, and the blind people who strain to know exactly where their next steps lead before they step and therefore never are unmindful of their surroundings, so do the "tortured" writers who craft a work of fiction strain to know exactly what they are chronicling or creating. I don't seek them out - the "tortured" authors - but it's remarkable how many of my favorite authors are not satisfied, content folk...

I'm reminded of Lajos Egri's "formula for happiness" from his The Art of Dramatic Writing: 

1. Health

2. Satisfactory social position

3. Love (the ability to give as well as to receive)

4. Hope

Egri's point in writing this formula was to direct the writer's attention to the fact that almost no one is entirely satisfied with each of these four aspects of their lives, and to alter even one of these four is to create dramatic tension in practically anyone's life. I believe that the "tortured" author can hardly escape writing dramatically compelling fiction, assuming that they have any facility for plotting, pacing, etc.

I believe the happy writers are doing sitcoms, soap operas, and other superficial distractions. And we need them. Therefore their success...but I'm very grateful for all the "tortured" artists and their tortured texts...

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade November 20, 2012 - 10:07am

(p.s. - go to Amazon and "Look Inside!" Touched with Fire - it's a remarkable book)

CCM-LA's picture
CCM-LA from Los Angeles is reading The Lawgiver, Herman Wouk November 20, 2012 - 12:06pm

I think everyone is unhappy in their own way because life's not perfect, but it's the perfectionists in any field that are driven to shine to escape dissatisfaction and boredom, perhaps caused by those shrunken dopamine receptors, which themselves could have taken their runted shape from life's more harsher moments or bad habits. Finding happiness then, however transitory, is making those ah-ha connections which result in new products, stories, theories, etc.; for a moment, the world seems brilliant and worthwhile. To quote Stephen King, "Good horror writing is a form of mental masturbation." Soaking in the horror of real life, then, is comforting because it's the base motivator that drives the brilliance machine, if that makes sense. Perfectionists want to "fix" the ills of the world as they see it, but really they just want to fix themselves. And may it never fully happen.

rmatthewsimmons's picture
rmatthewsimmons from Salt Lake City, UT is reading I just put down 'A Game of Thrones' after 6 chapters....Couldn't do it. November 20, 2012 - 11:38am

Wow. What a strange time of year to be reading something like this and well done, BTW.

Seems like it takes so much energy to write when depressed but I feel that it can leave the best mark on the page if you can power through it. However, for me, it can only be done in shorter strokes and often leaves me more drained than had I just gone through a marathon writing episode for hours.

Thanks for that.

 

Gretel: The Children Of The Sun

eroc baum's picture
eroc baum from AC, NJ is reading People Who Eat Darkness November 20, 2012 - 12:09pm

Well articulated.

Is this from "Futurama"?

Huzzah! Your subscription to our list has been confirmed.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books November 20, 2012 - 12:20pm

You can be clinically depressed AND be happy. Depression isn't a lack of happiness--it's a clinical issue, and doesn't always come from living a life full of fucked up shit, either.

I know some talented writers who are happy and well adjusted, and I know some talented writers who think they MUST find a way to suffer and drink a whole lot in order to be successful. There is no argument that creative types are more likely to suffer from mental illness, but the idea that one stops being creative when they are treated for such illnesses is a dangerous and damaging one. 

I'm not saying that you implied that, just adding my own thoughts. A writer/renaissance man I admire is Henry Rollins and he has famously said "knowledge without mileage is bullshit", I agree with that, and I agree with your end point that in order to be a good story teller, you've gotta put some mileage on your soul. 

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 20, 2012 - 1:03pm

For me, writing is how I process the universe. That I write more, better, or more evocatively when I'm miserable and traumatized is, to me, an indicator that my life has needed more processing. For, misery is the motive, not the crime.

Dorian Grey's picture
Dorian Grey from Transexual, Transylvania is reading "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck November 20, 2012 - 1:46pm

Well... at least I've got the loyal pet and the pathological ambition covered.

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler November 20, 2012 - 2:02pm

I've been wondering about this quite a bit lately and with what I do the stereotype of the writing sailor.  We have a stereotype of drinking, whoring, divorcing multiple wives from never being around emotionally and physically, swearing, writing, and generally being disgruntled.  This kind of sounds like a stereotypical writer in a sense that they are miserable and live a debaucherous life at times.  

So I suppose with the expectations that our wives and girlfriends will leave us, with the expectation that we will work hard as well as play hard, the fact that some of us will live a lonely life is like some kind of professional preparation mentally for being left alone with our thoughts in the middle of the ocean.  Maybe that's why so many of us write, while the others drink and bang hookers and why most of us don't put our head in ovens.  It's some kind of sick cynical preparation and acceptance of the life to come and being around those who have already experienced a similar tale.  Maybe writers need to be around similar like minded people who are cynical about what to expect from life, maybe they need expectation to begin with.

We have to succumb to the feelings we can never fake ~ Seether

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list November 20, 2012 - 8:21pm

I've always enjoyed writing, but the first time I ever sat down and actually finished a story was when something tragic happened. I was 14 and was told my grandmother was dying. I sat down that night and started writing. She was dead by the time I finished it a year later. Depression is something that I have been prone to, but I'm not clinically depressed. I've just had a lot of bad things happen to me. It makes me sad that so many authors have dealt with a depression that was all consuming and let it get the best of them.

I remember doing a research project on Sylvia Plath when I was 16 and thinking "God, I hope I don't end up like her!" I've spent most of my life trying not to fall into a stereotype. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs, I have friends (even though I prefer being at home with my trusty animal companions more). I've watched drugs and alcohol rip apart the lives of people very close to me, which has given me plenty of insight into the nature of those situations without landing myself directly in the role of addict. It has also been painful to watch the havock caused by addiction on others. I've witnessed the crumbling marriages, the anger, the sadness, the guilt. Channeling our emotions is the best thing we can do with our writing, but happiness and sadness can both be productive. There are books that are insanely funny. This can be a result of the author's need to escape their depression or because the author is in a happy, silly mood.

On a bit of a side note: You can see the difference in some of the writing on the market. There are authors out there who come off as insanely naive and that seems to come from their lack of emotional maturity. There are people older than me who seem to be living in an alternate reality from the one the rest of us are living.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts November 20, 2012 - 11:10pm

Being unhappy isn't really anything like having a mental illness. It's a deceptive sort of ignorance. There is no possible height at which you can put your chin up to not have clinical depression or schizophrenia or whatever. Obviously all these famous writers prefer being dead over being good writers, so it's safe to say they'd give up the propensity for creativity in a heartbeat if it meant just being plain old unhappy or suffering the pains of normal life experience. The Tortured Artist as an icon is embarrassing if not insulting and, also, if you do commit to that role, that implies that at some point you should definitely go kill yourself. If people stuck to that I think there would be a lot less writers playing at this persona.

My derision is at the topic itself, though. This was a good, insightful article.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 21, 2012 - 6:08am

Most folks have some suffering in their past, so by that logic shouldn't most people have a few good stories to tell? Isn't it more about the discipline to sit down and write, and to be brave (or stupid or naive) enough to really let the painful stuff out in a honest fashion that folks can see?

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade November 21, 2012 - 8:05am

Great article at a great time of year - added to My Favorites for future reference (including all the great responses to article in the comments)...