Under the Influence: Writers and Depression and Choices Chosen

This post, from Bonnie Kozek, originally appeared on her Case Files blog on 4/20/09 and is reprinted here in its entirety with her permission.

The writer suffers. London, overdose. Woolf, drowning. Mattheissen, leap. Hemingway, gunshot. Plath, gas. Berryman, leap. Inge, carbon monoxide. Sexton, carbon monoxide. Brautigan, gunshot. Levi, leap. Kosinski, overdose. Gray, drowning. Wallace, hanging. Mishima, ritual suicide culminating in assisted beheading. This accounting, even in the extreme, barely skims the surface.

The American psyche has long been acculturated to the idea of the “suffering writer” – the “mad artist” – the connection between creativity and insanity. Moreover, American writers, as referenced in the above abridged list of suicides, have substantially contributed to the incontrovertible nature of this broadly accepted “tradition.” Indeed, beginning with research first conducted in the 1970s, the scientific community has attempted to explain the phenomenon of the “suffering writer.” In her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Kay Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, reports that writers are as much as 20 times as likely as other people to suffer depressive illnesses. Why? There appears to be two principal reasons: First, illness brought on by individual biology and/or traumatic experience, and secondly, a predisposition by way of birthright. Couple this with the inherent downsides of the profession — isolation, loneliness, rejection, financial insecurity – and the glamorization of the suffering writer – so prevalent that it has engendered a kind of “suffering competition” – (Upon learning of Plath’s suicide, Sexton is reported to have said covetously, “She took something that was mine! That death was mine!”)— and there you have it: A foregone conclusion.

However incontrovertible, an examination of the links between writer and depression – and the questions that logically arise from such inquiry – continues to be written about and debated by scientists, psychologists and writers alike. One subject of contemplation is the age-old question of whether psychological suffering is an essential component of artistic creativity. There are those who, based upon the mountain of empirical evidence and technical research, conclude that it is. Others disagree – citing literary giants – Shakespeare, e.g. – who had no significant psychopathology. Both positions are reasonable and, effectively, indisputable. Ergo, there’s no clear victor in this particular piece of the dispute. Yet, how can both be right? During a recent interview I was asked why I chose to be a writer. I answered that I have an irrepressible attraction to the words, to the letters – that I sense something beneath the surface – a kind of code. That I’m forever trying to break the code – to decipher the mystery – to find in the words something that is true – to craft a story that someone will want to read. And then I added, “But then again, I’m not so sure if I chose writing or if it chose me.” And, there it is — the articulation of uncertainty about the “choosing” or the “being chosen” — that offers one possible answer to the question.

Writers are born of two distinct and disparate sources. Some come to the world with innate talent – a talent which is either recognized early on, or discovered and nurtured in time. Their gifts are immense. Their minds are healthy, or rather, comparatively healthy. Others come to the world with burden. They write to survive. Of this latter category, the two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author J. Anthony Lukas once said, “All writers are, to one extent or another, damaged people. Writing is our way of repairing ourselves. In my own case, I was filling a hole in my life which opened at the age of eight, when my mother killed herself . . . ” (Lukas, diagnosed with depression ten years earlier, hanged himself in 1997.) This category of writer starts with a less intellectual methodology. The personal risks are titanic. Talent, not wholly inborn, is learned and earned through the sweat of the flesh and the letting of blood. Some writers of this sort are able to effectively compartmentalize their suffering – fight their personal demons on the battlefield of human relations – between themselves and others – rather than on the written page. In this case, the resultant work may be indistinguishable from that of the writer unburdened by disease. Others are capable of redirecting and baring their pain in less conspicuous ways – through plot, character, and subject matter. And then there is the writer whose entire body of work is drawn solely from the wellspring of personal despair – a seemingly bottomless and unforgiving pit. This writer’s illness devastates – subjugates every aspect of her life. Her world becomes small, her purpose compulsive and single-minded. Such crushing depression may eventually suck all the oxygen out of her being, extinguish what flicker of hope has managed to survive the storm of her insidious affliction. Ultimately, this writer is consumed by the illness that fueled her creativity. There seems no way out. But might there be?

What if a writer under the influence of depressive illness became “un-depressed”? What if some combination of treatment – drugs, electric shock, psychoanalysis – was successful? Would the writer’s creativity – would the writer’s work – become negatively impacted? Would the writer stop writing about “depressing” subjects like defiant human emotion? Would, for example, an Artaud, Baudelaire, or Poe start writing “happily-ever-after” prose if “cured” by Zoloft? Of course, we won’t have the technical answers to these questions until future researchers – basing their findings not on the work and lives of dead authors but on the work and lives of writers currently living with depression – both in and out of treatment – provide them. Yet, un-technically – via experience, observation, and intuition – answers can be deduced. A Samuel Beckett, even partially restored, would not produce a “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The “change” for the writer, I submit, would come not in content, but rather in fecundity and endurance. For, when the annihilating destruction of depression – the “storm of murk” as William Styron so aptly described it – is muscled into symmetry with the writer’s purpose and faculty – when creative juices are feeding not just a single monster – there is an opening up of the universe – a vision that allows the writer to “rewrite” the inevitable – to comprehend what had previously been incomprehensible: That when it comes to writing and living, there is a choice. And finally, this writer, given the option, may choose not one or the other, but both: To write . . . and . . . to live.

When reflecting upon the vast, poignant, and enduring anthology of work produced by writers who have suffered from depression – as those mentioned in this article – and assuming that literature is necessary – that it matters – that it enriches all humanity – it is not hard to imagine that the “freeing of will” would bestow gifts far beyond those given to a single beleaguered soul.

Bonnie Kozek’s highly-acclaimed noir thriller, Threshold, is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Powell’s Books and other online sites. Her follow-up book, Just Before the Dawn, will be published in 2010. Learn more about her work at: http://www.bonniekozek.com or contact her at: bk@bonniekozek.com .

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