There is a sorry myth that connects depression, or mental trouble more generally, and creative ability. Depending on what bits of cultural history people know, they cite Richard Curtis’ suicide (or Kurt Cobain’s), Beethoven’s choleric instability, Stephen Fry’s bipolar disorder, or the diagnosed ‘insanity’ of Wiliam Cowper, John Clare and Emily Dickinson. I think the whole thing largely goes back to the ‘tortured artist’ image of the late Romantic poets – those droopingly revolutionary young men who found the world as it is ineffably painful because of their infinitely heightened sensitivities.
Have you guessed I don’t quite agree yet?
One of the things that is often hard for people who haven’t at least ovserved mental illness up close to grasp is that it both is and isn’t part of who you are. One the hand, for pretty much everyone there was a time when you had never had depression (it seems to be very rare to suffer a recognisable form before teenage), and there are times when it is genuinely, fully absent. On the other hand, for a significant number (though apparently it’s actually a minority, showing how the more extreme cases have a disproportionate image) the problems never entirely go away – like a sort of semi-benign tumour, they exist in perpetual flow of remission and relapse with only arbitrary dividing lines as to whether you’re ‘well’ or ‘ill’; for some, at least treatment for depression and perhaps the state itself may become effectively permanent. And it looks conceivable that some people have an innate predisposition towards mental illness, though for others the causes are probably purely external.
Becoming depressed does, in my experience, have a connection with creativity. An entirely negative one. When I am worse, when I am quite seriously depressed, I do not write poetry like Shelley or Byron or Sylvia Plath. I do not write songs like Morrissey or Radiohead. I do not write musical outpourings of melancholy, nor yet do I compose eloquently distressed blog posts. When seriously suffering depression, the odds of me, or, I believe, anyone else creating anything of substance are practically nil. Because, like all other elements of life or activity, there doesn’t seem to be any point or purpose and it seems immensely difficult. Basic life activities like eating and buying food will eventually get done because hunger is still unpleasant even when you’re depressed. Songwriting? Nah. Even picking up a guitar and twanging a couple of notes is exhausting. Ironically, I suspect depression is one of the main reasons many depressed people do not self-harm or attempt suicide. (Yes, go back and read that sentence again.) It simply seems too much effort when all you really want is for everything to go away and yourself to conveniently pass out. Besides, what would a song about being depressed look like? The most characteristic thing about depression (though by no means the only part of it) is the lifeless, metaphorically grey quality of everything. Depressed people become zombified – voices toneless, movements slowed (this last is called psychomotor retardation and is actually a key medical symptom of depression). Its musical expression might perhaps be a succession of sighs accompanied by a drone. Words or melody would be far too vivid to actually convey it – like adding black pencil lines to Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.
As to whether people inclined to be depressed are more likely to be inclined to be creative … well frankly that’s all speculation. I’m not going to get much involved, but it’s certainly clear that you don’t need mental health problems to create viable art. I suspect the explanation for the apparently disproportionate success of depression sufferers in the arts may be twofold: 1. The sort of people artists (in the broad sense) know, and the sort of pressures and prejudices they live with (or without) mean they are more likely to suspect and seek help with mental illnesses. Perhaps latent weaknesses are more likely to be expressed under their working and living conditions. 2. Art is often more successful when created from unusual or different perspectives. The perspective of the mentally ill is inherently and always different.
What I really want to do with this post is warn anyone reading it off glamourising mental illness or thinking that being depressed fuels creativity. Being depressed doesn’t fuel anything, it just makes everything more difficult. I say this from the clearer perspective of being in fairly good remission that enables me to write this sort of post at all.