books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Does Depression Make You a Better Writer?

Great writers tend to be depressives. From Plato, who was reported to suffer from “melancholic disease,” to recent suicide David Foster Wallace, writing and depression seem inexorably linked. In Nancy Andreasen’s famous study of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 80% of writers surveyed met the formal diagnostic criteria for depression.

Until recently, nobody knew the reason for this. But new research is giving us fresh data on the anatomy and purpose of depression. In an article in the NY Times Magazine in February, Jonah Lehrer gave a fascinating overview of the new information concerning what he calls the “common cold” of mental illness—and suggests depression could even be good for you.

He reports brain function researchers have discovered the part of the brain active in depressive episodes is the same area we use for complex thought. This is huge: creative thought is anatomically identical to depression.

As a result of the new research, some evolutionary psychologists are hypothesizing that humans developed depression—with its accompanying rumination and lack of interest in normal activities—as a mechanism for focusing on problem-solving.

In other words, when Gog’s bestie got smoked trying to spear that saber-toothed tiger, Gog got sad, mooned around not eating, sleeping, or making little he could invent a longer spear.

These studies show depressed people have enhanced reasoning power. Lehrer quoted one researcher who said, “the results were clear: [depression] made people think better.”

This seems especially true for writers. Lehrer quoted another researcher who discovered “sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences,” and Lehrer concluded, “because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst.”

Whether or not you buy the evolutionary cause-and-effect, I think this research gives us tools for understanding—and perhaps managing—the depression that overwhelms so many writers. If we accept that depressive episodes are going to come with long periods of building complex worlds in our heads, maybe we can cope by making sure we take frequent breaks for physical activity, social interaction or non-cerebral tasks (who knew that boring day job was saving you from mental illness?)

What we should NOT do is fear the darkness now proved to be inherent in the creative process. If we can see the pain as part of the package instead of a disease, maybe we can work with it instead of medicating it away.

In her blog This is Madness, Chicago professor Jeanne Petrolle blogged last week about how the pharmaceutical industry is raking in stupendous profits by pathologizing normal emotional processes. They may also be stifling the creativity we need to evolve as a species.

I know from my own experience that anti-depressants slow down or eliminate my creative activity—as well as lightening my wallet and making me fat. Yes there is more pain without them. As Lehrer says “To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness.”

But ultimately I think it’s good news: we’re not nuts; we're writers!


  1. I've struggled with depression for about 15 years now, and I've been off and on the medication enough to know that I am a happier person WITH it, unfortunately. In fact, I've suffered from suicidal tendencies without it, and didn't write a stitch of anything in that horrible time of my life. So...speaking from experience, I don't think it's a fantastic idea to write off medication.

    I do think, however, that normal depression - what every human on the planet suffers with from time to time is completely fine and might very well help us with our creative process. I just happen to suffer from chronic depression, and there's a huge, huge difference. How do you know which one is which? Well, that's for a psychologist or psychiatrist to diagnose.

    Sorry, I'm very passionate about the subject of depression since it has affected my life so deeply. After some pondering and figuring things out, as well, I've discovered that I have never written anything when I haven't been on my medication, which is an interesting thing, indeed. I'm too disturbed and distracted and chemically unbalanced when I don't have the medication. Also, it's a very light dose, and simple evens out the emotions. It's not a happy pill as some might think depression medication to be.

    I think I've rambled long enough. I think this is a great post, and I think it's definitely amazing what studies are going on these days about the complexity of depression.

  2. I meant, up above, that it's not a fantastic idea for ME to write off medication. I'm not speaking for anyone but myself. :)

  3. Writing makes you depressed? Or being depressed make you a better writer? I think writing makes me a better writer. Also writing Flower's depression was cathartic. I'm a little sceptical about which came first.
    Great thinking post.

  4. The big question – from where does inspiration come? Equally big questions – what is the mind and how does it function? There are so many variables, many of them changeable, unknowable, that can affect creativity. My feeling is that while depression may, for some, benefit creative impulse and capacity, it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition.

  5. I think you have to be curious to be depressed, to ponder the deeper meanings of things, to walk through those dark corridors, to imagine the futility of ending world poverty, etc, and so yes, if curiosity--the soul of writing, leads to complex thought, and complex thought leads to depression, and complex thought also helps you become more observant, more introspective, then I think you can make a connection.

    Basically, I guess, everything Judith was saying!

    And to add...of course we shouldn't all be getting depressed. Depression paralyzes you, which doesn't exactly make for good writing practices, and it also bogs down your prose, I think. You gotta love Sylvia Plath, but she isn't exactly my go-to girl most of the time. I like a little humor, and not all that pity-me stuff.

  6. Wow, fascinating. It seems like there needs to be a balance--most good writers know pain and use down-in-the-dumps time to process their sadness through creativity... but, of course, if depression is too great, it can be a complete roadblock.

    Personally, I have found that I have written my best work when I am in acute distress (not the same as depression). When I have been depressed (which was only as a teen, so it's not exactly the same as adult depression) I was extremely focused on schoolwork. I found it strange at the time that I was at my most productive and my most miserable at the same time.

    I don't recall writing anything really great while depressed, but I did have an inexplicable impulse to cut all the eyeballs out of pictures in magazines. I collected hundreds of used magazines from library recycling and cut all the eyes out. Then I started cutting out the teeth from people's smiles, and then fingernails and other things, and finally I made a big, thick collage depicting a dragon made of eyes and teeth and polished fingernails. I still have it hanging in my bedroom. It's pretty awesome.

    However. I would NEVER want to revisit how I felt at that time in my life. I guess I'll have to become a good writer some other way!

  7. And I agree with Susana. There may be a correlative relationship that is not causal. Smart folks tend to get depressed. Also, people who can live in denial are happier than people who can't ignore unpleasant truths.

  8. Anne--this is one of the BEST blog posts I have read since I started blogging and following blogs. You did an AMAZING job of summarizing the NY Times article, highlighting the important parts, and adding your own great insights into it. I had read that article when it first came out, and I'm so glad you've written about it again. I'm not a champion of depression, and think it has to be managed--and God knows I worry about depression in my students, who often lack the tools to manage it--but I have noticed this time and again (to put it bluntly:) people who don't get depressed are usually good at tasks that don't involve too much thinking (i.e. people in sales/finance/management); people with a penchant for depression are really strong with tasks that involve thinking (academics, writers, journalists). Thanks for posting this. I think this is the must-read post of the week.

  9. Thanks for this post Anne! It has finally solidified the fact, I'm not nuts, I'm just a writer.

  10. Great great post. I've always wondered why all the greats were depressed, or alchoholic (Cheever for one) etc.

    Think its kind of our thing. I'm generally a happy go lucky kind of guy and yet...pondering the futility of it all gets me down a lot.

    Thanks again for the post

  11. Like everything, I suspect there's a continuum here: mild to paralizingly deadly, and depending on where you're located on that continuum and how familiar you are with your own particular "edge" and how to use it, will result in either "creation" or zilch. Interesting info, that's for sure.

  12. Lady G, my heart goes out to you—and all of you who have battled serious depression. I have lost some of my closest friends and family members to suicide, and I've veered close to the abyss myself. But one of the things I found scariest about depression was the stigma of "madness." (“I'm just a crazy person, so I'm worthless” thinking.) That's why I found this information positive.

    But I don't mean to trivialize a serious, life threatening disease, and neither does Lehrer. Sometimes medication is literally a life-saver. Churadogs says it well: Depression is a continuum. At its most severe, it does nothing for your creativity and drains away your life.

    As I wrote this, an image came to me: I pictured the creative process as entering a tiger cage. The tiger is unbearably beautiful and powerful and the source of all inspiration, but it can do terrible harm.

    What the new research does is let us know the tiger is there. Forewarned is forearmed.

  13. Excellent post anne, you do an great in emphasising the lonliness of writing and also how we can watch out for signs etc.

    In regards to the article, it's very interesting, something to mull over.

  14. Hmm, I've been depressed to the wrist slitting point and it didn't help my prose. But, I do agree it focuses the mind to write specifically, and in that sense, possibly a better quality.

    Most of what I write when I'm depressed I keep to myself. Sometimes I can lighten it up enough to share. But one thing I've noticed - depressed writers do draw emotions out of readers. So, in that sense, maybe its ok to write when depressed. Mildly depressed.

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your story with us Lady Glamis.

    And thank you Anne for this post. It is food for thought. I've a feeling I'll be back a few times to re-read it.


  15. What an interesting post. It's nice to know that the low periods are just as natural as the high times.

    Thanks for sharing!

  16. I'm actually copying this post (hope that's okay!) because it is just the encouragement I needed. Finally, some clue to my particular brand of depression. At least in my case, I get depressed when I've come to a realization that the story I had such I hopes for is hopeless in its current incarnation and must be drastically re-written. My brain is working overtime to figure out how to re-write it.

  17. Omg I am so glad I found this blog. I've been writing stories, drawing & making lyrics to songs since I was 5. Most of my friends grew out of that creative zone by the 5th grade, but I just kept going more & more. My mom is not a creative person so she's spent the last 10yrs trying to silence that talent in me, but the older I got the more it grew...

    However the more in depth I understand things which makes the stuff I write more complexed, the more my mom is convinced that I suffer from depression. The thing is when she asks me am I depressed or suffering from anxiety...I tell her & other people that I am deep in thought. They don't believe me but it's the truth. I am always deep in thought on my next big story, becuz the inspirations just hits outta nowhere and I have to write it down. When the first words to the perfect phrase pops in my head I can't ignore the thought...

    What throws people off about me is that I don't have a district look for my sadness or thinking mode. They both look the same, and I'm told this constantly. Also I've disgorged that when I am sad I write more moving emotional pieces & I also write more. I wrote 3 stories at once while sad & neither of them were depressing.

    I also suffer from inability to sleep becuz I'd rather write, but when I do go to sleep it's like I write while I sleep! So glad to have found this place it's nice to I am not crazy or alone!(:

  18. Anon--Keep on doing what you're doing, but do get out and move around once in a while, since research shows this intense cerebral activity can lead to actual clinical depression. (Also, more physical activity will help you sleep.) Try taking a little voice recorder with you on your walks--I sometimes do that when the ideas are coming fast. Drive like yours happens for a reason, so who knows: you may be one of our next great writers, so as long as the urge to create drives you, keep at it!


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