Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: New Research Helps Writers Fight Depression

I started feeling it this last week: that dark heaviness lurking somewhere just below my conscious thoughts. It makes me burst into tears for no reason. I get clumsy and out of touch with my own body. I feel raw and unprotected. My joints ache. All I want to do is sleep, but sleep won’t come. My digestion gets wonky. Food has no taste.

Depression: I’ve had bouts with it all my life. It runs in my family. I lost my father and brother to suicide.

But I have better ways of fighting it than I used to. I now understand why it happens, and how to fight it off before it gets worse.

If you’re a writer who fights depression, know you’re not alone: a lot of great authors 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 at 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 his bestselling new book Imagine, How Creativity Works Jonah Lehrer gives some fascinating information concerning what he calls the “common cold” of mental illness.

He says brain function researchers have discovered the part of the brain active in depressive episodes is the same area we use for complex thought.


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 BFF died trying to spear that saber-toothed tiger, Gog got sad, mooned around not eating, sleeping or making little Gogs, and…invented a longer spear.

So there’s a reason for the darkness: if humans are too happy to see there’s a problem, they can’t become problem-solvers.

These studies show depressed people have enhanced reasoning power. In an article in the New York Times on the subject, 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.”

See—you’re not crazy, you’re just a really smart, creative writer!

Lehrer does admit:  “To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness.”

Whether or not you buy the evolutionary cause-and-effect, this research gives us tools for understanding—and perhaps managing—the depression that overwhelms so many of us.

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?)

It’s like those folktales about journeys to fairyland: you can only stay in there a certain amount of time, or you'll die/go mad. The land where magic happens is also full of demons.  

I know exactly why depression has been attacking me: I’m about to launch my sixth book in less than a year. Nine if you count the anthologies and the Kindle single. I’m pushing to finish number seven/ten. I've been overusing that dark, creative part of my brain. 

It’s ironic that my newest book is called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY!

I was starting to lose my own sanity—because I wasn’t taking my own advice. I've been spending too long in the brain territory where creativity lives side by side with the depression demons.

But I’m not going to get stuck there. Because of this new research, I’m not afraid of the darkness any more. Now I know it’s part of the creative process. When I see the pain as part of the package instead of a disease, I don’t have to label myself “crazy”—a sure-fire way to trigger the self-loathing that leads to severe depression.

I’m going to work with the darkness instead of medicating it away with pills. Those pills have always decreased my creativity and now I know why. If depression lives in the same place as creative thought, when you block out one, you’re going to interfere with the other.

NOTE: I’m not telling people with severe depression to forego the meds—they can be life-savers.

But to treat my incipient version of the disease, I’m going to lighten my load, spend more time away from the computer and shut out the noise that tells me that whatever I do isn’t enough. Last night I was invited to a fun party with a lot of creative, intelligent people. Earlier in the week, I decided I'd pass. I was supposed to bring a potluck dish--and it would be too much work and my digestion was a mess.

But as I started to think about this post, I realized I had to go. I knew it would be good medicine. And it was. My tummy is fine and I'm feeling amazingly more cheerful. Fun conversation and great food is one of the best ways to get out of your head and into the real world.

Of course I had to fight a little guilt.

When you spend most of your time on the Interwebz, you can feel as if you’re surrounded by superpersons who all have more hours in their days than you do. You’re bombarded by voices that say, “you can’t succeed unless you do this! And that! And these other 100 things! How dare you eat/sleep/read/have a family? You obviously don't really want to succeed!"

So you keep pushing yourself more and more. You become like the evil CEO who never hires new workers but expects a  higher and higher productivity level from an ever more stressed-out staff.

So I've stopped being the evil CEO of my own body.

I came across a fascinating fact last week in a post from Robin LaFevers on Writer Unboxed:

Suzanne Collins has almost no Web presence.

Really. The phenomenal bestselling author has no Facebook page, no Twitter account, no Goodreads, Red Room, Library Thing, or Kindleboard profile. She’s got one tired website and has only written 8 books in her whole career.

But none of that seems to have hurt the sales of her HUNGER GAMES trilogy, does it?  

So it IS possible to succeed as a writer in the 21st century without churning out a book a month and being online 24/7! You can be a successful author and take care of yourself, too.

This gives me hope.

And for any of you out there who are prone to depressive episodes, it should give you hope, too.

Depression is indeed awful. But it helps to know why it exists. And it helps even more to know that you can nip it in the bud by shutting out the voices who push you to stay too long in that creative place that is equally full of magic and danger.  

What about you, scriveners? Have you ever had a bout with inner darkness?  Did it come after a long period of intense thought? Are you feeling depressed by the demands that you do too much?

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