Sunday, July 12, 2015

What comes first -- the writing or the crazy?

The Electric Lit site carries some cool articles about the writing life. A recent one was about writers and mental health. I've often wondered; what comes first, the writing or the crazy? Are people drawn to writing because they are crazy? Does the solitude and navel-gazing of writing lead to depression? It's possible that the writing just deepens an existing depression. 
Here's some possible explanations:
The Swedish researchers offer one potential explanation for their results: social drift. Individuals with severe mental illness often have a hard time holding a steady job. Some may turn to self-employment—including in artistic fields. But it’s not clear why this should apply more to writers than to other artists.
Another possible explanation can be drawn from the theory of depressive realism, which essentially claims that depressed people are depressed because they see the world as it is—depressing. They are “sadder but wiser.” Writers have to be careful observers of human nature and society. Painters and composers can take inspiration from suffering; but writers have to: drama comes from misery—comedy, perhaps even more so. Depressive realists may often be drawn to writing for this reason.
Writers (me included) love to include our bizarre jobs in our bio. Chicken plucker. Tobacco picker. Manny. Before he was drafted, author Tim O'Brien worked at a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouse Five author Kurt Vonnegut wrote ad copy at GE. Poet Philip Levine worked the assembly line at the Chevy plant. Poet and fiction writer Lolita Hernandez worked 30 years at the Detroit Caddy plant. Some writers take odd jobs in order to write about them. George Plimpton and Barbara Ehrenreich come to mind. 
Because "author of the great American novel" is not a job category on Craig's List, writers need jobs. Judy Blume once was asked about the first thing that a writer should do. "Get a job," was her reply. That's what we used to yell at our fellow surfers when we drove down Daytona Beach. "Get a job!" Surfers are faced with the same dilemma confronted by writers. Surf or work? Or... What's the best job to have where I can surf in the morning and make gobs of money doing a brainless activity at night? 
Some of us insist on getting day jobs as writers. In Denver, I wrote sports and features for daily newspapers and suburban weeklies. I was managing editor of an entertainment weekly. I was a free-lance editor and writer and, later, an editor of corporate publications where I wrote about fan belts and rubber hoses.  Until you've read one of my scintillating pieces about a Gates fan belt, well,  nevermind -- I wouldn't subject you to that. I did write a humor column about the strange creatures who inhabited the corporate parking lot. One day, I was summoned into the chief's office:

Chief (crankily): We must write something about the crazy drivers in the parking lot. I almost was run over twice this morning.
Me (enthusiastically):We could publish a boring missive from one of our vice presidents who could chide his minions about their bad behavior.
Chief (frowning): Think of something better.
Me (smiling stupidly): May I take the week off to go to the mountains? I think a lot better up there.
Chief (glowering): Take a slow walk in the parking lot of quitting time. That should give you some ideas.

I did as he suggested and almost got run over twice. I immediately went home and was greeted by a squawking brood of children. They reminded me of a flock of crows (technically, a murder of crows) and I was inspired to turn the parking lot transgressors into various kinds of misbehaving birds. The chief was so impressed that he promised not to fire me that week.

What does this have to do with writers and depression? While I was writing it, I wasn't depressed. One maxim I learned about depression is this: "When depressed, learn something." You could change that to "write something." While you're writing, you're otherwise engaged. It doesn't cure depression, but may hold it at bay for awhile. It's a physical disease, as physical as allergies or cancer. To keep it at bay, I write. I also take two different antidepressants, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet and learn something new every day. I also work a steady job that involves writing and editing. It takes time from my fiction writing, but if I didn't do it, I would have no insurance and no income. I could abandon it all, go to Florida and become a beach bum. Then I'd have a bunch of punk surfers yelling at me to get a job. It would be deja vu all over again. I couldn't help being depressed.


Sam said...


Interesting insight into the relationship between depression, reality and the artistic process. My motto, especially at work, is "Reality is overrated".


Michael Shay said...

Bob: Here's another quote from a tormented writer, Lord Byron: "If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad."