I had a ridiculous amount of trouble writing today’s post this morning. I drafted something over the course of an hour or two, disliked it, and trashed it. Then I slept for many, many more hours, before being awoken by the ring of my cell phone. I wasn’t feeling too well when I answered that phone.
My friend gently tried to, well, get me to snap out of it. “Why don’t you write something?” he said, and the part of me that would very much like to write, and is frustrated that I feel as if I can’t, snapped back. Before I knew it, we were discussing the connection between art and mental illness.
I told him that I believe that artists create great works despite their illness, not because of it, and yet even as I said these words aloud I internally disagreed with myself. My friend voiced his objection. “Depression can be transformative,” he said, and since we had earlier defined great art as that which has the ability to transform the world, the implication was that mental illness could be, if not a necessary characteristic of the artist, then perhaps a helpful one. If the artist is transformed – enlightened, cradled into a higher state of awareness, brought to their knees by truth – then this should be reflected in their work.
But I couldn’t see myself getting out of bed even to pour myself a glass of water, much less write a novel. And I’m hesitant to claim that my inability to get myself together is any indicator of a creative mind. But on a broader scope, the correlation between the artist and mental illness is still an interesting one. Would Sexton have written just as well had she been healthier? Would Fitzgerald been a better writer had he not been an alcoholic? Why the popular conception of the artist as emotionally volatile? I know young artists who believe that the idea of artists as drinkers and smokers and promiscuous lovers gives them free leave to act like jerks, myself included.
I took a class with a prominent writer last semester. This writer had, if not a problem, an aversion to specific lines or scenes in my writing. “People don’t drink that much,” he said, and my classmates and I laughed and retorted, yes, yes they can, and they do. Eventually he understood that this is what I know, and in the future, would merely laugh and shake his head when I had a character throw back a few shots before doing something foolhardy (there was no use trying to get me to pick less provocative subject matter, but he did teach me, or attempt to teach me, how to employ more subtlety despite my topics).
At the end of the day, though, I was struck by this man – a good example of an artist on top of his game, healthy, and not at all scandalous, colorful, or over-the-top. Definitely not a caricature. He took writing as a job. He taught well, wrote well, and lived well. And if his writing had a hint of melancholy about it anyway, in deep contrast to the funny, happy persona he showed his students, well, I think despite that he’s still proof-positive that depression doesn’t have to be a condition of the artist. He could explore great depths without being crippled by the experience.