There is a long standing Romantic notion of the writer, or any artist for that matter, creating their work out of misery. If the writer is somehow not alienated, “odd” or without having experienced some degree of suffering that is significant to him or her, he or she cannot be sanctioned as an artist. Even if the artist’s work does not betray suffering on the surface level, as in the case of humorists, attempts are still made to know of their significant, tragic, life events such as parental loss etc. There are two significant psychological studies that highlight two perceived elements of writing. 1) Writing being one of the loneliest professions, has also had one of the highest rates of depression and suicide. 2) Mental illness can facilitate creativity in the writer and the writer creates his/her best writing when miserable.
I want to refute both these statements. Writing can be a lonely profession as in it has to be usually practised in isolation. But, there are very few who can afford to be full-time writers. Even those who are creative writers by profession still have choc-a-block schedules with writing assignments for various periodicals, workshops etc. Most choose to have day jobs despite their success. And whether you are a successful or aspiring writer, you still have quite a lot of socializing that is to do with your work. One can be lonely in any profession. You can be lonely as a surgeon even when you constantly have fellow doctors, medical staff and patients around you. A call-centre employee can feel lonely in a room of fellow employees. Whereas writers, even those who can afford to be full time novelists, may still have great relationships with his/her family,friends etc.
In the second statement, it is assumed that one must “suffer” for one’s art. But that suffering may be a one-off, or a number of events. Depression is not an event, but a consequence of one. It is a condition that can persist no matter the degree to which we are appeased by our lives. It might seem strange to think that depressed people may actually be afraid of happy events. They might be scared of attending social gatherings that celebrate them. They might refuse generous and thoughtful gifts just because they do not think themselves capable of feeling all the strong, positive feelings that they might inspire in them.
Which is not to say that such a state of low self-esteem would not inspire creativity. It just means that one doesn’t necessarily create the other, even in creative people. In phases of major depression, “when the weather is bad”, it does not help to do any creative activity with the intention of defining yourself and boosting your ego. For a writer, this is not really a good time to be defining themselves by how well he/she writes at this moment and how successful he/she is at channelling this depression. It just doesn’t work. Even when going through your own published work to feel better, instead of adding to your vanity, you criticize it even more and may even feel embarrassed by its relative immaturity. At such a time, even a misplaced comma could make you feel more miserable.
To write when you are a depressed writer, the best thing to do would be what the ancient thinkers said, write without ego. Well, they didn’t put it like that but you know what I mean. Try to find the joy in it again by simply doing it. Just try to tell a story. One method I like is actually making up stories and telling them to the younger members of my family. Another I quite like doing is answering agony columns online. A story is basically a problem, a question. And these columns and forums are full of real questions just waiting to be answered. You might not only end up helping them, but would have also helped build a story!
The glamourized perception of a lonely, suffering artist is slowly dying out now, after having a rather long, over 200 year run. I am glad for it. It is time we let the art speak for itself than try to find the artist in it.