Psychology
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The Depressing Downside of Creative Genius

The neurology behind why creatives are so often depressed — and why they tend to make awful lovers

Knowing his wife was upset with him for spending more time with his typewriter than with her, F. Scott Fitzgerald hatched a plan. He wasn’t proud of many of his short stories (he only included 46 of his 181 short stories in his published collections), but he knew that in order to win back his wife he’d have to whip up something quickly. Working from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., he churned out “The Camel’s Back” for The Saturday Evening Post for a fee of $500. That very morning, he bought Zelda a gift with the money he had made.

“I suppose that of all the stories I have ever written this one cost me the least travail and perhaps gave me the most amusement,” he commented in the first edition of Tales of the Jazz Age. “As to the labor involved, it was written during one day in the city of New Orleans, with the express purpose of buying a platinum and diamond wristwatch which cost six hundred dollars.”

This was in 1920, and Zelda’s frustrations could still be assuaged with a well-timed gift. (After all, it was only after Scott had the money and prestige from publishing This Side of Paradise that she agreed to marry him earlier that year.) It wasn’t long though until Zelda had grown so fed up with Scott’s drinking and self-isolation that she lashed out, cheating on him with a French naval aviator while Scott was working on The Great Gatsby in the South of France. From then on, their marriage devolved into arguments and a devastating cocktail of debt, drink, and manic depression.

“Zelda’s spending sprees, her ‘passionate love of life’ and intense social relationships, her melancholic response to disappointment and the relatively late onset of her illness (she was born in 1900) point toward a mood disorder, as does the alternation between frank psychosis and a sparkling, provocative personality,” noted an older article in The New York Times Magazine that asked “How Crazy Was Zelda?”

The Fitzgeralds are perhaps the best — or at least the most intriguing — example of writers whose talents, when mixed with depression and vices (like alcohol and spending sprees), burned brightly then collapsed calamitously.

But of course, it’s not just the Fitzgeralds who battled depression and led lives that eventually spun out of their control. Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Stephen King, Anne Rice, David Foster Wallace, even J.K. Rowling are just a few of the writers who have been struck by the illness that Hemingway once referred to as “The Artist’s Reward.”

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in 1956

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in 1956

The common theory for why writers are often depressed is rather basic: writers think a lot and people who think a lot tend to be unhappy. Add to that long periods of isolation and the high levels of narcissism that draws someone to a career like writing, and it seems obvious why they might not be the happiest bunch.

Dig a little deeper though, and some interesting findings reveal themselves — findings not just about the neuroscience of writerly depression, but about why Hemingway was so awful to Hadley, why Scott and Zelda drove each other mad, and why writers, by and large, are not only depressed people but also awful lovers.

A few months back, Andreas Fink at the University of Graz in Austria found a relationship between the ability to come up with an idea and the inability to suppress the precuneus while thinking. The precuneus is the area of the brain that shows the highest levels of activation during times of rest and has been linked to self-consciousness and memory retrieval. It is an indicator of how much one ruminates or ponders oneself and one’s experiences.

David Foster Wallace and Mary Karr

David Foster Wallace and Mary Karr

For most people, this area of the brain only lights up at restful times when one is not focusing on work or even daily tasks. For writers and creatives, however, it seems to be constantly activated. Fink’s hypothesis is that the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off — and, as a result, creative people show schizophrenic, borderline manic-depressive tendencies. Really, that’s no hyperbole. Fink found that this inability to suppress the precuneus is seen most dominantly in two types of people: creatives and psychosis patients.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that this flood of thoughts and introspection is apparently vital to creative success. In Touched with Fire, a touchstone book on the relationship between “madness and creativity,” Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins, reported that successful individuals were eight times more likely as “regular people” to suffer from a serious depressive illness.

If you think about it though, this “mad success” makes sense. Great writing requires original thinking and clever reorganization of varied experiences and thoughts. Whether it’s Adam Gopnik’s first piece for The New Yorker that related Italian Renaissance art with the Montréal Expos or Fitzgerald trailblazing the “Jazz Age” with his combination of Princeton poems and socioeconomic class sensibilities in This Side of Paradise, a writer’s job is to reshape a hodgepodge of old ideas into brand new ones. By letting in as much information as possible, the brains of writers and artists can trawl through their abundance of odd thoughts and turn them into original, cohesive products.

Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller

Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller

It’s not a surprise then that Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, and the most wildly creative writers of our generation have such bizarre ideas: they cannot stop thinking, and whether pleasant or macabre, their thoughts (that can turn into masterpieces like The Nightmare before Christmas and Pulp Fiction) are constantly flowing through their minds.

Although this stream of introspection and association allows for creative ideas, the downside is that people with “ruminative tendencies” are significantly more likely to become depressed, according to the late Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Constant reflection takes a toll. Writing, editing, and revising also requires are near obsession with self-criticism, the leading quality for depressed patients.

In fact, a study conducted by Nancy Andreasen at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop found that 80% of the residents displayed some form of depression.

“One of the most important qualities [of depression] is persistence,” said Andreasen. “Successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.”

While Fitzgerald liked to boast of his raw talent that allowed him to come up with clever stories for the Post or The Smart Set in mere hours, biographers have noted that he spent months pouring over drafts — a perfectionist making revision after revision. For better or for worse, creativity and focus are inextricably linked. As Andreasen said, “This type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering. If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

This mishmash of unremitting rumination and self-criticism means that writers are always working. Even quotidian life is a writerly task. In an interview with The Paris Review, Joyce Carol Oates said, “[I] observe the qualities of people, overhearing snatches of conversations, noting people’s appearances, their clothes, and so forth. Walking and driving a car are part of my life as a writer, really.”

Now, for just a second, put aside the recent news that journalism/writing was ranked as the sixth most narcissistic job by Forbes. And don’t think about the fact that writing is not only a lonely job, but it is also one that can turn a pleasant walk or a drive into a form of work. Instead, focus on how writing is about being able to create and control a world.

For what is writing, but an amalgamation of our thoughts and experiences finished off with a wax and a shine?

This need for control often translates to real life too, and it comes at the expense of the feelings and wishes of nearly everyone around them. Writers are often such terrible lovers because they treat real people as characters, malleable and at their authorial will.

When Charles Dickens was 24 (and allegedly a virgin), he married Catherine Hogarth, then 21. Almost immediately after they married, he became infatuated with Mary, her younger sister (so much so that she would later become the basis for Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shoppe). Mary died shortly thereafter, which proved a devastating blow for Charles, and for the rest of their marriage Catherine futility tried to live up to her sister. After 22 years and 10 children with Catherine, Charles met Nelly Ternan, a young actress, and deciding that he was quite tired of his wife, tossed her aside in favor of this new mistress.

Like so many authors, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Ezra Pound to V.S. Naipaul, Dickens wasn’t much of a good person. In fact, he was a rather terrible person and had history not bowed at the beauty of his fiction, he would have been remembered poorly.

Writers can be rather awful people, and their blend of depression, isolation, and desire to control not only their own characters but the “characters” of their real lives has been a relationship-killer for centuries.

(As for the other relationship-destroyer — writers’ infamous penchant for alcohol — Gopnik postulates, “Writing is work in which the balance necessary to a sane life of physical and symbolic work has been wrested right out of plumb, or proportion, and alcohol is (wrongly) believed to rebalance it.”)

Trying to balance vice, borderline mental illness, and a disregard for the real world in favor of fictitious ones is perhaps a noble but Sisyphusian act for many writers. Try as they might, the greatest creatives in history have too much neuroscience working against them, too many ideas fluttering around their minds.

It would be cliché to quote Jack Kerouac in saying, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved” — and yet it is a platitude for a reason. The most fascinating people in history, the ones who make a difference, who create, might be depressed, perhaps miserable romantics, yet they have contributed more to society than many of them ever knew.

In fact, Fitzgerald died thinking he was a failure. He was in Hollywood doing “hack work” while his wife was in a Swiss sanitarium, and he often felt as though he were holding the ashes of his life in his hands. Only 44 years old but looking weathered and much older, he sat in his armchair listening to Beethoven, scribbling in the Princeton Alumni Weekly and munching on a Hershey Bar. It was a wintery morning in 1940, and as if propelled by a ghost, he leapt from his chair, grasped at the mantle piece, and collapsed on the floor. He died from a heart attack.

Zelda was too ill to make it to her husband’s funeral, but only a few months before, she had written to Scott with surprising lucidity, “I love you anyway — even if there isn’t any me or any love or even any life — I love you.”

She knew that they were mad, that their creativity and vice and entirely unique perspective on the world would be both their greatest high and their most agonizing low. To the letter, she added, “Nothing could have survived our life.”

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52 Comments

  1. thewildonesblog says

    Wow. Super intense read, but very interesting!! Enjoyed it.

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  3. Pingback: The Depressing Downside of Creative Genius | FITNESS FOR LIFE

  4. I don’t know…seems like a bag of old potatoes that I’ve got growing eyes in my cupboard somewhere that I forget, but I’m a rather poor candidate to make any such distinctions..perhaps..or not..

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  6. IAM sure there is a fine line between what we would call madness and geniusness that bleed into each other… but really we are ‘tapping into the magnificent consciousness that everything is’ that our mind cannot fathom… but truly it is ALL part of our experience as Humans and coming to terms with just who we all truly are… Wonderful post and pleased to meet you… Barbara

  7. Flick’s reblog brought me here, and it is a fascinating article. I have a ‘highly strung’ and very creative daughter married to a psychotic. It’s very sad watching them struggle and not being able to help.

  8. Reblogged this on Flick and commented:
    God give me strength because I don’t want to write after this. This article I will return to every week. When I feel like giving up I will remind myself of all the other writers that lived with similar. And when I am failing with my family I will use this post to renew myself. Good article indeed. Every writer and potential author should read this. 🙂

  9. God grant me strength, because I don’t want to write anymore after reading this. Thank you for reminding me of what I have to do though! I cannot do this alone. 🙂

  10. nocturnalbee says

    It’s so awesome to see a blog on this! I as well wrote a blog on it, and even did a study over this in school. I really enjoyed it, thank you!
    Nocturnalbee.com

  11. irhoseworks says

    Real facts indeed. Like all personalities, they have their own downsides…For “Creative smarts” they must learn to work this out, too. And an awareness of these things in oneself is a great start!:)

  12. txleli says

    Reblogged this on write. and commented:
    Absolutely fascinating piece that makes a lot of sense. As a writer myself, it’s nearly impossible to turn off the flow of ideas plaguing my mind and that type of overthinking had led to my Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder.

  13. I had a big smile on my face noticing that none of your examples of poor lovers came from female writers. I think that means I made it just under the wire…

    • Yeah, i noticed this too. Whilst this was an engaging article, i feel that the writer has perhaps not considered the difference between gender roles over the years. Men’s work- regardless of the nature of it- has always been considered- and treated as- more important than that of women’s. I feel that this alone would be a stronger factor than creativity in their treatment of their partners. Especially in days gone by.

      I tend to disagree with the idea that needing a certain amount of solitude automatically makes we creative folk narcissistic, or terrible friends or lovers . We CAN be hard to understand; we do often inhabit our own little worlds, and that might make us difficult to get close to initially, sure. But does this mean it’s not worth doing so? In a world increasingly obsessed with convenience; instant gratification; instant results; quantity over quality; are we to blame for the impatience or laziness or general lack of imagination of others? I’ve personally experienced many wonderful friendships with creative women and men alike. Because we all made an effort to form these friendships. The creativity- and the mutual respect and understanding of this creativity was the common territory that we shared. (Interestingly, the only creative people who HAVE been awful to me were the men- who, rather than viewing me as a partner in crime; an equal, came to treat me as competition; a threat in a domain which they saw as being exclusively theirs. They didn’t want a partner, they wanted a groupie. Again, how much does this really have to do with creativity? How much does it have to do instead with their attitude towards women and their roles? )

      And now i seem to be talking more to the author of this article rather than the person i was initially seconding! I hope this doesn’t sound like a raging tirade against the article. It was a very interesting read. But i have always been- and am still- a little skeptical of the whole “mad genius” cliche. A person can be mad without being a genius, and a genius without being mad. You can also be a terrible friend or lover without containing a single atom of creativity ( or depression).

      Of course, there’s no denying that many of the geniuses throughout history *were* batshit crazy/ and/ or terrible partners. People who display genius in one area often have inadequacies in others… and sadly, yes, the ability to relate to others well is probably a common one. But, as the author mentions, they have made such fascinating and wonderful contributions to our world. I am glad they exist. I have so much room in my heart and head for them!

      Thankyou to both tendrilwise and the author for provoking some thoughts. I’ve done my best to make my point in as non-combative a manner as possible. I hope this comes across….and i apologise for the length of this comment…! *backs away sheepishly*

  14. vladimirstoic says

    Living life like you’re writing a book is the most interesting part of being a writer.. it’s depressing.. it’s sad.. it’s entirely too much for one person to handle. Yet we manage to do it anyways.

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  16. Well, to start off, being depressed may not be a downside. To some extent, this is the chicken-egg problem – which comes first? Does being depressed leads to creativity, or does being creative often leads to depression? We can only be outsiders to how these creative brains function. Perhaps to many of us, the word ‘depressed’ connotes only negativity. But what if it was this very ‘depression’ that allowed them to see the beauty in life that no one else saw?

    I know this is all subjective, but I just wish to point out that sometimes, the act of thinking too much and constantly reflecting upon happenings in life allow one to offer many different perspectives about one’s perceived life, in which one, if talented enough, can transfer these ideas and thoughts into a greater and more meaningful end-product.
    I just think it’s sad how this deeper understanding of the environment around us is sometimes seen as being negatively depressed. I see beauty in being depressed, in being a state that some other people will never attain. It may be hard, but it is definitely not a sad(oh-take-a-pill) thing. Perhaps, it is because of the need/desire to get away from the regular life that thinking otherwise shows some form of intellect, and to this extent, a creative person knowing how to manipulate his talent into great works can be thought of as thinking too much, ‘depressed’ and a genius.

  17. Pingback: The Necessity of Madness: Creativity’s Curse | InkBlots and IceBergs

  18. It is just so unfair that artist live such miserable lives and yet give so much inspiration to the world after them.

  19. Always a pleasure to read your posts. This one was especially compelling. The Fitzgeralds have always fascinated me–so much talent, and so many destructive tendencies in one place. And I’ve always thought that Zelda might have managed much better with modern pyschiatry.

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  22. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had and commented:
    “The common theory for why writers are often depressed is rather basic: writers think a lot and people who think a lot tend to be unhappy.”
    So that’s the answer. Didn’t I tell you that ignorance was bliss?

  23. Fantastic and interesting read. An interesting difference if we also looked at those people who had trouble turning their tap on. One wonders if the key to sanity is not just thinking about things but then doing things. Really enjoyed the post.

  24. Wow this is a fantastic read. I really appreciate the connections and the analysis in this piece. Light bulbs are definitely turning on.

  25. Excellent analysis, fascinating and an eye-opener for writers…and yes, as mentioned here by another commentator (or is it “commenter”? I don’t know!) the same can be said of painters and musicians too. I really enjoyed your “deep” blog post – so much on the Net is superficial and meant to delight the eye rather than the mind. That was a refreshing change!

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  28. Interesting read! Thank you. I think you might enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s TedTalk about the “elusive creative genius” we all have as writers, artists, etc.. She touches on depression/fear in creative minds and how to change the perspective on creativity in order to alter the negativity associated with being an artist.

  29. Very nice article. Here you focus on writers, but as you say depression follows often creativity: I would name a bunch of visual artists who spent their live between depression and art, starting with Van Gogh 🙂

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