Writing and Sorrow

A long, long time ago I wrote an essay about writers suffering depression. First of all, I think depression is something all by itself distinct from writing (or painting). Then, I think that artists who experience depression have often discovered that — for them — the ladder out of the hole is creative work. It’s been discovered that creative work raises the “feeling good” hormones in the brain. To read about it, go here. Creative work is actually kind of a drug. 🙂 I’ve thought this for a long time.

I’ve been stymied on my novel in progress for months. I’ve been bored by it, uninterested in the characters who people it, not interested in the journey on which they’re traveling. I’ve blogged about that, too, at various times, knowing that sooner or later I’d either finish it or forget about it.

In the back of my mind, of course, was the sweet admonition of my Aunt Dickie, “Please continue writing the story of my mother’s family.” I wanted to, but didn’t want to. She died the week of Thanksgiving last year. I was in the middle of trying to get back to the story when she passed away.

Most of the fruitful moments writing my novels have been times of intense duress. Martin of Gfenn finally became a long novel during the days when my brother’s life was going seriously sideways, and I was at the point where I needed to make a decision about whether I’d continue to support him or not. The Brothers Path happened during the darkest times of the financial crash which caused me to have a financial crash combined with health and professional problems, not to mention the death of my favorite aunt, Aunt Martha.

And, suddenly, a few days ago, all I wanted to do was work on The Schneebelis Go to America (working title). It’s been a ridiculously productive four or five days. The novel is finished, I’m editing like a bitch (thanks Grammarly) — I don’t know. But it hit me last night. Ten days ago I had to put Mindy to sleep. Five days ago my remaining aunt went into hospice care.

Sorrow is NOT depression. I’ve suffered depression, and there is a distinct difference. A person can be happy and depressed at the same time. A person cannot grieve happily. BUT now I see a connection between hard times in my real life and the drive to create.

My recent progress on my novel has made me think about the essay I wrote long ago. In my essay I wrote that some artists write or paint their way out of darkness. I’m sure Hemingway did this. I’m sure van Gogh was not in mental agony during the moments in which he was painting. The teacher I wrote it for didn’t agree. She held the view that writing and painting lead people to depression. I’ve since learned that’s a pretty common view.

Years ago I read Kay Redfield-Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. She’s not an artist; she is a psychiatrist. Her knowledge of depression and bipolar disorder is both academic and personal. She, herself, has struggled with bipolar disorder all her life. I read this book when I was sliding into my own depressive crisis some 25 years ago. It was very illuminating to me, though I no longer agree completely with her premise that writers (in particular) are special and endowed with apocalyptically complex brains. It helped me understand my own brain and it helped me understand my brother.

When my depression began to lift (thanks, PROZAC!) I began painting like crazy. Nothing serious. I painted tables that were puns. A picnic table with a picnic painted on the top — potato salad, burgers, and ants. A tea table with a tea party. A pool table with people swimming. You get the idea. It was pure fun, pure pleasure and very uplifting. I started to see that I had in my own hands and mind the way out. So far, I have not returned to those dark places for more than a moment. I know what it feels like, I can distinguish it from real emotional highs and lows, and I’ve learned to hold on. I’ve learned that authentic emotional lows can be triggers.

So, sadness at missing Mindy T. Dog and my sorrow over the imminent loss of my Aunt Jo led me back to my novel. It’s way better than I thought it was, and I’m so grateful it was there when I needed it. ❤



18 thoughts on “Writing and Sorrow

  1. I admire you for completing your books, because I have been there once and done it myself, but with no serious intentions. I just wanted to have something in print. It was self publishing, but I realised how it is when you do it. Every time I read my stories, I found another new mistake, and so it continued for weeks, no months. Eventually I gave up and let it be printed. I was more on the edge of my 19th nervous breakdown. I am glad I did it, I have a book, but no more. I now enjoy reading what the others have written and am looking forward to discovering what happened to the Schneebelis in America

  2. When my mother died in 1984, I was in Israel without the money to fly home. I just couldn’t do it. I had been there just a couple of months before, so I was flat. I had a friend (reform) rabbi who looked at me and said “You’re a writer. WRITE.”

    I wrote. It was probably the best thing I ever wrote and I happened at the time to be the editor of an English-language newspaper. I had the whole country in tears.

    That became a sort of mental reminder. “You’re a writer. WRITE.” And I do. It helps.

    I also have to remember that “real problems” are not depression. They are real. Problems. That either will pass or must be solved. There is no medication for reality.

  3. Expression–being able to feel and move the feelings, with words, a paintbrush, movement, voice. Whatever creative medium provides access. Its key to being healthy and able to manage life. And yes, I completely agree with you that a little medication can be enormously useful (my personal favorite being Prozac’s cousin Zoloft). As I used to tell my patients, the meds can help you get out from under the bed, then all the other stuff can work. Love your tea table!

    • Very nice metaphor for anti-depressants. Back then I read Talking to PROZAC. The complaint, “I don’t feel like myself” really struck me. It seems people can learn to identify with internal misery. I learned a lot about the people I loved (mom, bro, others) from that. It was also the first time I asked myself, “Who do I WANT to be?” That hasn’t been easy to answer but the discovery is that we are our own self-creations as well and sometimes I’ve remembered to ask myself, “Do I want to be THIS?” 🙂

  4. And it was a lovely tea party! I’m so glad to know that creativity can pull you/one out of depression. I need to get out and take some photos!

  5. I totally agree, Martha. I’m glad the book is nearly finished. I hope it gave you comfort. I am sure if they could, Mindy and your Aunt Jo would have been cheering you on.

    My mosaics are my antidote to the news, and to generally feeling gloomy or restless. I wrote a post – Keeping Up With the Jones – that if you read between the lines, says much the same. I’m just about to go outside to do some work on the current one. Perfect weather for it.

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