As a writer, I’ve looked for methods to keep depression from undermining the creative work I try to do. Or should I even put it that way – is it depression that stops me? For years, I told myself I couldn’t work when in a mental fog of depression, my will to act paralyzed, my motivation even to imagine a new writing project completely gone. Does it have to be that way? Here are a few writers who say NO!
Near the beginning of Julie Fast’s Get It Done When You’re Depressed, she quotes an artist suffering from depression who made an important discovery. Although she had been thinking she could not work when depressed, a friend asked her if she could see any difference in the quality of the work she produced when feeling good and when feeling bad. She realized that there was no difference. That was an eye-opener. She realized that even when she felt low and lacking the will to get to her creative work, she was still capable of producing the painting that gave her such deep fulfillment. Now she’s focused on her work, rather than on her feelings about whether she’s able to get started. For her, this realization has made all the difference, and she’s painting whether she’s excited about her work or unable to stop crying.
Robert Fritz, in Creating, goes deeply into the need to separate the immediate feeling state from a focus on creating the work itself. He sees the act of creating as arising from a productive use of the tension between the way things are now and the future work that you want to bring into existence. His book presents creating as a process with a structure that can be learned. He lists many factors that interfere with that process and provides ways of minimizing their impact in distracting you from a focus on completing the work.
Although I believe he has overdone the breaking out of process steps (it sounds too much like a workshop curriculum), he has important and useful insights into how to keep the process of creating alive and well. His book is not about depression, but he hits exactly the right note in his discussion of the need to separate your creating self from all the feelings and thoughts that would distract from what you’re trying to accomplish. He offers the equivalent of a meditation that repeats the separation idea in many contexts: you have feelings but you are not your feelings, you create things but you are not those things, you have thoughts but you are not your thoughts, etc.
The idea is to cultivate an inner objectivity about yourself and your work, partly so you do not load onto the act of creating all the ideas of self-worth or the negative feelings and thoughts that simply stop you. Creating then can become a stand-in for self-esteem or so freighted with critical meaning about your life that you can’t bear to begin for fear that it will reveal your failures as a human being. If you imagine so much is at stake, the risk of failure becomes unbearable. Fritz offers methods to get to a point where you perceive things more objectively. If a piece of writing or a painting or a project of any kind isn’t working the way it needs to, you have to keep at it, revising and reviewing until it is complete. If an idea just isn’t working out, you set it aside and go on with something else. All that seems straightforward, even obvious, but to a person in the midst of depression it is an ongoing struggle to see things for what they are and remove the distorting effect of the lens that bends all the light trying to get into your mind.
I’ve written here about how fearful the act of writing can become for me. In my case, the expression of creative impulses became linked with the release of aggression and violence. That seems far-fetched, but what does the unconscious care about reason and objectivity? On a deep level, I knew that a monster within me would be unleashed. More often than not, I can be objective now about those feelings and see them as having no real link to writing – and because of that I can actually get the job done. But that doesn’t prevent the feelings and beliefs from coming back again and again.
Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland is also about cultivating an approach to life that permits the work of creating to continue no matter what else is happening. Living with uncertainty about how well the process will turn out or how well the new thing you’ve brought into being will be received is part of the reality. They put this in a memorable way:
In the ideal – or that is to say real artist, fears not only continue to exist, they exist side by side with the desires that complement them, perhaps drive them, certainly feed them. Native passion, which promotes work done in ignorance of obstacles, becomes – with courage – informed passion, which promotes work done in full acceptance of those obstacles.
I believe these ideas apply not just to artists but to people engaged in every kind of creative work in any field. The work of separating out all the fears and distorted thinking that can paralyze you as a creative worker never comes to an end. Fritz’ theme echoes a basic concept of learning how to live with depression, one that is a major part of Julie Fast’s book: You are not your depression. Believing that has been a lifesaver for me. My breakthrough came when I could see depression as an illness, not as me, something separable from my life, a damaging condition that needed to be dealt with rather than an explanation of who I am.
These three books are especially interesting to me because they are not concerned with a theory of creativity or even with trying to define what the creative experience itself is like at its most intense. They are concerned with the more ordinary process of creating ideas and things on a daily basis. These are the skills of getting creative work done no matter what the obstacles, creating what you envision because that is what you need to do to be who you really are.
And what about your experience? Has creative work served as a release from depression – part of getting better and staying healthy – or has it been a major issue to start projects when depressed? What are the methods you use to begin creative work and to keep yourself going?
Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by ul_Marga at Flickr
Douglas Eby says
In the Introduction to his book The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression, Eric Maisel, PhD writes: “Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain meaning.
“In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning.
“This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: It is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful. Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating.”
Continued in my interview with Eric Maisel: Investing meaning in our art.
Anon for now says
John, I haven’t been around much because I currently lack the concentration to really read your posts — to say nothing of comment. But, having just read the last four, I would like to say: Check out “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” by Julia Cameron. It may be useful.
My gratitude to John and all who comment.