Mental Illness and Creativity
There’s a game I like to play called “Diagnose the Writer.” Emily Dickinson? Social anxiety disorder. Fyodor Dostoevsky? Gambling addiction. Franz Kafka? Hypochondria. Ernest Hemingway? John Berryman? Clinical depression. I have realized in the past few years that every writer I enjoy reading has suffered some form of mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I may not be too far off the mark, either. Why is that? What’s the link?
Is there a comorbidity between the need to comment on life and the ability to be overwhelmed by it? Is creativity itself a form of mental illness? If we were all sane, would we write? Or would we be content to only go to work, mow our lawns, and smile at our neighbors every night? I can’t comment on the neurology, but I like to think that writers are brave, like all of those who suffer from mental illness. In that way, standing up to countless rejections can’t compare to the pain of suffering through uncontrollable illness and (hopefully) seeking help.
Suffer for your art. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true. You can’t lead a normal life and be a writer. It’s impossible. How else could Shakespeare have written in Hamlet’s hallucinations? Could Ken Kesey have been able to write from the perspective of a mental patient had he not experimented with LSD? A writer’s life isn’t fun and it is never normal. It never was. But if it were any other way, we wouldn’t be writing.