Hats off to Cynthia Leitich Smith for today's link to Nancy Etchemendy's article on Writers and Depression. Not only is the article link timely (because so many people consider suicide during the holidays), the piece should be required reading for any writer, artist or creative soul.
The fact that so many creative types suffer from depression doesn't surprise me. It's an insidious condition, one that often masquerades as fatigue, illness, stress, you name it. All too often we pass off the symptoms as casualties of our avocation. We joke about our addictions to Diet Coke. We commiserate about our insecurities. We muscle through our days.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying every tired, Diet Coke addicted writer is depressed. What I am saying is that we're prone to it. And with good reason.
Writers are sensitive souls. We don't need to work at emphathizing with others; we do so automatically. The problem is we don't just celebrate with others, we feel their pain as well. Knowing writers work in this way, is it any wonder so many of us struggle with depression?
Much of the work I did at Vermont College meant learning to mine my own emotions in order to understand my main character's emotional throughlines. As much as I tried in the beginning, however, I had trouble identifying my MC's deepest need.
After many months of soul searching, I realized that the main reason I was having trouble getting close to my character was that her deepest fears mirrored my own. How's that for writing behind my back, Jane? Once I realized why I was avoiding getting close to my character, KM's throughline became clear, and I made important strides in my own process as a result.
I also made connections about the writer's life in general.
It seems the very nature of our craft--the ability to inhabit our emotions long enough to bring life to our characters--makes us vulnerable...to our fears, depression, and addictions and other self-destructive behaviors.
I've no easy answers for how not to become trapped in the emotions we must embrace in order to create our art. I do know that through experience I've learned that my most powerful prose has come from the places that resonate with the strongest emotions. Which means that in order for my characters to find a way out of their darkness, I must find ways to face my own.
Making this connection about my writing hasn't been easy, but it's given me insights into my own process. Reading Etchemendy's article has given me more.