My heart broke when I discovered David Foster Wallace had hanged himself. Although his death had shocked the contemporary literary community in 2008, I had only recently stumbled upon Infinite Jest and his other works of creative genius in the past year. Yet, his commencement speech, “This is Water,” was the real slap in the face. How could I juxtapose the professorial, enlightening speech about living everyday life with the depressed man who hung himself? I couldn’t.
This propelled me — or flung me — into the rabbit hole of literary suicides and mental illnesses such as depression. It wasn’t just him; rather, it was a long list of “greats” who had suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. The list didn’t discriminate against other creative outlets — arts, music, and innovation — either.
As I continued to research this outstanding correlation between mental illness and the arts, I became more and more disturbed. My odds as a writer were dismal; either I was already crazy or on my way to becoming crazy.
In light of Robin William’s death, many of us are reconsidering how suicide affects the average person—or the apparently creative, happy person. However, it wasn’t the suicide aspect that really piqued my interest.
Various psychological studies try to identify and quantify the “creative” factor in the brain; however, in these queries, another scary statistic was uncovered. In her article, “Creativity ‘Closely Entwined with Mental Illness,’” Michelle Roberts, health editor from BBC News online, wrote, “Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse. …They were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.”
These disorders translated across the arts and spilled over into professions that called for innovation. Not even the sciences, which require its own type of creativity, took refuge from the grasp of mental illness.
Rather than stigmatize these people — those with mental illness — or these professions — the writers, artists, and innovators — we should opt for a healthier attitude towards mental illness and the creative outlets associated with it.
Mark Vonnegut, son of Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five, writes about his own experience with a family history of schizophrenia and his own later self-diagnosis of bipolar disorder. As an accomplished pediatrician, he discusses how art became his channel for harnessing both the frightening and creative aspects of his disease. His memoirs and recent articles paint the picture for a much better correlation: art as the healing process, not the bullet.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, puts it best in her famous TED talk, “Your Creative Elusive Genius.” She goes back to Ancient Greece and Rome in the time of Aristotle where the people believed creativity derived from muses, which were external beings.
“They believed that a genius was this sort of magical, divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work,” Gilbert said.
Her presentation focuses on how this attitude places the anchoring and suffering responsibility of such creative endeavors on the “creative elusive genius.” This way, no matter what the outcome of the work, sanity remains.
Whether or not we choose to believe in a disembodied creative genius attached to ourselves and to the list of writers and artists with mental illness, we can choose to view mental illness in a creative way: the way where we see the world along a new plane of original, unique lines.
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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.
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