Let me address two points before I explore this question. First, my definition of artist expands to encompass all the creative occupations—writers, poets, musicians, photographers, dancers, sculptors, painters, sketchers, architects, woodcarvers, et cetera. Second, I am in no way implying that depression is necessary or encouraged in any way involving the arts. That can be a dangerous misconception—the notion that depression may somehow enhance an artist’s work. An artist can find success and be perfectly happy with the craft. This post is simply an acknowledgment that depression seems to be a common thread among those labelled as the “creative types” and an exploration into that mysterious connection.
We hear about depressed artists so often that the label hardly seems to phase us anymore, and indeed, so many of “the greats” shared this commonality. Vincent Van Gogh. Hans Christian Andersen. Ludwig van Beethoven. Ernest Hemingway. Georgia O’Keeffe. Sylvia Plath. Alcoholism, substance abuse, clinical depression, all threaded through musicians, artists, actors, writers . . . there does seem to be a link, but why?
I admittedly had a tendency in the past to brush off the idea that most artists were depressed. In all likelihood, this was a personal case of denial . . . of my own depression. Art, I argued, was not a cause or amplifier of depression, but rather a coping method for an existing condition. In part, I can still stand by that proclamation.
I would assert that those who tend to ruminate on their thoughts are more prone to depression. This extends beyond the arts, but because so many artists tend to be deep thinkers in a solitary setting, they are struck more heavily. I know I personally am not one to easily forget at the end of the day; I dwell on the stressful events and the failures, and I replay them over and over, examining every detail, all the possible outcomes, thinking about what I could have and should have done differently.
I was a poet in my preteen and early teenage years, and I kept a notepad beside my bed. On the nights I couldn’t sleep, I would lie in the darkness, so exhausted that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, but no matter how often I shifted positions, sleep eluded me. And then, the words would come. Sometimes I would sit by the window and squint in the moonlight. Other times, I would rise and lock myself in the bathroom to write what needed to be written. It was therapy for me. As soon as my pencil stopped moving, I could lie down and drift into dreamland. I felt more like a vessel than a poet.
My mom would find notes with pieces of poems scattered throughout my room, and more than once, she asked me if I was okay. Stanzas talked of loneliness, of standing barefoot in the rain, of feeling numb and empty, of cracking, on the verge of breaking. “I’m okay,” I insisted. I once described the poetry to her as an outlet. When I was so miserable and frustrated that I wanted to scream until my lungs shattered, I channeled that pain into words on a piece of paper instead. If I didn’t, I knew I would bottle up all that negativity and eventually explode.
I started to give some serious thought to the connection between depression and artists. What if art was not just a means of coping with existing depression? What if art in some way contributed to or even magnified the affliction?
I wasn’t able to fairly assess this consideration until I started venturing into the publishing realm of writing. I swung on drastic ends of the pendulum—in writing classes and workshops, fellow writers praised my work and made me believe I could achieve success; on the backlash, the endless procession of rejections flung me in the opposite direction.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to look at your work.
It’s not the right fit for our publication.
At this time, we are unable to accept new clients unless they are an absolutely perfect fit.
We have decided not to proceed with your submission at this time.
Writing—indeed, the arts as a whole—is subjective. And yet, we artists are constantly and intentionally placing ourselves into vulnerable situations to be judged, critiqued, and ultimately rejected. Each rejection, whether it was a form letter or a personal email, wore me down a little bit more to the point where I would receive an envelope in the mail and immediately my spirits would sink because I knew, I knew it had to be another one to add to my collection. Raising one’s hopes too high was a recipe for another devastating letdown. The form letters were worth nothing more than a skim, as they wouldn’t really tell me anything or provide a hint as to why I’d been rejected. I would sigh and tell myself to keep trying.
Most of the rejections I received made a point to mention that a rejection of the work was not a direct reflection of the writer. And yet, the mind is a tragic and counterproductive enemy of the artist sometimes, and eventually a lack of recognition for one’s work can affect one’s own idea of identity and self-worth. Artists are their own worst critics. Many times, when someone is admiring one of my drawings, all I can focus on is that one pencil smudge where I made a mistake. No one else can see it until I point it out, and even then, it’s not a glaring blemish to the observer. Only to the artist.
You are the only real judge of your successes and failures. This is sound advice, except to those who are harder on themselves than anyone else could be.
Money also can have a detrimental affect on one’s perception of happiness. “Starving artist” is a term we’re all familiar with. The desire to pursue what brings one a sense of satisfaction is at odds with society’s demand for currency. Often, artists find themselves in debt, struggling to earn a living, oftentimes in food service, retail, or other temporary jobs just to pay the bills while trying to perfect and market their craft. This, coupled with the necessity for solitude as well as the tendency to utilize unorthodox hours of the day and cheat sleep, is just another set of ingredients in the mix.
Why is there a prominent link between depression and art? For many artists, creation is therapy, a weapon against depression. For others, voluntarily exposing one’s heart to rejection and criticism allows perforations in the ego, a perfect opportunity for depression to manifest as a parasite and eat away at the artist’s self-confidence.
For some of us, it’s both. It’s a blessing and a curse.
I'm an award-winning fantasy author, artist, and photographer from La Porte, Indiana. My poetry, short fiction, and memoir works have been featured in various anthologies and journals since 2005, and several of my poems are available in the Indiana Poetry Archives. The first two novels in my Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series both received the Literary Titan Gold Book Award in 2020.
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Stephen King has a passage in “The Body” about the curse of imagination that was so vivid, I was shocked by how real it was for me. It was something I could never explain, especially to the scientists I worked with, that I had such a deep imagination and memory that it could make me horribly sad for days. Just imagining something happening to my children could send me into a really dark time. And the solution was to…write about it!
Artists can sense things very deeply and ruminate on them rather recklessly. Getting more disciplined about storytelling structure has actually helped me pick through what to keep and what to stop thinking about, and it really works when I’ve got a more powerful image to describe.
Artists are intense people. They have to be.