You may have noticed that I haven't posted anything in a while. There hasn't been much to talk about, unfortunately, as I've been in a creative dry spell for a while. I've been working at composing, but at the end of the day, very little that I come up with seems to be worth keeping. It's not a good situation for a composer to be in, but it's really a symptom of a larger problem: my chronic struggle with depression.
I bring this up not because I want to whine about it, but because I feel that depression is not often discussed seriously, particularly among creative artists. It's a very real problem for a lot of people, but societally it seems like we are encouraged to ignore that reality, or, if you are suffering from depression, to medicate until the problem goes away. For many, depression and other mental illnesses carry a stigma. And for artists...well, it's tricky.
It's tricky because there are preexisting stereotypes about artists and mental illness which cloud the issue in unfortunate ways. I speak, of course, of the stereotype of the artist as a "crazy genius." I could pontificate at length about the evolution of this and other artist stereotypes, but that would be a lengthy post on its own. Anyway, the idea of the artist as crazy genius is very Romantic in nature; the archetypal composer in this vein would almost certainly be Robert Schumann, who suffered from hallucinations, attempted suicide, and spent the last two years of his life in an asylum. It certainly fits in with the Romantic ideal of rebellion against established norms; what norm could be more established than sanity?
A more modern take on the crazy genius artist is not so much that they are embodying the natural extension of an artistic ideal, but rather that their condition is an unfortunate and possibly unavoidable side effect of the pursuit of their art. Shortly after David Foster Wallace committed suicide, I recall seeing a blog post to the effect of, "It's so hard to do what he as an artist did, to go and touch the stuff of the universe and share the experience with others, and not lose a part of yourself in the process." This is still couched in Romantic language -- touch the stuff of the universe -- but can be paraphrased more clinically. One friend of mine expressed the opinion that the architecture of the human brain can only stably support so many standard deviations of intelligence, creativity, what have you. Try to overclock that and you void the warranty.
The problem with this notion, no matter what form it takes, is that it essentializes the purported connection between creativity and insanity. Genius must be tinged with madness. If you're not a little bit crazy, you can't be creative. If a little bit of insanity is necessary for creativity, then a lot must be better. And to make matters worse, people actually believe this, consciously or unconsciously.
I know I did. When I was a high school sophomore, I had an assignment for English class to write a hypothetical autobiography of myself ten years in the future. I imagined that I had given up math to be a composer (nailed that one, somewhat to my own surprise) and still suffered from depression (which, in retrospect, was more of a slam dunk). However, I had discovered that I wrote my best music when I was severely depressed, and would deliberately go off my medications in order to induce a more creative state of mind. Reading this caused my parents to worry that I was doing this in the present tense as well, and I assured them it was a fabrication. But to some extent, I believed, or had a theory, that being depressed would make me a better composer.
What a load of crap that notion was. Fifteen years later, I can readily assert that depression is one of the worst things going for me as a composer. Depression saps my energy and creativity. Ideas come sporadically, and are more likely to be judged wanting. It is harder to gain momentum working on a piece, and easier to lose it.
Certainly, I have found inspiration in negative emotions. Six Hours in the Isolation Booth was inspired by loneliness, and Doina is a lament, plain and simple. But depression does not inspire. It draws a veil over my emotions; there is no clarity in depression.
Despite knowing all this first-hand, I still harbor remnants of the belief that creativity and insanity are necessarily intertwined. There's a part of me that worries that if I were "cured" of my depression, I would suddenly become "normal," and lose many of the features that I value in myself. But mostly, I'd just like for my experiences to not be stunted by a neurochemical imbalance. I know depression is not essential for creativity; my creative peaks have generally coincided with periods of mood elevation. I may have to fight depression for the rest of my life, but I'm going to keep fighting.
And that's why I think the stereotype about crazy genius artists is so dangerous: it encourages a sort of fatalistic thinking, like blaming the victim. "You have schizophrenia? Well, you're a budding author; what can you do?" There may be a positive correlation between creativity and insanity, but the two do not have to be joined at the hip, and I don't want for anyone suffering from mental illness, whether or not they are an artist, to think that their suffering is inevitable. It is a tragedy that thousands of people, including Wallace, have decided that death is the solution to end their pain; the last thing we should do is encourage the sort of thinking that leads to this. Unfortunately, we seem to be stuck in the practice of fetishizing mental illness among those we deem sufficiently creative, and stigmatizing it among everyone else. Neither of these options are particularly helpful.
So I think we should talk about mental illness, plainly and honestly, and not hide the issue behind stereotypes. And so I talk about my depression. I hope you understand.