Psychologists are still chewing on the question of whether there's actually a relationship between creativity and depression — but historically, we've long believed that there's a link between being artistically gifted and possessing certain pathological personality traits. It's a basic part of our ideas about creativity, probably dating right back to the Greeks, who thought inspiration was a kind of divine madness, furor poeticus, sent by the gods. When people hear that you want to be a famous writer and ask "Are you crazy?" they may simply be querying your suitability for the job.
Dismal as this idea is, it does mean that some of history's most celebrated and talented writers have put their legendary eloquence to work describing the experience of depression. And it's not all posturing and pretending to be mournful for show — there's a real tradition of raw, honest descriptions of depression throughout artistic history. In some literary cultures, it seems more prominent than others: Japanese poetry and Russian literature in particular are known for discussions of grief and sadness. Leo Tolstoy himself wrote about his "mortal internal disease," and the dept hof spiritual suffering it caused, in 1879.
If you're suffering from depression and don't know how to explain the experience to others, let some famous wordsmiths step into the breach for you. Whether they're discussing depression in their own lives or in the experience of a character, they can provide clarity about a problem that can sometimes feel impossible to describe.
1. Sylvia Plath
“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of 'parties' with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”
— The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath's experience of depression is so deeply a part of her work that it's hard to disentangle them. From her classic novel The Bell Jar to her diaries, Plath wrote honestly about the disorder that would eventually lead her to take her own life at the age 30.
2. Tennessee Williams
"We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it."
— The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
Playwright Williams, who wrote classics like The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, suffered depression all his life, battled drug and alcohol addiction, and was briefly institutionalized in 1969. He was also deeply affected by his beloved sister Rose's struggles with schizophrenia.
3. Arthur Rimbaud
“In the morning I had a look so lost, a face so dead, that perhaps those whom I met did not see me.”
— Une Saison En Enfer
Rimbaud was a 19th century poetic prodigy whose tempestuous relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine inspired Verlaine to try and shoot him. Rimbaud wrote only in his youth — he stopped entirely when he was 21.
4. Paul Verlaine
“A vast black sleepfalls over my lifesleep, all hopesleep, all desire.”
— "A Vast Black Sleep"
Paul Verlaine was a tormented soul; the Poetry Foundation describes him, generously, as "emotionally unstable." Verlaine was highly celebrated in his lifetime, but his success brought him little peace: he had stormy love affairs, including the famous (and violent) one with Rimbaud; he had bouts of drug abuse and alcoholism, and suffered a lot of personal losses, eventually dying in poverty in 1896.
5. F. Scott Fitzgerald
"A series of things happened to papa. So papa got depressed and started drinking a little... One blow after another, and finally something snapped."
— Fitzgerald's 1936 interview with t he New York Post
In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald — who'll forever be best known as the author of The Great Gatsby and the incarnation of its high-stepping jazz age hero — did an interview in which he was clearly suffering from alcohol withdrawal and serious despair. His explanation of how he got to this stage is one of the saddest, simplest descriptions of the relationship between depression and alcoholism in history. He died in 1940, possibly of complications from tuberculosis.
6. J.K. Rowling
“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced...It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it's a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”
— Rowling's 2000 interview with the Times (UK)
J.K. Rowling's life may sound like a rags-to-riches fairytale — unemployed mother writes bestseller, becomes billionaire — but she's been frank about the severe depression underlying her experience, even talking about it on Oprah . She also created the famously horrifying Dementors to capture how depression really feels to a sufferer.
7. James Baldwin
“And this was perhaps the first time in my life that death occurred to me as a reality. I thought of the people before me who had looked down at the river and gone to sleep beneath it. I wondered about them. I wondered how they had done it—it, the physical act. I had thought of suicide when I was much younger, as, possibly, we all have, but then it would have been for revenge, it would have been my way of informing the world how awfully it had made me suffer. But the silence of the evening, as I wandered home, had nothing to do with that storm, that far off boy. I simply wondered about the dead because their days had ended and I did not know how I would get through mine.”
— Giovanni's Room
James Baldwin was one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century, from his essay collection Notes Of A Native Son to his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain. But this searingly clear description of a suicidal urge comes from his semi-autobiographical novella Giovanni's Room, based loosely on a relationship Baldwin had with a Swiss man in Paris. Baldwin himself was deeply depressed and unsuccessfully tried to end his own life numerous times, before dying of cancer in 1987.
8. Bai Juyi
I hug my pillow and do not speak a word;In my empty room no sound stirs.
Who knows that, all day a-bed
I am not ill and am not even asleep?
Turned to jade are the boy's rosy cheeks;
To his sick temples the frost of winter clings.
Do not wonder that my body sinks to decay;
Though my limbs are old, my heart is older yet.
— "Poems In Depression, At Wei Village"
Bai Juyi, also known as Po Chu-i, is one of the most famous poets in Chinese history. A Chinese diplomat and governor in the Tang Dynasty, he was put into exile for five years and after his retirement became a self-described hermit at the Xiangshan Monastery. He wrote a lot of romantic poems, but one of his most famous is "The Song Of Everlasting Regret," which told the tale of a famous concubine.
9. David Foster Wallace
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows.
"Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
— Infinite Jest
When David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008, it was a terrible shock.But his frequent, candid writing on the subject of depression — from the novel Infinite Jest to his celebrated essays — hinted at Wallace's struggles throughout his career.
Wallace was open about his battle with severe, suicidal depression to the end, even writing an expansive essay, "The Depressed Person," for Harper's Magazine in 1998, which dealt with the crushing minutiae of life with depression.
If you're feeling depressed, remember that there is hope and there are resources to help you get help. But sometimes, just knowing that someone you admire has been there, too, can be a little bit of comfort.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr/Summoned By Fells, Getty