Friday, September 26, 2008


Salon has a new and harrowing piece about David Foster Wallace, and the final stages of his depression, and how he ultimately succumbed to it.
We know little about the link between writing and mood disorder, except that there is one: Famous novelists have a 50% probability to go through a major depression in their lifetime; for poets it's even higher (numbers come from Ludwig's book on the topic). Sometimes, folks seem to assume the link is direct: Depression is the driving force behind your writing (see this unfortunate interview with Pistanek). The DFW piece suggests otherwise. As most writers and clinical psychologists know, depression is debilitating, not liberating. It is a coffin, not a fount.
I (with Jutta Joormann and Rodney Kahn) am one of the few who've done actual empirical work on the causes of the link. In our paper, Why We Sing the Blues (see also the short digest in the APA monitor), we looked at the relationship between depressed mood, creativity, and rumination. Rumination is the kind of circling self-attention that is hard to stop, and is well-known to be associated with depression. (Folks who think hard about themselves and the world and their place in it, are bound to, well, not be so chipper.) It is also, or so we thought, something creative folks do, or maybe even need. What we found was that this is indeed the case: rumination begets depression, and it also begets creativity, but once you take this propensity to ponder into account, there is no direct link between depression and creativity anymore. In other words: Rumination might get you to sing, and it might get you the blues. Therefore, a number of folks who sing do sing the blues, because that is what they literally sadly experience.
The good news from our own work is then that therapy for depression, if successfull in lifting the depression, should also help with writing (contrary, again, to what Pistanek is asserting in his, come to think of it now, dangerous interview). But therapy does not always work -- as DFW's case demonstrates. We should be glad he gave us what he could while he could, but that does not take away the awful chill left by his departure.

1 comment:

MBR said...

Thanks for this.

This prevalent tendency to depict depression and art as this romantic tango de la muerte (recently demonstrated here: is unsettling.