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Depression: More Creativity or Interrupting?

“I sit down religiously every morning. In the course of a working day of eight hours, I write three sentences, which I erase before leaving the table in despair. The effort I put out should give birth to Masterpieces as big as mountains, and it brings forth a ridiculous mouse now and then.”

That is a quote by novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924, “Heart of Darkness” and other acclaimed works), from an essay by Stephanie Stone Horton.

In her 2010 paper, Horton (at the time a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Georgia State University) writes:

“Composition research has largely ignored the affective disorders – depression and bipolar disorder – and their influence on student writing. This is remarkable, as depression abounds in the college population. In a 2008 study of 26,685 undergraduates, nearly 25 percent reported depressive symptoms affecting academic performance.

“Yet, these writers remain marginalized by our profession. Depression can cause severe writing blocks; depressed brains show a pronounced slowing of frontal and temporal lobe activity. Mania can spark intense creativity, but also can escalate to a functional breakdown.”

Horton also refers to a New York Times article by Jonah LehrerDepression’s Upside – in which he wrote that Charles Darwin “despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family . . . His depression left him ‘not able to do anything one day out of three.'”

She comments, “This was a revelation; I didn’t know Darwin was depressed, much less that he had sporadic work habits. But I laughed out loud at what Darwin wrote next, about himself: ‘The race is for the strong,’ he said. ‘I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.’

“I laughed – not at Darwin’s pain, but at the all-too-familiar anti-logic of depression. It’s a shield that makes us impervious to success, pride, love, the joy of work.”

Horton wonders, “Why are these disorders still around, and why are they associated with creativity? For Lehrer, depression is intertwined with an obsessive cognitive style that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art; ruminative depressives in some ways have a firmer grip on reality, a deeper vision.”

From “Their Lives A Storm Whereon They Ride”: The Affective Disorders and College Composition [PDF], by Stephanie Stone Horton.

Other writers also think bipolar and other forms of depression can have value, including Tom Wootton – see his article The Art of Seeing Depression, on my Depression and Creativity site.

I learned of Horton’s paper from the article Bipolar Disorder and Creativity are Linked (But Not by Some Mad Genius), by Claudia Slegers (The Creativity Post Aug 29, 2012), who noted that Horton “reflexively traced her own and her colleagues’ writing creativity and dysfunction as early career writers with bipolar disorder or depression.

“Horton described how hypomanic moods often facilitate writing periods characterised by fluency, flair and persuasive power, whereas the periods of mild depression or euthymia (even moods between the extremes) may be better used for the editing and proofing.

Both the Horton paper and Slegers’ article add interesting material on this complex topic of mood disorders and creativity.

Slegers (PhD from La Trobe University in sociology) starts off her article: “Does some fine madness yield great artists, writers, and scientists? The evidence is growing for a significant link between bipolar disorder and creative temperament and achievement.”

But one of the comments at the end of the post is by  James Webb, Ph.D.: “To balance this article, look at Dr. Judith Schlesinger‘s book, “The Insanity Hoax: Exploding the Myth of the Mad Genius,” in which she notes the very shoddy and insufficient research by Jamison and others. Dr. Schlesinger makes a pretty compelling case that the incidence of bipolar is not any more prevalent among creative artists than it is among the general population.”

Dr. Schlesinger declares: “The fact is that, despite the efforts of numerous investigators and decades of confident pronouncements by a few, there’s still no concrete, empirical proof that highly creative people are any more likely to be mood-disordered than any other group.”

From my post Rethinking Creativity and Depression.

Related books:

Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, by Margaret Price.

The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice Weaver Flaherty. “Neurologist Alice W. Flaherty explores the mysteries of literary creativity: the drive to write, what sparks it, and what extinguishes it. She draws on intriguing examples from medical case studies and from the lives of writers, from Franz Kafka to Anne Lamott, from Sylvia Plath to Stephen King. Flaherty, who herself has grappled with episodes of compulsive writing and block, also offers a compelling personal account of her own experiences with these conditions.” [Amazon summary]

Lower photo: Depression affects many people, including those in the arts: Anne Hathaway suffered from anxiety and depression as a teen, and has an interesting perspective on being a “different person” at the time: “I said to Mom the other day, ‘Do you remember that girl? She has now gone, gone to sleep. She has said her piece and is gone.’ But then I thought, I so remember her, only she is no longer part of me.”

From my post Anne Hathaway on her depression as a teen.


Depression: More Creativity or Interrupting?

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2019). Depression: More Creativity or Interrupting?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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