Mental Health: The Dark Side Of Creativity

photo-1496188757881-c6753f20c306Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

When I first established a writing blog, the intention was to offer commentary on the journey of being a writer. After a lifetime of doing everything but writing, I felt my path was clear, especially after the wonderful experience of securing an MFA in fiction. It wasn’t that I needed a degree in order to write, but the entrance to that creative community meant everything.

Emboldened by the confidence in my understanding of craft, and two completed manuscripts waiting to be revealed, I continued writing blog entries and working on four other novels. I blamed my lack of writing from birth to age sixty on the notion that life gets in the way. It can and it does, but I thought I’d garnered the tools to succeed going forward.

I was wrong. I underestimated what I was up against.

Just when I thought I’d secured a lock on life and had set my feet on the path; LIFE reappeared, wagging its bony finger and whispering: “Au contraire.”

May is mental health month, so it seems fitting to pen something about the subject from within the community of writers – as a representative of the larger community of artists. Yes, it’s cathartic, but it might also serve as a warning label that by proceeding, it’s fair to expect some level of anguish in your future or possibly as a reminder you’re not alone in the quagmire. It should never mean the path is to be avoided, but each of us must find a way to use our mental state to an advantage – as J.K. Rowling created Dementors as a metaphor for the depression she suffered. It’s easier said than done, but that’s why she’s J.K. Rowling.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as a percentage, creative people are more prone to mental health issues than the general population. I personally believe it stems from an enhanced sense of empathy and a greater sensitivity to worldly conditions. Everyone has major problems in life. For me, it was a succession that consisted of the collapse of my career and financial world following the sub-prime mortgage crisis, mounting debt, a personal bankruptcy, losing my home, being hauled in front of the NYC District Attorney’s office to give information about a former employer, the draconian measures of the New York State Income Tax Department, the IRS, having to rely on supplemental food programs, and working to rebuild a world decimated by faulty choices and horrific karma. When prone to depression in the first place, that kind of life mimics the torture endured by Theon Greyjoy at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. Through it all, I’ve tried to write.

But, perseverance comes at a price.

A writer strives to overcome life’s obstacles while they write, query, read, edit, and write some more. Precious few are fortunate to garner a book deal, land an agent, or find some modicum of success through self-publishing. Perseverance though is risky, because weighed against all other complications, creativity is the one thing that stems from passion, the essence of the creative mind, which makes all else, can I say tolerable? The inherent risk of such doggedness is the possibility that self-perceived failure in your creativity spreads like poison, and at the very worst – as has happened to me – results in the death of passion. It’s as if passion is the muscle, the source of strength, used to keep pace, but endurance is not limitless. When the moment you recognize that loss arrives, it destroys all vestiges of one’s sense of purpose; depression metastasizes like an unchecked cancer. I say this because every artist who ever lived has faced that moment when they consider their creations worthless. You’re left feeling directionless and without the will to bother getting out of bed.

In the past three years, I’ve read only two books – even though I worked quite a while in a book store to make ends meet. I struggled to complete a third novel as the sequel to one I had published, but it was by rote. I felt like a car rolling slowly to a stop after running out of gas. I mourn the loss of those moments when my brain would visualize, with startling clarity, the nuances of a story idea, the exchange of good character dialogue, the satisfying connection of one plot point to the next. I still yearn to tell stories; much like a body tries to breathe. My greatest hope is that my sense of passion returns someday, a well-rested muscle ready and able to create new work. At the moment, it seems hopeless – a major side-effect of depression. The cycle is perpetual and ultimately diminishing.

I’ve read many articles that appeal to writers about never giving up, about finding the method that works best to succeed, to write even a little every day. There’s NaNoWriMo to encourage everyone who aspires to communicate by the written word to sit down and do it. These are all valuable and inspiring, but every once in a while, a reminder is necessary of what the dark side has in store. Mental health issues, especially depression, are a common disease amongst us, and you need to understand it will lurk in the recesses of your genes, ready to blossom at an unsuspecting moment. Forewarned is forearmed, and being forearmed is to put a support system in place.

I cannot stress in strong enough terms the requirement to seek out people who can appreciate the subtle differences between those with creativity at their core with those who aren’t. People with no exposure to the ways of the artistic mind are likely to brand one who is as introverted, weird, stand-offish, even snobbish. We’re difficult to put up with; we’re nearly impossible to endure on a daily basis. I’m fortunate to have a significant other who gets it, and I experience unrelenting guilt over the fact she does endure it. The argument could be made that I might have stopped drawing breath but for her. Help is mandatory, as expressed in all warnings about depression and suicide awareness campaigns. It doesn’t have to come in the form of a wife, or husband, or partner – it can come from connecting with others in our community, but the support system must exist in some way.

Protect your passion, for us it’s our life-blood. If you’re new to this, be prepared. If you suffer like I do, remember you’re not alone.

Writing: Give yourself permission…


…an odd piece of advice, to be sure. Why would you need permission to write? Because you won’t succeed unless you do.

At its very core, writing is a solitary function. Not so much once you’ve completed a novel; at that point you will be sharing your work with beta readers, editors, proofreaders, agents, and hopefully a publisher. It won’t be so solitary at that point. The project itself, however, is a relationship between only you and your keyboard or, for some, a notepad. The permission you need to give yourself is to take that time away from friends and family. It means saying okay to feeling guilty about doing something for yourself, and not to be so vigilant about doing laundry or vacuuming or getting the car washed. Be a little selfish about understanding that anyone can get the chores done because only you can do your writing. I’ll repeat that: only you can do your writing. The expression of art comes from within; it is unique to the individual. Often, it requires taking that permission one-step farther, and it’s one of the hardest. You must learn to say no: no to invitations, no to watching an extra episode of a TV show, and no to friends and family on occasion because you must be faithful to the process of getting words down on paper.

I have also encountered another form of permission I needed to give myself. Story ideas circle like mad in our minds. While they’re tucked away up there, they remain safe. You remain safe from people thinking you’re a little bit touched in the head (face it – we are). Writers become fearful about bleeding their stories onto the page, as it becomes the evidence of our madness. Give yourself permission to write them anyway. I had a dream when I was about ten years old. Two of the characters in my dream were girls from school, but in my imagination they had morphed into leprechaun-like creatures, hell, they were even dressed in green. They virtually kidnapped me and brought me into their world. I still wish I could remember what went on during that part of the dream, but I distinctly recall them bringing me back at dawn and leaving me in the sunlit hallway of my house. I was frantic they were going to go away, because I wanted to go back. I woke up angry about losing my grip on the dream. I tried desperately to go back to sleep, but it was no use. That dream has haunted me most of my life. While it didn’t provide a distinct story idea, it did give me a sense of wonderment of the paranormal. Forty-odd years later, I did have a story idea, one that involved fairies and elves, but I felt ridiculous wanting to write it. Many people either love or hate the Twilight series, but I owe particular thanks to Stephenie Meyer. While reading her series, I recognized it was okay to put paranormal-esqe ideas into a novel. I’ve not felt funny about writing or sharing any subject since, because I gave myself permission to allow my imagination to produce a completely new world.

There are a gazillion forces and reasons, which prevent writers from writing. Be true to your inner passion and give yourself the permission to do whatever it takes to answer that call. Not every writer is destined to have a book or a short story published, but that has nothing to do with what’s inside. If you truly have the passion, if you actually feel resentful or annoyed when you’re prevented from getting those words out of your head, then write a permission slip to yourself and get to it. It’s the empowerment you need.


World Building: An exercise in creativity…


Perhaps the most fun I’ve had in terms of writing have been those sessions where I worked to create a different world or a world within a world for a novel. For Flashback, a story where an historian tries to prevent an assassination in the past, I needed a way to deal with time-travel in a convincing way. When you write science fiction, if you don’t base your premise on plausible science, you’ll lose your audience before you start and receive countless notes on how you got it all wrong. The challenge, as an accountant by training and profession, was to learn several theories of quantum physics relative to the creation of an artificial wormhole. Physics anticipates their existence, but how do you make a credible one up? This is where the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of genius comes by. Men and women with an amperage of brainpower I will never possess have actually discussed how to get this done. I adapted the methodology into the framework of my story, created a few rules that the plot would have to live by and voilà; I had a secret world known to only a few dozen people and a science-based platform from which to launch my characters. In essence, the science (as science fiction requires) became something of a character in itself. As went the wormhole, so did the stakes for the characters. One of the lasting joys of that exercise – which took a month of reading and re-reading texts on quantum mechanics just to warp my brain around the concepts – was that I now have the foundation for an unlimited number of sequels.

My second novel, Alfheim, a story of a boy who is actually an elf (think more in terms of Legolas and not one who works for Santa) was a whole different challenge. Like a Harry Potter or Twilight, I needed to create a completely coexistent world to our own. I spent hours and hours in the library, reading and soaking up elements of mythology that suited the ethereal images that existed in my mind. Like an architect who chooses from a diverse spectrum of building materials to create the physical embodiment of his creation, I found threads of folklore that inspired me to flesh out the characters that were slowly coming to life in my head. Each discovery of some fascinating morsel forced new questions as to how or why that would work in the world that was emerging. This is the crucial point where it’s imperative to start writing down the rules, the parameters that will govern your world, for once you begin to write, everything depends on those boundaries. If you violate these rules, you will anger your reader and unwittingly introduce a deus ex machina along the way, something to avoid at all costs. In the exercise, I borrowed from Tolkien, from sources on Fairy and Elfin lore (Celtic and Scandinavian), Medieval shipbuilding techniques, Medieval clothing styles, castle structures, ancient Celtic names and words and their meanings and pronunciations, Irish history, American history, driving through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but never once reading a book of similar genre until the book was completely done. Often, the advice is to read heavily in the genre you are interested in writing. Counter to this, I avoided it. I wanted the mythology and world building to be completely free of any other writers’ notions of what a fairy world is like (and there are many writers in the field).

The important things to remember in doing world-building are these: Create the rules for your world and stick by them, violate them only with a really good reason, make them as plausible within the expectations for the suspension of disbelief as possible, don’t be afraid to let your imagination run totally wild, and for heaven’s sake – HAVE FUN!

A picture is worth…



As writers, we already possess an active (if not over-active) imagination. Often, the images in our heads are hazy, and we can’t quite glimpse the sharp details when it comes time to describe a person or a place in the narrative. This is especially true in the case of authors who dabble in novels with world building or historic fiction. When I was writing about 1940s Russia, it was invaluable that I found photographs of Moscow, the uniforms the military wore, the cars they drove, the weapons they used – the internet and sites like Pinterest are visual encyclopedias that lend an air of authenticity to our descriptive abilities.

Later, when I turned to writing fantasy, I found it was like trying to describe something I was seeing but without glasses, the images were there, but they were blurry. It was like having a hankering for steak when the aroma from the bar-b-que comes your way. You smell it, you can almost taste it, but you can’t quite describe it – is it a London broil or a thick Porterhouse, a strip steak or a ribeye? The compulsion is to run outside so you can see it to describe it in a way that matches your imagination. So, I turned to imagery to boost my ability to describe what I was thinking. We’re taught to study other writers for craft. Why? So we can copy what they do and, hopefully, improve our own craft by seeing if their methodology compliments our own natural writing abilities. Images for everything are out there. At first, I found myself thinking it was a cheat in some way. I got over myself.

My thirst for imagery was slated in two ways. First, was by studying real people to see if they hit the mark by congealing what I was thinking into something flesh and blood. The first time this happened to me was a shock. I had written the character of Victoria Heath, a young archaeologist. I knew her intimately, but only had a sense of what she looked like. It wasn’t completely necessary for the story, but I wanted to know. One evening, I went to see the movie Julie and Julia. Amy Adams was the protagonist of the story and played the part of Julie who decided to write a blog by cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s groundbreaking cookbooks. There was one scene in the movie where Amy Adams sat in her cubicle at work, wearing glasses, and talking on the phone. A voice inside my head screamed: “Oh my God! That’s Victoria Heath!” I checked myself first to make certain I hadn’t actually screamed that out. I had not, thankfully. But, from that moment on, I had a very clear idea of who my character was, she was now complete in my mind.

Victoria Heath

When it came to fantasy imagery, it was a little tougher, because the stuff I was writing about didn’t really exist. I found artists, especially fantasy artists and photographers, the most wonderful, if unwitting, collaborators. Again, I had the fuzzy images in my head of what my characters and settings looked like. I found websites – Pinterest, of course, and places like Deviant Art to have massive collections of the most imaginative people. I was in awe of their ability to render such fantastical images in the form of visual art. We use words, they use canvas, graphic arts programs, and color – it’s like we speak English and they speak French, but we both understand what it means to be kissed. So, I would peruse these sites for hours, and so often find a drawing or a painting or a photograph that would illustrate so beautifully what I was thinking and imagining. I could take whatever part I wanted to use and describe it in words the way a sculptor carves a statue from looking at a model.

Just by way of some examples:

In my novel, Alfheim, I had an image of massive trees for an elfin realm – even California Redwoods wouldn’t have served. I found this:

Inspiration for The Primal Trees

The art is heavily Asian in flavor, which I didn’t use, but the other elements were there, the diameter of the trees, the circular stairways, and the deep, dark forest tonal qualities.

Later on, my characters traveled to a very secret place, my description might not have been so rich without these:

Path to Slaine

Path to the Sword 3

Then there was costuming. It was wonderful seeing the textures, and the colors, and the styling:

Inspiration for Aenya's Wedding Outfit

I imagined forests lit by thousands of fireflies, and sure enough, an artist had depicted the very image to compliment what I was dreaming of:


And lastly, for my central female character – a fairy creature, I looked at the current slate of young actors. And there she was, the perfect embodiment of the girl I pictured.

Chloe Grace Moretz

Chloe Grace Moretz

We often listen to music to help set a mood. Pictures can do that, also. As I mentioned in a previous post on ‘what if’, images can have the same effect, especially when you encounter one that reminds you of your own imaginings and then say ‘what if’ or ‘what about’. Descriptions might open in ways you hadn’t thought of. Try it, you might like it.