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.

Jesus Christ Superstar: John Legend’s Revival

Jesus Christ Superstar


As one who wore out multiple cassette tapes (yes, remember those?) listening to the original 1970 concept album for Jesus Christ Superstar, I planted in front of the TV on Easter to watch John Legend tackle the revival. It was a little confusing, given the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber play never deals with Christ as a divine figure, for it to appear as a feature on Easter. The particular notoriety of the day is to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. The end piece of music titled John Nineteen Forty-One references the biblical chapter and verse:

“At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had even been laid.”

The play never goes beyond his death. At the time of the album release, I was a PK. That means, I was a priest’s kid, living in the rectory of my father’s parish church. He and my mother held a dim view over the play’s treatment of the Apostles and the fact the true aspect of Christ’s “superstar” status resulted from his rising from the dead. They didn’t enjoy the concept that Christ should have picked a more suitable time, one with the power of modern media coverage to debut his message, that he was merely a societal sensation two thousand years ago.

As for me, I loved the music and the vocal performances of Ian Gillan, Yvonne Elliman, and Murray Head. I wanted to hear those songs performed again. I never saw the original play, I only had the album, so I couldn’t compare acting performances, but I could compare how the old vocals would stack up against the new ones by John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Brandon Victor Dixon.

As the play unfolded, disappointment grew. First, the acting wasn’t good. I’ll leave it there. I wanted to experience voices that recreated the range the music demanded, those visceral screams only a rock-and-roller can muster. Ian Gillan sang with Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. When he sang The Temple, his vocals touched every nerve in your spinal column. Similarly, Murray Head dropped the mic with Damned For All Time on the original album. Both Legend and Dixon have beautiful voices, but this kind of production did not fit their vocal style. If called upon to cast the role of Jesus for this rock opera, American Idol alum, Adam Lambert would have been a first choice. His vocals are ridiculous, and the restoration of Superstar would have been complete.

Most of the reviews for this production have been positive. Taking nothing away from John Legend as a singer, younger people should grab the music service of their choice and check out the 1970 original. For this revival, I have to cast a dissenting vote.

Book Review: The Trees Beneath Us

The Trees Beneath Us

A man named Finn goes for a walk, a really…long…walk; a hike actually, along a fifteen-hundred mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. As stories go, one might think it a yawner of a novel, but in the superbly capable hands of a master storyteller like Darren R Leo, it becomes a journey, not just of time and distance, but one that reaches into the soul. Leo leads a sojourn to the headwaters of emotion and treats us to the purest form of contemplative reflection on life and joy and heartache.

Like the switchbacks of a trail into the mountains, the book juxtaposes life along the path with snippets of the one left behind; the serenity of the forests, the perfect backdrop to sort out the experience of a lifetime in consideration of the question: “what do you do when you’re done living before your life is over?”

Readers who have suffered forms of clinical depression and anxiety, will instantly relate to Finn. Readers fortunate enough not to have suffered forms of clinical depression and anxiety, will have the opportunity to experience that cloud of darkness, which is the great gift writing such as this offers.

It’s hard to imagine how this book has not risen to the top of an Oprah booklist, or missed landing on the shortlist for any number of prestigious book awards. It’s said the true success of a book can be measured by how long the story will stay with you after reading the last page. This one might alter your DNA.

Book Review: The Giving Tree (with some additional commentary)

The Giving Tree

The other day, I took a call at the multi-story bookstore where I work. The customer inquired whether we stocked The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. A quick check of our inventory revealed that we did.

“Oh yes,” I said. “We have three dozen copies.”

“Wonderful,” she said. “Would you please make sure you reserve a copy and have it waiting for me by the cash register?”

I wanted to mention that the simple request required me putting her on hold, walking to a different part of the store, retrieving it, returning to the phone and the computer, filling out then printing a document with phone number and name, leaving a line of waiting customers, go downstairs to the register area to file the book on a shelf, and finally return upstairs to help the customers who had actually made the effort to come to the store and needed some help. Had she simply arrived, taken the escalator to the upper floor, we could have handed her a copy of the book in less than fifteen seconds. I didn’t mention any of this, it would have made me a bad employee.

There is a point to telling this, beyond my growing disillusionment with retail in general. A fellow bookseller offered an opinion on the book in question. It wasn’t favorable; my curiosity peaked. I took another copy (of the remaining 35 on hand) to read during my break; it’s very short.

The Giving Tree is a celebrated children’s book that features a tree who loves, unconditionally, a boy who plays in and around her, eating her apples, and napping in her shade. It’s charming through the first few illustrated pages. At each stage of his life, the boy details what he really wants, and the tree always finds a way to help him. He takes her apples to sell for money, takes her branches to build a house for his family, cuts down her trunk to make a boat because he feels like sailing somewhere, leaving her just a stump in the ground. As an old man, he even uses that as a place to sit, once again, for his comfort.

It’s true the parable delivers a message of inexhaustible and unrequited love. The tragedy is that the boy never shows gratitude, he merely shows up when he wants something. The tree’s unwavering devotion is evident as she derives joy by giving without question or remorse, sacrificing herself (literally) for the boy’s needs.

The book left me feeling angry and unreceptive to the theme. There is so much evidence in the world that suggests just how many people are that boy. The tree stands in for the devoted parents of selfish children, the battered spouse in an abusive relationship, the businessperson who climbs the ladder taking more and more with little or no thought of who gave so he could have.

The story seems to suggest it’s all right to give and give to the point of self-destruction. However, it’s not okay, and for my money, the book is over-rated for what it lacks to teach. Had there been even the slightest guilt on the part of the boy at any stage in his life, some recognition for what the tree had done for him, I might have had less of an issue with the book.

It made me wonder if the woman who called for a copy and insisted on the reservation and special shelving would ever realize she behaved just like the boy in the story. It never occurred to her what someone else must do to cater to her needs, or that sometimes it’s nice to consider what it costs another person to do something for you. It might be a good suggestion to use the book, not to teach about love, but to demonstrate how not to behave if on the receiving end. I’m afraid the lesson will never register with those who need to comprehend it the most.