Jessica Ramsey Golden: The Self-Destructing Creative

blog post was originally scheduled to run last week, on Aug. 13. But following
Robin Williams’ suicide on Aug. 11, I asked that the post be delayed so that I could
reframe my thoughts in light of the national conversation occurring in the wake
of this loss. Nothing I say will provide new solutions or special insight. But
I do beleive that we have a responsibility to refuse to stop talking about
depression. One in ten Americans suffers from depression. But in creative fields
the percentage sky-rockets. We do artists a diservice when we write off their
work as a product of mental illness. Furthermore, we perpetuate a culture that
views creativity as a mentally harmful activity. In fact, study after study
shows that art makes us happier, healthier, more empathetic people. If you’re
struggling, seek help. Being healthy will not kill your creativity. Only giving
up on your art can do that.
In a recent article for The Atlantic,
neuro-scientist Nancy Andreason discusses the links between mental instability,
intelligence, and creativity (link below). She traces the idea of the “mad
genius” from Aristotle to modern efforts to elucidate creativity as a
Studies indicate that
persons with high levels of creativity (as measured by a variety of metrics)
are much more likely to have a history of mental illness and addiction in their
family. They themselves are also more likely to have a history of mental
Creativity is a fine
line to walk. We so deeply link the demon of dysfunction with the angel of
creativity that we come to think of them as one and the same.
I remember trying
desperately, futilely to explain to my college Modernism class that Ernest
Hemingway and Virginia Wolfe didn’t write from their depression.
They couldn’t have.
Depressed people don’t
function well enough to organize and write a novel, let alone to edit and
rigorously rewrite.
They wrote in spite of
their illness, not because of it. They wrote when they were relatively healthy,
when they were functional. This is evident in Wolfe’s suicide note when she
writes, “I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear
voices, and I can’t concentrate. (…) You see I can’t even write this
properly. I can’t read.
To paraphrase Sylvia
Plath, when you’re depressed you have no time for anything but being depressed.
To my anger and
frustration I’ve seen gifted artists and writers use the Dysfunction of the
Greats as a justification for their overindulgence in unhealthy behavior. It’s
the shortcut past the hard work and long hours. The floodgate through which
will pour your own inner Hemingway.
Drink, drug, and
self-destruct. For it proves you’re a genius.
As Stephen King notes
in On Writing, “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering
substances are intertwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our
In her TED talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert notes that artists tend to self-destruct. Then
she asks, “Are you guys all cool with that?”
Are we?
It’s important that we
talk about the mental health of our artists, writers, and musicians. It’s
important that we acknowledge that great work comes from great labor, and that
madness and addiction are not pathways to genius. They are merely unfortunate
chemical by-products of similar neural processes. 
It’s important for two
reasons: First, so that we can stop giving our creative young people the idea
that unhealthy behavior will make them more creative. Second, so we can treat
creativity as a necessary activity for a healthy mind.
My mother is
depressive. As any child of someone with mental illness can tell you, it wreaks
havoc on childhood. Depression was the ghost in our home. The blackness that
shadowed every aspect of life.
Her’s was not the
lingering malaise of existential dissatisfaction. Her depression crippled her.
She spent months in bed. The tiniest decisions overwhelmed her. When you spoke
to her, whether seeking joy or comfort, you never knew if you would get the
fun, creative mother you loved, or the huge, seeping sadness that lurked just
under the surface.
It was impossible to
understand and make sense of at 6-years-old. And at 10. And at 13. But when I
was 14, I discovered someone who helped me understand. Someone Andreason used as
a case study on the link between creativity and mental illness. Kurt Vonnegut.
In Breakfast of
(a book Vonnegut considered his worst), he discusses the suicide
of his mother.
Mental illness is a
theme throughout his work. One he approaches with an empathy, humor, and
humanity that is, true to Vonnegut form, touchingly irreverent.
His family, like mine,
is rife with depression, addiction, bad relationships, suicide, and eating and
anxiety disorders.
My mother’s disease
occurred at a time before depression was a common topic.
Socially, her
depression was perceived as an implicit failure on her part to live up to the
expectation of perfection that her religion demanded.
Her children, house,
clothes, body, and marriage were imperfect. So she simply gave up fighting her
To read Vonnegut state
of his own mother that she committed suicide out of embarrassment, is a truth so
profound and terrible, that one can only laugh out loud in horror.
It took the first 26
years of my life for me to figure out that genetically and behaviorally, my
auto-setting is self-destruct. The genes I inherited and the behaviors I
learned in childhood are a recipe for becoming imprisoned in the same disease
that decimated my mother. 
I have to actively and
consciously choose healthy habits. I have to override the behaviors I learned
and the genes I was assigned.
I have to unlearn my
earliest formed habits. My relationships to food, sleep, sex, exercise,
religion, television, and family. Some days this is easy. Some days it’s not.
But I choose to demonstrate
healthy behaviors to my children. And one of those healthy habits is
creativity. Specifically writing.
Writing is cheap therapy.
Writing is working through your shit. The shit you don’t want to deal with.
That’s what Vonnegut taught me. It’s a way to call out your inner crazy.
To write is to stomp
through your swampy Jungian underworld in hip-waders and see what kinds of
demons you can shake from the trees.
It may not be pretty or
nice. But it is necessary work.
Because, as with so
many demons, they only begin to dissipate when they are named.
To know what it is, to
drag it into the light, to hang Grendel’s arm from the rafters of the world and
cry, “Here! Here’s what’s been stalking me!” is to set the world in
We must shift our
understanding. We must see creativity, not as a symptom of a disease, but as a
tool to help control it. A coping mechanism. A meaning that transcends the
storminess of an unsettled mind. So we can nurture our artists amid their
flights of fancy, and draw them back from the alluring precipice of self-destruction.
Jessica Ramsey Golden’s poetry has appeared in such journals as The
William and Mary Review, Orbis International, Calyx, and Cirque. In 2006 she
was awarded the Eleanor B. North Poetry Prize. In 2009, she received an
Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. In 2011, she began
writing fiction. She is currently drafting a science fiction project, while seeking
representation for her literary Gothic novel, The Hidden Door.

3 thoughts on “Jessica Ramsey Golden: The Self-Destructing Creative”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    That was both timely and thoughtfully, beautifully, responsibly written.mthanks, Jessi.

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