Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Burden of Creativity: a #HoldOntoTheLight post

Sylvia Plath was the beginning of awareness for me about the tangled relationship between creativity and mental health wellness. Her suicide happened in 1963, before my own birth. I learned of it in the 1980s, when we read one of her poems in a high school English class. I'm pretty sure it was "Daddy," a poem which confused the heck out of me even while it broke my heart.

I'd been a pretty sheltered kid. I mean, sure, one of my best friends was bulimic and another was sometimes afraid to go home, and there were weird relationship dynamics all around, but I still believed that everyone around me was basically all right. My rose colored glasses were firmly in place. The idea of someone mourning that her father died before she could kill him herself was quite a shocker. The biographical fact that the poet later killed herself even more-so.

Sylvia's suicide was glossed over in the biography in my textbook. It probably said something euphemistic about death by her own hand, rather than giving the shocking details I later learned, wringing them out of English teachers, since this was before you could just google things like that.

I couldn't understand.

I couldn't grasp why she couldn't persevere, couldn't believe in the possibility that things would get better.

Some of my friends could, though.

We talked about it with a morbid kind of fascination. We read The Bell Jar and Flowers in the Attic. We talked about Romeo and Juliet for months after our English class was done with it. My friends told me about the times they had almost taken the walk off the crumbling bridge above the railroad tracks at the edge of our hometown or showed me the scars from aborted attempts to end their suffering. They talked about feeling like others would be better off without them or that it might be easier just to stop fighting.

I listened with wide eyes, weeping sometimes and begging them not to give up. I wanted to think that it was just overly dramatic talk, a way to stand out, like an outlandish hairdo or coming to school with visible hickies on your neck. (I probably knew even then that it was something else entirely, but I denied it as long as I could.)

It was like that for me--I was interested in the dark side, but it didn't drag me in. I could still walk in the sunlight. I wanted it to be that way for them, too. I didn't want to believe that people I knew and loved could have come so close to taking themselves out of the picture entirely. That was too awful to contemplate.

In college, I was an English major. I read The Awakening, Antigone, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, all books where strong and vibrant women came to tragic ends. I learned about Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, Jean Michel Basquiat, Alan Turing--so many authors, artists, and geniuses who took their own lives.

As a creative writing minor and habitué of coffeehouses and open mic readings, I heard and saw a lot of creative work about the struggle against inner darkness, against demons of doubt and despair. It began to seem that despair and creativity were two sides of a single coin, or just different interpretations of the same view. Like stubbornness and determination, which are really just the same thing, viewed differently. Creativity seemed to come so often intertwined with a darkness. The same agile minds that can create wonders can create demons--and sometimes the demons consume us.

Imagination is a blessing…and a curse. A double edged sword that sometimes cuts us back.

I was a grown woman, a teacher in a classroom of my own, the first time depression truly beat someone I loved and took them from my life. I know now that I was fortunate to have made it that long. Like everyone else around me at the time, I asked myself what we missed, what we should have seen, what we could have done. I still want to know.

And there have been too many lights extinguished in this way. Co-workers, students, friends, uncles, cousins. Stars in my personal sky that no longer share their light.

So, please. I beg you. When it feels like the darkness is winning, reach out to someone. The world needs all the light within all its denizens.

(There are a list of places to reach out for help or to donate to support in the message below)

#HoldOntoTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOntoTheLight, find a list of participating authors, or reach a media contact, go to


  1. Thank you for this. I first became aware of suicide when Ernest Hemingway took his own life. I was just a kid but I remember how horrified my parents were. Over the years I've lost quite a few friends and acquaintances that way. It is very sad. Thanks for this information.

  2. Depression is such a horrible disease. I've lost at least two wonderful friends to it, and several others talk about suicide on a regular basis. It's terrifying.

    Thanks for shining a light on this issue.

  3. A very nice post. There is definitely a big connection between creativity and mental health, and not just from writers who have suffered from mental illness. I write psychological fiction and getting into the mental states of my characters and creating story out of that (outside of mental illness) is what my fiction is mainly about. It's difficult and heartbreaking at times but very rewarding.

    The Dream Book Blog