David Foster Wallace. Edgar Allen Poe.
It’s commonplace to assume the best writers struggle with anxiety, depression, or trauma, as if the greats must evoke suffering and propagate pathos to be authentic. Even in college (circa 2001 when A Beautiful Mind was in theaters), I wondered why we romanticize the psychological torment of writers, artists, or those whose minds we deem superior, especially (so it seems) when international prizes, movie rights, and publishing deals are involved.
Perhaps my concern was intuitive foreshadowing. A decade later, I experienced low-grade depression as a result of severe anxiety. I was diagnosed with a chemical imbalance, which ripened when I took time off from work to write a book and pursue an MFA. Despite my symptoms (worst-case scenarios, ruminations, and panic, followed by sadness and hopelessness), I found strength as a writer only once I learned how to work with my pain and not against it.
I’m not the portrait of a mad writer you’d romanticize: a drunk, perhaps, capturing hallucinatory episodes on paper each night. To be honest, I’ve never even met a writer like that, and my psychological quirks sure haven’t made writing any easier. Actually, they require more of me: a consistent writing practice and loads of self-care (Lexapro helps too). Over time, I’ve realized that people who suffer from mental health issues or trauma may in fact write in spite of their situation, not necessarily because of it.
The truth, but not the whole truth
I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was twenty-four. By thirty-three, my anxiety was intolerable and the ease of writing I’d experienced in my twenties had vanished. I couldn’t connect with the page. Hell, I couldn’t connect with myself. Painful thoughts stabbed me awake at night. Years of ruminations refused to settle down and let me be. I tried to shake them off with all the healthy things I could think of: meditation, exercise, lots and lots of kale.
I couldn’t control this rogue army of thoughts. They controlled me. My worrying intensified. It spawned more anxiety—anxiety about anxiety, anxiety about writing. I figured if I couldn’t manage the pain, I’d write about it. Bringing my problems to life would serve a dual purpose. Since anxiety and depression are such intensely lonely states, I thought sharing my experiences with others might inspire them to identify with me.
But the writing process doesn’t work like that. The naked truth came out harsh, detached, and repetitive. Balance and control, two vital ingredients, were missing from my work. They were also absent from my life. I needed stability before I could achieve them in my writing. All of the early drafts rife with anger, sadness, and uncertainty? They were tossed out.
I learned that writing requires my best self, but not always my whole self.
The author as performance artist
Pain as an entry point led to bad writing, at least for me. I abandoned the effort after carefully considering my classmates’ feedback. Most of them were turned off, unable to follow my trains of thought—and I’m a writer who values her audience.
Realizing this gave me great freedom. I didn’t need to stay hostage to my situation. Just as I could free myself through therapy and self-care, I could free my writing, too. I needed only to entertain, enlighten (on those great writing days), and give readers an experience—not necessarily my experience. I wouldn’t go to a party full of people and tell them all about my mental health issues—so why would I do so in my writing?
Writing became a performance, and I, something of a performance artist. This went further than reading to a crowd. I developed a persona, a voice and style. Not an alter ego like Ziggy Stardust or J.T. Leroy. Instead, I saw around my pain, and channeled something about myself I cherished—my compassion for others. I became playful. I celebrated me. I scaled back from dark subjects (somewhat).
As a result, getting out of my own way has become fundamental to my creative process. I only wish I’d learned this sooner.
On creativity, on empathy
Perhaps it isn’t the neurosis of writers, artists, and masterminds we’re obsessed with, but creativity itself. To many who don’t feed their inner muses, this must seem so untenable and mysterious.
I studied my predecessors through this lens, wondering: how did their creative processes work when they were dealing with mental health issues? Here and there, I glimpsed their interiors. Poe’s black cat might be a metaphor for his alcoholism. Wallace’s footnotes could be his attempt to organize a painfully chaotic mind.
This exercise in empathy led me to a radical discovery. See, I had been mean to my subjects and characters. I wanted to rip everything apart and duke it out on the page, which proved to be not only painful but unsatisfying. Once I could see past my anxiety, I focused on what I was trying (but failing) to envision: the story I’m telling again and again in a million different ways isn’t about suffering at all—it’s one of healing. It’s about tearing something down and building anew.
Mine is a story of hard work, dedication, and empathy—it’s self-preservation through writing, for readers, but also for myself.
Tiffany Sumner holds an MFA in creative writing from Rosemont College. Her writings have been featured in The Lilith Review, Pank, Red Door, Mashable, and other outlets. She’s worked in editorial and communications positions for Temple University, DataArts, Imprint Communications, The New Yorker, PS Books, and Philadelphia Stories. She’s the former managing editor of Rathalla Review.