I previously wrote a post about trying to rediscover my creativity by following a 12 week course of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way . Unfortunately halfway through the course I broke my arm and never got round to completing it. However, it still made a significant impact on me engaging with my creativity again. As part of the course, you had to write about what was holding you back from your creativity. One of my serious worries was ‘becoming depressed again’. Creativity and depression can often hold a link, with creativity being a way to express and alleviate depression, and depression sometimes creating content and/or ideas for creativity. Today’s post explores this relationship.
Earlier this month, my creativity travelled a new avenue. I was at Leonard Cohen’s memorial concert in Montreal, Canada. Leonard Cohen is arguably best known for composing the song Hallelujah, which has been covered by many artists including Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Bob Dylan, Damien Rice and K.D. Lang (with K.D. Lang powerfully performing the song at the memorial concert). Cohen’s lyrics are stark, seemingly raw, true and so full of symbolism and meaning. Compared to many lyricists or songwriters, what really stands out in Cohen’s work is the element of the sublime in his poetry. The magnitude offset by solitude…something that is too big to fully comprehend.
Like many other musicians and artists, Cohen was known to have suffered depression, the subjects and/or symbols of which can be heard through his songs. As I thought about how much I used to love writing poetry and also the days when I heavily composed piano works, I began to think about my own experience with depression and the day that I realised that I was in fact addicted to depression!
I’m not sure how much addiction to depression is really spoken about and perhaps may even be one of those ‘taboo’ subjects. Some people suffer from chemical imbalances and that is not the type of depression I am talking about. I am talking about the depression that is generated by reactions to external environments that then spur on internalised negative rhetoric. I found myself wholly stuck for many years. I’d notice that on my happy days I could not seem to write music or poetry at all. It was like what was usually an endless source of material (if that’s what staring into the abyss of depression is), was entirely absent. I wanted to be happy, but being creative was what defined me. How could I be happy and creative at the same time?
My suspicions of the link between depression and my creativity were seemingly confirmed when I met my current partner. He balanced off my previous tendency to be negative and these years have been the driest well of any form of creativity. No stark imagery to write about for hours on end. No longing of the soul to inspire dreamy and sometimes discordant music. Not a morsel of inspiration that felt the same level of depth that depression had provided to my art. Who was I without it?
It was like an identity crisis in a way. I’d been depressed on some level for so long that I was afraid to discover who I’d be without it. Depression had already begun to root itself in my childhood, throughout my teenage years and early adulthood. And my creativity had given me purpose and life during dark times. It was both my soul’s expression and consolation. I found it difficult to let go of everything I considered part of my identity for the happiness I longed for but that was a stranger.
Since following the course, I began to start drawing cartoons. I have always enjoyed drawing, but do not have the same dedication to creating a detailed piece of work as some artists do. I drew for myself, but was surprised to find that others quite enjoyed my drawings. I even created some illustrations for my sister’s book. I perservered with my lessons in blues harmonica, which is a highlight of my week and I’ve found a multitude of ways to inject a flow of creativity into my life.
And then I started writing poetry again. And it was the clearest sign that I’ve had that my creativity is not paired with my previous depression. That the two can in fact be uncoupled. Through years of meditation and mindfulness practice and introducing cognitive behavourial techniques into the way I approach life, I found that I could write just as lyrical poetry as I did before. Although its content can be stark as it once was, it is without the clinging of negative emotion that used to be paired with my art. It is like writing about a memory without being affected by it.
And so the myth is dispelled. But I do feel that perhaps the content of my work may be different to what it was before. Through my mindfulness practice, the central source of my inspiration has turned from depression to a pool of strength and clarity. Art is an expression of the beholder’s soul and I hope from now on to continue to fill the world with happiness, understanding and compassion of others where I can.
For those who may have had similar experiences or fears, I want to reassure you not to deny yourself happiness in fear of losing your creativity and art. If anything, expanding your emotional range to the other end of the spectrum gives you more variation to select from…new colours, new sounds and new wisdom to impart through your creativity. And for those who do suffer severe depression, I recommend engaging with creativity – music or art – as this can be a great source of relief and expression. I certainly know that having a creative outlet helped me during my darkest hours. Creative interests are a wonderful aspect of life that I encourage everyone to explore.