Unlocking the Garret

It’s in the stereotype. The artist of tempestuous temperament who drinks to excess as he stumbles, lean and tuberculotic, up the winding steps to his garret. Van Gogh cut off his ear. Plath put her head in the oven. The artist is passionate; the artist is mercurial; the artist is mad.

Sometimes stereotypes do hold a shard of truth.

I don’t know why there’s a connection between creativity and madness. One could provoke the other; both could be caused by another factor. It could be inherent. It could be cultural. Whatever the why, there’s a high frequency of mental illness among artists.

Despite this, we rarely talk about how mental illness affects the work. Taboos about discussing personal experiences with mental illness remain, promoted by shame and ignorance. In this toxic fog, the stereotype of the mad artist looms large, discouraging some from even seeking treatment because they believe creativity can only persist in the garret.

I have bipolar disorder—the second type, the one that lacks extremely high mood. I’ve been in treatment for ten years or so, and I’m lucky in that medications work for me. They don’t work for everybody, and for some people, they come with unbearable side effects. Still, disability remains something I have to navigate daily, and it probably always will be.

There are many needful conversations about creativity and disability, but this is not the space for all of them, nor am I the person to start them all. What I can offer best is these few pieces of pragmatic advice for other writers with chronic disabilities.

(Although the bulk of this essay concerns bipolar disorder, what I have to say may be generalizable to some other illnesses, especially because I also have chronic migraines. This advice, like any advice, is meant to assist, not to mandate. Always do what’s healthy for you.)

  • It’s okay not to write every day. Many writing teachers and classes are emphatic about the “write every day” thing, but it’s just one way of being a writer. I know successful writers who do and successful writers who don’t. If your illness is flaring, and you need time off, take it. It’s not laziness or dereliction of duty. It’s taking care of yourself, and if you don’t take care of yourself, you might end up worse later.
  • There are many different ways to interact with writing and publishing. While many people enjoy networking and conventions, some disabilities like social anxiety or acute pain can make it arduous or even impossible. Time spent socializing can yield opportunities—but time spent researching yields ideas and realism, and time spent writing yields more fiction to sell. You’re also less likely to be good at something you find miserable, so the time you spend on it has diminishing returns. You don’t have to force yourself to do something you hate.
  • You don’t have to be tough. People sometimes say things like, “If you can be discouraged from writing, you should be,” and use that as a way to justify being unkind to people who are tender. I don’t think it’s meant as a cudgel against disabled people specifically, but it can function as one. If you doubt your abilities, if you are sometimes crushed, if you feel like an imposter—that’s fine. It’s normal. If only tough people wrote stories, then we’d only have their perspectives, and we would lose all the things other people—you—have to offer.
  • Be kind to yourself. This career is high stress, and anxiety and depression can make that worse. It can be easy to focus only on the negative, and to blame oneself for everything that doesn’t go right. It can spiral into self-doubt or self-hatred. If that’s happening to you, it’s probably unjustified. When you regard yourself, look with a generous lens. Give time and attention to your successes. Try to see yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you—if you’re very depressed, what they see may be much more accurate than what you do.

Writers don’t have to be depressed. Many writers have mood disorders, but many don’t. Many authors who have mood disorders treat those disorders with therapy and/or medication, and continue to be writers even when their symptoms improve. Their examples prove that treatment can help depression without curing creativity. Some people do experience difficulty writing when they take some psychoactive medications, though they may not continue to have trouble if they switch to a different type. Many writers—like me—find medication helps unlock their creativity. Treatment enhances my productivity by cutting down the amount of time I’m too sick to work. Treatment for you might look very different from treatment for me, but please, take care of yourself. Unlock the garret.

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop where she, a California native, learned about both writing and snow. Last year, she traded the snow for the rain of Portland, Oregon, where she roams happily under overcast skies with the hipsters. Her fiction has appeared in venues including Tor.com, Asimov’s Magazine, and The Year’s Best Non-Required Reading. She’s published two collections: Through the Drowsy Dark (Aqueduct Press) and How the World Became Quiet (Subterranean Press). Her fiction has been nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and twice won the Nebula.

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