Depression, Loneliness and the Writer’s Life


A writer’s life is not without its occupational hazards. Indeed, Kay Jamison, professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins’s University reports that writers are ten to twenty times more likely to suffer from depression than other people. Yet referencing a scientific study is not necessary to confirm tired speculations that depression occupies that dominancy of thought for those consumed by the written word. All one need to do is look at the history of literature to see that writing and depression is a bitter-sweet relationship as Bailey’s Irish cream is to coffee. David Foster Wallace, arguably the greatest wordsmith of the last century, committed suicide well before the dusk of his life; whereas Ernest Hemingway, whose father, sister and brother all took their own lives, was practically destined for suicide. In short: High-minded writers seem to occupy the depths of human despair, but why?

Writers tend to be an awkward bunch. Sequestered in an office devoid of social interaction, writers spend the majority of their time sitting on their heads as much as their chairs. It should therefore come as no surprise that writers tend to lack the common sense decorum for even the most informal social settings. In addition to being socially backwards, writers tend to have a thick heart and a thin skin. This being the case, many writers are sensitive to criticism and hesitate to openly share their work—especially in an era where callous, internet comments are abound. Furthermore, writers take the role for “starving artists” as much as musicians and painters. And who can forget the author’s most loyal companion that can be found hidden beneath the chambers of any office desk under the guise of Johnny Walker Black. It has been said that alcohol is a good slave and a bad master but for many writers, the power the master has on the slave scarcely holds. All this in the round, it is unsurprising that the qualities that make up a writer also make up a recipe for depression.

Yet the listed qualities lack one essential element that hammers the final nail into the depression coffin; self-criticism. A writer’s life does not merely consist of spitting prose into a coherent framework. The process of writing, editing and revision requires being obsessed with self-criticism—the leading quality for any depressed patient. In particular, depressed patients tend to focus on their short-comings and are prone to view themselves in a negative light. When all of one’s energy if focused on individual faults, a person’s interest in food, sex, sleep and conviviality begins to wane. It should therefore come as no surprise that writers, whose occupation completely revolves around self-criticism, tend to be depressed.

Oddly enough, depression seems to be a necessary evil within the writer’s life. In particular, depression, loneliness and suicide tap into creative elements of human nature. Indeed, flirting with the grim reaper while teetering on the edge of the abyss brings a sort of fiendish glee that no other subject does justice. Of course, many writers who romantacise about death go too far. The author writes for a pessimistic audience that, rather unsurprisingly, is not a very loyal audience. Misery loves company. Unfortunately, misery finds himself to be the only guest at his own publication party. The reason being: no one enjoys a pity party.

By Nathan Cranford


New York Times
New York Times