Posted in Of Psyche

Of Creativity and Depression

Robin Williams in Patch Adams, where he plays a creative, unconventional doctor
Robin Williams in Patch Adams, where he plays a creative, unconventional doctor

Recently, while going through a piano forum, I came across this thread that discussed the merits of a popular 80’s keyboardist. Most dismissed his talents, but a certain poster made a very interesting comment. He, a professional keyboardist himself, said that while this keyboardist is unlikely to ever play Carnegie Hall, he had what many accomplished pianists don’t – creativity. His lack of dexterity and polish didn’t compromise what was innate and special to him – an ability to use his instrument in ways that were previously unknown even to him.

I found this to be a very interesting example of defining creativity. And, the very premise of it – the creative act – explains why so many creative people have tendencies towards depression. It is a year since Robin Williams left us, and I am still as unable to understand it, as I was a year ago. The good that has come out of something so tragic is that people, especially people in a position of influence, are more willing to discuss their own struggles with depression. It is not necessary for someone in such a position to have to discuss it in the public sphere. But, his loss proved that the general lack we use to explain depression – having the ability to express talent, success, finding meaning in life etc. – may still not be enough, or even close to getting towards understanding the problem. No one, no matter how enviably privileged, can consider themselves safe from ever suffering this.

There is some correlation for sure. Most of our workforce, occupations, are focused on doing activities that are well-established in terms of their competence. You go from point A to point B to point C everyday, because that is what works and keeps everyone happy. Pepper it with some human interaction, and it may not even be boring. Having to be creative, on the other hand, is refusing to go from point A to point B in the pre-determined way. Even the goal might itself change in this scenario, by will or just the way things come to be, so that you land up on point D or E. By willing to be creative, you are venturing into the unknown, the unfathomable. You may see point B, want to be there, but there is no certainty that you will get there.

Robin Williams had the privilege of working in the most facilitating artistic environment in the world – Hollywood – for most of his career. You may be at the top of your game as an actor, writer, dancer, costumer etc., but if Hollywood comes calling, you would find it hard to say no. Everything here is regularized, made for absolute efficiency in channelling the creative minds that populate it. And yet, it hardly ever ensures the health or success of anybody who gets to work there. Because, it can’t. We look from the outside (unless you, who is reading this, are on the inside. If so, please share your experiences) thinking it a perfect place to help us achieve our creative ambitions, and yet, it has its own set of limitations, one of which is common even with us – the inability to foresee how a certain creative idea, or life itself, will go.

This is, by no means, an attempt to understand Mr. Williams’ motivations. No one can even dare to presume, no matter how much psychologists and entertainment journalists come up with theories that may even have surprised and intrigued Mr. Williams. I don’t understand it. But, I find it refreshing, and relieving to an extend, that successful, creative people are willing to talk about it by their own volition.

For the rest of us, even if we don’t have the luxury to work only towards our creative ends, having an entourage of people helping us with everything, from the way we look to the image we project to the world, there is still much to be said and thought about the way we perform these things. We understand we want to be seriously creative, because we know we can make things that demand value and approval. But, is it really that easy? To venture into the unknown, with the knowledge that wherever we get will be worth it, not just to us but to others? It is the very breeding ground for fear, anxiety, unsurety. Because, things are unsure.

Talent is only a tendency to get something right a number of times. Nothing else. You may be able to get it right more often if you focus and practise enough. But, no one can predict you won’t falter at all. Everybody does. Great writers write bad novels, great musicians hit the wrong notes, great athletes make mistakes that are so obvious to angry fans at the stadium. The willingness to make something, and be good at it, means you are, primarily, setting yourself up for failure.

But, can you stop? I know a number of happy, content, enviable people, who are happy because they stay within their set parameters. There is no rule that in order to be happy, you always have to try something new. Even the novelty of change can wear off after a while, feeling like it’s change that is the same old boring thing. Ultimately, our mental lives come custom-made, and subject to change. Any attempt to understand it generally, from the outside, can only be an idea worth thinking about. And that is what idea/creative people are equipped to do.


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

8 thoughts on “Of Creativity and Depression

  1. ” We understand we want to be seriously creative, because we know we can make things that demand value and approval. But, is it really that easy? To venture into the unknown, with the knowledge that wherever we get will be worth it, not just to us but to others? It is the very breeding ground for fear, anxiety, unsurety.” That is a great thought. Before I started my blog I only took photographs. I did one little show of my photos at a pub, but that was the extent of my creative output. I knew I yearned for more, but I did not know how to put the pieces together. I took a day off of work to clear my head one day and sat in a coffee shop thinking about ways to expand my creative side. I knew just taking the photographs was not sustaining me. I had thought (and even written a rough draft) a blog might be something interesting, but I quickly gave it up when I realized there was no hook to it. It was just random scribbling. That day in the coffee shop though I thought about my two passions-music and photography, and quickly two words appeared in my notebook-soundtrack, and photograph, and I knew I had a concept that was meaningful. I wasn’t sure how or what exactly I would write about, but I knew it was my hook. The other day, on that other blog of yours, you urged me to stick with the blog as is, even if that meant deviating from the original scope. It was a great point, and I think the reason why I was feeling somewhat ambivalent was because I was not feeling lately that the time and energy has been worth it. It isn’t easy but that journey into the unknown can be exciting, and I think not stepping there has been my problem lately. Thanks for another thought provoking post. And P.S. a piano forum? I’m intrigued since my most recent blog was about piano players!

    1. Ha ha, I think it was a keyboard forum, but I wrote piano so that people don’t confuse it with the computer keyboard. I would have provided a link, except I remember it being a very angry and virtually unreadable thread. Even the poster I mention had to state his qualifications before he could provide his opinion. The popular keyboardist in question is Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran. I am a girl, people think Duran Duran is a girlie band, and I think Nick Rhodes is beautiful. Now that that’s out of the way, I was looking for how he made his synthesizer riff on “Save A Prayer” when I came across this thread. Some of the comments were really shocking, as people seemed bent on never allowing Rhodes his talent just because the band had some success in the 80s. But, anyone who goes through their back catalogue without keeping all that in mind can see how creative and productive they have been, despite success or failure. I think it’s a great lesson in humility, survival and creativity, of course.
      I can relate to that loss of time and energy you feel with your blogging. I’ve certainly learnt to settle for less and work for more, as I continue not just with blogging, but life as well. It isn’t easy, and I have my bad days, when I feel like giving it all up. But, I keep coming back, because this is what I want to do. And I want to do it so bad, I won’t stop even if I fail. This is what successful people who’ve survived through ups and downs can teach us, who are only beginning to hope we’ll get there someday.
      Thank you for sharing and reading, Robert!

      1. Thank you Amrita! At a certain point in my life I may have heaped vitriol on groups or individuals like Duran Duran or Nick Rhodes merely because I dismissed them as mindless pop. Though I may not always like that style of music, I have come to appreciate the talent that goes into even the most simple pop song, so I have learned the error of my ways! My preferences may lie elsewhere, but I have learned to not diss the talent because number of hit records made by Robert=0 Lol. More than that though is that even though there are highs and lows with this writing, even though it hasn’t quite opened the doors I had hoped it may have helped opened, the spark is still there. And it is way better than sitting around doing other mindless things. And if I may-you won’t fail. You have enormous talent in your writing and posts like this showcase it. A spark of an idea becomes a flame in capable hands such as your own 🙂

      2. Thank you so, so much! You are too kind!
        I think there is the good kind of 80s pop music, and the bad kind of 80s pop music, even though both used the same instruments and styles (and hairdos!). While ignorant, I did unconsciously classify Duran Duran in the bad pile, especially because it is so easy to. They basically invented the excesses of the 80s, or at least made it popular, and so it is easy to dismiss them as all that is wrong with that decade. But, earlier this year, I started to get more interested in keyboards, and discovering more. Only then did I look past the videos (which are also significant in their own way) and focused on the musicianship. There are two kinds of pop music – ones that survive the test of time and ones that don’t. Duran Duran is in that curious position of being very much of their time ( though a lot of their underrated work will beg to differ) but also offering more than the forgotten acts did. I know most people won’t care to have a revelation like mine. Neither would Duran Duran ever shed their glamorous image and try to be taken more seriously. But, in time, I have a feeling perceptions will change. Good stuff isn’t forgotten easily in any field.

      3. Agreed and well said! My music tastes vary so much, and I literally have days where I fall into a loop, only wanting to hear certain types of music, or even certain types of instruments (like keyboards). I very much agree with your assessment of the good and bad in the world of pop music too.

  2. Depression wouldn’t hurt as much were it not for the way others act around it. The depressed or melancholy person if not directly judged, is indirectly told they have failed. If they did cope beforehand then hearing this universal admonish surely causes the same irreparable harm to psyche as telling a cancer sufferer they are a loser and caused their disease. without compassion and suspended judgment person’s of melancholy will be further pushed towards that train track.

    1. Thank you for making such an excellent point! There is definitely a very, very strong and all-pervading stigma around depression in the world we live in. Awareness hasn’t necessarily helped create compassion. And the stigma makes it so much more harder to cope, let alone overcome, the condition. Many who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses do carry a tremendous amount of shame, and even guilt for their actions, worsening their condition. The best we can do, especially those of us who are suffering, is try to be there for others who suffer. It is so important to not feel isolated and lonely in this, and if those who are close to us do not understand it, we have to reach out to the thousands of people who will.

      1. That’s all we can do and it will be worthwhile. Be the change you want to see etc. Wish I knew why people can be so cruel.

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