Is creativity the opposite of mental health? Do artists need to suffer to be creative? Is depression making you a better songwriter or artist in general? Spoiler alert: It’s not.
In this episode I get a little serious and a little personal, and talk about my struggles with depression and anxiety, and how dangerous and damaging the myth of the suffering artist can be. I give you my advice on how to be happy AND creative.
If you are struggling with mental issues, please know that you’re not alone. Seek help, and get better. You’re worth it.
You should subscribe to this show, because otherwise you might miss something, and you don’t want that kind of disappointment in your life.
So here’s a question. Is it necessary to suffer to be creative? Well, the short answer is not at all. There’s a big tendency, I think, to equate depression with creativity. And I think it’s a very dangerous thing. We see all of these great artists fall victim to mental health issues. And unfortunately, many of them lose the battle. So today, I want to discuss creativity, and mental health, and how I have turned my past mental health issues into my current strengths. I think this is a very, very important discussion. And I hope you’ll keep listening. And of course, subscribe, and leave a comment and a review and all that great stuff. So let’s do this.
This is the Artemist podcast, where we return art into gold. Here’s your host, Eyvindur Karlsson.
That’s right. My name is Eyvindur Karlsson, you can call me Eyvi for short, and I am your host. If you’re having trouble with my name, don’t feel bad, it’s Icelandic and there are more people in the world that speak Klingon than Icelandic. So you are forgiven. Very much so.
Today’s topic is creativity and mental health. And as I said in the intro, I think it’s a very important topic. Because we see so many wonderfully creative people, all these, dare I say geniuses fall victim to this. It’s terrible and I think it needs to be addressed. So I’m going to give you my thoughts on that. How I’ve dealt with it in my past and how I use my past struggles to keep my creative spark, as opposed to the present ones. And I try to stay healthy, and happy.
But before we get into that, this episode is brought to you by followme.is. It is a travel website that I’m involved with myself. And if you have any interest at all in visiting Iceland, this is the place to start. We have a free guide to to Iceland, and a great blog, and all kinds of useful things on there. So definitely check that out. And also, if you are going to be traveling at all, especially if it’s because of your art and or your business, you want a good deal on flights and accommodation, you can find some of the best ones in the world by going to flights.followme.is. There is a great search engine for flights and accommodation. And you can make some great deals there. So if you’re traveling, this should be your first stop: followme.is. And if you come to Iceland, check out our free walking tour. And maybe we can have a beer together or something. That would be cool, too.
Alright, so mental health. Why do so many creative people struggle with mental health issues? You know, I’m sure you’ve noticed that this tends to be a little bit prevalent. And there is this myth that you need to suffer to be creative. I don’t think that’s true at all. But I used to.
So where does all this come from? Why this great tendency to put creativity and depression in sort of the same category, whether we do it consciously or not? Well, I think it’s a chicken and egg kind of thing, really. Maybe we create, because we have this tendency towards being depressed or being anxious or whatever it is. Maybe it’s because, as artists, we have this… I don’t know, we get emotional, I guess, or we’re sensitive. Maybe that’s a part of it.
Or, you know, I don’t know, but I think creativity is very therapeutic. Right? I mean, almost every single creative person I know, has, at some point, used their art to help deal with their emotional struggles. Some of us do it all the time. You know, and it makes sense. First of all it’s a great escape. You know, if you can’t deal with the real world, then getting lost and creating a new one, whether it’s in music or if you’re writing a novel, or painting a picture or whatever, it’s great. Some people escape through watching movies, some people escape through playing video games, a lot of us escape through creativity. And that makes sense. And it is really cathartic. When you can put your pain into words or music or pictures or whatever, it is really a huge catharsis. It is very therapeutic, which can be a blessing and a curse. Again, it can make us really dependent on that as an escape. And sometimes we sort of start to to imagine that, that we need it.
Not that we need the the creativity. Obviously, we need that. We wouldn’t be artists if we could possibly survive without being ones I think.
If I could possibly survive without creating, I’d probably work in a bank and make a lot of money, I don’t know.
But I don’t.
But you know, it’s a huge catharsis, and it can also be very therapeutic to the receiver, you know, the person on the other end. Art can be so very soothing when you’re feeling pain. When you have a suffering heart, just listening to a sad song or reading a sad story, or you can look at paintings or photographs, and it can be so soothing, especially if you get the feeling that the artist was feeling the same way you are. You get this feeling that you’re not alone. And I think that’s, that’s a big part of it.
Now, there is this great myth of the suffering artists. A myth and a glorification. It’s a myth in that we think that, again, it’s necessary to create from a place of suffering, and I’m going to get into why it isn’t in a second. But also, we tend to glorify it and romanticize it, which I think is very detrimental and dangerous.
I read this article the other day about the romanticizing of the drunk author, and it dealt mostly with Charles Bukowski. But you know, you also have a lot of other authors and other artists who have sort of romanticized alcoholism, and other kinds of dependencies and addictions. You have Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, and you have musicians like Tom Waits. Now I’m talking within my wheelhouse, because I get compared to these artists a lot. You have Tom Waits and Nick Cave. And,of course, we can talk about all these artists? I mean, you know, you have your Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. I think Amy Winehouse really fell victim to this. She was sort of romanticized as this as this suffering artists and an addict, and she just fell victim to that image, I think, in many respects. And I think, for Tom Waits, I mean, I, as far as I know, he has quit drinking and all that, but I’m pretty sure that it must have been a burden to him at some point, you know, because he had this wino image. And, you know, it must have felt to him like it was much too big a part of his image that for him to ever quit drinking. But then, of course, he changed his image. And now he doesn’t have that same wino image. He’s just a quirky storyteller, right?
But it is this great, romantization of addiction and pain. And it’s scary to me in a lot of ways, because I’ve fallen victim to it as well. And the fact of the matter is, that I think it is often easy to write from a place of pain. Because when we’re creating art, no matter what the art form, is, we are creating stories. Right? If it’s a song, even if it’s not a narrative driven song, it might even be an instrumental song. But still, there is always, in my opinion, a story involved. At least, that’s the only way I think to make it… Well, not the only way, but that is the best and easiest way to make the art that you’re creating interesting. You might be drawing a picture. And if this is a picture of somebody standing and not doing anything, it’s not going to be as interesting as if there’s some sort of action, some sort of story involved. Right? And stories involve conflict, and your pain, the pain that you’re feeling, is conflict. It’s very easy to draw upon what you’re feeling right now, in the immediate moment, to create something. It’s much easier than that sitting down and having to invent some sort of pain, some sort of conflict. So in that respect, it is easier. It makes things a lot easier when you can just pull from the pain that is already in your heart, the conflict that you’re having with yourself, than when you have to sit down and event it. But it’s a very dangerous point of view. Because, you know, you need to be healthy to have any sort of career as a creative person. And this I know from experience, and I’m going to tell you a little bit about my story.
So as I said, I’m an Icelandic singer, songwriter. I am now very, very old. I’m 37 years old. And I’ve been creating art for all of my life. I’ve been a singer songwriter for almost 20 years. And before that I was creating electronic music and all kinds of stuff. So I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve written and I’ve published a novel, and I’ve written a few others that either I’ve never finished or have not submitted, or they’ve been rejected for publication. And I’ve done translation work, I’ve done a lot of comedy, so all kinds of stuff.
And I’ve suffered from depression since I was a teenager. It started when I was probably… I think I first realized it when I was 15, or 16 years old. It really impacted me a lot. And then I was in a very emotionally abusive relationship for years that just kind of broke me. Long story short… That’s a very long story for another day. But long story short, I got out of that relationship, I got help. And I started feeling a lot better emotionally. But to this day, I still suffer bouts of depression. After that, I started struggling with anxiety a lot more. And that got progressively worse through the years, until I had a burnout, really. I completely broke down due do that. And again, I got help, and now that is sort of under control, I would say.
These things I don’t think you ever get over. I don’t know if you can hundred percent get over depression or anxiety. I there’s something in your brain that just is wired a little bit weird. And it’s a constant thing. I don’t know, it’s like being diabetic or something. You can control it, but you don’t there’s no cure. I don’t think. That’s my theory. That’s my opinion. That’s how I feel at least about my struggles. I don’t think they’re ever going to go away completely, but I have gotten them under control.
But for the longest time, it was there. And I definitely fell victim to the idea that being depressed was helping me creatively, and I would wallow in it. I would very much, again, romanticize my own pain. And as a result, I would drink too much. And I would just behave in a way that, in retrospect, I’m not proud of.
But anyway, as a result, yes, I was very creative. When I was having those issues, it would be very, very easy for me to sit down and write songs that I was very happy with, and that people really liked. And I would create and create and create. Then I would go on stage, and I would play them and people would be happy. However, it was very, very difficult for me to do anything to further my career as an artist. Because I didn’t have the drive. I was so intent on wallowing in self pity and in my depression, and again, drinking too much, all that stuff, you name it, that the part of my career that needs motivation, and drive, and all of that stuff, the plan… That didn’t happen.
So I was very prolific. And I still am pretty prolific as a songwriter. And I wrote novels and created all kinds of stuff. And some of it was quite good if I do say so myself. But I couldn’t get it out there. I didn’t release an album. It took me 10 years to finally release a solo album. And that just happened last year. I kept trying to find somebody who would do all that stuff for me, because I didn’t have the drive to do it. I wasn’t healthy enough to get my career to take off.
And full disclosure, part of it was that I met my wife, I got married, I had kids, and all that takes away time, of course. But that means that you need even more drive. You need the drive to spend every single moment of spare time you have outside of your day job and your family and all that stuff to make stuff happen. And I didn’t.
So this is the reason why this is such a dangerous myth. Because your pain might make the creation process easier. But it makes everything else so much harder. And I think it’s actually worse if you have somebody to help you do that. If I had gotten a manager who would have just told me what to do and do all the business stuff and the marketing for me and all that, then I don’t know if I would have gotten out of that. I don’t know if I would have had the drive to gain health. To get healthier mentally.
So it’s very, very dangerous, I think, because, unfortunately, depression is like mental cancer, and it can kill you.
So that’s uplifting.
On the more positive side, I want to tell you about how I got better without losing the creative spark. First of all, I got help. I got professional help. And if you are at all struggling with anxiety or depression, seek help. You need it and you’re worth it. It will make everything better, including your creativity.
So how do you keep that creative spark? Well, again, you’re telling stories, right? Art is about storytelling. And if you don’t have those struggles happening within yourself, if you’re happy and in a good place, then you need to either create those struggles, or recreate those struggles. So one of the things that I have done is to use my memories. I’ve gone through all this, I’ve gone through the struggles, I’ve gone through hell and back. And I can call on that anytime. Don’t think that you have to be going through this right now. I have been there. This is going to get very real, but I have been there, sitting on my toilet with a razor blade in my hand, wondering whether I should end it all. And that’s a horrible place to be. And I’m so happy that I’m not there anymore. But I can still use the memory of that time to write about it. Almost like I’m writing fiction. I’ve gone through it, I know what the feelings are like, the pain is still there in my memory. So I can still mine it.
However, there’s one thing you have to be careful about: You must not wallow in it. There is a very fine line between exploring your past struggles and reliving them. And that can be dangerous. So if this is something that’s very fresh for you, maybe don’t go down that route just yet. You know, the fake it till you make it thing… They say that all the time with depression, and getting over addiction and stuff. Fake it till you make it smile until you feel happy. I don’t think it works. It’s not worked in my case, I’ve tried it, I’ve tried faking it, it makes me feel worse. So I don’t think it can work to get you better. But I think it can work to get worse. If you start wallowing in your past pain, I think it can be dangerous, I think it might just set off a spiral.
So what I do is, I mine my past struggles, and then I use humor to reflect on it without getting too close. This is where a sarcasm is very useful. Anybody who tells you that sarcasm is not useful, they’re wrong. Sarcasm can be very useful, if you’re sarcastic and ironic about yourself and your past pain. Because it allows you to look at it without getting too close. At least that’s what it is for me. It might not work for you, I don’t know. But I’ll take feelings that I remember having, and I’ll exaggerate them. In my words, when I’m writing a song or whatever I’m doing. And you know, I’ll pretty much just mock my past self. And even like make up narratives, that would have been very stupid, but consistent with my behavior back when I was depressed. Because if you’ve gone through this, you know that we sometimes behave very, very stupidly when we are feeling down and we’re feeling depressed. Afterwards, it can be very, very funny. That’s where comedy comes from, right? Comedy comes from a place of pain, it comes from negativity. And so, just doing that, even if I’m not writing something that’s funny, I can look at it that way. And then I can create something about that. Because a lot of art works best when it’s exaggerated a little bit. Maybe not, if you’re writing a film script, or you’re writing a novel that’s supposed to be very realistic. Then you have to sort of stay grounded. But if you’re writing a poem, or a song, or you’re setting up a photo session that’s very stylized, or you’re painting a picture, then exaggeration can be very, very good. And, you know, this way, you can find different angles, without dragging up too much crap to make yourself depressed again.
That doesn’t mean being dishonest or disingenuous. I think you can be very genuine and honest in your creation. But that doesn’t mean you have to be truthful. You know, there’s a difference there. You don’t have to write about your experiences. You can make up something and still be very genuine and honest. You can make up stories, make up conflicts, and make them ring true without being dishonest, I think.
To me, it’s about empathy. You can feel these things through empathy. But you don’t have to go through them yourself. You don’t have to be going through them right now at least. And you don’t have to go through them yourself. I can write songs about heroin addicts, or stories, even though I’ve never been a heroin addict. It’s all about empathy.
So I think that’s a very, very useful tip. And, you know, there’s this whole “write what you know” idea. Especially I hear novelists say this all the time, you know Write what you know. When you start out, if you work at a restaurant, then write about people who work in restaurants. And you know, that’s the best way to get started as an artist, to sort of mine what you know.
I don’t agree. I think it’s a myth. In fact, when I started writing, when I wrote my novel that I got published, I didn’t have anything to write about. I had worked in a pizza place for a while. That’s not interesting. I had mowed lawns. Not interesting. And I had been a depressed teenager, for a bit. That’s not interesting. You know. So the writing what you know, thing, I think, is terrible advice.
What I do, and what I suggest everybody do is to make a habit of exploring people and worlds and experiences that are different from where you are at. Read novels, and watch movies, and listen to songs or whatever, by people who are from different parts of the world, or other genders, from you, you know, different cultures, different ethnic backgrounds, and just try to understand how people work. You know, just spread your focus. Don’t always read and listen to and follow people who are exactly like you. Check out what other people are doing, and feeling and thinking and saying. That’s how you can mine these other people’s experiences. It’s an exercise in empathy.
I like to make a habit… And I’m not that good at it. I fall victim to staying in my wheelhouse, when it comes to consuming art and culture. And I freely admit that, and it’s not a good thing to do, and I should get out of that habit. I’m always trying to, but, you know, hey, we’re all human. Right? And there are certain things that I really enjoy. And sometimes I don’t really think about branching out from that. But I try.
And I think when you really focus on people who are very different from you, you try to put yourself in their shoes, it’s exercise, and it helps you understand humans better. It’s all about exercise. That’s what creativity is. It’s about exercise. The first time you sit down to create a work of art, usually, when we’re kids, it’s… I mean, it might be good for that age, but it’s usually not very good. But we understand, when we look at something that a child… Like, a drawing that our kids make, we understand that they’re kids. They’re working on it, they’re developing, and it’s going to get better. We don’t judge that by the same standards that we judge grownups’ art, and it’s the same. Then you keep doing it, and you get better, and you get better and you get better. And then eventually, if you if you keep doing it, you’ll be really, really good.
It’s the same. And that’s just not just about the technical aspect act of creating a drawing, or singing, or whatever it is. It’s also about exercising your empathy. You know, I think art is all about empathy. And, in my opinion, you should work towards being able to create from somebody else’s perspective, that’s what I think makes your stories and your worlds that you create, and whatever it is, that’s what makes it interesting. I think writing what you know is just lazy. And, also, it can be dangerous, because it makes you think that in order to write about a drunk, you have to be a drunk. And that’s not true.
There’s this great story about Stephen King. He’s one of my favorite authors. And in his book, On Writing, I think… Yeah, it’s On Writing. He writes this story about how he was, you know, when he was really involved with drugs and alcohol… You know, he was an alcoholic and a cocaine addict. And he would sit around writing and drinking and bingeing on cocaine. And it was a huge problem. He said that he doesn’t even recall writing the novel Cujo. He said it’s a shame, because it’s a fun book. And he was sure that it was very enjoyable to write.
And then he said that his wife, Tabitha King, came to him and she said: “Well, you know, either you quit all this, or I’m leaving with the kids.”
And he said: “Let me think about it.”
Because he was afraid that without these substances, he would lose his creative spark. And he said that in retrospect, it was like saying… It was like if you’re standing on the roof of a burning building, and there’s a helicopter above you throwing a stepladder down, and you say: “Yeah, just give me a second to think about it.”
And I thought that was a great analogy.
There is this great tendency to think that creativity comes from somewhere outside of us and not from our heart and our soul. But that’s where it comes from. And I am absolutely 100% sure that if you’re a good artist when you’re depressed, or when you’re drunk, or when you’re in some other way incapacitated, you’re going to be even better if you’re healthy. That’s my opinion than I and I stick by it.
I remember this line that I heard once. I’m a big fan of the Pogues. I’m big fan of Irish music in general, and the Pogues I really love. Shane MacGowan… Of course, if you’re not familiar with the Pogues, the frontman of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan is a legendary drunk. He’s probably more famous for being drunk than for being a fantastic storyteller, and songwriter. I love his songs, and he’s written some excellent ones. And I remember this line, this quote from Sinead O’Connor, who is a great friend of his. And she said: Think of the genius of some of his songs, and then imagine what he could do if he was sober.
And that’s, I think, a great sentiment. It is easier… You can create a lot more work of genius, if you’re healthy.
And then there was this example that I wanted to take… I’ve written a lot of stuff that is definitely not writing what I know. I told you about that novel that was published… It was in Icelandic, so most of you will not get a chance to hear it. If you are Icelandic, it’s called Ósagt. That means unsaid, and it is available in libraries and stuff in Iceland. I might translate it into English at some point, I don’t know. But anyway, that’s a novel about a woman. It’s told from the perspective of a woman who has gone through a lot of stuff. And I have never been a woman and I have never gone through any of that stuff that she goes through. But you know, it’s just about empathy and about writing about being human. And creating conflict without having to actually live it.
It doesn’t have to be your actual pain. You can invent conflicts and write from a perspective of conflict and pain, just by listening and taking in your fellow humans, and being empathetic.
There was a song I wrote once. It’s on my album, which is called A Bottle Full of Dreams. The song is called You Have Found Another. And that started when I was at a bar, and I overheard a lady who was crying to her friends, because her ex had found a new girlfriend. So the next day, it was very fresh in my mind, because it was a very sad situation. She was very drunk, and she was crying, it was just very sad. And so I wrote a song called You Have Found Another, which used her pain. It’s a very sad song, and I’m very happy with it, because I love writing sad songs. So it doesn’t have to be your pain. You can write about somebody else’s pain, and it’ll be just as powerful and probably, you’ll be a lot more prolific, and you will do a lot better in your career.
So whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of not wanting to get better. If you are in a situation where you’re feeling depressed, you’re feeling anxious, if you are struggling with addiction, or struggling with any of those things, don’t fall into that trap. I’ve been there, and it’s not a good place to be, trust me. No matter how much you think you need that stuff. You do not. If you’re there, please get help. Please get better, you’re worth it. And you’re going to have a lot more happiness in your life, a lot more creativity, and your life is going to be so much better. So please do that.
Alright, this is this was very deep. And I hope you got something out of this. I think it’s a very important discussion. And I hope you’ll continue the discussion. You can go to the show notes, which will be at artism.fm/ap3. You can go there, you can leave a comment, please subscribe, and keep coming back because I have a lot of great stuff coming up in the next few episodes. And if you have an artist community, I would love to showcase it on the show. So please, get in touch. You can leave me a voice message where you can tell me a little bit about your artists community and how you empower each other through that community if you go to artistm.fm/voicemail, and please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.
And I will see you next time. So go art yourself. Bye bye