In 1972, May Sarton wrote,
It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange — that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…
Three days later in the grip of depression, she wrote,
The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation … may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.
It could be Albert Camus was right in his iteration that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” but this seems a truth hard to swallow when one is made tongueless by depression.
In a diary entry from October 6, still clawing her way out of the pit of darkness, Sarton considers the only cure for despair she knows:
Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.
“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Joni Mitchell once told an interviewer. Alas, the history of the arts is the history of the complex relationship between creativity and mental illness. But while psychologists have found that a low dose of melancholy enhances creativity, its clinical extreme in depression can be creatively debilitating.
Few artists have walked that fine line with more tenacity and self-awareness than the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893). Frequently throughout his correspondence with family and friends, collected in The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) — the source of his enduring ideas on work ethic vs. inspiration, the paradox of client work, and why you should never allow interruptions in your creative process — Tchaikovsky notes his cyclical lapses into depression, undergirded by a dogged dedication to looking for beauty and meaning amid the spiritual wreckage. This intimate tango of sadness and radiance is ultimately what gives his music its timeless edge in penetrating the soul.
Those of us who know despair also know the mountaintops. Our creativity is built on both.
Published in PsychologicallyI