On Writing and Sadness Bouts, Part 2.

Carrying on from Part I
There’s a good amount of evidence to suggest that creative people may be predisposed to have depression or depressive tendencies.
I have a theory about this – I don’t necessarily think we’re all predisposed. But I think the actual, repeated practice of creating and sharing our art can make our emotions go haywire.
In two ways –
    1. The Process: The same instinct that makes us good writers – the ability to self-edit, to sift, to weed out the bad ideas from the good, in short, to critique – is what can also make writing so painful. Because as we write, our inner editor is chomping on the bit to tell us how this draft is terrible, how this idea is pointless, how no one will ever want to do this, how it’s a waste of our time and (let’s take this to the logical end) how we’re a fraud and will never write anything good ever again. We all hear this nasty voice in our head from time to time – the trick of course, is to rein it in, to allow just the right amount of self-critique into our process, perfectly calibrated to the needs of that particular draft.But wow, that’s a really hard thing to ask of ourselves, isn’t it? And in addition, the madness inside our heads isn’t caused by anything we could call “real”. We’re miserable because we can’t figure out the solutions to problems that we made up for characters and situations that don’t exist. It’s hella weird.

 

  • The Production: So as playwrights, we deeply care about our audiences. We write a play as a gift to be shared – not just with our collaborators, but with living, breathing human beings who gather in a room together, who’ve plonked down money and found babysitters and driven out and given up their evening to spend with our stories. So we really care about them.In speaking just for myself, the audience is always top of my mind, from the first draft through to opening night. Yes, it’s important that I’m happy, that my artistic team is happy, but by god, I really want the audience to be happy. I want them to have such a good time in the theatre. The fact that I care so much is one of my strengths, and it shows in my writing.

    But once the production is up and running, I can’t turn this off. So when the reviews are out, I’m setting myself up to be a complete emotional mess. Sarah Ruhl recently said, so easily, that she doesn’t read anything written about herself. Lauren Gunderson has said she only reads the good reviews. I wish I could pick either lane. But no – I can’t turn off that instinct to care about what people think, even at the stage where I have no power to change anything, even if I wanted to. That’s not healthy.

 

So basically, my theory is that both the inside of playwriting (the process), and the outside of it (collaboration and reception) are fraught with triggers. And ironically, the further I progress in my career, the more frequently I face these triggers, and with higher stakes each time.
  • The more I learn about playwriting, the more plays I write and see, the harsher my inner-critic gets, because now I know better, and I know what I’m up against.
  • Commissions are the best, but they bring out my inner-critic in full force, because now there’s that additional, awful fear of letting someone down.
  • The more production opportunities I get, the more reviews I’ll get, and the more people will have things to say about my work. Google will be my nemesis forever.
I know that I should hopefully arrive at a sort of equilibrium at some point. As I mature as a writer, I’ll be able to tamper that inner voice. The more I recognize my process, my patterns, the less I’ll freak out when I think something isn’t going well. And maybe one day I’ll achieve Sarah Ruhl levels of poise where I exist in a transcendent bubble of perfection (I love Sarah Ruhl, this is me being totally straight with you. Also, she’s never gonna read this.)
But until then, I would love to hear from LAFPI readers on how you manage these issues, and what tricks you have to get around these emotional speed bumps, these exhausting obstacles as we all try to navigate a happy, balanced, and productive life in the theatre.

2 Comments

  • By Nancy Beverly, March 18, 2015 @ 8:23 am

    I love this post and the previous one… and I don’t have anything brilliant to add. My dad suffered from real and chronic depression and that was such a part of my childhood that I know I can’t live in that space and create, so I consciously choose not to go there.

    Sometimes when I’m stuck when I’m writing, I put the title of a John Mellencamp album at the top of the page — “Nothing matters and what if it did?” It frees me up (kinda like Lanford Wilson writing “Burn this” at the top of his pages… which happened to be the title he gave to what he was writing). By bringing my work into my writing group (Fierce Backbone), I get to hear a critique that has both upsides and downsides of my work, and that helps balance out my inner critic.

  • By jenniewebb, March 23, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    Yes yes yes these posts are so lovely, Madhuri. So thoughtful and honest and (yes!) helpful to all of us who deal with this shit every DAY! Thank you!

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