By Sharon May
Kurt Vonnegut said, “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”
The main problem I have with this statement is that it reinforces the stereotype of the crazy artist who locks himself away from society in the name of art. It is a stereotype that many societies use to keep the writer at bay, out of the mainstream. Maybe there is a hint of madness in all of us as we respond to what drives us to write but to say only those who are depressed can produce serious and good works is extreme and just not true.
Second, what is “serious fiction?” I assume that Vonnegut is referring to what we now call literary fiction. By his standards, I’m sure that lots of genre fiction would be automatically be labeled as not serious. But all genres have works so well written they stand out from the crowd and are serious.
Third, does Vonnegut mean that one has to be depressed at the time of writing the fictional work, or simply be subject to depressive states of mind? Usually part of the definition of depression is a time period in which the person is usually not functioning well and probably is not capable of writing any fiction, serious or not. I think all writers have emotional struggles that give them opportunities to contemplate themselves and the society. These struggles do not have to lead to depression for one to be a serious writer.
Yes, we have Styron, Kafka, Woolf, Rowling, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Capote, and Baldwin as examples of writers with depressive personalities who produced serious fiction. But we could list even more writers who have never been depressed.
I am bipolar and have found during depressed moods that I am not productive enough to write anything, good or bad. I may be able to think about writing, but I can’t find the energy to put fingers to keyboard. Maybe others who are depressed can put words on a page. I just know I’m not one of them. But I am capable of writing when in a manic state, reams and reams very quickly. Unfortunately, quality is not in those reams even though they do provide good ideas to work on later. Only when I’m stable can I consistently produce words on paper that would be considered good.
Emotions can lead to a particular state of mind that can cause problems for the writer. Hopefully, you do not have to inhabit Vonnegut’s world as you write. Regardless of your state of mind, pay attention to your emotional struggles and observe those of others so you can learn about human nature, which will lead to interesting characters, dialogue, conflicts, and thus good writing.