depression, famous authors, muse, personal demons, substance abuse, Writing

Demon or Muse?

I have been revisiting the idea that many fiction writers (and other artists) write to ‘unshackle’ their demon(s). When I say demons, I do not want you to envision red-horned minions of Lucifer, but instead, the random and sometimes very specific dark thoughts and feelings in general that pain, worry, anger, or cause extreme doubt in an individual. Most of my favorite writers seemingly write from the dark places within themselves, which has me wondering, is a writer’s muse really his or her demons?

Life Magazine* dedicated their Issue #18 to the correlation between writers and their inner struggles, appropriately titled, “Writers and Their Demons,” which investigated the common associations between fiction writers’ creativity and mental illness. The term ‘mental illness’ sounds harsh and maybe too fixed, but the term encompasses quite a broad range and severity of the thought processes that interfere with a person’s happiness and/or success.

The list of authors who have struggled with some form of mental illness is staggering and men and women are close equals in this arena: William Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Jim Carroll, Elinor Wylie, Philip Dick, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck, Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, and clearly, many more. The question that always arises is whether or not it is the writer or their environment that is to blame for their substance abuse, or perhaps a combination of both that fuels the funnel cloud of dejection.

Nancy Etchemendy, author of “The Power of Un,” and 1999 Bram Stoker recipient, wrote an article, “Writers and Depression,” for the Horror Writers Association** that focused on the increased risks of depression and substance abuse writers battle, again, part in due to the environment of isolation, lack of reward, and continual rejection that writers must undergo. She also talked about an article written by Kay Redfield Jamison, “Manic Depressive Illness and Creativity,” published in Scientific American in February 1995, who found that writers were ten times more likely to be depressed, and that suicide was eighteen times greater. That is alarming to say the least.

Undoubtedly, I struggle from time to time, but I remind myself it is not the depth of blackness I should fear, but how I respond to it. Still, I cannot help notice the peculiar parallels of what my muse alludes to and the vicinity of that to the well of my deepest, darkest fears. I question if those who write fiction are actually unable to suppress their demons and therefore turn to writing for release. What do you think? Are writers’ muses often not just their demons in disguise?

* Life Magazine, Issue #18:
** Writers and Depression, by Nancy Etchemendy, Horror Writers Association

14 thoughts on “Demon or Muse?”

  1. there are good and valid points here, but – it might be too easy to get away with thinking all of us are like that. I work with spirit – perhaps that makes me on the edge, who can tell? – so I know where my inspiration and ideas come from. I am comfortable in my skin and mind and yet I can write some very strange horror indeed. Is it because we can, rather than because we have to? I enjoy it, reading and writing, it doesn't necessarily stem from any problem I am currently going through. As in, no one has yet had a horrid car crash with lingering consequences in the time span from it happening until now. Perhaps I should say look out for that …


  2. A great Article Erin, and interesting questions. I must admit when I first started writing songs in my teens it was to combat loneliness. It developed into poetry and tales when I realised I was tone deaf (probably why I was lonely). I think it is all about how you manage your muse I tend to ring fence my real life away from my writing by using my pen-name, that in its self has some interesting issues. Some days closing the box or drawing the curtain between the two can be a challenge.


  3. Excellent article, Erin and some good points raised. I’ve always tried to embrace my inner demons; the trouble is by fully embracing them you begin to lose them. I think it’s the struggle, or more accurately the ‘inspiration’ from the struggle, with these demons that keeps my ideas fresh and keeps me writing. If I actually reach that point where I vanquish my demons and actually write myself sane, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself. So here’s to our demons…may they keep us twisted and creative for many years to come!


  4. Thanks for stopping by everyone and bringing your opinions and knowledge. You've all brought up some fabulous insights and questions.Though my post wasn't to highlight writers and substance abuse, it is a common coping mechanism. I merely wanted to point out that whether abuse is involved or not, writers often struggle with their different view on life and that maybe our muses have a closer connection to our demons than we might have thought or thought not of.


  5. I haven't been able to stop thinking about this post since I first read it. In an arrogant wave of paranoia I noticed Erin posted it very shortly after reading my tiny demonic vignette 'Interlude' over at The Feardom. Had my horror gone too far for once? Of course, paranoia was all it was because Erin had already been asking herself the question for some time, but she did tell me Interlude convinced her to write her article.I think her observations throw up some fascinating questions. Like many writers, I have my unfair share of psychological demons and they surely do inspire me so yes, I think there is definitely a crossover. I sometimes wonder where I'd be if I didn't write. I am definitely far less volatile for it. If one were to take the question to a spiritual level maybe the act of writing manifests itself as a benevolent(?) deity that works with and against the demons. Perhaps collectively they form our muse. Science, no doubt, wouldn't agree.Thank you Erin, for such a thought-provoking topic.


  6. Erin, fascinating post, and provocative. Kay Jamison has written several books about creativity and mental illness, and her take-away is that creativity and mental illness often walk side-by-side, and that in this way mental illness often proves a gift. Certainly, sensitive temperaments often fuel creative endeavors. Yet there also are many brilliant artists, writers, poets, and thinkers who are not so touched or, if so, are highly functional. There is a romantic lore about 'crazy artists' and 'depressed poets' that I'd like to see disabused because romanticizing mental illness can be as dangerous as demonizing it.That said, most writers who suffer from mood disorders create their best work when lucid; indeed, the severe swings of depression or mania cripple actual productivity, or at the least, coherent productivity. Ditto, btw, with alcoholism and subtance use disorders. Though, imho, many artists who are heavy drinkers or users are often medicating their mental problems.I think individuals with mental differences — the mood disorders, autism, aspergers, even forms of psychotic disorders — have hardwiring and softwiring that makes them to susceptible to thinking/feeling/creating out of the box. After all, normal is a mean, and a mean is average, and average can be awfully dull. Peace…


  7. I think those are excellent questions, Erin. I'm not sure if we can answer them for anyone but our own self, and even then its difficult. An addiction, obsession, a coping mechanism, a loose screw, a few seizures short of a popped frontal lobe? Hmmm… Interesting the articles you mention- yikes


  8. Great post Erin.I know I've written some things and then later wondered where the hell they came from. The question, I think, of why so many people who write seem to have "demons", is that their "coping mechanism" is to share their dark thoughts with the world. What sets the writers apart from this, is that they have the craft, the creativity, and the wherewithal to take the steaming mud and clay from this outpouring of effort, and make them something that others would want to read.Great topic!


  9. Cause or effect? I think I would have to disagree with Etchemendy, if I understand her correctly. I don't think writing and its environs is the cause, but rather writing (or any creativity) is the effect. Creative people in general seem to be different, see the world in an abstract way, have a screw loose… :)


  10. A demon isn't necessarily evil. In the medieval ages they were supposed to help things cook and find lost kids. An easy test of your better and worse angels is to simply observe and record what they want you to do. Voice in your head says cut yourself? He's probably a jerk. In the grand scheme, some creativity is likely linked to some dangerous behavior. They are not all intrinsically linked. Stephen King's "mental illness" is probably a conflation of his famous substance abuse issues. Long after he recovered from that he managed to remain prolific.


  11. That's the beauty of writing. You can use it for pure joy, you can use it to work out complications, you can use it expell darkness or sadness. It's the way we writer's work out our "stuff".


  12. Hello, Erin. It's been too long! This week I have begun turning over a new leaf. I am planning on posting less often, promoting what I do write throughout the week, and (very importantly) spend lots of time checking in with my pals. *waves*Now, with regards to your question: I think I might be an anomaly. I feel happy, although I know I do go through "woe is me" moments. When this happens, I usually am the first to recognize them and just allow the feelings to shake off. I think I write stories because I can, not because I'll die if I don't.Very interesting and thought-provoking post.Take care,-Jimmy


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