Writing Program wants to write off stereotype

Diana Scholl

The picture of a gloomy, brooding writer permeates popular culture. But students and professors in the Writing Program challenge the notion that clinical depression is necessary to spark creativity in writers.

Northwestern professors say they teach students that while emotions are an important part of creative writing, tragedy is not a prerequisite for great literature. Students in the program — a selective subsection of the English department that accepts both fiction and poetry students –instead focus on the technical craft of writing.

“I know there are some schools where they sit around in circles talking about feelings, but that’s just not what we do here,” said Weinberg senior Tom Peter, who is on the fiction track of the program.

The best writers combine their emotions and intellect, said Prof. Anna Keesey. The Writing Program teaches students to think both analytically and emotionally when writing, she said.

“Writing can be a good emotional outlet and when I look at creative writing majors, I think they bring together the two sides of the mind,” Keesey said. “They don’t seem any more depressed than the average NU student.”

“Writing is one of the healthy ways people deal with emotion,” she said. “Most writers are creative, engaged people. The stereotype of someone drinking themselves to death isn’t true.”

Prof. Brian Bouldrey, director of the English major in writing, teaches his students that writing isn’t a cure for emotional problems. The stereotype of the depressed writer is partially true because people think writing is the answer to their depression, he said.

“Writing is not therapy,” Bouldrey said. “Some depressed people initially see creative writing as a cure and if there’s a great ending, then they’ll be cured. They will have a hard time writing the ending.”

Ernest Hemingway shot himself and Sylvia Plath committed suicide by sticking her head in an oven. But students need to realize they don’t need to be fallen heroes to be great writers, said Bouldrey.

“There’s a danger in thinking ‘I need a tragic moment to be a great writer,'” said Bouldrey, “Everyone has had an interesting childhood, if not tragic.”

Still Bouldrey said writers, similar to other artists, are able to deal with pain in a constructive outlet.

“Writers are more prone to be able to face up to what’s lacking in their lives,” Bouldrey said. “They have the tools and ability to transform shortcomings into something beautiful in the broadest sense of the word.”

Christian Engley, a Communication junior in the poetry track, said he thinks there may be a connection between depression and creativity.

“Depression won’t make people good writers, but I think there’s a correlation between people who are very creative and depressed,” Engley said. “Still, my emotional state affects what I write, and if I’m emotionally distraught, it’s harder to write.”

Peter, a senior who is on the fiction track, agreed that depression doesn’t foster the best writing.

“Emotions are useful in the writing process, but if you’re just writing when you’re depressed, you’re going to write a lot of crap,” he said.

The picture of the stereotypical glum writer doesn’t really apply to the students in his classes, Peter said, so he is careful not to use people’s fictional writing to judge their emotional state.

“It’s very dangerous when you start assuming ‘Ashley wrote this very depressing piece,'” Peter said. “‘Is she depressed?'”

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