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Grief, Loss and Creativity

Dead Poets Society

Yesterday the world lost an incredibly talented comedian and actor. He was a man who saw me through my childhood, teens, twenties and beyond with an equal measure of thought-provoking moments and good humour. But it was no surprise to hear that the star of Dead Poets Society and Goodwill Hunting had also been battling severe depression.

I felt stunned by the news of the death of Robin Williams because he was part of the fabric of my childhood and teenage years, through what I watched and through what those films taught me about life. It was his remarkable ability to bring characters to life that has entertained millions of us through the years. And I believe that comedy and acting quite possibly provided the escape that he needed, an escape from the darkness of his own mind. Depression is a very hidden issue and it is often misunderstood. Scientists have been fascinated by the possibility of a link between depression and creativity for years. In this interesting article on the link between the two, we learn that Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, wrote the following diary entry: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Early studies found that creatives often suffered from depression: Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. Sylvia Plath also sadly took her own life.

Why am I discussing this here? Because I believe that writers have an innate ability to tap into the pain of grief and loss; to take the experiences which they encounter, and to illustrate the difficulties of anxiety and pain. They are able to translate these emotions into the lives of their characters, allowing the reader to tap into their own difficulties and to rise above them.

I often hear people talking about finding solace in books. Some readers say that they find particular books healing. The talent of a creative who is able to paint, act, write or create music lies in their ability to mold their own suffering and angst into a form that is universally understood. Where it might be difficult and overwhelming to face certain situations head on art, books, film and music allow a release of emotions and allow people to reach into the painful aspects of life and engage with issues that can be difficult to discuss.

Writers and artists are often accused of being oversensitive or overly analytical, as though these traits might be weaknesses, but I would argue that this is exactly where their strength lies, and where their empathy and ability to connect with difficult emotions helps them to write a character with flaws, a character who experiences setbacks and difficulties. Interestingly, the body releases natural opiates as a result of the creative process. Harvard Professor, Shelley Carson, says that “creative endeavors are intrinsically rewarding, and you get shots of dopamine in the rewards center of the brain.”

What are your thoughts? Are you a writer with any experience of depression? Do you find find solace in reading or writing?

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#bookadayuk Hooked you into reading: The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm

For those of you who have been following the #bookaday posts, I’ve been up in the Alps for a week. I’m back and refuelled, and will pick up with the posts and get back to writing. We drove the length of the Grossglockner Pass, which is the highest and one of the most beautiful roads in Europe. Here are a few photos before I write about what hooked me in to reading. It seems fitting that the photos are of Europe, the home of the writers I want to talk about.

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I was influenced by so many great authors throughout my childhood. While I enjoyed Enid Blyton, Judy Blume and Noel Streatfeild early on, what hooked me in to reading was primarily fairy tales. I loved Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea and, although I wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to the Happy Ever After endings, there was something magical about the idea of anyone being able to feel a pea beneath layers of mattresses. Children often want to believe the unbelievable, don’t they? Think Peter Pan, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; or, in my case, The Lochness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the Tooth Fairy. The first two exist, don’t they? Anything implausible, I believed in it. Such was my hopeless and incorrigible imagination. The thing is children want to believe in unreality, they want a world beyond the real and the plausible. And I think adults sometimes look for the same thing. It’s why we read fiction.

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And then there were the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales: Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella. I devoured them all, utterly absorbed in another world. Hansel and Gretel grabbed my attention for the suspense as the children become lost in the woods. I liked the idea of a house made of sweets, and was always captivated by images of the roof. I have started to make a European gingerbread house at Christmas, a tradition in Germany which comes from this story.

In Germany, there’s a rhyme that’s said about Gingerbread Houses that comes directly from the story of Hansel and Gretel:

Knusper, knusper, knäuschen,
wer knuspert an meinem Häuschen?
Der Wind, der Wind,
das himmlische Kind.

English Translation:

Nibble, nibble, gnaw
Who is nibbling at my little house?
The wind, the wind
The heavenly child.

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I’ll also throw in Joseph Jacob’s Jack and the Beanstalk. A giant at the top of a beanstalk? Really? These imaginary worlds are a wonderful escape from the real world and teach children about the far reaches of the imagination. And you are never too old to read them.

Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” While I am certainly no genius, I find his quote interesting because it suggests a link between the imagination and the intellect. What are your thoughts?

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