Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Can You Read Your Way Out of Depression?

This fellow is sure that Saul Bellow's work helped him do just that. What do you think?


At 9:16 AM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Interest in bibliotherapy is certainly growing. Personally I found Saul Bellow depressing. I’ve only tried to read one book by him, Dangling Man, and gave up on it twice. I wrote my first two novels while in the midst of a bad depression and that helped. Oh, and just because you’re depressed it doesn't mean what you write will be depressing. I’m a little surprised at the quote from Oates since I would have expected her to lean heavily on writing at a time like that.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger FreshGreenKim said...

Well, were it that easy, there would be no market for new self help books. While the author of the article did begin with a disclaimer as well as several disclaimers within the body of the piece, I still think it's a bit too pat an answer.

I do believe that remembering passions in times of depression can help climb out of the well, so it stands to reason that an admired book would help a writer lift. I think the article was more a catchy title than a one stop cure.

As a writer, I do have a handful of go-to books that always lift my spirits when I'm down. And in no way am I minimizing depression to "just being down", I've been there and it's a tough ladder to climb.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks both of you for these interesting takes. I'll sound off in more depth this evening when I have a little more time. Meanwhile, keep the thoughts coming, everyone.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Reading something that inspires you can certainly affect your mood, and even your will to live, in a very positive way. I'm living proof of that. I spend some time almost every day reading something that inspires me in this way; some people would be surprised by what that is, because it's often not the expected. (This morning it was a National Geographic book about the National Parks, that made me want to get out there and see them some more.) Reading anything that makes me feel more alive counts, as does anything that makes me want to get through the day, for any reason.

But reading alone is only part of the equation. I suspect what's not being said is here is that while Bellow inspired seeing the world in a new way, actually going out for a walk and using that new perception is part of the equation. I make myself go out every day, unless I'm too sick or tired, just to get out of the house, just to be physically active, just to take a walk in the fresh air, if nothing else. That's a huge tonic. If I combine it with a book I love, all the better; reading a bit in the morning, then going out for awhile. Even going out to do errands counts.

The point is, reading alone won't do it. Physical action is also necessary. That physical action can be inspired by the reading, certainly; in my case, it of ten is. But you need BOTH. Reading is an active thing, certainly, but it's not a physical one, necessarily. Taking a walk or organizing a box of crap in the basement are great mood-lifters for me.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Great point, Art, which comes up around here often--the importance of mind AND body. They have to work together. Putting all the attention on one or the other is not the way to go.

At 2:54 PM, Blogger Kass said...

I agree with the article and what everyone here has said. It takes a combination of things to get out of a depression. After my divorce, "The World According To Garp" was the final element that lifted me out of the doldrims.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's an interesting choice of books for that purpose. All I can recall of it at the moment is that plane flying into the house. And maybe I only remember that because I also saw the movie.

At 5:22 PM, Blogger Kass said...

I didn't read Garp with the idea in mind that it would be uplifting, but when I got to the part where Garp gets back at the dog, Bonkers by biting part of his ear off, I lost it. I hadn't laughed in months, let alone, smiled, so it was a huge relief and a dark curtain lifted.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Nice. Jim, did you coin this word bibliotherapy, which I love but don't recall having come across before? Either way, I'll be using it now.

At 12:31 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Kim, love to hear a couple of those go-to titles. Art, speaking of the national parks, did you see any part of the Ken Burns documentary about the parks? If so, what did you think?

At 12:50 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I saw most of it. I thought it was very well done. Part of the fun of it for me, though, was to spot moments where I had stood exactly where the filmmakers did too. It sorta made me jealous. This is a film I should have made! *sigh*

At 1:02 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I figured you might have enjoyed it. How honest of you to admit jealousy. Most of us rarely do that, even to ourselves.

At 2:22 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Necessary to be honest to one's self, if not always out loud to others. That's another path out of depression, BTW. Or at least a partial path.

At 4:59 AM, Blogger Elisabeth said...

I suspect there is a difference between reading and writing, and there is also a difference betwen grief and depression.

It sounds to me as though Joyce Carol Oates is grieving. Her husband died in 2008 barely two years ago. Give her a break. She might well be writing, but not necessarily stuff that she'd want to share. She may not be up to writing fiction.

There is a difference between grieving and depression. I suspect that were someone I loved dearly to die, I might not be able to produce publishable stuff for a while. I might write, but I can imagine not wanting to share it.

Reading another person's writing is a different matter again. When a person is seriously depressed they're probably not able to engage with another. On the other hand if someone were only moderately miserable and many of us are some of the time, it's helpful to engage with someone else's work.

Besides what's helpful for one may not be so for another.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That all sounds quite sensible, Elisabeth. Thanks.

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous grateful said...

Reading is a controllable inroad into one's psyche. It allows one to take another's perspective without it being foisted upon us unwittingly. It gives us the luxury of time to sort through strings of thought. Generally when I am depressed, I feel unsafe around others, but desperately need a fresh perspective.

Writing also allows me the freedom to "speak" my mind in a safe forum, whether for others or not. In a safe space, I become aware of powerful themes that emerge. When depressed one is often moved by forces that are unseen even though we might know from what general direction the wind is blowing. Forces may build up over time, and even generations.

Depression, the gnawing ache of emptiness, may be the suffocating weight of layer upon layer of problems that may have gone unattended to for many reasons. I believe it might the right-brain scream for the left-brain attention, at least that is a consideration on my plate this week.

Physical activity is one way to silence the left-brain cacophony for a while, in order to really become aware of what is going on. Journaling, playing an instrument, doing artwork, observing nature, (need I say experience genuine physical affection?) all, in their proper place, can silence the words that do nothing but hide the truth and allow us a safe place to discover what our psyche has been trying to tell us.

Finally, TV, video games, pounding music, and the like, all ALSO silence the words that act like a smokescreen to reality. Unfortunately they can deaden our ability to hear the still small voice that beckons us, and that can lead us deeper into despair.

At 9:12 PM, Anonymous stan said...

Well said. I would have said the same thing if I'd thought of it.

At 9:50 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Actually, I've found that depression is one aspect OF grieving. Although grief and depression are not the same thing, grief often does cause a kind of depression. Call it not chronic depression, but situational depression. There's a reason for it. I think it's very necessary to make that distinction.

I also think it's necessary to distinguish those from acedia, which is spiritual dryness. Acedia can sometimes look like depression, but it isn't. It's more akin to the dark night of the soul.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Stan, thanks for coming back. Good to see you here again.

At 12:10 AM, Blogger Mariana Soffer said...

I belive you can head out of it in several ways, I am sure, also with music, painting, ... The important thing is being open to recive what those things can provide.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Mariana.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger FreshGreenKim said...

My go-to books:

1. Illusions, Richard Bach: a reminder to me that life is exactly as we perceive and envision, and that I can choose to perceive good

2. Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes: empowering to all females

3. Anything David Sedaris: he makes me laugh uproariously

4. and now for some guilty pleasure: something inane and trashy, of the Jackie Collins-esque style... usually picked at the library for it's glitzy title, ripped bodice, absolutely zero thinking required plot. Like turning into a soap opera and completely escaping. Last year, my daughter had me reading the Twilight series. Same thing~ and a reminder that most of the time we create our own drama, but we can also uncreate it.

(and now I challenge you to tell us if you have any go-to books that lift your spirits)

At 9:27 AM, Blogger FreshGreenKim said...

its* argh, I hate that I do that!

At 9:57 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting stuff here, Kim. Thanks so much for sharing it.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Go-to books that uplift the spirit? Always an interesting question. The list evolves over time, and books I went to years ago I don't so much anymore, while new ones take their place.

"Illusions" is practically scripture around my house; I don't know how many copies of that book I've given away to people who needed to read it.

Rather than focusing on similar books for a list, though, I want to point out that sometimes "the only way out is through." It's the secret of the blues: talking about how down you feel can make you feel up. "Been down so long it all looks like up to me."

There's also the parallel technique of "making it worse," magnifying whatever drama or crisis is bringing you down at the moment till it becomes ridiculous and absurd and makes you laugh. "Oh no, I broke a nail! But for want of a nail, the kingdom fell!"

So it might seem a little odd, but many of the books I re-read that help me feel uplifting are NOT of the genre of "inspirational" books—many of which I find insipid and shallow and full of cliché. When you're down, there are few things more irritating than some perky author telling you that you don't have to feel that way. Even the characters in "Illusions" wallow in their darker moments, thoroughly enjoying them, before coming out the other side and getting the message behind them all. So while there have been some grief-support books I've found helpful in the recent few years with all the drama, etc., mostly I don't find those kinds of books very helpful.

So, here's a short and random selection of books I find uplifting, some fiction, some not, in no particular order, from memory, and incomplete.

Mercedes Lackey: The Last Herald-Mage (fantasy trilogy)

Henry Petroski: The Pencil

Matsuo Basho: Narrow Road to the Interior

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet

Thomas Merton: The Wisdom of the Desert

Jim Harrison: Letters to Yesenin

Pema Chödrön: When Things Fall Apart

Federico Garcia Lorca: Poet in New York; In Search of Duende

Yang Wan-Li: Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow

May Sarton: the late journals

Actually, I should mention listening to music, because music is more core to me than anything else. I listen to "dark" music often because it really does uplift me by taking me all the way through the darker moods and out the other side. It's the blues again: "cheerful" music is not what you want to hear, necessarily, when you need to work through depression. It's better to listen to music that has duende in it, that brings you through; it helps you realize or remember that you're not alone in your suffering, and it helps you overcome that suffering by giving full expression to those feelings, then putting them away again. Music lets me enact those feelings safely, too, by feeling them and expressing them in ways that no other artform can do as well for me.

So I'll just mention a couple of albums from my "desert island" list, copies of which are always in the truck, roadtrip or not:

Joni Mitchell: "Hejira"

Bill Laswell: "Hear No Evil"

Dead Can Dance: Spiritchaser"

Henryk Gorecki: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Sym. No. 3)

anything by Norwegian saxophonist and jazzman jan Garbarek

Paul Hindemith: "Mathis der Mahler"

etc. You get the idea, I hope.


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