The Lie of the Tortured Artist

by Ashe Vernon

For the last ten years of my life, depression has shaped everything I’ve done. It has affected my relationships, my self-worth, my ability to function. There have been good days. Hell, there have even been good years, but it has never gone away. Depression has become the monster who doesn’t always hide under the bed anymore, but sometimes climbs on top of it and sits on my chest and dares me to get up in the mornings. Sometimes, he sits at the kitchen table and pours salt into my coffee cup.

A good day, when you have depression, doesn’t mean the depression is gone. It means the depression speaks more softly than you do, for once. But it is still speaking.

I have heard a lot of people, even poets I consider my friends and peers, talk about mental illness like it is the key to greatness. We do this in the classroom, when we learn about people like Edgar Alan Poe, or Sylvia Plath, or Vincent Van Gogh. We attribute their talent to the thing that destroyed them and call it tragic, but beautiful.

But it isn’t beautiful, and more than that, it isn’t true. Talent is not born from heartbreak. Talent is a misnomer as it is, because no one is born knowing how to do things. We practice. Just because you don’t see a person practice, or you weren’t there for when they struggled, doesn’t mean they didn’t. Talent is a function of effort, of time, of interest.

Mental illness is not the source of genius, it’s the source of obsession. The only “advantage” that artists with depression (or any other mental illness) have is that they spent a good portion of their life, if not all of their life, in such desperate need of a purpose or an outlet that they devoted TIME to their craft. And I’m talking grueling, unending hours, because the moments when they were creating were the only times they didn’t feel like dying.

Not once in my entire life has my depression helped my art. Depression doesn’t bring creative inspiration, it drains it: along with every ounce of energy you have in your body. Depression has locked me in my own home for days and weeks at a time, sometimes barely able to do so much as feed myself. Depression takes the things you love and makes them lack-luster and impossible, until even getting out of bed in the morning is so exhausting, no work gets done.

Nothing in created through depression.

These “tortured” artists aren’t good because of their PAIN, they’re good because of their PRACTICE. Because when they had nothing, they had art. If you are lucky enough to be an artist who doesn’t suffer from mental illness, be thankful.

And work your hardest.

Ashe has been writing for as long as she can remember, but she found poetry when she most needed it. Her words first hit the stage in the tiny town of Lufkin, Texas and since then she has been featured in two poetry anthologies and published a collection of poetry all her own–Belly of the Beast, via Words Dance Publishing. She’s stumbled her way onto stages across Texas and is currently touring the southwest with her best friend and partner in crime. At 5'2", Ashe is a very tiny person with very tiny hands and a whole lot to say about it. Her second book, Wrong Side of a Fist Fight debuted this summer through Where Are You Press.

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