Poets on Prozac — Q&A

What is the main finding of your book?
Poets on Prozac shatters the myth that psychiatric treatment will impair creativity. What the sixteen poet-essayists tell us is that effective treatment sets the stage for greater creativity.

What motivated you to edit this collection of essays?

Many descriptions of the creative process are based on the stories of poets, artists, scientists, and musicians who are no longer alive. I wanted to ask creative people themselves — in this case some of our finest contemporary poets— to reveal the inner workings of their creative process and to show us how psychiatric treatment affected their creativity.

How did you find the poet-essayists?

I found the poets in three ways: by writing to poets whose work I love and inviting them to contribute an essay; through word of mouth; and with an advertisement in POETS & WRITERS magazine. With only a few exceptions, I had no idea when I invited a poet if he/she had any history of psychiatric treatment. About one third of the poets came from each group.

What were your criteria for including a poet-essayist?

To be included as an essayist, the poet had to have a history of psychiatric treatment (medication and/or psychotherapy) and demonstrate a high level of creativity based on publication of at least one book of poetry as well as a substantial publication history. The selected poets have won national prizes, grants, and awards.

What are the psychiatric disorders diagnosed in this group of poets?

The poets have experienced the major psychiatric illnesses: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical and sexual abuse, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcohol dependence, and substance abuse. The essays are gripping accounts of how each artist overcame tremendous suffering and adversity in order to create at his/her highest levels.

What were your instructions for the essayists?

I asked each essayist to tell his/her life story, describe their psychiatric history and the details of treatment, and to discuss the ways treatment affected his/her creativity. I also asked the essayists to provide examples of poems written before, during, and after treatment to provide direct evidence of how their creativity changed.

What questions were you hoping to answer?

I hoped the essays would answer many of the key questions about psychiatric treatment and creativity. Do poets (and other highly creative people) need to be mentally ill to produce great work? Does mental illness enhance or diminish creativity? What is the impact of substance use/abuse? What are the benefits and risks of prescribed psychoactive medications? Is creativity heightened by treatment or does treatment reduce emotional pain to the extent that the poet no longer has anything to say? Does a person have to be “crazy” to write good poetry? What do poets themselves define as crucial elements in their creative process?

What was the biggest surprise for you as the editor?

When I started this project, I believed the myth that “madness” and creativity somehow went hand in hand. The poets have convinced me that this is not the case. Now I understand how excellent psychiatric treatment can be to enhance creativity.

What is the message of your book for people considering psychiatric treatment?

Many of the poet-essayists delayed seeking treatment for many years. Their delay not only prolonged their suffering, but also limited their creativity. What I tell patients now is that effective treatment can play a part in enhancing creativity.

What is the message for your professional colleagues?

Don’t believe the myth connecting “madness” and creativity. We can tell our patients that effective treatment relieves suffering and can enhance creativity. We have to continue to work hard to counter the myths that stigmatize our profession and the people who seek our care.

The idea that depression might enhance creativity is a myth, often based on the life stories and statements of deceased artists and writers. But in studies of highly creative people including Nobel Prize winners, the characteristic they all have in common is intense motivation. Of course, loss of motivation is a classic symptom of depression. Contemporary poets who are alive and can tell us about their experience with depression are consistent in reporting that it was only after effective psychiatric treatment that they were able to create at their highest levels. Now, when people ask me about medication and psychotherapy for mood disorders, I can reassure them that treatment, not depression, is likely to enhance their creative process.