The Black Dog in the Night

When I got up this morning to write, I tripped over the dog. This is a common occurrence at our house. She likes to be near us, we like to sleep in the dark, and, well, she’s blacker than the shadows. Which is actually how I avoid her most of the time, she’s a sixty-pound jellybean shaped black hole in the night (we do have a small nightlight as a concession to tripping hazards). After I mumbled an apology to the poor pupper for having stumbled over her and disturbed her sleep (she doesn’t have a blog to write, so she sleeps in) I started thinking about depression, the other black dog.

I haven’t been writing recently. I have also been grappling with the black dog, and not the corporeal one on my bedroom floor. She prefers tug o’war. The stressors are all in my head, where it’s darker than my life would seem from an objective standpoint. The relationship between stress and creativity is complicated. Many studies have been done on creativity and how stress seems to paradoxically enhance it and suppress it. One meta-analysis tried to evaluate the studies further, and their conclusions resonate with me. “In general, low stress-inducing situations caused increases in creative performance, and high stress-inducing situations caused decreases in creative performance. More specifically, it matters in what way the stressors may induce stress…” They go on to explain that in a situation where the stress has factors that feel controllable, the creativity is not suppressed. However, if the stress feels uncontrollable it inhibits creativity.

This makes sense to me. I recently had a one-day massive burst of creativity that led to a completed short story of roughly 9000 words. The highest word-count I have had in a long, long time in a single day. The trigger was a deadline, and I had gone from composing a letter, mentally, withdrawing from the promised delivery, to delivering the story draft before bedtime. There, the stressor was entirely in my control. There was a deadline, my brain was stressed, and it threw the story at me whole. On the other hand, the life stressors that remain persistently with me over the last few months are entirely out of my control. I can cope with them, sure. I can mitigate them. But the gnawing constancy of them eats away my ability to imagine and drift off into another world.

Ironically, perhaps, stress and creativity are also linked in other ways. Being creative is supposed to reduce stress. I have found this to be so, as well, but not writing. Ok, yes, also writing… mostly art, though. If I can fall into the rabbit hole of the story and fully be ‘in’ that world, the stress vanishes for as long as I’m in there. Getting there, on the other hand! But with art, the barrier to that stress relief is much thinner, and I’m not sure why. I suspect that is a highly individual thing to people, and I have to wonder if other multi-media artists who dabble in both visual and textual arts find the same thing applies to them.

So what are the long-term effects of stress on the creative? I wonder, some days, whether I ought to continue with my pot-valiant quest to be a writer, a visual artist, a creative in general. Perhaps I ought to retreat fully into the science where I make my living.

“The creative individual seems to exhibit a curious combination of dependence on and independence from the external world. On the one hand, creative productivity appears remarkably immune from a wide range of external forces. Such impersonal social factors as warfare and civil turmoil have no noticeable impact, nor do such personal influences as social honors and the tribulations of private life. On the contrary, we gain a picture of the creative genius as one whose productivity perseveres, no matter what the environment may bring in the way of rewards, anxieties, or distraction…. This result suggests that when a [artist] condescends to produce a rash of “pot boilers” or “pieces d ’occasion” for monetary or promotional gains, the production of masterpieces is not necessarily sacrificed. Even more critically, this finding raises the issue of whether the creative genius even has much capacity to discern between major and minor works. Evidently, only posterity can make the final judgement…” (I have substituted the word artist for composer, as the paper is about composers. It is an interesting read, and the whole thing is here).

I take heart from this: “All the creator can confidently do is to exploit the odds by being productive.” I’m challenged by this to keep trying to write, rather than giving up. I may stumble over the dog in the dark, but the sun will rise, or I’ll find the light switch, and when I can, I will. I’m no genius. But I am stubborn!

(Header image: Tricksy the black dog)


  1. …this finding raises the issue of whether the creative genius even has much capacity to discern between major and minor works.

    Indeed. Dean Wesley Smith says that the writer is the worst judge of his or her work. So, no, the creative person likely will not discern accurately between major and minor works. 😀

  2. The one thing the Black Dog can’t handle is stubbornness. Carry on, and relish its howls of misery when it realizes it has failed once again to stop you.

  3. I find creative writing is a way to reduce stress. The problem being, I spend time writing and hiding from Real Life, which leads to increased stress due to Day Job, household things, outside commitments, and so on.

    I still write when the Black Dog gets too close, but it is not for publication.

  4. Ah the Black Dog. I’ve written a story about it. And though readers who have been depressed have told me they appreciate it, I’m never going to write one again. Hardest story EVER.

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