Poets on Prozac Book Review


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Book Review and creativity theories Berlin, R. M. (Ed.). Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008 (181 pp.). ISBN-10: 0801888395. Reviewed by: Karen K. Graham University of Georgia There are a myriad of assumptions that seem to shadow those who are talented, creative writers, especially when they pen poems instead of prose. As cited by Berlin in Poets on Prozac, according to a research study of 30 poets at th
  Book Reviewand creativity theoriesBerlin, R. M. (Ed.).  Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process .Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008 (181 pp.). ISBN-10:0801888395. Reviewed by:Karen K. GrahamUniversity of GeorgiaThere are a myriad of assumptions that seem to shadow those who are talented, creativewriters, especially when they pen poems instead of prose. As cited by Berlin in Poets on Prozac , according to a research study of 30 poets at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Nancy Andreasen, MD, who once edited the  American Journal of Psychiatry , concluded that 80% suffered from amood disorder. Writers in general tend to die at a younger age than those who are creative inother domains  –  poets average age at death is 62 and nonfiction writers is 68.This book, a collection of essays by award-winning, published poets, details each of theirstruggles with and through creative writing. Sixteen poets submitted poignant, heart-wrenching,honest, and sometimes even funny tales of their lives before, during and since treatment. Thepoets range in age and prestige, but what they have in common are often harrowing stories of finding themselves locked in battles with their addictions, their demons, their mental illnesses oreven their ideas of what successful writers should be.Chase Twitchell battled for over 30 years with inaccurately diagnosed and ineffectivelycontrolled depression. Finally, her symptoms were reassessed and she was then newly diagnosedwith bipolar II disorder, which allowed better, more regimented and effective treatment. In her  poem, “Neurotransmission,” Ms. Twitchell speaks to her history of self  -medication and theeffects on her brain. Like many creative individuals with mental illnesses, she was drawn toaddictions in an attempt to compensate for the pain of her misdiagnosed manic-depression(Berlin, 2008).  Renée Ashley suffers from depression and allows that she will continue to write her way through the episodes that plague her even with medication and therapy. She writes, “I use words, when I finally recover them, to speak of what is inexpressible, and I know that, with little,sometimes no warning, my ability to act creative ly can be smothered by the body’s predilections, by its natural imbalances” (p.106). According to Pennebaker et al, (1999), continuing to create through bouts of depression illustrates that “creativity…is associated with coping andadaptability” (p.151, as cited in Runco, 2007). Ms. Ashley is coping with her continueddepression through creative expression in poetry.In almost unbelievable story of battling demons and coming through to the other side,Thomas Krampf tells the tale of jumping out of a 4 th story window prior to being diagnosed withschizophrenia. He spent many months in several hospitals recovering and still walks withdifficultly. Mr. Krampf writes that while he was physically recovering, his mental health wasdecreasing so that his “days as home alone were spent with skeletons hanging in the closet and  blood running from people’s mouths. If I went outside, the buildings and stoplights rushed up at me and receded at will. Without fanfare, I had been escorted from the dream world into the world of the chronically mentally ill” (p.45). He now follows an “orthomolecular niacin -based regimen” to keep his system stabilized. Vanessa Haley has used the writing of poetry to cope with Obsessive-CompulsiveDisorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, both as a result of an abusive childhood. In her  poem, “Blackbird,” she writes of following behind her father after he has mowed the lawn, attempting to find the pieces of dead creatures left behind in the yard. She was attempting torecreate whole beings from the pieces she recovered among the blades of grass. A teacher of writer, Ren Powell discusses being bipolar and the illness’s effects on h er life and her career. She muses, “Out of all the writers I know personally (people who make a living writing) none of them is bipolar. At least not that I know of. When it comes to  publishing, I assume it’s like any business, and mental illness is not   seen as an advantage. It’snot something an established, serious writer puts on his or her CV” (p.56). Ms. Powell isintentional about her writing, and thus her creativity. Despite that fact that she has no one thatshe knows personally after which to model herself or her career, she intentionally createsincredible works of poetic art, both in written and digital form, for publication (Runco, 2007).  Even as she consistently participates in therapy and takes medication, Gwyneth Lewisstruggles with bouts of depression. She was chosen as the first National Poet of Wales and feels as though her illness is always with her. In “Angel of Depression,” a poem that has been set to music and recorded by a fellow Welsh artist, Ms. Lewis speaks to her depression and writes that it is the “best part of her” because with poetry, she has written her way through and out of her  illness. She is seeking a “medium in which to vent or battle [her] demons” (Runco, 2007, p.126).  David Budbill uses his spirituality to cope with his depression. He has tried medication and cannot cope with the side effects. He writes in his essay, “I don’t invent what I write, I don’t think it up. I record what I hear and see, both outside of me in the world and inside of me in myimagination, and most often in that combination of the two in which what is outside of me gets transformed into something new as it passes into the inside of me” (p.86). He does not believehe is creating anything new and different. Mr. Budbill is fully invested in the belief that he issimply the messenger of the voice of spirituality that he hears inside and the things he viewsoutside as he is inspired to write. This is a blend of both Aristotle’s view that everything created was based on something that came b efore and Plato’s view that all creativity was inspired by the muses (Rothenberg & Hausmann, 1988).Liza Porter has battled back from addictions that stemmed from childhood molestations,rape, eating disorders, and depression. With treatment and medication, she has found her words and her “focus.” In Poets on Prozac , she writes, “My spark refused to go out –  no matter how harsh my inner voice was or how much I worried about others’ opinions. The things I write about are not pretty or comforting, never have been, and probably never will be” (p.156). She has the motivation to continue writing through the depression, through the pain, and on to theother side where she found her voice. Piaget has called this kind of intrinsic motivation,disequilibrium, because he believed humans were uncomfortable with being unbalanced, or forLiza, silenced by depression, and are then motivated to adapt (Runco, 2007).After 15 years of near-continual alcohol abuse, Jesse Millner, eventually sobered-up, wasdiagnosed with depression, sought treatment through therapy and medication, and is nowhealthier and more creative than he has been in decades. He writes in his essay, “When I first began writing poems as a freshman as the University of Virginia in 1971, I fueled the processwith booze, depression, and an acute longing for a girlfriend. I believed that if I wrote poemsthat showed my heartbreaking loneliness, along with my incredible sensitivity, women would  chase me down the halls of my dorm. So, I drank, listened to depressing music, and wrote from that place of sorrow I’d always cultivated but could more easily reach with beer and bourbon. Unfortunately, I wrote really bad poems, and women ran the other way. But the cycle of drinking, depression, and creativity carried on. Alcohol took me to the darkest, saddest places, and I loved being wherever I ended up” (p.60). Rothenberg (1990) believed that the over-use of  alcohol was a means of escape for some and that it could cloud the person’s judgment so that he/she believed the creative product was actually better than it truly was (as cited in Runco,2007). Mr. Millner used alcohol to soften the edges of his depression and to convince himself his work was of better quality than the sober light of day revealed it to be. But, he kept writing inand through his addictions/illness on to the other side where he is now writing with a clear head,if still a sad mind. Martha Silano suffered through “severe episodes of postpartum psychosis” (p.10) after  the births of her children. It was only through ineffective medication, hospitalization, a near-catatonic state, and finally a doctor that knew and understood her condition, that she was finallyable to put her life back together and to write. She authors a blog where she forthrightly,honestly and openly relates her life and her struggles. Denise Duhamel has issues with “chaos control.” After grad uate school, she beganseeing a therapist for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sexual frustrations, and creative non-productivity. It has been through her work with him that she has found her poetic voice  –  a voicespeaks on subjects previously considered taboo. She is forthright and unapologetic in her work   because she feels that telling secrets is “important” (p.33). Just as Flaherty (2005) and Jamison (1989) discovered with other creative individuals that suffer from depression, Ms. Duhamel didnot work during the bouts of her illness, but had more energy to write between them (as cited inRunco, 2007). As she worked with her therapist, she first got her life in order, then she was ableto concentrate on creating.I would recommend Poets on Prozac   to all who enjoy poetry…or literature…or even stories of overcoming difficulties. It is an honest look into the lives of those that have lived andare living with addictions, mental illnesses, and self- abuses that would topple ordinary people.The language may be harsh, at times, but the stories are ones of resilience and fortitude andcreativity in the face of overwhelming odds.
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