HELL IS EMPTY (and all the devils are here)

My brave spirit!
Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
would not infect his reason?
Not a soul
But felt a fever of the mad and played
Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners
Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me. The king’s son, Ferdinand,
With hair up-staring—then, like reeds, not hair—
Was the first man that leaped, cried, “Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.”
 – William Shakespeare, The Tempest
That last line has kicked around in my head for a couple of days, and I think I know why. I’ve been working on an article about the link between the creative mind and depression, and this quote made me make that embarrassing ‘wo-hey!’ noise people make when their mind is doing it wrong. Being prone to depression myself, it has felt exactly like that at times – that hell is empty and all the devils are here, in my mind, just chillin’, turning my formerly logical, productive self into a pile of numb that alternately cries because I can’t get through folding the laundry or makes me sit in bed all day watching Orange is the New Black. 

For me at least, my depression is linked to the loss of a friend (along with a few other things) in 2009, and the ramifications are ongoing to this day. I have definitely developed a bent towards pessimism, which is something I work on, as negative self talk is no fun for anyone. I’m highly aware of it now and am doing my best to conquer it.

I never used to feel like this. Growing up I was that much coveted ‘well-adjusted’. I mean, I was a bit of a show off and liked books more than people and would occasionally sit on the roof and listen to my mum going spare because she couldn’t find me and not yell out I was up there, but I was overall a cheerful little kid. I never thought there would be days (weeks, months) when I couldn’t remember what happy felt like.

The interesting thing is though, those lows, when I was most depressed, are seamlessly entwined with the greatest creative highs of my life.

After the funeral, I was silent, didn’t eat much, stayed in my room watching Grey’s Anatomy (George had just died) and Gossip Girl (before Jenny got kicked off for bad behaviour). Mum would come to my door and ask me if I wanted to do anything that day, but I would shake my head. I didn’t sleep. My phone would beep – I didn’t answer, and I never texted anyone back. I didn’t leave the house, didn’t get out of my pyjamas unless it was to get into new pyjamas, and the only motions I made were lifting my hands to type the name of a new TV show I could watch.

And then it began. Just a few words at first, tapped out on my laptop at 4am, when it was just me and the crickets and the shadows keeping each other company. The words fell into a torrent – words of goodbye, of loss, of grief, of memories – a litany of the dead, of every negative thought, of every bad sad experience – and then it changed.

I wrote other things. Happy things, funny things, beautiful things. My mind was a teeming steaming soup of ideas. Sure, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spoken to anyone in a positive way, but I was writing, and I was almost weirdly happy. It felt as though for the first time in my life, I had something important to say. Don’t get me wrong; I would have traded all of that to have my friend back, but that just wasn’t going to happen, so I built myself a misery cocoon. I peopled it with friends from my stories, friends who could never die, and I was alright with that.

Recently, I re-watched both HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and because I am the worst kind of special features junkie, I watched all the interviews with the real-life soldiers, and then went and read Dick Winters’ book. While watching them and reading the book, I noticed a correlation between those soldiers who creatively expressed themselves in some way after the war, and their tendency towards depression, and those who settled back into their lives, seemingly without a need for creative expression. According to both themselves and their families, those men seemed to better deal with the traumatic events of the war, not feeling the need to ruminate on it constantly or re-live it through creative expression.

Now, look out because here comes my best Carrie Bradshaw impression…

I began to wonder which comes first. Depression or creativity?

Does depression beget creativity? Does it give your cool, logical brain a chance to rest from the endless to-do list, daily grind, never-ending chores and then, once freed from all the once important, now insignificant trappings, can it do what it likes?


Does the creative mind lend itself to depression? Does it prefer to dwell on the darker aspects of life? Does it spend so much time and energy capturing thoughts, living and reliving in some dark place, ruminating on the possibilities and consequences and other outcomes that it becomes depressed? Is it cathartic to dwell on past events? Does everyone who experiences something awful need to creatively express it? Why not?

When you’re depressed you’re numb.

Everything goes quiet.


you begin to write. Or paint or dance or sing or make films, make games, act – the list goes on. What is it about that state of mind that sets us free? Is it an absence of fear, because you’ve already suffered loss? Is it to explore what you’ve been though? Is it to understand? To accept? I don’t have the answers, but ‘starving artist’ cliches exist for a reason. People who are starving, whether for food, a break, good health, money, a life free from heartache – these people are the ones who can move us the most. Perhaps they create to compensate themselves for their own lack – after all, the very act of creation is in itself life-giving. It is these people who touch us most warmly, bring us to tears though they themselves are badly damaged.

It’s a weird, undeniable truth that the people who live the good life don’t tend to make magic. For whatever reason, it seems to require a fine balance between mad and sad, high and low – you need to understand some of what truly makes us human to inform your creative expression. People just simply won’t buy what you’re selling if the emotions or actions in your creative work don’t come from an authentic place.  Moreover, if you cannot fully imagine the pain, nor can you imagine the resources a person has in them to meet and overcome it. It would seem that suffering helps inform your work in this regard, and maybe those who have had more than their fair share of it feel they’re qualified to say something about it.

All I know is for me, creative expression is a need, gut-deep and scary, but I also know that I don’t want to have to suffer for it. Is it worth being miserable day after day to sell a few books? Would that in turn bring its own brand of happiness? Furthermore, if I do ‘get happy’ and ‘live the good life’, will I be able to write? Will my stuff ever be as good as those bright shining moments of raw insight? In other words,

If I lose my devils, will my angels fly away too?

One thought on “HELL IS EMPTY (and all the devils are here)

  1. Pingback: HELL IS EMPTY (and all the devils are here) | Sean make movie.

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