Alumnus Q&A: Seth Swirsky ’82, songwriter, filmmaker and author

by Kripa Shrestha | 4/4/17 12:00am

Seth Swirsky ’82 has exhibited a tremendous love and need for creative expression through his eclectic artistic career. As a 20-year-old junior at Dartmouth, Swirsky, an English major, wrote a jingle that was picked up by Thomas’ English Muffins before he decided to pursue songwriting upon graduating from the College. Swirsky’s songwriting career includes hits such as “Tell It to My Heart,” recorded by Taylor Dayne in the late ’80s, and work with several large labels. In 1996, Swirsky rediscovered his childhood love for baseball and wrote “Baseball Letters: A Fan’s Correspondence with His Heroes,” which consists of letters he wrote to baseball players, such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Ted Williams, and their handwritten responses back. Swirsky then experimented with yet another form of storytelling and combined it with his love for music ­— he took a handheld camera and interviewed people who had stories to tell about his favorite rock band, The Beatles, which he put together into his award-winning documentary “Beatles Stories.” Swirsky also has a Beatles-inspired band, The Red Button, and started his own recording career in the early 2000s. In 2013, Swirsky received a master’s degree in clinical psychology. He currently practices in Los Angeles. His clinical practice has inspired two artistic productions: his latest record “Circles and Squares,” released in 2016, and his fourth book “21 Ways to a Happier Depression: A Creative Guide to Getting Unstuck from Anxiety, Setbacks and Stress,” filled with watercolor images and techniques for alleviating anxiety and depression, released this week. Swirsky, who is also a visual artist, is currently putting together paintings for a show next year.

What inspired you to switch from your artistic career into the field of clinical psychology?
SS: I love asking questions. And I love people’s stories. This manifested itself when I took a handheld camera and interviewed all these people that had stories about The Beatles, when I wrote letters to baseball players and loved hearing their stories back. So it felt very natural to me to get a degree in psychology and to listen to people’s stories. And what’s interesting is that with whatever I am doing in my life, it seems to go then through an artistic blender and somehow manifest itself into a work of art, whether it’s a book or a CD or a painting. Getting my master’s degree manifested itself in this book “21 Ways to a Happier Depression.” I’m not just a therapist. I need to put something out there that expresses my views on things, and I love that. One of my favorite artists, Salvador Dalí, had a great quote that I live by. He once said, every day I wake up, and I ask myself: what is Salvador Dalí going to do today? And I love that because every day is a new chapter, a new page. Every day presents to me some creative opportunity.

Can you elaborate on your newest book, “21 Ways to a Happier Depression”? What inspired you to write it and for what purpose?
SS:
The reason I decided to write “21 Ways to a Happier Depression” was not to cure depression or anxiety, but because I wanted to help people in a very simple way. You can turn to any page in my book, and there’s a new idea. Let’s take a student at Dartmouth for instance. If they have anxieties, like most students around the world in their age group, they’ve also got a million things going on and a lot of assignments, and it’s a stressful life. It can be very fun, but it also has a lot of stresses to it. I want my book to feel like it’s your friend, that you could actually put it on your night table, and you could open it to any page at any time when you’re feeling stressed, and you could say, “Oh, I like that idea!” If you buy a small watercolor set and just some drawing paper, if you’re very stressed out and you just take your paintbrush and a little water, and you start painting circles and squares, and you just fill up the page, you take your mind off your mind. You’re not thinking anymore about the issues that seem to crop up all the time and are causing you worry. And as a bonus, you get a nice little picture with you! You don’t even have to be an artist. You can make a circle. And you can make a square. It’s the act of painting itself that takes your mind off your mind. So that’s one idea. I want to give people very simple, doable ideas. And that was the point of doing the book, that we could alleviate people’s fears, anxieties and depression and can actually help them.

Is this painting technique that you just described what inspired your album “Circles and Squares”?
SS
: Yes, it is. I was going along thinking that I’m going to name my album something different. So as a recording artist, I asked myself, “Where am I actually at in my life right now? What do I want to describe in my record to people?” And I thought my life really is at circles and squares, meaning it’s at a place of wanting to keep things simple. It’s not complicated. I try to simplify things and break them down to the most elemental pieces, which I discovered in that kind of painting, which really helps my own anxiety. Everything in “21 Ways to a Happier Depression,” I use myself, and I’ve used for 30 years. I’ve helped many patients with these strategies. These are really tried-and-true things that really do help. One might help someone differently than it might help another person. But before I put out my album, and I made the cover for it, I thought, “What do I really want to say? Where am I at?” I thought, “I’m at circles and squares;” that’s why I named it “Circles and Squares.”

Can you tell us about your experience at Dartmouth? How do you think your experience here shaped your interest in your future career or prepared you for it?

SS: My dad is a ’63 graduate from Dartmouth. I was born in his freshman year. So I really grew up with the “granite of New Hampshire” in my muscles and my brains. Dartmouth was in my blood. I just had to go to Dartmouth. It was a different experience at 18 than it was when I was much, much younger obviously. And although going to Dartmouth was very comfortable and natural to me, coming from Long Island and having spent a lot of time in New York City, I wasn’t used to the isolation as much as an adult. So it was a departure for me, and my first winter here, it was really, really difficult. How this helped me was that it was my first real test in my life. Up until Dartmouth, everything was pretty easy, and I thought that’s the way life is. And when I went to Dartmouth, of course, the classes were very difficult for me. I did well. But it was a lot more of an effort, and it was very cold. I remember walking across the Green with the snow up to my knees and thinking to myself, “How am I going to make it through here? This is only the second term! How am I going to make it through four years?” That’s what I’m really trying to express to you, that I really wanted to make it. I wanted to succeed there. I didn’t want to give in to it and transfer. I wanted to say, this is a challenge — find a way. And that’s helped me tremendously. I made honors in my senior year. I learned how to succeed at things that weren’t just handed to me. That’s helped me because I went into the music business, and that’s an extremely difficult and competitive business. But I had such a strong base of having made it through one of the most difficult schools in the world that nothing could get to me. Because I knew what it was like to face adversity. And that’s what I felt I really got out of Dartmouth. There was a tremendous education in just that alone. Not just the classes.

Do you have any comments on the state of mental health at Dartmouth and the services available to students?
SS
: When I was at Dartmouth, you could always go to Dick’s House. They were very, very open about students seeing any psychologist at Dick’s; nobody was turned away. I went a few times myself during a period in my junior year when I was trying to figure a bunch of things out. Nothing too heavy or dark, but it doesn’t matter. Just the fact that it was available — I truly believe that students should take full advantage of it. Even if they think it’s the smallest issue. In my day, it was available, and I can only imagine that it’s much more available right now. I just think that students should take full advantage of anything available to them when it comes to their well-being because it’s very hard — there’s still a stigma to seeing a therapist. I have three kids — 22, 14 and 12 — and I’m always saying to them, “You want me to hook you up with a therapist?” And they say, “Really? You think I should?” But it’s not about should you or shouldn’t you, it’s about do you want to. It doesn’t hurt to. It’s just another voice; it’s like a diary. Except a therapist can offer some good insights and good advice. It’s only helpful if it’s a good person, if you believe that they can be good for you. I’m really on board with that. People should really take advantage of this, especially students.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to Dartmouth students to be happy?

SS: To be happy in life is to remember that there’s one key word that you should really live by, and that’s the word “yes.” You should try to say “yes.” As many times as you can. Not to drugs obviously, but let’s put that aside. Say, you’re invited to a party, and you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m tired. And I’m a little bit down. I don’t know if I want to, and I’m already in my dorm room.” All the reasons to say, “no!” It’s so easy to say “no” to things. Find a way to say “yes.” “Hey, we’re doing a road trip. What are you doing this weekend?” “Well, I really should do this, and I really should do that, and I really should do this…” Say “yes!” Find ways to say “yes” in life. It’s so easy to say “no.” But every time you say “yes,” good things happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.