Staying Sane: N M Browne

Whenever I go on Facebook, which, because I am a procrastinating, distraction seeking excuse for a human being, is all too often, I come across something connecting writing with poor mental health. Back in  2012 the Karolinska institute found that writers had a higher risk of anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia. They or rather, we, are also twice as likely as the general population to kill ourselves.
I’ve often wondered whether people with these disorders are drawn to writing as a way of dealing with their disorder or if writing itself produces it .I mean it can’t be that healthy sitting alone in a solipsistic universe, killing off characters and reopening old wounds or as Ernest Hemingway would have it, opening a vein and bleeding. The job itself, with its isolation, its constant rejections, obliges the writer to believe in their own talent in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Worse, we are constantly bombarded with the evidence of other people's creative success. And the successes are never as good as us.
Sylvia Plath, herself the patron saint of all depressive geniuses, pointed out that the worst enemy to creativity is self doubt and, as in the creative world everything conspires to make us doubt ourselves, it isn’t surprising that our creativity is a fragile thing: we can spiral downwards in ever decreasing vicious circles to disappear down the plug hole of despair, or up our own backsides. Most of us don’t make any money either,  so we live under financial as well as creative pressure. I think it's  fair to say that writing as an activity is not particularly  conducive to mental stability.
 As I know quite a lot of writers, of varying degrees of sanity, my feed is often stuffed with platitudes - to the effect that the cracked let in more light or some such, a celebration if you like of our common strangeness. I get it. With all the bad stuff and vulnerability it’s nice to be part of a tribe, an alliance of souls who are somehow more sensitive and wiser than other people. Some beginner writers feel the need to become egocentric, melancholic and alcoholic in order to be 'real' writers. I don’t buy that. Nobody in their right mind would want to be mentally ill: even those who aren’t in their right mind don’t want to be mentally ill. Let’s not pretend its a prerequisite for genius and focus instead on helping people to get better.
Given all this, I was interested to come across an article recently which seemed to claim that making stories up about people was, in fact a remarkably healthy way to deal with the world. Of course it wasn’t talking about us special people but ordinary MOPs (Members of the public) Apparently when someone is angry, red in the face and and screaming at you, the very best thing you can do is to try to find a story that might account for their response. You could for example imagine that they'd woken that morning to find their car clamped, their partner copulating with the milkman on the sofa and their kitchen cupboards devoid of any kind of caffeinated beverage. It's no wonder they are upset. Trying to understand another human by contextualising their anger, by story-making, helps people to deal with emotion in a way that promotes their own continued mental health.
  I liked that approach. I’m not sure how practical it is but,  nonetheless it made me regard my chosen job in a different way.  How does anyone learn how to make stories up about others but by reading? Books allow us into the heads of others as nothing else ever does. So, rather than focus on our own dodgy mental health we can see ourselves as offering an empathy service to the world. Read us, learn about story telling and lo, you will deal better with all the ordure that life throws at you. It’s a thought.

And here's another:


Wendy H. Jones said…
Very well put. I can identify with much of what is you say. It is somewhat more unnatural to shut yourselves way and work in solitary isolation. And yet we are compelled to do so. Thanks for a great post and, indeed, a great read
I agree with you - writing gives us understanding, if nothing else and even if we don't always apply it in those everyday situations, we can at least imagine what might have been going on! Actually, I think that ability to 'imagine' is a double edged sword. It was a long time before I realised that not everyone 'imagines' every possible scenario when, for example, undertaking a long voyage, including every worst case scenario too. We spend so long saying 'what if?' when we're writing that it's well nigh impossible to prevent ourselves from doing it about everything else and we tend to err on the side of potential disasters. I know I often have to give myself a shake and try to behave normally!
Susan Price said…
It was a great read. Thanks, Nicky.

Before books, you learned how to put yourself in the place of others by listening to story-tellers. Some lucky small children, who own adults able to tell them stories without a book, still learn that way - before progressing to written stories and widening their understanding.

We are the latest practitioners of a millienia-old craft. That's one of the stories I like to tell myself, anyway.

I wonder what the status of those first story-tellers was?
JO said…
I think putting absurd people in stories is a wonderful way of managing them. There's a couple who - for various reasons - I have to have quite a lot of contact with. He is a bully and she is a silly woman. Neither are readers (fiction-is-a-waste-of-time sort of people) so maybe they'll never realise they are the prototype for an unpleasant couple in a novel I'm playing with. (And, even if they should read this, I doubt if they'll recognise themselves)

For me - the alternative would be to be openly rude to them, or - at least - to him. This way I can not allow him to bully me but not ruffle feathers.
Leela said…

Great blog. Books are cathartic for some readers and writers. As Susan has said above, it is a 'millennia -old craft' and we are lucky to put pen to paper or type the words that flow on the keyboard.
Enid Richemont said…
Very interesting post. I particularly identified with your comment, Catherine - like you, I imagine every possible scenario, especially the negative ones. JO - your couple. I once, quite a long time ago, went to a totally nightmare dinner party with a totally nightmare couple - great material for a novel I was working on at the time.
Sandra Horn said…
Great post! It's a mental see-saw. Yesterday, I was on a high - v.happy storytelling session in the afternoon. Good! Today, I'll use the energy from that to write. Ah, but no- just discovered I hadn't made it in a poetry comp - hit the floor. Can't write. How did I ever imagine I could. Am useless, etc. But we can't not go on writing, eh?
AND putting stories round people is a crucial part of being an empathic human. I wouldn't trade the lows of being a writer for the stability of not being a writer.
Lydia Bennet said…
I"m an obsessive what-iffer and it's a bit of a plague, I can think of a load of different scenarios to explain anything people do or say and all the things that could happen on a perfectly ordinary trip or activity, and I can't seem to switch this off! I invent stories about people I don't know but see about the place or know but don't know certain things about, and I invent characters who I talk about to people and when those people one day mention them, I know that character has become real! There is a term for this, I think they are called 'mini-sagas' and I've read that Barbara Pym did this, even doing detective work to find out about people she observed and inventing things to fill in the gaps.

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee