To the uninitiated, writing appears to be a simple process of putting words onto the page. But the fact that I’ve re-written the sentence you’ve just read six times seems to indicate that perhaps it’s not that easy. To write well requires us to make a deep personal connection with the material, and this is where the trouble starts.
Ernest Hemingway famously said:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
This might all be fine if the transfer was only one way. But the process of writing, editing and getting published generates a whole host of other emotions which can, in turn, affect our lives away from the desk. Often, we may not realise that we’re building a psychological house of cards, until the sudden, brutal event comes that causes it all to collapse. Life happens.
my earlier Slushpile post). For others, it can be something far worse. In Cliff McNish’s post from June this year, he talks movingly about the death of his wife and how he found himself unable to write the ghost story his publisher wanted:
“Day after day I wrote less and less until finally ... I just stopped. I didn’t want to be in this dark place. I had enough darkness going on in my life.”
Cliff, I’m pleased to say, found a way out of the darkness and is back to writing books again. And so am I, for that matter. But what is it that allows us to see past shattering events and gradually bring our lives back onto an even keel? Psychologists call this trait “resilience” and the American Psychological Association (APA) defines it as follows:
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences.
Building resilience is a core skill for writers, but something that’s often overlooked. The APA have an excellent factsheet about building resilience, and here (very briefly) are their 10 tips:
- Make connections
- Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems
- Accept that change is a part of living
- Move toward your goals
- Take decisive actions
- Look for opportunities for self-discovery
- Nurture a positive view of yourself
- Keep things in perspective
- Maintain a hopeful outlook
- Take care of yourself
Write what you want – not what you think you shouldanother recent post by Sarah Aronson where she talks about changing writing direction to find peace of mind (and also success!)
Like Cliff and Sarah, I found that writing dark, difficult books worsened my mental condition, which in turn made my writing worse. So I decided to change direction and write lighter, funnier stuff instead. I wouldn’t say it’s been easier exactly (I still find writing pretty hard work), but it’s allowed me to tap into the positive, and make myself laugh into the bargain.
“What about the cathartic effect of writing?” I hear you say. Well, I agree that you can use writing as a form of therapy, and I think that’s why my short stories have been getting darker in the meantime (You can read more about the process behind that). Short stories are perfect for me because the process is much, much shorter than writing a novel – I can get the darkness out of my brain and onto the page without wallowing in it.
|The darkest of my recent stories|
“Too much of anything can make you sick.”I’d love to attribute that quote to a great philosopher, but in fact it’s the opening line of Cheryl Cole’s debut single Fight for this Love! Nevertheless, the sentiment holds true, linking nicely into my previous point.
Doing everything in moderation is important to both mental and physical health. It’s tempting to lock yourself in a room for eight hours and burn through as many words as possible, but it’s not a healthy long term approach. Varying when, how and what you write can help you work around external pressures and will probably improve your creativity too.
Worry about Your WorryingWriters are great worriers. This can be a positive trait, because it allows us to catastrophise, imagining all of the worst things that can go wrong in any situation and make sure they happen to our characters! But the same overactive mental process that allows us to plot stories can manifest in other situations as worry and rumination. Here’s a quick definition if the latter term is unfamiliar:
Rumination is the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one's distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.
Rumination is believed by psychology practitioners to be a leading factor in depression and anxiety. It’s a big risk for people who are naturally introspective and spend a lot of time inside their own heads. Er, that’s us, people.
Cognitive Behavioural Treatment (CBT) is a common way of handling negative thought patterns. I’ve had a fair bit of CBT treatment over the past five years, but it’s only in the last six months that it’s really started to stick. Your mileage will doubtless vary, and there are other treatments that may work better for you instead. See the resources section at the end for more details.
Don’t be an emotional sponge
When I was at my lowest ebb, I can remember sitting on Twitter and feeling that I was being crushed by other people’s sadness – here was someone going through a divorce, or coping with sick kids, or lamenting a parent who died years ago. I had lost perspective of the positive posts, sucking up the painful and the negative emotions like a sponge.
The simple solution for me, was to take a break from Facebook and Twitter and BBC News, to insulate myself from the grief of the world until I was strong enough to face it again.
Beware the end-of-project bluesThese are a big issue for me – after the wave of euphoria and relief that a big project has been completed, I will invariably sink into a period of low mood. The Friday before last, we delivered a brand new website at work, after an incredibly ambitious and stressful ten week schedule. As the first step in a projected ten year programme, the site was an unqualified success, and I had every reason to feel extremely proud of my contribution. But instead, I mooched around the house throughout the bank holiday weekend, feeling sorry for myself.
Writing projects are no different, and the stresses can be much worse because the completion of a final draft is invariably followed by submission to agents and editors, which creates its own anxieties. I know that other writers advise you to always have more than one book on the go, so that you can immediately switch to the other one. But I find I work best in intensive bursts, which doesn’t always suit that manner of working.
I remember reading about fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s suicide, which was triggered, in part, by reaching the end of a fashion project. As McQueen’s psychiatrist told the inquest into his death:
“Usually after a show he felt a huge come-down. He felt isolated, it gave him a huge low.”
Try to plan for the end-of-project blues and have a strategy to cope with them – this may be as simple as allowing yourself not to feel guilty about the low that inevitably follows a high. Although your body and mind will need a rest after an intensive period of work, try to ramp down slowly and structure your downtime.
Build a Support Network
Living Life to the FullThis is a free self-help website set up by a Scottish psychiatrist and partly-funded by the NHS. It offers a range of online CBT courses and factsheets to address problems such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and addiction.
NHS ChoicesThis site has lots of mental health advice, including the Moodzone which focuses on stress, anxiety and depression.
Manage Your Mindbestselling book by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope is a very approachable and comprehensive guide to mental fitness. At 500 pages, its size can be a little off-putting, and I was scared of reading it for years! But once I finally opened it, I found it both comforting and useful. (full disclosure – my employer publishes this book, but that’s also one of the reasons it’s so good!)
Therapy and CounsellingThere are lots of websites and directories of therapists/counsellors, and the choice can be confusing as there are many different types of therapy available. Always look for someone with accreditation – the more reputable sites will show you this information (for instance, It’s Good to Talk is a directory of practitioners who are accredited by The British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy). Always “try before you buy” - the practitioner-patient relationship needs to work in both directions to be effective, and good therapists will offer you a free trial session before you commit to regular meetings.
As well as private therapy, I have had counselling on the NHS in the past, although mental health services have been hit very hard by recent government spending cuts and you may struggle to get a referral unless your condition is serious.
Life CoachingLife coaching is not an alternative to psychotherapy but more of a complement – it won’t help you with deep-seated psychological conditions, but is useful for addressing issues such as confidence, motivation and reaching your career goals. I’ve recently had a course of sessions with a life coach and found it immensely helpful (if pretty expensive). In fact, the confidence it’s given me is pretty much the reason I’m writing this blog post.
Although she wasn’t my life coach, I’d like to give a shout out here to the lovely Bekki Hill, who runs a website called The Creativity Cauldron and specialises in coaching writers through their creative troubles.
OK, I think that’s quite enough from me! I hope you’ve found this post both useful and enjoyable. The issue of mental health for creative people is one that doesn’t get enough focus, so I hope I’ve redressed the balance a little.
Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.
Nick's writing is published in Stew Magazine, and he's recently received the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.