Battling the monster: writers and mental health


Paula’s Post #120 – December. A month when we are supposed to be happy. Full of Christmas cheer as we anticipate the arrival of Old Saint Nick and happy times with the family as we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. For those of the Jewish faith, this is the time of Chanukah, the festival of lights, and for those of West African heritage, Kwanzaa. All celebrations; all times of joy.

At least that’s the idea.

But as we know all too well, the spirit of the season collectively known as ‘The Holidays’ is more often than not, just as likely to be fraught with anxiety and depression as it is good cheer and joyful merriment.

Here at the 5writers, we’ve embarked on our own ‘season of angst’ with each of us battling issues, big and small, that seem to be getting in the way of our collective productivity.

If you read my colleague Silk’s post of yesterday, The Art of Course Correcting, you’ll know that as writers, sometimes we must face ‘painful truths’ about the deadlines we set. In our case, our collective realization that ‘the second time around’ we may not have had either the ability or frankly even the same enthusiasm for writing an entire novel in 5 months. In Silk’s words:

Because I know I’m not going to have this first draft finished by our 5writers deadline – artificial as it may be – of February 5th. It’s just not going to happen. So I polled the other 5writers, and it seems I’m not the only one whose productivity has fallen a bit short of where we all should be in our stories by now – if we want to be typing “The End” in exactly 60 days.

Rather than avoid the problem, deny the reality, guilt ourselves into a demotivated state of inertia, painfully wedge enough scraps of writing time into the holiday season to make up for lost time, or just give up … we are discussing a course correction, including a reset of our challenge deadline to April 5th. This would also give us more time for mutual support, including some in-progress critiquing and feedback, and virtual group meetings.

Paths to any goal in life, after all, are just plot lines. They do take twists and turns, with something to learn around every corner. And if you’re afraid to make course corrections, you may never get there.

In my case, I was particularly captivated by Silk’s reference to building in “more time for mutual support”. If you’ve followed the adventurers of the 5writers you’ll know that, more than anything, this is what we are really all about.

While I had to look it up to confirm, the current 5 members of our little writers’ group have been together for almost 6 years. That’s a pretty good run. Some of us have been together even longer. We started as a traditional critique group, exchanging pages by email, then meeting to critique each other’s’ work in day long marathon critique session. These meetings occurred on more or less a regular basis and though often left mentally exhausted, we almost always came away with fresh enthusiasm  and dedication to our craft, each of us committed to becoming better writers.

Flash forward six years and we are struggling.

Although we started out strangers, we are now friends. Friends who, first and foremost, are committed to supporting one another, as difficult as that may be now that we live in five separate places in two different countries.

But that mutual support is what keeps me going, because I know another scary truth: writers are vulnerable.

In his blog, Electric Lit,  Joseph Jaynes Roistano writes:

The idea that creative writing is linked to mental abnormality is ancient: Socrates argues in Phaedrus that poetry is a form of divine madness. The literary world has lost many of its greats to suicide: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few. But are writers actually more prone to mental illness—or is this a myth fueled by memorable anecdotes?

In the largest study on this question (including almost 1.2 million Swedish patients), researchers found writers to have more than double the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder compared to a control group of accountants. Writers also faced a greater risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.

Depression… anxiety disorders… substance abuse… bipolar disorder… schizophrenia – that’s quite a scary little laundry list!

Not content to rely only on Mr. Rositano’s research, I decided to delve a little deeper, discovering another blogger’s contribution and a coincidentally familiar sounding title: In ‘5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illness and the Impact it had on Their Art‘, Professor Kim McCann of Southern New Hampshire University explores the lives of five authors who not only ascended to literary greatness, but who, whether privately or publicly, also suffered from what were often debilitating mental illnesses: Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and, yes, not to be forgotten, Ernest Hemingway.

If there is a bright side in all this, at least we don’t write poetry. According to Ms. McCann:

In 2002, Dr. James Kaufman of California State University in San Bernardino conducted a retrospective study of 1,629 writers that showed poets — specifically, female poets — were more likely than non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. As such, the link between creativity and mental illness is frequently referred to as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”

What does this all mean?

The heck if I know! But if I’m honest, I also have to admit I’m not the happiest I’ve ever been.

Anxiety? Check.

Depression? Check.

Bipolar Disorder? Maybe, certainly mood swings.

I never embraced the idea of writing as a ‘lonely profession’, much less a lonely avocation.  But quite frankly, right now, that is what it has become for me.

Up until a couple of days ago I was steeling myself for a grueling holiday season of lonely, marathon writing, envisioning a Christmas with the grandchildren where Nana locked herself in her room to write to deadline in an attempt to get back on course to complete my novel in 5 months.

But is this what we all want out of life?

Is this the cruise we’ve signed up for? I confess, I have a secret desire. A desire to poll the top 100 popular fiction writers – those committed to the ‘book-a-year’ deal with their publishers – and ask them, if they had it to do it all over again, would they walk down the same path?

One of the reasons we embarked upon our original five months challenge was to try to simulate the lives of these busy authors and the book-a-year schedule that demanded completion of a first draft in something under six months. Relentlessly, each and every year.

Well, having tried it, let me share with you what I’ve discovered: it’s haaaard!!!

Sure, sometimes it’s fun. In the heady beginning, when you’re fuelled by caffeine, adrenaline and enthusiasm, plotting and dreaming up exotic locales and fascinating original characters. But that ‘creative’ phase quickly wears off. Somewhere around page 80 or 100 or so you realize you have a long way to go. But by then, you’re already looking back and filled with overwhelming doubt about the choices you’ve made and the course you’ve charted.

That’s where I’m at now.

I’m depressed and filled with doubt. Right now, I don’t really want to take this novel any further down the line.

I long for the days when my 5writer colleague Helga and I co-authored a fun romp of a culinary novel, filled with wacky characters, luscious food and layer upon layer of plot twists. If one of us got down or depressed, the other was always there to put a positive spin on things and get our writing back on track. With culinary wiz Helga at my side, we used our husbands as test kitchen dummies and re-created the recipes in the novel in a series of spectacular Italian themed dinners.

I long for the days when my 5writer colleagues met on a regular monthly basis. For the days when, mired in the muddled middle, I had Silk and Joe and Helga and Karalee  to ‘brainstorm’ a way out. Where we shared our doubts and our anxieties in a support group that was as much about real life as it was about writing.

Bottom line, this time around, I don’t think we 5writers have taken sufficient care of our mental health on this challenge. And I say this knowing that I’m not the one in our group facing the biggest challenges at this time.  If I’m feeling this way, how must my other 5writers be feeling?

Pollyanna that I am, even I don’t believe that for every problem there is a solution. And this time around, I admit it, I don’t know what the solution is to the dilemma in which I now find myself.

If I’m going to continue writing, it is going to have to be fun again, because right now, plain and simple, it’s not. At least for me.

But I’m not giving up.

While there may not be one, all-encompassing solution, there are positive steps I can take that can help.

Step 1 – Balance: Was I really, absurdly, contemplating locking myself in a room this Christmas to write, write, write as carols were sung and chestnuts roasted on an open fire? Well to hell with that! Nix that. I will write if I feel the joy and the inspiration this holiday season, if not, forget it. If that means I’m not ‘a real writer’ then so be it, I’m at peace with that.

Step 2 – Read: Perversely, one of the huge disappointments of taking up the ‘writing life’ is the negative effect on the ‘reading life’. If I were to poll the other members of my writers’ group, I bet I’d discover I’m not alone. With only so many hours in the day, something’s gotta give, and that something is the joy of reading. This is not inconsequential: if writing is correlated with negative mental health, reading is correlated with positive mental health. The term ‘bibliotherapy’ first coined during the time of the First World War now encompasses a wide expanse of therapeutic approaches through literature. In this regard, I highly recommend Ceriden Dovey’s fine article published in the NewYorker, earlier this year, “Can Reading Make You Happier?”

For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of MRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.

Step 3 – Group Therapy. Okay, this one is going to be the the tough one. We 5writers have become most geographically challenged indeed. We’re not quite sure how we are going to get all five of us in a room together for an extended period of time. Admittedly, we may need to explore communicating by Facetime or Skype, but somehow or other, we all recognize that we are at our best as a group. Recapturing that group dynamic will not be easy, but we all feel the need to get back to basics, to get back to 30 pages a month, to get back to a soothing schedule of certainty and the knowledge that we are not alone.

So that’s my self-help prescription for ‘battling the monster’. How about you? If you’ve got any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you, in the meantime, I’m off to read a book.

Reading right now:

The Brutal Telling , Louise Penny’s fifth Inspector Gamache mystery.

Next up:

A Banquet of Consequences, Elizabeth’s George nineteenth Inspector Lynley mystery.


Circling the Sun, Paula McLain’s reimagination of the remarkable life of aviatrix Beryl Markham.

How about you? Any suggestions for a little ‘bibliotherapy’.

22 thoughts on “Battling the monster: writers and mental health

  1. I have to say, reading this is a relief for me on so many levels. Despite my early enthusiasm, I only have 15k words written. Not a great track record to reach at least 80k by Feb. 5th. I actually took the whole week of Thanksgiving off after a grueling month at work. No family, kids off to visit other family–I was going to write from dawn to late for 9 days. I wrote a bit on Turkey day, and a bit the next few days. By Sunday I was starting to get my groove on–then I had to get back to work. I did, however, read at least 8 books that week! 🙂 I haven’t written another word since. Meanwhile, I’ve had a yard sale, manically ordered Christmas decorations, need to get a tree, order gifts, wrap gifts, and maybe buy a car. In December.

    So I agree with the mental health break and will still try to work at least somewhat regularly–who knows, maybe April 5th is possible. But I won’t be killing myself (so to speak) to get there.

    • Ah, Richelle, that’s the best thing about being in ‘a group’; for better or worse, we’re all in a bit of the same boat. So nice to hear that you’ve found some lovely balance and will try to enjoy the holidays, as will I. Still besieged by nagging doubts, not sure if I’ll make the April 5th deadline either. But one way or other, my second, more modest hope is to again discover the joy of writing. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

  2. Oh Paula, this is honest and from the heart! I can feel your love for writing and the agony over how life is ever more important but we are so torn trying to do it all. I am proud for your courage to let it all hang out so to speak. And yes, do I miss the time we wrote that fun romp of a culinary history novel! Those were the best of times. But… nothing says we can’t repeat that, or at least try to something similar. We had fun, and that’s what we have to recapture as a group.

    • Thanks Helga, sometimes, you just have to write what you are feeling (something I rarely do). The good thing with me is that those wonderful ‘mood swings’ also mean I’m no longer feeling that way after I get back all your lovely, supportive replies, leaving me wondering what all the fuss is about. But yes, we had fun, and so agree that is what we have to recapture as a group. I’m thinking another culinary novel, maybe set in Vienna, – maybe Closing Time as a cozy…. with lots of Schnitzel and Sacher Torte on the side.

    • Thank you Joe and all the 5writers for always being there for me. PS – hope it gave you inspirational nightmares, because I don’t write things with monsters in it, but you do!

  3. It’s amazing the pressure we put on ourselves. Take time Paula. For a while forget the novel, enjoy the holidays guilt free. Have fun! It’s more important than writing anyway. I have no idea how to become a novelist, but I do know I need a break from the blog, and probably have done for a while now, so come the new year I’m planning a month off. I agree it’s all about balance. If something becomes so hard that you’ve lost your centre it’s time to step back for a while and regroup. Don and I are going to Mexico for 5 months and plan on writing a book in that time. But will we? It seems more important at the moment that we just stop for a while, and then see what movement wants to arise from the stopping. I know how hard it can be to let go, but I see you already know you need to stop. And then, when you’ve stopped for long enough, when you’re breathing easy again, when there’s a bit of an inner urge, when the moment speaks to you, discover what wants to emerge from the stopping. And I say all this for myself too.
    Have a wonderful care-free time over the holidays. Celebrate the return of the light.

    • Thank you so much Alison, if I can give you one tip on your collaborative novel with Don it would be to PLAN the book during that time; make up characters, think up crazy plot twists, scout all your locales and take a zillion photos. Play around with story software like StoryMill or Scrivener, but do not write the book while you’re having fun in Mexico, – write the book when you come back to Canada and it is raining!

      • Oh no no no! We are not writing a novel! We will be writing about our journey from conventional homeowners to nomads. Maybe. Or maybe Don will be writing about that, and I’ll be writing about the 100 plus different jobs I’ve had in my life. But no novels!
        And we’re coming back to Canada in the summer. When it starts to rain we’ll leave again 🙂

  4. I don’t really agree with Rositano and Kaufman’s assumptions. As someone who started writing more as a form of therapy than of creativity, rather than believe writing causes us to become introspective, I think it’s more likely that troubled minds find expression in writing. i.e., the mental illness probably came before the writing.

    But I can certainly relate to your feelings of discouragement. Self-imposed deadlines set up false expectations, and when we don’t meet them we usually feel we’ve let ourselves (and/or our critique partners) down. That heaps on the guilt, the sense of failure, and all kinds of negativity. Unless you’re under contract, you’re not obliged to set deadlines as goals, so why cause yourself that kind of stress?

    IMHO, a better use of the April date would be as a “check in” rather than a novel completion date. Every so often — once a month, or once a quarter, etc.– set a date to report your progress (or lack of it; it doesn’t matter) to each other. Share your successes, your challenges, and offer encouragement via email, Skype, or IRL if you have the opportunity. The achievers among you might push to have an impressive word count to report, but does it really matter if you don’t? Yu know the others will understand. Go easy on yourself. Put the current novel aside if you’ve lost interest in it. Maybe try writing something else — a different genre, some poetry or a short story on a topic that you’re passionate about. Keep a journal on the twelve days of Christmas. And don’t apologize for reading. Extensive reading is essential to good writing.

    Relax and enjoy the Christmas season. 🙂

    • Carol, thank you so much, your words are a breath of fresh air, wisdom and comfort. I’m a ‘deadline’ person (too many years gearing up for first exams, then trials) so usually I’m great with deadlines, but just too much going on this year, including the arrival yesterday of my 6th grandbaby, whom we’ll be visiting in Edmonton over the holidays. So yes, a time for balance and family and the joy of reading. I like your idea of making working on something else, I’m not one for short stories, but heard a suggestion of just writing ‘scenes’ that you can hoard like acorns and trot out and use in stories when the muse strikes. Thank you for caring. Thank you for your kind wishes!

      Merry Christmas!

  5. Paula, dear friend, I’m distressed about your distress. I’ve been feeling a bit the same way – well, except the worry about mental health. However crazy I was when I started this writing venture, I’m pretty sure I’m still holding at the same level of craziness … but I’m definitely not on the Plath path. And I’m sure you’re not either. But when you push yourself as hard as you do, and spread your energy among so many ventures and adventures, stress is inevitable and burnout not far behind. I wouldn’t look further than that for an explanation of your blues. It’s good (and exciting) to aim so high, but you can’t sustain a high indefinitely, and you have to be kind to yourself when you hit a low.

    I think your self-prescription of reading, and your instinct to focus on a more supportive role for the group in our writing lives is exactly right. We want to write because we love it, not because we feel we have to do it. And I think we’re all looking to bring the joy back.

    So relax, do some stuff that just makes you happy, and remember that you’re not alone … we’re in this together. Let’s set up a meeting of the minds in cyberspace sooner rather than later!

    (Except I don’t know about that fangy monster thing – I hope he doesn’t give me nightmares!)

    • That fangy monster thing was intended only to give our lovely Joe more creative inspiration, since he is the only one I know daft enough to write horror stories. Or fantasy novels full of horror and dread. But thanks so much dear friend for your words of wisdom, I am in full relax mood until after Christmas and will see then what I feel like writing about. One very positive note, as you can see from the comments, such a lovely outpouring of support from our followers!

  6. I was thinking more about this yesterday afternoon as I raced around buying a tree and ornaments and wound up with Arby’s for dinner and a still-crooked but standing, unadorned, 9-foot tree in my living room. The decorations can wait for the weekend.

    One thing that I “think” we all share in common (don’t know you all that well of course!) is that we’re probably all recovering Type-A’s….I know I am. It’s only in the last few years that I have made a conscious effort to relax a little bit and not put so much pressure on not only myself but also my sons. The unfortunate exes might not BE exes if I had learned to chill out more in my thirties. I’ll be hitting the big 50 next spring. I might finally have learned something in this life!

    But think about it. We all have pretty interesting and impressive resumes; we’re all super active with multiple hobbies. We all push ourselves–including when it comes to writing. If we were just writing for introspection and self-therapy, we’d have a diary. I know I WANT to be published. I really do. So I keep trying.

    But, I’m going to work hard to make sure that I don’t lose the joy in an effort to do it all. I think when you ease up (not stop!) on the pressure and the deadlines, things come easier–though not always. But it’s easier to take if you don’t promise yourself “I’ll be making my living like Janet Evanovich in a few years.” (Which, I might have been guilty of thinking a time or two.)

    Just some random ramblings that I thought were semi-relevant to this conversion–cheers!

  7. Well, there’s plenty of mental disorders in my family on both sides–bipolar, alcoholism–and Lord knows I have my moments. But at the end of the day, it’s all shades of gray isn’t it. (That was my original title for Impunity, Shades of Gray. But I changed it and then 50 Shades came along…Damn) But along with these “disorders” and coping mechanisms come brilliant, creative minds. Channeling that creativity in a positive way needs to be the goal. And managing the negative sides, with which writing can really help too. Blah blah blah….Let’s write! After the holidays….

  8. For years I decorated many trees, theme cooked, sang all season long. Now I am holed up rewriting a novel that requires humor. Next year there will be multiple trees, date nut pinwheels, and extra bling. I need to complete these revisions by the middle of January. I’d begun to feel isolated and wished someone would slip me a sugar cookie shaped like a Christmas tree under the door with a reminder note – hang in there. Ya’ll did just that!!! I’m not the only one!!! Thank you.

    • Go Jo!! So good to “hear” your voice! Tell us what you’re working on when you have a moment to lift your eyes from the computer screen!

  9. Paula, I can absolutely identify with the feelings you and your fellow “5” writers express. Much of 2013 and 2014 were creative lows for me. I’ve had better success in 2015 by changing my expectations and goals, but I’m still looking at an uphill climb to finish the current WIP. It would be lovely if there was a simple “one size fits all” solution to these times, but then of course, everyone would be a writer, wouldn’t they?

    Some people can pop on the blinders and never stray from their chosen path and deadlines. But most of us can’t. Life sidetracks us. Sometimes in good ways, sometimes not. And at those times, I think it’s perfectly fine to cut ourselves some slack and come back to the writing when we’ve addressed the bigger issues. To me, no book is worth missing out on life with loved ones, whether it be sharing happy events, taking on the role of caregiver, or needing the time to say goodbye.

    • Thanks JM, love the comment about how some: ‘pop on the blinders’. Wish that could be me, but even learning that it is not is part of the writer’s journey. Really appreciate your encouraging words and taking the time to both read and comment on the blog. So glad to hear things are back on track for you this year.

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