re: Does My Mental Illness Mean Writing Is a Bad Idea?

in Creative Process by

Dear Editor…

My life is stressful due to suffering from mental illness and that clearly brings with it more negativity and self-doubt than average. As I’m socially isolated, research is a nightmare too and I feel like being a Writer is the worst thing I could attempt. As such, I sometimes feel like its a massive mistake to start down that path. What do you think?

Thanks,
JC

Dear JC…

You’re not alone — self-doubt nags every writer. I do get that it’s particularly imposing for you, though, as I’ve worked with writers suffering mental illnesses and they share their ups and downs with me. Notice I said “ups.” They struggle, but they also gain from writing—the joy of creation and self expression, an escape from the daily grind, and, yes, confidence. Their trick: stoking self-confidence by seeking visible improvement. Writing comes in many forms, so why not start small, with poems, essays, or short stories, and with things that don’t require research? Thus you reach “The End” quickly then can revise or start something new. Writers improve with every new draft and project. Seek out new techniques from writing books, take online courses since those don’t involve the social pressure of showing up in class. If money allows, hire a freelance editor to suggest improvements — but see it as suggestions, not criticism. You’ll see improvement and increase your confidence. Then tackle bigger projects if that’s your goal, saving submission for publication until your craft can compete.

Happy writing!
The Editor

19 Comments

  1. I always love your advice and today even more so. This is good advice even for those with just the self-doubt / stuck issues.

  2. Your advice to start small is excellent, actually, for all of us. I hope the writer has a therapist or doctor; someone they can talk with, and is not just self-diagnosed and self-treating. Writing can be a dangerous path if their immediate goal is to get published. However, as a therapeutic release and a communications tool, writing is priceless.

    • Wise points, Charlie. Anyone embarking on this path with publication being an immediate goal is indeed on a dangerous journey that is likely to involve rejection, which is fuel for self-doubt. Many writing veterans, with tons of lauded books under their belts, will tell of their first efforts never seeing the light of day—but they consider those efforts important to their long-term growth as confident and capable writers. Just as one shouldn’t expect a Major League contract as soon as they set their mind to serious ball-playing, one mustn’t count on immediate publication. Efforts to strengthen craft skills are not wasted.

  3. Your advice, as always, is very, very, good and can be put to good use by more than the intended. I did wonder how you were going to answer this question but you did so with great honesty, simply and clearly.
    Love reading this column.

  4. Dear Sweet JC. I too suffer from a mental illness: Bipolar Disorder. When I’m manic, I think everything I write is awesome, but when I’m down I think it’s crap. I hate to say BP’s feel deeper than others because rejection sucks for everyone, but I know as a BP personality, I obsess more. I hired the best professional editor in the world and over the last seven years I have learned more than I ever thought possible. I’m more proud of what I’ve accomplished as I grow as a writer, than the fact I haven’t been picked up by an agent/publisher. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was from Deborah which is READ, READ, READ the genre you want to right. The characters in the novels you read and writers who write them can be the support you need as you study their technique, their word choice, and their storytelling. Another thing that helps is joining a critique group, not only for the support and encouragement your fellow writers give you, but because (as I tell my children) YOU ARE WHO YOU HANG OUT WITH.
    So, hang out in writing blog websites, immerse yourself in a good novel and remember to enjoy the process as you learn.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Joanna. And for your thoughts on the values of reading, beyond the studying of technique. I never thought of the characters themselves as being “supportive” before, but I totally see it now that you’ve pointed it out!

  5. JC, I understand how you feel. I too deal with mental illness, and grew up with a parent with mental illness more severe than mine (who I still live with out not being able to live anywhere else) but I write because have stories to tell and share with others.

    While I don’t write about mentally ill characters, it can effect how traverse the challenges of writing, and later getting published, I envy writers who have a more innate business sense than I do, who have this “detached empathy” regarding their work, I still don’t have that after nine years in my journey.

    For me, it easier to face the challenges of writing and publishing if I didn’t directly use the topic of mental illness in my writing, simply because I didn’t want the pain in my life to limit seeing only one way of living.

    Early on, I kept it to myself, and only shared some specifics with close trusted friends, but now I can be frank about it without the shame I once felt.

    I still can’t write about it myself yet. but it’s important you know that we can make it no less than anyone else.

    if there’s one message I hope I can impart in my career going forward, is that you can be decent, loving person, despite the mental issues that hide it or make it harder to show.

    Just because you have a mental illness doesn’t make you crazy beyond reason. You’re not a monster.

    We still have the same dreams, fears, and are NO LESS HUMAN than anyone else.

    You don’t have to be one of those extremist cases the evening news constantly profiles and (in some cases) glorifies, just like not all cancer patients are resigned to die as they were a few decades back.

    You and I can be part of a new normal in how people see mental illness as a whole. Sometimes I fear film, television, and even books unmeaningly perpetuate the stigma of mental illness because stories have to thrill and engage the reader, which often means making the characters suffer, and mental illness can often be the way to do it.

    I’m not denying that are sadly people who are mentally unstable in ways that are harmful to others as well as themselves, but that’s not everyone, and I wish more media expressed that.

    Mental illness in general still has more stigma around than AIDS, cancer, and even LGTBQ rights combined. Unless we show more nuanced views of mental illness, too many people will not get help, or give their friends and family the support and respect they deserve and need to take their chance for a whole, respectful quality of life.

    Hang in there and feel better,
    Taurean J. Watkins

    • Thank you, Taurean, for sharing why you choose to write about topics that aren’t related to your challenges, and why writing is so vital for you. I know quite a few people who wage battles with mental illness, so I can appreciate at least a little bit the strength you must bring to bear in pursuing your passions.

    • Excellent points Taurean. Mental illness still has a stigma. I recently moved from California to Texas and one of the questions was: Within the past two years, have you been diagnosed with, been hospitalized for or are you NOW receiving treatment for a psychiatric disorder? I answered honestly and wrote Yes, I take medication for BP. When I got to the desk, the clerk changed my yes answer to no. I found that interesting.
      My first novel fiction novel was about a girl living with a mother with mental illness. I wrote it as an apology to my children and to express the pain they must be going through as we learned to cope as a family. Although the feedback I’ve received from agents and editors has been positive, my novel has not been picked up to date–and that’s okay, now. It was therapeutic for me. I read similar fiction novels to use as comparative works in my book proposal. What I learned was invaluable because I learned technique, which I’ve applied to a second novel. It is nothing like my real life and because of this distance in the story my plot, POVs, and theme are much stronger.
      Best wishes.

  6. Last comment, I swear.
    I love writing. It is a way to express myself, despite the fact that my husband, friends (not writer friends) and family aren’t particularly excited to read what I write. When I first started my writing journey, I shared/forced everyone I knew to read my story whether they wanted to read it or have me read it to them.
    I am reminded of the scripture (Matthew 7:6 NAS version) that says “… do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”
    No matter how excited I am to share my work, I try not to push my story onto people who don’t share my enthusiasm because their reaction is what brings me down when they aren’t as thrilled as I am.
    As a writer, my work is precious to me. Eventually, my words will be read by people who like to read–AND THAT IS WHAT MATTERS.

    • You are fabulous to share your experience, Joanna. And you know what, I bet it’s the case for many, many writers that family and friends don’t read their work. Regarding those in my close circle, they know I write, they are always happy for me, but I know they don’t read the actual stories because they don’t know the specifics. I’ve found that’s the case for many writers and their close ones. What we write just isn’t in their area of interest, or they’re just as busy as we are but with their own stuff and so time to read is minimal. And, with most of them not being writers themselves, they don’t quite get how we’d love for them to know the specifics. But then, I couldn’t give the details of most of their jobs, either, so I’m just happy they are happy for me.

  7. Thank you to the Editor and for the comments posted. I hope I didn’t put you on the spot by asking quite a complex question.

    I’m not focused on being published right away in terms of a novel and in fact, am very hesitant to call myself a Writer at all. To be honest, I don’t believe I’ll ever achieve publication. That’s not to sound pessimistic, it’s just what I believe and have largely accepted. I think it’s just too high a mountain to climb.

    Having said that, I do have a story outlined and I’ve had the characters in mind for many years, but I’m sadly not capable of developing it. Despite knowing the story, I have no idea what the genre would be and it involves researching a number of subjects and that’s before I think about the word count in the 10s of thousands.

    Ultimately, I often think my character deserves a proper writer.

    I do write small pieces of writing. Some might call them poetry, but that comes with too many rules, so I just call them pieces of writing. I’ve also been writing factual articles and have had one published in a local history society’s magazine.

    I can understand why writing could be therapeutic for some, but it seems to do the opposite for me. When I write, I need to be as relaxed and positive as I can and that’s very rare for me, so I have real trouble thinking and the blank page is more daunting than ever. I also fall into the deep trap of redrafting every line as I write as I almost see writing ‘rubbish’ as a reflection on me and my ability. Again, that’s to do with self-esteem and self-confidence, of which I have none.

    Anyway, sorry for the long reply, but thank you again to the Editor for her comments and those submitted.

    • You didn’t put me on the spot at all — that’s why I’m here! I notice you’ve capitalized “Writer” in both your original letter and in your comment. I can see how much you respect that title. I remember the thrill I had when I first dared to write “writer” on a form that asked for my occupation. We do consider that an important label. That said, I think it’s fair to call yourself a writer if you actively write — and in fact you’ve been published in a magazine, so surely you earn the title. If you feel the need to qualify, you’re a “writer seeking major publication” but a writer still. No, make that Writer. I’m going to send you an email directly, JC– if you’re willing to share your outline with me, or a brief description of your story including your characters’ ages, I’ll help you figure out your genre. Once you have a bead on that, perhaps you’ll feel more comfortable stepping into the first draft.

      • I do think the title of Writer is an important one and I capitalise it automatically. There are Writers behind the Newspaper you read, Writers behind your favourite television series, movie or book. For me, the title of Writer feels like it can never be self-imposed, but rather must be truly earned and deserved. As such, because I have a very low opinion of myself, I don’t think I’ll be able to call myself a Writer, even if others do. Thank you for e-mailing me, I’ll reply to it in a minute.

  8. I was able to relate. I’m glad to know I’m not alone. Your conversation gave me comfort. I’m a self-doubter and it always cross my mind to blurt it out on writing. I read from http://www.spi-global.com/blog/innovation-lab/12-writing-tips-masters/ for writing tips and it gave me confidence. I just don’t know where to start. Thank you for the editor giving points of improvement. I’m too shy to socialize and eLearning might really be a great resolve.

    • What a fun link. Thanks for sharing it, Mishka. Definitely of a lot of inspiration. Those “masters” sure hit some sweet spots.

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