Several recent discussions with other writers I know have turned to the topic of writers and mental health. While I disagree with the stereotype of the overly emotional writer, I do believe there is something to be said about the connections of art and sanity.
One of my favorite books on the topic, The Midnight Disease by Alice Flaherty, approaches the subject from a very clinical perspective. Flaherty looks at the role of mood disorders and their impact on the temporal lobes, the limbic system, and the drive to write. Flaherty is a neurologist, and her scientific background makes this book an interesting study in the organic elements of writing. She looks at language development and the brain, at the creative force often referred to as the muse, and at the occurence of writer’s block – which was how I discovered this book.
The book Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison is another fascinating look at mental health and writing. In this book, Jamison looks at specific writers and artists who were known to have, or demonstrated signs of, Manic-Depressive illness, or BiPolar Disorder as it is now known. Jamison complies an impressive and convincing list of well-known authors and artists and examines the relationship between their extreme behaviors and their art. She makes a compelling case for a direct link in many of these luminaries, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, and many more.
To some, this may be a depressing revelation. To me, it makes sense. Good writers are willing to dive into their own experiences and muck around in their own psyches in order to produce writing that is emotionally honest. This is not to say that they spill their guts about their own issues – though that may be disguised in the story somehow. Rather, they feel the emotions their characters feel, they experience the sensory elements to which their characters are exposed, and they allow their own minds to be – in a way – possessed by those characters so that the writer can think in the manner of that character.
You have to be willing to be a little crazy to do things like this.
So – it’s confession time. I haven’t necessarily revealed this previously, but I’m also not embarrassed or afraid to do so. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with BiPolar disorder. For most of my adult life, I had been misdiagnosed variously with depression, anxiety, or a hybrid of the two. What I came to understand eventually was that much of what I had thought made me dysfunctional, or at least not normal, was in fact something that is controllable with the correct medication and a commitment to being on it.
When I first discovered both Jamison and Flaherty, I cried. What I have ultimately come to realize is that there is a reason I am compelled to write. There is a reason why I will stay awake into the wee hours of the morning to express myself through writing. It has been liberating to come to this understanding. But it is a bit frightening, too. So many of the world’s most compelling writers and artists have been controlled by their disorder. Many have died as a result of it taking control of their lives, whether by suicide or simple self-neglect. The stories are harrowing and sobering.
There are times when, in the middle of an emotional scene, I will cry as I write, or I will experience anger that literally causes my blood pressure to rise. It is easy to tip into a sort of madness when I write, and it is learning to balance the needs of the story against my own needs that has presented the biggest challenge to my writing in recent years. The best description I’ve come up with is that when I write, it’s like dancing with crazy. I have to be willing to be led, but I have to be able to take the lead, too.
The balance is a precarious one, but one that is so rewarding. I need to face my fear of the crazy parts and take the reins. In the end, I feel certain that something previously seen as a detriment will actually prove a benefit instead.