On World Mental Health Day, Martin Reed asks if we sometimes get so wrapped up in the writing process that we forget to look after ourselves.
There are a few myths about the writing life that as writers we probably don’t do enough to dispel – amongst the public at large, but more importantly amongst ourselves.
For instance, there’s that clichéd image of the tortured, penniless artist, isolated in a freezing garret, suffering for their next great opus, writing and self-medicating themselves into oblivion. That probably isn’t quite what you’re aiming for with your writerly ambitions. At least I hope not.
Yet many of us seem to buy into a fragment of that myth on some level, particularly when we’re starting out. No matter how much enjoyment we might get from the writing process, the nature of what we do means we put unrealistic pressures on ourselves – the obsession to fill the blank page, improve our craft, invite criticism, meet word count targets, abandon 20,000 words that’ll never work, hit deadlines, submit to editors and competitions, hope for acceptance but prepare for rejection, or crowdfund or self-publish then hunt endlessly for elusive patrons, readers and five-star reviews.
Of course, the fact that we’re often quite literally trying to capture a chunk of our raw inner lives through our writing, before inviting the scrutiny of strangers, ramps up that pressure no end.
And that’s only the writing itself. What about our lives outside, the stress of juggling writing with family, job, caring responsibilities, our health and mental health, and everything else? It’s tough to negotiate the space to focus on the blank page, to get that balance. Then even when we’re in that bubble, how often do we find that real life is still at the front of our minds, blocking the way to the stuff we need to scribble?
There’s no question that we put ourselves through it. We might not be suffering for art, but maybe we sometimes subconsciously buy too much into the negative struggle that seems to come with it. I don’t mean the struggle isn’t necessary – I mean that maybe, when we’re hard at it, we forget to step back and take care of ourselves.
Of course, writing shouldn’t be easy – no one said it would be. But like any pressure that we can thrive on, it can just as easily take its toll. Sometimes that toll can be greater than the potential rewards, affecting writers at every stage, whether someone’s just starting out, or they’re negotiating complex rights issues around their tenth book deal.
Looking after number one
Of course, it’s about more than just a bit of life stress here and there. Based on NHS figures looking at the general population we can estimate that more than 2,500 of our 10,500 members at the Society of Authors are likely to experience a mental health problem this year. That’s why we’ve been doing more over the past couple of years to focus on the wellbeing of our members and staff.
Having spent most of my life dealing with (and on a few too many occasions struggling with, and being beaten by) mental health challenges, this is particularly important to me. To prepare for my own writing, I try to find a balance of maintaining a fit mental state that can safely travel to the dark places I need to write about, while avoiding a state of mind that is born of those dark places. It isn’t always easy, and I know I’m not alone in that.
Of course, mental health and wellbeing are a far cry from the SoA’s bread and butter work of contractual issues and copyright law. Obviously, we aren’t about to become therapists on the side, but we can become more aware, and do what we can to raise awareness.
Since 2016, SoA staff who work regularly with authors have received Mental Health Awareness training, to help us better support people whose career issues might be exacerbating problems with their wellbeing, or vice versa.
We’ve published a set of Help pages on our website, covering issues from finance and benefits to health and mental health – and we have a regular slot for wellbeing-related articles in our member magazine, The Author, all designed (like this article) to keep reminding writers of the need to sometimes put themselves before their writing.
Prompted by author Jim Green, we’ve also established a growing Writers as Carers Group – a support network for professional writers whose lives and careers have been changed by having to care for someone with an illness or disability.
And we’ve been having a bit of fun with wellbeing too, to promote awareness. In August 2017, we ran a week-long social media campaign, #SoADoesYoga – bringing a bunch of our more well-known members together to encourage authors to do (sometimes serious, more often tongue-in-cheek) yoga poses themed around classic books.
At the time, Neil Gaiman said: ‘Writers don’t stretch enough, we don’t exercise enough, we don’t always look after our bodies as we should, while we work with our minds and our fingers. Anything that reminds us to take care of the bits that carry the mind is a very good thing indeed.’
This August, we ran #InsideOutside, another week-long campaign to encourage writers to step away from their writing worlds and explore the world outside their door – if only for long enough to take a photo and post it on Twitter!
Joanne Harris shared a photo of the interior of her magical writing shed and the garden outside, while others posted photos of cluttered desks alongside the landscapes and cityscapes that give them release. Malorie Blackman posted a photograph of the trees she goes to to listen to their whispering, as well as the World of Warcraft life she jumps into when she doesn’t want to go to the trees…
Step back, focus
All of which has basically been 1,000 words of build-up to a single prompt – no lecturing or preaching, just a nudge.
Whatever stage you’ve reached on your writing journey, whether you’re agonising about the blank page, the rejection letter or planning how to blow your first prize win or tenth advance, don’t forget to step back. Focus for a while on the mind and body that makes the writing possible.
You can find out more about the SoA’s support and advice around wellbeing, finance, contractual and other issues at societyofauthors.org/help.
About Martin Reed
Martin's short fiction has appeared in a bunch of obscure places, including The Critical Quarterly, Litro and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and collected in Angel Caging. He's working on his first novel while trying not to forget his own advice (see above...). He manages the SoA's communications and membership teams. @iammartinreed