The Madness in the Method – on creativity and mental illness
Like many humans, I sometimes have conversations with other humans. (Real ones, not the imaginary ones I converse with for money.) Inevitably when chatting with someone new, the question of occupation comes up and that’s when I get to tell them I’m an author. It’s wonderful. My twelve year-old self (who couldn’t spell or do sums but had a catalogue of imaginary worlds and characters in her head) does backflips of glee. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I don’t love my profession, yes writing novels is difficult, but it is a privilege and I still have a file of rejection letters in my study to remind me how blessed I am.
Sometimes the news that I am an author is met with questions about what I write, how I got published, how much money I earn or when I find the time to write. Sometimes the response is, ‘Wow, you must have a big imagination!’ This always seems to me like telling Usain Bolt that he must be quite athletic. Yep, I have a big imagination. Most humans do. I put mine to work everyday, which strengthens it and a lot of the time my imagination is very useful to me. But sometimes it can be dangerous. (This is where the Bolt analogy falls apart, unless he starts using his speed to rob banks.)
I’ve been doing a lot of school visits recently and I usually tell students that I think primarily in pictures and I see a story in my head play like a film. The pictures come easily, finding the words to do them justice and communicate them effectively to my reader is the hard part. My mind’s ability to build intricate, detailed scenes is what allows me to write novels. This is helped along by a long-term memory bank which seem inexhaustible; I can remember what colour sweater my husband was wearing on our first date thirteen years ago, for example. Do I remember my son’s school library day is Tuesday? Never.
But like it is for a lot of creative people, my mind is a double-edged sword. It can build intricate, detailed pictures of chaos so well that the worst case scenario in any situation seems highly plausible. I recently contemplated getting a quote for someone to clean my kitchen and bathroom once a fortnight, but I decided not to incase the cleaner turns out to be a serial killer. I then flicked through the handy mental list I have of female murder victims from the recent past (admittedly, there have been a lot to choose from) as evidence that inviting a stranger into my home was certain to result in my death. This is kind of funny to read. It seems ridiculous.
I’m still nervous about the cleaner.
Yep, I’m a master of catastrophic thinking. So good, in fact, that I have made a living out of thinking up catastrophes and following them through until the very end. Ever wondered what it would be like to live through a nuclear winter? I wrote a book on it. Read it and you won’t have to wonder anymore. What does the death of a sibling do to a person? I’ve got that covered too. The next book has a grief-stricken boy navigating the world after the sudden death of his mother. Guess what? I have sons.
But sometimes I can’t organise all my anxieties into a narrative. Sometimes they are so real and so threatening that they take over my existence altogether and I have trouble functioning because my mind is so busy worrying and despairing and reliving every distressing event I’ve ever experienced in that same excruciating detail that apparently makes my books win awards. Last year The Protected won three major awards. Everyone kept telling me that I must be so thrilled and excited and walking on air. I was. A bit. But it was coupled with the knowledge that within a month of being offered the publishing contract for that book I was in a psychiatric ward and that the giddy high from the awards came rapidly after one of my most gutting lows.
A huge part of managing my mental health is the acceptance of medication. I was on a very effective regime until about six weeks ago when I thought I might try to get by on a little less. I could write award-winning novels and visit schools and raise two boys and lead the music every week at church. Look at me go! ‘I’ve got this,’ I thought. ‘And imagine how much better I would have looked at the PM’s awards if I didn’t have the extra 10kgs that all the meds bring along with them!’ Yep. That was an actual motivator.
Yeah. It didn’t work. As some guys in skivies once sang, hello darkness, my old friend.
Creative work is the pursuit of perfection. I am not perfect. That sucks.
There is a lot of stuff out there about the link between creativity and mental illness. I don’t know if I can have one without the other. But I do know that with all the problems my mind brings into my life, it brings a lot of good stuff too. It makes me who I am. And to quote from one of my favourite writers, Alice Munro, ‘I am extremely okay.’