By Tania Carver
You know that phrase, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps’? Course you do. It’s long been the province of dull office cubicle dwellers in dead end jobs desperately trying to create a personality for themselves. Well guess what? If you’re a writer apparently it’s true. And not only that, but there’s some science to back it up.
It was fellow Murderati-ist Zoe Sharp who put me on to it. She posted a link on Twitter to this report here. I read it and instantly agreed with it. It wasn’t a shock. Far from it. In fact, it came as something of a relief.
This directly from the article: ‘Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found.’ The article then goes on to mention a few writers who famously suffered from mental illnesses. Virginia Woolf drowned herself as the result of depression. Hemingway shot himself after suffering from depression. Hans Christian Andersen suffered from it too. Graham Greene, my favourite writer, was bipolar. None of this came as a surprise. Especially substance abuse – just take a look round the bar at Bouchercon or Harrogate on a Saturday night. (In fact, the bar at Harrogate on a Saturday night takes more from crime writers in one hour than a wedding takes in a whole night. I’m sure Bouchercon’s take is something similar.)
A lot of writers I know have all suffered from some kind of mental disturbance at some time. I’m not going to name anyone because it’s not my place to, but some have openly talked about it. I know that in the last decade I’ve suffered (at least) two quite severe bouts of depression lasting up to a year at a time. It was very, very bad. Hard for me but I think it was even harder for the people I live with. I don’t like to make a big thing of it because not only am I British but I’m Northern; it’s in our culture to ignore things and get on with them. I’m also quite private and reserved. So much so, in fact, that I feel quite uneasy talking about it now. So why do it? I don’t know. The article sparked something in me that I recognised and I needed to say it.
However, looking back in hindsight and at a certain degree of remove, I see that those two episodes weren’t necessarily negative. I lost a lot of weight, which I needed to. And at least I tried to get something positive out of it from a work point of view. This is also something that the researchers discovered. From the article again: ‘Lead researcher Dr Simon Kyaga said the findings suggested disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable. For example, the restrictive and intense interests of someone with autism and the manic drive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity.’
Now while I would never make any claims to genius, I would say that my creativity increased. I wrote three books while this was going on. Working through it seemed like the best thing to do at the time. One of the books (The White Room) turned out incredibly dark. I couldn’t help it. The subject matter was dark to begin with – a novel based on the real life story of eleven year old child killer Mary Bell – but it seemed that my depression made it even darker still. I was totally in the mind of my child killer and it was harrowing. It was like falling into train lines and not being able to get off them until I reached my destination. And the trip was very, very dark. Consequently I was in even more of a state at the end of it. Interestingly, the book that resulted is probably the one from my backlist that most people want to talk to me about. It was also a book of the year in the Guardian newspaper. (Shameless plug: You can still buy it here.) The Surrogate, the first Tania Carver novel, also emerged from a bout of depression. So the answer is simple. If I want to write something good I need to have a crippling bout of depression.
Obviously, it’s not something to make light of or to romanticise. Writers should never willingly wish themselves to suffer mental imbalances in order to make them more creative and especially not to access what they believe is their untapped genius. (That way lies madness of a different kind – the self-delusionary kind.)
If it does happen, treatment can be given. But there is a danger – and I certainly felt this in my own case – that accepting what it was and seeking help – and probably medication – might make my situation worse. As Tom Waits said, ‘If I exorcise my demons, maybe my angels will leave as well’. This also opens up an interesting area for study – are people in creative industries such as writing more prone to bipolar disorders or are people with bipolar disorders more drawn towards the creative professions where they are more temperamentally suited and can use their creative skills? I don’t know the answer to that one.
Depression (if that’s what it was and not some undiagnosed bipolar disorder) is not something I’m in a hurry to revisit. It was like living in hell (and worse for those around me, I know). Every morning I would wake up feeling fine. A mental blank slate. But then my consciousness would kick in and it was like a wall falling on me and crushing me. Huge, heavy stones on my chest and head, pushing me down, stopping me from breathing, thinking. Stopping me from climbing out. And my heart felt like the heaviest stone of the lot.
But it went eventually. Gradually lifted all on its own. I was able to move away from it, put distance between myself and what had happened and try to keep away from whatever had caused it. And that’s the thing – I don’t know what caused it. As the article says, writers are prone to anxiety, to depression. I’d go so far as to say it’s our default setting. We constantly think everyone else is doing better than us – more successful, bigger advances, higher sales, better marketing profile. We constantly live in fear of rejection, of handing in our new book and being told it’s no good, that they’re returning the advance, they can’t publish it, it’s unreadable rubbish. Every time we get praise we think we’ve dodged a bullet, breath a sigh of relief, and prepare to start the whole thing again. And we can’t stop it or change it. Is it any wonder writers are more prone to this than many other professions?
Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. Maybe other writers can successfully negotiate these mental pitfalls better. All I know is I haven’t had a bad bout for a few years now. And I’m in no hurry to go through it again.
I am in a hurry to finish the new book, though. With as little anguish as possible.