You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here . . .

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.

9 thoughts on “You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here . . .

  1. JD Rhoades

    I experience frequent visits from what I call the Black Birds. They come and rest on my shoulder and whisper in my ear, reminding me of every failure, every hurtful word said to me or by me, every humiliation, small and large. And those bastards are HEAVY.

    And yet, when the Black Birds come to call is when I seem to be at my most creative. We're heading into winter, which always seems to make it worse, so hey, I should be able to finish getting this new book knocked out. Silver linings and all.

  2. Lisa Alber

    No, you're not the only one…I don't negotiate my tendency toward depression/anxiety well either. I like JD's "black birds" analogy, because it's true: there's such a weight to it. What makes it worse for me is when I get advice from folks who obviously don't have depression issues. They say things like, Come on, all you have to do is exercise; get the endorphins going. Or, it's about prioritizing and self-discipline, that's all. Shit like that. Pisses me off, actually…

    What I hate most about depression is how critical I become toward myself. Instead of giving myself a break, I tear myself apart. Lisa, how come you can't be like other people? Why are you so lazy? etcetera. It's a debilitating cycle. At the beginning of this year, I fell into a depression because I'd landed a so-called "super agent," and then six hours after she offered to represent me, saying she loved my novel, she backed out, saying she thought there might be communication issues between us (something like that, can't remember). Me: My fault. I was an idiot on the phone. I shouldn't have risked her ire by wanting to do more due diligence. I shouldn't have mentioned that I'd had an agent previously for the same novel. I should have acted more excited…etcetera.

    The horrible thing is–and maybe this is the anxiety part of depression–I'm still beating myself up nine months later! I'm not depressed, but I can't help thinking that she could have sold my novel by now, and that my dream is forever closed to me…

    That's the part of the cycle that people don't talk about much: how self-critical thoughts can fester for a long time. They can pop up and cause a depressive moment out of nowhere. And friends can tell me all day long that it wasn't my fault–she obviously had other stuff going on–and that she wasn't the right agent for me, and so on–but it doesn't help.

    Man, writing all this–maybe I should head back into therapy! 🙂 Thanks.

  3. Debbie

    I wrote an entire MS during a depressive state. I think that it gave my mind focus, a place to go, while the unconscious worked out the trauma and overload that caused the depression. The escape was to a romantic and yet intensly dark subnarritive.

    I have to say a big thank you to Murderati authors who saw the poetry and things I was writing on Fb, and rescued me with their words. You helped pull me out of a suffocating darkness. Thank you.

  4. Reine

    Dostoevsky and Van Gogh had temporal lobe epilepsy (well documented) that causes symptoms often thought to be mental illness. I think – in all cases – the term "mental illness" is unfortunate, because it implies that something is wrong with one's mind, when it is really the brain that is malfunctioning. The more we learn about the brain, the more we see that it is physical. Talk therapy can certainly help one negotiate life, but it is more important to have real medicine in many cases.

    Both Dostoevsky and Van Gogh determined that their symptoms were beneficial to their creativity and spiritual experience. Dostoevsky wrote that if there were a pill to cure his seizures he would not take them. Van Gogh did not want the color and light taken from his perception. I have the same type of epilepsy, and I feel the same way. I have little choice, though, since there is no medication that stops my seizures. It helps enough to keep me going and not in a fog all the time.

    See my interview with Susan Greenfield and Shahram Khoshbin (R. Carter) on BBC TV UK production "Brain Story, Part 1, Mysteries of the Mind." It is available on line and probably from the BBC.

    As far as creativity goes… I do not think it makes a person creative. Many thousands of people have brain disorders and are not creative. They are not famous, and they are not often interviewed by Susan Greenfield.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Beautiful blog today – thank you. I've been struggling a bit with depression myself. I'm thinking I'm probably an undiagnosed bi-polar, but I manage to hold things together all right. And I do feel that the emotional imbalance contributes to my creativity. I think what's most difficult now is that I'm balancing a sales job with my writing, and when you're in sales there's no room for "moodiness." I've always got to be "on." So, there's a lot of acting going on. But, you know what they say, if you want to be happy, act happy, and the rest will follow. That kind of works with depression – sometimes just doing the job and getting out of your head will pull you through the day without much drama. We're a hell of a lot, us writers. What pains in the ass we must be to everyone we know.

  6. PD Martin

    Great blog. I saw that article last week, too. Being an author certainly can be harrowing and take a toll! As backed up by the comments to date.

    Like Lisa, I love JD's black birds analogy. Although 'black birds' makes me think of my grandma, because she always used to sing that song… 'Bye, bye, black bird'. It's a great song. Maybe you should sing it whenever your black birds come along 🙂

    Stephen – I could never do sales. Being 'on' and 'up' all the time…torture!

  7. David Corbett


    Sorry to be a day late. Wonderful post, and thanks for the candor. I know it comes hard to the Northern temperament.

    I envy your productivity when depressed. I get so anxious I'm scattered, and have to fight to focus. Or I'm so sapped of energy it takes a leonine will to drag me to my desk. But it's too awful not to do something, and the ntrospection writing obliges seems to be the best cure, or at least the most successful distraction. Even reasonable social demands feel painfully awkward. Solitude suits the spirit of the thing. But there's a leaden quality to it as well, not the bright bells of creativity. If the sad muse gave you THE WHITE ROOM, she's a generous soul. It's a marvel. Had no idea you were fighting through so much to get it down. Be proud. Rightfully.

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