First let me define mad, what I don’t mean is hearing voices and imagining people talking to you. Oh, actually I do. Although it is not the sort of schizophrenic behaviour which is likely to need serious medical intervention or admission to a secure unit. No. The gentle art of conjuring up make-believe settings, worlds and people is an act that the writer has rather more control over; it is an extension of childhood make-believe. Often it is the wistful child who stares out of the classroom window continually and jumps out of their skin when asked the answer to an equation who is likely to be an imaginative and creative student of life, rather than a brilliant mathematician. Frequently a keen observer of the human condition, they are sometimes the youngest sibling in their family. I am the youngest of four children. Youngest children from large families seem to fall into two categories, the over-loved and the overlooked. For a writer it is far better to be the latter. The overlooked can slip below the radar to watch and listen to adult conversations while observing small, telling incidents. Parents’ have a habit, by the time they get to the third, fourth or fifth child, of forgetting that a child is present; conversations take place which ordinarily would be private. Later when this last child is the only one left at home, they can become more of a companion to the parent and get to ask probing questions about the family history. All this is great preparation for the creative life. In my recently completed novel Casting Shadows, the artist Sally Kettlestone,is the youngest child. She spends a good deal of her time hiding under tables and behind door jambs listening in to adult gossip.
Recently Mslexia March/April/May edition(an excellent magazine for writers www.mslexia.com) conducted a survey of writers. Three thousand writers took part in the survey entitled ‘Does writing keep you sane?’ One of the things they wanted to know was whether writers suffered more mental health issues than the general population. Studies in the past having suggested a link between creativity and depression. Quoting from the Mental Health Foundation, 29% of women and 17% of men have been treated for some kind of mental health problem. Among the women writers who responded to the Mslexia survey, the figure was 69%. Of course this is a self-selecting group, nevertheless it threw up interesting data about writing when depressed and writing when positive. Of those who took part 71% said that writing made them more positive about life 57% said that writing reduces their anxiety or stress and 42% stated that writing makes them less depressed.
From my own observations when teaching creative writing students, I would say that a significant number find writing cathartic and recognise that it helps them through some very difficult life circumstances, not least, because they form a close and supportive bond with their cohort. The conclusion in the Mslexia article is that while writers might be more beset by mental health issues, writing acts as a form of therapy. This is borne out by the fact that writing has been used successfully in the hospital setting to aid patients in their recovery.
Recently I was bemoaning the fact that I wanted to get on with my next novel, but various outside issues were delaying the process, a friend remarked that I was always happier when writing a novel. There is madness of course. I call this permissible insanity, I make people up, give them difficult personal circumstances, a series of disasters ensue - these rock their lives and even affect mine - particularly when I find myself worrying about the torment of my fictitious characters in the vegetable aisle of the supermarket! I call that mad, but in the nicest possible way. What my writing gives me is somewhere else to go, another world to inhabit, a make-believe brain-space where I can bring about resolution; satisfactory resolutions often being elusive in the real world. And when the words are really flying off the keyboard and I am in a state of creative flow, I would say that writing for me is one of the most exciting, calming, fascinating ways of using my brain and my time. I simply couldn’t live without it; writing is my passion.