Writing and Mental Health

On the 16th of March, Gwyneth Lewis (a Welsh poet) gave a talk on Writing on Mental Health at my university. I was interested because I’m a writer and I have struggled with depression myself. I wanted to know more about the relation between writing and mental health and one of the first points that Gwyneth gave immediately spoke to me. She said that a writer needs to be well in order to write and that it is a myth that you are a better writer when you feel bad or depressed. She explained that she couldn’t get out of bed when she was depressed. It was too difficult to do anything, let alone write and I knew she was right. Her knowledge resonated with my own findings and it made me think about my own experiences on a deeper level.

I remember a story that my mum told me. It was about a time in which she and my dad were my age. Back then, my dad had days on which he felt so bad that he would go out in the rain and disappear for a few days, but even though he did, my mum said that he always wrote his best poetry in those moments too. With my mum’s story in mind, for a long while I thought I could write better stories when I felt bad. I didn’t realise that what I really meant was that I write better when I feel strong emotions. You don’t necessarily feel strong emotions when you feel bad or depressed. Having a fight with someone can cause strong emotions but waking up with a bad feeling everyday is not the same. Think about it, you might cut your knee if you fall on the street. There will be a sharp pain when you fall, but after that the immediate pain subsides and stays in the background and you get used to it.

To me, depression felt like that, a constant bad feeling. Days were the same day in day out, I felt bad but I was fine at the same time, I didn’t ever feel excited or happy. I always felt drained. The best way I can describe my feeling of depression is that it made me feel indifferent. I didn’t care about school, the weather, food, or anyone’s ‘silly’ small talk. I didn’t even care about my own life. In a way, it was easy to go through life this way, I knew that I wouldn’t ever harm myself because I felt too numb to feel any such desire. However, I did care about one thing but was unable to admit this for a long while because I was afraid. Eventually I told my dad about it when we were driving in the car. I said: ‘I’ve lost my creativity, I don’t feel anything and I don’t know what to do.’

I felt scared because I always saw my creativity as a vital part of who I was. Without it, I lost even more sense of who I was. Not only was I unable to create any piece of writing, I also stopped producing ideas.

Why can’t I write, I thought? Shouldn’t I be able to write because I am feeling bad? Am I a failure because I can’t?

My dad said that I wasn’t a failure. He thought I couldn’t write because I didn’t feel well enough. Another thing that came with depression was that I didn’t know what to do with a life that I didn’t even want to be living. The only thing I was sure of is that I knew I wanted to write. I did not feel like I wanted to write but I knew from memory that I did and so I decided to pursue my writing ambition to the best of my ability.

I didn’t get better within a day. I had different kinds of therapy sessions and learned to cope with my depression over time. All the while, I held on to my goal and I knew I had to get better in order to achieve it. I thought I was almost there when I got accepted by Aberystwyth University to study Creative Writing but it wasn’t until the second year that I started to feel like I wanted to write, rather than only knowing that I wanted to write.

I am now aware that you aren’t a better writer when you feel bad. Society seems to present a romanticised idea of depressed writers and this is, as Gwyneth said, dangerous. I know my mum did not intend to tell me I would be able to write better if I felt bad. I created that idea based on the ideas of society, as well as on my own wrongly interpreted experiences with writing. I thought it was easiest to write when I felt emotional and negative experiences often gave me the strongest emotions. Instead, now I know that feeling good and being healthy is key and hearing this from Gwyneth helped me word the knowledge that up until this point I couldn’t convey.

Leave a Reply