Mental Health and Writing

I have a theory about writers. We’re all mad. Maybe not all of us but a larger proportion than you’d expect in the population at large. Or so it seems when I consider my writer friends and the writers that I follow on social media. Many of us seem to be struggling with mental health problems. Although my perception could be affected by bias due to the large proportion of writers in the people that I follow on social media, my theory is backed up by at least one scientific study. What interests me is why? Is it cause and effect? And if it is, in which direction does it flow? Or is it a correlation with a more complicated explanation? It seems to me there are a few possible explanations and some or all might be applicable in individual cases.

Explanation 1

Some writers can’t hold down a real job. I’m being a bit facetious here. When I say some writers, I’m actually talking about myself. A very severe depression and memory problems after electroconvulsive therapy meant I gave up work as a research scientist several years ago. I didn’t know what else to do so I started writing. And although I love writing and do it every day, I don’t count it as a real job because it feels like I’m just messing around at home and it doesn’t pay the bills. (I’m not entirely serious here. Writing is definitely a real job.)

Explanation 2

Writing serves as a type of therapy. I’ve found keeping journals and writing poetry to be really helpful during terrible times. Even if you aren’t writing deliberately as therapy, it can help relieve the pain of mental ill health. In this explanation, the mental illness is the cause, the writing the effect.

Explanation 3

Sensitive, empathic people receptive to the world make good writers because to write well you have to be observant and be able to put yourself in other’s shoes. But this quality might make those same people oversensitive to the world and its problems and perhaps more vulnerable to mental illness. In this case, there is a correlation between the two rather than a cause and effect.

Explanation 4

Many writers, myself included, have particularly strong internal commentaries. This is great for chatting with characters you’ve made up, not so great for battling the internal critic. The internal critic might be the cause of some aspects of mental illness. And it doesn’t stretch credibility too far to imagine that the ability to see and hear imaginary characters might be a benign manifestation of the visual and auditory hallucinations that become more extreme and problematic in psychosis.

Are you struggling with the pressure of writing life? Download my FREE article STAYING SANE: 5 TIPS FOR WRITERS

IMAGE CREDITS: Doll by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash; Abandoned psychiatric hospital by Blogging Guide on Unsplash; Corridor by Echo Grid on Unsplash

Life, writing and other excuses

The dust has settled a little thick on my blog (and on every surface in my house if I’m honest) but there is just time enough left in this year to redeem myself slightly. And a blog post won out over cleaning. No brainer.

I didn’t quite mean to leave it so long to post here but sometimes life gets in the way of good intentions. That was the case this year. It’s been a tough one but I’ll spare you the details. I’ve been writing though. Just not here.

An essay in Boundless started my writing year and sent it off in a direction I wasn’t exactly expecting. The essay was one I’d written years previously but had never had the courage to make public. A memoir about mental health, miscarriage, psychiatric wards, ECT. Pretty heavy stuff (but funny too, if you like your humour pitch-black). It had such a brilliant response and I had so many requests to tell more of the story that I put aside my novel-in-progress and started working on a full-length memoir (although given that ECT shot gaping holes in my memory, perhaps ‘memoir’ is not the most accurate word to describe what I’m writing.)

It’s weird revisiting the past. Especially a traumatic past. Exhausting in a way that writing a novel isn’t. But what is really amazing for me is that I can do it at all. That I can revisit difficult times without being lost in them. Even a year or two ago, it would have been too much. I’d have felt every shake of anxiety, every tear, every crushing episode of despair, every twitch of paranoia, every lurch of fear.

Time helped. Friends helped. Love helped. And my writing too. It filled my head with other things when ruminations and intrusive thoughts threatened. I wrote about it for earlier this month. I’ll see what happens with the memoir-in-inverted-commas. Maybe it will be too difficult, too personal to try to publish. Maybe it will make me too vulnerable. Maybe it will intrude to much on the lives of those closest to me. But I’ll carry on for now because it won’t leave me alone.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Novel Readings and Book Events: Is Anyone Else Winging It?

I admit, I’m winging it. And I have been for some time now. I’m talking about events. Before the launch of The Backstreets of Purgatory, I had never even been to a book launch, not to mention spoken at one. Literary festivals weren’t on my radar when I was a research scientist, and I left the UK to live in France before I started writing seriously which meant I haven’t had many opportunities to attend book readings or festivals in the last few years. What I do know, I’ve made up or gleaned from other writers when we’ve done readings together.

Which leaves me with some gaps to fill and I’d appreciate your help. On Saturday 2 March, I’ll be doing a reading in Montrose Library. Montrose is the town that I grew up in. I’m excited and nervous to read in front of a home crowd. There will be people in the audience for whom this will be their first encounter with The Backstreets of Purgatory and there will be those who have heard me speak a few times. There will be folk who know nothing about the novel and those who have read it several times (at least, so my dad claims).

Montrose Review article about Helen Taylor and The Backstreets of Purgatory
Article from Montrose Review

Writers, here’s where I need some advice.

When you are doing an event and reading from a novel, how do you choose which passages to read?

There are several criteria that I keep in mind, but the more events I do, the harder it is for my selected passages to meet all of these. Here’s a rough list of what I think an extract should do:

  1. it should keep the audience’s attention (long enough to be interesting, short enough to stay interesting)
  2. it should stand up in its own right
  3. it should give a good taster of the book (characters, tone, themes; in the case of The Backstreets of Purgatory, Caravaggio’s art)
  4. it shouldn’t require too much explanation of characters or events leading up to it
  5. it shouldn’t give away crucial parts of the plot
  6. it shouldn’t be something that you have read loads of times before
  7. if reading more than one passage, there should be a good contrast between the two
  8. there shouldn’t be too much swearing/sex/violence especially if your parents, their pals and possibly your former school teachers are in the audience

Number 8 aside, it is 6 in particular that is giving me a headache. That and 5: the worry about giving too much away to the people who don’t know the book. How do you get the right balance between passages that work, that don’t give away too much and that you haven’t already read a zillion times before (very slight exaggeration)? I have several favourite passages that work well but some of my audience have already heard them and I don’t want them drifting off and snoring. (If the worst came to the worst, I could request to borrow Ozzy the Dog who spent one of my events rolling about on the floor in front of me, stealing the show and generally distracting my listeners. However, cute as he was, he didn’t help me sell many books).


Okay, so if you were me, would you stick with what you know, where the timing works, the laughs come in the correct places, where you don’t stutter or stumble over tricky parts (is anyone else rubbish at reading aloud?) or would you try out an untested passage or two? And does it matter if you give away crucial parts of the plot?

What about your own experience? Do you read the same part each time you do an event, or do you choose something new? If you are in the audience and you’ve heard a writer talk before, does it matter to you if they read the same section of their book again, or does that make you turn off?

Any tips, advice, experience or loans of Ozzy or similar gratefully received.


Image credits:

Scurdie Ness Lighthouse, Montrose by Oliver Paaske on Unsplash

Ozzy taken at Fidra Fine Art

Article from Montrose Review 20 Feb 2019






Women Writers Network Favourite Reads of 2018

For those of you who may not know, I’m part of the Women Writers Network. We are a group of volunteers who run a Twitter account dedicated to supporting and promoting women writers. It is a brilliant place to discover new writers or to be reminded of old favourites, to share blog posts, writing tips, and get support on those days when you might be flagging.

Here, some of our founder members give their recommendations of their books of the year. Unlike most end of year lists, the books didn’t have to have been published in 2018. It means that some old favourites or the new discoveries that may have been published several years ago can get a mention too. Here are our recommendations (in alphabetical order by contributor).

Gail Aldwin, poet, short fiction writer and novelist

Cover of My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth StroutI loved reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Stroud this year. The situation of a young mother visited by her own mother while in hospital sparks as series of memories that offer a patchwork of recollections that allows the reader to meander through Lucy’s early experiences. As a writer I enjoyed the journey which made me reflect upon the use of memoir techniques in fiction writing.



Sandy Bennet Haber, writer and editor

Cover of The Growing Season, a novel by Helen SedgwickThe Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick. Sedgwick’s speculative fiction is based on the premis of reproductive technology having been developed which allows both men and women to carry prosthetic wombs, thus sharing the work of gestating a child. We view the world Sedgwick has created from multiple viewpoints – those who see the technology as having liberated women from the dangers and drugery of natural childbirth, and those who are sceptical. A good page turner, with mystery and a nuauced exploration of sensitive issues around reproduction and birth.


Lynn Davidson, poet, creative writing tutor and researcher

Cover of Outline by Rachel CuskMy favourite reads this year were the wonderful, strange and riveting Milkman by Anna Burns, and Rachel Cusk’s trilogy of novels Outline, Transit and Kudos. Cusk’s books reveal, or rather explore, how men talk and women listen. I thought the last scene of Kudos was brilliant. I also read, getting to it rather late, Denise Reily’s poetry collection Say Something Back which is addressed to, and speaks about her late son. Along with much else, each writer explores voice, what it is to speak and what it is to be heard, and works the platforms of novel and poem to see what it can carry in terms of voice and points of view. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.


Maria Donovan, novelist

Cover of Elfriede Jelinek's novel, The Piano Teacher


The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek. This was recommended by my friend the writer, Melissa Ledwidge. This novel is so troubling and brave and startling – it reminds you there are such possibilities.




Rita Gould, writer, editor and blogger

Cover of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Among Rita’s recommendations is Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. This is one of the books that was referred to time and time again when we did our Women Writers Network Twitter chat on Women and the Environment earlier this year. Published in 1962, its stark warnings about pesticide use and other environmental catastrophes are as frighteningly relevant today as they were over fifty years ago. Other recommendations by Rita include novels by two Women Writers Network members The Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan, The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor along with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.


Helen Taylor, novelist

Cover of Milkman by Anna BurnsMilkman by Anna Burns. There are many books that I admire and enjoy but every now and then a novel comes along which I wish with every cell of my body that I had written myself. Milkman was one of those novels. Despite the difficult subject and the sinister undertones, it is a really funny book with a harsh, wry humour. I absolutely loved it.

Up there too was the beautiful Findings by Kathleen Jamie. A gorgeous collection of pieces about the Scottish landscape, simply written but full of poetry. It made me feel homesick and wistful.

As a rule, I don’t review books on this site. Now that I know lots of writers either personally or virtually, I find it a difficult thing to do. There is no way I’d want to write a bad review of a novel by someone I knew but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to compromise my standards and say I enjoyed something that I didn’t really. Which makes it such a joy to be able to say that both the novels by Women Writers Network members that I read this year were an absolute delight. I loved Maria Donovan’s The Chicken Soup Murder, an unconventional murder mystery which for me is really a beautifully written study of bereavement. That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina is an exquisitely told tale of love and loss, with lyrical writing and beautiful scenery that seems to be right there in front of your eyes. A heartbreaking story that I didn’t want to end.


Valeria Vescina, author, creative writing tutor and reviewer

Cover of Painter to the King by Amy SackvilleIn Amy Sackville’s Painter to the King (Granta Books, 2018), you see the court of Philip IV of Spain through the eyes of Diego Velazquez; the relationship between artist and monarch is poignantly portrayed. Another memorable novel involving a painter is Ali Smith’s How to be both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014): ingenious and riveting, it involves story lines separated by centuries and yet intersecting. Beautiful and unusual is the graphic-novel version (Feltrinelli, 2018) of La Mennulara, a collaboration between artist Massimo Fenati and author Simonetta Agnello Hornby; the original novel by Agnello Hornby is available in English as The Almond Picker (Penguin, 2006). Jhumpa Lahiri has written Dove mi trovo (Guanda, 2018) in Italian; the sparse literary style underscores the predicament of her central character, a woman longing at once for connection and detachment. Issued in 2018 with an introduction by Rachel Cusk, The Little Virtues (Daunt Books, 2018) is a collection of essays penned between 1944 and 1960 by Natalia Ginzburg, one of Italy’s greatest writers; each essay gives us a portrayal of a historical time we should not forget, as well as a wealth of timeless reflections.



I hope you enjoyed our recommendations. What was your favourite book that you read in 2018? We’d love to hear from you.


Gail Aldwin is a poet and fiction writer. Her collection of short fiction Paisley Shirt is available now from Chapeltown Books. Her new novel The String Games will be published in 2019 by Victorina Press. @gailaldwin

Sandy Bennet Haber is an Edinburgh based Australian writer and the editor of You Won’t Remember This — Travel With Babies and contributor to Waymaking a new anthology of women’s adventure writing, poetry and art. @sbennetthaber

Lynn Davidson is a poet, creative writing teacher and researcher. Her poems have been published widely, the most recent of which is a poem series entitled Return to Kāpiti Island (House of Three, 2017). @LynnDavidson8

Maria Donovan is the author of The Chicken Soup Murder (Seren Books). @mariadonovanwri

Rita Gould is a US-based writer, editor, and avid reader. In addition to writing short fiction and poetry, she blogs about writing and reading at An Artful Sequence of Words where you can find reviews of some of her recommendations. @ritakitty8

Helen Taylor, author of The Backstreets of Purgatory @TaylorHelen_M

Valeria Vescina is a writer, creative writing tutor and reviewer. Her novel That Summer in Puglia was published in 2018 by Eyewear Publishing

Women Writers Network @womenwritersnet




Measures of success

Sometimes it is important to stand back and look at your achievements with fresh eyes.


The idea for this piece has been brewing for a while, and I think today is a particularly good day to get down to writing it. Why? Because, after a few weeks of travelling to various different events, I’m home again with nothing in the diary and I’m suddenly filled with Monday doubts and anxieties.

It is all too easy to flick through a Twitter or Instagram feed and measure yourself against others and find yourself lacking. Whether it is how you look, where you go on holiday, which parties you’re invited to. For me at the moment, it is all about book reviews. I feel like I’m yelling into a void, desperately trying — but failing — to attract attention for my novel, while at the same time succeeding in winding up everyone who is in earshot because of the racket I am making.

Photo of a seagull squawking against a blue-grey sky (by Anthony Robson, Flickr)

It’s hard. My publisher has a press department and sent out press releases for The Backstreets of Purgatory but apparently no one was biting. A debut novel by a total unknown? Little to no chance. Apart from the odd notable exception, it seems that the novels which get national press coverage are ones written by well-known writers, prize winners or journalists with contacts to the papers. However, not prepared to be so readily defeated, I have taken it upon myself to attempt to get some coverage. With that aim, I have sent out about a zillion emails to magazines and papers and potential reviewers (actually that isn’t true; it feels like a lot but they are targeted, not indiscriminate), torn between the knowledge that, on the one hand, journalists and books editors are swamped with unsolicited approaches every day and the last thing they probably want is me harping on about my book, and, on the other, that no one else is going to do this for me and I refuse to let this opportunity pass without giving my novel the best chance of success that I can. That said, I’m very aware (and not surprised) that most of my emails probably get deleted without being read.

So, Monday morning, sifting through the junk in my email with no sign of messages from magazine editors or reviewers, it is very easy to get demoralised. Failure feels like it is hiding around the corner, ready to stamp on my hopes and squash the life out of the brilliant moments of success that I’ve had so far.

How do you measure success?

The weird thing about success, though, is that you can always do better. You could always write more books, sell more copies, win more prizes, win a more prestigious prize, have a bigger audience. However successful a writer is, I  imagine that there are very few who feel absolutely secure in their success. Few earn enough to support themselves by writing alone. Few are celebrities (if that is your measure of success). Critical acclaim is seldom universal. Commercial success doesn’t necessarily mean critical success. You get my drift.


It is also worth remembering how far you’ve come (and I’m talking to myself here obviously). To curb a display of intemperate Pollyanna-style melodrama, I won’t actually list all the things I should be glad about. But loads has happened this year that has been utterly and completely fantastic and way beyond my expectations (I’ll give the edited highlights).

Pollyanna Statue
Pollyanna (never knowingly underemotional)

Like getting The Backstreets of Purgatory published in the first place. I mean, come on. That was the dream.

And having an amazing — and I mean like totally amazing, couldn’t have dreamed of anything better type of thing — launch party with old and new friends. And getting some stunning reviews. And receiving hand written letters from readers. And travelling to New York to do a reading. Being invited to Cambridge to speak to Anglia Ruskin’s Women’s group; being invited to be a panelist at the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair, doing a Skype lecture/tutorial for an Italian studies class at Hull University. Honestly, these things had me buzzing with joy.

A montage of photos of The Backstreets of Purgatory and reviews

It is important to stand back sometimes. To not dwell on the fact that perhaps I don’t know all the right people, that I haven’t succeeded in persuading certain newspapers or whoever to take the novel for review, or whatever else I’m beating myself up about. Because there are lots of things that have gone brilliantly, including a great blog tour and some really generous reviews from plenty of other magazines and websites with many more offers in the pipeline. And of course, I have to make sure I remind myself that far more important events have happened this year — both personally and out there in the world — than the publication of my novel.

Goals achieved

When I set out to write my novel I had two real goals.

  1. To get it published and into bookshops.
  2. To affect readers with my writing in the way that I have been affected by books that I have read.

The evidence for the first is in bookshops all over the country, from Waterstones to Blackwells, the British Library shop to fabulous independents like Golden Hare in Edinburgh. The evidence for the second is in the letters, messages and reader reviews that I’ve had. And it is properly touching.

Therefore, by my own measures, I declare The Backstreets of Purgatory a success!!

Everything beyond this is a bonus.

(And, anyway, my real daily success is persuading the cat to give me a cuddle.)

Photo of Helen Taylor (author of The Backstreets of Purgatory) getting a cuddle from her cat.


Image credits

Mountain photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Seagull shouting by Anthony Robson, Flickr

Pollyanna statue from Wikimedia