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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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