The Myth of Mental Illness, or Why You Don’t Need to Be Crazy to be a Writer

I read a story years ago (I can’t find it right now) where a novelist sold his soul to the Tenth Muse (in Greek mythos there are nine). This tenth muse was the muse of insanity. And the character was nuts, but produced One Great Novel. There’s reference to many of the “Great Writers” having been inspired by this muse–the writers who drank themselves to death, killed themselves, and went to insane asylums.

My experience has suggested that a lot of people think you need to be broken to be a writer. This isn’t true at all. But to back up my claim initially, let’s talk about mental illness. The CDC suggests that about 25% of people in America have a mental illness of some sort. This could be a whole host of things from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to a variety of other things. There have been a ton of more eloquent posts from writer’s all over the interwebs that talk about living with mental illness, living with how it affects being a writer, etc.

When I first started seeing my therapist, one of my great concerns was that if I “got better” the words would stop. For years, I’d learned to survive everything going on in my life (a post for another day) into the writing. All the drama, love, hate, depression, all of it went into words. And, to quote Hamilton: I wrote my way out.

Many people, I think, who are creatives worry about what happens if this ever-constant in their life suddenly vanishes. Will the [insert creative thing here] be the same when it’s not fed from those things? I asked my therapist, and she said, candidly, that I would be better at the things I loved if so much of my energy weren’t deployed in ways that kept me safe, but didn’t let me function at my best.

My therapist, Hannah, is a rock star. I also thought she was full of it at the time. But, after almost ten years in the Social Services field, I was jumping at bangs. I was almost unable to enter a room full of people. Unexpected physical contact got me ready to throw and grab and punch. It would have been hard, I decided, to write in prison for smacking someone who spooked me, since I don’t write by hand much.

So I did the work. I worried that the writing would suffer. This is, as I suggested, the myth that sometimes comes to us from seeing other “artists” in action. Does every van Gogh need to cut off their ear, or every Zelda Fitzgerald need to be a drinker? I don’t think they do.


As I crawled my way from where I started to these days (about a year later) I think about my writing process now and how it was and how its changed. Much like when I was in high school, writing my first novel powered by teenage angst, and my second novel fueled by college angst, as I’ve found myself less angsty the words come better. I have more “spoons” to write, to consider what i’m doing. I’m not writing to keep from drowning, I’m writing because I like to swim.

So, as we look down the barrel of the holidays, be gentle with yourself. As you work on your creative projects (whatever those are) perhaps also think about yourself as a creative project. How might you make yourself better, and in turn, allow that to support your art? Just a thought.


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