Writing is difficult, but its also something so basic to who we are as intelligent beings, that despite its difficulty, its something literally anyone and everyone can grasp. Art happens when the writer expresses something unique that emerges from the self and says something more than the contents and the tropes and methods learned from the craft. A craft on the other hand is a series of techniques to efficiently and easily perform a task, in this case the ancient art of writing. This being said, it is imperative that any aspiring writer learn the craft of writing. Just as potential martial artist must learn their craft in a dojo, or a potential musician study their instrument of choice and learn from mistresses and masters of the art, so too a potential writer needs to learn about how to write in order to write well. This tiny primer will help one take the first steps.
What is Creative Writing?
Creative Writing has its origins in our ancient practise of storytelling and poetry recitation. Creative Writing communicates what it means to live in the world in all varieties and forms. Creative writing helps us understand the world and it helps us describe our own and others experiences of living in the world. Its useful and life enhancing and good for us all.
2. Writing is for everyone.
Writing and storytelling is an art and a craft that has been practised for millennia. It can be practised by anyone who wants to be a writer. Writing is both an art and a craft. In other words, if you are interested in getting to know the world of writing a little better and try it out, there are certain skills one can learn and develop that will help one to express oneself more clearly and easily. Developing these skills takes time and practise, like any craft. From the craft of writing we can then work at developing our artistic gifts.
3. Find your space.
Have some place where you can write in peace and quiet. It’s difficult to work in a place with lots of distractions. Once you find your space, work out a schedule you can live with, and stick to it.
4. Schedule time.
Writing takes time and effort. Writing is often re-writing. Because it takes time and patience to grow your art, it’s important to schedule quality time outside our busy lives to make time for ourselves to be creative.
5. Get a Notebook.
Bring your notebook everywhere. What we write is a record of our lives, our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams, and starting with a notebook we can build these stories. A notebook is the indispensable tool for every writer. Write down thoughts, impressions, dreams, useful facts, memories, ideas for stories, poems, screenplays, theatre pieces. Remember that your notebook is your own and keep it private.
6. Go to open-mics, gigs, and writing groups.
Meet and associate with other writers and artists. Don’t isolate. You learn quickly from the example of others, also there are many courses and regular readings out there to test your work and see how it is received by an audience. Take your time and go to a few, and when you feel ready go up and read a poem or a short piece of fiction in front of a group.
Every great writer is a great reader. Use your local library. Read often and for long periods. Familiarize yourself with as many writers, thinkers, muses, as you can. This experience will deepen your knowledge not only of the world (which is important for your writing) but will show you how other writers approached various subjects, and help you avoid pitfalls.
8. Keep a healthy work life-balance.
If you take to writing, it can be a fascinating, fulfilling, and a demanding occupation. Remember to keep a good balance between your social and private life. Stay healthy, sleep lots, eat well, and avoid unhealthy lifestyles.
9. Write a certain amount you have already decided upon each day, and then stop.
It’s best to stop each day at a high point. Make a note of where you stopped, date it and continue from that point the next day, or when you decide to.
10. Take regular breaks from your writing.
It’s healthy and good for your work to take a break. Then, after the break, go back to the manuscript with fresh eyes, and, most importantly, a refreshed brain and body.
11. Take Writing Courses.
It’s a good idea to do writing courses; many are excellent and helpful. The important thing to always remember is to develop your own style. The only way to develop your own style is to write, and keep writing, and not give up.
12. Have fun.
Writing is probably one of the most
fulfilling, delightful, mysterious, fascinating, and educational of
occupations. Never stop enjoying it.
When I ask people ‘So, what’s your image of a writer?’, usually they talk about a guy. Even the women I ask, they tend to talk about a man. I don’t comment as it ruins the experiment, but blogging about it here, I guess that’s the image that gets grandfathered into our brains in a male-centric culture when we are young and impressionable. But that’s not all. If you do an internet search for ‘writer images’, they are mostly male. Then, I ask ‘So what else comes to mind?’
They usually report their writer-image is a kind of intense tweedy type. They see him wearing a jacket with elbow patches, or with swept back greyflecked distinguished hair, writing at a desk. Oh, also our literary type is also usually an academic working on a university campus teaching literature, not working in a bar or stacking shelves in your local Tesco.
I don’t buy this description. Firstly, I know as many women as men who are writers. Also my image of a writer is not so high profile. Maybe she’s out of shape from poor diet and zero exercise. Maybe my imaginary writer drinks too much and is stressed out from all the hours hunched in front of a computer working with little return. Maybe some of my imaginary writers are loners, starving and depressed in a windy garret tapping out another tome, perhaps. Or, addicted, perhaps heavily so.
Another writerly image that crops up is that of the performing artist. If you attend open mics or literary evenings, (which can be really good if you get good writers onstage), your image is of a writer is one standing up in front of a audience of forty or fifty in some back room of a bar or club performing.
Then we come to images of the mature and accomplished artists, also and very importantly, they are being paid for what they do. They have published well. Good times. Every artist worth their salt deserves this. But does that happen? Does every accomplished artist who produces good work get paid what they deserve? Of course not, and for a reason. I mean we think of art in terms of every other item produced in society. It is generally held that the laws of supply and demand determine quality. In other words, if you are a crappy writer, people won’t read you or publish you and thus, in true Darwinian mode, you get cut from the herd and become an editor. If you are hot (in the sense of being modern and contemporary and zeitgeisty and talented), then talent will out. Right? Well, I don’t think so. A twenty or thirty minute perusal of the quality of writing in a typical bookstore or library anywhere, will quash any such ideals. The rules of market economics do not apply when it comes to art, as opposed to in life.
So I moved from bookstores to the internet in my search for an answer to the
question of what happens to literary talent. I read forums and Wikipedia and blogposts and in the end just for giggles I did a random google search for ‘literary rejection letters’, and one of the first that popped out was a letter Ursula K le Guin got back in ’68. Here it is:
Now I am a fan of this writer. This particular novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which found a home elsewhere, is now regarded as a masterpiece, a trailblazer of feminist writing, a work which made a real contribution to the SF genre. It wound up winning the Nebula award, selling over a million copies and establishing Le Guin’s reputation. Reading this letter, and a few others, as well as considering the cloud of negativity surrounding writers beginning and trying to develop their careers, at this stage I confess I began to think a bit negatively about the struggles of newbie writers.
By this I mean – consider if Le Guin had given up with her novel after such a rejection. Imagine if she decided instead to quit and run a pub in Lesser Chipping Buckworth (no such place), or took to the countryside in married dejection. Consider all the people she inspired, all the changes she wrought to peoples minds and hearts. I mean, we are talking here of a serious loss. But it didn’t happen, which is good news. On the contrary, millions of people are glad she went on and became the icon of SF writing she remained her entire life, and thereafter.
My point is, its easier, so far easier if we had a society that valued and nurtured new writers and artists instead of regarding them as dropouts or lazy or damaged dreamers, people who do not ‘pull their weight’. Having a really good writer in the family should be seen as like having a doctor or a politician or a business person in the family. How many aspiring writers have had to face the ire and disapproval of families and friends and the weight of societal judgement because they wanted to do something creative with their lives? The effects of such disapproval can be overwhelming.
Take disapproval. I mean, its such an innocuous sounding word, ‘disapproval’. It whips up images of ones sainted great aunt clattering teacups and shaking her head as she tut tuts ones use of bad language or smoking weed out the back garden. This is different, though. Here I mean the kind of life altering cultural disapproval which though all pervasive, can be rather hard to pin down. Its the disapproval you get when turning up in church drunk or your mobile phone going off during a production of Hamlet, except much, much worse. This is how one gets cut from the herd. You know they don’t want you yet you don’t know how you know that, or indeed what to do. For writers, type of disapproval can last a lifetime. It leads to deep self doubt. That in turn leads to a negative self image, which leads to depression which leads to self destructive behaviours. This is where the trouble starts. Self destructive behaviours borne of depression and self doubt are very painful indeed. Depression has certainly a marked chemical or genetic component, but it also has a societal aspect, a marked societal aspect. Our pain is framed by our world. If this pain goes on long enough, it naturally leads to one seeking relief. I’m talking here medicating such pain with drugs and alcohol. Too much medicating psychic pain with D. and A. often (not always though) leads to addiction. After that there’s nowhere to go but down. It can start a negative toxic spiral downwards into the kinds of dark places I have seen the finest talents dissolve.
So to go back to Le Guin for a moment. Ursula Le Guin getting those Novels published, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, was good for her and good for us all on levels we can begin to fathom anew. She had a brilliant career, and that brilliance shone long after she left us. In contrast I think here of other writers and artists who needed to get the good news of acceptance, not simply a publishing deal but the good word from society at large that what they were doing had value, yet didn’t. Their story did not end with good news. It was sad, bad news.
So we here not talking about simply giving our writers an encouraging hug. This is more like a ideological endorsement of the profound value of our creative communities, a value that includes a monetary value (sometimes very substantial) but an educational, political, and entertainment value. Books and art itself start conversations that change things, sometimes forever. Wherever we see repression of art we see the beginnings of a repressive society that kills the spirit of humanity and produces only propaganda and junk thinking. I am thinking of Donald Trumps killing off major arts grants at the beginning of his benighted presidency.
But here in Ireland the government, the Arts Council, and the Irish Writers Centre have a new initiative for established writers, whereby they can access social welfare payments and don’t have to hide the fact they are writers, or any other types of subterfuge. The full text of the pilot initiative is here. Its been taken up and established now a year later.
Now there are a few problems with this initiative. For instance the text states one has to be ‘genuinely seeking work’ in order to avail of the scheme. Does this mean the work of being a writer is not genuine work? What if you need something like the dole to finish a work that is of the quality of The Left hand of Darkness? Are we seeing shades of the old prejudice against the struggling writer, seen as a kind of layabout who will eventually shape up and see that real work lies elsewhere? Its one of those subtle indicators that might be worth looking at down the line.
Another problem with this otherwise laudatory scheme which is far sighted and worthy of promotion is the very questionable criterion of having to demonstrate that you earned half of last years income from writing. I doubt if there are many writers who need the dole to finish their books will be able to show that. In fact in Ireland unless you work round the clock doing gigs and writers in residence contracts as well as whatever royalties you earn will be able to demonstrate that level of income.
But those caveats aside, its good news. Its a sign, as the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said:
“Ireland is world-famous as a haven for art and artists who are central to our culture. This reputation for artistic achievement is part of our global USP. Promoting Ireland as a home for art and artists is central to my plans to double our global footprint in the years ahead. I believe it is only right that we allow for some flexibility within the social welfare system to allow artists to access social welfare supports when they need them. Up to now, artists have found it difficult to access social welfare and of course many artists take on extra jobs to support their livelihoods.
“Following extensive work between both Departments, with input from the Arts Council, this new mechanism will allow artists to be classified as self-employed for the purposes of accessing social welfare supports. The normal checks and balances will apply to ensure the initiative is not open to abuse, but my hope is that this will make it much easier for professional artists to access social welfare supports when they need them.”
(See here for further context) There is information on the scheme here and further information here.
I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment. People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say. There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.
Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally, I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.
This leads me to the third question I get asked:
‘When are you going to be finished?’
‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.
My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.
It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?
I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.
I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.
Ever since I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Ones Own I knew I wanted nothing more than a quiet room of my own, a stipend or wage of sorts, and enough time and space to write, or more properly to think. All that seems a little crazy on paper, but it was where I was at back then. Decades later it hasn’t changed. In fact, having seen what fame and money has done to writers and artists of various stripes and persuasions, success in that sense is a fate I fear as equally as my ego and insecurities desperately long for it. So today, with these concerns buzzing away in my mind, I went over to University of Limerick to do an interview for a month long course in CELTA or the certificate for English language teaching (I am not really sure what the ‘A’ stands for) but its a qualification enabling me to teach English in pretty much any country in the world. There is naturally a downside to doing this expensive course, that is, if I pass the interview. Its is more than full time. I was warned by my interviewers that I will spend hours each night doing course work, along with the regular nine to five schedule, along with Saturdays and early morning meetings. This means I have to forego this book I am working on, which is a big worry. Will I lose the ‘gist’ or thread of ideas I am drawing from while I am engaged in working for this qualification? Will I write differently after all this linguistic analysis? I often think of what Ozzy Osbourne said when asked why he never learned to read or write music. He said that after a while he took the advice of friends never to learn, as the music he was involved in making might actually be ruined by learning the formal rules and procedures of music writing. It sounds rather counter intuitive. But now I know what he means. Time till tell.
Its good to begin with a joke or a parable. I don’t like gimmicks, but I got two little stories.
This is one I heard today while listening to a website called You are Listening to Deep Thought. I heard it as I was trying and failing to move forward on the latest draft of the book I am working on. I don’t know who the speaker was, but I enjoyed the story, so I am sorry to whomever I am appropriating this fishy tale from. It’s about two fishes swimming along in the deepest part of the ocean, and, as they swim along, they pass an older, bigger fish, who says “Hi Guys, how’s the water for you today?” The two fish pass on and then after a while stop and turn to one another and ask “What the hell is water?”
I chuckled when I read that. Good stories like that come and go all the time. The ones that stay with us have something clever and funny and poignant to say. Like the idea of being surrounded by something so all pervasive, so all consuming, that you don’t even see it or sense it or count it into ones worldview. Like the catch phrase “The Matrix Has You” But what is the matrix?
In the 1999 movie The Matrix, a hacker learns, to his world-shaking shock, the true nature of reality. He learns that everything he thought was real was actually fake. He realizes his lifelong sense of alienation was a true gut instinct. He learns there really is something fundamentally wrong with the world. That’s interesting. Its clever and poignant. It’s also shocking. The knowledge that things you thought were true and real are really unreal stays with you and changes you perhaps forever.
Here’s another parable I like. Its a Japanese proverb that says that we have three faces. You probably heard it before. I did too. Only recently it struck home. So, anyway, we have three faces. The first ‘face’ is the socially or culturally accepted mask we wear when we are out in society. The second one is the one we wear with our family and our intimates. The third one, this is the most secret one. This third self is one inside, the secret self, the truest one, that few ever see. I like that idea too.
The idea that we have secret selves appeals to me and is shown to be true over and over, by life, if not by science. The other idea, as depicted by the fish story, I love too. These two little stories merged in my mind – (1) the idea we are surrounded by a world we don’t see but affects us all the time, and that because of (1) we are (2) wearing masks that are not our truest selves.
Of course that could be all nonsense. Except, well, its not. We have an online world now, one where we interact and use every day, sometimes for long hours. Imagine if we actually added up how many hours a day we spent online. I did, and the number shocked me. It was a world shaking realization of the amount of time I was wasting. I realized just how addictive Facebook can be. In a sense, as there are billions online, on and off Facebook, we don’t realize its an addictive practise. Its also true that who we are offline is very often nothing remotely like who we are on for instance, Facebook, or Tinder, or Twitter.
It’s interesting too, that this online self is the one subject to so much scrutiny and manipulation by security services and marketing analysis and advertising targeting by Facebook itself and companies like Cambridge Analytica. On Facebook, you and I are the product. Our Profile is sold every time we are targeted with an Ad or a political post or we join a group. Each time we make a click or a like we get a little endorphin or dopamine kick. That’s the addictive effect, the need for stroking which is satisfied with a like, or even a love.
Online there’s so much to read, see, and experience. Yet we have so little time. In the ever shortening attention span of online life, we get three minute videos, witty pics, specially edited punchy journalism, and cat videos. Its catered to us, all based on previous reads or clicks or comments. We get summaries of movie plots and animal videos and bits of news and jokes and memes and cartoons. We are amused. We read or click or comment, and that gets analysed and calibrated. And on it goes.
The benefit the online user gets for being on Facebook is stroking, the sense of belonging, amusement, love, distraction and the ability to comment and at times debate. Online, especially, there seems to be an increasing polarization and entrenchment of views, possibly because Facebook or Twitter isn’t really an arena for dissecting and carefully discussing incredibly complex multifaceted ideas be they political, religious, scientific, philosophical, or literary. It leads more often than not to misunderstanding and polarisation.
Facebook was formed in a dorm room by a gifted hacker who wanted to compare photographs of people who were pretty and who were not. It has grown and changed and evolved and enriched him beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Facebook is a place for people to meet. Facebook is popcorn. Its too simplistic a vehicle for self expression. This is why, I think, one is left with a mask on when one goes online and its so easy to misinterpret things. I’m relieved, despite my present state of headachy withdrawal, to have left it behind me.
I hate sharing personal information. I feel deeply uncomfortable doing so. But it is important. So here goes. I happen to be a writer. This is not by choice. I tried everything not to be a writer. In my early youth I tried a career in religion, which gives one access to lots and lots of books, which is very cool. It also gives one a room of one’s own, also cool (ask Virginia Woolf), an opportunity to meditate (which I like a lot), a very comfortable middle class existence (I’m from the middle classes), as well as a comprehensive training and educational background (I took full advantage of all available libraries). I was not good at attending college, but I did okay with exams. I was expected to be an academic. But I wanted to write, which is not the same thing. I found it difficult to fit into any one academic discipline. I would also like to lightly mention in passing that my brand of religiosity included my joining a monastery, running retreats and giving sermons and being generally incredibly busy with people, which was very difficult for me. I was an odd monk, I must confess. I didn’t like the costume (originally what is now a monks robe was originally the normal clothing of peasants – the hood being a sack for your stuff). I thought it rather elitist and divisive. Also on a general level both back then and now, one would never think it, but I wasn’t comfortable around people. I also found I could be too blunt for people. I offended folks by my excessive straightforwardness, which was taken the wrong way quite a lot. The other thing was I could not stop writing. Poems, articles, stories, essays – I couldn’t stop. Then after a few years I stopped believing in God, which was a devastating and deeply depressing experience. Christianity, at a certain point made no sense. It had its origins in older religions, which in turn had its origins in older myths. It was all clearly made up. I found my true calling was to atheism and publishing poor quality youthful short stories and poems. I quit being a monk. I tried academia but disliked both it and academics. I married, and then, to support my new marriage, I tried being a respectable civil servant with a good job and a house and a pension and serious prospects in the field of computer programming. Though I had hardly seen a computer before becoming a civil servant, I found I had a talent for programming them. I loved taking them apart and reassembling them. I had fun with technology. I used trawl thru computer junk, build a PC, and give them as gifts to friends and people who needed them or didn’t have a personal computer of their own. I also took full advantage of the company library and I learned a few programming languages and made a bit of money. The thing was I still longed to write. Actually at the time I was writing, particularly Sci-Fi, but it wasn’t enough. It was hunger inside me to do more and be more, and though I was naturally good with languages, though I could put ideas, even coded ideas, together easily and quickly, I simply could not take the soul crushing drudgery of working in a corporate setting. The dishonesty, the politics, the lack of challenge, and most of all having to deal with people on a day to day basis, which is by no means my strong suit, I began to drink heavily, and it was a miracle I wasn’t fired for being repeatedly drunk on the job. I remember coding multi-million pound systems while being drunk. I remember compiling reports for accountants, or even writing reports, again while being ‘compromised’, a euphemism one hears in US cop dramas for being under the influence. I was becoming addicted. I found a few brandies relaxed me sufficiently to focus on the task at hand without being unduly anxious while in the company of others, which I disliked. I was earing a lot of money, more than my boss at the time. A therapist I had at the time challenged me. She said if I continued drinking and coding, alcohol would destroy my mind. Those were her words. I realized my misery, my depression and hopelessness I was dulling with drink. I was also becoming very unhappy in my marriage. So I quit. I sold my house and made some money, bought another house, became a landlord, and, with no prospects I started writing novels. My wife at the time started publishing my own work and those of other writers. For the most part my books did modestly well. I had found who I was. I was a member of the tribe of writers. I think this is a crucial thing. Every person needs to find who they truly are, especially as an artist. And we are all artists, everyone. Its not a New Age blanket terms like, for instance, us all being ‘beautiful and unique snowflakes’ or ‘find the genius inside you’. No. We are all creative beings, potentially. Again my trouble being around people reared its head. I was swamped with people. Readings, writings, publications, trips to other countries doing launches and so on, began to take their toll on me. My marriage began to really crater. My wife at the time had her own troubles, deep troubles, and I found no matter what I did I could neither help her or myself. I suffered a major depressive episode and after three years and several disastrous misdiagnoses and horrible medications on the part of therapists and psychologists, I left my wife. Then she took her life just under a year after I left. The horror. As I said in her obituary, this is the single greatest loss of talent and potential the Irish publishing scene has suffered in a generation. It came as a devastating shock to me and to those who loved her, a sorrow of immeasurable proportions. I did not understand her condition. In the aftermath it has been explained to me. Now I understand. I have moved on. But I have not forgotten. Now I continue to write, because I am a writer. This is my story. Tell someone yours today, or even write it down. I find it horribly difficult, but its liberating.
What happens when you are wrongly diagnosed as bipolar or whatever: and what it means, if anything…
Have you ever been the patient of a really bad psychotherapist? Lets be honest, there are more than a few of them out there. I actually seriously toyed with the idea of becoming one at one stage of my life. Except I was somewhat drawn by the writing life, and that was that.
Two things separate the good therapist from the bad one, assuming they have been properly trained and have had sufficient therapy themselves to be relatively free of transference and projection and all the other things we do that affects our relationships. Firstly the capacity to objectively listen with out prejudice and secondly the capacity to apply knowledge coupled with experience to an individual patient. Most if not all of the many bad therapists I have had over the years failed on either or both of those fronts. One stand-out moment which typifies my negative therapeutic experiences happened during a session some years ago and it led me to discontinue the therapy. The therapist turned to me in a moment of obvious frustration, and asked me was I by any chance writing a book about him?
I beg your pardon, I said?
And he repeated the question.
Why, I asked?
Well, the therapist said, rather solemnly, these sessions we were engaging in were more like two therapists discussing the practise of psychotherapy, than a patient going to and talking with a therapist.
I was pretty appalled and very angry.
I said no, I wasn’t writing a book about this. I am in trouble, big trouble. That’s why I am here. I don’t need to do that kind of research to write.
I then went on to say by the way that was a bizarre question. One of the most I have ever been asked in therapy.
I mentioned I had completed a draft novel I wasn’t really happy with. I went on to say that the novel had a therapist as the central character. I offered him a look at a draft of it to satisfy himself I wasn’t using his rather dull unimaginative personality as a blueprint (and no, I wasn’t being unkind, he was a dreadful bore)
The therapist said that wasn’t necessary.
But I pressed the issue. I said that as the issue had been raised, it was hard to see how this could not become a central issue during the therapeutic encounter.
I wasn’t there for copy. I was there because I was in trouble. My marriage was in difficulty at the time. I was very anxious and depressed about family of origin issues. I felt trapped. Hopeless. this was the third therapist I had been to with no help. As I didn’t get the help from either that quack therapist I needed, or from other equally awful therapists, I got more depressed. And things went downhill. Feeling helpless and unsupported has something of a domino effect. Things cratered to such an extent that I had a major depressive episode. After that I went to a psychiatrist and was misdiagnosed as bipolar. I completely accepted the diagnosis. I told friends and colleagues. I did radio interviews about it. This went on for a few years. Then, by sheer luck I met a good therapist who told me I was no more bipolar as I was a professional safe-cracker or an astronaut. Not that her word was enough, by the way. I met a few others who said the same thing. I took the hint and stopped seeing Psychiatrists. It was such a good move.
Along with the indignity of being misdiagnosed as bipolar, I have been put on some of the most awful mind numbing medications. The medication had withdrawal symptomatology far worse than the condition they were supposed to treat. After a couple of attempts I got off the meds. Things have massively improved. Years have passed. No ill effects.
How does this kind of thing happen? How does a depressed writer get diagnosed with a pretty serious condition which he does not have? Well, it’s easy in one way to see how it might happen. I mean when I am working on something I feel fantastic. The ideas come fast and I have a lot of energy. Afterwards I am tired and lethargic. As any writer or indeed anyone creative will tell you, one goes to rather extreme emotionally and spiritually exhausting places to write books. One isn’t in it for the money. Believe me there are easier way to make money. One writes because its what one was born to do. To not do it, to settle for less, is very dangerous thing to do. So this is the creative cycle, not the manic depressive cycle. There is a substantial difference, and a good therapist sees this.
‘The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.’ (wikipedia) – or if you are a writer, you just might get lucky some day…
The Discreet Charm of being Labelled
But it doesn’t work out like that. Labels stick. Like the bad writer stuck in a rut that pays, once you write your best seller or get your government grant or run enough magazines or give courses, you are labelled. And once that happens, everyone expects more of the same. You get comfortable. You feed the crowds. Similarly once you got the label, it stays. After initial diagnosis, there is little re-visitation of ones symptoms. One is labelled and medicated and that’s that. Aftercare was a twilight zone experience for me. Our health system makes you go see a trainee psychiatrist who is under the care of a Chief Psychiatrist. One sees a different one for every appointment, for the most part. They don’t know you, usually never met you before, and usually never will again. They are polite, friendly, witty, personable, professionally distant, and usually very busy. They have a few minutes to read your file, and on this basis, they interview you. This little psychodrama happens once every month or two. The pubescent psychiatrist is usually a doctor on psych rotation, someone who gives you twenty minutes and then ends the session with a prescription. Not ideal, to say the least. I had to aggressively lobby for therapy, and for the most part I got it only by the skin of my teeth. This rather hands-off approach of out patient psychiatry is something that needs urgent attention in my view.
Then there is a deeper issue at work here. It leads me to the notion of how in our cognitive processes, belief tends more often than not to precede evidence. Evidence should always precede belief. Otherwise one is guilty of cognitive bias. I displayed symptoms of bipolarity. But I was not bipolar. I had creative cycles. I was depressed due to life circumstances. I needed help. I needed the good therapy I had been looking for, not a cheap and easy diagnosis. I needed a good therapist. Not years of medication.
Then there are examples and studies. I found a really interesting one in my reading. In the early 1970’s, much to the huge outrage of the psychiatric community a psychiatrist called David Rosenhan conducted a case study which led to some rather fascinating results. He persuaded seven friends, none of whom had any case history of any kind of mental illness, to enter various mental hospitals to see if they could persuade members of the mental health care community that they were mentally ill. This was between 1969 and 1972. What did these sane folks do to convince the doctors they were sick? Well they all claimed to hear the words “thud, and “empty” and “hollow” and they all got admitted. Every one of them. And they were all diagnosed as having some form of mental illness, mostly schizophrenia. They were given a total of 2100 pills (they had been taught to ‘cheek’ their meds before going in), only two of which were ever actually swallowed. Other than lying about their names and lying about hearing the words, they were told to be completely honest. After Rosenthan had gotten his diagnosis, staff began to read into his actions. For instance, his study required him to make notes. This was described as ‘writing behaviour’. One of the other impostor patients was and artist and drew these fantastic line drawings of the hospital they were in, they too were described as indulging in ‘drawing/painting behaviour’. Finally Rosenthan couldn’t get out of the hospital. The only way he could actually get out of the hospital was to tell the doctors that they were completely correct in their views, that he Rosenthan was insane, and that he was getting better bit by bit.
This is not dissimilar to the experience of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who suffered a very real and very debilitating breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital, a hospital which he simply could not get out of. His method was to tell the doctors that he was feeling better incrementally. He would every day tell staff that things were getting better for him; that he was feeling just a little bit better than yesterday, till they let him go. Check out his second book Lila for a description of this process.
The point of all this is the question of belief. These professionals couldn’t distinguish between sick and well folks. My therapists couldn’t do that either. If you are seen as a patient and not as a person, your views of reality-no matter how valid – are somehow seen as secondary. This is because the belief that the doctor imposes on the patient presupposes disbelief of the patient’s valid world-view. I can even report that this is how exactly I experienced my treatment. I accepted the doctors word for what was ‘wrong’ with me. I accepted it and trusted them, despite the fact that the more I read about my condition, and the more I discussed my condition, the more doubts I had about whether or not I actually had Bipolar Disorder.
No, Really – I Engage in Writing Activity
But back to Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum told the doctors repeatedly that he was actually a professor of psychology. They asked him did he often feel he was a professor of psychology. I told my doctors I was a writer, that I had written novels and plays, poetry and articles. They didn’t believe me. They had to ask asked my wife (now deceased sadly) and my doctor, who assured them that yes I was indeed a writer. It’s what Rosenbaun refers to as the ‘stickiness of psycho diagnostic labels’ – prejudicial thinking, the imposition of an unscientific mindset on presenting symptomatology.
It would be somewhat facile to suggest that there is an easy way through what I see as a complex and rather perennial difficulty. What is sanity? In a world deeply troubled, what is a sane mind? Obviously we are all grasping at an answer to this question. Suffice to say that though there is no absolute answer to this question, we live in a world of consensus based on an ever expanding pool of knowledge and research and clinical experience to draw from. The people who diagnosed me were most definitely trying to help a person who was in a lot of pain. Sadly, though they did help, they left me in something of a mess for quite a while until I figured out what they had gotten wrong, and thanks to the brilliant help of a few really gifted therapists, I did. I wonder if there are more creative people out there who have similar experiences. Those who are of a more creative bent, who pursue the extremities of human experience, are naturally inclined to suffer trauma, and at times to become unwell. Its unfortunate that the labelling of a creative person can also lead to the labelling of their work, indeed the tenor of their entire lives. This reflects badly on our culture and on our society. Though it is true that some creative folk most definitely do suffer throughout their lives from various flavours of psychiatric disorders, many others I am sure, like myself, were subject to misdiagnosis based on a consensus misunderstanding of creativity. I live in the hope that my and many others experience will form a teachable moment and shift our cultural understanding of the needs of the creative person.