Sunday 6 May 2018

Writing and Wellbeing

From my early years, I've been fascinated by stories - hearing or reading them as well as telling them. Stories always seemed to me to represent a way of escaping from the real world and into my imagination, and growing up, I found that extremely appealing. I still do. Even when something from real life influences my fiction (for instance, the Crippen case which inspired Dancing for the Hangman), my main focus is on the imaginative aspects of the story. And stories also offer us ways of trying to understand the world (and the people in it) a little better. That's surely one of the key reasons why perfectly law-abiding people love stories about crime and criminals.

Writing and wellbeing seem to me to have clear and close connections, and these have interested me for a very long time. At Malice Domestic, Catriona McPherson made a telling point when she reminded us that, in many ways, writers' lives are privileged: she drew a comparison with the work of psychiatric nurses, for instance. Having once worked for six months as the world's most incompetent factory labourer, I know she's right; I'd much rather be a writer than anything else. Equally, it's the case that, for many writers, the privileges are offset by the downsides - emotional and financial insecurity and rejection being among them.

Writing can, apart from anything else, act as a very positive form of therapy, even for those who don't seek to publish what they write. I know that when I was at my lowest ebb, eight years ago, when everything that could go wrong in a hitherto blessed life seemed to be going wrong, writing was a lifeline. And this blog, and the kindness of its readers, played a valuable part in helping me to get through an extremely difficult time.

The Society of Authors recently took wellbeing as a theme for an issue of its quarterly magazine, and this prompted me to start an initiative on behalf of the Crime Writers' Association. I wanted to encourage the sharing of experiences so that members who were encountering setbacks would realise they are not alone, and that some of the taboos would start to break down. Simon Brett, a friend and a man I've long admired, has written movingly about his own struggles with depression, and at my suggestion he contributed an article to the CWA members' private newsletter, Red Herrings.

This has in turn prompted further articles and also thoughtful online discussion, just as I'd hoped. And only today, C.J. Sansom wrote a moving article in The Sunday Times about his own experience of depression, which stems back to his childhood and unhappy time at school. Each person's experience is different, but understanding more about what individuals have gone through (and, where they've been able to overcome difficulties, how they've gone about it) is important in so many ways.

Progress has been made in recent years in terms of reducing the stigmas that surround mental health problems, but fresh challenges for writers have emerged, and the public nature of social media (wonderful though it can be) exacerbates the problems. So I believe that talking about these things (which is very different from over-sharing), rather than hiding away from them, is a Good Thing, and I'm glad to find that others take the same view. None of us want to dwell too long on gloom and doom; there's enough of that in the world already. But recognising that life has its downs as well as its ups equips us better - in the long run - to value and make the most of those ups.


Anonymous said...

Hi Martin,

Wellbeing is indeed an important issue, and not just for writers of course. With more than one member of my family having been afflicted with dementia, and having several good friends with mental health issues, I know that much more needs to be done to alleviate suffering. And I applaud initiatives with this aim, such as yours on behalf of the CWA. My partner Maureen and I have both had work accepted for a forthcoming anthology in aid of the mental health charity Mind.

Look forward to seeing you at ‘Alibis in the Archive’ next month.



Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks, Paul, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Liz Gilbey said...

If anyone wants to have insight into depression, mental problems and etc as a result of horrific long term sexual abuse (NONONO - don't be put off, this is some of the most honest, funny, most searing writing you will ever read) so I can recommend nothing at all ever better than the memoirs of concert pianist James Rhodes.
His books, Instrumental (Canongate 2015) and Fire On All Sides (Quercus 2018)take you into his past and present with searing strength and sensitivity and unique openness. Google him, listen to his playing - a Glenn Gould for the new generation - and look him up on YouTube. Learn his remarkable struggle to get his first book published, and support from the best friend he thinks of as his brother, Watch the BBC News coverage of that struggle and even the most cynical heart will be touched. Humbling, inspiring and remarkable.

Bill Carlin said...

Over the last year- since losing my lovely wife Anne- I've been out of touch with my love for crime fiction but I'm really glad that I've rediscovered your wonderful blog. This post struck a particular chord because I've recently started dabbling in a bit of writing again. When I worked for Maggie's Centres back in the early 2000s I was extremely interested in the theory and practice of therapeutic writing. Although I come from a cancer nursing background I did quite a bit of research into the benefits of therapeutic writing and there is a lot of evidence out there. The work done by Dr. James Hawkins (see his "Good Medicine" website) and Gillie Bolton (Medicine and literature editor for the BMJ Journal of Medical Humanities) is particularly interesting. Thanks again, Martin, for all the work you put in to your blog and particularly for raising the important issue of wellbeing.