I won’t bore you with the details but I’ve been working on my own mental health lately following a couple years of, well… not working on my own mental health. And it’s got me not just thinking about myself—where I am now, where I came from, how I got here, and so on—but about how those issues match up with my own writing, and in particular, how little of that I’ve actually done in the last couple years or so.
Have I been depressed because I’m not writing, or not writing because I’ve been depressed?
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Writers get a nice break in one way, at least: They can treat their mental illnesses every day.”
Who am I to argue with Kurt Vonnegut?
And he’s not the only one to urge the regular practice of writing to combat, say, depression. Emily V. Gordon, when asked in a Hollywood ReporterWriter Roundtable if writing is therapeutic said, a bit more cautiously:
It can be. It depends what you’re writing about. Some days you don’t want it to be, and some days you feel like you’re exorcising a demon. But you don’t want everything to be this very intense, cathartic experience. You want to connect to it emotionally but not have it wring you out.
I have definitely tried, in the past, to exorcise a few personal demons via fiction, and maybe the fact that I’ve more or less stopped doing that in the past couple years is responsible for why I’ve been struggling with depression in a more acute way over that time. But starting 2019 with a clearer picture of where I am and what needs to happen to improve my life I’ve started on the right track and even over the course of last year started reading more, at least—fifty-two books (not counting the many editing projects that year) read for pleasure in 2018, and I’m on track already to do the same this year.
We all know by now that writers have to read, and that has helped me start to crawl back to writing, but what of the therapeutic value of reading?
Tim Parks asked the question, “Does Literature Help Us Live?” in the New York Review of Books:
Generalization is treacherous, but let’s posit that at the center of most modern storytelling, in particular most literary storytelling, lies the struggling self, or selves, individuals seeking some kind of definition or stability in a world that appears hostile to such aspirations: life is precarious, tumultuous, fickle, and the self seeks in vain, or manages only with great effort, to put together a personal narrative that is, even briefly, satisfying. Of course, the story can end in various ways, or simply stop at some convenient grace-point; happy endings are not entirely taboo, though certainly frowned on in the more elevated spheres of serious literary fiction. And even when things do come to a pleasing conclusion, it is either shot through with irony or presented as merely a new beginning, with everything still to fight for.
He goes on to conclude:
In short, at the core of the literary experience, as it is generally construed and promoted, is the pathos of this unequal battle and of a self inevitably saddened—though perhaps galvanized, too, or, in any event, tempered and hardened—by the systematic betrayal of youth’s great expectations. Life promises so much, but then slips through one’s fingers.
Boy, isn’t that true? But the goal of fiction isn’t necessarily all grim, and Julie Sedivy makes a convincing case in “Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?” for its long term benefit to not just the individual mental health or even evolution of a single reader, but in the forward progress of cultures over time:
Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.
I won’t try to take any responsibility for the cultural growth of the human race, but this is a nice reminder, at the right time, that what we do as storytellers matters—to ourselves, to an individual unknown reader out there somewhere, and to an ever-evolving culture as a whole. And in the meantime, getting back to writing will, I know, have a positive effect on my own mental health, the same way that getting back to exercising will have a positive effect on my physical health.
And let me end with a gentle reminder: If you’re not feeling yourself, if you’re struggling with depression or other issues, go get help. For a long time I didn’t, and that was time—a long time—wasted. There is help out there for everyone.