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Do Writers Teeter on the Edge of Sanity?

“You do teeter on the edge all the time,” says Hilary Mantel, the morning after she became the first woman and the first Briton to win the Booker prize twice.
“It’s the place of obsession – a dangerous obsession.” Mantel is
talking about the risks to a writer’s mental health of indulging in
historical fiction, of ventriloquising the dead. ~ Guardian Books

A twice Booker-prize winner calls writing a dangerous obsession, and Swedish researchers claim that Creativity is ‘closely entwined with mental illness‘:

Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders,
schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish
researchers at the Karolinska Institute found.

They were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. 

 Anais Nin considered  Emotional Excess Essential to Writing and Creativity: (bold emphasis below mine)

You must not fear, hold back, count or be a miser with your thoughts and
feelings. It is also true that creation comes from an overflow, so you
have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to nourish yourself and not be
afraid of fullness. The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries
you, sweeps you into experience and into writing. Permit yourself to
flow and overflow, allow for the rise in temperature, all the expansions
and intensifications. Something is always born of excess: great art was
born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions,
instabilities, and it always balances them. 

I mostly find that (genre) folks like Ray Bradbury who ‘enjoy’ their writing are far happier than (literary) folks like Albert Camus who are tortured by it.
While this gives me pause for thought (and discussion with writing friends), and makes me wonder whether my friends who  ‘fondly’ call me crazy might be on to something, it also gives me hope, and a way to utilize all of my experiences into my writing.
So do you think a writer must be on the edge, emotionally, to produce worthy art, or all of that is bollocks, and we should all just get on with ‘enjoying’ our writing?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • muthu says:

    hmhm…. Yeah, it is easy and even comfortable to say that- teetering on the edge has really nothing to do with writing. And yes, I will be willing to agree the same. But lets give it a more lateral leap of thought. I remember a Dicken's quote where he says something like- I have faced a great many calamities in my life and most of them never happened. I think that — what he really happened to him was much lesser in pain and girth rather than what he imagined himself to be going through.

    I think Writers when in such state– can be very powerful with their words. Pain gives you not perspective but a sheering clearness and stupendous belief in one's own words. And hence yeah, not all writers teeter on the brink nor they need to – but when they do- sometimes, they give way for some extraordinary pieces of art.

  • Li says:

    I don't think you can make blanket judgements about groups of people. That being said, I also think that writing is cathartic, and therefore many writers probably are using it as a way to exorcise demons, organize chaotic thoughts/lives, and explore boundaries in a "safe" environment.

  • cyrusman says:

    I agree that as artist and writers we tap into our emotional reserve more than the regular person. I write novels and before that earned a degree in Fine Arts. I have battle depression and anxiety and learned how to control my emotions through the efforts my therapist and doctor. I consider myself sane but with a tinge of melancholy.

  • I think there's an element of truth in it. Apart from the fact it's a lonely profession, writers have to open themselves up to a lot of emotion to be able to express it properly on the page. A head full of explicit emotion has to take its toll a little?

  • Jo says:

    I only write blogs, not books, but I think saying writers are mostly on the edge of sanity is probably bollocks. It would be interesting to analyse the Swedes who came up with all that mumbo jumbo.

    To all my sane writing friends.

  • Guilie says:

    Interesting, Damyanti, and something I've been thinking about for a while now. I think, regardless of whether we're the Bradbury Happy Writer type or the Camus (or King) Tortured type, there *is* an element of "disconnect" from normalcy to any creative endeavor. I use quote marks because, after all, what is normal, right? I find more truth (about myself, about human experience) in fiction than I do in memoirs or other forms of narrative. I think that "disconnect" is actually a different kind of connect, one that explores different avenues to approach the subject, and thus offers new perspective. But whether it's a joyful undertaking or one that feels prison-like, I think it implies a certain madness–if one defines madness as an alternative take on reality.

  • Dionne says:

    I think it's a bit of both, but I always get lost in my mind when I'm writing. Although, some of my best writing has been when I'm having some kind of emotional melt-down and I need to get it out 🙂

  • I find writing to be an outlet for my emotions, rather than the tortured cause of it. That said, I'm considered to be a little left of centre when it comes to 'sanity', so perhaps the connection is different. Writers just spend so much time in another world, how could we regard this one the same way anymore?

  • D.G. Hudson says:

    I believe if you have passion in your life about some things: those we love, our art, our writing, then you're also going to be passionate in most of what you do (relationships, arguing, daily life). A calm person stays balanced, a passionate person has ups and downs.

    A passionate person is usually an emotional person, whether in a good way or a destructive way. Sometimes its the desire to over-achieve and impress others that brings on the moodiness and depression.

    Thought-provoking topic, Damiyanti!

  • Richard says:

    I've pondered this quite a bit. It's like the age old problem: which came first the chicken or the egg? Are crazy people drawn to writing, perhaps as a kind of therapy, so that writers are by default a lot crazy people? Or, does writing make sane people crazy? I believe that, if you're already a bit crazy, then writing will add to that craziness. If you're basically sane, writing can be a way of helping you to stay sane.

    • Damyanti says:

      I believe that, if you're already a bit crazy, then writing will add to that craziness. If you're basically sane, writing can be a way of helping you to stay sane.

      — You're right! I agree, Richard.

  • Funny, that was part of my post yesterday.
    I don't think so, as I am a generally happy person who has lived a good life. Of course I write genre fiction, so maybe there's some truth to that statement.

  • Angela Brown says:

    I wouldn't want to dismiss it as "bollocks", only because it is hard to consider any other career where people can get together and commiserate "missing the voices in their head" they way writers do when we discuss "writer's block". lol!

    So, although I don't think an obsession is necessary, I'd have to agree that we writers do teeter near that edge of insanity. It just happens that genre writers like Ray Bradbury took joy in it instead of getting utterly depressed and tortured by it.

    • Damyanti says:

      Stephen King is a genre writer and he had to struggle with depression and a drug habit. I guess it is one of the perils of this profession.

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