How a Mental Health Breakdown Improved My Writing (Eventually)

A cobbled path leads through a beautiful garden representing a journeyI’m re-posting this blog from Medium.com to mark UK “Time to Talk” day.

(Originally posted: August 19, 2017.)

I remember the day very clearly. Just as with any previous time I’d left an employer to move seamlessly to another, I sat down at my computer to update my CV.

But this time was different in many, many ways. I hadn’t left. I’d been politely asked if it might be an idea to depart before my perfect employment track record became blemished through defaulting on a three-month probation.

The reason I’d defaulted wasn’t because of them. I’d only been there a few weeks. It was because of the previous employer; what had happened there. Invisible wounds had crippled me in unexpected ways over more than two years; leaving me incapable of an increasing number of tasks every day. Because I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I’d stuck at it. After all, I had a mortgage to contribute towards; and mental health problems happen to other people, right?

Yup. I was sinking into my first proper stress breakdown.

So I sat there, ready to bring my CV up to date and move on with my life efficiently, perfectly, without blemish. Only I couldn’t. I remember that day so vividly because it took all of it to write one sentence. Literally. That’s all I did. Words swam around in front of me on the screen, barely making sense. It was like trying to catch flies. By the time I’d finished I still didn’t know if I’d written it right.

Over the weeks following on from that day I lost many words, much grammar, and higher functions (like critical thinking, or creativity).

To give you a fuller sense of what that meant for me, this needs context. After an English and creative writing BA (and a cultural studies MA) one of my first permanent positions was at a well-known global book publisher. In that role I’d somehow managed (rather pretentious, looking back) to become respected (or respected enough) for my proof reading skills and wider-than-average vocabulary (and remember this is a publishing house we are talking about). That respect led to several things. One of them sticks in my mind. I proposed writing the house’s (first ever) internal style guide (through heavy consultation) for use in communications and marketing. They said yes. I did it. So, yeah. Taking a whole day to write one sentence on a CV was a pretty big deal for me.

But that day was, might as well have been, the lowest point. I’ve largely recovered now (with occasional relapses, as tends to happen). Ten years. The creativity came back in a massive way some time last year. Coupled with that, my love of words came back too. So I started writing.

I’ve now written and published one novel, have a second on pre-order, and a third half-written. (All in the space of 10 months.) The writing is certainly helping a wide vocabulary and strong sense of grammar to come back. But to even get to this stage I’ve had to re-learn a heck of a lot. (That, and let time, antidepressants and meditation heal.)

A quick aside, if I may. I’m sure many of you will know this. But on the off-chance that some readers don’t…

The brain is psycho-physical. The software can re-write the hardware. The hardware can suffer damage from the reactions of the software. That’s how strange our brains are. Mental health damage is generally invisible; but it can still have a physical component. No amount of “snap out of it” or “move on” can help there (although, with time and dedication, mind over matter — or mindfulness — can influence the software and eventually help hardware repair).

What doesn’t break us makes us stronger, right? Cliché. Still true. So back in those dark days I took the proffered advice — to see the breakdown as a break through; to capitalize on the benefits of that life wisdom. What’s prompted me to share this experience today is that I’ve identified another fresh benefit.

Before I get to the main discovery, I’d like to draw a distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom. If information is available data to access as required, and knowledge is data one can recollect, to me wisdom is something far deeper. Perhaps, like they say, wisdom’s what happens when knowledge travels from your head to your heart. You can know something, but when it’s in your heart it sticks there. It’s lived. It’s valued.

So here’s my discovery.

The best writing is accessible.

Feel free to groan. It’s not rocket science. And yet? How many times have you spotted an author mic-dropping buzz phrases and certain nods to literary references to get included in some imaginary élite club? In the U.K. (where I’m from) we tend to carry class with us everywhere, so I wonder if some of those discursive signals come from status anxiety. But perhaps it’s wider than that? Just human? Egotist?

Dazzling people can certainly “work”. Some authors can even seem to hoodwink people into thinking bad writing is good writing because it’s so darned flowery, or so darned complex. That’s not good art. It’s blinding with science. Hey, I’m all for literariness when it’s done with a knowing grin; but there’s little anxious or egotist about that.

I’m with Tolkien on this. Favour the Germanic. Take all the long words you know and find shorter ones. Be poetic if you want to. But don’t lose your reader in the process. Poetic moments, and words in uncommon use, should justify their existence.

The flip side of this is that my first novel wasn’t edited. I wrote it in five weeks and self-published it before my inner critic could wrench it out of my hands and say, “No! No! You’ll fail! The world will condemn you to a life filled with mockery!” That’s to say it’s flawed. Some of it’s definitely cringe-worthy; and now I don’t have to take my own opinion on that point alone in order to verify that fact.

You know what, though? Despite the lack of editing, and despite the fact that it almost reads like I avoided any complicated or technical word possible, it flowed. It worked. Many people (not all, of course) liked it. They even gave me five stars for the characters and concepts, and said how easy it was to read.

In the second novel, I’ve paid more attention to editing, and let myself run free whenever the occasional long word has surfaced in my brain. (Yay! A long word moment! Hello again, old friends!) So I’m not restricting myself here. But I’m aware (now more than ever) how important, above all, communication is when writing.

I no longer wish to write to impress or to elbow my place into the fold of the chattering classes. I wish to write to show, to enjoy, and to share. Share with muddy feet in the middle of the market, my hair in a mess, my worst outfit, and no umbrella to shelter from the rain. Others can stand on a posh little box doing medieval public recitation if they wish. Not me. Not any more.

So, yes. I take that learning as a gift; because I think it makes me ready to write. Maybe, over time, even get good at it.

One thing’s for sure. If I hadn’t learnt this wisdom, I’d still be proposing marketing copy text consistency to editors of globally famous authors you will definitely (without question) have heard of, or penning pompous prose.

So, thank you silver linings. Thank you, breakthroughs. Thank you, losing half a vocabulary and having to re-learn.

Thank you that day I could only write one sentence. Here you go, world. Have one hundred and bloody happily fourteen.