This is a Mental Muse post. Mental Muse: The Mental Health Advocacy Meme for Authors invites writers who experience mental health issues to share their answers to five simple questions. Find them (along with more information on this meme) HERE. *Once a month, every month.* I went first in May, you could be next. But first…Elizabeth.
I related so much to Elizabeth’s answers, I just had to highlight some of the phrases which really rang true with my own experiences. See if you can learn something for yourself in this very illuminating submission from the talented author (& editor), Elizabeth Lawrence.
Welcome Author Elizabeth Lawrence
1. What is your mental health issue?
I have depression and panic disorder. I’ve exhibited signs of depression my entire life and began having panic attacks as a teenager. My parents refused to listen to my concerns, so I was left untreated until I was in my early twenties. Now in my forties, I use medication and therapy to help me cope with the effects of my depression and anxiety.
2. How long have you been writing fiction? Tell us about your career so far.
I don’t remember ever not writing fiction. I started by making up stories in my head when I was still a toddler, then creating pictures of the stories, and then finally, once I’d learned my alphabet, writing them down. It was just something I did. I never questioned it or doubted that writing was what I wanted to do with my life.
When I was in college, my depression grew to the point at which I could no longer write, and I lost any confidence I had in my ability to create stories. I listened to the adults who said I couldn’t make a living as a novelist and gave up the dream. After school, I eventually became a paralegal because it paid well and relied heavily on writing skills. I worked in law for several years before starting to write again. Once I’d written a full novel, I realized that it was worth doing because it made me happy. So I kept going.
I eventually left my paralegal job to stay home and advocate for my children, who are also both neuro-diverse. This change gave me my first opportunity to really be a professional writer. I began editing for independent publishers and self-published authors while working on my own material. Since then, I’ve had three short stories and a historical romance novel published, and I’m working on both a murder mystery and a paranormal novel.
3. How has mental ill health helped your writing?
It’s hard to know what would be different since my mental issues have been life-long. I don’t know what it’s like to see through neuro-typical eyes. However, I suspect that my mental health issues have given me a better window into my imagination. Not being as tethered to reality, it is easier for me to let my mind explore fictional worlds, relationships, and possibilities. I’m not afraid to go to a disturbing “what if” kind of place. My mind can see possibilities that others might shy away from or just not consider.
My behaviors made me something of an outcast while growing up. I feel more like an observer than a participant in the human world. This does give me some insight into how people work, how they relate to each other. I’m able to explore character development and believable reactions and interactions, and I think that’s because I have an almost clinical, objective view of people. I see them more clearly because of our differences.
Often, my manuscripts begin when words and phrases just pop into my head, without any plot or character concepts attached to them. I will write them down, and then the process of writing the full book is really the story of my search to discover what those words and phrases mean. The world in my head is so much more vivid and real to me than the one I navigate in my body (which I refer to as my “meat suit”). If I could trade that world for sanity, I don’t think I’d do it.
4. And how has it not?
The nature of my depression can hold me back tremendously. If I’m in a hypo-manic period, I am prolific and can really tap into some amazing language and ideas. But then I crash, and I have to pay the price for all that creativity. I’ll have long “dormant” periods, during which I can’t write at all.
The further I let myself go into my imagination, the harder it is to maintain the balance of my sanity. I can always feel the pull of insanity, trying to seduce me away from lucidity and reality. It’s like walking on a wall. Falling in either direction would be disastrous, because when I’m low and not working, I can’t produce. I’m convinced of my own complete inferiority, and the idea of picking up a pen or sitting at the computer is overwhelming. If I can’t work, there’s no happiness or personal fulfillment. I’ve lost years of productivity to my mental health challenges.
I’m also unable to maintain sustained effort for my blog, my promotion, and my networking. I’ll set something aside to do later, and before I realize it, months have passed. I feel like a lot of opportunities have passed me by while I’ve struggled with the way my depression makes me feel.
Every writer struggles with self-doubt, I think, but having a mental illness can make it harder to overcome. When you’ve been told throughout your entire life that your mind is defective in some way, it’s difficult to believe that maybe you really have something to offer. It’s hard to believe that a talent for writing exists in a brain that also houses mental illness. Whenever someone tells me that they’re reading my book, I apologize. I never feel proud of the work I’ve done, because I’ve spent my life apologizing for the way my mind works.
5. What advice do you have for other writers with mental health issues.
Advice is tricky. I think that in a lot of ways, mental illness is similar to diabetes, in that you have to learn to self-monitor constantly. You need a support system in place, and you can’t be reluctant to use it when you need it. I don’t always need therapy, but when I do—or even when I just suspect that I might soon need it—I will seek out a psychologist with whom I have good rapport. If I need meds, I call my doctor and get them. I don’t allow myself to get complacent, and I’m not shy about asking for help.
Because writing is a mental exercise, it is fundamentally tied to what is going on in the writer’s mind. When you write, you tap into the epicenter of who you are and how you think. Mental illness may give you a special perspective and allow you to envision worlds and events and characters that no one else ever could, but if you don’t take care of your mental health, you can become trapped inside that epicenter. If you’re living in your head, you miss out on finding the words to share your imaginings with readers. And I think that words are what make you a writer. If those worlds and creatures came out in paint or clay, you’d be an artist. A musician would express it with violins and oboes and hammer dulcimers. But writers are seduced not just by the visions but by the words, and in order to find the right words, you have to learn to live within your own head successfully.
It is too easy for writers to become isolated. It’s important to force yourself out into the world when you can. Interact with flesh-and-blood people. Remind yourself what it feels like to be alive and a participant in the real world. Our imaginations are so freeing that it can be hard to slip on the shackles of the true, physical world. However, if we don’t, we can get lost. If we lose ourselves, then those glorious words get lost with us.
The only other advice I could offer is not to compare yourself to other writers. Every time I read about daily writing quotas that other writers manage to stick to, I beat myself up over my shortcomings. Yes, it would be wonderful to have a disciplined approach to writing, but that’s not something that will work for me. If you know that you are doing your best—and what constitutes your best will change from day to day—then that’s all that matters.
The Truth Seekers by Elizabeth Lawrence
At the turn of the century, Victorian upper class society was a vibrant, but strictly-ordered world. In a community created to celebrate the pursuit of knowledge, the Arts, and philosophy and to promote an open discussion of the social issues and morality of the day, a gothic novelist befriends the daughter of the Governor. Bitter and disenchanted with the privileged and wealthy, Geoffrey Hawes finds his beliefs challenged by the intelligent and vivacious Miranda Claridge. In the midst of their debates on the morality and social mores of the upper class, this unlikely friendship blossoms into a passionate love. While he helps her to understand what relationships between men and women should be, she opens his eyes to the wonderful and beautiful and good in the world. The couple soon discovers that they must choose between their principles and their hearts before the opposing demands of each destroy them both.
Elizabeth Lawrence is the author of both contemporary and period romances. Each book incorporates its own unique blend of humor and reverence, the paranormal and the mundane. In addition to her novels, Elizabeth serves as a freelance editor, serving independent and self-published authors. A lifelong writer and former paralegal, Elizabeth divides her free time between her husband and two sons, her three cats, her collection of cozy murder mysteries, and her mildly severe caffeine addiction. A native of Lawrence, Kansas, Elizabeth now works from her home in Cleveland, Ohio.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share with the ‘mental’ writing community. 🙂
If you are an author who experiences mental health issues who would like to share how this impacts you professionally, then please download The Mental Muse questions and instructions by clicking this link. Get your answers back to me, edited and in good order. *Please supply the actual links, not embedded links. Thanks you.
* This meme will continue monthly, so long as I get enough participants, so please help me to spread the word, and please support this meme by taking the button to your sidebar!