It’s not a profession that lends itself well to mental health, writing. Look at poor old Sylvia Plath – she was only 30 when she lost her struggle against depression, and during a freezing British winter, put her head in the oven. 30! (What have I been doing with my life?). Hemmingway, drinking himself to death for years, then finally putting a shotgun in his mouth. Arthur Koestler, who along with his wife took a lethal cocktail of booze and pills. Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz and then threw himself down the stairs forty years later.
This is kind of depressing. What was my point? Oh yes – we may not have the same mortality rates as rock stars, but writers do mine a dark seam of misery, alcoholism, and mental illness. It’s not surprising, actually. Sitting day after day, unspooling the bizarre contents of your mind onto the page, with no company but the imaginary characters who prod and poke you and demand to have their story told? I think crime writers must have it worst – perfectly nice people who are driven to excavate the darkest caverns of the human heart and shovel out the substrate on the page. How do you cope?
There used to be a certain tolerance to the myth of the tortured artist. The writer as rock star. In these days of dwindling advances and perfectly packaged media phenomena, it no longer cuts any ice. The writer needs to be well-behaved, presentable, but above all productive. There’s no time for demons. However dark and wrenching your tale, you must still present it on deadline and comb through it for stray commas. Going to Hell and back is no excuse for sloppy punctuation.
But there is an upside. In my so-far limited experience, it’s the not-writing that makes you crazy. If you’re really a writer, nothing makes as much sense as when the story is coming. You may in fact look up from the screen to find the real world is the one that looks flat, dark. So we can keep the whole shambolic show on the road by writing, writing, moving the fingers over the keys. But just to let the crazy out a little, I find myself plagued from time to time by what I like to think of as Irrational Worries of the Writer. These include, but are not limited to:
What if I die before I write my book? I’ve got this totally awesome idea but I won’t be ready to write it until three or four books down the line. What if I die before I get this masterpiece finished? How will the world cope with such a loss? I don’t want it to be finished by some loser who will never have my grasp of character and situation.
What if someone else comes up with the same idea before I can get mine out? I’ve got this totally awesome idea but it’s going to take me a while to write/edit/sell it. In the meantime what if some other ‘writer’ gets it out there sooner? I’ll have to pull mine, even though I’d obviously tell it a million times better. How will the world cope with such a deprivation?
What if someone steals my title? I’ve got this totally awesome title but what if someone’s already used it for a recent, similar book? (This has actually happened to me, and it was quite irritating, I can vouch).
What if I accidentally libel someone? You read a few cases of people being sued for millions, and you see the libel clause in your contract. You think about how you used Aunt Maria’s chin-hair for that librarian character in chapter four. You panic.
What if someone real gets upset and realises or thinks it’s them in the books? Of course you’ve used the deepest emotional trauma of your own life, especially in your first book (may as well get some use from it). But what if your parents get really upset and refuse to speak to you, and your grandma cuts you out of her inheritance forever? You really wanted that Royal Doulton teaset, dammit.
What if I use real-life locations and they get cross? I’ve said my character goes to a real hospital down the road and they set her leg so badly she has a limp for life, and this is what impedes her in the chase with the knife-wielding villain….Wait, will the hospital sue me for maligning them? Should I make up a hospital? Subtly change the letters? Oh dear.
Have I accidentally used a line I read somewhere before? I always get this one when I’ve written a plot twist or a line that seems particularly harmonious. I don’t remember everything I’ve read in my life (and I’ve read a LOT), so what are the chances I might accidentally plagiarise someone. This is a big worry.
What if no one buys my books and I have to stop being a writer?
Too scary to think about. If I was Ernest Hemmingway I’d be pouring myself a large whiskey right about now….