The other night I began reading “Altered Perceptions”, an anthology published last year via an Indigogo campaign to raise funds to help Robison Wells and other authors. As Robison struggles with mental illness, along with each short story the author would share their own experience with mental illness, either as someone who struggles with it themselves or someone who supports someone who suffers with it. I haven’t made it very far into the book as yet, but I’m finding the personal vignettes as interesting and compelling as the stories (or more so). I’m not sure many of us realize how prevalent mental illness is or how many different ways—and to varying degrees—it manifests itself.
Then I encountered Mary Robinette Kowal’s entry discussing her perspectives and how the story she was including was a chapter she ended up cutting from her novel “Valour and Vanity” because her alpha readers thought her protagonist was “too whiney” and needed to “man up”. I was struck—I had been one of her alpha readers on that very book, and without continuing I already knew which section she was referring to. I quickly tried to remember; had I been one who had given her that feedback? I remembered thinking the section went on too long, but had I used those words?
In rereading the chapter I felt guilty. Her character, suffering from depression, had been no worse about things than I had been during my lengthy spell of unemployment a few years ago. In fact, if anything, perhaps this was an indication that I have experienced mental illness at times of my life.
In the end, I decided that Kowal’s entry in the anthology, as well as the anthology as a whole, will be a good experience for me—a learning experience, and an excellent example of the positive power of writing.
In truth, we’re all likely exposed to people with mental illness a lot more than we realize—if we’re not one of them. That’s the peculiarity of mental illness. Some of us experience it only a few times in our lives, while others never get over it. Some have it in mild forms, while for others it’s debilitating. But chances are everyone will either experience it first hand or need to offer support to someone else who does.
What does this have to do with being writers? Well, for one, if we’re going to write characters with mental illness we owe it to ourselves and to those with mental illness to make sure we get it right, and that we take it seriously. We do no favors, for example, if we write everyone with OCD as if they were Jack Nicholson’s character in “As Good At It Gets”.
Also, we can be a little more sensitive to mental illness in general. I’m not one to advocate sensitivity to the degree it’s often being promoted these days, but we can be less careless about the jokes we make. More importantly, we can be more aware of the signs and symptoms of mental illness so that we can be more quick to recognize those who have it. As another author in the anthology points out, not everyone with it even considers it something they “suffer with” so much as it’s just their reality. But awareness and understanding can smooth the social wheels, so to speak, in working with those who have it.
In addition, though writers do have tools, our primary tool for writing is our body–and importantly our mind. Just like a violinist must take care of his instrument or a carpenter has to maintain his tools, a writer needs to take care of his or her body and mind. Physical health and mental health are linked. We need to do what we can to keep both functioning well.
Last of all, there does seem to be an above average level of occurrence of mental illness among writers. We may even have it and not realize it, dismissing it as any number of other things. But knowledge is power, and sometimes even just being able to identify it can make all the difference. Not everyone who has mental illness struggles with it—they learn how to work with it and sometimes even use it to their advantage. But they’d never reach that point if they didn’t even know or accept that they have something to work through.
As I said above, I’m looking forward to the remainder of this anthology and to learning more about mental illness. If you’re interested, the book is available as an eBook on Amazon. And there are undoubtedly other good sources of information available out there. If anyone knows of and can recommend any, please list them in a comment below.
(Incidentally, though I’ve not read the final version of “Valour and Vanity”, I did enjoy the alpha copy and do recommend it if you enjoy alternate history urban fantasy or, as Kowal puts it, “Jane Austen with magic”. )