And I advise you, today of all days, please look after your mental ‘elf’. Let’s share and talk and not be afraid to say what we think. We can be heroes – just for one day.
I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘mental illness’, I prefer to talk about mental health. It may seem to be splitting hairs but for me it’s an important distinction. We are all, at various times in our lives in varying degrees of health, and our mental health is one part of this overall picture. We all experience better or worse times mentally and physically. We will all be ‘disabled’ at some point in our lives – it’s all a question of what and when and how not IF.
What’s in a word?
For me the problem of the phrase ‘mental illness’ is that people get grouped together and then stigmatised. The language of ‘illness’ and ‘disability’ is contested ground and my concern is to promote an understanding that in this respect ‘name is the thief of identity.’ Everyone’s experience of life is unique and each is valuable. I further believe we communicate fundamentally through our creativity and when these pathways are blocked we experience the sort of mental trauma which leads towards the terminology of ‘mental illness.’ Being socially constructed, mental ‘illness’ really means no more than saying the individual is not fitting in to the social norms in a given way at a given time. We should look at the reasons behind such a situation. And not always blame the individual. I am not denying the reality and the disabling effects of mental ill-health but I am suggesting we take a more substantial and perhaps more mature look at exactly what mental health and illness actually mean. Labels are for tins, not for people after all.
Genius and/or madness?
There is much talk of how genius and madness are closely related – even of how the schizophrenic brain is actually a ‘creative’ brain and when non diagnosed schizophrenics are being ‘creative’ their brain activity mimics that of the schizophrenic. I’m not really interested in that sort of discussion because it seems to me at best a ‘created’ connection and at worst a ‘circular’ argument. I am interested in how important it is for EVERYONE to be free to be creative in whatever way they feel most comfortable. For some people this is cooking, gardening, sewing or knitting, playing music or sport. For a lot of people it’s writing. When I say ‘writing’ I actually mean something more than words on paper. I am talking about creative communication using language which at some point will probably involve an element of the written. But it’s the communication which is the important part. The ‘writing’ is just the means of communication.
Who cares what you write?
A problem is that writing tends to get hijacked by ‘culture’ and because ‘writing’ is a privileged activity in our society, the door is too often shut on ‘ordinary’ people in terms of participation, too often they feel proscribed in what they do because of the ‘rules’ of the dominant ideology or social mores. I contend that you can’t ‘control’ creativity. You can’t invalidate personal experience or deny a ‘story’s truth.’ Of course you can write ‘badly’ and you can communicate ‘poorly’ and there are as many technical skills to be employed in writing well as there are in cooking or gardening or sewing… BUT the fundamental urge to create through narrative or story should not be stifled by ‘rules’ and certainly not by culturally imposed ones. Imagine if we were only allowed to cook according to recipes. Or only allowed to garden to approved RHS guidelines. Generally speaking as far as writing is concerned it’s been turned into an ‘industry’ in which professionals are paid to ‘create’ culture and the rest are passive consumers. This has a very bad effect on general mental health in my opinion. And it’s not necessary. The existence of paid professionals should not invalidate the creative expression of the non-professional. Okay, I may not ever play Carnegie Hall or Wembley Stadium but I can get creative pleasure and validation from playing and singing in my own home, in local venues or on YouTube if I have the nerve. I don’t. Because my musical creativity was personally stifled from an early age. (That’s another story). And I know many people who have been similarly stifled when it comes to writing or ‘telling their stories’ in a creative way. And I’ve seen at first hand the horrible effect this can have on mental health.
Telling your ‘story’ is part of living your life.
We are storytellers. You’ll often hear people say that. And we all know of ‘primitive tribes’ with oral cultures who ‘share’ their stories and marvel that mental health problems are virtually non existent in such ‘cultures.’ So what is it about our ‘culture’ that has turned the tide? I believe it’s because people are ridiculed and ostracised and in many case plain prevented from utilising their innate creativity within their everyday life. Many people don’t dare to write because they think it’s a specialist business. This belief is effectively making people illiterate and illegitimate in cultural terms. And it’s not right. Of course someone like me with 20 years hard won experience in the craft of writing may write ‘better’ technically or even emotionally, but I’ve spent enough time facilitating the ‘writing’ of others to know that the ‘professionals’ do not have ownership of all the ‘good’ stories. Sometimes commercial viability and mass market appeal are just not the point.
Creativity is not an industry.
The commercialisation of writing and fiction in general forces people to be readers and consumers rather than active creators of stories. I think this delegitimizes the individual creative experience. If we get over the fact that writing (and publishing) is effectively about financial gain and bottom line profit and instead realise that the ‘market’ is a created entity which should be our servant not our master, and if we embrace and use the new technology available to us to reclaim creativity for the individual whose primary goal is to communicate their own personal world view, I contend that we will be more mentally healthy both as individuals and as a society.
It’s my – and your – world too.
Whether the individual communicates their creativity through beautiful prose or internally consistent and tight narrative or whether they do it in a raw but creatively open and honest communication, the world is large enough for all of these. And something valuable can be gained from all creative endeavour. Some of the most ‘creative’ people I have met have been people who cannot read and write and/or people ‘suffering’ from enduring diagnoses of mental ‘illness.’ Yes, their brains may be different from mine (or not) but most importantly I’ve learned that for ALL of us, the opportunity to be creative without being constrained by the ‘rules’ of professionalism or profit or created ‘culture’ is the one that makes us feel better. People are happier when they are free to be creative. That applies for writing as much as it does for any other cultural activity and I think that’s the point we should focus on rather than rehashing the old ‘genius as madness’ debate time and again. Or turning our noses up at anyone who doesn’t have the right publishing pedigree.
Communicate – creatively. It’s a right, not a privilege.
We learn about other people through their stories. Written stories enable us to communicate with and learn about others we will never meet. It’s a form of immortality and it’s a form of creativity which should be encouraged not restricted. For writer and reader to be able to stand outside themselves for a moment and engage with another mind (in whatever state of mental or physical health it is) is, to my mind something fundamentally important in humanity.
A way to step outside yourself
For me the value of creative writing is the possibility for one human being to take themselves outside of their own personal identity and communicate (or commune) with another human being. It creates shared experience and offers the possibility of shared understanding of the human condition. Even if what the ‘writer’ is doing is simply sharing their own ‘story’ of how they see the world and how they interact with it, it’s valid and valuable as a creative expression. That’s the creative imperative for me. You don’t have to have the approval of the Booker Panel, a publishing advance and a fanbase of thousands to be validated. I believe and I advocate that all individuals have the right to express their creativity and we should all take every opportunity offered us to share, encourage and promote such creative communication.
Here is a creative collaboration I undertook some years back. It’s a brave film by a brave woman. It’s fifteen minutes long, so give yourself time to watch right to the end and beyond – stay after the rolling credits – because the conventional ending isn’t the only one!