Deep-sea diving into the dark of your head

Tue, May 22, 2012, 01:00

MIND MOVES:Is writing actually bad for your health, writes TIM SMYTH

I MOVED half my stuff back from my flat to my family home about 10 days ago. The more pieces of my dismantled year I tidied away in their bags, the freer my breathing became.

After six months of sitting at my desk trying to stare my computer screen into submission, I had decided to take a break from my postgrad research. I knew something had gone wrong when the reading began to feel like litres of porridge draining slowly through my head. I was terrified; I had no idea what was happening: the idea of spending a solid tranche of my 20s just reading and scribbling should have made me excited and grateful. It seemed petulant to feel any other way.

When I mentioned this to my supervisor he told me about that Peter Greenaway film where they kill an academic by force-feeding him his own books. I think both of us shuddered. I also think that may have been the moment I decided to leave college for a while.

A strange phase followed where I kept getting caught with hideously apt books in my hands. When I went to see a college administrator about going off books I couldn’t suppress a wince at the fact that I had Robert Lowell’s poems in my bag. A couple of weeks later my doctor saw me with my collected Philip Larkin in the waiting room and just shook his head. My therapist did the same thing when she caught me reading Woody Allen just before our appointment.

So all that got me wondering if writing is actually bad for your health.

I read about a US academic who recently disconnected himself from the internet, saying that email was for people whose job was to be on top of things, whereas his own was to be at the bottom of things. I kind of like that. When you’re writing, you’ve got to do some deep-sea diving, right down into the dark of your head. You can’t be bouncing up to the surface every 15 seconds to deal with a new message.

It’s quiet down there, but it can also be creepy. Consciously choosing that kind of isolation is like handing your worries an access-all-areas pass to the best of your attention.

So if writing in itself isn’t good for your mental health, it might at least remind you to take care of that side of your life just a bit better. Writing is about as high-demand a psychological sport as it gets, so it’s important to stay in peak condition.

My day job working for a youth mental health charity keeps me conscious of this need. What it lacks in glamour and intensity it makes up for in stability. Because writing is a kind of work, you can’t go at it without the right degree of professionalism. Once I’m in the right frame of mind, I find that I learn a lot of properly useful psychological strategies from my writing. I’ve got to have a sense of humour to take the most scabrous of criticisms in the right spirit. A thick skin helps in that regard, but that can lead to a deflective sort of attitude: if you’re able to hear the criticism, own it and agree with it, and still keep a bit of smile on your face, I think it’s more fruitful. It brings you close to something like humility and it’s also a lot less awkward.

Zadie Smith says that when you’re writing you have to put up a fence between yourself and the rest of your life. I don’t think you can make that renunciation if it feels like a renunciation. That state where you are nothing more than what you’re doing – you can only arrive at that when you’re absolutely in top form. I take a slow breakfast, indulge myself with the daily emails and a quick skite over the BBC site, and then it’s down to work. That’s when the creepy loneliness turns to a peace that’s positively monastic. I start to notice how lucky I am to be doing this, start to notice the pulse-rhythm of the cursor blinking on the screen, and eventually get so tuned in to it as to be entirely fascinated by the work I’m doing.

Writing begins in curiosity. Why do I want to hang out with these characters? How can I convince someone else to take an interest in this situation I’m inventing? Why did I wake up with this particular sentence loop-tracked in my head? At these times of totally engrossed fascination with work, I think I come closest to what Roberto Bolaño calls – in the only moment of unqualified positivity I’ve found in his writing to date – “the joy of being alive without need for further discussion”.

Curiosity, humour and total absorption in work: I can’t think of a more serviceable definition for mental health. Getting there might take time, patience and even professional care, but the act of writing itself can go a long way towards building that state of vital equilibrium.

Tim Smyth is Headstrong’s Youth Ambassador