Saturday, 19 November 2016

You don't have to be mad to be a writer...

..but it helps...

Much has been said and written about the relationship between creativity and what some of my online friends call being 'mentally interesting'. We  know that many creative geniuses (or should that be 'genii'?) struggled with mental health issues of various degrees, whether caused by overconsumption of alcohol or drugs, or just by the vicissitudes of life. It's a fine line between having brilliant ideas and having frankly crazy ideas, and those of us with the sensitivity/insight/eccentricity to feel deeply and to write about it, are also prone to feeling more deeply than we or those around us can cope with. Do you, in fact, have to be a bit mad to be a creator, whether in words or other media?

I ponder this subject today because in the last week I've been plunged once again into the murky waters of depression, nervous exhaustion or whatever you want to call it, and I'm only just beginning to come out again. It was to be expected: after the first excitement  of being a student again, and especially after having an exceptionally poetry-crammed day about ten days ago, followed by a quite unnecessary falling out with a friend I'm trying to support through a much worse trauma, I was always likely to crash. Combine that with the shortening days and the looming approach of Christmas/my first assignment, and you have a perfect storm.

In the first six weeks or so of my MA course, every week's seminar made me more inspired, and the poems, or drafts, were pouring out at a rate of knots. In the last week, though, I haven't even done much of the prescribed reading, let alone write a ghazal or a villanelle (I think I may have a villanelle gestating now, but it could turn out to be a pantoum...).

Every writer, of course, has fallow periods between the rushes of inspiration, even if you don't struggle with the depression I've lived with for over 40 years. No one can be brilliant all the time, especially at breakfast. Mental interestingness, however, just complicates the matter. I've learned ways of thinking and being that help moderate the impact, but I can't say I'm 100% cured, and maybe it is best not to be - I wouldn't want to be cured of having lots of good ideas, even if the price is the occasional tumble into no ideas at all. George Herbert is one of my consolations; his brilliant poem The Flower describes so perfectly the feeling of being in the darkness and then coming out of it again:

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
         I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. Oh, my only light,
                      It cannot be
                      That I am he
         On whom thy tempests fell all night.

If one of our best Christian poets had times when he could neither praise nor write, who am I to complain about the occasional fallow time? I'd happily undergo the depression if, when I came out of it, I could write like him...

Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for BRF's New Daylight. Veronica used to belong to what was, before it closed, the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and is currently churchless. She also blogs at


  1. Many people find this time of year difficult. This is a useful post, which I have shared on Twitter.
    Fish oil and light boxes may help.
    I am trying to work out a joke from your poetic forms, where pantoum turns into pantaloon. That could be a poem about mental health...

  2. 'After so many deaths' ... Herbert really knew how to express the writer's angst! I'm so glad your course is proving inspiring though, Veronica. It sounds so good.

  3. Puts me in mind of that great book 'The Dynamics of Creation' by Anthony Storr. Thanks.

  4. I've been pondering this too Veronica - the creative "need" within me which bubbles/shoots up and somehow pouring out some stuff makes me more sane and able to cope with my (extra/over?)sensitivity to life in general?
    Reading about how other writers/"creatives" through time treated life has been encouraging(one article I read about different creative bods' habits included one saying walks were mandatory (Jane Austen I think?), napping at random hours recommended etc.. - somebody else.) I wonder if we've lost the acceptance of the difference of an artistic temperament in modern life? However as a wife and mum having other people depend on one when one wants to be being creative/walking/napping seems complicated!