Saturday, 12 November 2011

Writer's Brain Strain: An Occupational Hazard - Liz Kessler

When I was about eight, I decided I was going to be a poet when I grew up. This decision was justified with some early publishing success. At age nine, my poem, Jinx’s Shop, was printed in the local newspaper. A fact I am still so proud of that I carry the battered paper around with me whenever I do school talks – even if I do have to explain that yes, human beings had already inhabited the planet as long ago as 1976.

My early publishing success, and creative peak for about 25 years
In my teenage years, after I’d got bored of getting caught smoking and skiving lessons, I fell in love with poetry again. I immersed myself in ee cummings, John Clare, Louis Macneice and many, many others, believing the poets were the only ones who really understood the truth, and told it. I still wrote it, too. The tortured, unrequited, angst-filled poetry that only a 17-year-old can write. And then I read something in the newspaper that changed everything.

Apparently, poets were twenty times more likely to go mad than anyone else.

Suddenly, I wasn’t quite so sure of my long-term career plans. I didn’t really like the idea of throwing myself into something that promised me a lifetime of mental instability.

So I became a teacher instead. And then a journalist, and then a combination of the two. The poet quietly sloped away without making a fuss.

But whatever I did, the writer was always there in the background. Finally, about ten years ago, I left everything else behind and put myself on the line. I was a writer, and damn it, I was going to make a living being one.

But that statistic never went away. Even though I wasn’t writing poetry, I was writing – and surely all writing is a form of poetry anyway? Perhaps I wasn’t twenty times more likely to suffer mental illness than everyone else if I was writing full pages at a time rather than rhyming couplets. But I was pretty sure the odds were still fairly strong.

And sure enough, over ten years of writing, my mental health has felt a bit ropey at times. Nothing too awful – although there have been some bad times. But I am definitely prone to high levels of anxiety, insecurity, even panic attacks, and I worry about everything. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

A writer buddy and I have this joke about our mental state. We call it Writer’s Brain Tumour. OK, so maybe that doesn’t sound such a great joke. But the idea is that whilst ‘normal’ folk will get a little twinge of a headache and pop a couple of paracetamol and get on with their day without thinking about it, we are instantly consumed with thoughts of bleeds inside our brain. A tiny itch to most people means they’ve brushed a nettle. To us, it can only mean the most dramatic of tropical diseases. Even if we’ve never been anywhere tropical. It is impossible for us to have a minor ailment without escalating it in our minds to catastrophic levels.

But it’s not our fault. Making huge leaps of imagination, upping the stakes, thinking of the most unlikely and unusual scenario - this is our day job! This is how our minds need to work in order to do our jobs properly. If we sat down and wrote about a girl who accidentally walked into some nettles and got a rash, no one would be interested. But give her a tropical disease and a mystery person who gave her the disease, and an exciting adventure that she has to go on to find a magical cure, and we are approaching the realm of a plot.

So it stands to reason – if we spend our working hours training our minds to function in this way, there’s bound to be some fallout. Doesn’t make it any easier though, when we’re fretting about the latest lump of fatty gristle on our legs that we ask partners, doctors and anyone who happens to be passing to have a feel of.

So what do we do? Drive everyone mad and hope they’ll stick around? Read lots of self help books? Meditate - or even medicate?

Meditate or Medicate?
And then, just last week, something occurred to me. If we were tennis players, we might get Tennis Elbow. If we were golfers, we may suffer from Golfer’s Knee. That is because those would be the parts of our body most vulnerable to injury in our sport. We wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit it. We’d take extra care to look after our knees and our elbows, and would seek physiotherapy when they suffered. Very straightforward.

And so it is with writers. The muscle that we constantly call upon, work hard every day and exhaust from time to time is our mind. So it’s no wonder if our imaginations can sometimes get a bit overworked and strained. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; it doesn’t make us abnormal. It’s simply a professional hazard – and we need to look after it. And sometimes, as with physical injuries, it can take a few different approaches till we find the one that works for us. It might be yoga, counselling, or exercise; it might even be medication.

The fact is, our mind – our brain, our imagination, whichever sounds right to you – is the number one tool for our jobs. So if we suffer from Writer’s Brain Strain (as I’ve decided to rename it) from time to time, well, let’s not be embarrassed, or try to pretend it’s not happening. It’s part of what makes us the writers we are, and we just need to call upon our own bag of tricks to work out how to give it the care and attention it needs.

On which note, I’m off to walk my dog on a big, white, sandy beach.


Dog + beach + sunrise = the best therapy I've discovered so far


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21 comments:

Abi Burlingham said...

What a lovely post Liz! I really enjoyed your humorous take on this. I think we writers do worry about out sanity don't we? We are over-imaginative, emotional creatures, but we need to be to do what we do. And you're so right about wearing out the old grey matter sometimes - I think mine's permanently in a state of disrepair... you don't know anywhere that supplies 'fresh' brain power do you? Let me know if you find out! Oh, and you dog looks adorable by the way.

catdownunder said...

Oh, lovely! Why is it we cannot think of all this imagination and emotion as exercising our brains and keeping them fit and healthy?
Mine needs pedal power to function!

Savita Kalhan said...

Someone asked me at a dinner - how can you write such dark stuff? Where does it come from? Both are difficult questions to answer, but I have recognised I need some kind of therapy for 'writer's brain strain', which I have now found. It's manifested itself in the shape of an allotment, a fork, a spade, a hoe... and a lot of digging. No, don't worry, the holes I'm digging are for vegetables, I promise...

Joan Lennon said...

Now, where can I rent a dog ...?

Flowerpot said...

I find dog walking a very good way of dealing wiht Writers Brain Strain Liz! Particularly on sandy beaches - Cornwall must be best for WBS!

Liz Kessler said...

Great to see that people identify with this. Phew!

Savita - an allotment sounds about as good as dog walkies on the beach.

'Flowerpot' - WBS - love it! Makes it sound even more like a bona fide condition!

Stroppy Author said...

Hypochondria has been a feature of writers throughout history.

I call 'writer's brain strain' a brain tuna. It's not a tumour, but a headache is boring, and our job is playing with language. 'I'm sorry, I can't do that right now, I have a brain tuna.'

malrostan said...

Great post, Liz. I think what other people sometimes label as my 'over-sensitivity' is my own version of a 'brain tuna'. No wonder I'm enjoying my son's new puppy so much - it is obviously the perfect therapy.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Good post, Liz. I often feel like my brain is about to explode when thougts and ideas are flowing faster and faster... Mmmm... maybe I should just be gratfeul that it still works...

adele said...

In my house it's called NOVELHEAD. Brain tuna sounds more poetic somehow.

madwippitt said...

Hypochondria ... don't start me off again ... even with a dog AND an allotment ...

Pauline Chandler said...

Lovely post and sooo true! The thing is when you're working on bok it's 24/7 affair. Heaven when it's going well and hell when it isn't. Sometimes my head feels as if it's about to burst. I call it 'brain ache' and have to force myself to stop work and put the kettle on.

Moira Munro said...

Oh, I'm with you Liz. BUT if Brain Strain is an occupational hazard arising from an overused imagination, then you would think the active imagination could also be harnessed to our benefit.
A lot of good mental health comes from imagining, recalling, appreciating, good things.
How about all these Paul McKenna techniques of visualising solutions?

Joan, borrow the neighbour's dog. They're probably having to pay a dog walker. It's instant happiness, though I wouldn't mind a beach like Liz's.
Oh, and anyone with anxiety/panic symptoms (how absolutely horrible!), get your thyroid levels checked. The cause might be as simple as too much thyroxine.

Ann Evans said...

I agree Liz, especially about walking the dog being a great way of de-fuddling the brain. I'd love a white sandy beach, but the streets and to the park and back will have to do. Sometimes I get back from walking our dog, Lola and I barely recollect anything from the walk - but a scene will be playing out perfectly in my head. No wonder they say a dog is man's best friend.

malachy said...

Yep, I recognize that brain tuna thing. Mind you, I've currently got tennis elbow, too. All I need is that golf thingy.

Penny Dolan said...

May have to opt for Novelhead as I am sometimes not sure I have any brain left to strain. But that writing = madness equation still has a haunting power. Great post!

Liz Kessler said...

Thank you for the lovely comments. I love the fact that so many people already have their own terms for this - and their own remedies! Have to say, Brain Tuna made me laugh out loud.

Malachy - two out of three ain't bad, or as the Japanese say (with thanks to a friend for this link) 66% is good enough...

http://bit.ly/ocdtLO

http://bit.ly/rZuIuX

Liz Kessler said...

PS Can't work out how to make those links work, but do copy and paste into a web page as I think it's quite amusing.

thecubiclerebel said...

I really like this post! And I like poetry even though it frustrates me to the point of picking my eyelashes.

Lucy Coats said...

When the kids were little, and I got grumpy, they used to say I needed to let some writing out of my brain! When I was a child myself, I used to be told (constantly) that I had an overactive imagination. Thank you so much for this, Liz (and Stroppy). WBS and Brain Tuna are going straight into my arsenal of explanation/excuse for the strange state of the writer's mind!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Really brilliant post Liz. I came out my flat one Autumn and panicked. A huge head of ginger hair was sticking out from under a car. Good grief someone's just run over Kelly Hoppen. (she had a shop around the corner) Got closer and saw it was a heap of autumnal leaves! No wonder I have brain strain!!! I envy you your dog on the beach!