Writing, or as Juvenal the Roman poet put it, ‘the incurable writing disease’, should come with a health warning. In fact, judging by the many names that allude to the links between writing and mental health (‘graphomania’ from the Greek ‘writing’ plus ‘insanity’, ‘scribomania, ‘hypergraphia’ and ‘typomania’) it should positively be avoided.
Aristotle pointed out the link between madness and genius, but can it be said one causes the other? Does writing make us mad, or do we write because we are mad in the first place? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Maybe it’s true that those with mental health problems see the world in a different way and therefore see things others cannot, and not always negatively. On the other hand, maybe there is an intrinsic madness in undertaking the task of translating the world from one’s own mind into a language that can be deciphered and interpreted in the minds of others as a landscape guided only by the constellations of their own experience.
Many of us spend years writing in the darkness of never knowing if we will be read or rewarded – a hopeless, unrequited passion. We soldier on, through the obsession of choosing just the right word, the depression of working for months or years on a piece only to realise it’s not working, the heartbreak of rejection, the anxiety of ‘am I good enough?’.
So should something be prescribed for writing, or should writing be prescribed?
Imagine a doctor’s note for a few weeks off work, solid peace and quiet, reading and reflection before putting pen to paper, no interruptions. Maybe it would take such authority to allow ourselves such a luxury in the face of mortgage, spouse, offspring and other responsibilities to give us the necessity of time and space in our minds for our craft.
The health benefits for many would be extraordinary. Therapeutic, cathartic writing about painful events, counselling in which the listener is a pen and paper; facing our fears at a comfortable distance; or exploratory expeditions into hopes and dreams, visions of what could be.
If writing is madness then I don’t wish to be cured.