It’s no secret that authors face huge pressures in their daily life: writing under time, financial or health constraints, submitting to agents, dealing with publishers and publication, chasing payments. Add to that the solitary nature of writing, illustrating and translating, and the tortured, penniless artist trope isn’t going away anytime soon.
Mental Health Awareness Week is just one initiative that seeks to widen the conversation around mental health, so we’ve taken the opportunity to do just that: speaking to some of last year’s Betty Trask Award winners about the pressures of being an author, as well as this year’s theme on body image and the change they wish to see in the world.
Writing can be a solitary profession – how do you try to look after your own mental health as an author?
Sarah Day: I've found the challenges to my mental health to be more related to the publishing process – the feeling of a manuscript that you've had to yourself for so long suddenly being exposed, the fear of finalising the text, the uncertainty of what will happen next. I think it's really important to remind yourself that it's ok to ask questions and express your worries – my agent and publishers were incredibly understanding whenever I had questions. It's easy to feel like you're the only one finding it hard, but you absolutely aren't – it's totally understandable to have anxieties, and so important to feel able to talk about them.
Lloyd Markham: I find my mental health tends to be best when I am in a settled weekly routine. I have ADHD so my thoughts are very disorganised and it’s hard for me to wrangle them into order when my day gets disrupted. I also think that it’s important from time to time to give yourself a day off. Not just a day off from writing but a day off from the world in general.
Clare Fisher: Writing is not only solitary; it's also unpredictable, frequently uneconomical, and – at least from the point of view of most non-writers – very, very strange. I've found friendship with other writers key in helping me to separate out the difficulties that stem from me and those that stem from the writing and from the stresses of publication: the hang-ups you feared were peculiarly your own are often revealed to be common. Yet I've also found friendship with people who have nothing to do with writing and publishing, useful in putting things in perspective and in reminding me that I am a person as well as a writer, with connections which are unrelated to whether or not I've had a good writing week, whether or not I had a piece accepted.
Masande Ntshanga: Therapy and medication.
This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is body image: how we think and feel about our bodies. How do you think authors can help change attitudes towards bodies and mental health (can they)?
MN: By writing more honest and varied depictions of our bodies and how to think about them.
CF: The last few years have seen a lot of interesting non-fiction about food, body image, bodies and mental health; books that have had an impact on me are Ruby Tandoh's Eat Up, Roxanne Gay's Hunger and Emilie Pine's Notes to Self, but there are, I'm sure, many others. Fiction can, in a less visible but just as important way, change attitudes by conveying the complexities of lived experience -- something I'd argue it's impossible to do without touching on mental health and the body, at least to some extent. In my own work, I wanted to find a way of talking about negative and difficult experiences with mental health and with body image in a way which, in contrast to many recovery memoirs, was hopeful without denying complexity.
SD: There are lots of things we can do in terms of representation and the avoidance of stereotypes. It's a long established literary trope to use appearance as a shorthand for character – you see it in myths and fairy tales and it's never really gone away. I think one of the things authors – but really all of us – need to do is be aware of those stereotypes and work against them.
LM: Well, what I’ve tried to do in my own writing is approach those subjects honestly and compassionately. However, I’m skeptical as to whether that on its own can change wider negative attitudes in society. I think authors also need to suggest to their readers the possibility that the world could actually be better – that we as a species could be better. To ask questions like, ‘What would a society where we had better relationships with our bodies and minds look like?’ and ‘Why aren’t we there now? What’s holding us back?’ It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full on manifesto, but some hint of a thesis definitely helps I reckon.
What change, if any, would you like to see for authors and artists struggling with their mental health?
SD: We need better mental health funding and services – that's something which will benefit everyone. Specific to authors/artists – I think we need to challenge the narrative that you're supposed to struggle, that it's good for you. That, and the solitary nature of the work, encourages us to be silent when we should be able to talk about what we're going through and ask for help.
MN: It could help to have it less romanticised, and instead engaged with pragmatically. That said, it's also important to include other knowledge systems, aside from the West's, in our conversation about what mental illness is and how it can be treated.
CF: The same changes as I'd like to see for anyone struggling with their mental health: immediate access to free, high-quality care on the NHS. I'd like to see an end to austerity, a rise in the national living wage, an end to zero hours contracts, proper maternity benefits, available and affordable childcare – all of which make it increasingly difficult for anyone without other sources of financial support to make a living as an artist or author, or even try to do so.
LM: In regards to short-term solutions – when I think about the unique pressures that creatives are under when it comes to mental health one thing that comes to mind as a major source of stress is the silly fantasy that we are some sort of special ratified class who are exempt from the same demands of capitalism as everyone else. This idea encourages others to undervalue our labour and sets up an impossible ideal for aspiring authors to live up to. It’s hard to maintain confidence in your work when society is essentially constantly negging you in regards to its value (while still seeking to exploit and profit from it, of course). I think this is why so many young creatives end up burning out and moving on to something more stable. Which is sad. The creative arts should be open to more than just the rich and the stubborn.
Illustration: © BenStudioPRO / Adobe Stock
Remember, you’re not alone
We have a list of resources if you need help with your mental health, work, finances and wellbeing. And if you’re looking for a support network, consider joining the SoA to become part of a community of authors from across the UK – you can join a local group, get involved in our special interest groups, and attend some of our nationwide events.
We also have contingency funds for professional writers and other grants to fund works in progress and support authors in financial difficulty. Contact us if you're looking for advice, suggestions or help.
Betty Trask Award
The Betty Trask Prize and Awards are presented for a first novel by a writer under 35. Last year's winners – listed below – were awarded £3,250 each.
- Sarah Day for Mussolini's Island (Tinder Press)
- Clare Fisher for All the Good Things (Viking)
- Eli Goldstone for Strange Heart Beating (Granta)
- Lloyd Markham for Bad Ideas\Chemicals (Parthian)
- Masande Ntshanga for The Reactive (Jacaranda)