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Introducing yourself to the various factors at play in the complex relationship between literature and mental health; exploring some therapeutic writing exercises.
In this talk by Matt Haig, he discusses his book Notes on a Nervous Planet, a guide for navigating the pressures of modern life, which he also connects to his ongoing battles with anxiety and depression. Watch the event to get an idea of the urgent issues the book raises and think about how Matt approaches the complicated relationship our society has with mental health.
It might surprise you, but it’s not just contemporary authors that have written about these difficult personal problems. In fact, depictions of mental health in literature go back thousands of years: from Ancient Greek myths like Oedipus Rex, all the way to 17th century Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear. What’s changed is that in the 21st century, we now have the words to describe problems we understand, and can seek the help we need.
As mental illness has been gradually destigmatised, lots of modern critics have decided to go back and look again at some of our famous classic texts, to see whether some of the ideas we have about our literary history need to be challenged. Was Miss Havisham from Great Expectations simply another ‘mad woman in the attic’ (itself a famous reference to Jane Eyre), or was she unable to cope with a society that didn’t take her seriously? Did Hamlet’s Ophelia ‘go mad’ and drown herself, or was she having an untreated mental health crisis in reaction to a major trauma?
Thankfully, when the 20th century arrived, pioneering modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce began to give a more concrete voice to the internal struggles of their characters in the aftermath of major world events like the First World War. This advanced even further with the rise of modern psychiatry, giving authors the medical knowledge and language to write about mental illness with more care, shifting public opinion in the process.
Part 1 – Articulating the Experience of Mental Illness:
Throughout the interview, Matt talks about the ongoing struggle of writers to articulate what mental illness feels like in words—especially because experiences can be so subjective. He says:
‘when I had depression […] I found it literally very hard to articulate anything, and to understand anything. And my big quest with my own recovery to an extent, from being suicidal to being not suicidal, was really a process of learning how to articulate what I was feeling in order to manage what I was feeling.’
He later reads a poem by Louise Glück to the audience, which uses the metaphor of a snowdrop, one of the first flowers to bloom after winter, to discuss the process of recovery. You can watch it from 32:27 or read it below here:
‘Snowdrops’ by Louise Glück:
Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.
I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–
afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
in the raw wind of the new world.
With a partner consider the following questions:
- This is a poem about survival in the face of hardship, but it is open to many interpretations. While it could be about surviving a particular mental illness, the central metaphor could also be used to describe other difficult human experiences. Can you think of any of these? Does the poem remind you of any experiences you’ve had in your life?
- What poetic techniques does Louise Glück use to help ‘anthropomorphise’ (give human qualities to something non-human) the flower? Is there anything in the structure, rhythm or images of the poem that help give the snowdrop a vulnerable, human voice?
- What do you think the significance of temperature is in the poem? How do you think lines such as ‘winter should have meaning for you’, ‘the cold light / of earliest spring’ and ‘in the raw wind of the new world’ connect with each other, and help structure the poem?
- ‘Snowdrops’ uses a clear extended metaphor to articulate the experience of recovery from a mental health struggle. Do you think it is a successful metaphor like Matt does, or do you think there might be other more direct/effective ways to describe this process?
Long before ‘Snowdrops’, authors have commonly used metaphors to talk about feelings of mental distress.
Compare the extended metaphor in ‘Snowdrops’ with these other iconic metaphors from literary history:
“Wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
“She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew“; or the immortal words, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Staring at the loud wallpaper of the room to which she is confined, the protagonist muses: “You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.”
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Again, with your partner, consider the following questions:
- Which of these metaphors do you think are the most and least powerful?
- What themes or connections do you notice across the quotes?
- Most of these writers use nature in their metaphors—why do you think they do this and what effect does it have?
Using the quotes above as inspiration, try writing three metaphors each to describe an internal struggle of your choosing. Compare with your partner and decide which of theirs is the most successful.
Part 2 – Writing as Therapy
Watch Matt speak from 40:17 to 43:52 about how important it is to externalise your feelings, whether to friends, family, or a mental health professional. Towards the latter part of his answer, he mentions how his therapist encouraged him to write in order to make sense of the jumbled thoughts in his head.
There is a great tradition in literature of writing as a therapeutic practice: as a way of finding not only comfort but a deeper understanding of yourself. This can be seen in non-fiction texts like The Diary of Anne Frank to the narrators of fictional novels—Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower aspires to be a writer when he grows up to help bridge a disconnect he feels from the world and to come to terms with a childhood trauma.
Expressive journal writing is a popular form of art therapy. Close your eyes, relax your body and draw attention to your breath for 2 minutes. Pick up a pen, and for 5 minutes write whatever thoughts come into your head (if any at all). You can write quickly or slowly—the most important thing is that you don’t question what you write! Nothing is right or wrong, and what you write doesn’t have to make sense. Don’t be afraid to write about what scares you.
Now have a go!
Read your text straight away (out loud if you like) and reflect on your thoughts. Is there a common theme? What is the most valuable thought you had?
If you found it helpful, consider journaling for 15-30 minutes each day to keep tabs on your thoughts and feelings.
Talking about the success of his previous book, Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt explains the importance of sharing the things you’ve learned from past struggles:
‘I wanted to tell that story because I wanted to make other people who were going through something similar to feel less alone […] [Reasons to Stay Alive] is really like a message in a bottle back through time to that person who was literally on a cliff-edge […] and who woke up every day wanting to die […] I was writing it from the future self that I didn’t believe in when I was 24-years-old to sort of, like, try and breakthrough space-time and tell that person […] that that future exists. So, I had a very clear idea of who my reader was, it was me when I was 24-years-old.’
Is there anything you wish you could tell your younger self that might have made the difficult times easier? Try writing a letter to your past self like Matt did. When you’re finished, consider how much you’ve changed over time. Share your letter with a friend if you feel comfortable enough to do so—you never know how it might help them.
Part 3 – Mental Health in the Modern World
Chairperson Lennie Goodings reads the following quote during the event from an essay called ‘On Being Ill’ by Virginia Woolf:
“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals.”
On the surface, this is about physical illness, but Woolf wrote this essay in 1925 following one of the many nervous breakdowns that plagued her life. Many critics have read from this that there is a connection between being a good artist and having difficult experiences; while others nowadays think the trope of the ‘tortured genius’ is problematic because it romanticises poor mental health.
In contrast to Virginia Woolf’s idea that mental illness gives us the freedom to speak without social limits, many people believe nowadays that it is the anonymity of social media that provides this space (for better or worse), even when people are in good health. In Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt writes about the habits of the digital age and what websites like Twitter are doing to our brains, comparing social media to an addiction—one that has been encouraged by big tech companies.
Listen to Matt’s extended personal response to Virginia Woolf’s idea (22:45-27:00). Organise a debate with one or more friends. Divide your group into equal halves to either support or oppose the following motion:
‘The most interesting ideas in art rely on the suffering of an artist.’
Research other writers and texts, and prepare an introduction, your main points, and a conclusion (divide this work if there are multiple team members). Prepare rebuttals for the opposing team and raise points-of-order while they’re speaking.
Gather a group of your peers to watch and get them to vote at the end on who had the most convincing argument.
Alternatively, you could overcome the nation’s number 2 fear, public speaking, and prepare a presentation on the subject for your family, peers, or class!
Watch Matt talk about the pros and cons of using social media as a writing medium (08:41-11:05). While he earlier talks about the fact it can bring out people’s worst impulses (including his own), he also argues that it offers a way for people to convey their ideas simply and powerfully.
Look back at some of your social media posts in the past on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Are there posts any that you are especially proud of or that you regret?
Screenshot these and paste them into a word document. Try to include lots of pictures. Print them out if you like. Do you notice any themes in what you like to post about? Maybe you write a lot about pop culture, friendships or your emotions?
Using the captions and images to structure your writing and inspire your topic, write a reflective photo essay about either an experience, a relationship or a passion of yours. Include some or all of the social media content in your final work.
Once you’re finished, maybe you could share it online to show how social media can be used as a positive force for creativity and self-expression!
For more information on mental health in literary history, check out this article from Talonbooks. Or try reading any of the fantastic texts mentioned in part one!
If you are struggling with your mental health, you should always feel able to reach out for support. Samaritans is a charity that is always there to listen to you, especially in moments of emotional distress. You can call ‘116 123’ day or night, 24 hours a day, every day.
Thank you to Book Festival Programme Assistant Joe Christie for creating this thought-provoking resource.