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The Not-So-Tortured Artist: Writing and Mental Health

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf. These three authors all fit that pop-culture image of the tortured artist. You know the one: the passionate, sensitive, unstable soul who works hours in gloomy solitude to make a masterpiece. This isn’t a healthy stereotype, but it does come with a flip side. If you are struggling with mental illness, writing can help! Here are three ways you can use writing to get you through a tough time.

1) Grounding

With social interaction, work, and all kinds of daily stresses yanking us every which way, we need structure. Writing, especially journaling, is a great way to ground yourself. Choose a time of day and commit to writing then. If you enjoy journaling, write down things that happened to you, what you are grateful for, what you are struggling with, everything. If you prefer fiction or poetry, try freewriting! Experiment and let the words come to you. Just make sure to write a little bit every day. Years from now, you can look back over those scrawling journal entries or chaotic Google Docs folders and see how far you’ve come.

2) Distraction

Writing and editing may also distract you from stressors. Art rewards focus, determination, and self-improvement, all while engaging your mind creatively. Put on some ambient music, sit at your computer, and focus on the story in front of you. When you get in the zone, you may be able to escape your worries for a while. If it’s hard, don’t give up! Experiment with time of day, place, and background music. Practice makes progress. If you love writing and what you are writing about, you will eventually find that flow.

3) Catharsis

Aristotle thought one of the main purposes of tragedy was catharsis. Catharsis is purging yourself of negative feelings and thoughts by finding closure. Whatever you struggle with, fiction can help you overcome it, reconcile with it, or turn it to your advantage. In the video game Celeste (2018) anxiety-ridden player character Madeleine tries to climb a mountain. According to interviews, head writer M. Thorson wrote Celeste to process and heal from depression and anxiety. While developing the game, Thorson came to understand the importance of having a healthy work-life balance and accepting the difficult parts of yourself. Let your characters process the things you can’t face in yourself yet, and maybe you will find out how to heal yourself.

You don’t need mental illness to be a great writer. Art is meant to enrich the mind and soul, not ruin your life. Don’t sacrifice your mental health for art. Take breaks! Spend time with friends and family! Chat with other authors! If necessary, seek guidance or counseling. And, of course, don’t forget to have fun.

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