On Creativity and Mental Illnesses:
A Writer’s Perspective
by S.E. SEVER Views: 1836
If you think a book cannot be both humourous and sad at the same time, I invite you to read Sisyphusa.
S.E. Sever: Hello, Michael. Welcome to MASH. I would like to start right from the beginning. How did you come up with the idea to write Sisyphusa?
Michael Richmond: In my second year of university, in February 2007, I had a very sudden and unexpected onset of what was later diagnosed as Anxiety and Clinical Depression and later still with a form of OCD. My writing the book came about as a result of accumulated experience of this mental suffering and particularly of my attending a psychiatric day hospital for six months. I’d never written any fiction before but I had fallen in love with reading since my breakdown and so reading dozens of great novels probably developed some writing instincts in me. I think the most important thing was to have a spark, that kernel of an idea, an entryway into the story that gets you started. For me the initial hook was a nightmare – I used to get these every night but this one made a particular impression. I can’t remember exactly what it was about, but I remember waking up and scribbling as much of it down as I could, feeling that I had to write about it. Notes developed it from there and I was off. Of course, the novel ended up being almost entirely different from how I had initially envisaged it, but what mattered was that it was alive. And what did remain from that starting point to the finished novel was a central structure to the plot that allegorically blended two narratives – the experiences I had and people I met at the mental hospital melded with Homer’s Ancient Greek myth, The Odyssey.
Most writers are pretty self-critical but having severe depression exacerbated this tendency in me to the point where I was convinced that everything I wrote was complete garbage.
S.E.: Has anyone inspired you?
Michael: The book is very much of the dystopian tradition. And so I particularly drew inspiration from books like 1984 by George Orwell, The Trial by Franz Kafka and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Having said that, I think there are things that I’ve taken from all of my favourite authors of different genres and from different parts of the world.
In the actual process of writing the book, my mum was integral. I think most writers are pretty self-critical but having severe depression exacerbated this tendency in me to the point where I was (and, to a lesser extent, still am) constantly convinced that everything I ever wrote was complete garbage. My mum’s constant encouragement and help, as well as that of my therapist at the time, meant that I was eventually able to finish it, almost in spite of myself! So my mum, a far more talented writer than I am, was a real inspiration.
S.E.: How much of your personal experiences have you put in? And how did it feel to share?
Michael: A lot of it is based on personal experience: the sense of being wrenched from university; the feeling of complete isolation and desolation often attendant with mental illness; as well as some of the people and experiences I encountered at the hospital. I didn’t ever limit myself from how much I should share, or the nature of it, my focus was on what fit with the character – rather than me, the writer, wanting to share or offload. To be honest, I never once imagined that firstly, I would finish the book, or secondly, that it would be published, so sharing was never much of a consideration during the writing stage. That was more of a big decision when it became apparent that Sisyphusa could be published – did I want it to be and did I want it under my own name? The reason the answer to both of those questions was ‘yes’ is that a huge theme of the novel is the damaging stigma attached to mental illness, and if I wanted to fight stigma, I had to start by not being ashamed of telling my own story.
Nevertheless, the book is fiction – Odis (the main character) differs from me in a lot of ways and other characters are only partly or sometimes not at all based on people that I’ve known.
Getting published has been life-changing. Having a book launch and receiving generous praise from writers whom I admire have all been really amazing.
S.E.: How long did it take you to write the book?
Michael: Eighteen months, from first sentence to last edit. I began writing it when I was 22 or 23 and still attending the day hospital.
S.E.: What’s your publishing adventure been like?
Michael: Getting published has been life-changing. Having a book launch, getting feedback from people who’ve read the novel and Sisyphusa receiving generous praise from writers whom I admire have all been really amazing.
If I’m honest, there is a slight feeling of “what might have been.” I have had no help whatsoever from the publisher, who has a very different philosophy from me. This meant that I was left to edit and promote the book (my first) entirely by myself. I managed to get it mentioned in the Guardian and top authors like Clare Allan and Raymond Tallis gave it positive reviews but without help it’s been incredibly difficult to publicise it. I genuinely don’t care about the money, I get next to nothing for it anyway, but I do want people to read the book because I care passionately about what it says.
Overall though, the process of writing the novel and having it published have helped me greatly in my efforts to manage my mental health problems and live a better life.
S.E: What’s next?
Michael: Hmmm, a ‘future’ question! I’m still not very good, even after so many years, at thinking in the long term, or even the medium. My health has improved to the extent that I can work part-time in a small grocery store but the most meaningful thing I’m engaged in is a political newspaper that I help to edit and write in. This takes up a lot of my time and attention. I have actually written very little fiction since finishing Sisyphusa but who knows what may happen in the future?
Oh, and I’ve recently fallen in love for the first time. So that’s nice.
Read! Read voraciously because the effect this will have on your writing isn’t something you can trace as it happens but it is cumulatively enormous.
S.E.: What advice would you give to budding writers?
Michael:I wouldn’t presume to be in a position to give out advice, especially as writers often have wildly different approaches. But I can say some things which have helped me.
Firstly: read! Read voraciously and challenge yourself: read classics, read books from different countries, read for enjoyment because the effect this will have on your writing isn’t something you can trace as it happens but it is cumulatively enormous.
Write about things that you care about. People will notice if you don’t.
Lastly, remember that writing isn’t a solely conscious experience. During the process, new ideas, plot and character developments and turns of phrase will continually pop into your head.
S.E: Thank you for joining us, Michael. I’m confident your story will encourage many budding writers. I would like to mention to our readers that you could be contacted on Twitter, and Sisyphusa is available both in digital and paperback formats on Amazon. I look forward to hearing what Mashers would say about your book!
Quick Fire Round with Michael Richmond
My favourite memory . . . When I was really sick I used to think back to when I was travelling, when I was 18/19. I was once on this tiny, idyllic island off Malaysia. No cars, no roads, no more than a couple of hundred permanent residents. I remember it being bliss for the short time I was there. I suppose if I was there for any length of time I’d begin to long for the city again but it was important that I had an idealised image in my mind’s eye which reminded me that I hadn’t always been sick.
I recently watched, and loved, the second series of “Treme”. It’s a series about musicians in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The show is made by David Simon, the same guy who created The Wire, which is the best television series I’ve ever seen. The plot and character development in both shows are so layered, the scope so ambitious, each series is like an epic novel.
My favourite motto or quote is . . . I think Mark Twain is the master of the short quote. One of my favourites of his is: “The Human Race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon – laughter.”
Another great quote is: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Krishnamurti
My favourite book is . . . War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Because, it has everything. Tolstoy articulates the workings of the human psyche and the horrors/all-consuming joy of love better than anyone I’ve read. All of his characters are fully formed, they all have their own unique voice and they walk around inside your head forcing you to care about each and every one of them. And he does all this whilst painting an epic backdrop that will teach you more about European history and Russian culture than most nonfiction books ever could.
I write because . . . I have things to say that I don’t want to keep locked up in my head. And I am angry about the state of the world.
S.E. is the Founder of Mash Stories. She has had short stories published in fiction magazines across the US and the UK. One of her stories was included in The Subtopian: Selected Stories. Her poetry book, Before Me, is published by Thought Catalog Books, New York. She is currently working on a science fiction novel called Split Watch. You can read some of her short stories and poems at http://sesever.com.
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