I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about mental health and writing and publishing, but I really doubt anything I can say is going to be better than much of what’s been said by Anne Lamott.
All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings, which is about the first Jamaican bobsled team…. The men on [the] team are desperate to win an Olympic medal…. But the coach says, “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”
I’ve published two novellas and twenty-one short stories and I can testify to the truth of this really, really hard. I think I used to have this vague idea that publication would validate me, that it would make me happy and fulfilled and I would finally and at last stop feeling sort of inadequate and I would finally and at last stop feeling the need to prove myself to myself and to the world at large. And I really should have known better.
Publication does not fix that glaring personality flaw. It does not make you less lonely. It does not make you better understood. It does not make you more mentally healthy or less paranoid. If anything, it magnifies and intensifies all of your various issues in new and exciting ways. Only now you have a jones for the next acceptance, and the next, and the next. At least in my experience this is so: it’s never enough. You always want more.
This can make you extremely productive. It can also make you insane. Productivity and insanity aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive–in fact, I think one might help the other in certain circumstances–but if you intend to try to publish your fiction, you should be aware of this: it will probably make you crazy. If you are already crazy, it will probably make you crazier.
And if what you really want is to be happy and fulfilled, you should probably look elsewhere for that. Try finding it apart from publication, because publication will almost certainly not give it to you.
One more thing about publication: when this book of mine came out, the one that did pretty well, the one that necessitated the buying of a new dress, I found myself stoned on all the attention, and then lost and derailed, needing a new fix every couple of days and otherwise going into withdrawal. My insides became completely uninhabitable, as if I’d wandered into a penny arcade with lots of bells ringing and lights flashing and lots of junk food, and I’d been there too long. I wanted peace, peace and quiet, but at the same time I didn’t want to leave. I was like one of the bad boys in “Pinocchio” who flock to the island of pleasure and grow donkey ears. I knew my soul was sick and that I needed spiritual advice, and I knew also that this advice shouldn’t be terribly sophisticated. So I went to see the pastor of my son’s preschool.
The pastor is about fifteen. We talked for a while. It turns out he just looks young. I said that I was all over the place, up and down, scattered, high, withdrawing, lost, and in the midst of it all trying to find some elusive sense of serenity. “The world can’t give that serenity,” he said. “The world can’t give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts.”
“I hate that,” I said.
“I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can’t take it away.”