Writing as therapy: healing and distancing

13 May 2014

To investigate the theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week, anxiety, we asked some writers to talk about their experience of it. Sarah Rayner, whose latest novel Another Night, Another Day explores the lives of three very different people brought together by a psychiatric clinic, talks about her own experience of writing about mental health.

 

Since time immemorial stories have been a way of making sense of a senseless world. From religious texts to Greek myths and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, stories have given shape to our existence, bringing order and form to chaos.

In a world where we have easier access to more information than ever before, it’s something of a paradox that we’ve never had so little certainty about our own inner being. Against this backdrop of ambiguity, the modern writer puts fingertips to keyboard, struggling, albeit often unconsciously, to give meaningful expression to that which frightens or confuses us.

When embarking upon a novel, most writers – myself included – have some idea of where we are headed. In varying degrees we map out our plots and mould our characters, devise inciting incidents and plan our endings. Yet just as we cannot know at the outset how life will affect us, so the novelist takes a leap into the unknown, hoping that through the very act of writing disarray will be tidied and madness given meaning.

I chose to draw upon my own most chaotic of experiences for my latest novel, Another Night, Another Day, and only with hindsight can I see how revealing this is. The book explores breakdown from the perspective of three people going through it – Karen, Abby and Michael, each of whom is desperate, as I have been, for help. Yet whilst I have some experience of depression, I have never been so overwhelmed by mental anguish to have been suicidal. How curious then, that in the process of writing I took myself there, journeying into the headspace of a character for whom existing was so painful the only way they could imagine an end to the torment is by taking their own life. Perhaps the very act of writing about suicide enabled me to face my own dark side.

Stories may heal, but they also distance us – fiction can soften fact, offer resolution and make it more palatable. It was tough to venture into the hell-on-earth of those feeling suicidal, and other scenes were also painful to write, as I try to enter as fully as I can into the hearts and minds of my characters. But I remained aware that I was not Karen or Abby or Michael. I only imagined I was; it was an act of ventriloquism.

Two more personal observations I’ll share in the spirit of openness as this piece is to mark Mental Health Awareness Week. Firstly, I am pleased to say that the act of writing about anxiety – which I do know about first hand – has enabled me to get clarity on my own thought patterns and manage my own inclination to panic more effectively.

Finally, I also appreciate – again with hindsight – that Another Night, Another Day is probably an attempt to reconcile the passions of my (long-divorced) parents. My father, Eric Rayner, was by profession a psychoanalyst, whilst my mother, Mary Rayner, wrote children’s fiction – retellings of fairy tales, no less. They are elderly now, and retired, but I have enormous respect for them and their work. How curious then, that this book should prove a marriage of both.

Another Night, Another Day by Sarah Rayner Find out more about Sarah's novel Another Night, Another Day

Read more
Writing as therapy: the narrative of anxiety by Professor Tanya Byron
For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, visit The Mental Health Foundation website

Main image (c) Simon G / flickr.com

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