I couldn’t make a road: writers and depression

Simon Brett

The best-selling crime and comedy writer Simon Brett, who supports Moodscope, has over eighty books to his name. He has also fought his own battles with depression. In this article first published in The Author, the quarterly journal of the Society of Authors, he tells what it's like to be a writer with depression.

When the writing’s going well, the author’s is the perfect life. When it’s going badly, there’s no one else to blame. Maybe this is one of the reasons why there has always been such a high incidence of depression amongst writers.

Though the literary life is often considered by those outside it to be a glamorous one, there is nothing romantic about depression. It constantly whittles away at your self-esteem. However supportive the people around you are, ultimately you become very boring to them. What’s worse, you bore yourself.

Mind you, when you’re not depressed, depression is quite funny, because it is so insane. With self-estimation at its lowest, you start reproaching yourself for failure in areas for which you never had any aptitude or aspiration. Yes, the Iraq War was your fault. And of course it’s your personal shortcomings which have caused Global Warming. You aren’t even mildly competent at anything. At my most abject, when I’m driving I look at the road ahead of me and think, ‘What use am I? I couldn’t make a road.’

The question is, of course, does the vocation of writing attract people with depressive tendencies, or does the process of writing turn them into depressives? Was Georges Simenon’s opinion correct, that ‘writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness’? After all, normal people don’t need to write. They accept life as it is; they don’t suffer any urge to chronicle or - and this is where the writer’s skill really comes into its own - to tidy up or improve it.

The writer’s life is full of predictable triggers of depression. It may take different forms, but everyone I know goes into some form of decline when they finish a book. That’s hardly surprising. You have invested so much emotional effort into the thing. Every day, for however long it took you - and frequently in the teeth of the evidence on the printed page - you have convinced yourself that the book is worth writing. No surprise that when you’re finally shot of it, all the negative thoughts you’ve been staving off for so long come flooding into your mind. The depression may take different forms. A lot of writers get physically ill - that flu you’ve been holding at bay for so long suddenly takes advantage of your weakened state to invade your body. Some writers use the post-book trauma as an opportunity to break up with partners or spouses. A great many just get very drunk.

But the day-to-day grind of writing is also conducive to depression. In order to do their job, writers have to be introspective, gauging their own reactions to life, projecting what other people’s might be, riding the switch-back of their mood swings to create fiction. They do feed on themselves. It’s an emotional business. A new idea, a surge of energy that lasts a paragraph, a page, a chapter, can make you feel you’re producing the definitive work that is going to redefine the parameters of the novel as an art form. Yet within a sentence, when the right phrase won’t come, you can be in total despair and about to scrap the whole project.

Then again, as a writer, you’re on your own. On your own for long, lonely hours (about whose length and loneliness you could bore for your country). For most writers, any time spent away from the keyboard or pad of paper is basically cheating. You should be writing. No wonder so many end up writing about writers - or, even worse, writing about writer’s block, or about computers possessed by alien forces. One rule is true for almost all writers (except those for whom research becomes the displacement activity which postpones the actual agony of getting words on the page): You ought to get out more.

It’s not all negative, of course. The mood swings of depression give you insights into many states of mind, which in less stressed times you can cannibalise into your writing. Emotion recollected in relative tranquillity. And then again, putting words down on paper is probably the best therapy ever invented. Intense concentration of the creative imagination can completely shut out the problems of the real world. For a time. But, as with most mind-altering agents, when you withdraw from writing, it can leave you with a nasty hangover.

And you can’t write all the time. As Michael Ratcliffe once put it in a Times review of Graham Greene, ‘Writing itself, of course, is an ideal form of escape, unless you happen to be a writer, in which case there comes a time when you have to escape from writing, too.’ Eventually you’re going to have to get back to reality. Because, apart from sometimes being the most fun you can imagine, writing fiction is also the most exhausting activity you’re ever going to undertake. Which is why at the end of a long day’s writing lot of writers need a very stiff drink... or two... or three...

Drunkenness and depression have many symptoms in common, and for writers both seem to be occupational hazards. Both the depressive and the drunkard wake up feeling terrible, totally incapable of continuing life in any form. Both of them get through miserable mornings and maybe perk up a bit after some food at lunchtime - that is, if they can eat food. And both start to feel better in the evenings, when the influence of company or more alcohol make the continuity of life seem a possibility. Then both wake up in the small hours, feeling worse than ever.

And when all the morning ahead has to offer is continuing with a book that’s going badly, both the depressive and the drunkard feel even more ghastly. The spectre of the book being abandoned looms, followed very quickly by the spectre of not getting any income from it. The most generous description one could devise for a writer’s income-flow is ‘erratic’. When other anxieties are temporarily allayed, there’s always money to worry about. At this point in the anxiety cycle the drunkard reaches for a bottle and the depressive starts evaluating methods of suicide.

In that area he or she doesn’t lack for precedents. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, B.S. Johnson, John Kennedy Toole, Ernest Hemingway, Primo Levi, Anne Sexton, Arthur Koestler, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson - just a selection from the long list of writers who went to the logical conclusion of their self-loathing.

The trouble is, authors who feel they’ve failed don’t have to look far for confirmation of that opinion. Bestsellers lists are everywhere, bulging with the names of other writers. And oh dear, the Amazon ranking of your latest book has plummeted even lower. The only literary news covered by newspapers is of million-pound advances being given to glamorous first-time authors in their twenties. Even switching on the television doesn’t help; you’re bound to find yourself watching some lucrative adaptation of a book written by someone other than yourself. Ditto the cinema, even radio. Whether you like it or not, writing is part of the very public entertainment business. You can’t get away from it, and at times everything seems to conspire to rub in your failure. When you’re really low, you can watch Stephen Fry on the television, and realise that he’s better even at being depressed than you are.

As if the living weren’t bad enough, you also have the genius of the dead to contend with. Cast your eye along your bookshelves. It doesn’t take long, looking at names like Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy or Wodehouse, to feel your head banging against the low ceiling of your own talent.

Nor can you really find comfort in the idea that your work will live. (Well, I suppose you could try to persuade yourself that your writing will garner posthumous acclaim, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it’s pretty damned unlikely. Besides, who wants posthumous acclaim?) Books have a shorter shelf-life than ever. Some of your work may linger in libraries (bringing in that oh-so-welcome boost from PLR), but for most authors the chances of any of their writings being still in print ten years after their death - and, in many cases, ten years before their death - are minimal.

So what can writers do about depression? Pray for a sympathetic family and friends, people who believe that when you enter the dark tunnel of self-loathing and volatility, the same person will emerge from the other end. Set up a network of fellow writers, with whom you can share the ghastliness and bliss of the business. When things are really bad, forget the writing and meet someone for lunch. Get out more.

And seek professional help. Just admitting that you have a problem is a big step. And modern medication probably makes it the best time in history to suffer from depression. I was fortunate eventually to find an understanding GP, who approached it as he would any other illness and set out to alleviate the symptoms.

There is a lot of help available out there, whether in the form of therapy or pills. I’ve tried acupuncture, which I find does help, and homeopathy, which I found completely useless. But medication does work. It may take some time for you to find the proper chemicals to suit your particular metabolism, but there’s a good chance it’s available somewhere. On my way to finding the right ones, I’ve been on pills that made me permanently comatose, pills that made me intermittently impotent and pills that gave me perpetual diarrhoea, but I’m now on some that seem to work. And I’ll probably be on a daily dose of them for the rest of my life. I’d rather not be taking the pills - obviously no one wants to take any medication - but life with them is a lot better than it was before. The bouts of depression still come, but now they’re more likely to last three weeks than three months. And the only regrettable side-effect of the medication is that, because my system is full of the stuff, I can’t give blood.

Of course, when you’re on anti-depressants and you get depressed, the despair is even greater. Where do you go then? You grit your teeth and hang on in there.

It is possible to live with depression. And I hope in time - without great optimism (come on, I’m a depressive) - to find it’s also possible to live without depression.

SIMON BRETT