It’s the merry month of May! After some really horrific weather in April, the warmth is finally here in the Toronto area. We’ve definitely been seeing some warmer temperatures and some more sun. I’m looking forward to the longer days of summer.
Writing is fun, but it can also be a lot of work. Some genres clearly demand more work than others.
How does a writer write? It may seem like an odd sort of question, but it is one readers ask quite frequently.
Let’s be upfront and frank: I’m a white, middle-class, Canadian woman.
There are many different tech tools on the market for authors. You can get any number of writing programs, which are supposed to help you keep track of your projects, develop character sketches, engage in distraction free writing, and so on and so forth.
There are a lot of nasty things going on in the world today: war, violence against women, murders of transgender people, police brutality against people of color, deportation of immigrants. The list goes on and on.
There’s also a growing epidemic of mental health issues. While it’s being debated why we’re seeing a rise in the number of mental health cases—is it an actual rise, are diagnoses made more frequently, or are we simply more aware and willing to acknowledge them now?—the fact of the matter is many, many people today struggle with mental health on a day-to-day basis and struggle very openly.
Obviously, none of these things are very pleasant, and those of us who struggle with them in our daily lives will tell you as much. So why bother writing about them?
The Argument against Writing Mental Illness
We’ll start by acknowledging the most common argument against writing mental illness in fiction: We don’t want to read about it. Depression, PTSD, and EDs are not pleasant things to read about. For those who wrestle with their own conditions, reading about these subjects can bring up many unpleasant and unwanted memories. Even those of us who have our conditions under control may studiously avoid material that contains references to these subjects, since they could unexpectedly take any semblance of stability out from under us. Mental health and wellness can be so fragile.
The crux of the argument is we use reading—and fiction in particular—as a means of escaping the cruel realities of this world. We can easily imagine, in fiction, a world without nuclear weapons. We could also imagine realms where depression doesn’t exist or where no one suffers from PTSD. If we just use our imaginations, we can envision worlds where people never need to contend with these issues.
For those confronting these issues in their everyday realities, they don’t necessarily want to see them reflected back at them in their escapists fantasies. They read to forget about these issues, to take a well-deserved break from their own struggles. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
One of the strongest arguments for including these topics is creating verisimilitude. Even in high fantasy and sci-fi, we look for reflections of reality, of our own human experience.
A world where mental health issues don’t exist seems unrealistic. Because they’re so common, it’s difficult to imagine what a world where no one suffered or struggled with these issues would be like. Would everyone be constantly happy? Would it be some kind of Stepford Wives situation? Or would it be a sort of fairy tale? Cinderella and Snow White still have issues. Cindy’s stepmother and stepsisters abuse her, and Snow White’s stepmother tries to kill her. Tell me those girls are fine.
And this is the crux of the problem: Fairy tales simply pretend these issues don’t exist. As adults, as informed readers who have maybe struggled ourselves or know people who have, we feel this is unrealistic and insincere. The issues, we believe, still exist. The stories are merely glossing them over.
For many of us who have dealt with mental health issues, that’s a very problematic message, since we hear it all the time. The stigma is only just being lifted on mental health, so there are many people who have suffered in silence, who continue to suffer in silence, and many who refuse to believe these issues exist.
Since we live in a world where the existence of mental health issues is frequently denied, the denial of their existence in a fantasy world brings up alarming shades of this rhetoric. It also asks us to push the narratives further, to really poke and prod at them until they begin to crumble. Cinderella and Snow White are both “fine,” the story tells us. They get their happily ever afters. Do they really? We wonder as adult readers.
Battling False Narratives
Worlds without mental illness should strike us as “off.” It’s one reason to argue for their inclusion in fiction, even if they are difficult to read. We also need to challenge narratives that “disappear” or deny mental illnesses.
Battling these sorts of false narratives is another reason to include mental illness in fiction. When characters battle with these conditions, they’re pushing back against larger social narratives that exist in our own world. When we write about Cinderella or Snow White dealing with PTSD, we’re peeling back the curtain on real-life narratives that similarly deny the existence of this mental health condition.
We’re showing, through fiction, that these conditions and the people who live with them do in fact exist.
We can also use fiction to battle false narratives around the mental health condition itself. I suffer from depression and anxiety. Depression is almost always portrayed as someone being immeasurably sad. They sigh a lot, they cry frequently.
I didn’t. For me, depression manifested in a sense of worthlessness, listlessness, and finally, a lot of kicking and screaming. I was irritable and angry. I cried, but because I was so frustrated.
Depression is also shown as being readily “cured” by love. All we really need is a supportive partner, we’re told. This is also a false narrative. I started dating my (lovely) partner in June 2015. I tried to break up with him a few times because I was stressed and felt he was being demanding. When things started going wrong in my professional life, I fell deeper into a trough of depression I’d already been in. I tried to commit suicide in December 2015, even though he really loves me.
When I’m writing fiction, I can combat the stereotypical portrayals of mental illness like depression.
Truth in Fiction
As much as I’m writing fiction, which is inherently false, I’m also writing truth. While the characters may not be real, the conditions they deal with and the ways they deal with them are meant to be very real.
For readers, this can be something of a comfort. We talk a lot about how fiction tends to reflect the dominant social reality. Books are very white, very English, very North American, and very Christian, sometimes without even realizing it. We talk about diversity in fiction and the importance of seeing yourself reflected there. (Just look at the reaction of young girls to Wonder Woman or of black children to seeing Black Panther.)
Fiction, as much as it’s not true, validates our truths. It says to us, “You are not alone.” It shows us others like ourselves. It holds a mirror up to our experiences and our realities. We see ourselves. For those of us who live with mental health conditions, this is important, as society very often tries to deny the existence of these issues or write them off as affecting a handful of “crazy” people.
There are also so many negative stereotypes and harmful narratives surrounding mental illness. Fiction is one way we can talk about to them, dismantle them, and create a more realistic representation of the experiences people have.
So why do my characters suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, EDs, and other mental health conditions? It’s not because I think these are convenient plot points, like many writers do (and are accused of). I think they’re important reflections of the world as it stands, and I feel there’s important work to be done in telling these stories. It’s the same reason I advocate for more diverse books, inclusion of more people’s stories in history, and so on.
Books are reflections of our experiences. They tell the stories of human lives, of realities and lived experiences. As human beings, we need those stories to relate and make sense of our own experiences. To validate ourselves. To assure us we’re not alone, that our experiences—as unique as they are—are not beyond the pale of comprehension.
Moreover, these narratives can help people who aren’t struggling with mental health issues on their own understand the experiences of others and what they face in their lives. In this way, fiction becomes a vehicle for connecting us through understanding.
It’s the start of a brand new year. Most people see the turning of the calendar as a chance to wipe their slates clean and start over again. January is often a hopeful time. People make New Year’s resolutions, often setting themselves lofty goals to accomplish for the following year.