When we sit down and think about it, the fact that writers (and creatives generally) often struggle with their mental health will probably come as no surprise: working as a creative in the commercial industry of publishing throws up challenges which are uniquely hard for humans to contend with.
At the same time, looking after our mental health as authors is essential: being a tortured artist is honestly no fun, and more likely to result in a breakdown than a breakthrough. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the most common mental challenges authors face, our instinctive human responses to these, and some psychological tips to help you navigate these pitfalls.
- Uncertainty. Humans don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty means not knowing where the lion is in the dark. Uncertainty means not being sure whether there’s a snake hiding in that tree. To our “chimp” brain, uncertainty equals danger, threat. Uncertainty is therefore naturally stressful. And MANY things in the world of publishing are uncertain. Will your book sell? Will people read it? Will they like it? Will you ever get another contract? Will your editor suddenly leave to have a baby? Will your editorial notes suggest a page-one rewrite? How many sales are “good sales”? Why did no-one tell you your release date’s been moved??
- Lack of control. Especially as a debut novelist, it is easy to feel that things happen or don’t happen with very little say-so from you. It feels as though there are bigger people with bigger voices who call all the shots. You may have some opinions (for example, on THAT COVER), but you don’t want to tip the boat. You don’t want to annoy anyone. So, it’s very easy to find yourself in a very passive role – even though this is your book, your career and your life we’re talking about. Feeling out of control and passive when the stakes are so high is also something we humans don’t like very much. It’s hearing the lion and not being able to run. It’s spotting the snake and having nothing to defend yourself with.
- Self-esteem. Being published (or trying to get published) involves being judged. It means being evaluated, criticised, lauded and rejected, All The Time and usually by people you Don’t Even Know (and who Don’t Even Know You). Self-esteem for us humans can be a very fragile thing. It takes a lot to build up, and not much to knock down. Couple that with the fact that – as humans – we have a natural bias towards the negative (we are biased to scan for threat, to avoid being eaten by those lions), the negative feedback will ALWAYS lodge in our brains more easily than the positive. As a result, despite the success of publishing a book, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve done nothing but fail.
- Comparisons. Comparing ourself with others is normal. On the positive side, it can inspire us, guide us and motivate us. On the negative, it can mean we completely overlook our own successes. As humans, we naturally aspire (We don’t tend to aspire down!) However, this means we also tend to compare upwards, which naturally highlights our own shortfalls or failings. It’s another psychological bias which can really bring us down.
So! What to do?
- Uncertainty. Seek out information whenever you can. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – of your agent, your editor, of your writing peers. Get clarity. On the flip side, recognise that some things are just inherently uncertain. In that situation, all you can really do is have faith. Specifically, if you’ve no way of knowing what the outcome will be (e.g. how many copies your book will sell), choose to believe in a positive result rather than a negative one.
- Lack of control. This IS your book, your career and your life. So, it IS okay to speak up about it. Be diplomatic. Always aim to be collaborative. But it’s fine to be assertive and clear about your own preferences, ideas and goals. At the same time, remember that some things are your responsibility and under your control (e.g. writing as good a book as you can, being nice to your fans) and some things are not and never will be. Be careful that you’re not muddling these categories up.
- Self esteem. You don’t have to read your reviews. Honestly, you don’t – not even the positive ones. As writer-humans, we often look at reviews to gain a sense of certainty or control (see above). We want reassurance that “people like my book”. But because we are so biased towards the negative (see above), it is very hard to read our reviews in an unbiased way. Typically, we come away from Amazon or Goodreads with nothing but the scathing one-stars etched on our brains. For this reason, reviews are HARD on self-esteem. Happily, though, reviews aren’t actual lions. It’s quite safe to simply walk away with our fingers in our ears.
- Comparisons. If you going to compare at all, why not compare down? (You can still aspire up!) In fact, the very best thing to compare yourself to is… zero. Yup, a big, fat zero. Wrote 150 words this week? Hooray! 150 > 0. Sold 4 books at your book-signing event? Great – that’s 4 more than 0. Got 21 reviews on Amazon? Success! Before you were published you had 0. There will always be people who have had “bigger” successes than you. But there will also be people (millions of them, actually) who have had none of the successes you’ve had. In sum, if you want to experience success, then start experiencing your successes.
(c) Philippa East
Useful resource: SoA Guide to Health
About Safe and Sound by Philippa East:
‘Tense’ Araminta Hall
‘Compelling’ Debbie Howells
‘Engrossing, twisty tale’ Nell Pattison
Home can be the most dangerous place…
In a small London bedsit, a radio is playing. A small dining table is set for three, and curled up on the sofa is a body…
Jenn is the one who discovers the woman, along with the bailiffs. All indications suggest that the tenant – Sarah Jones – was pretty, charismatic and full of life.
So how is it possible that her body has lain undiscovered for ten whole months?
‘The corkscrew narrative twists together past and present to create a paranoid nightmare in which the reader doesn’t know who or what to believe. ‘ Sunday Times Crime Club
‘A Thought-provoking thriller’ Heat
‘This emotional, twisty plot leads to a satisfyingly spellbinding end’ Candis
‘Multi-layered…A different sort of suspense novel but most intriguing’ Belfast Telegraph
Order your copy online here.