I mean, literally: can writing cause, or aggravate, mental illness or instability?
Since giving up on Gunpowder Tea I’ve written very little, and I haven’t written anything in the last month. Haven’t wanted to, and haven’t pushed myself. For several weeks I was feeling an almost physical revulsion for writing. That’s easing off, but I’m still far from having any kind of appetite for writing fiction.
And I feel good. Even with the stress of house hunting, I’m happier than I’ve been in ages. The OCD stuff has decreased to an entirely manageable level, and I’ve hardly had any trouble with irrational anxiety. I feel like myself, by which I mean I can recognise this mind as my own, rather than some strange foreign territory into which my awareness has been dumped.
Perhaps I’m just relaxed because I’ve let go of an obsession that wasn’t leading to any sort of satisfactory creative output, and because I’ve stopped forcing myself to Write No Matter What.
Pondering the association between writers and mental illness, I’ve been wondering whether writing itself might be a factor in some cases. What might be the effects, upon the brain and nervous system, of prolonged, intense imaginative effort and of dwelling in language and pseudo-reality? No doubt the effect would depend on what was being written, how, and why; I’ve never felt freaked out from, say, writing class notes. But when I’ve been intensely involved with fiction — feeling that my mind is mostly elsewhere, dwelling upon the unconcrete untruths of story, obsessing over words, and using writing as a means to leave the mundane, while at the same time trying to be at least somewhat entertaining — that’s when I’ve noticed my nerves going bad, and ultimately my mind starting to head south.
Rimbaud — precocious writer and forsaker of writing — declared in a letter: “I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a Seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses.” If writing was the chief method (along with hashish and absinthe) he used in this project, he probably discovered that writing in a certain way can derange the senses, but that it’s a false road to transcendence, because it doesn’t go further than the limits of language and the mind. You can end up pushing the mind’s limits until it becomes like an overstretched balloon — but you’re still inside the balloon. And no, bursting it won’t help.
That isn’t to say that writing fiction or poetry will drive you crazy, of course, or that as a writer you won’t go crazy for some other reason — hashish and absinthe, perhaps.