Writing about mental health - Time to talk day
Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet people are still afraid to talk about it. #TimetoTalkDay falls on 7th February and it’s a day that encourages everyone to talk about mental health.
Today, Nigel Jay Cooper, author of Beat the Rain and The Pursuit of Ordinary, talks to us about what it’s like to write about mental health:
While there’s sometimes an outcry when an author tackles a subject considered ‘taboo’ in their work, spare a thought for the poor author. It can be hugely challenging for a writer to tackle a some subjects if their story demands it (and our stories do make demands of us – it’s rarely the other way around).
On a personal level, there’s the very real fear readers will think my novels are somehow autobiographical. This can be crippling and I had to learn to switch that part of my brain off. My novels cover subjects ranging from domestic abuse, depression, infidelity, attempted suicide, bulimia, depersonalisation disorder, psychosis induced by drug withdrawal and stalking. I have only experienced of one of these things in real life, maybe two at a push (I’ll let you speculate on which).
Why should writers fear their readers will think they have direct experience of the novels they write? Because of this tried and tested piece of nonsense advice:
Write what you know.
Every writer has heard this a million times. If I’d stuck to what I know, my novels would be from an exclusively male perspective and intensely dull. I lead a gloriously uneventful life, filled with work and childcare and financial worries and picking up my dog’s poo in the park.
I think it’s a mistake to think that because a writer hasn’t experienced something first-hand that they can’t convey truth about it. Writers are by definition; empaths. Their reason to write is to crawl under someone else’s skin, to see how they react when you throw different obstacles at them. They have to embody the soul of another character, even if that’s uncomfortable.
So how can writers free themselves up to write about taboo or uncomfortable subjects? How can they create loathsome characters they can’t abide while making them fully fleshed and real? I do this by pretending I’m the only person in the world who will read my manuscript when I’m writing. If I imagine sending it to my publisher or – heaven forbid – my friends and family, I’m lost. Blocked. I’ll never write a word again.
Fiction has a duty to tackle taboo subjects, to throw light on them, understand and demystify them. That’s not to say every novel should throw in something taboo for the sake of it (quite the opposite, in my opinion) but neither should writers shy away from a subject if their story requires it.
Nigel Jay Cooper is a writer and author, born in London, England. He now lives in Brighton (via Nottingham) with his partner, their two children and greying ginger dog. His debut novel Beat the Rain was a Roundfire bestseller and a semi-finalist in the Best Debut Author category of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2016. His second novel The Pursuit of Ordinary, was a finalist for The People's Book Prize for Fiction 2018.
'An author with a truly compelling insight into the human condition.' - Siobhan Kennedy, C4 News.
Nigel previously worked as a writer and editor for Channel 4 Television and co-founded employee comms platform, Qubist. He's a sometime marathon runner and occasional actor and singer. He worries about his weight all the time and his widow’s peaks are getting more pronounced, so baldness is probably beckoning him with its spiteful, spindly fingers.
Check out more about Nigel Jay Cooper on his really grown up website.