Do you have to be mad to write a novel?

When I was young I found the descriptions of poets and writers such as Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath romantic. I thought their struggles with mental illness and their deaths were all indications that they were tortured, creative, geniuses.

I probably would have carried on thinking this had it not been the case that when I turned eighteen I suffered my first bout of mania followed by months and months of depression. I was diagnosed as having manic-depression.  There was nothing romantic about being bipolar, quite the opposite and personally I found it to be the enemy of creativity, after all how can you pen a novel when you can’t string a sentence together?

A study by Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Insitute of more than a million people found that writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression and substance abuse. (British Journal Of Psychiatry (2011) 199, 373-379)

Beth Murphy head of information at MInd said bipolar personality traits could be beneficial to those in the creative professions, but it may also be the case that people with bipolar are more attracted to professions where they can use their creative skills. she also adds:

‘It’s important we don’t romanticise people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling, creative geniuses. We know one in four people will be diagnosed with mental health problems this year and these individuals will come from a range of different backgrounds, professions and walks of life. our main concern is they get the information and support they need and deserve.’

Writing does have elements to it that could be a trigger for those of us with a mental health diagnoses. Such as the isolation, long hours and dealing with rejection along with the despondency that comes with a bad writing day to the jubilation when a project comes together. Going back to what Beth Murphy said we mustn’t then link this with any notion that this is romantic.  Yes mental ill health does have links to creativity. However, if anyone has spent time on a psychiatric ward or lost someone to suicide you will know the destructive nature of illness, which can affect everybody, not just the person who is ill.

So does this all mean you have to have a mental illness to write? The answer is a firm no. After all there are many writers who have never been ill.  The links to creativity do exist, but as I said earlier, I have often found illness to be the enemy of creativity.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you?

(If you ever feel ill or are concerned about someone else, please talk to someone, preferably your GP. You can also speak to the Samaritans on 08458 909090



6 thoughts on “Do you have to be mad to write a novel?

  1. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    Great post, Ruth. Very succinctly put, and I agree, I think illness is the enemy of creativity. In fact, I’d go further and say that I think being creative or having a creative pursuit – yikes, you know I mean, anyway – can help some people cope with mental illness. What do you think?
    ps: do you have a link to the Karolinska article?

    1. electrasmoped says:

      Hi Marianne,
      Still trying to get used to this blog!! I replied to you and I don’t know where it’s gone!!
      Thanks for replying, I’ve got a link to the news story about the research, its on

      Yes I agree I’ve found that having a creative outlet has helped me keep sane. But when I’m ill, I can’t do anything. It’s an interesting subject.
      Thanks again for replying!

  2. Katie says:

    Hi Ruth
    Great blog post I agree there nothing romantic about mental health and having a creative side can be both a help (somewhere to get lost in or not so helpful as it can be frustrating and when things go wrong really stressful)
    I know what you mean its hard to think of any outlet when your unwell and sometime.
    Any way quick hello from me and Holly, Smokey and Jessie.

    1. electrasmoped says:

      Hi Katie,
      Thanks for commenting on the blog. It was a bit of a rough and ready post, mainly due to my internet connection dying as I was typing it. I did the second version quickly before it died again! Anyway, posts once a week, and I will put some work into the posts.Thank you for dropping by and saying ‘hello’

  3. Lindsay Leggett says:

    Thanks for this!

    I’ve also struggled with this. The supposed “ideal” of the mad artist has haunted me, especially when I am dealing with bouts of depression or hypomania. I find I usually cannot get anything done when I am in a bad state; however my bf insists that I come up with my best ideas after I’ve had a bad day, so maybe some of my perceived failure is just in my mind.

    I do believe that my illness is tied in with my creativity, and had a funny moment in therapy when my psychiatrist said: “You should be a writer.” There are times when I struggle to write because of my illness, and there are times when my writing saves me and pulls me away from it all. So it’s a double-edged sword. I think people are becoming more aware that the “mad artist” is not very romantic at all, but there are always those who are not on either the creative or the mentally-ill spectrum who may perceive it that way simply due to the foreign-ness of it.

    But I think that some recent memoirs can shine some light on this. “Madness: A Bipolar Life” by Marya Hornbacher is a great book about a writer and what she suffered through (and perhaps didn’t realize she was suffering through). I wrote a paper in college about the “Sylvia Plath” effect and focused on Sylvia, Virginia Woolf, and Zelda Fitzgerald. What was interesting about the three is that they both suffered mental illness, and they were also all in varying degrees of a marriage where their husbands held dominance over them. I could go on, but I thought that correlation was also interesting.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing, and thank you for your bravery about your own mental illness. Stay strong. ❤

    1. electrasmoped says:

      Hi Lyndsay,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree I think writing can help you keep well, i’ve certainly found that and in many ways it is all tied in together. Maybe we have to suffer a little for our art.

      In terms of Sylvia Plath etc yes something usually pushes people simply from being ill into being a suicide statistc. It is an interesting subject. I ended up ditching the segment I’d written about David Foster Wallace, a writer who suffered with unipolar depression. He was on medication most of his life and in an attempt to come off the pills, he found he couldn’t write, got depressed and killed himself. So another example but this time, this guy wanted to embrace life more, and didn’t want the experience to be less than 100%.

      Yes, the urge not to see it as romantic is mainly a personal wish rather than a broad truth. Though it is suprising how often this is perpetuated in the general media. I have friends who see me as eccentric and couple this with my writing and art. As if it’s wonderful to be that bit odd because hey! you can paint! When treatment on a psychiatric ward is as far remoived from being romantic as you get.

      Great your doctor encouraged you to write and great you are writing. I haven’t forgotten about the interview. I will need to get in touch first to find out about the book and then write questions to fit around that.
      Thank you again.

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