Advice to Young Writers: You’re a Good Writer Without Your Mental Illness
by Meredith Russo
There is a pervasive idea in artistic and literary circles that mental illness (“madness” if you’re a romantic) is essential to the proper functioning of a creative mind. Dysfunction makes it easier to view systems, cultures, and people from without, to think in lateral ways, to drum up new ideas and new modes of communication. Creativity, when used as an outlet for internal pain, is infinitely more valid and valuable than when it is done for personal fulfillment, political/ethical expression, or (gasp!) money. Or so certain people would have you believe – and since, for whatever reason, creative people all seem to come pre-packaged with at least some form of mental illness, and because those illnesses often find ways to convince us of their necessity, we’re often inclined to believe them.
I’m here to tell you this is wrong.
I’m bipolar, and it’s had as much effect on my life as gender dysphoria ever did. For every day I spent huddled up in my room, unable to function because I hated living as a boy, there was a day I was too burned out by depression to function. For every night I sat up on the verge of tears because I was afraid I could never be a wife, a mother, or a daughter, there was a night I was so manic that sleep was basically impossible. And yet, while I worked on stamping out my dysphoria through transition as soon as I figured out what it was, celebrated my new identity, and even wrote a book about it, I actively resented and occasionally even resisted treatment for my bipolar disorder – all because I thought it made me a better writer.
Mania gave me a work ethic neurotypical people could never achieve, I thought. Psychosis allowed characters to come alive inside me, I thought. Depression kept me true, kept me from buying into pleasant illusions. But you know what? The work I produced when I was manic was rushed and sloppy. The realism of my characters was an illusion, as I was so convinced of their reality that I neglected making them come alive on the page like I should have. And depression? All depression ever did was make it impossible to work when I wasn’t manic and give my work a sort of easy, immature cynicism. True art requires madness though, right? That’s what I’d been told by much older, established, celebrated authors and poets! Why would they lie? The truth is they weren’t lying, just repeating lies their mental illness was telling them. The most insidious thing about mental illness is that it doesn’t want to be cured. It wants you to come up with ways to explain it or, better yet, to justify it – and who is better suited to that task than the writer?
Why is this important, though? Because, young writer, I want you to write well and often. It’s important because, for whatever reason, many of us are prone to these illnesses and I don’t want the flippant words of some older writer who didn’t know any better to drive you into unnecessary suffering. And, finally, it’s important because the literary world doesn’t need more suicides. Imagine how many more books John Kennedy Toole could have written. Imagine if Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath had grown old. Think of David Foster Wallace, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Anne Sexton, and so many others. Think of them and get help.
Don’t suffer for your art. Live for it.
Meredith Russo was born, raised, and lives in Tennessee. She started living as her true self in late 2013 and never looked back. If I Was Your Girl was partially inspired by her experiences as a trans woman. Like Amanda, Meredith is a gigantic nerd who spends a lot of her time obsessing over video games and Star Wars.
If I Was Your Girl is her debut novel, but definitely not her last. When she’s not busy writing she can be found reblogging pictures of cats and babies, reading high literature (and definitely not fanfiction and fantasy novels), arguing with strangers about social justice, and, of course, raising her two amazing children, Vivian and Darwin.
You definitely, absolutely should not be shy about contacting her, even if it’s just to talk. She’s always open to new opportunities and chances to speak with new people.
If I Was Your Girl
Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school in Lambertville, Tennessee. Like any other girl, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret. There’s a reason why she transferred schools for her senior year, and why she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.
And then she meets Grant Everett. Grant is unlike anyone she’s ever met—open, honest, kind—and Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself…including her past. But she’s terrified that once she tells Grant the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.
Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that she used to be Andrew.
I was absolutely thrilled when Meredith agreed to write a post for us back in February. I was really looking forward to If I Was Your Girl. Let me briefly say I was not disappointed one bit! It was well written and I definitely made a strong connection to Amanda. It was raw, real, emotional, and eye opening.
So THANK YOU Meredith for this book and for writing about your personal experiences as an author! I know it’s not always easy talking about something so personal, but I know the young writer who’ll read this will appreciate it. You are truly an inspiration!
As always, a huge thank you to everyone who has and/or will participate in this feature. You’re helping so many writers and authors succeed and follow their dreams. We appreciate it more than you know!
We hope everyone has a great rest of your week and a wonderful weekend!