5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing (and Editing) Mental Health Stories
May 24, 2023 § 4 Comments
By Katie Bannon
Mental health is often branded “taboo” and, for writers of memoir and personal essay, these stories can be our most vulnerable and challenging material. But there’s a reason these types of narratives are so sought after. At their best, they speak to our darkest truths and teach us what it means to be human.
I’ve been writing about mental health for over a decade now. And as a developmental editor, I’ve worked with dozens of memoirists and essayists writing their own mental health stories.
Here are the five most important lessons I’ve learned about crafting mental health narratives:
There’s a difference between getting messy and being mushy. Mental health stories lend themselves to plenty of emotion and vulnerability. Yet we must ensure we have enough distance to shape the material for the reader, without veering into cliché or sentimentality. Journaling about mental health is important, but fundamentally different from the work of creative nonfiction. With creative nonfiction, we are deploying craft techniques that make the story resonant to an outside reader, beyond our own catharsis. We can (and should!) go to messy places in our writing, but the reader should always feel the narrator has control over the story.
Your situation may be “unique,” but the story should feel universal. For instance, I write about living with a compulsive hair pulling condition called trichotillomania. While most people don’t experience the urge to pluck hair, absolutely everyone has felt alone, alienated, and ashamed—the themes at the heart of my manuscript. Challenge yourself to dig deeper in your personal narrative, connecting your story to something larger about the human experience.
Mental health doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. Mental illness is influenced by outside forces in our lives, including family dynamics, social and gender norms, poverty, xenophobia, racism, and more. In our writing, we can also examine the larger forces and systems surrounding our mental health. This gives us the opportunity to turn the microscope both on ourselves and on the systems, institutions, and cultural forces around us. Tyrese Coleman’s personal essay “What It’s Like Having PPD as a Black Woman” is an excellent example of investigating the intersection between mental health and race.
There’s no one way to tell a mental health story. Esmé Weijun Wang looks at schizophrenia through the lens of a scholar and cultural critic. Jenny Lawson’s essays about depression and anxiety will make you laugh out loud. Just because mental health can be a serious, personal topic does not mean it must be soberly told. There’s no “right” way to write a mental health story – how you craft the narrative all depends on your purpose and audience.
Writing about mental health can be a psychosomatic experience, making self-care crucial. Creative nonfiction about mental health can be emotionally destabilizing, even triggering. We need a toolbox of self-care techniques to accompany our craft strategies. Some techniques I have found helpful when writing intense, vulnerable material:
- Write in short, timed bursts. When writing difficult scenes, set a timer for ten minutes. Try to keep your pen moving or fingers typing the whole time, without rereading what you’ve written. Then take a break. This practice can help set limits on how long we spend inside challenging memories.
- Lean on your support system, particularly when writing traumatic and/or potentially triggering scenes. For instance, you might have a friend or partner “on call” during these writing sessions so you can get reliable support if you need it.
- Embrace side projects (writing-related or otherwise) to reset your mind and body. It’s easier to write vulnerable content when there are opportunities to recharge and/or shift gears to something low-stakes. A lighter writing project or even a hobby activity will refill your tank when the personal writing gets tough.
- Record yourself speaking. Speaking and writing are different experiences. For some of us, writing certain scenes may be triggering, while speaking them aloud might feel safer. Your phone’s audio recording app likely also has transcription capabilities; most newer phones take dictation from the keyboard, too.
- Know when to stop. Some memories may be too raw and/or triggering for you to revisit right now, and that’s okay. Ask, Am I resisting this scene because it’s difficult, or is my body resisting this because writing it would be psychologically damaging? Here is an excellent article on evaluating when and how to write about traumatic memories.
Need more guidance on how to write compelling mental health stories? Join Katie Bannon and CRAFT TALKS for Dark Truths: Five Tools for Crafting Compelling Mental Health Narratives, 2PM ET May 31 ($25).
Katie Bannon is a writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, ELLE Magazine, NPR, Narratively, and more. Her memoir manuscript was a finalist for the Permafrost Nonfiction Book Prize. A graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator, she holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Emerson College. She is a developmental editor who loves working with nonfiction writers to find the “story” behind the “situation” of their memoirs and essays. She teaches at GrubStreet and lives in the Boston area.
Great tips, Katie! The recording idea is definitely one to remember in those darker moments, too.
Liked your experience. Great work !
[…] 5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing (and Editing) Mental Health Stories […]