First Fortnight preview: Arnold Thomas Fanning, acclaimed author of Mind On Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, regarded by critics as one of the best books of 2018, reflects on what it means to be creative and to live with a diagnosis of a serious mental illness, ahead of his appearance at the First Fortnight European Mental Health Arts & Culture Festival this January.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

These words by Gerard Manley Hopkins, from his poem No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, are familiar to many from school, and form the frontispiece to my book Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery. It’s my first book, and as the title emphasises, is an account of living with, and overcoming, the worst effects of bipolar disorder, which I was first diagnosed with in my late twenties. But the book is more than that: it is also the story of being a writer, and a narrative weaving its way through the book is the story of how I as a writer negotiated a creative career while suffering from a serious mental illness.

In my teens, like many before me, I took up writing in earnest, and by my mid-twenties I was getting published in literary journals and newspapers and anthologies, and even getting funding to make short films. I had quite a good, steady, routine, writing with dedication in my spare time, submitting my work diligently, persevering through the rejections, celebrating any small successes such as acceptance for publication. Then, all that carefully created life I had put together was swept away by an episode of mania that was the harbinger of a decade when I struggled with the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, only returning to stability once more in my late thirties, a time when I debuted my first play in the Dublin Fringe Festival. The time since then, thankfully, has been marked by continuing and increasing good health, and matching productivity in creative terms.

Which has led me to reflect, often, on what it means to be creative and to live with a diagnosis of a serious mental illness. How, if at all, do these two elements interact?

My own experience has been that they do interact, catastrophically: that the highs and lows of bipolar disorder do nothing but disrupt the application and diligence needed to be creative. Imagination, ideas, speculation, all are part of being creative. So too are letting one’s mind wander, daydream, and fantasise. But essential also are discipline, routine, regularity, repetition, practice, and thoroughness. All of the latter are impossible, however, when in the depths of crippling depression or wracked by the storms of mania.

I now have a simple routine when it comes to writing; after breakfast, go for a thirty-minute walk in the park letting my mind wander where it will, then return to my desk and sit and write until I feel I have reached the end of that day’s work; then on subsequent days return to the work to re-write, edit, type up, and re-write and re-edit again and so see it through to completion, all the while preceding the work day with a mind-clearing – and inspiring – walk in the park. It’s a regular routine, repetitive, relaxing, almost hypnotic; the sort of calming routine that I feel is really needed to be creative, and that helps with my mental health also.

This, after all, is the true link between mental illness and creativity: by being diligent in maintaining mental health creativity will flourish.

Arnold Thomas Fanning will further discuss his experience and thinking on the links between creativity and mental illness at Madness, Mental Illness, & Creativity: Writers And Artists In Conversation in The Café, Books Upstairs, Dublin on Sunday January 6th at 3pm. He’ll be joined by authors Sara Baume and Claire Hennessy, and artist Eoghan O’Driscoll - more details here.