Writer in Residence

Why "Crazy" People Make Great Writers

By Zoe Whittall

A few years back The Naked Heart Festival, an LGBT festival of words, invited me to speak on a panel about writing and mental health. My second novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, is partially narrated by someone with panic disorder and OCD, something I (unfortunately? fortunately?) know something about myself. So I wrote this list about how having mental health struggles can be a bonus when you're a writer.

  1. It’s possible to turn a near decade-long habit of soothing debilitating anxiety with television into a career in writing television shows. There can be a positive side to re-watching The West Wing in its entirety several dozens of times – you end up learning scene structure and joke punch up almost by accident, by sheer process of repetition and exposure. Bing, bang, boom, you can maybe have a savings account before your 40th birthday.
  2. You can show up at writer’s festivals and events and look derelict and weird and people will find you adorable. People expect you to be eccentric. This is why writers get agents – so they can look polished, and be your translation machine to the business people in suits, and you can pocket cheese at the buffet with the other poets in their ill-fitting cardigan
  3. Do you need to spend six months inside your house, your main contact with other sentient beings your cat family and grocery gateway delivery person? BE A NOVELIST. This kind of solitude is actually a job requirement.
  4. Your characters need to be in peril, be it literal or emotional. What better way to understand high stakes peril than to face the terrifying reality of the subway tunnel to certain death? What better way to understand human nature and our flaws, than to spend three hours obsessing about what that person you don’t know and don’t even really like may have thought about you after you left that party? Do you want to write a hospital show, or have a character with a strange disease? If you’ve already logged 28 cumulative hours on WebMD, you’re over-prepared for the hospital saga.
  5. In order to be an authentic poet, you should first understand both crushing loneliness and the near-euphoric reality of beautiful constant solitude.  You already have this advantage before you even write one word.
  6. When you’re a writer, it’s important to cultivate an air of mystery. What better way to remain an enigma than to be constantly cancelling plans with people because you cannot face the world. I wonder if she’s at home working on her masterpiece, they’ll think, instead of cursing your unreliable nature. It’s because he’s eccentric, they’ll say. It’s the perfect cover. Someone who isn’t a writer might be seen as chronically unpredictable, but you get to be charmingly aloof.



The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Zoe Whittall’s next novel, The Best Kind of People, will be published in fall of 2016 with House of Anansi Press. Her novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible, won a Lambda Literary award, was shortlisted for the Relit award, and was an American Library Association’s Stonewall Honor Book. She’s published three books of poetry, and works as a freelance TV writer and journalist in Toronto.

Her books have been translated into French, Swedish, and Korean.