By Carolyn Martinez
Many writers write for self-healing, particularly for mental health. And they do so, because it works.
Know your desired outcome before you start writing
As a publisher, I’m often approached by people who want to write a memoir. There’s a vast difference between writing a commercially viable memoir that the general public will buy and devour, writing your family history as a historical record for your own family, and writing your memoir purely for yourself. Each has benefits, but you should know your desired outcome before you start writing. And if you want to write a commercially viable memoir, don’t then expect it to perform the dual-fold purpose of recording in perpetuity every boring detail about your life.
It would be interesting to get 100 well-known authors in a room and ask how many wrote their first book to purge/process their own emotional grapples over human interactions, and how many managed to turn their musings into a commercially viable book at the same time.
The first book I authored was Inspiring IV Stories. I wrote it as I went through multiple losses and a ridiculous amount of IVF cycles to have my family. I was able to turn it into a commercial-seller by interviewing people from all over Australia and writing multiple perspectives at a time when people didn’t openly discuss IVF and miscarriage—2011. Newspapers devoured the content, Channel 10’s The Project did a segment, and sales soared.
Bryn Smith, author of Magnus Nights: The Helios Incident, has lived a colourful life in his three short decades. He’s an incredible talent, which is easily on display when one reads his debut book. He also is an advocate for mental health because he experienced depression and considered suicide himself for several years after his older brother, David, took his own life.
‘It was the most gut-wrenching experience. I remember coming home from work on a Friday and getting the call from my dad. I went into a state of shock, contacting work, booking a flight home and packing a suitcase,’ Bryn said.
Within hours, Bryn was back home in Townsville, helping plan the funeral.
‘I’m the public speaker in the family, so I was tapped to do the eulogy,’ Bryn said. ‘I remember spending hours in front of a laptop, but no words could say what we all felt.’
The power of comedy in a time of grief
Bryn was advised by a friend to look up comedian John Cleese’s eulogy for Graham Chapman, the English actor, writer and comedian who was a fellow member of the comedy group Monty Python.
‘It was a brilliant idea. Instead of a eulogy, I took the piss out of him for five minutes. I knew that would be what he wanted. It was insane. A church full of people who came to mourn and say goodbye, yet were also willing to smile, laugh and celebrate David’s life.’
But after the dust settled and normal life resumed, Bryn started to feel the pressure. It was compounded by the fact that six months before his brother’s death, he suffered a major relationship breakdown when he and his fiancée broke up.
‘I’d been with her for five years, but I stopped putting the work into the relationship. It was my fault,’ Bryn said. ‘So there I was, grieving for a lost partner and a lost brother. I remember many nights alone in my apartment, crying and tearing at my hair while my parents watched from a screen, unable to help.’
‘That was when things went black.’
‘I stopped wanting to live,’ Bryn says. ‘When I live in Brisbane, my run takes me over the Victoria Bridge. Beneath it is the Pacific Motorway. Sometimes I’d stop and wonder if I should just take the plunge and let gravity and six lanes of traffic do the rest. Friends were concerned about me, calling the police for mental health checks. There were a couple of times when I spent a night in the emergency psych ward.’
But Bryn persevered. He starting seeing a psychologist and he began taking antidepressants. He exercised and meditated at least once a day.
‘Those things stabilised me,’ Bryn says. ‘When you have depression, you can’t regulate your emotions. You get these extreme highs and lows. The lows are obviously the worst. But while these things stabilise you, you have to find something worth living for. Something that pulls you out of that deep, dark pit.’
And so Bryn poured himself into writing.
‘I’d already been submitting short stories during university. I even had a half-finished novel,’ Bryn said. ‘Dav, my older brother, was the one who got me into reading. We both loved sci fi books.’
By 2020, Bryn had turned things around.
‘I was off the antidepressants, I’d gotten a job offer in Canberra working in emerging technology, and I’d signed a book deal. I couldn’t believe how much it had all turned around.’
Bryn is still focused on mental health, and he wants to bring that forward in his writing.
‘I’ve focused on traumatised characters in Magnus Nights: The Helios Incident. Some make it through and become better people, others fall and become the very worst version of themselves. I believe the difference comes from relationships. We’re social creatures. We’re meant to be connected.’
One in five people experience mental health issues at some point in their life. For me, similiar to Bryn, it was after I lost my older sister when she was just 36 and I was 29-years-old. She was premeditatedly murdered in her home, along with my brother in law, by an intruder unknown to them, in front of their kids. I was in shock for many months. My family and I spent many weeks in court hearings, showing up for my beautiful sister and her lovely husband—two innocents who could no longer speak for themselves.
Before my sister and brother in law were murdered, I believed there was some good in everyone. Afterwards, I no longer held that belief. It is an extraordinary thing to have your entire value system dismantled in moments. One has to rebuild from the core outwards. It’s painful, and painstakingly slow. I’m sure I’d be an interesting case study for a researcher somewhere. One of the things that helped me emerge from those traumatic years—writing.
I’m with Bryn—writing for mental health works.