STORY BROADS: Can Screenwriting Damage Your Mental Health?

Anne-Cecile Ville is a French screenwriter and honorary Brit, having spent the last 20 years in the UK. In May 2015, her rom-com feature film was listed in the top four romance screenplays in The Black List. Follow Anne-Cecile on her website and twitter: @AC_Screenwriter.

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Poet Rainer Maria Rilke was offered psychoanalysis, he declined and said: ‘Don’t take away my devils, because my angels may flee too.’ I recently found this quote on a friend’s Facebook page. It received many likes, but I wasn’t impressed. The ubiquitous notion that every artist has to suffer for their art might appear romantic, but it is also destructive. As I’m writing this, it is Mental Health week and a good time as any to explore that notion.

The ‘tortured artist’ is both a stock and real-life character. You will find him or her in movies like Whiplash or Birdman. Real-life examples past and present also abound from Van Gogh to Beethoven, many artists have suffered a spectrum of mental health issues ranging from depression to bipolar disorders and psychosis.

What about screenwriters?

Screenwriting is – to put it mildly – ‘difficult.’ On paper, it looks easy. A screenplay is basically a template for a movie; it contains descriptions and dialogues. In practice, however, many screenwriters write dozens or more film or TV scripts before they even get a remote chance to option or sell one. Before, during and beyond that time, they will have to face countless rejections. Imagine a job where every single email you sent was criticized, every spreadsheet analysed, every Word document ripped to shreds – and for the first few years, it will be for little or no pay. And yet, now that I have painted this rosy picture, some of us still wish to go ahead, but between rejection and the perceived notion that it will be hard, where does that leave us emotionally?

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Fear of failure

There are countless resources online on screenwriting. Many of us have taken courses, classes, read tons of screenplays to perfect the craft. It can be a lonely affair, however. Even though screenwriters are largely very supportive across social media platforms, ultimately, it’s between you and the blank page. It doesn’t help that some screenwriters, albeit well meaning, often relate their screenwriting exploits on social media. ‘I wrote 20 pages today,’ claims one while you have spent the whole day procrastinating. Maybe that day you would have also received a PASS on another screenplay and your heart will sink. Can I do this?

Depression

And what if that day becomes your every day? Last year, I was writing a ROM COM. After a few failed personal deadlines, I had started to dread that blank page. I would write, but it was becoming increasingly painful and I felt like a failure. Slowly but surely, a quiet depression was setting in.

To top it all off, and probably as a symptom of my anxious mental state, my Crohn’s Disease had flared up, and it was getting worst. One day, as I was staring at the computer screen with the sunken feeling that my writing was abysmal while my cramping stomach was draining the life out of me, a thought came to me: should this be so painful? What am I doing myself? How am I supposed to write a hilarious, light-hearted ROM COM when I am in the throes of mental hell? I stopped – then I laughed. That was the first laugh I had had for a while. It just felt ridiculous.

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Am I in an abusive relationship?

With my mental and physical health deteriorating, it was time to reassess this relationship the way I would any other: is screenwriting good for me? Should I stick with it? Time to ask the hard questions.

Do I like screenwriting? Yes. In fact, most days, I love it.

Is screenwriting making you happy? Well, clearly not always… In fact, it sometimes makes me ill.

Can I change this?

Perspective

It was time to get real. I mean, seriously, in the grand scheme of things is screenwriting THAT important? When I’m on my death bed the nurses might wonder: ‘Where are your friends and relatives?’

’Well, they gave up on me, but you know, I wrote so many screenplays!’

Take control

No one and nothing is worth you getting sick over. It all starts and ends with you. If you’re not well, you’re no use to anyone. It’s important to remember that when you are feeling unworthy and you are beating yourself up over oftentimes unrealistic deadlines. Also, remember those screenwriters who boast about smashing their daily deadlines? Well, think of it like Instagram: no one ever looks that good in real life. Everyone has bad days. That’s just a universal truth. So, have a walk, chat to a good friend, travel and mostly, LOVE more. If there’s anything I’ve taken from the close friends and relatives who have passed on is to treasure those relationships while you can. As a bonus, you will get to learn from those interactions and become a better and healthier writer in the process.

There’s no progress without failure

As part of my recovery, I went to see a Psychologist and she used a technique called ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’ (CBT). It’s a very pragmatic way to deal with your daily issues. Within three months, I was back to my old self. I was even a little stronger, more grateful. One cannot learn without failing first and one of the things that I had to learn is to accept that failure was part of the process. I read an article on screenwriting recently which stated that amateurs feared failure whereas pros craved it. I would replace ‘craved’ (a little too masochistic) by ‘tamed’ as our greatest challenge is to learn how to demystify, tame our fear of failure and – fail again.

When it rears its ugly head: beat it!

Because you will feel down again. The same way the weather always changes, so do our emotions. Sometimes, we may have a long dry happy spell and then it will be waterworks. It’s OK, it’s normal and we are not alone in this. Increasingly, successful writers such as JK Rowling come out of the woodwork and list their failures while expressing how soul crushing they were at the time. It also tells us that they were OK – eventually.

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Change your perspective

Try and remember why you love doing this. Write a list of things that you have achieved, and pat yourself on the back. Be in a competition with yourself and no one else. Start a gratefulness journal. Form friendships with supportive, like-minded screenwriters. Try and find people who will lift you up (ahem, the Story Broads!), and pay it forward.

Writer Chuck Sambunico once called writing: ‘voluntary masochism.’ I would say, ‘Let’s stop the hyperboles and start enjoying the writing process instead.’

Life is just too damn short.

Additional resources: Interesting Ted Talk from comedian Kevin Breel on depression.

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