Writer’s Psychosis

by Leigh Matthews on February 6, 2016

writer's pyschosis multiple personalitiesThe first draft of the novel is complete and I have emerged, mole-like and blinking into the blinding light of real-life.

The unreal looks pretty cosy right about now, and I’m feeling a little insubstantial, which got me wondering about the relationship between writing and psychosis.

Does ‘writer’s psychosis’ exist? Am I the only one who develops a peculiar state-of-mind when fully immersed in novel-writing that resembles a sort of psychosis?

A quick look at psychology journals, the biographies and autobiographies of writers, and likely any therapist’s list of patients provides ample reassurance that I’m not alone in displaying some significant components of schizotypy, especially when truly immersed in writing.

In one recent study looking at almost 300 poets, compared with almost 900 non-poets, researchers found that poets scored above average on the “Unusual Experiences”, “Cognitive Disorganization” and “Impulsive Nonconformity” traits, with self-declared ‘avant-garde’ poets scoring even higher on “Unusual Experiences” and on a questionnaire of mood disorder symptoms (Mason et al., 2014).

I wager that giving any novelist the Oxford – Liverpool Inventory of feelings and experiences (O-life) questionnaire (an assessment tool used in the study just mentioned) will reveal some significant overlap between writers and people with psychosis. Not all people with psychosis are writers, of course, but it seems that many writers score highly on such tests of psychosis and schizotypy.

The questions on this 150-item self-assessment include:

  • Are the sounds you hear in your daydreams really clear and distinct?
  • Do your thoughts sometimes seem as real as actual events in your life?
  • Does it often happen that nearly every thought immediately and automatically suggests an enormous number of ideas?
  • Do your thoughts ever stop suddenly causing you to interrupt what you are saying?
  • Do you think you could learn to read other’s minds if you wanted to?
  • When in a crowded room, do you often have difficulty in following a conversation?
  • No matter how hard you try to concentrate do unrelated thoughts always creep into your mind?
  • Are you easily hurt when people find fault with you or the work you do?
  • Have you ever felt that you have special, almost magical powers?

What writer doesn’t believe they have magical powers? After all, we control the very existence of our characters. And I can’t be alone in finding it almost unbearably difficult to follow a conversation in a crowded room when there is such an incredible richness of dialogue ripe for the overhearing.

Perhaps living alone amplifies these tendencies, but also offers an overarching structure and safety net that writers cohabiting with a non-writer can abandon, for better or worse.

Kazuo Ishiguro has written about some of the odd things that can happen to a writer’s sense of reality when one is deeply immersed in the work, including giggling for seemingly no reason in public. Fortunately for Ishiguro, he has a wife who facilitates his basic survival needs.

I live alone, work alone, eat alone, for the most part (aside from my trusty border collie). I have no wife to feed me, or to remind me to bathe or pay my taxes. So I can’t entertain this writer’s psychosis for long, but when I do, it is unnerving and magical.

Going full-tilt at a novel is to enter an unreal mind-state, to wander the real world while inhabiting the fictional world more substantively than one’s actual, tangible reality.

Becoming Other

To understand my characters, their rich inner lives and motivations, I must immerse myself in them, become them. I think like them, talk like them, run dialogue and monologue in my head. I let them drown me out, at least temporarily. I move my limbs in new ways, trying to figure out how a character moves, how they perform a certain action.

Yesterday I practiced tying an imaginary knot; a knot that I have never had and likely will never have cause to tie in real life. I have imagined eating food that I will never eat. I have written about places I have not been and will likely never go. I have opened myself up to the idea of being anyone, everyone other than myself.

The idea of a novelist having something akin to what used to be called multiple personality disorder and which is now referred to as dissociative identity disorder is not new.

Other writers, most notably Fernando Pessoa, as well as Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and Kierkegaard demonstrated a conspicuous sense of nobodiness long ago, as did Nietzsche, who talked about inspiration as being an involuntary experience of absoluteness and freedom, in which the writer’s self disappears.

Other notable nobodies include Emily Dickinson who wrote,


Emily Dickinson, a real nobody.

‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are You – Nobody – Too?’

And, of course, Walt Whitman famously said,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

To practice this kind of nobodiness is to make oneself vulnerable, suggestible. Perhaps this is a thing all novelists do; maybe this is a special kind of madness that makes a person more likely to become a writer. Perhaps it is a thing that becomes habit, becomes necessary; becomes a writer’s way of being in the non-fictional worlds we create.

This vulnerability does not stop at the writing desk, however. Not when there’s no safety barrier, no doting spouse to cushion the real world. And so, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the fictional people in my head become as real as the people who populate my life, and all of these people become more real than me.

This creates a brief window where I am open, fractured, unusually receptive to the patterns of speech of everyone around me; where I am anything but myself. I absorb, refract, reflect and become the other, for however short a time until reality reasserts itself.

This state of being is both disarming and fantastic. I hear what you say in such sharp, vivid colour that I forget to listen to you; I become distracted by rapidly constructing an entire inner life for you that is not yours at all. I know, somewhere in the part of my mind that has grown quiet, that the you I am creating is markedly different to you yourself, but this new person feels painfully real to me. You are a chimera. You have become both you and not you, right before my eyes.

One word, one gesture tells me everything I can ever know about this person who was you, up until a second ago. Because, just as I disappear in these moments, so do you. I recreate you as a fiction. I make you unreal. I am full of hubristic omnipotence.

The trick is to recognise this, to know where my projection of you begins and ends. Otherwise, you would be lost to me. You cease being real and become, instead, an unknowable construct of fiction and warped reality. When I am deep in writing, reality has blurred to such a degree that I have experienced moments of intense delight or anger even at something a friend or acquaintance has said or done; except, they didn’t say or do any such things aside from in my imagination.

I readily admit that this sounds psychotic. After all, psychosis is defined as:

A severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.

Perhaps you’ll recognise this feeling if you’ve ever woken from a dream in which you had a particularly intense negative dream interaction with a friend, partner or coworker. If so, you’ll likely know how hard it can be to shake and how it can colour your interactions with that person, creating confusion as they don’t know what they’ve done wrong (because they haven’t done anything wrong, only their fictional self acted out). For some people, dream-reality confusion is so extreme as to constitute actual psychosis, and may even be linked with real acts of aggression.

One of the advantages of living alone as a writer is that you need not navigate sharing a space with the real life person who you just imagined slighted you in some awful way. You usually have time to realign with reality before interacting with anyone other than the people who live in your head.

Sometimes, it seems like it may be safer for everyone concerned for a writer to go about their writing in isolation, until they can package up their imaginings far in the recesses of their mind where they won’t taint their dealings with real-life people.

What better way to lose contact with external reality than to create your own fictional world, populated by people who are imaginary, even if they walk around in places familiar to you from everyday life?

The Problem of Space

Perhaps this experience of writer’s psychosis has hit me so hard this time because the world in which the characters live in my latest novel is my actual world. Placing characters in a setting that is all too real might just tip the balance and begin to unravel reality. Perhaps it is safer, from a mental health perspective, to create an entirely imaginary world rather than risk your own locale becoming surreal.

Perhaps my next novel will take place somewhere other-worldly, for safety’s sake.

The Illusion of Time

And then there’s the issue of time; writers can compress a year of a person’s life into forty chapters, or write a scene that takes an hour to read but that describes just a handful of minutes in a character’s life. Writers live in a time warp. We lose track of real time; days, months, years and a lifetime pass by under our fingertips as we type.

Writing a novel also loosens the writer’s grip on time by moving their attention between characters of different ages. Vladimir Nabokov and other writers and philosophers have talked about the phenomenon where the older you get, the faster time seems to pass, proposing a mathematical explanation called “proportionality theory.” This theory holds that a year feels faster when your’re 50 than when you’re 5 because it is only a fiftieth of your life, not a fifth of your life.

Another theory, proposed by the psychologist Norman Bradburn in 1987, is that our distorted perception of time is based on the clarity of our memories. The better able we are to remember something, the more likely we are to think that this event happened recently, rather than many decades ago.

Just as the writer experiences the quick splash of a ball into the water at the beach, they may recreate this moment by slowing down the splash to an excruciating pace; each sound, smell and sight adding layer upon layer to the infinite imagination. The rattle of pebbles dragged into the water by the undertow. The slight shift in light as a crow flies overhead. The worrisome smell of burning that signals a stroke or a by-law infraction as someone lights a fire in the sand to dry their feet at sunrise. There is such plenty, and it is overwhelming, almost dangerous to be outside, to live within other people’s constructs of time.

Thus, sensory experiences get filed away for later use, and the clarity of an event is no longer tied to its real linear position, but to how well it was observed, how many layers it has had added by rewrite after rewrite. To a writer, everything is timeless and moving, and moveable.

The Illusion of Control

dreams-feel-real-totemTime is illusory, and for a writer in the midst of a novel, there is also a dangerous illusion of control. It is entirely reasonable, necessary even, to believe that actions can be undone. If I dislike my current reality, if it doesn’t seem to make sense, why not cut the chapter where I flipped that switch, lay down on that train track, ended that relationship, or found that body on the beach?

Psychological research has found that when we have this illusion of control, we are more likely to ignore warning signs in our immediate environment (Fast et al., 2009). The writer is at once hyperaware and perhaps perilously nonchalant. A train heading towards you may not be there at all. It may be a memory, not a real train. It may turn into a dragon and fly overhead. It may hit you, dismember you, crush you, but you are not you, so why does it matter? You can remake yourself. You can write another chapter, take out the train.

It seems to me that a writer in the middle of writing a novel should not stand on the roof of a tall building, lest they forget that they can’t fly or reconfigure time.

The Illusion of Futility

Conversely, it seems that writers are particularly vulnerable to what some psychologists have called the illusion of futility. This is where, despite having a high degree of control, a person believes that they have little control and that what they do doesn’t really matter (Gino et al., 2011).

When writing my first novel, The Old Arbutus Tree, I found that my characters kept doing things I didn’t want them to do; things that made my life more difficult, that gave me onerous research tasks, moral quandaries, and difficulties fitting events to a linear framework.

Ultimately, these characters lived and died by my pen, but they fought back at times, undermining authorial control.

For Keats, letting go of the desire for control was an essential part of the creative process. He called this idea Negative Capability – the capacity for an artist to live in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without grasping after fact and reason. To do this is to give up the illusion of time and control; to let the world wash through you, and let your characters lead you where they want to go without asking why.

It is a peculiar feeling to be angry at, disappointed in, or infatuated with a character who is the construct of one’s own imagination, but there are numerous writers who have described how they have fallen in love with their main character, or wanted to strangle them at times. (Not to mention the readers who want to shake certain characters, such as Cass in Don’t Bang the Barista!)

When the novel is done, however, when it is surrendered to public view, there is a surreal period of grief where it is necessary to let go of those characters. Unless readers take them on and write fan fiction, or the writer chooses to bring them back in a sequel or as guest stars in another piece of fiction, these people are surrendered to memory. I have spent months, if not years, getting to know these fictional people, and then I have to let them go so I can find some new imaginary friends.

To a writer, everything and everyone is at once material and immaterial, including the writer themselves.

Being all the People

In her journals, Sylvia Plath wrote:

I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. […] And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.

It is a peculiar kind of madness to want to experience everything and nothing all at once; to vacillate between the desire to go out and gather sensations, memories, and experiences, and the urge to hunker down and create imagined realities from the safety of home.

When writers write, they have to ignore their present reality in order to build the fictional reality their characters populate. This tension between lived experience, recollection and imagined experience never ceases, for me at least.

Right now, with my first draft in hand, I am beginning to rebuild those walls between myself and my characters, and between myself and the real people around me. I am reconfiguring time and space. I am letting words, thoughts and images wash over and through me and resisting the urge to capture them.

Now the groundwork is done, I can listen again without wanting to inhabit and remake the speaker. I can appreciate your words as your words, your gestures as your gestures. And slowly, slowly, you help make me real again. You help me to rebuild my self. One gesture, one glance, one habit, one word at a time.


Fast et al., 2009.
Gino et al., 2011.
Mason et al., 2014.

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