Written by A Guest Author November 16th, 2023

Mental Health and the Muse

By Kaki Olsen

Aristotle is credited with the famous quote, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness” and it is true that great art has often emerged from troubled minds, but it is inaccurate to think that authors can’t have one without the other. I absolutely encourage putting your soul into your work, but as a crisis counselor, I’d like to explore a few ways to do that without donating a pound of flesh.

Much of my advice will center around harm reduction, an “approach…focused on kindness, compassion, and respect” (“Ethics and Harm Reduction“, Alberta Health Services). Often used with substance dependence, this is also something applied to anyone who feels that they are in crisis of some kind. There is no doubt that every author, at some point, feels a sense of crisis in the creative process.

Before we explore this topic, I want to be clear that you do not need to wait for a life-altering or career-defining circumstance to practice self-care. In the same way that we are encouraged to get a vaccination and practice health safety measures before flu season hits, feel free to use some of this on as regular a basis as you need.

Here are some fundamental tools for everyday use:

  1. Get grounded. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way advocates writing three pages of stream of consciousness first thing in the morning. You might seek out guided meditation on a site like quietkit.com or give yourself a routine that prepares you for work, such as listening to music or putting on comfortable clothes. There is no right or wrong way to practice this.
  2. Name your challenges. If step one is a regular obstacle for you, consider writing down things that stand in the way of what you want to accomplish. Step 2b might include considering whether any of these challenges fall under the categories of cognitive distortions. For an excellent summary of what these are and how they manifest, I recommend Harvard Health’s article, “How to Recognize and Tame Your Cognitive Distortions.”  You might be seeing your work as flawless or hopeless, a common trait of all-or-nothing thinking.  A common affliction is minimizing the good and magnifying the bad.  It’s completely understandable and common to self-doubt and self-criticize, but to quote another truism, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Diagnose your difficulties and then have enough compassion for yourself to develop a treatment. More on that later.
  3. Work on your pacing. Some people can set aside a specific time of day and work wonderfully with a routine. Others cannot work on a schedule for various reasons. It is up to you and it will take some practice to find what works best for you. Also experiment with what goal-setting will look like for you, whether writing exactly 2137 words per day between 8:37 and 10:03 or making daily progress on your work-in-progress or something in between.

With fundamental self-care addressed, let me go into more detail on harm reduction. In my volunteer work with the crisis line, people often feel unsafe in their current state and after talking to them about their main issue, we do a risk assessment. We help them identify if they are at risk of hurting themselves in some way. With writing, this is not such a concrete idea, but perhaps you’ve thought, “I should just scrap this whole thing.  It’s worthless.” Or “I’m never going to make it.  I give up.” These may not seem like self-destructive thoughts, but they’re detrimental.

In harm reduction, we look at ways that we can take something causing us distress and make its influence safer. In the physical aspect, if someone has drawn blood, we ask about caring for the cut or seeking for medical attention. It can be anything that looks after well-being and there are many ways to apply this in any creative venture. Rather than punish yourself for a perceived shortcoming, consider what is making you feel this way and reconsider how it fits into your goals. As the Alberta Health Services states, harm reduction is a matter of kindness and compassion; and that should be the primary goal of any writer’s self-care regimen.

Bio: Kaki Olsen is an author of several genres who aspires to write many more. Since the 2016 publication of her debut novel, Swan and Shadow, she has contributed stories ranging from dragon smugglers to fairy tale sequels to various anthologies and co-authored Miracle on Deck 34 and Other Yuletide Tales. In her spare time, she is an arts reviewer and a volunteer crisis counselor. She lives in northern Massachusetts with her antique piano and her work-in-progress. All of her publications can be found on Amazon.


We Send You Publishers Seeking Submissions.

Sign up for our free e-magazine and we will send you reviews of publishers seeking short stories, poetry, essays, and books.

Subscribe now and we'll send you a free copy of our book Submit, Publish, Repeat