Research research research research talk to people with experience with the illness research research research get feedback from people with experience with the illness research research research *DEEP BREATH* research
Ugh. I hate when this piece of advice is handed out to readers with no caveats or explanations attached. It’s crap.
First response should be that you, writer person, need to sit the fuck down and really think hard about why you’re writing about a person with an illness you don’t have. As a mentally ill person and a writer, I’m telling you that this needs to be step number one. You need to examine your motives. Is the illness an organic, developed facet of a fully rounded character or is a plot device that creates the kind of drama you want without you having to work for it. Is it your way of short handing and shading in characterization without having to write it. Are you using it to show evilness, helplessness, innocence, tragedy, comedy, being super magical? Because I’ve read those stories and they piss me off every time.
When you do get to the research, somebody needs to inform you that there’s not just one stage of it. You need to research your research. And then you need to research so that you can do the next stage of research right.
Meaning? Read a lot of shit and take a lot of time with it because going to other human beings with your hand out is a whole other ballgame and you better sure as fuck do it respectfully and appropriately.
Do not corner some poor soul who you discovered to have an illness or the one you’re writing about and chase the down and say: “Hey, you, over there. You’re crazy. Tell me what crazy is like because I’m writing a thing.” Do not fucking reduce us to your personal vending machine of wisdom. Do not reduce us to our mental illnesses because that’s all you’re interested in.
Do not track Tumblr tags, run down people who are just writing personal posts that get maybe five likes and a reblog, and then drop this crap in their ask boxes. Don’t creepily follow them just to get the goods on their illness, not caring one whit about how they’d feel or them as a person. That’s shitty on all possible levels.
And do not just cut and paste. Do not just read a few things and decide to weave that into your story as if it’s enough, as if it’s not a kind of stealing. Don’t do this just to collect people’s stories and mish mash them into something that makes you feel like your story is now authentic.
When you do phase one research, you should do it well enough that when it comes time to do phase two (talking to real humans), you know where to go and where NOT to go, and you know what NOT to ask because it’s been asked a million times before.
By the time you get through with the non-interactive part of research, you should know better. You should be able to find blogs that specifically exist to ANSWER QUESTIONS about the topic and the questions you ask should not be 101 level questions. You need to be listening to the deep cuts from the album by the time you start talking to ANYONE.
During all this research don’t ever lose your humility. Seriously. And be aware that if you’re neurotypical/not ill, you WILL get criticism but you will also still get more credibility with other neurotypical/not ill people than actually mentally ill people get for the same thing. People will listen to an outsider who doesn’t live this more than to someone like me who does. That’s shitty as hell. Acknowledge that always.
And when you do get kick back, take it. I don’t care if it’s a body blow to your damn ego, take it. Accept it, learn from it, and take it. And don’t argue with it. As a writer, it’s a good idea NEVER EVER to argue with any criticism or critique and a pretty good one never to even respond to them. Let people’s reading of something be their reading and don’t even get into it with them.
No one ever changed my mind about a book I didn’t like by arguing with me, including authors. I’ve had this happen. Indeed, it cements my assertion that the book is lousy and the author lousier.
So just fucking be aware it isn’t about research so you get a science problem right. It’s people’s lives and minds and bodies and lived realities. Research is an act of humility, and admission that you don’t know and never will completely know the way someone who lives this does but you want to get as close as you can, and it is an admission that you know you owe this work, this respect, this dedication to making sure you don’t further stereotypes or convince people of a lie. Research is saying: “You’re the experts here and therefore I should make sure I’m prepared before I step even one little toe onto your turf.”
THAT’S my advice on writing a character with a mental illness.
The thing about writing is that you have to take responsibility for it, and the thing about responsibility is that it’s fractally recursive: you look at it from a distance, and then you move in closer and see a whole ‘nother level that looks the same as the first, and then you zoom in, and you see another level…
When you decide to write about an experience you don’t have, you’re taking responsibility for this decision. At the outside level, this means that if you screw up, you have no one to blame but yourself. You’re responsible for any harm your writing causes to others. You’re responsible for any criticism that comes your way. You’re responsible.
So you take the time to research. That’s the next level of taking responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re no longer accountable, though. You’re still accountable. You’re still responsible for any harm you do. You’re still responsible for criticism that results from that harm.
So you run your writing by individuals with direct experience. That’s another level of taking responsibility. Again, it doesn’t mean that you’re no longer accountable. You’re still responsible for the outcome of your writing.
It’s infinitely fractal. You can always go deeper. You can always try harder. You can always do better. And you’re still always ultimately responsible.
So the question isn’t, “What’s the bare minimum I need to do in order to be safe?”
It’s, “Am I prepared to accept responsibility for what I write?” If the answer is no, then do more work until you reach a level it becomes yes… or else write something else.