In the second part of our Q&A, author, journalist and mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly talks to our Therapeutic & Reflective Writing students about the beneficial physical effects reading poetry can have on someone struggling with mental health issues, and how she juggles journalism and promoting her books with running workshops and finding time to write.-> Read more
Q – You say in Black Rainbow that certain lines from a George Herbert poem spoke so powerfully to you through your depression that it felt as if they had been injected into your body. Can you say any more about the physical effect that poetry had on you at the time?
RK – Yes, poetry does affect me physically. I think it was Andrew Motion who said you can tell a good poem when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. I think the greatest physical effect is to calm me down, to slow my heart down, and to replace a negative dialogue with a beautiful one of hope – i.e. Herbert’s words. I use his poems all the time.
Q – In terms of creative output, do you prefer the solitary life of writing, or do you enjoy the more social existence you have now? Has this change taken away from being a writer?
RK – In short – yes, it has. But I think it’s always important to ask ‘by what right am I writing this?’. Of course, we always have our lived experiences, but there’s something to be said for hearing from others, receiving feedback, and taking part in workshops. It helps to be able to reflect the experiences of others, too. In that way it can help enrich your writing.
On the other hand, my last book after Black Rainbow, Walking on Sunshine, was short in comparison – only 25,000 words or so. Also, it can be hard to sell books, so publishers like to get you out and about connecting.
Q – Did you place Black Rainbow directly with the publisher, or did you find an agent first?
RK – I found an agent first. I was turned down by three or four, and then finally one said yes. That was only after I did a lot of editing and rewriting, though.
Q – I’m a published writer, and through taking the Therapeutic and Reflective Writing course I’ve looked deeper into myself, and have begun to view writing as a process that is as necessary to my life as breathing is. Do you feel there is a move away from seeing publication as the be all and end all, and getting people to approach writing as something that enhances their life?
RK – I absolutely agree with you. As a person, you can really lose the plot if you’re entirely fixated on publication. Anyway, there are so many new ways of sharing content, so traditional publication is just one possible avenue to take. The real value for me is the utter absorption of trying to put one word after another, in the best way I can. That’s the greatest antidote to my anxiety. I find enormous pleasure in the process, not just the result.
Q – I’ve suffered from depression, so I know the ordeal is terrible, but you prove that good can come out of it. Are you in any way glad you’ve had that experience?
RK – I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone. Having said that, it has made me who I am, and has led to me having a rich and fulfilling life now. However, that’s because I’m now well enough to enjoy it. Others are not so lucky.
Also, it benefitted me in a sense because it deepened my reading, and drew me to writers I would never have read. I think the pleasure of writing is intimately connected with the pleasure of reading. To link back to the previous question, too, reading is and end in itself. There’s not necessarily any greater purpose than to enjoy it, and go deeper in every sense.
Q – Has the mental health work entirely taken over, or are you still involved in journalism?
RK – Yes, I still do quite a bit, and always on my specialised topic of mental health. I still get great pleasure from going back to my old skills, but this time with a campaigning purpose. There’s an instant buzz, which you miss on the long distance run of a book.
Often, though, it’s not great dealing with the papers. Sometimes they won’t pay, and muck you around. Even though it can take a long time to get a publisher, once you do there’s a nice feeling of not having to sell an idea every day.
Also, I read lots of papers too, in order to have a sense of what seems to be interesting people, although a newspaper agenda isn’t always the same as what I find on the ground in hospitals and prisons.
Q – What do you think it is about poetry that makes it particularly therapeutic?
RK – I think a poem’s requirement to unpack meaning, to focus, can keep us in the moment. This can stop us worrying about the future or regretting the past, much like mindfulness. I always feel for the poet, writing somewhere using every trick he can — rhythm, alliteration, personification — to get his meaning across as powerfully as possible. I just feel that connection with someone else’s striving spirit.
Q – I love the idea of poetry being like mindfulness. It’s a very different outlook to how they’re taught at school – the painful picking apart of poems, over and over again.
RK – Honestly, I’m glad I’m not an expert. For me, a poem is how it can make me feel. They make me feel less alone, and tell me a different story in my head. They give images which arrest the darkness, and they’re much better written than any self-help book!
Thankfully, charities are beginning to realise the therapeutic value of writing and reading, too. It’s just been hard, as we supposedly haven’t had enough evidence. Poetry, especially, has been recognised through history, though. Poets were traditionally the wise men and women of the village. It’s definitely worth looking into the charity ReLit. They’re doing great work!
Rachel Kelly’s memoir, Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression, is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available from Amazon. All author proceeds go to mental health charities SANE and United Response.
The Black Rainbow app is available free for download on the Apple App store and Google App store.
Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books and is available on Amazon.
Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit www.rachel-kelly.net.