Creative writing and mental health: A journey through 26 letters

Gary Coyle

I will soon be setting up creative writing sessions for the staff at McPin. You might wonder: why creative writing?

As with any writing exercise, the process of answering this question took some thought, time, and a number of drafts. I think it is useful to show some of this ‘working out’, not only as encouragement to would-be writers, but also for the reason that it offers an insight into the question set out. I wrote a short version of this article for a presentation. Then it transformed when I wanted to use the piece to practice my presentation skills. Next it became a blog. Each time, I found new depths to my reasoning and different meanings to my previous thoughts. One of the reasons I love to write are the occasions when the words just roll onto the page. 

My journey

When sectioned in hospital keeping a journal was my way of surviving. 

At the time it was essential for getting my thoughts in order before ward rounds, when statements were read from the records book. It enabled me to demonstrate the ways in which the doctors were unfairly judging me as a danger to myself and others. Writing helped me to set the record straight and put forward a coherent argument without losing my temper. 

Before keeping a journal, the psychiatric team confronted me with untruths that were so infuriating, so unfair that I struggled to advocate for myself. The doctors believed they understood my mind better than I did. I had to learn to stay calm amid the injustice as any sign of anger was always interpreted as part of a psychological illness. 

The more I wrote and journaled, the more I realised the necessity of doing so: nobody can write a story the way I do, and nobody can write the way you do. 


While studying for a Creative Writing MA, I was asked to do some workshops for SLaM. For almost two years, every week, I was amazed by the talent members brought to the workshops. They were the same people who had been written off by society, signed off as not fit to work. Yet, every one of them was gifted with creative talents. Each session, we learnt from each other, laughed together and sometimes shared one another’s pain. 

Too often people are scared of writing creatively because they fear they cannot spell, or don’t know grammatical rules well enough, or they think they lack imagination. These are all obstacles that can be overcome, it just takes a pen and paper, a little inspiration and the willingness to have a go. One of the groups I worked with had their poems performed by music students at Kings College London. Their works were performed on several occasions at various performance venues in a moving operatic style, with the accompaniment of a piano and singing. This is a fond memory I will forever cherish.

Reasons to Write

For one thing: writing is almost free! It is a hobby that only requires two things, a piece of paper and pen.

Some people believe that creative writing is only for the gifted and privileged few. For people who have the time to express their innermost thoughts. I don’t agree with this. I strongly believe we all have the potential to be writers; we all participate in some form of communication, and if approached in a relaxed and open-minded way many people can surprise even themselves with their aptitude. We cannot help but tell stories. 

How many times I have heard people say “I would like to write a book, but I just don’t have the time.” It really is not about time. Books are made up of paragraphs and paragraphs are formed from sentences. A sentence can be written in seconds, and with a little self-discipline, maybe 15 minutes each day, great achievements are possible.  

Role Models

One of my favourite authors Paulo Coelho said that his parents put him into a mental asylum because he wanted to be a writer. Many do not see writing as a serious career. Coelho knew better: so far, he has published 17 books in 59 languages.

Another writer whose skill and inspiration always moves me is Maya Angelou. On writing fiction, Angelou said: 

“I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being — what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.”

Quotes like this I cherish, because they remind me of what writing can do for myself and for other people. I, like other writers, need these reminders especially when doubt surfaces! 

I have always had a strong belief in the power of words; from comforting a friend who is feeling low, to changing political systems and therefore changing the world. Writing can also help the writer to find solutions to problems or see their personal issues from a new or more positive perspective.

Some people are reluctant to put things in writing because they believe what is written cannot be retracted. A written sentence is not a ‘life sentence’. It can be adjusted, omitted or reformulated. Far from being a life sentence, writing can bring about freedom and escape from the difficult world we inhabit. There is always the chance to write it again, differently.

I will leave you with a simple fact: All of the books in the British Library written in English are made up from the same 26 letters. All those books are just a series of rearranged letters – this fact blows my mind. The scope is infinite…especially if you take the first step!


A few tips to get started

  1. Start simple – pen, paper, and a couple of free minutes!
  2. Remember: first drafts of anything are nearly always crap but they are an unavoidable beginning. 
  3. One of my MA lecturers was the poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah. He gave a piece of advice that really resonated with me; he had written the end of his latest novel before the beginning and middle parts. I had always tried to work in a linear fashion before learning this. I now realise that even in an autobiography, writing down the memories as they come to mind is much more natural and effective than struggling to recall earliest memories and working through things year by year.
  4. Many of the books on my university reading list stated the same messages: in order to become a better writer – read, read and read other people’s work. Not to steal their ideas but to increase vocabulary, knowledge of styles, and improve sentence structure skills. 
  5. Keep writing! And rewriting your work!

Gary Coyle is a Survivor Researcher at the McPin Foundation.