Writing about depression is panning out brilliantly for Eamonn Marra – his debut novel, 2000ft Above Worry Level, hit Unity’s top 10 list last week well before today’s official launch. Here, he explains why despite his success, he’s deciding to move on.
I wasn’t always a writer. Unlike a lot of my writer friends, I never won writing competitions when I was in my teens. I didn’t go to after-school writing programmes. I never got higher than Achieved in any creative writing exercises at school. I didn’t dream of being a writer. But then when I was 19 I fell into a really deep depression and did what every other depressed person did in 2009 – I started a blog.
I followed this up when I was 20 with a series of poetry zines. When I was 22, I started doing stand-up comedy about my depression. When I was 24 I made two shows: one about being admitted to a mental health respite centre, and the other called ‘Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. When I was 27 I made a show about my struggle with my body. When I was 28 I made a show about not being depressed anymore, which I immediately followed up with a mental breakdown. Now I am nearly 30 and I am about to release 2000ft Above Worry Level, a book about a man between the ages of 19 and 29 who is depressed. It is fiction.
I’ve been writing about depression for over a decade now, and I’m still not really sure what I hope to achieve with it.
I often see words like ‘important’ or ‘essential’ in the marketing materials for works about depression or other mental illness. But what is it about writing about depression that’s important or essential? Sometimes it feels like work about depression or mental health is a cynical ploy for the sad dollar, or the critical acclaim of being seen as sensitive and vulnerable.
People are constantly praising work about mental illness for raising awareness. And for good reason: for many years mental illness was not talked about, and those who faced mental health issues had no idea that their experiences were shared by many others. But I don’t think this is the case anymore. We are about as aware as we can ever be of mental health. But that awareness is never followed up with any substantial change to the systems that make us depressed.
For years I claimed that I made this work for people like me, so I could have a connection with other depressed people. While it’s important to see ourselves in the media we consume, there’s hardly a shortage of media about depressed white men. There was a period in the late 2000s where every single indie film was about a white man with depression.
Reading about depression and other mental illness has really helped me understand both myself and others, so I claimed by writing about depression I was hoping to do the same for others. But that was always a side effect. It’s always been predominantly for my own growth.
Until I got depressed, I’m not sure if I’d experienced an emotion in my life. I had, at the very least, never openly acknowledged I’d had one. I grew up in a family that didn’t know how to talk about emotions. I went to an all-boys school that actively suppressed emotions. My conversations with my friends were far more likely to involve trying to outdo each other over who held the most information about obscure indie bands, than in any way acknowledging our own humanity. But then suddenly I had a whole lot of emotions and no capacity to talk about them, or even allow myself to feel them.
To try and work out why I write so much about depression I went back and read the first couple of years of my depression blog, which I had not looked at for at least five years. In the blog, there is a lot of sadness, a lot of angst, and a lot of anger. At times it’s incredibly cruel and offensive. But mostly it’s a young guy trying to understand his emotions for the first time in his life.
What really surprised me is that many of the topics that came up on that first year of my blog – loneliness, unrequited love, body anxiety, isolating myself from everyone around me, and some really problematic and harmful attitudes towards women – are ones shared by the narrator of my novel. I didn’t realise that I had been sitting on these exact same thoughts for so long.
My blog started out as raw emotion but over the years as people started reading it and talking to me about it, I became more interested in writing itself. The same thing happened when I started performing stand-up comedy. I would get on stage and talk about whatever feeling had been at the top of my mind that week. I was often told I was being brave and important, but I’m not convinced it was any good.
I used to think that being creative was purely about channelling emotion into your art. For years I thought that a raw emotional truth is what made my writing good. But that was just an excuse to not put the work in. The best way to express a feeling or idea is probably not the first one you come up with. It requires work. You need to edit, structure, rewrite. You have to test things out again and again until you find something that works better than anything else. This meant – because I was making work about depression – I would have to go back to old emotions and perform them again as if they were still current. This required me to continuously reflect and relive some of the worst times of my life, often in front of an audience.
When I’m feeling good, and the performances go well, this is fine. It allows me to feel a connection with a group of people, to feel understood. But when I’m not feeling good, or if my work is not well received, it makes me feel like I’m forcing myself to use my pain for the enjoyment of others. Before I knew how to express my emotion in any other way, this was necessary. It was the only way I could get it out. But over the years it has moved on to an expectation that I constantly share extremely personal information about myself for the entertainment of others. I’m spending my life trying to keep my head above water only to willingly dive back under when I’m still short of breath.
And because my work has generally been so personal, it’s been really hard to separate criticism of my work from criticism of me as a person. When someone doesn’t like something I’ve made it feel like a personal attack. The pure expression of emotion without editing that characterised my blog and early stand-up left me pretty vulnerable and easy to criticise, especially in the days of internet anonymity when anyone could leave a comment on your blog telling you to have a crywank or to kill yourself.
My novel is about depression. But it’s not about my depression. Or not exactly my depression. While I’m not going to lie and say that none of the book has been taken from my life experiences, I have no intention and no obligation of telling anyone what parts are mine or how close they are to my experiences. The narrator in the book goes through a lot of similar stuff that I wrote about on my blog a decade ago, but he is not me.
Unlike most of my other work, the book has a wider scope. It’s not only about depression. It’s about precarious work and precarious relationships; unemployment, loneliness, isolation, and debt. It’s about the isolating, alienating situations which cause people to become depressed. I hope when people read the book they don’t just focus on the impact of depression, but the systems that make us feel this way in the first place. By writing this book, I’ve wrapped up the themes I’ve been exploring for 10 years.
Since I started writing about my depression, people have been validating my writing about depression, which has led to me to continue to mine my depression for more and more content. I’ve become known as someone who writes about mental health, and often that’s what people expect when they ask me to write something for them or to perform at an event. I’m tired of asking myself ‘what about me is interesting?’ and the only answer I have being ‘my sadness’. I feel trapped in a state where the thing that’s given me the most success has also been the thing that’s hurt me the most in my life.
I don’t want people to stop making work about their mental health as long as it is beneficial for them. I like personal work about people’s mental health struggles and people have liked work about mine. I’m happy I made most of the work I did. It was either good work that appealed to people or helped me on the path to making good work later on. If made with care and respect, works about personal mental health struggles can be powerful and engaging stories for the audience. But if made without those things, they can be really harmful. I’ve left plays feeling destroyed because the creators cared more about getting their feelings out than caring about how it would be received, especially by the same people they are trying to support, which is something I have done a lot of and don’t want to do again.
In a strange way, I’m grateful for my depression. Writing about my own depression has taught me how to feel. How to communicate. It’s made me a better and more empathetic person. But now I have those skills, I’m hoping to be able to move on to finally writing about something else.
2000ft Above Worry Level, by Eamonn Marra (Victoria University Press, $30) is available from Unity Books.
Where to get help
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.
Samaritans – 0800 726 666.
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.