Sam Twyford-Moore is a writer and critic. His writing - often about the connection between mental health and creative work - has appeared throughout Australia, including in Meanjin, The Monthly, The Lifted Brow and The Guardian. In 2018, he published The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania, an exploration of his own experience with Bipolar Disorder.
Sam was the CEO of the Emerging Writers Festival from 2012 until 2015, and established the Digital Writers Festival during the same period. He was also the founding host of The Rereaders, a literature and cultural podcast.
Astrid: Sam Twyford-Moore, welcome to The Garret.
Sam: Thanks for having me.
Astrid: Sam, your non-fiction has been published in literary journals and newspapers for years, including in Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, The Monthly, The Guardian and The Australian. You were the former festival director and CEO of the Emerging Writers Festival, the founding director of the Digital Writers' Festival, and the founding host of the Rereaders Podcast. You've also just published The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania.
I'd like to start with the last line in The Rapids, and I quote, ‘And you see this book here. I'm going to teach you to speak my language with this book’. Tell me about how you use your writing to depict and demystify mania.
Sam: Oh, cool. Great question. [Laughter] Yeah, that line, I think, summed up maybe what I've been calling the blunt cultural use of the book, which is a pretty direct act of destigmatising a complex mental ill-health condition, a chronic lifelong mental ill-health condition. And so, that line sums up the maybe provocative approach that I take in the book to talk honestly about a pretty tricky subject.
And, yeah, this idea of… You want your book to be a good read, you want it to be a literary work and have its own merits on that level, but in terms of this particular book, there's a cultural function to it too. And that is one of speaking to a community about, essentially, bipolarity, or as I cheekily call it, manic depression. Take it back to its roots. And, yeah, exploring my experiences with that, but also trying to build a cultural history of the condition over the last 100 years or so since the term ‘manic depression’ came into popular usage.
Astrid: So this is a discussion about writing and language. And just then, you said chronic ill health instead of chronic illness. Is there a choice there?
Sam: Yeah. I think that comes down to some of the discussions around the use of ‘mental illness’. There's a preference for some to use ‘mental ill health’, and the word ‘chronic’ is really important in there, particularly with bipolarity or manic depression. The diagnosis, as soon as you have it, is a lifelong one. There's no cure. It's just about lifelong treatment.
So it's interesting in terms of language is really central to discussing this condition, and making sure that there's a cultural shift is checking – not policing but checking – the way that we use language to talk about it and to be given the privilege to write a whole book about it… There's a whole lot of language and words about this condition.
Astrid: There is indeed. You write in the book itself that The Rapids was difficult to write, and I want to quote you again, Sam. ‘Part of the reason I have come to write this book in short paragraphs is partly in homage to collage-like non-fiction, but it is also because this is how my mind works most of the time’. Tell me about that and the structure of your work.
Sam: Right. Yeah, that's an interesting approach. I'm a big fan of contemporary American non-fiction and the innovations and the progressive nature that that form has figured into the literary landscape over there for the last ten years or so, but obviously going back further. So as a writer, I was interested in experimenting with non-fiction, pushing it to its breaking form... breaking point, rather. Again, this comes back to the duality of the book, the literary side of it and then its cultural function, as I keep repeating. But the stylistic condition of the book is one of broken paragraphs, essentially. That was a stylistic choice on one hand to create something exciting to read, but then on the other, it was a cheeky attempt for me to demonstrate some of the thought patterns and how they can be broken and cyclical within the experience of particularly the manic side of manic depression.
That's had an interesting effect that I didn't expect in terms of talking to some friends who have read the book who have had maybe not manic depression but certainly experiences of psychosis or disassociation, and that it's had a kind of transference factor, which is sort of terrifying.
Astrid: But it's not something we should be laughing about.
Sam: No, no. But the mimicking within the text can... It's a speedy book to read in that sense that it can get your brain working at that level, maybe. I joked to my publisher that maybe the book should come with a warning sticker, which might help with sales: ‘May induce mild mania’. Yeah.
Astrid: When you were writing, did you consider a more traditional essay format, or was that never going to be interesting to you?
Sam: I don't think so. Yeah, I don't know. I mean, it's probably not a format. There's times, now that it's published, where I'm like, ‘Is this too weird of a book? Is it too literary and strange? Would it be better if it was more straightforward, like a straightforward memoir or something like that?’ But in the end, you have those thoughts and then you really go, ‘I wouldn't be capable of writing that’.
For me, it's partly... It comes from a sort of interesting tension where I'm a little bit resistant to the memoir form and I'm a little bit resistant to the first-person pronoun, and so hopefully that's created a weird dramatic tension within the book that I'm sort of in argument with myself in some ways. And it's a bit of a hybrid between personalised memoir and then cultural criticism and sort of popular history, I suppose.
Astrid: Where do you expect to find it in the bookstore? In what genre do you think that you wrote? [Laughter]
Sam: Generalised non-fiction, you'd hope. But I think it's popping up in different places. Some bookstores, it's in Memoir, and then others, it's in the self-help medical section. I did a talk at Newcastle University recently, and one of the audience members came up and said, ‘I found this in the medical section of the library’, the straight medical section with the textbooks. So that'd be interesting.
I mean, I don't mind, as long as people find it, I suppose. The categorisation doesn't particularly interest me.
Astrid: You say in the book that you pitched the concept to Philippa McGuinness in a mixed manic state. Please tell me about that.
Sam: [Laughter] Yeah. I'm sure people remember me mentioning this, but yeah, I was essentially in a manic state when I pitched the book, which Pip said when I handed him the draft and had this line in the book that that was the case. It was like, ‘Oh, you did seem very confident. Your emails were very fast-paced and readable’.
I think that's part of the condition, is that it gives you an increased sense of self-confidence, certainly, I mean, to a point that's unhealthy and dangerous, certainly, as well. But that was a good side of it. That was a good thing to come out of it, I suppose. It does have its upsides, literally.
Astrid: Pip has appeared on The Garret before. What did she make of the structure?
Sam: Again, I'm sure she wouldn't mind me saying, but New South are... I was really interested in publishing with New South because they only publish non-fiction. That's the form that I wanted to work in, and I thought, ‘Okay, look. They're the experts in that’. I don't really think there's another publisher, a mainstream kind of publisher in Australia, that only focuses on non-fiction. So that was my interest in them. I'd met Pip before, and she's just an awesome powerhouse and a wonderful person outside of her professional capacity. But they're a traditional publisher in some ways. I mean, they're linked to the university. They publish a lot of academic titles. And this is really out there. This is not straightforward in any sense.
I think... I'm sure Pip wouldn't mind, but that she's sort of thrilled to it, that it was something new and exciting and not something that she maybe previously would have gone with. But there's been a shift in publishing, I suppose, towards more experimentation within the format. So she was thrilled, I guess.
Astrid: On a personal note, I really enjoy your work, Sam. I have known and loved and lost people with bipolar disorder, and as an outsider not living with that condition myself, obviously I can't understand. I spent a decade trying to understand, and this is the book that has come closest to helping give me a new insight. So I'm glad Pip took the chance and I'm glad that you wrote this book.
Sam: Oh, thank you.
Astrid: And I'm intrigued about how you wrote it. Tell me about your writing process.
Sam: Oh, that's a good question. I don't know. It's such a weird mystery art, in a way. I think for this book, there's a lot of thinking on the page, literally. It's constructed in a way where my thought process about writing it is right there. I didn't take, really, any of that stuff out. Maybe that's the way that I operate.
I guess I was trying to create a deep-thinking work because it was such a serious issue and problem to unpack. But at the same time, I think there's a lot of levity in it. I mean, I know Pip was particularly surprised that it was funny, and I've heard people having reactions where they've reported back that their partner's been reading it and they've overheard them laughing and they don't normally laugh at books. I think there's a good dose of humour in there.
Partly, that perhaps comes from Carrie Fisher, who I write a bit about in the book. She had this great line, which was, ‘If my life wasn't funny, it'd only be true, and that's unacceptable’. I subscribe to that. I wanted to create a portrait of a mental health condition that is extremely serious and incredibly dangerous, but to give a full picture of it and to say it's part of a life, and your life is a big, colourful thing. It isn't just one thing.
Hopefully, that's kind of... That's what was driving me in terms of sitting down and going, ‘I'm doing this. This is what I'm going to do’.
Astrid: You published lots of non-fiction before, shorter works, essays, articles, opinion pieces. How different was it for you tackling a work of this length?
Sam: Yeah. I guess not that different in terms of it's broken up into chapters that almost function as essays in their own right. So it was sort of like writing 11 or 12 mini-essays. I'm struck by... The book actually has quite a bit of biographical portraiture in it because of wanting to do this sort of... The overarching thing was I wanted to do a cultural history but look at people who'd broken open the conversation around the disorder and had stepped out into the public eye. So, it was looking at figures like Carrie Fisher, Spalding Gray, a little bit on Spike Milligan, Kanye West – who came out as bipolar after the book was published, which was interesting – but to do biographical portraits of them and infuse that with, I guess, a little bit of memoir throughout, and then a big piece of memoir at the end. So it was easy, in a way, in terms of it was broken up into small, achievable goals for me. I wasn't too intimidated by sitting down and feeling like I had to write a whole book. It was more broken up for me into achievable tasks, I suppose.
Astrid: I have more questions on your writing process, but I want to go back to what you just said, ‘Kanye West came out’. Now, that's an appropriate phrase in this sense, given the stigma around bipolar disorder. Why do you use it?
Sam: Right. I mean, you can go your life without mentioning it, I suppose. An admission is a political radical act in its own way, and it's hopefully... In writing the book and putting my hand up, although I'd written about some of this stuff previously, you're hoping that it will help other people.
Kanye's one was interesting. He dropped an album right as I was finishing the page edits on the book called Ye, which was controversial. But on the cover, he had put... There's this weird slogan on there that was written in front of these mountains. It was like, ‘I hate being bipolar. It's awesome’, which was just such a great line.
The editors sort of went, ‘Hey, do you want to write something about this current thing that's going on?’ I was just so exhausted that I completely went, ‘No. I cannot add another line’. But I wish I had have got that title in the book somewhere.
But, yeah, coming out is... It's a deliberate act. You can be out of yourself, of course, and it can be different things. It can be coming out to your family about the diagnosis. It can be coming out within the workplace or something a little bit bigger like this, I suppose.
Astrid: Thank you, Sam. Back to your writing process. You pitched this while you're in a mixed mania state. Do you write when you're on the other side, when depressed?
Sam: No, no. I think that that side... And I don't write a lot about the depressive side in the book. I just find it quite hard to write about, let alone write in that phase. It's a pretty grim topic. But, I mean, you're basically close to comatose in the proper depressive phase, so you're not getting much at all done. I don't think I've ever written a word.
There's stuff in the book, certainly, particularly around Spalding Gray, who unfortunately both had the diagnosis of manic depression but also experienced a horrific car accident later in life. He was someone who performed monologues about his life, and to be robbed of language, which is so central to your identity, is just the most horrific thing that I can think of. But I've certainly experienced that because language goes, at least it has for me, with the depressive side. I could be sitting there for days without saying a word, which is just a bit scary. Not a bit scary. It's incredibly fucking scary.
Astrid: Terrifying. Who was your first reader?
Sam: I'm not a big share-the-work-around person. I find that quite scary in itself, and I trust the editorial process. So really, maybe a couple of friends had had a look. Fiona Wright, who I think is an upcoming guest on the show…
Astrid: She is next week. [Laughter]
Sam: A really close friend of mine and a great essayist in her own right, and whose own work has inspired me. She had a look at some of the stuff. But mostly, I was going straight to Pip in the first instance. I just think that's the professional side, and I'm happy with that side. I'm not someone who's tested out a lot of work on other people before handing it in.
Astrid: Many listeners to The Garret are interested in writing and publishing. Can you explain to me what that relationship between writer and editor is like, particularly when it works so well?
Sam: I don't know. It's an interesting one. It's a close relationship, obviously, in some ways, particularly when you're writing something personal. I guess in this instance with the book, I was extremely lucky. Pip was the first reader, but the second reader was a wonderful editor named Jocelyn Hungerford. And in both instances... This is a book where there's a lot on the line, and there was a lot that I was putting on the line. They both read it with an incredible sensitivity, which not only made it better writing but made me want to be a better person in a lot of ways. They read it, really, with that kind of eye. I don't know if that's rare. This is the only book that I've written. But I was incredibly privileged to have that experience.
I also appreciate an editor who's blunt. I'm definitely not a writer – and I think this has been an incredible help in my career – who's particularly precious about the copy. I'm not a big sentence-by-sentence, holding on to words... If it can be made clearer, it can be made clearer, is what I'm saying. So, I feel like writers benefit from not being precious, and I feel like an editor who pushes a writer is a good thing. You want to be at your best, so you want someone who's not harsh but hard-line.
Astrid: Definitely. You write about quite a few people in your own life, mostly not identified. Did you, in the process of writing or editing, I guess, share with them that you were recounting stories from your own experience that they may have shared, and did you show the work to anyone before publication in that sense?
Sam: I didn't show the work to... I showed the work to my partner. She's an editor as well, which helps. [Laughter]
Sam: She's pretty understanding. And I talked to my family about it. There's quite a bit of family stuff in there. Most people who essentially form my support network, and they're the front line of the times when I have been critically and acutely in an ill state, they've been there and supported me in an incredible way. In terms of beyond that, no. I didn't think that it was appropriate. I haven't talked about anyone directly. I've tried to obscure names where possible. But I just think if you start pulling that thread, it'll go forever.
Astrid: So, having gone through this experience of writing what, in parts, is quite an intimate exploration of bipolar disorder, when considering another writer who may be writing about a different illness, a different condition, what would you recommend? What do they need to think about before they go ahead and publish?
Sam: I think you've got to feel confident in yourself to do it. It's a lot to do. It's a big ask to talk publicly about something that is by nature extremely private. I talk a little bit in the book how manic depression is sort of a public illness in some ways because it does tend to spill over into a public sphere due to its extroversion kind of characteristics. So maybe that was helped for me. But I think, certainly, there is a dialogue happening around this vaguely medical form of memoir or confessional, and I think that's a positive step. We're having a conversation in this country around lived experience as a really essential and should-be-prioritised kind of generic form now. I like the change that that's bringing in terms of memoirs not necessarily any longer seen as this sort of indulgent act, but that it has this kind of political or cultural ramification and that the lived experience moves some of these kind of stories or essays or books from being confessional into powerful testament. So, I would encourage people to explore it, certainly. You have to find your own comfort lines with it, and that's essential. You don't want to be feeling out and alone with some of this stuff. It's sensitive. But if you can, it's worth exploring.
Astrid: You said that The Rapids is a cultural exploration of bipolar. Who was your intended audience? Who did you really want to get to?
Sam: Again, it's sort of... I'm writing a book. I just want a generalised readership.
Astrid: As many people as possible.
Sam: Yeah. I want it to sell. At the end of the day, that's part of it, certainly. In terms of... Again, that's me as a writer. The other side, the maybe vaguely activisty side of it, again, coming back to this idea of cultural function or utility, that's a range of people. That's the individual experiences, probably, first and foremost. If this could help someone else with their diagnosis and living with the condition, that would be the biggest praise that I could get. Certainly, some of the shorter stuff that I've published, people have reached out to me and said, ‘Look, I identified with this and sought out diagnosis and received the diagnosis’. The ability for people to find links in the work and self-identify with it is amazing in some ways.
Secondary to individuals who are diagnosed with it, the family and support networks of people who live with people with a diagnosis in their lives. Again, if it is of use and helps people, incredible.
Thirdly, people who encounter it who maybe don't, and that's the whole general public. That's where stigma lies and where, if the book has a capacity to destigmatize, I'd be really chuffed because it is... We've come a long way. That's the great thing about writing this and doing the cultural history side where it is over 100 years. I can see now how far it's come. And certainly I've had family members, generations prior to me, who haven't survived it. But there's still a sense that there's a lot of work to do, and it's the understanding of it because it is a really difficult condition. It's scary. I think people kind of understand depression and understand what that does to the individual, but this condition also has the manic side, which is outrageous in a lot of ways and terrifying to people who don't understand it or get what's happening behind the scenes. So that would be my other hope with it.
Astrid: In this work you attempt to explore, and I find this fascinating, the link between writers who have come before you and mental ill health: Kate Richards’ Madness: A Memoir, Joan Didion’s The White Album, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, among many others that you explore in depth. I never felt like you came to a conclusion. Is writing creativity… how it sits with mental illness?
Sam: Yeah. I mean…
Astrid: I guess my question is, did you find this therapeutic?
Sam: The writing and mental illness stuff is interesting. There's a book by Kay Redfield Jamison, who I also write about in the book and who I think has been the key figure in the connection between manic depression and creativity because she had literally published a book called Touched with Fire, which was about those connections. I don't want to go too much into it because that book exists, and I guess I refer to it as one way of looking at it.
But certainly, I'm cognisant of the impacts and the connections that are there. Like the statistic that writers are three times more likely than the general population to be diagnosed with bipolarity, and poets are a staggering ten times more likely. There is a definite connection there. I think I throw out some cheeky lines like that this is the disease that perhaps literature particularly owns. So its cultural connections are quite deep.
In terms of therapeutic feeling, not really. At the end, I wrote most of it while I was stable and treated, and it was just like any other writing assignment, I suppose.
Astrid: What's it like for you in a normal state, in your normal state, to read writing that you wrote when you were manic?
Sam: Terrifying. Embarrassing. Really, nothing that you write when you're manic is like your…
Astrid: You never find gold in there?
Sam: It's just not usable. It's chaotic. There are some bits of the book that were written in that state, and I've tried to flag that they were when they come up. There's a long Facebook post that I reproduced in one of the chapters that was definitely written at the height of it, and you can tell because it's like the pressurised speech in written form that rushes on, which is a classic symptom, is definitely there. But, again, the chaotic internal energy of the disorder doesn't particularly result in clean copy.
Astrid: Fair enough. Our next interview is with Fiona Wright, who we've mentioned, and she is your friend. She also writes about chronic ill health, being unable to escape your own body, in a sense. What is the role of that for you? Fiona has a very different condition, but you've still found…
Sam: Right. Well, Fiona and I have been friends for almost a decade, I suppose. We've been friends... You know, you kind of make friends that are like your writing friends. I like, in her acknowledgement, she thanks her writing friends and then thanks other people in her life who she describes as her civilian friends, which I think is great.
I'm not her civilian friend, I'm definitely one of her writer friends. Our friendship has been formed around that, but it has all the functions of a normal friendship, hanging out and getting drunk mostly. What Fiona did, though, when she published Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger, which was her first non-fiction book after a poetry collection called Knuckled, was really open the door for me to walk through in a lot of ways. I had written a little bit about depression and writing and the connections in various places before that, but in terms of being able to sit down and focus that energy into a full book, I don't think The Rapids would exist without Small Acts of Disappearance. So that's a huge gift. That's an incredible amount of generosity.
And I genuinely believe that that's the best of writing, that there is a kind of generative capacity and dialogue that propels other work and that you can encourage other writers by doing it yourself. So Fiona's kind of been the key person for me like that.
Astrid: My final question to you I feel I need to ask... You said on Twitter that since publication you've experienced some stigma.
Astrid: Now, I guess that's inevitable. But does that change your opinion of why you wrote or what you achieved?
Sam: No. It tests it, certainly, and that's stigma. It's the test. You have to hold firm. I was really surprised by some of the stuff I encountered in putting it out in the world, and kind of horrified. I'm still working through it. But that's stigma. That's going to come at you. It's not a perfect world, and it's not... We're still early in the conversation. I think particularly with manic depression or bipolar, it is really misunderstood. And I think people look at this book and think it's just an ordinary book and that they can approach it like that when they talk about it, but certainly there's a lot of moral character in it, but it's not a space for people to provide commentary on my moral character. You know what I mean? But that's just a choice as a writer, like I think with anything, and maybe this is just a bit more sensitive. You need to stand firm and reject the stigma and try and change it. I stand firm by the book and hope that that will be its outcome.
Astrid: Sam, as a person who also lives with a chronic illness, I like to think that you opened the door for me and many, many others. So thank you.
Sam: That would be great. I look forward to reading everyone's work.