Beth and I met through the small business support community called the What Works Network. Beth is a science fiction writer and feminist sci-fi is my all-time favorite genre, so we hit it off right away.
Beth Barany writes fun and funny novels and I just loved reading them. She’s an award-winning novelist who also runs an online school for fiction writers and a 12-month group coaching program to help them get published. When she’s not helping writers, Beth writes magical tales of romance, mystery, and adventure that empower women and girls to be the heroes of their own lives.
Beth’s mental health story is fascinating. Over her life, spirituality has played an important role in her resilience. In her contribution to the staying sane series, she speaks very compellingly about taking comfort in the stars.
Listen in here, or read a transcript (lightly edited for clarity) below.
My name is Beth Barany, and I am a creative writing teacher and novelist. I help people who want to write novels. I help them get started with the planning process, and also with setting up and nurturing a mindset that will allow them to sit down and write. I nurture them through the writing process [and] the editing process.
I teach editing, too. I’m a developmental editor, and use that as a tool to help writers get better as writers, both the craft and story plot character.
I also help writers with marketing. I help them learn the fundamentals of understanding how to market and brand themselves as a novelist.
I specialize in genre fiction, meaning I am a genre fiction writer. That’s what I know best. I write science fiction and fantasy, with strong romantic elements. I also write mystery and adventure.
My husband, who co-teaches with me, writes thrillers, and he’s also written horror. Together, we know just about every aspect of genre fiction. I call in people who want to write those kinds of stories.
I’m in Oakland, California and I teach online. When we can, I teach in person at writers’ groups.
My mental health story
I didn’t realize until maybe about 10 years ago, when I was taking some training and NLP, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, that I’m somebody who kind of hits rock bottom, like five times a day.
But I have developed some really good coping mechanisms for it. I wasn’t even realizing that that’s what was happening, but that’s what I was doing.
I remember being 19 years old, being a student at UC Berkeley, and just feeling lost and confused. I remember walking the campus during finals, I think, it was like my third semester, I was a sophomore. And I was trying to be pre-med. And I was really bummed and really sad. All I knew was that I needed to get through finals week.
I remember walking across campus, staring at the beautiful redwoods. There’s this wonderful bridge gate called Sproul Plaza. I was crossing the water of the creek, crossing over the creek, looking at the beautiful redwoods that live there. [I was] just feeling like I didn’t know what was real or true or what I really wanted. But all I knew was the ground was beneath my feet. And the redwoods were there. They were this incredible sense of longevity and permanence. [I thought that] if all I had was this act of walking and this act of breathing, and being with the redwoods with the sky above and below that I could connect to that. [Because of that,] I was going to get through this difficult time of confusion and being unhappy with what I was studying and it being hard.
I wish it hadn’t been hard feeling like I was not on the right path. But I didn’t know what the right path was.
[This was my] early experience as a young adult: feeling like I hit rock bottom and also right away finding some resources to help me feel better.
I’m not one of those creative people who need to spiral out into kind of a frenzy and be out of my mind to be able to create. I can’t drink. I’m allergic to alcohol. [But] I actually was very afraid to start writing fiction seriously because I had this unconscious, mostly unconscious fear that I would go crazy. I was really aware of this in my 20s [even though] I wasn’t working on fiction in any kind of serious way. Just dabbling.
I was pursuing being a writer in nonfiction as a journalist and finding a job [was] challenging, but [I was] pursuing fiction little by little. [When] I turned 30, I was faced with a defeat, another hitting rock bottom, trying to figure out who I wanted to be in the world and what I was going to do with my life. [Then] I said to myself, “Okay, you’re gonna face being a writer. This is what you really want, so let’s go for it!” [Then I started] to write with the support of a writing group.
My own evolution as a writer, as a creative, as an adult, has been around hitting rock bottom, coming back up and finding resources, within myself around with other people.
I’ve had to become really adept at what a friend of mine called “crashing,” and make friends with that.
Over the years, I have become more and more aware of the feelings of grief and feelings of just utter sadness, and especially with the current issues in the world today, noticing how much sadness there is, and just allowing myself to feel that sadness when I am there, when I crash, like five times a day.
Why does mental health matter?
Overall, if I’m not mentally well or physically well, it is hard to be creative. It just is. I have suffered from repetitive stress injury on and off over the last 20 years, quite acutely, sometimes. Pain really affects my mental health. If I’m in pain, I can’t work, honestly. Although I have also very good overrides, meaning I have a high pain threshold, which isn’t such a good thing.
Having good mental health, having good wellness habits, allows me to be the creative I want to be and be able to share my stories and my gifts with the world both as a writer, as a novelist, and as a teacher.
What does health mental health mean to me?
Mental health means putting things in perspective, understanding that I’m not the worst, I’m not the best. I’m just a human being with ups and downs, like everyone.
It’s about perspective, being able to take different perspectives and, and be in different positions as if I’m a tree or I’m a chair, I’m a cat or I’m a human… really being able to contextualize things, to put things into a broader context. [It involves being] specific about context, and to realize that mental illness or wellness is super cultural. What we consider mental illness today might have been considered shamanic in previous cultures and or even in other cultures today.
Mental health is being able to step outside of the drama that’s running in my head and being able to recognize it as a story, a valid story for the moment for reasons. Some of them conscious, others unconscious, some of them inherited, others borrowed from the present day.
Mental health [for me is] the ability to be nimble, and the ability to have compassion for myself and for others.
How I care for my mental wellness today
Walking is a big part of my wellness, I don’t really have the patience to sit down and meditate anymore as I’m a writer and sit all the time. Movement is such a huge component of my wellness. Walking becomes that kind of meditative space for me, and getting outdoors [is] really big.
The other thing is laughing and hugging, smiling, connecting with friends and family, having hard connections with others not being so isolated. I make it a point to reach out to friends almost every day and have some kind of social interaction that isn’t just me and my husband yeah,
The main mental wellness tip I have found useful
I would come back to walking, I would say nine times out of 10 movement shifts my feelings about myself and the world.
Every time I go outdoors my mental state shifts. It’s pretty amazing.
Being in a supportive community is great and [so is] physical exercise.
My spirituality supports my mental health
I was talking about perspective earlier. One of the things that have really helped me have perspective is the stars. In my fiction, I am developing a religion around the stars.
There is something very spiritual for me when I think of the stars, and I think of my place in the universe, and it’s actually quite comforting.
When I think of my place in the universe, it’s comforting.
I’m aware of the great mystery, the thing that created life, whatever it is that animates everything that we don’t know. I don’t have a name for it, other than the mystery of the universe. I connect to that when I think of the stars.
I think of us as people on this planet, and how we are part of a greater something, or part of a solar system, which is part of a galaxy, just part of this immense, immense, immense universe.
All of that really gives me a sense of peace and helps me understand that I’m an atom in this great universe. It just helps me relax, and not make everything like a catastrophe.
It helps quiet the inner voices that want to tell me that I suck, or that I’m doing it wrong, or that I’m somehow going to disappoint my mother. Just really funny, because I’m way more ambitious than she is. So I guess that’s spirituality.
I want to come back to the community. I get a great amount of solace in hearing other people’s stories and other people’s struggles. But not the “woe is me” kind of stories, but more like, “oh, yeah, this is what I did,.” or “Yeah, I had this difficult time. And then I found this way to help myself.” Just hearing those stories is so helpful.
There’s a great deal of healing in nature.
There’s another component. I was saying how I think it’s so important to go outside and exercise. I think there’s a great deal of healing in nature. We are so simply symbiotically connected to this planet. I think that we evolved because of this planet. Being outside is such healing. You don’t have to do anything. Just be out there.
I think it helps to appreciate the outdoors appreciate the marvel of nature and all of its amazing power. That helps me also be humble. The universe, stars, nature, it [all] helps me be humble. [It] helps me to sort of bow my head to the greater powers and quiet.
It feels sometimes inside of me I have a very upset little crying baby who just needs to be hugged. Another part of how I helped myself is having a great deal of compassion for the part that is upset, understanding that it’s a part of me, and to nurture it, taking care of it, listening to it, to give it what it needs.
There’s also a component of family history [involved in mental health]. I have studied Family Constellations [so] I know that mental illness is an expression of some pain in the family line. I know it’s in my family. [There are] a lot of horrible things that happened to my ancestors that got passed on genetically right to us. It just happens and my choice in this life is to honor their path. It’s a constellation resolution work to honor their fate and to allow myself to choose a different path and not be caught in the web of trying to be like them. But to really honor them and kind of separate from that, from their pain from their choices. Not separate from their pain, because it’s always their pain is always going to be there, but to honor what they gave me, which is life, and to choose a different path. That’s the healing maneuver inside of them the constellations and so I’m doing that a lot.
Often when I feel this pain, the sense of tortured feeling everybody’s [feeling] in today’s world, and also the ancestor pain, a lot of ancestor pain that we all carry with us and just bowing to it and bowing to it constantly and saying hello, that it’s their fate and inviting myself to choose another path inviting my people in who walked with me on the planet to choose another path. And really just being humble to the events that happened.