He was upstairs in a bookstore.
Twenty years old at the time, he had climbed a ladder set against a bookcase and was searching for the newly-arrived Western books: Maupassant, Baudelaire, Strindberg, Ibsen, Shaw, Tolstoy…
This is the opening paragraph of a short story called The Life Of A Stupid Man by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
This paragraph hooked me into the work of the father of the Japanese short story because of the author’s vulnerability.
His short stories offer several mental health and creative insights:
1. Use the anticipation formula of the short story in your copy
Akutagawa’s work has a beautiful cadence, with his stories having a distinct kind of rhythm.
Anticipation builds with every paragraph. A funny note of dialogue. A short sentence breaks a row of long sentences.
This anticipation keeps the narrative moving along and you can apply the same principles to a sales letter or long-form landing page.
2. Use the borrowed container technique
Akutagawa lived during the Taisho era (1912–1926), a period of massive change between the old samurai world of Japan and rapid modernisation.
He was a modernist who used the borrowed container of old Japanese folktales to get the hottest topics of his time across: freedom, national independence, duality of the human condition.
Examples are Rashomon and In A Grove.
Stories set during Japan’s feudal era with characters that grapple with surprisingly modern issues.
Use this technique for getting your expertise across in different ways.
For example, you’ve created a big report about your industry. Awesome.
Now use the container of an email gauntlet to split up those ideas to further educate your audience or to shape a new offering.
3. Writing is a type of therapy
Akutagawa suffered from various mental health conditions throughout his life. To him, the blank page was a means of escape and therapy.
This is seen in stories like Hell Screen, where an artist grapples with a demonic painting.
Another is Death Register, where the author confronts his complicated feelings about his insane mother, the older sister he never knew and the father who gave him up and could never win him back.
You could try:
✍️ Writing a journal of three positive things that happen to you every day
✍️ Practice streams of consciousness where you write down whatever comes to mind
4. Writing will never replace professional help
“I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?”
This postscript is often used as Akutagawa’s final words and is attached to his haunting story Spinning Gears.
He killed himself at age 35 and the reminder is simple.
If you’re in a bad place, please reach out for help.
Talk to a friend. Speak to your partner. Hire a therapist or spend time with a coach.
Remember that you’re never alone.