On Courage, a Bit of a History, and Why I Have Decided to ‘Come Out’ About my Mental Health Issues

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I have never been brave. I have never had the kind of courage I observe in others. Looking at other people’s lives – going on ‘mad’ adventures, going on holiday on their own, applying for jobs, sending out their writing; the list goes on and on – I wish I had the nerve to do what they have done. Regrets, as the song goes, I’ve had a few. I’m very aware that what I see on the surface often hides what goes on beneath – believe me, I’m very aware of that. But still….

When I look back on my very early life, I can see where my lack of bravery might have come from. I was an only child to older parents. My parents loved me so much, and I recognise and appreciate how valuable it was, am all to aware that some children have never had that. But they loved me so much, I feel – on reflection now – that I was suffocated by it. I’m not going to go into my personal experience of being an only child – this post isn’t about that – but other only children I know feel the same way. I was the apple of my parents’ eye. The much-longed for child they could pour all their love into. The whole world centred around me, and therefore pleasing my parents because I was everything they wanted and I didn’t want to hurt them became my goal in life. And that was, I believe, where my lack of courage, and the seeds of my issues began. Please understand this is not me being ungrateful. I loved my mum and dad, and they, like most parents, did what they believed was right. And like all parents, mine only had their own to learn from. Those lessons may or may not be/have been ‘good’ lessons.

But anyway, I grew up feeling like I had to please everyone. To do my ‘duty’. To obey, pretty much without question, because that was what ‘good girls’ did. I think maybe my male counterparts didn’t have that, because in those days (60s/70s) the roles of men and women were still pretty clearly defined. Especially by my parents’ generation.

It all meant I was an anxious child, always terrified of being abandoned, from an early age clinging to my mother, who resented it. I know that because later on in her life, she told me so. She wanted to go out to work, and the very young me wouldn’t let her go. I’m not going to discuss that here either, but I can’t be angry with her for needing something else than motherhood. Still, the damage was done, and I grew into an anxious teenager. I didn’t like anything that took me away from the safety of my childhood home. Even when I went on my first holiday without my parents, at eighteen, it felt like I’d been torn away from them, even though it was my choice. I remember crying down the phone to my mum that I missed her and wanted to come home. It didn’t really help that my holiday was in a cold rundown chalet in a rain-sodden holiday camp on the Isle of Wight!

I married someone who was controlling. That is all I will say about that aspect of the relationship. Being desperate to impress and please, I believed that control was what love was. And he did love me. But he had his own issues, as people do. So my anxiety grew worse – this time mostly centred around my body, which, because of comments in my early teen years, was a source of loathing for me. I believed I was fat (I was eight and a half stone!). I believed I was ugly. I most definitely wasn’t good enough. When I had severe, crippling post-natal depression after the birth of my first child, I was a ‘bad mother’ – this told to me by my own mother, and by my mother-in-law, neither of whom ‘believed in’ post-natal depression because they ‘didn’t have depression in my day’ and I should just ‘be grateful’ for what I had. That was my first severe bout of depression, and it nearly killed me.

Life went on. I was never the same again. My depressive episode was life changing. and of course, it’s a very well-known thing that once someone has had a bout of major depression, it’s much more likely that it’ll happen again. And it did, in various ways, until the next breakdown when my (by then pretty much loveless) marriage broke up. It’s funny how it hits you, a break up, even if you (think you) want it. I had been so desperately unhappy for so many years, yet I didn’t have the courage to end what was, in the end, a very unhealthy relationship. So when my now-ex finished it, I collapsed. I’ve since learned some things about why this might have happened. Firstly, of course, I was already mentally vulnerable. Insecure, anxious, years of constantly feeling inadequate as a wife and mother. But also, the break-up of a marriage (or any other long term relationship) has been described as a kind of death. And it is. Death of expectations, death of status, death of a kind of self. And again, it nearly killed me.

Over the years, other things happened. My parents both became ill. My mother developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, followed by dementia. She needed constant care, and when my father had a heart attack one day when I was working in my new job as a lecturer, I had to drop everything and go to care for her. I missed my very first academic conference at which I was meant to present, and felt like a failure. After that, it was a constant thing. My father recovered (although he had another heart attack later, leading to me again having to drop everything for my mother while he was in hospital) and he was my mother’s main carer, but I was always on red alert; and I couldn’t let a day go by without phoning my father to check that everything was okay, and if he needed anything. That continued until he died in 2012, seven years later.

During that time I had several sessions of various types of counselling via my GP but none of it helped. Looking back, I believe I just wasn’t ready for it. I think that, in some way, I needed that self-blame – it was constant, and worse, it was familiar, something almost comforting to fall back on. It’s a weird attitude to take, but if it’s the only one you know, you stick with it because anything else is even more scary. This is a common thing for many, many people with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. We want them gone, but it’s scary, thinking about the process of getting better. Sometimes we just don’t have the strength or the motivation to help ourselves. And of course for me, other people were always more important.

My mother passed away – I still have flashbacks of that. I have flashbacks of her face before she died. Flashbacks of having to phone my father first thing in the morning to tell him. And then a new phase began. I haven’t dealt with those yet. My father became – after a short period of seeming okay – suicidal. And then the phone calls became constant. And I mean constant. From his carers – he became increasingly frail during the years after my mother’s death; from the hospital, where he was admitted twice after threatening suicide; from the hospital because. Increasingly frail, he contracted numerous infections. Eventually, he was admitted to a specialist psychiatric unit, where he was pushed over by another patient and broke his hip. That was the beginning of the end for my wonderful dad. He developed a form of severe dementia, and eventually died in a care home. Of course, during that time, I lived on the edge of a breakdown. When he died, I fell apart again. I’d been a bad daughter, not good enough for him (interestingly I’ve never grieved my mother, not thought too much about her death, despite the flashbacks, because maybe I don’t want to unravel it). I’d let him down. Hadn’t helped him enough. I was weak and couldn’t cope. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

I’ve posted recently on my latest bout of depression. I sincerely hope there won’t be another, but those of us with repeated bouts of whatever dogs us in our history have to be vigilant. And of course, for me it’s still early days. As I’ve said before, I’m taking it one day at a time. Working really really hard on maintaining the progress I’ve made. Trying not to see every down mood as a sign I’m going back into the depression I’m recovering from. Trying not to see every niggle of uncertainty as a sign my anxiety is returning. I will need more counselling in the future. And some things, maybe, can never be fixed, just looked at differently.

So why am I writing all this? Why am I ‘coming out’, as it were? Why am I repeating some of the stuff I’ve written in previous posts? Who am I, in a multitude of famous voices opening up and discussing mental health (the BBC series, Mental Health and Me, featuring Nadiya Hussain, David Harewood, and next week, Alastair Campbell, is powerful and important) to think I’ll be saying anything worth listening to?  The answer is, in part, quite simple: This is Mental health Awareness Week in the UK, and I am privileged have a voice to speak with. But it’s also because this – and the other posts I’ve written – are my own small acts of courage. I don’t know if this is all reckless; after all, as a lecturer, I’m in a position of trust, and am supposed to be ‘professional’ and, I guess, wear a mask. To an extent, we all wear masks. And much of the time, I do, although I will never, ever  pretend to be something I’m not. Now though, after this last breakdown, I’m tired of feeling like I have to hide it. This is part of who I am. It’s shaped me. I own it. And so I’m saying it. I’ll say it as many times as I need to.

There is still too much stigma. Too many people feel like their mental health issues are shameful. I’ve been shamed for it, and quite recently too. All too often we feel like we’re bad people for feeling the way we (can’t help) feel. All too often, we’re told that telling the world we’re a mentally unwell person is bad for us, that revealing our mental health problems is a death-sentence for our careers (and for some people, unfortunately, that is true). We feel bad for the way that others see us, like it’s our fault, and think that we’ll never be seen the same way as ‘normal’ people. And that is so, so wrong. I mean, people with cancer are never (I hope!) told to ‘get over it’, or to ‘smile’; or that ‘others have it so much worse’, or to stop being attention-seeking. These attitudes have to end. I can’t end it on my own. I’m just one person. But I’m at the point where I don’t care who knows, because it’s part of who I am. And that’s okay. Finally, I know that’s okay, and accepting it has been part of my recovery process.

What I want to say, at this, the end of Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, is that I have seen lives devastated by mental illness. In my job, I work with many vulnerable young people who can’t cope with their problems. Often they’re ashamed of them, because they ‘should’ be able to cope. Because they ‘should be’ perfect. This is increasing in society, for many, many reasons. And so I want to say this, to them, and anyone else who is struggling: We are so much more than our issues. We are so much more than our illnesses. We are people who love, who are intelligent, who care about other people, who are often involved in the care of other people. We should not be ashamed; and we need support, not shaming.

Encouragement, not embarrassment.

Voices, not invisibility.

Sound, not silence.

 

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Work, Mental Health and Me: A Bit of a Rant, and a Wish for the Future

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So I’m getting ready to get up after a largely sleepless night spent ruminating, a constant cycle of never-ending negative thoughts, and which, over the past couple of years, has become centred around my job. I’ve alluded to this in previous posts, talked a little about the stress (actual and perceived) that my job in Higher Education entails. Over this time, I’ve come to dread getting up in the mornings. Increasingly my brain tells me: I can’t do this. I really can’t do this anymore. I’ve ignored the voice, because I’m worried that going off sick will be a terrible thing in terms of ‘abandoning’ my students, of leaving my colleagues to do my work. Of being a ‘bad’ employee – of my deteriorating mental health being a ‘black mark’ against my career. Of being thought weak and incapable. My suffering is less important, or so I feel, than allowing myself to be a ‘good’ employee and colleague, a ‘good’ lecturer. So what has actually brought me – and so many others, because there are so, so many others – to this point? Work benefits us, of course, if only to provide us with the income we need to sustain ourselves; it can give us a sense of wellbeing and purpose in our lives, but it can harm us too, especially if we are vulnerable, prone to the effects of ‘bad’ stress. Work in these days of ‘do more, be more, get more’, can harm us. And frequently does.

Modern Western capitalist culture is driving (has driven) us inexorably to poor work-life balances, with increasing levels of bad stress (because not all stress is bad, and a little stress has been shown to be a good thing because it stops us becoming complacent) and anxiety becoming the new normal. Even those without underlying mental health issues (in my experience, and from talking to colleagues, this is certainly true in HE institutions) are finding it detrimental to their wellbeing. For those of us who do have those issues, it can become impossible to cope, which was what happened to me. Not taking proper lunch breaks (eating at your desk while catching up with yet more apparently pointless admin), not even taking toilet breaks because of being ‘too busy’! Working more hours than you’re contracted for to ‘get the job done’, despite having a workload plan that allegedly maps out our work to that allotted time, has become a regular thing. People who ‘work hard’ or who are ‘very busy’ are held up as shining examples to the rest of us, who may feel shame for not doing the same. But ‘working hard’ no longer seems to mean what it once did, which is doing the job you’ve been contracted to do, in the hours you’re paid for. Now it means being ‘on’ 24/7, feeling obliged to check emails at godforsaken times of the day and night, at weekends, on holiday, constantly proving yourself, and sacrificing oneself on the altar of ‘professionalism’. Working those hours, essentially, for free.

My experience is of course in HE institutions (and I guess some are more guilty of this than others). Students have become cash cows, and we strive to give them a great ‘student experience’, a term that’s bandied about, although what that means is never really explained to us who are supposed to provide it. We even have Deans of Student Experience, a whole new level of management, some of whom may not see an actual student for days on end (cynical but…). Anyway, for me a good student experience means being part of a great course with experienced, engaged lecturers who are passionate about their subjects; along with support for health and other necessary issues such as finances and housing. Is that simplistic? Well yes, maybe it is. But it’s how I feel.

Of course this is all a result of the increased marketization and monetisation of HE, along with more and more TEF-driven government-driven, ultimately (and not just in my view) pointless bureaucracy to ‘prove’ we’re doing our jobs, when we should be actually doing them: Helping students, supporting them through their studies. Allowing them to be educated, which is what they, and we, are there for.

The pressure’s not just on us, but on young people, who are being told: ‘Do a degree, despite your instincts telling you it’s not for you, despite the debt you’ll incur. You’ll never amount to anything if you don’t do a degree.’ This, and the educational experiences that come before – the SATs process that begins at five years old, exam-driven high-pressured GCSE’s and A-Levels – are factors that lead to increasingly stressed out, anxiety-ridden young people, many of whom have to work throughout the course of their degrees because they can’t afford not to. A generation that needs support more than ever, when in some universities, student support is being cut to the bone, which is not only kind of heart-breaking, but in some cases, has led to loss of life. And yes, I’m angry about it. And another factor of cutting jobs, of course, means there’s more work for fewer staff, and the cycle continues, and if we complain we’re being unprofessional.

That was a long side-note, I’m aware, almost another post in itself, but it’s all contributed to the way I’ve been feeling, to my feeling that despite what we do – working harder, trying harder – it’s all become increasingly impossible to keep up with. And I’ve felt a sense of increasing futility.

So work and working towards work has become increasingly unhealthy, with increasingly damaging consequences, the toll on mental and physical health becoming more apparent. And you just have to Google ‘is modern work harmful?’ and you’ll find loads of articles backing this up. In fact the evidence is scary. To back myself up a little, this 2016 article by Anna Coote in the Guardian discusses the fetishisation of work: ‘The fetishisation of work is making us miserable. Let’s learn to live again’ is one of many I’ve read through.

Still, despite evidence, someone reading this may think – stop ranting, this is just how it is. We have to accept it. But why do we? Maybe I’m just idealistic – I’ve been accused of it before, like idealism and caring is some alien, unwanted thing – but is it idealistic to wish better, healthier futures for ourselves and others? Is it idealistic to hope that large institutions and businesses might become more mental-health aware? For example, provide training for managers which will help them to help support their staff. To provide wellbeing strategies that actually mean something. To foster atmospheres of empathy and understanding rather than being rigidly held to process and inflexible attitudes. To pay for training for mental health champions who staff can go to for support, so they can better support their students (MIND offer this training to workplaces, as an example). As a society, not just in HE, we need to look at our attitudes, to examine examine them closely. I’m not a politician, or the CEO of a big company, or any other kind of leader. I can’t legislate or be the instigator of much needed wide-ranging changes. But I can look at my own life and my own small role in the lives of others. I can begin to make the changes I need to make.

In the end, I went off sick from work for two months, having counselling, learning to meditate daily, just resting my exhausted mind. And yes, I’m stronger now, and have been back at work this week. But I’ve realised a lot of things about myself and my relationship to my job during that time. First, I’ve realised that I am not my job, and my job is just one facet of my life. That I’ve put too much pressure on myself to be perfect, to ‘prove’ myself. That things didn’t actually fall apart while I wasn’t there (of course they didn’t!). Not everything’s down to work, of course. My breakdown came from much deeper issues than that, and those things haven’t been resolved yet; maybe they never will be. But the pressure that’s heaped upon us, and that we all too often put on ourselves in order to justify our existence, exacerbated and magnified what was already there.

In The Empire Strokes back, Yoda said: “Do or do not, there is no try.” And in the context of the movie, it makes sense. But I will try, because I can’t fall apart again, and not just for my own sake either, but for that of others too.

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/26/fetishisation-work-miserable-long-hours-poor-pay

 

 

Twenty Lights That Shine Through the Darkness

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“There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.” ― Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)

I’ve just read Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive (2015. Canongate Books), and it’s my opinion that everyone – not just those who have lived/are living with depression/anxiety (or both, of course!) should read it. It’s a real, raw, and honest account of his struggles through these horrible illnesses. But it’s also an account of what helped pierce the darkness of his mind, and which continues to help him get through difficult days. Inspired by this, I thought I’d make a list of my lights. It’s helped me to realise that the sky is bright, just behind the clouds (Andy Puddicombe, who runs the Headspace meditation and mindfulness programme, talks about the ‘blue sky’ of our minds, that it’s always there, and we shouldn’t forget that). That it’s always there, despite how dark the day or night might become. I’m very aware that some of these things may be privileges others don’t have. I’m grateful for those too! So, in no particular order, and not a definitive list:

  1. My amazing children, who have saved my life when there didn’t seem to be anything else to go on for. They continue to be my shining lights. Thank you, and I love you xxx
  2. My amazing partner, who has recently seen me at my most despairing, and who has been a constant and strong supportive presence, just loving me quietly and unflinchingly. I love you too xxx
  3. My friends, who’ve stuck by me when I didn’t feel worthy of your friendship. You know who you are xxx
  4. Being aware of the natural world, marveling in its absolute beauty, and allowing it to fill me. This is especially true of being by the coast, watching the sea, its inexorable movement, tidal ebbing and flowing, and the sunlight and cloud playing on the water in unending motion. I want to live somewhere that can give me that.
  5. Continuing with the theme of nature, watching birds, listening to their songs and calls, is an utter joy to me. One of my favourite things to do is to go to an RSPB reserve and watching in silence from a hide. Getting a thrill at just being in their presence, feeling the privilege of that moment.
  6. Foxes and bats (the same as birds, really, except the thrill and privilege is almost stronger, because I don’t see them often, especially bats).
  7. I love their independence, and yes, their – what we perceive as – silliness. Animals aren’t here to entertain us, but they do anyway. One of my favourite words is kitten.
  8. Meditating and feeling the peace that goes with it (in good sessions anyway!).
  9. Singing at the top of my voice to songs I love.
  10. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels have – if not saved my life – then at least helped me manage to get through some dark days when I could do nothing else but read them. I miss his wit. RIP Sir Pterry.
  11. Reading generally. My salvation and escape – and yet a touchstone to reality, when reality is too difficult to deal with: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (2011).
  12. Writing – finally learning to love it again. It’s catharsis, it’s exploration, it’s learning about yourself, and your own view of the world (even through fiction).
  13. Good cheese, good red wine, and bread. Taken together, or separately.
  14. Good food and wine in general (I have only once lost my appetite during depressive episodes!).
  15. I don’t care if it’s noisy, dirty, confusing, manic. It’s my home town, and a source of never-ending fascination and joy for me, even at its most annoying (Northern Line and Piccadilly Line, I’m looking at you!).
  16. Teaching my students and feeling like maybe I’ve made a tiny bit of difference to their lives.
  17. Watching YouTube videos (especially on makeup and skincare!). These have also been a form of salvation, in that I’ve discovered that actually, despite the pressure on older women to just disappear and fade away, I’m not too old to care about how I look, or what makeup I choose to wear. Appearances of course, aren’t everything, but for me, looking as good as I can helps my self-esteem. I’m being me and that’s freeing.
  18. Another of my favourite words is chiaroscuro, because the concept of light and dark represents my mood swings. Plus, it’s just a cool word.
  19. David Bowie.
  20. Hope.

Ignoring the Signs

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I’d seen the signs before. Insomnia. Lack of concentration. No interest in anything. Not wanting to socialise. Becoming increasingly irritable with the people I love. Pushing them away. Worrying incessantly, ruminating compulsively and negatively about pretty much everything. And feeling complete and utter hopelessness for my future. In fact my brain told me I didn’t have a future. That I was a never-has-been-and-never-will-be; and I didn’t deserve anything else. This was nothing new for me. I’ve lived with depression, and those thoughts, most of my adult life; and in fact, had been living with it constantly, in one way or another, in some kind of severity or another, for two years at least before everything finally went to hell and I felt something crack inside me.

And yet, before that day, I continued. I smiled and pretended – to the outside world anyway – that I was okay. I turned up at work, even though I would feel sick with dread on the short journey. I believed that I was useless and couldn’t cope like other people could (that last at least was true – I wasn’t coping – although finally I’ve mostly accepted that I’m not useless!). I lived in a constant state of high anxiety, wondering what new stresses that day would bring.

My job as a senior lecturer is high pressure – increasingly so in a Higher Education system which regards education as a business and students as customers rather than human beings  – and the constant pressure of having to prove myself became intolerable. And yet I ignored the signs. Ignored the voice in my head that told me: Enough is enough. You seriously shouldn’t be going on like this. But I ignored that voice for those couple of years, because – despite a couple of quite serious dips, which of course I also ignored –  I was still functioning. Because I was ‘valued’ as a member of staff, even though I felt less and less valued, less and less relevant – if indeed I ever had been, which I was never convinced of. As the months dragged by, it was as though I was – to use a cliché – wading through treacle towards a place of blank and black nothingness. I can honestly say that the only time I felt ‘safe’ at work was when I was with my students, who have been a joy to teach.

And in essence, that was another issue. Because I was ‘valued’ and a good teacher, I decided – and I now recognise this as warped and dysfunctional thinking – that I couldn’t let people down by going off sick. That I couldn’t burden my amazing creative writing colleagues with extra work, or abandon the students, who I cared about so much. I have often been asked by some people why I care so much. Why I invest so much in other people. Is there a definitive answer? Well, I don’t believe in definitive answers; life is always so much more complicated than that. But I can say that it’s in my nature to care (enhanced by nurture), and before I became a mum, I was a nurse and midwife. It’s in me to do my absolute best for others, to never let people down, because, at the heart of the matter, I’ve always believed they’re more important than I am. That is how I was brought up. Duty and people pleasing. I have always served others, and not myself. That’s not selflessness. It’s being a ‘good girl’ by bowing to the authority and needs of others, almost without question.

But that’s for another time.

And so I continued, until, finally I just couldn’t. Until I felt that snapping inside, and knew I couldn’t go on. Luckily I had an occupational health appointment arranged, and the advisor took one look at me and, after asking lots of pertinent questions, told me I had to go to my GP and get signed off. I felt an immediate sense of relief, but those feelings of intense guilt, and terror that everyone would hate me for it, also surfaced.

Cutting a long story short (I’ll deal with other subjects in other posts) I’ve been off work for two months now, having quite intense therapy and meditating regularly, and just looking after myself. I’ve learned a lot about myself, including that my needs are important too, and I will try to resist the urge to bow to pressures – internal and external – that are dangerous for my mental health, because that’s more important than anything else. I’m going back to work next week. I’m anxious, terrified in fact, but I’m stronger now. I realise I have choices.

And I’ve made the choice to care about myself more.

I guess the point of this is to say to whoever might read this: look after yourself. Don’t ignore signs until it’s too late. Seek help.

Love yourself.

Why Write? Exploring the (lack of) Desire

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From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books. – George Orwell. 1946. “Why I Write”.

The question of why we write is something that writers debate constantly, and working in Higher Education as a senior lecturer in creative writing, it’s the subject of necessary discussions I have (had) with student writers on a regular basis. When they are asked, as they always are, ‘Why do you want to write?’, the answer is sometimes, ‘I don’t know.’ In many ways that’s a fair enough answer. Students, often just out of school, don’t always understand their own motivations for their choice.  They know it’s there, that desire to communicate, but they don’t know what they want to do with it. Sometimes, almost inevitably, you get the impression that they’ve chosen what they believe might be the ‘easy’ way – that a creative writing course is somewhere they won’t have to think, that they just have to ‘create’. Wrong. Of course. Writing – along with other creative arts – is very much a subject where thinking, assessing, critiquing, and transforming (your writing by editing, yourself through the whole evolutionary process that writing has on you as a person), is vital if you’re to become in any way reflective and proficient. But I digress…

Most students though (especially mature students, of whom we seem to attract quite a few – I myself was one), when asked the question, answer in much the same vein as Orwell, and the answer boils down to: ‘Because I must.’ And, as I said in my previous post, this is much the case for me too. Or at least it used to be. For me, writing used to be everything. And I do pretty much mean that. Except for being a mum to two wonderful, now grown up people, my purpose in life, I always felt, was to write. To create. To create other worlds, live other lives in and through their creation because – maybe an issue, but hey –  ever since I was a little girl dreaming dreams of gods and monsters, my own reality was never enough. But now…. Ironically, working in HE as a full time lecturer, with all the increasing stresses it brings, as well as having a chronic depressive illness that those stresses impact on, has kind of killed the desire. Part of the motivation for writing these blog posts is to try to rekindle it, to try to find what – in the maelstrom of thoughts that whirl in my mind – is left of that compulsion. I’m hopeful it’s still there, but I will need to dig deep….

I digress.

When I started studying creative writing at university our lecturer at the time told us that no-one cared if we wrote, that our work didn’t really matter to anyone else.  My initial – defensive – thought was: she’s full of it. I care. But, although it was a tactless, almost throwaway remark, and for someone like me, quite destructive, I think in hindsight that it was a valuable thing for her to say, for various reasons.

In all honesty, it’s a fact. Apart from yourself, no one really cares that much. Friends and family can be very supportive – I was always told by my parents that it was a ‘nice little hobby’ – but often don’t understand the drive that consumes those of us who live in our heads, in our own worlds. In essence, if you stopped, unless they’re as passionate as you, unless they’re driven by the same engine, they’d probably say, well, that’s a shame, and that’d be that. Writing creatively is still often seen as a luxury, a privilege that many people can’t afford to indulge in an increasingly money and ‘success’ driven world. While it’s kind of true, I find that sad; writers I know find that sad. Without art, we’d live in an entirely utility driven world. Is that what we want?

Publishers and agents don’t care either. This is maybe a throwaway remark – but why should they? They don’t know you, don’t know if you’re writing, and probably wouldn’t much bother about you if they did. Unless you have something they want of course. Is this cynical? On reflection, I still think, not really. I think it’s fair enough, in the end. The publishing world is an increasingly hard world. They are feeling the hard pinch of the economic crisis too. They do not owe anyone a living – they publish because they love good writing, never believe otherwise, but they are businesses. They are not charities. A lot of writers feel entitled to publishing, and I understand that too, if they work hard at their craft, but actually, they’re not entitled to anything. None of us are, beyond the basic human needs, which are, of course, becoming increasingly complex. This is a hard lesson, I think, in these days where everyone is encouraged by the media machine to believe they’re entitled to everything, because we’re sold the dream of ‘you have the right to be… whatever you want to be.’ And that’s another debate.

Sometimes writers thwart themselves from achieving what is regarded as success (see more on that later). Let me expand upon that just a little, because it’s maybe a harsh statement, but it relates to the above point. This does not mean that they don’t want to write – most writers I know are passionate about what they do. What I mean by that is that sometimes finding the motivation, to fan the desire by doing the hard work that goes with it is really difficult. Sometimes it’s almost impossible. I really admire (and am pretty envious of, to be honest!) writers who have a full time, demanding job, and who can still dedicate themselves to their craft. Those who still have the headspace and energy to pour themselves into the stories and worlds and people they want to create. Who have the energy to put it through numerous edits, research the market, and  then send that work out to publishers, to face the seemingly endless rejections, so that maybe one day, there’s an acceptance. Those acceptances mean a lot, when they come. But often they’re a long time coming, and some of us just become… tired… and so we don’t do it. Or can’t bring ourselves to do it, and give up. At least, that’s what I’ve found. I’m trying not to be bitter about it; bitterness achieves nothing, and I think I’m learning to accept that too during the time I’ve had to reflect, to understand myself more. But as I write these words, I feel the desire returning, and understand that I have options. We all do. With regard to the above kind of rant about ‘having the right’, which I’m aware is becoming circular, so I’ll stop…. While none of us have the ‘right’ to be a best-selling writer, we all, surely, have the ‘right’ to be creative. To at least try? Because on a personal basis, I’ve found that allowing my creativity to wither, has been a kind of death.

A further note on ‘success’. Does it matter if you don’t get paid for your writing? That depends on your idea of success. In Higher Education, institutions ‘grade’ you, via the Research Excellence Framework, on your output. Fair enough. HE institutions are (meant to be) centres of education, excellence for research. Work done in HE directly contributes to world knowledge. But creative writing, at least in some institutions, isn’t regarded as ‘research’. So while it is quite rightly valued if, say, you get a novel or poetry collection published, or script made into a film, it doesn’t count towards the REF. Is this short-sighted? Should a piece of creative work be regarded as research, contributing to knowledge? I guess it depends on what ‘knowledge’ means to you. In the wider world,  many people still only understand ‘successful’ writers as those who write the bestsellers, the big-hitters. The books we find in chain booksellers. It all becomes – as everything else has – consumed by consumerism. I think that’s sad too. I think it can be demoralizing. Do we have to adhere to market forces to achieve? And again, what does ‘achievement’ mean? For me, just writing this post is an achievement, but it’s making me realise, again, that I want more.

One thing is for sure: It’s not easy. And it’s not supposed to be.

 

 

Who is the ‘I’ Who Writes?

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‘The house of fiction does not readily admit the self… Your relationship with it, as its creator, is tenuous, complex, subtle, utterly demanding. You are in it; you are absolutely stripped bare in front of it, exposed; yet somehow you are supposed to make sure that, at the end of the day when the lights are dimmed, the fire’s blazing and everyone’s sitting comfortable, it isn’t you they see.’ (Sue Roe. ‘Shelving the Self’. 1994. p51) *

Sue Roe here is talking about her experiences of novel-writing, how a writer immerses her self (as opposed to herself – so I shall treat myself here as my Self.) in the writing process as a piece of work evolves. And yet, as she says, the author must take care not to be visible in the finished fictional narrative, for any number of reasons, both good and not so good. Is this true, and if so, can we really avoid exposing our Selves?

I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. Especially recently, during this latest, long bout of depression, when writing anything at all has been ‘about’ my Self. About my life, and how I feel consumed by it, but am unable to express it in the way I (used to) know how to. Through the written word. Because I think about how exposing the written word is. How we are laid bare, even flayed by our own words. Once they are written, will we not be judged by them? And found wanting? And that’s scary.

Anyone who writes, especially those writers who allow people to read their work, in whatever way, will probably recognize this sense of exposure. This feeling of ‘What if they think this is me I’m putting out there?’ and ‘What if they judge me by what I write?’ As a senior lecturer in creative writing, I’ve found that this is very common in student writers, who are often self-conscious about what they ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ write about. It’s my job to try to reassure them that there aren’t ‘can’s and ‘can’t’s; there are only possibilities and their job is to convert those possibilities into the best writing they are capable of. But I sympathize with them, have been in that position myself, as a previous student of creative writing. Students often think they should be writing for the lecturer, especially for assessments: If they write something a lecturer likes, is interested in, it might get them better grades.

When I was a level 3 student on course for the first class honours degree in creative writing I was later to achieve, I had a conversation with a friend who was in level 2. He knew that I was getting good grades, and he asked: ‘Do you write assessments knowing what the lecturers like to read? Do you write to please them? Is that what I should do?’ I actually found the question quite insulting, although he didn’t mean it that way. But in some ways, it was as though he was questioning my writing integrity. My answer was the same then as it is now, and I stand unflinchingly by it: ‘I would never write to please anyone but myself, if it compromised my writing.’ And I say this to students: it doesn’t matter what I like. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like (insert pet hate here) – it’s what you like that matters. Write what you’re interested in. If you don’t, it will show, and why would I be interested in an piece of work you don’t really care about?’

Of course, writing what interests you brings back the idea of self-exposure, of showing everyone who reads what goes on inside your head. Of being ‘absolutely stripped bare’. Students often worry about writing about controversial subjects; and I guess in these troubled times, they’re wise to be wary, but…. I worry about that. Quite a lot. For example, I teach writing horror fiction (a subject often sneered at by Literary Writers, but which is its own way of writing about the (sometimes) otherwise inexpressible) , and for one of my sessions, I sometimes teach extreme horror (Splatterpunk), in which I invite students to be as explicit, uninhibited and gross as possible. And even then – even with that permission – some students still worry. Again, it’s wise to be wary. It takes a lot of reassurance that I won’t judge them. That I’m not there to be a moral barometer. The only judgements I make is on their writing, the quality of their writing, and are they saying what they want to say in the best way to say it. But what they say is up to them. And that we have to get used to exposure if we want to communicate. Once they accept this permission, students often find that their writing becomes liberating, rather than constraining. Watching this happen is, I feel, one of the best things about what I do. It’s one of the few reasons that keeps me in the job when everything else in Higher Education is becoming consumed by… consumerism.

Still – who is this Self that writes? And are we always the subject of our own work, even though it’s disguised as fiction, or poetry, or drama? My personal opinion is that we almost always write about what goes on inside us. We write about what we care about, and this reflects our Self, to a greater or lesser extent. Again, as a sometime writer of dark fantasy and horror, I write about what scares me, and what I think is relevant to my (inner and outer) world. As a one-time poet, my poetry often seemed to want to talk about women’s issues – fertility, abortion, maternity, although it has dealt with themes of horror too – death, dying, and, especially, the futility of our existence – but in very different ways.

If we look at the work of some other writers, we can see recurring themes running through their work. Stephen King, for example, in his book about writing On Writing (2002), talks a lot about how his childhood, and living in a small town, influenced his writing, and when we look at his work, we can see it. Childhood – its horrors as well as its innocence – is constantly explored. The settings are almost invariably the small town, or enclosed spaces, exploring the claustrophobia that such places evoke. And his characters are often writers who are troubled. Possibly the best example of all of this (for me, at least) is The Shining (1977), in which we get the motifs of The Child, The Writer, and The Place, all in one truly frightening book. Likewise with his vampire novel Salem’s Lot (1976), which mostly deals with The Writer and The Small Town. It (1986) deals with The Child(ren) and the Small Town.

But the writing persona we employ when we’re writing is just one of the many masks we wear and we wear different personas for different kinds of writing. We are complex organisms,  and the idea of the single self, the unified self, is no longer accepted. We are fractured beings with many facets reflecting those fractures  – writing is one facet of who we are. And yet, it’s everything too. For me, recently, it’s been everything and nothing. Part of why I want to write this blog is to explore that.

Of course, as mentioned above, we are sometimes judged by what we write. People often assume that what we write is who we are. They assume that people who write horror or about psychopathic killers must be that way inclined themselves. They assume that people who write comedy are constantly laughing and funny. We know both are far from the truth, and yet the myths linger, as myths do, albeit they evolve.

I remember doing a reading of a very dark piece in which a cheating male character gets stabbed and killed by his psychotic girlfriend. One of the audience, who I thought knew me, came up to me afterwards and said: ‘But I thought you were such a nice person…’ I said, and still say, to that kind of comment – ‘My writing reflects my interests, maybe sometimes my issues, but if I was that person, or the characters I’ve produced, I’d have been a long time in prison, or a secure wing, by now.’ I am NOT my characters. But I do facilitate them.

On our course, we encourage self-reflexivity, something that every writer, in my opinion, needs to develop. Every student writes a contextual study along with their creative pieces that explores their aims and intentions for the piece they’ve written, how they’ve created it, and – because we must never forget where our writing comes from – what precursors they have researched. And – importantly – does their work succeed or not? Writing these studies gives insight to their writing Selves – we’ve found them very valuable, and students usually do too. I’m not saying that every writer should do this. Of course not. But I believe that good (value judgement, but hey!) writers are truly aware – as far as it’s possible to be, because there’s always a hidden something you can’t explain to yourself or anyone else – of who they are when they write and what goes on inside them that produces what it produces.

This is, in part, what this blog hopes to do.

 

Works cited.

Roe, S. ‘Shelving the Self’ in S. Roe et al, The Semi-Transparent Envelope (London and New York: Routledge: Marian Boyars, 1994, 47 – 92)