WRITING. Ten thoughts on the last four years! (PS don’t tell me off for not really having a twitter break; it’s automatic from my site. x)

I am off social media until November or so as I am working on edits for my next book (novel, Saving Lucia, which is out in April) and doing a rewrite – and expansion – of another book. Head is down because I’m balancing this with teaching and a brood of offspring and…well, you know. Anyway, if you reply to me on twitter or FB, I won’t see it, but I hope you find these thoughts encouraging or interesting. They are not only about me, but about what I have learned and seen, since I started writing in 2014.

quotes by lemn sissay
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com
  1. Don’t ever assume that writing is not for you. There are many reasons why you might. In my case, I thought, ‘Oh I’ve left it too late’ and other lame things related, in my case, to self esteem, which has, I will tell you frankly (and as I have written about elsewhere), been radically affected by a tricky background and a daily management of sometimes scary mental health stuff. And I am not going to sugar coat issues of structural inequality; it’s there – let’s look for ways to overcome it as we support each other.  Writing, if you want to do it and can make a good shot at it, IS FOR YOU.
  2. Related to this, I bet pretty much everyone feels like an outsider or has that old chestnut, imposter syndrome. I am constantly sure I am about to make a massive fool of myself, but if I do, I do it with a full heart. Make sense? Would you rather be mightily arrogant and therefore, I would argue, less able to self reflect, less delicate in your observations, perhaps less kind to others, because you NOTICE LESS – and maybe you are thus a lesser writer? Because don’t you need doubt in order to write well?
  3. There could well be some mighty cock ups. You don’t need to hear the ins and outs of what has gone wrong for me, but you might be heftily let down by someone, have a book that is not promoted, simply not be valued or find yourself actually gaslit by someone you work on a book with, in some capacity. This is not the end; it is part of learning, of amassing (sorry, but I do love swearing) the twats in one useful corner (or rather the people who were twats to you) and, though beaten, you can get back up. The writing community is large and welcoming, everyone has disasters sooner or later, far as I can tell, every writer has bad track in common (that is, a book that tanked, but bear in mind that this is more subtle than it looks because much also depends on the provenance of that book) and so lift your sights.
  4. Do not wait for ideal circumstances. Room of your own? I should cocoa; no chance in my house. To be happier, thinner, less busy, add anything…NOOOO. If you want to do it, start right now. YEAH. THIS AFTERNOON. Even it’s just scribbles or a few lines; or a chapter; or the whole first draft vomited onto the page. It will be dreadful, it will be your shit first draft, but it will also be the germ of something that is not. Or lead on to another piece of writing that is so much better in the first place.
  5. You do not have to write every day. Well, if you feel you do you do. But don’t feel that you can’t write a book if you can’t write every day. Write when you can. Also, don’t wait for inspiration. Start writing and inspiration will come; if it doesn’t, take a break. Try later.

    brown notebook in between of a type writer and gray and black camera
    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  6. Read. It’s your greatest teacher. Why not read from a genre you haven’t tried before? Or perhaps read a book that seems too long or too difficult. Try works in translation, novellas, poetry, a play.  All time periods if you like. Get to know the brilliant small presses there are. Try non-fiction as well as fiction.
  7. Your writing and all the shit first drafts that got crossed out or maybe the books – it happens – that didn’t make it: it’s all an apprenticeship. You are learning. While I have been writing, though, I’ve been learning about the industry, because that seemed to me to be something I ought to do. Plus I was interested because I like to learn now things work. By the industry, I mean learning about small presses and big publishers, agents, independent and big booksellers, international markets, editors, marketing and book PR. Also, connect with people. I am a funny mix; I’m naturally quite shy and need to hide, preferably under a duvet with a book, after a big social event, because my tank runneth dry. Nonetheless, I love talking to people and learning about what they do; chatting to people who love reading is a joy of my life but it is also a great way of learning what’s going on.
  8. Pay it forward. Help others. I am a great believer in communities; they are the mainstay, I think, of our world. If you get a break, try and help someone else to. Or just try anyway.
  9. When you come to submit – and this is based on manuscripts I have seen and conversations I’ve had with people more knowledgeable than I am – be you, but be mindful of the fact that agents and small publishers get many, many submissions and so as well as being you, you’ve got to be you pitching up having done the groundwork. Craft your approach really well; make your query personal to them and really do your homework – on their catalogue, say; or be aware – and tell them – of a recent wish list they published or an interview they gave where they mentioned a book they’d love to see and you think you might pique an interest. Likewise, if you are submitting to an indie press, then you really should have read some of the books on that catalogue, otherwise why are you submitting to them if you don’t really know what they publish? If you’re submitting in a particular genre you need to be aware of that genre at market. And follow the submissions guidelines always and without exception.
  10. This might be a testy one, but I stand by it. I have found the best use of your time while waiting for rejections – or hits! – is to be working on something new. I’ve heard people say that they cannot start another book until they know about the one that they have submitted, but you might be waiting many months. This may or may not have happened to you and it sucks and it isn’t really good enough, but here are two things that happened to me. First, I wrote something to time for an agent who then rejected it with a form letter after many a cheery back and forth and I never heard from them again. I thought THIS IS IT (how naive was I?) and didn’t work on anything else. Then I stalled because I was upset. Also, I haven’t, compared with some of you extraordinary indomitable people out there, submitted that widely. But I would say that about 30% or so of the people I submitted to, including big agencies who promise they take notice of the slush pile, never replied. I had a no reply after a full manuscript request. Submission is testing; rejection after rejection is testing. There will be low points. So I say, don’t wait to clear your decks before you start another book. Get cracking. This, by the way, is one reason I’ve managed (nearly!) 7 in four years and I am not a full time writer by any means: I am always writing a book. And the writing can be planning, researching, daydreaming in the bath, reading, mind-mapping: all this is your book writing, be reassured. x

    books in shelf
    Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com
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On creative writing: this is for you, GCSE students.

This is especially for my cousin, Gareth. and one of my own boys, Isaac; year 11, both. But I can take this off if you just died of embarrassment. No, I will.

So. You have to write a creative piece somewhere in your two English language exams. You might be writing a descriptive piece or a story. What are some useful tips to help you manage this in an exam? You will probably have done lots of creative writing in primary and possibly less at secondary and, frankly – you did want me to be frank, yes? – creative writing may not get much space plus, unless your teacher is a copious reader or maybe also a writer, it is hard to teach. So here are some pointers because there are plenty of people out there who feel stuck on this one and think, ‘It’s not my thing.’

NOT SO FAST.

 

Right. Choice of tasks; do one. You’ll get story/writing titles, probably a first line and maybe also a last line of a story and, depending on the board, you might get given a picture or photograph to use as stimulus. The exam may ask you to write a ‘story’; it may also simply say ‘write about’ (in which case you could do a narrative, descriptive OR reflective piece) but you need to crack on in prose – continuous writing – even if you were to include a poem in there.

Before we start, what about your nuts and bolts?

  1. Check your high frequency punctuation errors: capital letters; clauses (parts of sentences) separated by commas (ask me if you don’t know what I am on about). Promise me you will not commit CRIMES AGAINST APOSTROPHES? I’d rather not see them at all then see them plastered everywhere there is an s. Simple plurals do not have them. You use them before the s if you’re showing possession and after the s if you’re showing possession by more than one person. You use them in contraction where the missing letter or letters are – do not becomes don’t. CHECK THIS OUT: IT’S meaning it is has an apostrophe BUT ITS meaning something that belongs to IT does not. Ever. Neither do his, hers, theirs, whose or ours.
  2. Check your homophone spelling errors. Touched on them there. Words that sound the same but are spelled differently. So who’s/whose or they’re/their/there. Go online and google LIST OF HOMOPHONES and print it and stick it up somewhere. It’s one of the things that makes you look less literate fast. Too/to and also near homophones, like off/of. AAAAARGHHHH. Wait. What’s this? homophones
  3. High frequency spelling errors. A lot is two words; definite has a FINITE in it. Necessary is like you in the old school uniform there: it has one collar and two socks. Do you get it? Again, google COMMON SPELLING ERRORS, print off and observe.
  4. Please check for errors. Are there words missing? Do you have a sentence which doesn’t make sense? Plan five minutes and check five minutes WITHOUT EXCEPTION. The plan can be simply a list of the main ideas you want to cover, but make one because your writing will be better. And remember, in your plan, that if it’s going to be a story, you need to aim for a beginning, a middle and an end. Plot that out.
  5. NOW CREATIVE CONTENT. Be bold and brave in your choice of words and language and do not panic about using 27 metaphors and similes but, instead, focus on using a beautifully chosen verb. Use adjectives and adverbs judiciously and word combinations in unexpected ways.
  6. Dialogue. It enlivens a piece of writing so practise writing it and be sure you know how speech punctuation ought to be handled. Check with your English teacher if you are using a computer on this because you could use italics for speech if need be.
  7. Look at these pictures. Imagine that you can feel their texture. Really imagine that. 

     

    Well now, that’s what you are aiming to do in a descriptive piece or story. You want to magic up the texture of that place and how it feels, looks, smells and tastes. Bring it alive.

  8. Perspective. You might think of where you are; above or within. Up in the air or below; to one side and unobserved by others. Perhaps you’re not even supposed to be there. OOOOH. Your perspective – the place from where you are seeing events and things – radically changes how you and your reader observe or experience things. Also, shift it within your description or narrative. Like a camera angle, moving from a wide angle observation of a crowd scene to a zoom in on one particular detail or person; their thoughts, feelings – what you read in their face as you look very carefully at them.
  9. Vary your line length. So, you might have a small number of very short paragraphs – perhaps of one line each, contrasting with your longer paragraphs. You might do this with the first and last line. It might actually be the same sentence; say, an intriguing rhetorical question.
  10. And finally, have faith in your imagination. Here is a great piece of ongoing homework. Be more observant. People watch wherever you are. Discreetly, mind. Notice how extraordinary the everyday is; observe and watch and think about how you could weave and extend a story or a piece of descriptive writing from a conversation you overheard or an unexpected encounter you saw. and go forth, storyteller.story

News. My first short story collection announced.

MY FIRST SHORT STORY COLLECTION! Here she is, then.

You can see what’s coming and what I am allowed to tell you (ooooh) on the About Anna page of this website, but this week’s wonderful news is the announcement by Influx Press of their 2020 catalogue. So I can now tell you that my first short story collection will be published by this exciting and pioneering press in September, 2020 and, if you follow the link below (there’s also a Bookseller feature on it), you can read about their new subscription service, which kicks off this November. Have a look at the current catalogue, too – I am just finishing Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions and thoroughly recommend it; I will write more on this book soon. https://www.influxpress.com/books

Famished
Anna Vaught

famished cover-c.jpg

In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes. Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.


!//w

https://www.influxpress.com/subscriptions

www.thebookseller.com/news/influx-unveils-2020-list-and-launch-subscription-service-monday-1076466

https://www.influxpress.com/2020

https://www.influxpress.com/famished

 

Where All the Ladders Start

 

Where All the Ladders Start

 

 

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

 

W.B Yeats, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, verse I.

 

Here is a post intended to be encouraging to you if you have had or are currently managing mental health problems, but want to write; a post about what I do and what I’ve done; about how mental health problems prevented me from writing, but how I’ve tried to engage them in the process – and also how they’ve become subject matter. And when I started writing this new post I thought, as I have done before, of this Yeats poem, above.

What is my theme? What do I write about? How do I write about it and follow a process?

A lot of it comes from my heart. What I have endured psychologically. Certainly, I have drawn on events, but also method of survival, which involved reading, reflecting and sustained flights of fancy. I am not currently supported by the mental health service, but they saved my life and my therapy, post breakdown, two kids and a new baby in tow, led to my first book in the end. That’s because I was stronger, but also because I began to see that I’d used books, reading and my imagination for survival. And if I’d done that, why should I not try writing, too? All those things were teachers, surely?

Recent events and also mistakes I have made have meant that I now want to speak more euphemistically about my personal history, at least for a while, so let me only say that I came into adulthood thinking I was a terrible thing, incapable and weak and that I could do little or no good. Although, as I will tell you in a new piece on books as saviour next year, it was reading that sustained me, it took me a long time to feel that I deserved to write and be read. Does that sound odd to you?  Eventually, there were choices I made which were empowering. How I parent my boys, how I am as a guardian of others, as a young people’s mentor and mental health advocate and what I think about, watch for and think about when I teach and tutor. And now, as I aim to do in my life, I do in my writing, increasingly a raison d’être for me. I flip the bad bits and think, ‘Hmmm bad thing. Could I pop you in a story somehow?’ I think the reason I am so keen on writing gothic and weird fiction is because, to my mind, I lived it, every trope. I hope I make you smile a bit in writing that!

There will be genes and personality in there of course, but clearly my early experience bears a logical link to mental health problems. I’d lie awake for hours as a child, ruminating thoughts, frightened. It was reading that saved me. I think that tumbled me into OCD, depression, generalised anxiety and dissociative episodes. I am free of the OCD now, largely free of depression, but my anxiety levels can skyrocket, and I have never got on top of the dissociation that occurs, so I try and think of it as my brain having tried to protect me when I was younger because these reactions have been going on forever. I say, childishly, Good brain; clever brain; thank you, my darling. Like a kid; looking back to that scared little girl and giving her a cheery affectionate punch on the arm from big Me. Ah, if you are wondering what dissociation is, here is the NHS page: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dissociative-disorders/ It is not fun; it gets colossally in the way of my life, but having not solved it, I try to find some seed of hope or creative purpose in it if I can. I can’t always, of course!

At the time we meet, I am doing edits for my third novel, Saving Lucia, which you can read next April; my first two books, novel and novella, are between publishers – and I am not going to lie; there are gains and losses in publishing and this has been a tricky thing to navigate; there will be an announcement on my first short story collection very soon, I have another novel and a second volume of short stories (I have to choose vocabulary carefully here so as not to give away details)…under consideration and I am half way through another book, a novella. I’ve also got short stories, features, poems, narrative non-fiction and essays in various publications and still to come. I notice, above all, that key themes emerge: of memory and trauma; flights of fantasy and imagination; books coming to life; myth, legend, a living landscape – and the latter is important, because just as much as I loved reading, I loved the natural world and saw it as a storyteller; I saw landscape and animals as voiced and intensely beautiful, often ignored. This is something I am writing about later today. I wish I could tell you what that is, but all in good time.

And…

While I had written features and articles before, I had not written anything else at all until early 2015, a little while after I had my breakdown and the first truly effective piece of therapy I had received. You might be interested: CAT – cognitive analytic therapy, over the course of a year on the NHS. And now my writing – whole novels – is coming out like a torrent and with relative ease and I am convinced this is because it was waiting all this time until the moment I committed words to paper. Which was, incidentally, after the school run one morning and I caught myself by surprise and just sat down and wrote. That was it. It’s weird: I’ve written anything from ten words to 20,000 words in a day. It is like I am catching up, and the reason I procrastinated is because I had so little confidence, because balancing mental health problems with three kids, partial care of more, teaching, mentoring and the rest of life – like cooking and filling in forms; painting the windows and so on; you know – well, it took everything I had. It still takes everything I have, every single day. I am exhausted today because I’ve had some bad nights: I wake up in shock, my system super-charged. It is manageable, but we have never quite managed to fix that, either. When I am not asleep, I am immediately awake, alert, ready; facing threat and challenge. I do not remember a time when my life was not like that.

But still I write, and don’t you worry about the tyranny of writing every day. If you cannot write, think. You’re at work.

That Yeats quotation at the top. What got me into writing long-form was thinking about the strategies and imaginative techniques I had used, for as long as I could remember, to deflect panic and fear. I had abiding relationships with characters in books and when I say ‘relationships’, I mean that they became as imaginary friends; the books (I moved on to song and film so that, at one point, my best friends were Albert Camus and Dolly Parton and there’s a yoking). I found relief and solace in words and scenes and imagined places. It was comforting and enlivening, and I didn’t tell anyone about it. Ever. I also had lines from poems I liked and pages from books that I would recite at some length when I felt frightened at night.

In late childhood, having been convinced by that point that I was the bringer of bad things, a sort of weird little kid who couldn’t help but cause harm, I can recall roots of things; weird reactions coming in that seemed to set me apart, at least to my mind, from the other kids I knew; for example, the dissociative experiences I still have today when I am not sure who or where I am or that the world around me is real. It’s like…I can see my toes, all pinked-up in their flip flops there, but I cannot compute that these are the same toes that will beat a path to my door. I don’t entirely recognise the world or people about me and I feel unsure of my edges, or as if I am above myself, or to one side. My life is full of odd experiences because of this kind of thing, and I should probably note that the dissociation is a bit more complicated too, but maybe we can talk about that face to face one day? And also, there is more to it in positive terms: because in the roots of such fear as a child and as a teenager, there must have been such resolve and, ultimately, a pretty powerful imagination and creativity. No-one told me; I just thought it was survival, and then, like I said, I started writing a few years back and it was like…in my head was a word hoard; from my fingers came story after story and I have never had writers’ block. Not for a second. It’s freedom.

It is intoxicating.

I hope so much that it can be of use to others.

And I want to say that if this is not your experience, don’t worry. And don’t ingest as truth that you cannot live a creatively fulfilling or exciting life because you have mental health problems. Just find your writing foothold gradually and learn to hear your voice. Because the last thing I mean is to make you question why your lived experience of chronic illness or mental health problems has not made it that you’ve coughed up a load of books like it did for me. That’s because you’re you. Listen to them, your precious thoughts and reveries, doubts, oddities, the lot: mine your experience.

I quoted a favourite poem of Yeats at top; now I quote its last verse.[1] I remember it when I think of the things lost and hurt and still painful. I think of the place where the ladders start and imagine that; for strategy in life, but also inspiration in writing. I hope this makes sense to you.

 

Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

 

If you are struggling, you are not alone. If you worry that your writing is no good, you are also not alone. Rejected? You’ve survived worse, so back on your feet. If you can, find your tribe and your tribe can be online because I understand that health or funds or difficult feelings may mean you cannot get to a writing group. We are here! Find us on twitter and please don’t be afraid to start conversations and ask questions, because the writing community is welcoming and enormously helpful. And also, if you are managing difficult circumstances in your life, I bet you can write a book, or a poem, a story,  if you read and think and try and plan and cross it all out and start again. Because I also bet you’re hugely courageous and that you have a rich imagination.

Why not just start, or steel yourself to carry on? And remember that, each step of the way, I shall be rooting for you.

Love,

Anna.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43299/the-circus-animals-desertion You can see the full text of the poem here.

An A-Z of Mental Health. C is for…

Hello again.

A mixture of things for you once more. For C, let’s try…(and I have a timer set for half an hour, which is why I always ask you to forgive some ragged edges)…

  1. Cats. Or chinchillas. Or whichever furry creature. Hugely soothing: beg, borrow, rescue. Volunteer as a cat cuddler if you have an animal sanctuary. I can honestly say that having our brood of creatures at home has got me out of a lot of scrapes, or soothed me after them, and provides immense comfort to my children. Recommended. Unless you hate them, obviously; people do.
  2. Counselling. I am not going to be glib and trot out the old ‘Help is Out There’ adage because we all know that it’s not that easy. But if you are struggling, it all starts with a conversation with a friend, a sympathetic person, a phone call, online. It may be that you can access CBT (which didn’t touch the sides for me, but it might be what YOU need) through self referral, but persist with your GP – if need be take someone with you to make you feel supported or, if need be, to help advocate for you. If you do not have a GP who is receptive to mental health needs, ask to see a different GP. And you may think that I am being simplistic by listing counselling here – it is a HUGE topic that I cannot begin to do justice to – but people feel ashamed and need not. If someone makes you feel that way, ignore them. We must support each other and make that conversation easier.
  3. Caring. In my case, if I get too involved in too many things; if I have too many people and things to care about and take care of, then things do not go well. Perhaps I have less room in my head or fewer resources than some others, but sometimes I have to retreat and calm my focus on some things and even, for a while, some people. Because I don’t have the energy. I know someone wants me to come round and talk something through with them tonight, but I have had to say I cannot:  I feel spent because of the battling – it really does feel like battling!- over the past three days: I am trying to get appropriate SEN provision for one of my lads and meeting rebuttal, denial and getting talked down to. I don’t think anyone means any harm at all, I really do not, but I don’t have room for a lot else this evening. It is important to pick and choose sometimes because we are not indefatigable.
  4. CAMHS. Ah, this is child and adolescent mental health. I wanted to say to you all, from the bottom of my heart, that if you have an offspring under CAMHS; if you have an offspring who is experiencing mental health problems; if you are caring and then some, then this is when you need to step up your own self care, even if you think you do not have time. And also, to put this bluntly, if your child is in a hole, do not get in that hole with them. I speak from hard-won experience. Having a child in distress is the hardest thing that has ever happened to me; I felt sick to my core sometimes. Learn from me here: practise self care as and when you can. Just a little time out; some relaxation techniques; saying some bloody good things to yourself. Promise?
  5. Cake. Or whatever it might be. Make something; eat something lovely, just because. Or light some candles. Or just a little something. You might think these details, these fripperies, do not impact on your mental health. I beg to disagree. I think it’s about the self care again; a simple act of making or being.
  6. Community. Every time. Look about you. Speak to people. Make small talk. It is, above all, community that helps to keep me, Mr Bookworm, two businesses and two other careers, physical and mental health problems, and three kids afloat. And I try every day to give that back in spades. It is one of the greatest joys of your life, Remember that your community can be online. If you cannot access other stuff, go here – and don’t you let anyone scoff: there is vitality, love and companionship here, too and I won’t be dissuaded from that!
  7. Oooh this is controversial. I want to say church, because I am a Jesus fan, you know. I don’t actually have a church now but I hope that one day I will. And yet consider your church, your temple, your spiritual life, your beliefs: give yourself time to reflect, to be still, to think about some difficult things because maybe one has to; talk about them to someone whom you trust. I feel that I want to write more about this topic, partly because in all the counselling I have experienced and in everything I read, it is the spiritual dimension that is entirely missing. You might find huge comfort from talking to someone within a religious community. Let me tell you that I am always cheered by knowing that in a place not too far away, there is a community of Benedictines who remember me in their prayers. I love that.
  8. CAT. I am back with counselling. This – cognitive analytic therapy – is the one that saved me, my bravehearts. The best bits of CBT with clear and sustained observance of roots of behaviour and patterns. Changed my life, this.  Maybe I should say change: change is possible. When you are utterly laid low, it could well feel that you will never get better. If this is you now, know that you are in my thoughts and that I hope for and long for the change that you need to live a better, happier life for you.
  9. Colour. It’s true: colour has a wonderful effect on me; putting it around me, wearing it, but mostly being in the natural world and really looking at plants and trees; at insects. It’s that absorption in the myriad beautiful things about us and the boost to our system that can occur with a shot of turquoise or cerise. Or whatever you especially like.
  10. Comedy. Sounds obvious, but find things to laugh at. It’s so good for you, and I don’t know about you, but like a dullard I forget this when I get low. If something is funny enough, you will laugh. Go look for it.

Much love, do look at A is for…and B is for…on this blog.

Much love,

Anna xxx

And,always,… xxxxx

 

An A-Z of Mental Health. B is for…

So, in A, I wrote a little about anxiety. B is going to be a pick and mix for you. A range of bs. I will touch on the wonders of Professor Brian Cox (who’s the new physicist in my life), buns (not Brian Cox’s, although I am sure they are very nice, it’s just that I am more focused on particle physics here) and blame. I will add in some other things, too. Here we go… Do look back at Anxiety, too – and maybe the post that came before it, which gives you an idea of why I am doing this now. Each of these blog posts is written in thirty minutes with a timer. Stay with me if there are rough edges. x

B IS FOR.

  1. Brian Cox. I am a bit late to the party on this one. What am I on about here? I am currently watching The Planets on i-player. What is this doing for me? Well I find anything to do with astronomy or astrophysics or particle physics really soothing. It’s something to do with reveling in the logal, deduction, neat arguments and damned sexy hypotheticals. And scale. It helps me to see myself and us, our world, as something tiny. For my birthday, I had a telescope and such pleasure it has brought me. There’s something in the unimaginable vastness that is stilling and comforting. I watch Brian Cox in bed and leave instructions that I am not to be disturbed. My older kids might think I am watching porno, but no: I am listening to Professor Dreamy talking about the late heavy bombardment and why Jupiter is the godfather. The irony of this is that these programmes have a narcotic, even hypnotic effect on me. At the risk of sounding feckless, I was exactly the same with Neil de Grasse Tyson on Cosmos (could we have this back on Netflix please?) And, while I love the topics and listening to Neil say ‘Come with Me’ with sexy astrophysical hauteur and Brian smiling because he just loves it all and also doing his beguiling hand movements – both of these men are, I swear, the most brilliant natural teachers – the fact is they also put me to sleep because I am so soothed. For anxiety, an overwrought brain, to settle panic, FIND YOUR BRIAN.
  2. Buns. This is a general thing. If my mood dips substantially, I need to find ways to orient so that things do not spiral. I still have flashbacks and dissociative episodes and I won’t sugar coat (although I might the buns; I know: I am THAT funny) things and say that my daft techniques always work, but I know they help me. So, if I have time, I will cook something mindfully. Possibly buns of some sort. Careful with comfort eating, but you don’t need me to tell you that depression and the myriad mental health conditions which you may be navigating lead you to the need for comfort and sometimes that tips over into something destructive. I’ve done this too. If the cooking worries you, pick another thing. But do it in the moment and mindfully to still your mind and give yourself a rest. I make things and plant things, too. And my writing is hugely absorbing. As with exercise (see A is for Anxiety), I regard this time as time off. And maybe you can extend that bit of time off in increments?
  3. Blame. Oh. I have spent years blaming myself for things. Terrible things that have happened in my life. Because my parents and older sibling (and a few others) convinced me from the ground up that I was an appalling person, it didn’t actually occur to me until I had really effective therapy following a breakdown after my third baby…that they might be wrong. I held myself responsible for my parents’ illnesses and felt I had a considerable hand in their deaths: when you are repeatedly told such things with no-one there to correct the balance, it may be ingested. In my case, it was. I often felt terribly guilty. I got it into my head that people who had died in adulthood with whom I had been friends in early childhood had in some way been harmed by me. Heavy stuff, huh? Took a psychologist and – I am not joking – a GP with facts and no arguments to sort this one out. I was half the weight after it all. On the floor. For a while I could not get up. But then, I floated up, like a feather. That is what I want for you. If you have been led to blame yourself by others, I am not suggesting that you don’t reflect on how you might have done and might do things better, but forgive yourself and let it go. I wasted years of joy on this. Years, my bravehearts.
  4. Bubbles. Or anything trivial. I don’t mind. Go blow them. Be childish. Child-like. Play. Does this sound naff? Well not everything has to have a purpose that is immediately discernible. Some things are pure joy. Also, if someone stole your childhood, go make some new bits now. Early bereavement, trauma and abuse make a kid way too aware and heavy in heart. No child should have to live with that. I did, and I had it very easy compared with many.
  5. Bollocks. Yup. Or we could have, ‘Bugger off’. The voice in your head which says, ‘You are shit.’ ‘You are worthless.’ Whose voice is that? Is it your voice? Try to work that one out. If it’s your voice, think about how you wouldn’t be saying these things to another person, so don’t say them to yourself because it’s mean and destructive. Tell them to bugger off. Or say, ‘Bollocks’ – which I do when my mother pops up to have a carp at me about something or other in the middle of the night, cresting a dream and then feeling a cold wash of fear, back in childhood. BOLLOCKS.
  6. Breathe. This is so very simple but it’s easily forgotten, too. In through the mouth, out through the nose, 4 and 7, say. It is harder to feel anxious if you are focused on your breathing. While you are doing that, check what your back is doing. In my case rounding and shoulders have gone up in a stress, anxiety or fear response. Shake it out.
  7. Brevity. You may have  to excise people from your life to cope with your lot; if you want to and cannot – by which I mean that you will have to continue to see people who routinely upset you or are mean – then, brevity. Keep it short and look for a reason to be on your way or somewhere else in the room. Also you can be saying, ‘Bollocks’ and ‘Bugger off’ while you do it. Mitigate the influence of those who are no good for you when you cannot excise them completely.
  8. Bed. Rest. No-one’s looking. Managing mental health problems is hard on the body as well as the mind. I have historically been hopeless at this. But the fact is that my health has worsened and I’ve had a telling off from the practice nurse. Take a rest where and when you reasonably can.
  9. Bonanza. The High Chaparral, Murder She Wrote, Quincy. I think you know what I am talking about here. This is quality soothing telly right here.
  10. BOOKS.  This is going to come up again and again. Reading has always been the backbone of my life. With books, you can build and rebuild your mind. I know I have done and that I may do again. Reading is a way into another world, other lives and horizons and ideas. And beauty, in finely-wrought language: I can bask in that. I personally feel that plot is a bit overrated, but don’t get me started on that now. And with books, try new things, don’t assume something is too difficult for you. And – bearing in mind that I am a writer as well as an English teacher – try books from all times, all countries, from diverse backgrounds, in translation; if you find you cannot manage a novel, try poetry or a novella. Or a play? But experiment!
  11.  MUCH LOVE, Anna xxx

AN A-Z OF MENTAL HEALTH

A IS FOR…ANXIETY

anxiety

The first in a series of short posts on mental health themes as I see them and have experienced them.

My experience of anxiety is that, at its lowest pitch, it’s a low and quite natural rumble. Like stress, you cannot remove it entirely from your life, so it’s a question of degree. For me, getting beyond this low rumble takes me into areas where I feel unsafe and I revisit a low, cold feeling known since early childhood: it’s best described as a feeling that I am about to annihilated.

What experience of life would have been like for me had I had often been terrified at an early age, I cannot say. I try, instead, to work with what I have, cure what I can – we are not there yet – and even to curate something of practical value, even beauty from what there is.

These are intended to be short posts, so you don’t need to know more about me. Anyway, you’ll be able to read about the details in articles I have coming up and to glimpse it, I think, through my next books. If you can find a copy of my first book, Killing Hapless Ally (currently between publishers; watch this space), you can see the back story and very curious it all is. For now, here is what I do – when I begin to feel wretched; when anxiety levels are troubling. Some may sound quite twee – stay with me, here. And I want these to be free and as easy to do as possible.See this image? I know that, time and again, I have felt isolated like this, knowing yet that I am not. Cold floor; care feet: foetal and retreating.  Read on. x

alone man person sadness
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  1. Exercise. However you do it: even if you still have some horrid anxiety after it, consider the period of exercise some time off. Walking is great. Oh you know all this! I walk, do pilates, have a roller, pilates ball and a few weights at home. The repetitions and breathing help me
  2. Essential oils. I always have a few splashes on a tissue up my sleeve. For me, lavender and bergamot; maybe a slash of frankincense. I think pleasure more broadly is brilliant. Focus on what your senses like to take you out of your head and into your body. That could be sex on the kitchen floor (God, I don’t know), or you might enjoy a soft blanket to cover your legs. It could be a really good cake. Or a sunset. Or music. A playlist is marvellous. Mine is full of the naffest things because they are cheering to me.
  3. Thinking/feeling. Sit with the feeling. I was seized with it, rigid, on the school run this morning. I sat with it, let it do its thing and, in a minute or so, the worst had gone. Here’s a really terrible tip: DON’T THINK ABOUT THE THING THAT WORRIES YOU. Hmm. Right. I don’t want you to think about custard creams at all. No. Stop, Not at all. Doesn’t work. Start a parallel train of thought instead; distraction. Your brain is sometimes a bit thick and will orient quite nicely to that: the other stuff can wander off. The custard creams can hang out in the biscuit tin where they’re supposed to be. Also, if someone is mean to you – maybe again and again – and you cannot entirely escape (adding that you MUST endeavour to escape from a situation which is genuinely threatening: and I promise I have), try to  turn them into a comic character in your head. That’s what I do. Humour. Oh, and those whose influence has been or is still deleterious to my life now get turned into a character in a story or in one of my books. Usually as a mass of characters and their traits; never names. Please don’t tell anyone I told you that, okay? (And anyway, it’s crystal clear in my first book.)
  4. Let go of things. If you keep trying to change others’ behaviour, you will – I HAVE – make yourself ill. I have had and continue to have family members who are cruel to me and it hasn’t been possible to remove this. So I have to think about backing myself and being mindful of how I react. The very act of doing that makes me feel more in control and less battered, ergo less anxious. Rejected? Know that rejection is just as much about the rejector as it is about you. Know, also, that just because you feel or think something does not mean that something is true. It’s possible that you never ingested that properly: I know I hadn’t until my thirties!
  5. Talk to people. Friends; online. Laugh. But, more broadly, a huge thing for me is that I chat merrily to everyone and anyone. At the bus stop; at the supermarket till. And I will tell you a thing: you may blunt someone else’s loneliness, someone else’s anxiety and your world may expand. Insights happen because people are bloody marvellous. Don’t beat yourself up if you’d rather stick pins in your eyes than do this, though. Also, not everyone responds. Go with that.
  6. Animals. Your own; other people’s. Borrow a dog. I do.
  7. Being in nature. Unencumbered and really looking at things and appreciating them. That could be rain on a leaf. Very simple, but the ordinary miracle can do marvellous things, I have found.
  8. Likewise, reading the urban street. Really look; the details in the stone, the brick, stucco, font on a sign…you get the idea. Being observant is splendid.
  9. Self care more broadly. Again, this may sound twee, but making yourself a cup of tea in a favourite mug and serving only yourself for a while is A GOOD THING. When anxiety levels are high or when the black dog bites, that may be the time you don’t look after yourself – be aware that this is the very time you need to.
  10. Reading. I’ve written before about how I rebuilt my mind with books; in childhood and adolescence, I built a world of imaginary friends. We will explore that later. But the point is that reading is escape, beauty; new doors open – ideas you had never thought of. It is a powerful and lifegiving thing and, for me, integral to my mental health. My survival, in fact.
  11. I think that’s enough. Here, my careworn darling. Though there is so much more to say, this is for you. You are not alone xxxxannakiss