Creativity in a hard place

How are you? I am mostly okay and that is because I am doing fairly well in thinking of the day only in increments, pausing and limiting stress as best as I can, sitting with and observing tricky things and seeing them, mostly, pass.

I am an English teacher, young people’s mentor, writer and mother. Mental health problems are part of my history and of who I am. I am very open about this in order to make it easier for the next person. But I am autonomous and they do not define me. They may in others’ eyes sometimes, but not in mine: don’t let yourself define YOU if you manage these pesky things too. That makes it easier to tolerate and thus you can begin to ignore anything from others. And don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you cannot write because you have difficulty in corralling your thoughts or emotional life. The industry has its demands, that’s for sure, so go easy on yourself and curate some sturdy self-belief if you possibly can. When rejected, be cross, but don’t brew that awful feeling of persecution that will stymie all creativity – speaking from experience there!

I have written elsewhere about mental health problems. I have a history of them: generalised anxiety, major depression and then OCD in late childhood and adolescence. I have dissociative episodes, which are scary and unpleasant and, from time to time, I wake at night with vivid dreams and flashbacks. That happened at the weekend. Sunday was spent in a jumble of senses and feelings; things become much more acute: words burn – but then so does beauty. I have had some wonderful care, but I am not sure I will ever be entirely better – but that’s okay. I make this point in my next book, Saving Lucia: that you can go out into the world and be creative and do things, though fragile, faltering, imperfect and not entirely well. Human beings are messy and absolute brilliant at failure anyway! I still have to say, lest someone who is really struggling is reading this and thinking that they cannot do this and what a failure they are, that I have had all areas of my working and creative life curtailed by mental health problems. But we carry on – and help each other to. I imagine that if I had been supported and appropriate help found for me in earlier years, things would have been different and could be different now. That’s a bit sad, so I turn it outwards and imagine that perhaps my not being fixable has helped me to be a better teacher or writer – or perhaps better able to help others, especially, young people, in need and distress, or just a tangle. What is more, I distill from problems and from mental health crises some colourful material, a character or two and even a book (my first one).

Now, my situation has recently got a little more complex because one of my older two has not been able to complete school study and another of mine has SEN needs that have been unmet: both are in exam years, so I have additional caring and teaching needs at a busy time. I am just raising from my head from a fog of exhaustion because some of those needs were met during the night for months, and even when I was not needed, well I have been in a state of hyper-vigilance for the best part of a year with little respite. In addition to this, I have lately experienced what is euphemistically described as unhelpful behaviour across my extended family and it had cut to the heart of who I am. Some of it was also triggering because it reminded me on a visceral level of my mother’s worst excesses. My reaction was physical; I was doubled over – my body unable to process what I was hearing and seeing, and finding myself swatted back to an earlier pathology and, with my worries about my older kids who were rather caught up in it all, experiencing grief.

It’s good to keep busy though! How about you? What if you are managing other needs and your own are rattling round and you want to make something, or at least feel better? This is what I do. This is specifically about writing, but maybe some thoughts here are helpful for anything!

  1. I have two books out this year and various other short pieces; I have two more things being read and I am rewriting a book for my agent to be handed in in September. Some comments were made last week by a handful of people that I should not be mentioning this level of activity, because it is unrealistic for most people. Well, this is my reality and the thing is, for most of my adult life, I have not had the confidence to do it. I’ve seen things go down the drain and I – I want to say this because I have previously been ashamed – I have twice, because of mental illness, not finished a PhD. TWICE. So any comment I make about what I am doing is in the context of a skipload of failure. Ah – I might have lost you: point 1 is to share your success, whatever it is, and to be proud of it because you’ve done it in extremis. I don’t mean brag, I mean share.
  2. That nagging voice in your head that says you can’t write because…YES: there are things in the writing business that quite clearly to change. Obviously there are. But for all else, is the voice in your head yours? Are you putting yourself down all the time? I do it, but have learned to listen and say stop. Challenge that voice because it’s trying it on, frankly. For me, a voice comes in which I think is mostly my ma telling me what a worthless little creature I am. Listen and escort out. Now try telling yourself something different with the voice. When I do that, my shoulders go back and I feel a lift in my energy levels.
  3. Write. Just do it. It will probably be awful but that’s because, as I have often said, it’s your Frankendraft; your shit first draft. Your crappy first paragraphs. But this is how a short story or a novel gets started. You are going to cross most of it out but no part of this process is wasted. If you are having a tough day, try to do this. If not, read a bit, think a bit, research a bit. It’s all work.
  4. If you are a carer in some capacity, really try to box up a bit of attention just for yourself. Also, if your child is in a hole, do NOT get in the hole with them because you will make yourself ill. I know this because I have. Creativity is one release for you here and I have found, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the fact I don’t have much time forces the words out. Don’t wait for ideal conditions. Just reminding you of point 3 here.
  5. Exercise. Step it up. If you can’t afford membership or a class, do it at home and do at least some of it outside if you possibly can. For me, the breathing and discipline of pilates is great and it makes me stronger and better able to deal with difficulty, Loads of free resources online.
  6. Find a tribe. That might be online and twitter is a great resource for writers (not the only one; it’s my preferred route), though don’t think any evidence suggests that a lot of twitter activity will shift books – unless you do non-fiction and your social media is all about that, for a platform. So don’t feel under pressure: engage on your own terms, mute and curate as you need to.
  7. Don’t feel bad if you don’t write every day. You are still a proper writer and enough of this tyranny already.
  8. Observe detail. It’s soothing and stimulating. I take pictures too. Leaves; an interesting hat; the shift of a tree in the breeze to an unusual angle. Buildings, stone, walls, streetscapes, faces, overheard conversations. Be observant and, I do believe that, as well as feeling better, you will find that stories rise up to meet you. Be ready for them.
  9. Don’t assume that those who don’t have your problems don’t have any problems. Some people’s lives are easier, maybe. But yours is the only one you have and look at you: you’re a stone cold miracle there. Don’t assume that other people have it sussed. And when you see writing types who seem particularly confident and want some of that, it is likely that they are blagging it or…just maybe…they are a bit cocky and I will wager that this is not the best for writing or the careful lifting up of others.
  10. Read. Lose yourself in a book. Read different books. I have built and rebuilt my mind with reading and I hope fervently that it can be this way for you too, if you need it. I wish you love and courage, Anna x

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