On writing, sadness, self-worth and opportunity
This is for my grandmother.
Where there’s shit there’s gold.
This is a personal essay: how the inside of my head works and what that has to do with my writing you and with yours. It’s the first – and far longest – of a series of essays for you. It’s partly about my nan and I promise that its content is relevant to the feeling and use of this book, so stay with me, but you pop off and get a cup of tea and a snowball if you need because this essay is perhaps a little intense. Remember what I said to some of you (and I have said it a lot) about working with what you have and finding your voice? The essay has those things at its heart, too.
Where there’s shit there’s gold
This saying, which you may either like or not, is a favourite one of mine: it reminds me – reminds us – that in tough times, when we are laid low, we need to look for the bright spots; to look for the treasure in the mire. I use this phrase today in a variety of contexts, but because we are talking about writing, and this essay is about writing, including in the context of chronic health problems and difficult stuff, I will look specifically at what this means in that arena.
The saying, by the way, is from my late grandmother, and I must ask you to say it with a South Wales accent and slightly theatrically and to know that she was a working-class woman of limited education and literacy who had a huge number of children, a husband she was not keen on and a tough life. So, if she could say this about finding gold in shit, then I insist that I can. This essay is partly in her honour, because she was well loved, but had little or no opportunity to follow dreams, such as writing romantic novels or being on the stage: I could have been on Broadway, some people said to me. I take great pleasure that my literary agency is right there on Broadway and that I am her granddaughter doing it partly for her. I am not exactly dazzling anyone as yet, but give me time: give me boldness, people to treasure that and not crush me, and I will pass it on to you, hundredfold.
But back to the essay on shit and gold.
I carry with me the confusion and weight of complex trauma. My nights were sometimes punctuated with fear as a child – and this explains why I am to this day such an avid reader, for it was always in books that I found solace and company – and I evolved into teenage years when I was part carer (for ill and dying parents), part wild child and eldritch child all over. That is, I felt separate and odd but could not embrace the very weird of me and could not for a long time. Books always accepted me in times of intense loneliness and strain; I ran to them when I dying to tell the outside world that those who were held up as pillars of society were also responsible for demeaning me, subjecting me to slaps, punches and kicks in the sides and the loss of handfuls of hair. And I say I was dying to tell the world, when what I really mean is that I thought I deserved it, was told that everyone else would think I had deserved it and so had colluded; moreover, there were lovely times too, so those lovely things seemed to give credence to the fact I deserved or sometimes, even, that I had imagined it. You see how confusing that must have been. I do not remember a time when I did not carry around the intense pain of this and I want to say that I do not, even after good therapeutic care (though extremely late in the day) believe that all sickness can be healed, even that of the mind. We do not all get well, and, in a way, I became freer when I stopped trying to. I understood I had to live with it and that trauma response had hammered in several responses and appeared to be the reason I was prone to periods of depression, generalised anxiety, dissociation, panic, and OCD. That was not even the whole adventure.
As I became an adult, I still read and read, then taught, read, and mothered and was a mentor and volunteer and read some more, but I did not dare write until I picked up a sharpie and scrawled a title about five years ago. This will sound ridiculous: something lit up. I cannot explain why it happened just then. Did I finally see the gold? I was angry and inspired and crying all at once and, in five years, I had written seven and three quarters books, pitched another parenting book and here I am doing this. That is eight and three quarters. I was told, by the more gaslighting end of the industry, to present as if I had struggled to get published because this was a good story for a woman of a certain age (which meant, I think, an older-than-twenty-five-year-old debut) and it reinforced a narrative that was helpful. Think about that. Not that it supported women, but that it was a helpful marketing tool. In the end, I railed, and things changed there, too: more excitement, energy and crying: more being livid. Why? Because it was untrue, and the real story was that I did not start writing. The point was that, during a long early period I had felt nothing, a weirdo, someone who was tolerated and someone of extraordinarily little talent. It was hard for kinder and more expansive minds to puncture this, though wonderful insightful people did try. In short, I was hard-wired to feel like a failure, scared of exposure and I did not have a voice. But it came. When it did, it was like a torrent and I can feel it raging, a river in spate, right now: I can feel it in tender and tingling hands and wrists, my eyes are sparkling, and you could detonate a small bomb next to me and I would carry on tapping away. Once I started writing, I could not stop and until my toes curl up, I absolutely promise you now that I will not. As I said, I took a long time to start.
Stay with me: I promise this is relevant to the thrust of this essayt and to so much more I want to write!
Let me tell you a bit more about the path I had been on before I put pen to paper.
I have, over many years, been introduced as ‘the crazy one’, ‘the mad one,’ ‘the nutter’ and, best of all, ‘the weird one I was telling you about’ – thereby revealing that they have been talking about your peculiarities behind your back. I used to get terribly upset about this. It is because I have been described in this way my entire life and, despite parts of my brain wanting just to be me, weirdo, the other parts yearned for acceptance. This is not a comfortable thing. However, what does fitting in mean? If it means suppressing your character, oddities, imagination, beliefs, and those things that make you you, then this is sad. You should be you. Certainly, you ought to reflect on others’ responses and needs; check your language and outlook are broad and inclusive – and you ought to self-reflect, because from that stems greater kindness to others. However, if you have earnestly done those things, then come as you are. Because, other than that attention to kindness, detail, and community, FUCK OFF, basically. Weird is great.
Also, weird might be your voice. Your art. It is mine. Trauma and heavy reliance on the world of the imagination do tend to set you a bit apart. That could kill you. It almost killed me twice.
So, I am thinking I have grown into my weird self a bit better. I think I might have raised slightly weird children. One of my offspring was described critically as ‘weird’ by a teacher on parents’ evening and it was not meant in a positive way. So, I quietly said, ‘And with that I am going to leave and maybe we can talk again later while we consider what might be positive about being weird?’
Then I put him in a story because I like a bit of revenge every now and then.
Because of things that happened to me, I made a few unusual but creative choices: I had a catalogue of imaginary friends well into my teens. This is precisely because I was beaten and scared and gaslit. I made myself into Frida from ABBA because I liked her red hair – my parents had ABBA albums – and my best friend was Agnetha who had awesome counselling skills. Dolly Parton was another gem in the catalogue (or gold in the shit?), because she was my imaginary mother and big sister. In my late teens, I used to go out with Albert Camus. When I was sixteen, my best friend was eighty-eight. She got me. She was weird too and liked bird skulls, tarot and Irish myths and legends. She was a storyteller; God rest her soul. I think that, as with my grandmother, her voice is melded with mine; the one that comes out in writing. I would not have had that had I not been a bit odd. I also wonder if, because I felt lonely and afraid to say things, I listened more. To morbid family stories and myth and legend on both sides. Tales, apocrypha and skewerings that were way too gory to be brought up over sausages and mash. And yet and yet.
A child at my youngest’s primary school recently said to me, ‘My mum says you’re weird, but I really like you.’ Think about that sentence. You do not know the half of it, love. There was another time when someone said to me (I remember it; I was outside the school office, attempting to partially conceal myself behind the bin while trying to hoick my tights up), ‘You are clinically insane.’ That was someone’s ma too, but directly to me. I was dumbfounded on this occasion because she was smiling, and I was a bit stuck on the word ‘clinically’ because as far as I knew she was an interior designer. It might have been the fact I was partially concealed behind the bin that prompted the comment, but more likely a sense, after having made various observations and tours of me, of having to express a dislike of something…off; odd; eldritch. To spit it out; like, if you thought you had put a chocolate in your mouth and realised it was a rock or some poo. I had started writing by this point though, so, instead of suppressing tears at her laughing, callous comment, I decided I might have her exit pursued by a bear in something. So, this is another thing. When I found the gold, it did not take away the shit, then or now, but it also helped me find recourse so that I could recover: now, I could take revenge from having (a version of) the mouth that spawned those words heartily eaten by an evil pie-maker in my short story volume, Famished. Do you think me awful? I really do find it a relief from tension and unkindness to write someone out and occasionally have them in the wrong place when the kraken rises.
And yes, maybe I do look ‘clinically insane’ to some people.
I dress in a funny mixture of Victoriana and sports kit and my tattoo is in Latin. I carry my chickens about, crooning to them. I was reading Dostoevsky to them the other day, although they prefer Flaubert, and the shorter prose, at that. Do you see where I am going with this? Because of my past and because of the problems I have had and will likely always have, I spot inspiration in unexpected places, and my oddity, born I believe of necessity and separation from the healthy mass, looks for conversations in unusual places. I cannot wait to start a conversation with the man who whispers and gurgles to his rooks, the lady who has a tiny glittering altar outside her house or the man who crosses the road every time he sees the local priest. I have a theory, which is that maybe, if you are a bit odd, you notice more. And maybe – even more radically – you notice people who might be a bit marginalised but with whom you could have a great chat and suddenly everyone there is having a better day. You do that because you have been so hurt and so lonely and feel it to your core and it makes you more responsive to others.
What do you think? That is the point and it took me years to figure it out: what do you think? (You superb weirdo.)
I think, then, that my grandmother’s saying was right. There have been long days and nights, with cortisol firing and flashbacks; frightening recurrent dreams and in the day, I ordered and reordered like a talisman and thus OCD came to stay, with all its persistent, intrusive thoughts: as a primary school child, I would have to go and tell a person a bad thought I had about them to stop the bad thing happening to them. It was not even a bad thought, just words that occurred and had not even coalesced into a pattern. Either way, this is not normal behaviour by any stretch. Not the intrusive thought, but its persistence and the fact that I really did believe that if not surrendered to source, calamity would befall. Somewhere, embedded in my psyche, were the words of my mother repeated early and thus lodged; I did not know how to tease them out. I had been led to believe that I was a burden, that I was the calamity and that I was the bringer of harm. Where is the gold in that shit? There was none; not then. But one day, I realised that all along I had believed in the transformative power of words; I had just believed in it the wrong way and had yet to connect this kind of magical thinking with the magic I felt wrapped up inside books, sucking on words, transported. That was the gold, and it also came later, when I found my voice. Not only because I had spectacular anecdotes, but because I was quite capable of being in my imagination and creating something, inhabiting it passionately. I had learned that exceedingly early and, five years ago, when I found my voice, it was what helped me make books: all that mental health adventure and the horrible events which preceded and accompanied it all, now that was threaded through narratives and made richly coloured.
My thinking goes rat a tat rat a tat all day long; allusive; solving problems with quotations; snatches of song if need be. It is how I manage things but also, I am always making stories and seeing links. I wish I had had the confidence to write books earlier – but it is all coming out now. That is because of the weird I am, you see. It is liberated. And partly because of the shit: I take the worst moments from dissociative episodes I have had, and images, rhythms, and repetitions I recall and feel from the psychotic episode I had before one of my breakdowns. I am not – please do not misunderstand me – saying that suffering is a path to art, because I have always found that trite and offensive. But I could not escape, and I had no-one to tell. And I could not get better – I am not better – so I have tried to mold it and form it into something I can share with others.
Here is the thing: we are all a patchwork of oddities, and everyone really is an outsider in their questing and difficult experience. We all hurt, and we all have emotional problems. How much better to channel those into something creative which might absorb and bring pleasures to others, than to suck that pain in, yet turn it outwards by planting it on others, manipulating and gaslighting them instead as a displacement activity because you hurt inside. So, find your weird. Explore it in writing, as I have done and will continue to do. Ultimately, just be you: perfect and as you were meant to be, memento mori, spoon collecting, fancy dress you. Perfect you in pain, not fixed, sick, screwed up and shat on, but indescribably beautiful and incandescently talented.
Remember: where there’s shit there’s gold. That gold is your work.
That gold is also, my darling, YOU.
 I realised, while writing the essay, that this word caused confusion. Your snowball in its finest incarnation is made by Tunnocks and it’s a generous-sized and chocolate-covered marshmallow garnished with coconut threads.