Parents of children and young people with additional needs which present in behaviour that may hard for others to understand – perhaps because their offspring or those in their care are autistic, or there are mental health problems, mental illness or a developmental or learning disorder of some kind – may have to listen to a lot of comments from others. Those comments come from family, friends, strangers and also from health professionals and teaching staff. I thought it might be helpful to get a few things off my chest and, also, let you know I feel it too.
We are all on the spectrum! NO WE ARE NOT
How can he be autistic? He’s so empathic. THIS IS A COMPLETELY OUTMODED AND IGNORANT THING TO SAY ABOUT AUTISM
Autism is a mental illness. NO IT IS NOT. IT IS A NEURODEVELOPMENTAL DISORDER
Do you think he/she is like this because you are too soft with him/her? I AM A LOVING PARENT. WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE AND HOW?
I really didn’t like that at all. He/she should learn to control his/her rages. It’s really bad behaviour. THAT IS AN UNKIND THING TO SAY. IT IS HORRIBLE FOR THEM TOO – WORSE IN FACT. MAY I SUGGEST SOMETHING MORE COMPASSIONATE?
They must not let their peers go past them! IT IS NOT A RACE AND NOT ALL YOUNG PEOPLE CAN DO THINGS AT THE SAME TIME
If you cannot manage school, how will you manage university or a job? How will anyone write you a reference? NOT EVERYONE CAN COPE IN A MAINSTREAM SETTING AND PERHAPS THE PROBLEM IS NOT ENTIRELY THE YOUNG PERSON?
When I was young/starting out as a teacher/health visitor, we never saw these sorts of things? HMMM. BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT THERE OR JUST BECAUSE YOU DID NOT SEE THEM BECAUSE OUR KNOWLEDGE HAS DEVELOPED? ALSO DON’T SAY THIS TO A PARENT OR CARER WHO IS TRYING THE BEST THEY CAN.
It is a short post, but I am in such pain. I thought to write it just in case it helped someone else to brew up and get rid of some righteous anger – and maybe feel a little less alone.
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.
I took a long time to be published; by that I mean, I took a long time to start writing. I didn’t have the confidence. Now I have, it’s like a torrent. I am six years in. When the occasional person decides to be a bit snarky about the seven books I have written in that time, I tend to explain that they were in my head for decades and that’s why everything is as it is now. My bravehearts, do your own thing; believe in your work first and foremost and do not apologise for the way in which you work, whether it be ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’. Here is my first bit of love for you all and it is about productivity – but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Also, being gentle on yourself and always working with what you have.
So, let’s go on this adventure together. For a start, you work with what you have. That is, it’s lovely to have an office or a dedicated room, but if circumstances demand that you write at your kitchen table, or on your lap wherever you are, so be it. If you wait for those perfect circumstances, you will never start, so yes: always go with what you have. I write at the kitchen table and am frequently interrupted. I go with it and use headphones for busy times. Remember that genius exists in the finest library, but also at a scruffy kitchen table. Also, if you think you must assemble ideal conditions – that is, ideal emotional or psychological conditions – before you write or continue writing, then I do believe that is deferring your creativity to fate. You may feel down, sad or that heavy weight of grief that comes after the first pains which you think will kill you. My darlings, I am so, so sorry. But you know, you can write in rage and sadness, too. Maybe not yet, but you will. Sometimes, little bits of story unfurl within the sad story of you and yours; cling to them, because they are still there and precious. Think I don’t know? I am writing this now, to you: after a second very broken night, this little story unfurled while I was on the phone to care providers and emergency staff because I have a very unwell eldest. I find it heartbreaking sometimes and after years it seems a solution is not within our grasp, but within those feelings, I try to draw something else out. Today, this morning, so tired, it was for you. Take it.
It may seem that, with difficulties in our daily life, for those we care for or, or with ourselves, we cannot create, but that is not so. Here is more about me: I manage several long-standing mental health problems and I have been recovering from Long Covid (I think we are getting to know each a bit better, right?) – and I am not writing from a position of privilege, telling you sweet things. I am aiming to comfort you, so that you might follow a dream and, hopefully, get paid for it, too – but we will come back to the latter.
What about the adage of writing every day? That real writers write every day. Well lovely if this is you, but it cannot be everyone. I cannot do it. If you are poorly or managing any combination of circumstances, or just because it doesn’t work for you, then you cannot do it. This does not mean you cannot produce a book. Again, go with what is available to you because, again, if you think it is only possible with (perceived) ideal circumstances, then you may never get started or find your progress is stymied because you are feeling anxiety about your lack. Look, instead, at what there is. Thought. Cogitation. Reading. Listening. Man, you’ve been busy. So, you may not have committed words to the page, but a process is still ongoing. Pondering is the writing, too. Don’t forget that now. (I dedicate this last sentence to my fantastic agent who had to remind me about this and specifically in the context of pondering the plot. Ahem.)
This point follows on from the last. You may not write every day – as in get words down on a page – but try to inhabit the world of your book. What might that mean? Perhaps, that you mull over its characters and plot, read, think about it all on your commute, go for a walk and just let it sit and let your mind freewheel and see what springs up; that you keep reading; that you look over edits – your own or someone else’s – and maybe you could do bits of admin if the urge is that strong. Do your page numbers, check SPAG or write an acknowledgements page: these things can be lovely little boosts and make you feel your book is evolving into an actual THING. Think of the work and the writing as not only being the writing down, but also of the rumination while you are having a bath, or resting, say. If you do that, you may find your attitude to it shifts and you realise you’re further along than you thought.
A little exercise to do right now. If you don’t have a dream…Grab anything (if it were me, it would be a not very fancy exercise book and a felt pen, I expect). Now, scribble down in any way it comes to you some thoughts about the kind of book you want to write. What would it explore? What themes are in it? Where is it? Not what you think you ought to be writing, but what you dream of doing because you need to test it on your pulse. It must make you feel excited. That will focus the mind. You could also think about what your dream is in publishing: again, consider what you really want. Shall I tell you mine? It’s to write books that you can see in bookshops, have at least one of them made into a film and empower as many people as I possibly can along the way. That’s what this book is. I also want primarily to be a novelist, but with other short fiction, features, and non-fiction texts. To build a portfolio of varied books. In terms of industry, I want to be with industry professionals who are supportive, open and flexible. Over six years this has not consistently been the case and, with my everyday concerns, I found it startling and then eviscerating. We will return to looking after and working with this side of things later as it is all part of the picture.
Most of all I am going to get totally lost in what I am writing – and we are back to testing on your pulse. This is where everything starts. I have a second exercise too. I said, work with what you have. Well, what do you have and how can you make it better for yourself? Never mind the conditions in which you think you ought to be writing; never mind what you have surmised everyone else is doing. Where can you work, how can you make it a nicer environment for you – which includes things that are soothing if you are prone to anxiety or those troubling MY WORD MY WRITING IS SHIT WHO AM I KIDDING thoughts which may bubble up as you work. I have essential oils and fake peonies in a vase and music to the rescue on the kitchen table or a desk in my bedroom. Think also about you: reflect on your assets, your reading, life experience, the way you see the world, your dialect, accent, phrases specific to you: all that richness and beauty that you are. Think about where you have been – yes, even if it was in your imagination – your sufferings and joys and know that with all the stories and the myriad experiences you have, you are extraordinary. And don’t tell me you are ordinary, because no-one is that, especially not you. In reflecting honestly on what you have, your vision becomes clearer, I think. Your vision of who and what you are as a writer; if you can feel reassured that you don’t need the glittering education, (readers, I went to Cambridge, albeit from a not very good comprehensive and was sure that everyone there had had a better previous education than me and I still met lots of people – forgive me – who were exam-smart but dumb as soup),or the MA or MFA (although there are many lovely reasons for doing one). I do not have a room of my own, but I have a table I gussy up and earplugs. And I know who I am. I have found my voice. I hope you can hear it speaking to you as I encourage you or remind you to find yours.
It may be that you saw a recent slew of articles in the industry press on burnout in the publishing industry. I then did my best to dovetail with pieces in The Bookseller on this – you can read what I had to say here:
First let us define burnout. The World Health Organisation, which classified it in 2019, conceptualises the syndrome as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It has three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. When it comes to authors and this definition, it’s important to remember that our workplace is often our home, and the site of a multi-strand freelance career, which can make things harder, rather than easier; I personally have experienced all these feelings over the past three years while launching two books in lockdown, being unwell, home-schooling, teaching online, and being a carer. Writing can make for quite an isolating as well as an overwhelming life, especially in times of strife.
So there is a definition.
Then, I was able to suggest some things we might do to support ourselves, but in a short piece I could not offer much detail. So that’s what I want to do now. If you are feeling rotten, exhausted, what might you do?
First line of defence – and I am not a medical or mental health professional, but these are things I know: if you feel you are in crisis and you are frightened, remember that The Samaritans are there twenty four hours and here is a link. There are ways to access help beyond calling and these are outlined here: https://www.samaritans.org You may be aware of the text line SHOUT but here: https://giveusashout.org/ – this is twenty four hour text support. I also offer you this next page, because there are further resources and it also lists urgent mental health care routes in your area: https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/mental-health-services/where-to-get-urgent-help-for-mental-health/ Promise me you will not ever be embarrassed about being scared, feeling vulnerable or needing help? Human beings get ill; they have tipping points. Here are some starting points if things have got very bad and you don’t know what to do. Emotions are massive unwieldy things for a start, no-one is invulnerable and it is estimated that, at any one time, one in four people in the UK is coping with a mental health problem. It may be that you are overwhelmed and exhausted and what you need are rest and pals and respite; or it could be that this needs input. I think it’s important to say that it need not be your call: I have been in and out of mental health care for decades and this is something I would say. On two occasions I got extremely ill and because I had things to do, kids to look after, classes to teach, I did not ask for help soon enough: it resulted in people needing to advocate for me because I fell apart and could not verbalise what was going on. For me, that’s bad! So yes: promise me that you will take action and not feel embarrassed, that someone else’s need is greater or that you ought to toughen up or you’re probably okay really. Bravery is actually asking for help. Now, in more specific terms, that is, in terms of being an author, what might you do? I am going to have to approach this one rather broadly, because being an author may mean that you are first querying work, that you are more established, or that you have stalled. That’s a lot of situations. Some things that I have done, because of feeling awful, have included everything on this bullet list…
Evolve a group of writers at similar stages. Your tribe. It can be online: put the call out on twitter and do not be shy. You could have a writing support group through twitter DMs or WhatsApp, say, considering which option feels best. When people are very down or overwhelmed, the tap tap and pressure to keep up in an online group can be too much, so you could all set some parameters for what is helpful.
Compare and despair. Look: I regularly see people with the opportunities and exposure with one book and after one book (and no other writing) that I have yet to access after many articles, pieces in the national press, a column in the industry press and seven books either published or coming to press. Is it fair? Well no, you could say not, but it’s common, just as it’s common in life. If you are expecting parity of this sort, you’ve come to the wrong industry! Possibly the wrong planet! So you can allow resentment to curdle here or you can smile (I KNOW it is hard) and understand that everyone has a different route in writing and publishing. You do not know what will happen further down the line after a magnificent debut with full voltage exposure, just as you do not really know what else is going on in that person’s life. Be generous and also be kind to yourself. As I said, compare and despair. Plough your own furrow here. If you reiterate to yourself how unfair it is, you will suffer creatively and become – which I know, because it happened to me – less buoyant and more vulnerable. It is hard, but focus on you.
Now, people may write, oh take a break. But that is predicated on privilege and, frequently, ableism, and the assumption that we can all get out for a run, or a weekend away. I have tried to rethink this, so it is the case of finding time and support in your mind supported by, as far as possible, being in and honouring your body as best you can (which you are also not going to beat yourself up about right?) How might you repeat helpful things to yourself, praise yourself? How might you develop that quality of rest? Think about that and do it. Write it down if need be. Because of the serious challenges my family and I have had to face over the past few years, I have had to recalibrate and rethink the notion of success. So, for example, while other families were putting their amazing holiday pictures on socials, I was focusing on the maxim, ‘Everybody fed, nobody dead’ at Bookworm Towers. Do the same with your writing. It takes courage to put your creative work out there, for example: never stop reminding yourself of that. As treats, be very kind to yourself in your head. If I do this, it is like a tiny holiday and it makes me feel less tired. It all helps.
It is trite as hell, but live in the moment as much as you can to minimise panic and overwhelm. You can never BE in the future, up ahead, and the past is a different country: it was and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Focus on right now: what you can do, in this moment, to make yourself feel better. Because I have had a very ill offspring, I have had to do that. I didn’t at first, but exhaustion claimed me. Things are scarier when you are always anticipating and, in my experience, getting too stuck in anticipation leads to catastrophising. Feel free to disagree.
Try using the Kaizen method – google it but there are a number of books (around £2-3 second-hand; I just checked) – where you think about making very small positive changes – VERY small – to change your attitude or practice. That could be a simple to-do list you set down for writing goals; a small piece of industry research. The point is small. It’s all you need to keep moving.
If you are burning out or think you have burned out because of others’ unkindness in the industry – cutting to the chase here, in seven years I have encountered a handful of shockers – take it to your tribe (point 2, above) and don’t be shy about joining and telling a union. In my case Society of Authors – such as here https://societyofauthors.org/advice There is a range of guides, but you can also call and write to them about a specific matter. Something that caused me a great deal of upset led me to ask for help and they replied in considerable detail to everything and also outlined how a professional complaint might be made. My point here is two-fold: don’t suffer alone and, also reclaim some power – which brings me to the next point…
Rejection happens at all stages, whether you are first querying or a few books in. Some have an easier road of it than others but, as in point 3, compare and despair. So know that this is normal and natural. It is actually ghosting and being ignored – from first queries to full books sent to commissioning editors by your agent – which floors me. I got extremely low about this. Talk about it, but look at what you can do – because this is disappointing and feels disempowering, yes? (And I should say, cope with rejection by always being working on something else, at however tentative a stage.) What I have done now in response to the ghosting is to set deadlines in my mind and then move on. In some cases. I have begun, very politely, to ask for deadlines when I have queried independently. For agency work, I’ve asked that we do the same. It has been a way of reclaiming some power.
Don’t see patterns where there are none. It is very easy to assume that because it has been tough, it will always be tough; even to connect other areas of your life where you have screwed up and connect that to feeling terrible as an author. But life is not a place where everything happens for a reason; it is full of happenstance and changes, small and radical, and tomorrow can be different from today. That is easy to forget, isn’t it? I believe that human beings mess most things up and I am absolutely sure that most creative projects fail – because creative endeavour is full of risk. I would say, start each day – each moment – afresh and then it is easier to spot opportunities; to be as positive as you can be. This is something I have been practising in order to feel lighter.
Reading. I am a reader before I am a writer. I think of reading as my saviour, so if you are burned out, increase or vary your reading and into your life will come new forms of beauty, new worlds and new ideas. And do you know, I talk a lot about gentle productivity, so I want to emphasise that it is in play here: you are also working – writing – when you are reading, even though you don’t notice it. Nourishing your imagination, your core; relaxing into it and finding a myriad ways of looking at the world.
With much love and remember that you are not alone,
Beyond this, Italian rights have recently sold on my 2020 novel, Saving Lucia – so more news on that when I have it.
At the end of the month I start a year’s teaching with Jericho Writers on their novel in a year course. I hope I will be able to bring interest to what they offer; also to motivate, and provide a compassionate and safe-feeling environment for my mentees in which, frankly, to pursue their dreams. On top of this I will continue a small amount of secondary level teaching and one volunteer component which is for exam year Ukrainian students in our area.
The stuff about dreams, though: I realise – and it took me some time to realise it because I held stubbornly to certain beliefs – that, because of the demands on me at home and in particular because one of my sons has additional needs that have not been met by professionals over a long period, I have to retreat somewhat. I cannot keep being out there plugging myself on social media and, in addition, I think that I have worked so hard on writing that is close to no longer being a joy. I cannot let that happen. I am very, very tired and, even with an eventful life to date, nothing comes close in terms of awfulness to seeing my son suffer like this. So I am just going to be doing some gentle writing for pleasure for the time being, not submitting, no great plans – and I am going to have to rely on others to promote my work, share my work and help me break through more. If I don’t? Well, I have done my best in the circumstances – which include having some industry incidents which left me baffled and very unsure of myself – and I need to focus on healing and quiet times. I have done my best as a parent in truly challenging circumstances, trying to keep a family of five afloat without adequate professional input. Plus in six and a half years, I have placed 7 books with two more a going concern: it worries me I don’t feel proud of that. Now you see what I mean about healing; something has gone very wrong with my perception and I have very substantially moved the goalposts. So here is to things getting better, helping others, fewer distractions, different hopes – at least for the time being – and getting back to more reading. Also, in building greater confidence in knowing that my own voice is good enough; interesting even: of value. That is what I would tell you. In this deep sadness, I am having trouble telling it to myself.
I have written before about how writing need not live in ideal conditions. If you wait for the planets to align, a better desk, a writing shed, more time, more supportive people about you or any number of things, you may never start. You are, in effect, deferring your creativity to fate. To random acts. To heartbreak being mended.
Sometimes heartbreak is not mended.
I have a broken heart. I have no sense of whether it will ever be mended and I have gradually come to this realisation.
I know that sounds bleak.
Some problems do not have a solution, some things are not recoverable. There are not always resources or will to help you and illness or pain may not be fixable. And no, things do not always happen for a reason and no, you are not only given what you can cope with. These are trite, empty affirmations; arid lies. Of course they are.
This is where I am right now.
But take my hand. Sometimes, I sit at my desk, or the kitchen table, I can feel a deep pain in the region of my heart. This is not all, though. Yes, I sit there and feel it could be torn in two – ‘break heart, I prithee break’ – but it does not. It refuses. Because this is not all.
Here is what happens. I use words and small questions. I start asking myself those questions. How does it feel? What is happening elsewhere? Who can I hear? Somehow, just those simple acts, of focus and using language to mould my experiences of the world, in the smallest possible way, right then, enable me to cope. Some say I am thriving. It is the greatest paradox and also what I want to reiterate about writing- and starting it or continuing.
You may think you are too put upon, ill, sad, to ask those small questions and consider language and its aspirations; what it might do for you. This is not so. Sometimes, there is no happiness; you do not have that. In my case, there is the work. I teach teenagers, I mentor young adults and, increasingly, I am a creative writing teacher too. There are my books. Everything you can read of mine has been forced onto the page, in small questions, and small but resolute conversations with language. I have written sitting on the bonnet of my car in hospital car parks, lying on the floor at night on duty; I have reimagined what writing is, by coming fully to understand that it is not only the words onto the page, but thinking and reading. Also, as I said, that creative work, if you can trust just enough, will still emerge in the most disconsolate moods, times: in the life which has come unstuck because of grief. Your intellect wants to play; to dance: respond to it.
So I know this piece is sad and yet it is also not. At the heart of sadness is miracle. It does not fix anything but it is still there, like an impulse to life. Perhaps not hope, but beauty.
I’ve always been quiet; I am merely accidentally loud. I love activity, but become extremely stressed and tired out by noise when it is clamouring for my attention and when it is a noise competing with other noises.
I have always been melancholy; I look the opposite!
I’ve been thinking about all this again – and the noise and the melancholy – because I need to reflect on changes I feel I must make. These are really changes in my thought and, because writing and reading are at the core of what I do, some of those changes may impact on that, or rather my perception of it. You see, after the past intense years of my eldest son being terribly ill and the total failure of multiple agencies to help him and us, while I was already managing chronic illness, I am a bit tired.
I wrote before about how I don’t have the strength to pitch articles now. I may do the occasional one with someone I already know, with whom I have worked perhaps, but that’s it. Also, I will continue doing as much of the recommended push for The Alchemy, which I am crowdfunding for – https://unbound.com/books/the-alchemy/?utm_campaign=thealchemy&utm_medium=AuthorSocial&utm_source=AuthorActiv …but what does not work and what I cannot do, I shall not berate myself for. Everything else: I will meet deadlines for forthcoming books, greet good news for future work with love and enthusiasm, but other than that, I need to start relying on others a bit more (not to mention avoiding those who have been unsupportive or unkind; I cannot make everyone like me, can I?) Because the asking, pitching, getting involved in a lot of things is, I’ve discovered, too much for me. Everything I have learned about the book business has been through twitter, but I can’t constantly hawk my work in the way I have been. I thought that was what sold books; it isn’t: it’s a good team of people behind you with strategic planning and you, being your bookish self, as part of that.
I was reflecting, as I looked at Instagram briefly this morning, that, even if I were to be invited to do exciting book events all over the country or abroad – I am not proud to admit that I get awful pangs of jealousy and might have beens as I see many doing such things – how could I? The kids need me, because when one is long-term ill and there’s no professional support – we are talking years here – it has an impact on everyone. And I am managing pain and mental health stuff, as usual; waves of fatigue. I’ve been pushing myself too hard, haven’t I.
So yes, time to rely on others a bit more. There are plenty of lovely book folk about and some of the bad experiences I have had are put to bed while we focus on what comes next.
I think the key here: take your time and find good folk and work with them. Don’t try to do too much and don’t expect too much of yourself if your life is already complex.
Books – the reading and the writing are a joy: don’t lose that in the clamour.
Sometimes a quiet life is where it’s at.
x This is me, looking at you – in case you need quiet, too.
For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and by kind permission with the publisher of my forthcoming memoir, I offer you part of the opening section of that book. Please note the trigger warning and that this book is still in an editorial stage, to be published Spring 2023. Text is copyright. Here is the publisher’s link to the book:
A collection of interconnected essays on the natural world and its detailed and passionate observance over decades in the context of trauma and mental illness.
Trigger warning. Please be aware that this book is about personal experience and includes accounts of or references to mental ill health, OCD, self-harming, suicide, depression, anxiety, dissociation, and derealisation. Also, to violence and cruelty within a family. Importantly, some of these experiences were lived through by a child so please read mindfully.
TO go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am notsolitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities , how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One.)
A note on the text.
All epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay ‘Nature’, as is the title of the book (shown in the first longer epigraph), I have included botanical names for all plants and trees because they are so beautiful and I thought readers might enjoy seeing them, too. As a kid, I loved to learn them and would roll the names around in my mouth. Like sweeties. Only – arguably – Latin is better for you in the mouth than butterscotch.
So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes
There are twelve essays in These Envoys of Beauty, and each looks at some element – or elements – in the natural world and what it has meant to me. When I say that, I mean in terms of how I look at it, how I feel, how that has changed but, for the scope of this book, what any of it has to do with trauma and its management. Let me explain.
I grew up very rurally, raised by a Welsh family on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, but I have habitually spent a great deal of time in West Wales, particularly Pembrokeshire, because that is where most of my family is from. I now live in West Wiltshire. Open land, woods, riverbanks were and are my world. I am also sure that they are how I survived – not better, but intact.
What I show you in this book rests on formative incidents as a child and adolescent: bookish, nerdy, and socially awkward (all of which I still am, only I do not mind now). I spent as much time outside as I possibly could and was always scrambling about somewhere, up trees, in ditches, into rivers and streams and home to look things up and, sometimes, preserve specimens in books or a flower press – or found antique treasures in pillboxes and tins. That is still me today. If you had looked in my primary school books or those in the early years of secondary school, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a botanist. I would spend hours out there and, afterwards, hours in there, looking at my guides and drawing plants and animals – a particularly tame wren on the dog roses; a tree mallow with its flowers open to the sun, looking happy. Lavatera arborea: I loved the rhythm of those words as a child and would linger there now.
I was raised on the crest of a hill, with orchards and old woods behind me and the fields below me and to one side; the river Frome in the valley, near to where it meets the Avon. The Wiltshire sign was below our house but parallel with a lower wall and I was always delighted that where I lived straddled two counties. I must have thought this was unique, back then. Or forbidden: that you had to live in one place or another, not in two. Then, the time in Wales: St Brides Bay, Cardigan Bay, the islands – Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm – and the water lands; the Daugleddau estuary where my grandmother had once lived, where part of it ended at Cresswell Quay. There were other places that felt like a home, too – Cardiff Bay, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains and I have always felt more Welsh than English, because I was raised by Welsh people in England. I feel that within me, and I like the way the two things tangle, itself a story for another book.
In many ways I was so lucky, and I am very aware of the privilege of growing up in these places. This is one story: bluebells, wild garlic, wood aconites, red campion, mud, and flood and feeling the lichen and moss and stone stiles.
But there is a second story.
I did not understand the dynamics of my immediate family, that I was blessed in where I lived made me think it was terrible to confess it, and I am not sure who I could tell. There was deep weirdness, death, unspoken illness, and psychiatric problems the nature of which I did not understand in my father’s family and, since the day he died, when I was eighteen, I have not seen them: they cut me off, just like that, my world there and everything that it brought into my imagination at first, had disappeared. I did not understand at first that its best bits could live on in that imagination, lively and fresh, though wrought by that deep weirdness. Then, my parents and sibling. I did not understand and still do not and, because I have explored it elsewhere and it is not the main thrust of the book – though you can see and infer much, reading through – I will not do so. But there were events which still, as I write, make me feel unsettled. My mouth becomes dry, and I feel that I am under threat. I do not expect to get better from this. It is all because of my mother. She was a splendid woman and I loved her, really, against my will. Because although there were streaks of that splendidness with me, what I was given and what I was left with was the sense that I was evil, the bringer of harm, a blot, a brat, a harlot, a slut, a terrible, selfish thing. This, she would always tell me, even when I was very small, was what everyone else thought too. I did not know any different.
She would slap me, pull my hair, kick me when I had fallen and scratch at my ears, but mostly it was the words. The confusion lay, as I say, because I grew up in a beautiful place. I could see that, empirically, but I knew it, hard, because my parents had come from large working class rural families, and had made the ascent, they would say, to the middle classes, or were very much on the way. It makes sense that they should want to remind me of blessings. But, you see, my mother also repeatedly told me I did not deserve it. She was ill a great deal and I remember feeling sick and shivering at the tension in the house. She took the time to tell me that I had made her worse. Then, when I was thirteen, my father became ill. The descent was slow at first, then rapid and dizzying. I did my best to help them both, to care for them, while feeling that I was burden and blot and then came the day that I was told I had hastened his death. I had always worried I was capable of this. Now it had come true.
At night, I would recite Latin names from plant books like mantras and talismans. I had awful ruminating and intrusive thoughts. I would feel a bad thought about someone ushering in – not something I felt, but a collocation of words in my head; a fit of diction, that was all. But by the time I was seven or eight, it was so entrenched that I was a bringer of harm that I decided I had to expel the words so as not to make the bad thing happen. I would have to go and tell that person, always an adult, a dinner lady, a teacher, the school caretaker, the vicar. What they thought I cannot imagine, but I do not remember reassurance ever being given.
By my late teens I had developed severe anxiety, depression. I first tried to take my own life when I was fifteen and again when I was nineteen. On the first of those occasions, my mother would not take me to hospital but instead said I should go to my room. I did not tell anyone this until after the birth of my first child, when I was dreadfully unwell and being looked after by a consultant psychiatrist in outpatients and a kindly GP. This is the first time I have written about it. I don’t know whether she hoped I would die – I had taken a considerable amount of paracetamol – or if it was simply too much for her to think about. I did not understand then, and I still don’t and will never have the opportunity to ask. Both my parents were dead by the time I became an adult.
From the age of twenty one I have been in and out of care – such as is available – and, ever since my teens, I have had difficult periods, of varying length and intensity, where I don’t know where or quite who I am; where my edges are. It is exhausting. It was never talked about by my parents, and they did not try to help me. My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence. She said moods were a myth, especially moods in teenagers, a licence for bad behaviour. PMT, she said, was made up. People who were mentally ill were those who had failed to control themselves. I don’t know why she said these things, but I feel now, looking back, that there was such burning life in her which had been thwarted. Moreover, mental illness – and severe mental illness – was rife on both sides of my family and I wonder if neither of my parents could bear to accept it within our family home. They rejected it because they were frightened and wanted to retain control and function; in doing so, they created something that was dysfunctional. Any one of us can be ill – and any one of us can have things go wrong with our mind.
I remember that it often felt so cold in our house, though a fire was often lit. I remember the day when my mother bought lamps as a development from the days of big light. I felt like we had arrived, and I loved the soft pools of light which fell on the floor and then, wonders, beside my bed. But you see that softness did not last and it was cosmetic. I looked outside.
Oh, there was a lot more than I feel I can tell which went on, but you can infer as we go because the point of this book is not degradation and terror, but joy and survival. Of course, I learned a good deal from some – not all! – of my therapy received sporadically over the decades of adulthood, but all that time, today, this afternoon, it was my connection with the natural world (and my reading) and all things in it which shored me up. On my worst days, I cannot go far, so I am just outside, but I am listening intently. I am a rural girl, but I am observing wherever I go.
In this book, stay with me as I try to show you the world I explored, what it meant to me then, and now. The essays are not chronological, but dart back and forth between them and within, memories and ideas associating and cohering. I do not mean to mythologise nature, because it is also full of facts and yet it illuminates, calms, and makes things intelligible. Sometimes I feel it as a metaphor, sometimes just as a sense or a reminder or prod – in the hard lines of something or the delicate feather of rime – to think about something with a different attitude. Also, even when it is small about me, I perceive space; that’s how it was for me as a child.
‘We constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings,’ notes Richard Mabey in Nature Cure and that is true, I think. When I was very young, and I would run out, or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world. There was something else, encapsulated by Wilson A. Bentley, known as ‘The Snowflake Man,’ who studied the snow and published many extraordinary photomicrographs of snowflakes. Bentley saw the snowflakes, as he observed them from Jericho, in Vermont, as a metaphor for all things beautiful on earth, but also ‘The snow crystals…come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades, but to come again.’
I want to reiterate. Nature has not been my cure. It has been my inspiration, teacher, and companion.
I am not better, but I have never been alone.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Bantam 1990, 2007. ‘Nature’ was written in 1836
 If you like, you can read an account of reading, the imagination and survival in an essay I wrote for Trauma. An Anthology of Writing about Art and Mental Health, Dodo Ink, ed Mills and Cuell, 2021); it also uses some sections from my first book, which was a work of autobiographical fiction.
 Nature Cure, Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 2005, Little Toller, 2021, p. 32
 Quoted in The Snowflake Man, a Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, Duncan Blanchard, Macdonald and Woodward Publishing Company. 1998.
Many people who read this month’s column will be carers. If you are not one now, you may be later and some of us will always be in this role. What does this mean? A carer (I use the NHS definition) is anyone who looks after a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of their illness, frailty, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction and cannot cope without their support. 2020 data from Carers’ UK found that there were approximately 13 million unpaid carers in the UK and The NHS Long Term Plan of January 2019 repeated a commitment to improve how the NHS identifies unpaid carers, and to better address their health.
I have been balancing needs for a long time and I was also a carer for my parents in my teens. The intensity of the last three years has, repeatedly, nearly felled me in terms of mental and physical health; before this I spent a decade trying to find appropriate support and diagnosis. Just over five years ago, I began writing, so let me share some ideas: how do you pursue writing and how might the industry acknowledge specific needs which you – which we – have?
First, productivity may have to be rethought. Productivity is not only – even mostly – the words committed to the page. It occurs in moments of reading, recognition and rumination. These may be snatched but treasure them because they are of intense power. Jot things down in a notebook if you can, but otherwise just commit them to memory. If you are too tired to remember specifics, summon up the feeling of those thoughts later. Too subtle? This is how I wrote my last novel. Moreover, I explored the idea of productivity for you here in more detail here.
Consider joining the Society of Authors group specifically for carers https://www.societyofauthors.org/Groups/Carers to meet some like-minded people, blunt your sense of isolation and access additional information. That done, your tribe comes into play. The group of people with whom you surround yourself: mine is called ‘Writing Support Group’: a motley and supportive clutch. If you find your tribe – online is fine – you need not be in similar situations but try to build a cohort of people with whom you can discuss challenges and sometimes cry or be rude and sweary about bad practice or vexation. That done, ask their encouragement that you may be bold in your decisions: being a carer can be rewarding; it can also be heartbreaking, not just because of what you see a loved one going through, but because of having to find resources, multi-task, contact various agencies and, not infrequently, see it all fail. If you are working with someone in our industry who lacks compassion, misrepresents you, drains precious energy from you, consult your tribe and gird your loins as you plan to let this person, or these people go. I realise this is a difficult and fraught thing, but I also understand the strain you might be under, and I see you. See yourself, too. Nourish your self-belief.
Finally, some thoughts for industry practice, based on my own and others’ experience. First, if you are a carer, it is likely that you need both clear planning and flexibility because of routines, medical appointments, unexpected crises, systemic failures and sometimes because you are, yourself, too tired or too sad to get everything done or perform in a public persona. Thus, it is important that planning from the publishing end is clear: publication dates, events and when you might need to hand in a round of edits or be required for a meeting. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Then, connected with this, is dialogue: partly so that you can communicate with your publisher, editor or agent as problems arise and partly so that you know what is going on. Understanding in a work context is vital and underpinned by the idea that some (many) lives are very difficult. Our industry might be more aware, also, that writing may be a conduit – the only available conduit – into meaning and feeling heard and seen for someone who feels marginalized. For that reason, in querying and submission, I propose that, as industry standard, an automatic email acknowledgment of work is in order, then a reply or a very clearly stated timeline on the period of consideration: three months (for example) and it is a no. One month after request of a full, that is a no.
There is genius out there, much founded in intense pain and frustration: I am on a mission to make sure it is nurtured and seen. As writers and as an industry we can work together to ensure that happens.