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