I have a theory about writers. We’re all mad. Maybe not all of us but a larger proportion than you’d expect in the population at large. Or so it seems when I consider my writer friends and the writers that I follow on social media. Many of us seem to be struggling with mental health problems. Although my perception could be affected by bias due to the large proportion of writers in the people that I follow on social media, my theory is backed up by at least one scientific study. What interests me is why? Is it cause and effect? And if it is, in which direction does it flow? Or is it a correlation with a more complicated explanation? It seems to me there are a few possible explanations and some or all might be applicable in individual cases.
Some writers can’t hold down a real job. I’m being a bit facetious here. When I say some writers, I’m actually talking about myself. A very severe depression and memory problems after electroconvulsive therapy meant I gave up work as a research scientist several years ago. I didn’t know what else to do so I started writing. And although I love writing and do it every day, I don’t count it as a real job because it feels like I’m just messing around at home and it doesn’t pay the bills. (I’m not entirely serious here. Writing is definitely a real job.)
Writing serves as a type of therapy. I’ve found keeping journals and writing poetry to be really helpful during terrible times. Even if you aren’t writing deliberately as therapy, it can help relieve the pain of mental ill health. In this explanation, the mental illness is the cause, the writing the effect.
Sensitive, empathic people receptive to the world make good writers because to write well you have to be observant and be able to put yourself in other’s shoes. But this quality might make those same people oversensitive to the world and its problems and perhaps more vulnerable to mental illness. In this case, there is a correlation between the two rather than a cause and effect.
Many writers, myself included, have particularly strong internal commentaries. This is great for chatting with characters you’ve made up, not so great for battling the internal critic. The internal critic might be the cause of some aspects of mental illness. And it doesn’t stretch credibility too far to imagine that the ability to see and hear imaginary characters might be a benign manifestation of the visual and auditory hallucinations that become more extreme and problematic in psychosis.
The dust has settled a little thick on my blog (and on every surface in my house if I’m honest) but there is just time enough left in this year to redeem myself slightly. And a blog post won out over cleaning. No brainer.
I didn’t quite mean to leave it so long to post here but sometimes life gets in the way of good intentions. That was the case this year. It’s been a tough one but I’ll spare you the details. I’ve been writing though. Just not here.
An essay in Boundless started my writing year and sent it off in a direction I wasn’t exactly expecting. The essay was one I’d written years previously but had never had the courage to make public. A memoir about mental health, miscarriage, psychiatric wards, ECT. Pretty heavy stuff (but funny too, if you like your humour pitch-black). It had such a brilliant response and I had so many requests to tell more of the story that I put aside my novel-in-progress and started working on a full-length memoir (although given that ECT shot gaping holes in my memory, perhaps ‘memoir’ is not the most accurate word to describe what I’m writing.)
It’s weird revisiting the past. Especially a traumatic past. Exhausting in a way that writing a novel isn’t. But what is really amazing for me is that I can do it at all. That I can revisit difficult times without being lost in them. Even a year or two ago, it would have been too much. I’d have felt every shake of anxiety, every tear, every crushing episode of despair, every twitch of paranoia, every lurch of fear.
Time helped. Friends helped. Love helped. And my writing too. It filled my head with other things when ruminations and intrusive thoughts threatened. I wrote about it for booksbywomen.org earlier this month. I’ll see what happens with the memoir-in-inverted-commas. Maybe it will be too difficult, too personal to try to publish. Maybe it will make me too vulnerable. Maybe it will intrude to much on the lives of those closest to me. But I’ll carry on for now because it won’t leave me alone.
Sometimes it is important to stand back and look at your achievements with fresh eyes.
The idea for this piece has been brewing for a while, and I think today is a particularly good day to get down to writing it. Why? Because, after a few weeks of travelling to various different events, I’m home again with nothing in the diary and I’m suddenly filled with Monday doubts and anxieties.
It is all too easy to flick through a Twitter or Instagram feed and measure yourself against others and find yourself lacking. Whether it is how you look, where you go on holiday, which parties you’re invited to. For me at the moment, it is all about book reviews. I feel like I’m yelling into a void, desperately trying — but failing — to attract attention for my novel, while at the same time succeeding in winding up everyone who is in earshot because of the racket I am making.
It’s hard. My publisher has a press department and sent out press releases for The Backstreets of Purgatory but apparently no one was biting. A debut novel by a total unknown? Little to no chance. Apart from the odd notable exception, it seems that the novels which get national press coverage are ones written by well-known writers, prize winners or journalists with contacts to the papers. However, not prepared to be so readily defeated, I have taken it upon myself to attempt to get some coverage. With that aim, I have sent out about a zillion emails to magazines and papers and potential reviewers (actually that isn’t true; it feels like a lot but they are targeted, not indiscriminate), torn between the knowledge that, on the one hand, journalists and books editors are swamped with unsolicited approaches every day and the last thing they probably want is me harping on about my book, and, on the other, that no one else is going to do this for me and I refuse to let this opportunity pass without giving my novel the best chance of success that I can. That said, I’m very aware (and not surprised) that most of my emails probably get deleted without being read.
So, Monday morning, sifting through the junk in my email with no sign of messages from magazine editors or reviewers, it is very easy to get demoralised. Failure feels like it is hiding around the corner, ready to stamp on my hopes and squash the life out of the brilliant moments of success that I’ve had so far.
How do you measure success?
The weird thing about success, though, is that you can always do better. You could always write more books, sell more copies, win more prizes, win a more prestigious prize, have a bigger audience. However successful a writer is, I imagine that there are very few who feel absolutely secure in their success. Few earn enough to support themselves by writing alone. Few are celebrities (if that is your measure of success). Critical acclaim is seldom universal. Commercial success doesn’t necessarily mean critical success. You get my drift.
It is also worth remembering how far you’ve come (and I’m talking to myself here obviously). To curb a display of intemperate Pollyanna-style melodrama, I won’t actually list all the things I should be glad about. But loads has happened this year that has been utterly and completely fantastic and way beyond my expectations (I’ll give the edited highlights).
Like getting The Backstreets of Purgatory published in the first place. I mean, come on. That was the dream.
And having an amazing — and I mean like totally amazing, couldn’t have dreamed of anything better type of thing — launch party with old and new friends. And getting some stunning reviews. And receiving hand written letters from readers. And travelling to New York to do a reading. Being invited to Cambridge to speak to Anglia Ruskin’s Women’s group; being invited to be a panelist at the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair, doing a Skype lecture/tutorial for an Italian studies class at Hull University. Honestly, these things had me buzzing with joy.
It is important to stand back sometimes. To not dwell on the fact that perhaps I don’t know all the right people, that I haven’t succeeded in persuading certain newspapers or whoever to take the novel for review, or whatever else I’m beating myself up about. Because there are lots of things that have gone brilliantly, including a great blog tour and some really generous reviews from plenty of other magazines and websites with many more offers in the pipeline. And of course, I have to make sure I remind myself that far more important events have happened this year — both personally and out there in the world — than the publication of my novel.
When I set out to write my novel I had two real goals.
To get it published and into bookshops.
To affect readers with my writing in the way that I have been affected by books that I have read.
The evidence for the first is in bookshops all over the country, from Waterstones to Blackwells, the British Library shop to fabulous independents like Golden Hare in Edinburgh. The evidence for the second is in the letters, messages and reader reviews that I’ve had. And it is properly touching.
Therefore, by my own measures, I declare The Backstreets of Purgatory a success!!
Everything beyond this is a bonus.
(And, anyway, my real daily success is persuading the cat to give me a cuddle.)
Three years ago, I attended the inaugural National Creative Writing Graduate Fair at Manchester Metropolitan University run by the brilliant Comma Press. It was where I first met Rachael Kerr, Editor-at-Large for Unbound and where my publishing adventure (and boy, has it been an adventure) began. Last Friday I was a panelist at NCWGF 2018. I have, in some ways, come full circle.
Our panel How to get noticed as a writer included publisher Sara Hunt from Saraband and literary agent Julia Silk from MBA agents, and was brilliantly chaired by novelist and creative writing lecturer Sarah Butler. We talked about perseverance, resilience, Continue reading “Full Circle”
It’s rare that I use this blog to give advice to other writers but on this occasion I’m certain you will forgive my presumption. Are you about to go on a reading tour? Are you on the festival circuit? Do you simply like to be flamboyant from time to time? Yes? Then I counsel you to fix yourself up with a Novelist’s Media Tour Kit (like mine) (okay, maybe not exactly like mine because I’m pretty sure mine is unique).
I’d love to say the inspiration came from me but, as with most of my best work, it wasn’t my idea. When The Backstreets of Purgatory reached its funding target (two years ago already!) my friends assembled the essentials for a media trip (should such an event arise) so I would not flounder in debut novelist’s hell. Next week, I head to Unbound headquarters to sign the special editions of my novel before they are sent out to my supporters and all I can say is thank goodness, thank goodness, I’m well prepared for my venture.