There’s one pervasive element which affects my mood that I have avoided writing about for a year. This isn’t a depression thing, it’s a living in a society that values appearance over anything of actual worth and importance thing. Yeah, it’s my weight.
And I’ve avoided it, because if talking about how my body gets me down makes me want to roll my eyes as hard as I’m doing right now, imagine how you, reader, must feel. It’s tedious. It’s predictable. It’s shallow? Nobody wants to talk about it and nobody wants to hear about it. But I’ve realised this is exactly why I should probably be breaking it down, on this blog I’ve created for the purpose of uncomfortable levels of honesty.
So – I feel fat. That’s not your cue to jump in and correct me, because you can’t. You can’t tell me what I feel, and you can’t change my mind by dismissing those feelings. You know you can’t, because the same is true when you feel fat and someone tells you that you’re being ridiculous. Which they will. Because they have to. It’s this minefield of a catch-22, in which we’re constantly reassuring each other that we’re no worse a human specimen than we were before those fifteen crème eggs in a week; but the fact we have to insist on this every damn time suggests that, well, actually, we are. Heaven forbid any of us should gain a few pounds, right? Fluctuating in weight is a fact of life for most of us, but please make sure you never once fail to deny this.
I don’t know, maybe some people are talked right out of their body woes by their friends and family berating them for voicing them out loud. Maybe I actually have comparatively high body confidence if I’m able to mention in a conversation that I’ve got heavier without expecting any denials. Maybe I need to just shut up altogether if I’m not looking to be made delusional about this simple truth.
But this is what’s so sucky about feeling fat – the truth is simple; the emotions are anything but. I know that I still average out as slender just as well as I know that slender is an arbitrary standard and nothing to be proud of. I know that if I’ve gained and lost weight before, it can and probably will happen again. And I know that just because I’ve noticed it, doesn’t mean everyone else has. In short, my rational mind is aware that none of this shit matters, and yet my state of mind is taking a sizable hit over this. I would go as far as to call my relationship with my body one of the big influences on my ups and downs.
If the baseline for such neuroses wasn’t so skewed, this might qualify as a cause for concern. As it is, I doubt this comes as any surprise at all. Look at what our perceptions of our appearance can do to a person’s mental health. Anorexia is a killer. Disordered eating passes for just ‘eating’ for legions of us at some time or another. I read an article a few weeks ago that suggested chewing a tablespoon of chia seeds for breakfast on the go. No, really.
I guess it comes back to something I wrote about months ago, about how we value ourselves based on how we think other people value us. Our outward appearance is the first indicator of who we are, after all, even if it’s a poor one in a lot of ways. Granted, we choose factors like our wardrobe and the way we style our hair, and that can say a lot about how we want to be perceived. But it’s the fear of being judged on the other things – like the fact our thighs touch or the blotchiness of our skin; the things we all know full well have no bearing on how interesting, intelligent, witty and kind we are – that’s causing us to lie awake at night regretting crème eggs. This is a travesty. One should never regret a crème egg.
The hilarious and tragic thing is that the older I get, the more remote the idea of thinking a mean thought about somebody else’s body becomes – even if I notice that yes, they have in fact gained weight – so why do I imagine anyone is thinking that way about me? Through no discernible effort, I think I’m maybe getting too wise to be convinced by Instagram or a magazine that there’s one ideal body shape, and that the rest of us are all somewhere on a scale of perfection oriented around it. It’s happening slowly, and periods of low body confidence like this one set me back, but I’m starting to see a distant future in which my mood is free to flourish and wilt only in positive correlation to excessive numbers of crème eggs. By which point I’ll have wrinkles and grey hairs to agonise over instead HA.
One thing I’ve found since admitting to people that I have this dumb dream is that so many of you do too. It’s a cliché to say everybody has a novel in them but… well, heck, I think everyone might just have a novel in them.
The problem is that so few of us, if any, are natural finishers, and writing your novel is a massive, time-consuming undertaking that, more often than not, no-one is on you to complete. Mark my words, your original burst of creativity and excitement over that shiny new thing of yours will not carry you through the hard work. And when it wears off, you have to decide how badly the world needs your magnum opus.
If you decide that the answer is really badly, then I’ve compiled some tips for you. They’re the things I’ve learned elsewhere that have proven to be most true and most helpful. You’re welcome.
Disclaimer: I am super proud that I wrote a novel, and I am not above bragging about that sometimes. But the thing I’m proud of isn’t that I’m super talented and special (because quick reminder nobody wanted to read it lol), it’s that I worked hard. I can’t tell you that your first stab will be a masterpiece, but if you don’t even write the thing, it definitely won’t be. So, the big take away here is that if you really want to do it, you can. I’m going to shortcut this pep talk and just link straight to Shia LaBeouf.
Oh my god, read. This is not optional. I would go as far as to say it’s a large chunk of the task. Because there is a big difference between being able to string a sentence together and telling a story, and no writing class in the world can teach you the latter without a few examples. And by a few, I mean as many as you can jam in. You don’t need to read critically; you don’t need to seek out the most venerated examples of literary fiction; and you don’t need to slog through what you don’t enjoy. Just know that you’re sucking that stuff up like osmosis. You’re learning how to be a better writer with every character you feel come to life, every line of dialogue that rings true, and every turn of phrase you need to read more than once because it’s just so damn neat. Read. Take in all that literary goodness and make of it something new.
And if you don’t like to read, you have some rethinking to do.
#2 Just write
Bear with me, because once you’ve established with #1 that this is actually a field you have an interest in, then this is my best and most important piece of advice.
Abandon your pride, stop trying to craft perfect prose as you go and just get words on the page. Write in bullet points. Write the scenes you feel like writing instead of the one that comes next. Write just the dialogue. Use the wrong there/they’re/their. Substitute that exquisite description for the word ‘nice’. You can deal with this all in your second draft.
This approach accomplishes so many things. It will stop you berating yourself for being bad, and we all know it’s hard to do anything when you’re convincing yourself you suck at it. It will also help you work hard, and enjoy that work. Productivity breeds productivity, and feeling good because you hammered out 1,000 words in a morning might just be the key to another 1,000 in the afternoon. And it will keep you limber. You will be able to get your write on so much easier if it hasn’t been two weeks since you last curated the perfect 150 words.
You may think you’re not capable of working this way, as I did for more than enough years. I can’t describe to you exactly how to unlock this easiness with words, but trust me, with the right frame of mind, you can. Because the best and most important thing about this JUST WRITE tip? The product will probably be a lot better than you think.
#3 Work in small stints
I tend to do this when I’m trying to kick-start my brain and the words just aren’t coming. I set a timer for just ten or twenty minutes, and write. Because everything that seems difficult or unappealing is easier and more palatable if you know it will soon be over. By the time those few minutes are up, I’m usually on a roll. And if I’m not, I make a cup of tea, stretch, and do it again.
#4.1 Change your mind
Having a plan is important. You can’t JUST WRITE if you don’t know what the scene’s about. But if your story and your characters start taking on a life of their own, don’t panic. I think this is probably a good sign. Go with it. Riling against what feels natural or inevitable for your plot or your protagonist will lead to something that reads as unrealistic and inauthentic. A couple of months ago, I started writing a novel about a portal to another world under Westminster Abbey, and now it’s a detective story. Why? Because it had to be.
#4.2 Start with character
I’m getting deeper into tips about quality than I was planning to go with this one, but it’s an important addition to #4.1 (please bear in mind that I have stolen these tips from people more qualified than me; I don’t expect you to trust in my non-existent credentials).
If you don’t know where your story needs to go, start with character. The biggest mistake you can make is to have Kevin propose to his girlfriend at the top of the Eiffel Tower if he’s scared of heights. Or have him pour his heart out to someone if he has been guarded and uncommunicative for 80 pages (without showing us that he’s changed/this person is special/Kevin is drunk). If you’re writing multi-dimensional, believable characters, you will no doubt find that they take on unexpected and unintentional qualities. If these qualities are a problem, go back and find where you introduced them (was it a line of dialogue? Something in a snippet of their backstory?) and change them. Don’t just ignore them.
#5 Don’t show it to anyone too soon
Feedback is important, and learning to fully hear, accept and process constructive criticism is a tool you can’t do without. But, LATER.
Believe me, I know how badly you want your loved one to approve of your work, or just be let in on something so important to you. But your brainchild is young and fragile and needs your protection. You don’t need the type of interference that comes with half a dozen other opinions on where Kevin should propose. Besides, however proud you are of your fantastic idea, nobody is going to share in that enthusiasm when you present them a chapter that’s still half in bullet-point form, and that will hurt your feelings. As a rule of thumb, get your novel – and your mentality – to a stage when the thought of having a stranger with no vested interest in your pride or your feelings read it doesn’t make you sweat so hard you might just evaporate.
Here’s a quote I love from E.L. Doctorow. No reason.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I just need to voice something we have all known since the dawn of time: job-hunting is soul destroying. Worse, since – as I’m starting to understand (that’s right, sixth admin job this month, I can take a hint) – I am unemployable.
You may be tempted to congratulate me on reaching what you might assume is not an easily attainable status. Like the low score at the pub quiz that might earn your team a consolatory glass of sweets, surely you need to have had an unmitigated shocker to do so poorly. You have to know, two or three rounds in advance, that you’re tanking this and there’s nothing left to play for, nothing to salvage. The most gormless of us have that much self-awareness, right?
Well, a word from the wise: not that hard. Take time off work, and everything that you are, all you have accomplished, the very years of your life up until that point, will vanish. Not to be dramatic.
Okay, I don’t know that that’s what’s happened to me here, not for sure. But with every day that I roll out of bed at nine and give my time to a vocation that’s not yet a career, I’m becoming more paranoid. How quickly did they dismiss my CV this time? Is it my use of the Oxford comma that’s turning them off? Has this been an elaborate, stress-induced delusion? Am I in fact mailing pages of achievements including ‘used to hold a perfect downward-facing dog but got lazy’ and ‘has committed to winged eyeliner every day for four years, ask all my friends’, in crayon, to random addresses?
I left my job going on two years ago with no idea of how, when or where I would find employment again, which even I am sometimes tempted to look back on and call naïve. But it wasn’t that. Whether the choice was prudent or not was beside the point. I still get what 2015 Hannah was doing. She was being unafraid. She was sacrificing security and independence for the sake of her aspirations. Or rather, future Hannah was making sacrifices for her. And now I’m here, and the welcome-to-the-real-world fairies have come to collect. I thought nothing had gone that drastically wrong, but I was mistaken. At some indiscernible point in my recent history, I became nothing more than an uncompelling CV.
I’m being melodramatic, but if you’re lucky enough to not be job-hunting right now, I want you to know on behalf of the rest of us that this is what it feels like. I want to grab the people turning me down and scream ‘MEET ME IN PERSON, I’M A CATCH’, but I don’t know who they are, or even if they’re there. The architect of this battering my ego is taking is the faceless, generic, oftentimes signature-less contents of my inbox. It’s dehumanising.
And, I’m convinced, malicious. Can we talk about those online application forms? The ones which make you pick your qualification from a drop-down list, and your subject from another drop-down list, and then fill in the dates over and over and over and you know what I’d rather be destitute. If you wanted to test my endurance, interview me on a treadmill. I’m game. If it’s about who wants it the most, like some last-one-standing Hunger Games scenario – at this point I might even be down for that too. I’m surprised they don’t ask you to scan and upload your GCSE certificates, alongside a selfie with your former boss, holding their ID and that day’s newspaper. Please have mercy. Everything you want to know is on this meticulously curated, single sheet of paper that you haven’t even asked for, because I was erroneously led to believe that brevity was the key to this whole circus.
And breathe. The more times I go through this, the stronger my sense of the countless others I’m invisibly fighting and their identical struggles. I applied for a single position last month that had over 260 applicants. It’s going to take time. Unless I have truly ceased to exist, then someone somewhere will eventually notice that I’m smart and hardworking, and worth more than my two years of ‘unemployment’ (quotation marks because I wrote a novel but NO BIGGIE WHO’S KEEPING SCORE).
I’ve been thinking I might move away. I need to breathe new life into this corpse aka my existence, and maybe I’m willing to do that at the expense of my writing. Not critically, and not forever. But – and this may come as a shock to any of you who observed me narrowing my only viable career option down to drug lord – I am interested in and capable of a lot of other things besides writing. There’s got to be balance or the whole thing falls down, and right now I’m wobbling on a heap of half-finished manuscripts and nothing is holding me up.
One of my biggest fears is that I can’t sell myself without justifying my unemployment, and I can’t justify my unemployment without sounding like my heart’s in something else. But the funny thing is, last month I started a new novel, and I’ve been enjoying writing more than I have in a year – and that’s what’s making me crave something new. I don’t know if I can explain it, other than to say that writing can’t happen in a bubble. Life feeds it, and maybe my stores are running low.
Pop quiz: what does today – the third Monday in January; supposedly the single most depressing day of the year – have in common with Marmite? Take a second.
I bet your mind went straight to the love/hate thing, right? And you’re wrong, but you’re not wrong. What Blue Monday and Marmite have in common is a discourse that has slipped into the public consciousness, but was actually invented by a PR company. In the case of Blue Monday, it’s a thing that originally existed to sell you a holiday; preferably from Sky Travel, who claimed to have calculated the date using an equation which factored in the weather, your bank balance, the time since Christmas, and a need to take control of your situation, among other things. As for the Marmite thing? I guess they had to throw their hands up and admit you might hate it, because they had no other way of selling you a salty, black goop made from a single-cell fungus (for the record, I am #teamyeahmarmiteisokayiguess. Take that, consumerism).
But yes, it’s a difficult time of year. You’ve put on weight, you’re probably getting less sunshine than you need, and I’m sure Sky Travel weren’t wrong when they figured we were packing in our New Year’s resolutions right around now. One of mine was to practise yoga regularly, and I could count my practises so far on one hand even if I didn’t have fingers. But I take issue with today being labelled the most depressing for several reasons. Firstly – and I hope my sarcasm translates here – oh here’s a great idea, just in case there’s anyone out there doubting what a heap of trash this freezing, debt-filled, non-festive working Monday is, let’s go ahead and make a big deal about how it literally does not get worse than this. I mean, is there anything more depressing than the most depressing day of the entire year? You don’t need to answer that.
And secondly, please accept my sworn guarantee that this will not be the most depressing day of your year. Okay, you have a one in three hundred and sixty-five chance that it is, but I like those odds. Because life is going to happen to you. There’ll be tears. There’ll be bad news and awful fights and crushing disappointments. You will get ill. You will log on to Twitter and see another heartbreaking hashtag, or a news story that makes you want to punch a wall. And maybe some days, the sun will be shining, your wallet will be heavy, your summer holiday will be booked, your workload will be your bitch, and it’ll still be your Blue Monday. Because whether or not you’re in sterling mental health, the human experience is more complex than an equation about money and the weather. You are more complex than that equation.
Let’s bring this back to me being a massive New Year’s Nerd, because my third point is that this time of year gets a bad rep. I don’t want to be the loser who loves January, but I have got it’s back when people start hating. This is your clean slate, and I get it: it’s hard to swallow when you first scuff it up a bit, or when all the build-up is over you’re still just you, in the same place and the same job, with the same character flaws. But just like all this unexpected bad stuff is going to hit you over the course of 2017, so is the good. Things change – they can change in a second, like the year. Your new beginning doesn’t have to be January first.
In a few short months you’ll be wondering how the year has passed you by, so enjoy January for being the only time all the stuff you’re looking forward to is yet to come. Here, I made a list:
Your birthday, most probably
Valentine’s Day, if you’re gross
All those bank holidays crammed into May
Pink, shirtless men with muffin tops and cans of Carling the first day it’s fifteen degrees outside
Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast, out March 17. No, I’m not sponsored, I’ve just had it in my diary since 2015.
Daffodils, boys and girls. DAFFODILS!
Anyone who has ever rung in the New Year with me is probably aware of the uniquely poignant and philosophical mood it puts me in. I’m the person who asks if you have any New Year’s resolutions, despite no one ever being enthusiastic to hear that question. I’m the person who will swoop on you from the other side of the room if I hear you utter ‘I don’t really care about New Year’s Eve’ and explain in an unsolicited rant why you’re wrong. I’m always the most sober at midnight, because while everyone else at the party has taken the evening as an opportunity to be merciless with their livers, I want to be cognisant, sensitive, ready. In short, I’m a massive New Year’s Nerd (NYN).
I know January first is just another day, but that’s kind of the entire point: every day can be January first if you want it to be! New Year is just our best shot at remembering that. It infuses the lives of NYNs with fresh purpose and motivation. It gives us a dose of live-for-todayness, and if you can maintain it until New Year’s Eve rolls round again, I hear they make smiling pot-bellied statues of you a la Buddha.
This is why I’m so into New Year’s Resolutions as well. I say I’m going to do something differently almost every single day of my life, but if you embrace the New Year, you can make it mean more. Think of how you’re most careful with your belongings when they’re new. If I asked you to stop scuffing the toes on your three year old, worn out boots, it probably wouldn’t mean much to you, because what difference would it make anyway? Looking at your failings and beating yourself up over them is not the way to motivate yourself to do better. But feeling good about the fact that you’ve eaten your five a day every single day this year, even if it’s only January third, is how you become a new you!
But enough. I will probably spend most of January blogging about my renewed enthusiasm. I’m here to talk about this year. 2016. The year that, if the internet is to be believed, literally murdered David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, and a whole load more of your faves. The year of nightclub shootings and [more] bombings in France. The year of Brexit and The Donald FFS. The world at large had a pretty terrible 2016, and almost as if my stars wanted to make a show of solidarity, mine will also not be making any best-of lists when I buy the farm.
Exhibit A: my 2016 New Year’s resolutions, annotated:
Give up alcohol and sugar for all of January.
Get a job.
Here’s the thing: I’ve filled out more applications for part-time work than I’ve admitted to anyone. Things I’m in no way qualified for, things I’m overqualified for, and things awfully similar to what I was doing in my last job. Someone has deemed me unsuitable for every single one. Can they tell my heart’s not in it? Erm, I write a heckin’ exceptional supporting statement, so absolutely not. And besides, some of them I’ve been truly excited about. Are they put off by the long stint of unemployment? It’s highly likely. But whatever. There’s nothing I can do about that other than continue to believe that when the perfect job comes along, I’ll be the perfect candidate.
Publish my novel as an ebook.
Check! This was a big’un and I did it. Could I have done it better? Yes. In hindsight, I wish I’d thought to promote it more in advance of putting it on sale, but I’m not losing sleep over it. Getting it out there and having people I’ve never even met read it has been beyond exciting – and the work that went into it gave me real purpose for a few exciting weeks – but this was never meant to be my big break.
Don’t get ill. All year.
Aim high, right? No, I did not achieve this.
Finish current novel.
There was this schedule, this time last year. This beautiful, colour-coded, thoughtfully planned timeframe for a first draft of book #2. It expired seven months ago, and no, I have not finished my novel. I might have if I’d worked harder, or managed my time differently, or not made that beautiful schedule in the first place, and approached the project without as much pressure. The thing about New Year is that I get to leave the ifs and buts in the past. No, I didn’t finish my novel. Yes, I’m frustrated by that. But it’s not going to stop be putting this one back of my list of resolutions this year.
In the end, I’ve realised it’s not the resolutions that matter when I look back and pass judgement on the year. Or it is, but not in the way I’m valuing them. I pick a list of things I think will help me grow and change, and it’s the growing and changing that makes for a successful year, whether I planned for the specifics last December or not. The problem this year wasn’t that I didn’t finish my novel, it’s that I didn’t finish anything, or start anything either. 2016 never gained momentum. The story arc was lacking. The star did her best with the source material, which was promising in parts, but repeatedly failed to deliver. While 2016 improved on the jarring pacing and frankly atrocious first half of its predecessor, it was probably, in retrospect, damaged by the hype. It was no way near as good as it promised to be.
That’s not to say there haven’t been flashes of brilliance. I visited Barcelona. I started learning Spanish so I can go back. I saw two of my closest friends get married. I started a blog, and the reactions of people who see echoes of their own stories in mine has been more than I could have hoped for. I made my first paycheck as a writer, and I even won an award for the same piece. Yes! I won an award. I taught my dog to high-five; IT’S THE EFFING CUTEST THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN. I’m hashtag blessed, but I’m also living in this agonising stasis, at perhaps the most important juncture of my career (aka the one which dictates whether I will ever have one) – and it’s giving me déjà vu. This New Year looks uncannily like the last one.
Here’s one thing about 2016 though: it’s over. It’s time to try again. I’m still a diehard NYN, and the New Year spirit is already bubbling inside me (not a euphemism for I have been drunk off champagne for the entire festive period, but that too). It might look like I’m Groundhog-Daying this thing, but only Bill Murray gets to live his mistakes again, and I swear on a pair of novelty 2017 glasses, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thirteen minutes ago, I got the news that somebody had looked at my hard-won, beloved brainchild and said no. Again.
I’m talking about my first novel, completed seventeen months ago after five near-impossible years, and then reluctantly self-published as an ebook this year to predictably poor success. Last month, I decided in a last-ditch effort to not let it die that I would enter it for an award for unpublished/self-published children’s novels. An extremely competitive award; one I barely stood a chance of winning. I knew this. I knew it the way I know the chances that Liam Hemsworth will knock on my front door today and tell me fate brought him here.
And I just found out I didn’t make the longlist, which is something I thought I was prepared for. Oh, how silly of me. If you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket and then mentally spent all of your winnings before finding out that you have inevitably been suckered, then you’ll know how this type of thing happens. Only – replace ‘buying a lottery ticket’ with pouring your heart and soul into something, and baring everything you have for it to potentially be tossed aside with the consideration of all but a moment; even to be loathed, pitied, ridiculed by people who know better than you. And replace ‘mentally spending your winnings’ with grappling to hold down your crippled, floundering self-belief. Because, when you stop lying to yourself, you know that you don’t buy the ticket unless a small part of you thinks you might win.
It’s so, so painful. It feels like the kind of humiliation you think only happens in a bad dream, when you get to school and discover you’re naked. It feels like being six inches tall. Because it’s not just one rejection, it’s the most recent of dozens, and each one represents a plethora of compelling reasons why I should just give up, and a set of questions I’m screaming in my head: At what point does perseverance become wishful thinking? At what point does an effort to be resilient make you blind? Am I, maybe, just plain not good enough?
And the most difficult to get my head around: if someone told me, categorically and without a shred of doubt, convinced me that my work was bad, would I even feel any differently about it? The slow decay of my hopes for my first novel has been like a drawn-out breakup, or even a kind of mourning. I know I need to let it go and move on, and to degrees I have. But my pride in that novel doesn’t come from knowing it’s good, it comes only from knowing that I wrote the absolute best story that I could at the time. Watching it die is a real heartbreak, but one I’ll recover from eventually. But days like today make me question how much more I can take. What will happen if my next novel suffers the same fate? How much worse will the blows be in ten years? Twenty years? When do I quit?
Under the swelling and bruises is this odd little masochist of a woman. She’s stubborn. She’s grown a thick skin because she knew what she was getting herself into and she is, in fact, oddly joyful. This is the stuff success is made of, after all. Every time it gets harder, I get to prove to myself that I’m up to the challenge – and even if I spend the rest of my life getting knocked back like this, knowing I’m that kind of person is truly success enough. Today I realised that self-belief isn’t effected by rejection, it’s effected by what you do next, and mine’s been battered by thirteen minutes (turned two hours) of wallowing, which is quite enough. Now to nurse it back to health.
My name’s Hannah, and I’m an introvert. You may have already got that impression if you’ve read my blog before, or met me, or had in your head a picture of someone who calls themselves ‘a writer’. I can’t imagine I’d have made myself one if I swung the other way. Or, in fact, made many of the decisions I have in the last few years. If I was an extrovert, I think this long stretch of unemployment would have driven me mad with boredom and loneliness. Introversion is an advantage in my case, but a lot of the time, it’s not, and that’s what I’m here to gripe about today – oh, the prejudice!
When I hear other introverts describe themselves – their tendencies to prefer solitude and working alone; their fear of large groups and public speaking; the antisocial/weird/old person inside them who calls a good book and a cup of tea (read: eight cups of tea) a pretty heckin’ perfect Friday night – I’m always sad to hear how defensive or apologetic they are. But I don’t blame them. We’re living in an extrovert world. One of open-plan offices, ceaseless communication and group projects (someone take this spider-chart we made together, crumple it into a ball and choke me with it please).
To 50-60% of you, I probably sound like that closeted misanthrope we all know, jokingly bemoaning being forced to leave the house, or socialise, or God forbid talk to somebody. Because that’s the role you’re forced to play as an introvert. You probably ham it up on occasion, just to be sure everyone knows that you know you’re weird. But you’re not.
I know I’m not. I don’t hate people. I’m not even shy. I am just – by popular definition of the word – a person who prefers to focus their attention on the inner world of ideas and impression, rather than the outer world of people and things. Your point on the introversion-extroversion spectrum is about how you take in information, make decisions, and interact with your surroundings, and it dictates your comfort levels for various stimuli and situations i.e. a crowded dancefloor, a deserted beach, a spotlight on a stage. We all find ways to process and appreciate experiences that suit those on all points of the spectrum, but if you’re not comfortable talking about yourself in front of thirty people on the first day of training at your new job, that’s not a failing on your part; it’s just who you are. Maybe your new boss should have considered a one-on-one exercise as an alternative. Did he even think about that? No, he only thinks about himself.
Whether you’re super introverted, on the cusp of ambiversion (somewhere in the middle), or just questioning, maybe read Quiet by Susan Cain, and allow it to make you feel more secure about yourself. Because everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and yours aren’t worse, they’re just thrown into stark relief in a society that doesn’t appreciate you. Yes, extroverts are better conversationalists, but introverts are more cerebral. Yes, extroverts make better leaders, but introverts are innovators. We need each other, and we need room for our differences.
So embrace being soft-spoken, observant, conflict-averse, solitary, or whatever you are that marks you as an introvert. You’re allowed to have only one or two close friends and be fine with it. You’re allowed to think you work best by yourself. You’re allowed to be wiped out after a weekend of socialising, even when you’ve enjoyed yourself. Raise your tiny, shaking voice and stand up for who you are. Or don’t, because that’s scary.
The protagonist and narrator of the novel I’m writing suffers from depression. It’s about the only thing I have in common with her, and yet somehow one of the hardest parts to write. And I don’t mean emotionally. There may be some scenes to come that hit close to home or leave me feeling a little exposed, but this would almost be a blessing given the situation I’m currently in, which is this: I don’t know how to write her as recognisably depressed without her depression becoming a parody.
Because whatever I intend her to be, meaning happens at the reader’s end and not mine. Most of the time we’re told that we can’t know what another person is or isn’t going through, and never to make assumptions just because a person’s behaviour doesn’t read in your mind as depressed. But I can’t ask my reader to suspend any scepticism and just try to understand; it’s my job to make them. I’m inviting people into her mind, all of it, and if they don’t believe in her depression, I’ve failed.
I have several options here. I could semi-autobiography this thing and write all the quirks of her mental health like it’s my own, but this isn’t as easy or convenient as it sounds. As I said, we have nothing else in common. Her depression doesn’t come from the same place as mine. The things that test her limits aren’t the ones that test mine. It would take a serious and undesirable rewrite to make this work.
Or, I could ham it up with a lot of in depth description of her state of mind. This doesn’t appeal either, as this is how I risk her sounding like a stereotype – or even a caricature – of a depressed person (not to mention the fact that this isn’t what the novel’s about; my character’s mental illness is a fact of her life, not the driving force of her story). But writing someone else’s mental illness kind of feels like just that.
I’d like to think I’ve written some suitably rounded and believable characters in the past, but there’s so much more responsibility this time. Depression is so misunderstood by so many people, and it’s not like I’m trying to write a manual for your insensitive second cousin, but his understanding of this one person and her singular struggle is kind of essential. But when I can’t even understand someone else’s mental illness when it reads on the bottle as the same as mine, how is he supposed to?
Because, in reality, depression is just a messy and bizarre smorgasbord of unknowns. Boxing it up neatly with a diagnosis lets us assign treatment based on a set of visible and measurable symptoms. It’s not just helpful to call something depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, it’s necessary if those suffering with mental illness are to have any sort of outside intervention. But the fact is, we can never really know what goes on inside another person’s mind. How do you compare one person’s depression to another?
My mum says this thing about autism: that if you know one person with autism, you know just one person with autism, and it’s the same deal with depression. The diagnosis doesn’t account for everything else the individual’s mind is made of; like the things that comfort and antagonise them; the memories and habits informing how they experience the now; and the connections and assumptions they don’t even realise they’re making. Depression or no depression, we all have these things in common, and at the same time, all we really have in common is that each of us has a completely unique and personal perspective.
This is what makes creating characters so fun, but they all have to come from something inside the writer, so my challenge is to write her in a way that’s respectful of the fact depression is all kinds of things, and most of them I can’t even imagine.
I guess I won’t know if I’ve succeeded until somebody reads it. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it ain’t gonna be cooked any time soon if all I do is whine about it, so BYE x