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 Last month, I decided in a last-ditch effort to not let it die that I would enter it for an award for unpublished/self-published children’s novels.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.
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
I had some incredible news a couple of weeks ago: a short story I wrote has been selected to appear in an anthology. I’m getting published. There’s a pay check and everything. Are you freaking out? Because I’m freaking out.
To make the most of this, I decided it would be a good idea if people who read it and like it can then Google me and find more of my work. The only difficulty is, there is no more. Short stories are not my forte. My ideas are all too big and ungainly. I barely know how to contain a complete work within a few thousand words, but if I did it once, I can do it again. I just need to come up with something. I need inspiration.
Inspiration. What an exciting, promising word. It conjures thoughts of Pinterest boards and long walks in the countryside; of the beginnings of innovative, wondrous things; of art and creativity soaking into you and oozing out as if by osmosis.
Yeah, I should be so bloody lucky. I hate this part. It’s the ‘inspiration’ stage of writing that always has me questioning everything. Because a real writer’s head would be exploding with stories, right? A real writer wouldn’t be staring at the nonsense in her notebook – in the margin of one page I’ve just written ‘dessert’; was I hungry? Inspired? Who’s to say? – waiting for the story to jump out at her in 3D like that scene from Tangled. A real writer would be inspired by everything, and right now, I’m not inspired by anything.
And you can’t force inspiration – as anyone who’s tried to knows all too well. It’s like trying to remember a dream that starts to evaporate the moment you wake up; the harder you concentrate, the faster it fades to nothing, and the more desperate you are, the more inspiration plays hard to get. But what if you’re chronically drawing a blank? This is your career after all, you can’t afford to just sit and wait. Maybe you have a deadline. Maybe you really need to make a buck. So you have to dig deeper, squeeze tighter, maybe just *kind of* force it but seriously though don’t force it. Inspiration is the fucking worst.
In fact, inspiration as I described it above is nothing but a myth. Sure, maybe once in a blue moon a story will feel like it’s writing itself and you’ll figure you must be some kind of genius. But most of the time, inspiration will be a single line, or a turn of phrase, or a punchy first paragraph with nothing attached. Maybe you can picture a scene or an interesting conflict. But to capitalise on that little freebie, you have to do the legwork. You have to build around it, and keep building, even if the first and second and third attempts fall flat. Writing, like anything worth doing, takes hard work and persistence. That lump of clay and your own two hands are the only tools you’ll need – and the only tools you’ll get – and the rest is just you wrestling it into shape.
I guess the moral of this story is that if something matters to you, see it through. You’re not going to love doing what you love doing all the time, and you’re definitely not always going to feel good at it. But that’s okay, because being a natural at something – if such a thing even exists – is overrated. Your proudest achievements will be the ones you’ve worked for.
I’ve been keeping a journal for close to a decade now. Why? Because it’s therapy I can do without getting out of bed, and I can recommend it to anyone that appeals to i.e. all of you.
I started when I was seventeen. I had always tried to put the things in my head on paper – either through writing or drawing – and had even tried to keep a journal several times before. But in the middle of sixth form, things started to go south for me, and depression set in. My subject matter went from I had a really great sandwich today to why is this happening to me, and for the first time journaling became a vital outlet for a hella lot of confusion and angst.
I try not to look back on those entries. I don’t think I ever will. When I started writing it was as a record, because I thought that’s what a journal was for, but if I wasn’t such a hoarder I might even throw the old ones away. They’ve served their purpose.
It’s almost like a mental cleansing ritual. I’ve never been much of a sharer, and even though I spill my guts to my friends and my mum way more than I used to, it’s still not always comfortable. Being vulnerable is hard, and sharing yourself with the outside world is scary. From the way you dress to your opinion on that movie you loved that everyone else hated, self-expression comes with the risk of judgement and consequence, and that can make us feel like we have to censor ourselves.
But in a journal you don’t have to. It’s an outlet for all your most brutally honest thoughts and feelings, whether they’re too dark, or too mean, or just incomprehensible to anyone else. There are things in my journal I’ve never said out loud; the only place they exist outside my head is on pages nobody else has seen. I don’t know why it helps to ‘get it out’, but it does, the same way it would to share it with someone, minus the complications that brings.
But more than just sifting through my emotional life, it helps me make sense of it. Something about the act of assigning words to intangible thoughts and feelings brings clarity. I don’t know how it works in your head, but if it’s anything like my noggin, your thoughts don’t come to you in the complete sentences you use to recount them to the next person. They probably don’t involve many words at all. For some, the drawback to keeping a journal might be the difficulty of getting the words out; of actually translating what you’re thinking into English. But that’s just the benefit. It forces you to think more clearly and slowly about what’s burdening you.
I don’t write every day, just when I need to, and I’ve filled more pages in the last year than I did in the previous three combined. In fact, I’ve been relying so heavily on writing down how I’m feeling that I started this blog as an extension of my journal, edited to include only the thoughts I think will most resonate with and help others. Maybe when my journal is filling up more slowly again, I’ll know I’ve turned a corner, but I’ll be sure to keeping blogging.
Writing this post feels a little more intimate than any other so far. It’s easy enough to talk abstractly about how I sometimes feel, or give you a retrospective account of the ugly bits. Writing it down – instead of saying it out loud – feels like one big safe step removed from total honesty, and doing so after the fact feels like two. But I didn’t start this blog just to cop out when the subject matter – my life, the light and dark – gets uncomfortable to talk about. I wanted to say things that were difficult to say, so, today, WE’RE LIVE from my parents’ dining room, where I’m feeling like a kite in a storm.
The thing is, I haven’t written a word of my novel in nearly two weeks. I haven’t told anybody that.
If you read my inaugural post last month, you may remember these are circumstances I am very not cool with. In fact, I don’t think I can exaggerate how much failing to write fucks with my head. I’m a pragmatic person and when I’m feeling like me, my self-esteem is pretty healthy. But at times like this, all that I am disintegrates, until my self-worth comes downs to one thing – one thing I’m failing at.
I try to tell myself kind things, whether or not I listen. But as days pass and word counts stay fixed, a sort of amnesia sets in. I know the positives are there, I’m sure there was something I was meant to be clinging to, something other than my novel, but it’s lost in the fog. The only thoughts I can still see clearly are mean and shitty.
So now I’m up nights, ridden with anxiety. I won’t go into the wild, paradoxical clusterfuck that is depression and anxiety being such tight buddies, at least not today. Suffice to say they are the most unlikely of friends, and I am not wholly convinced they even like each other. They would be much better off parting ways, and finding friends with whom they have more in common, like, for example, lethargy and mania respectively. But I digress.
My anxious thoughts start with ‘why can’t I write?’ and quickly progress through my joblessness, my lack of exercise, my fibre intake, the laundry I haven’t done, right down to the email I didn’t send and the call to the doctors I didn’t make. I can’t quite remember how this patch of dry skin on my face became so fucking important; all I know is I can’t stop thinking about it. Most of these things probably sound like problems I could solve to you. Yep. They sound that way to me too.
Now I haven’t even opened the word document in days. I’m afraid to. Afraid of freezing again when I reach for the keys. Afraid of such a disconnect with my own work that I don’t feel like the next sentence is mine to write. Afraid of realising I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, and that I’m not actually a writer at all.
This is my depression. It’s tangled up in a sort of ‘achievement’ compulsion I don’t know how to control. Other peoples’ may be tangled in something far denser, more unknowable, and perhaps so widespread, so pandemic, that it touches every part of their life and every thought in their mind. I used to feel like that – like I was swallowed up – but I don’t anymore, which is why I believe this too will pass; that I’ll be okay.
This is only a snapshot. It’s not the whole picture, which is far too complex for me to unravel in a blog post. Besides, I can’t see it all myself. I can recognise my patterns and my triggers, the negative thoughts that help put me where I am now, and I can try and make sense of it. But the truth is, I don’t know why I have depression when other people don’t, and that fact is painful in ways I can’t describe.
It just so happens it is Depression Awareness Week, so consider this post my contribution to the cause. If there’s one thing I hope you take away from it, it’s this: depression doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t care how good or bad things are. It doesn’t care that you’ve written half of your novel and you should be so frickin’ proud of yourself. It’s the product of a broken mind, one which can receive all the correct data – a perfect Sunday, a feel-good film, your words of encouragement – but will process it through whichever faulty channel it chooses that day. You cannot reason somebody out of their depression, but you can try to understand, and that will make all the difference.