On the 365th day

In September 2016, I started getting buddy boxes from the Blurt Foundation. They were a little thing to look forward to, a gift just for me. The buddy boxes were great at promoting selfcare and I began to realise how much this could help me. In fact I started to realise how much I had been ignoring my own care in the years before my depression was diagnosed 2.5 years ago and even through my treatment and management of it in the year plus following diagnosis. However, alongside the buddy boxes, I began making other positive changes, like finding a new 9-5, which helped set-up 2017 as a year to tackle selfcare.

I read that Jane and the team at Blurt had started a campaign for selfcare that October; #365daysofselfcare. By the end of December I was in that reflective/resolute type of place and I decided to start the challenge on the first day of the year. Not much thought other than, this might be good for me, went into it. I didn’t think about how it would be a whole year (even though the name of the challenge gives that away), and I didn’t think of the real impact it might have on me, let alone on others.

Friends, loved ones, strangers alike have asked questions throughout the year, like:

  • Why are you doing this?
  • What does it mean to you?
  • Are you finding it easy?
  • Will you keep doing it?
  • Should I do it?

Answers have varied, but mostly;

  • Because I need to.
  • Right now? Everything.
  • Nope. Well sometimes, but more often it’s a slog.
  • I did. I’m so very glad I did.
  • If you want or need to. In fact, if you don’t think you need to then maybe do it anyway. Prove to yourself that you’ve got selfcare down. And then tell me the secret.

You don’t need to be depressed to need selfcare. Everyone needs care, love, kindness – and if you can give it to yourself then that’s the greatest gift ever. To not just survive, or slap a smile on. To recognise what you need, ask for it, get it, give it. That’s what selfcare is about. It’s not about how much you spend. It’s not always about bubble baths and facials – although sometimes, that is the care that you need. On my worst days it’s about letting myself be cared for, doing the bare minimum but the minimum that will help – which can include just getting up to brush my teeth. It’s about recognising what you need and giving yourself the permission to have that.

On the best days, that has meant making the most of everything around me, spending time with my loved ones or happily on my own. On bad days it was about listening or reasoning what I needed as a bare minimum. At my worst this year, I went through two weeks of panic attacks due to a change in medication where I didn’t listen like I needed to. I finally reasoned with myself that I couldn’t wait another two weeks for the appointment I had with my doctor. I listened because it’s not what I would have let anyone go through if I’d known it was them not me experiencing the panic.

The bad is horrific but the good is great. Selfcare has enabled me to learn and remember how life is both, how I can be both or multiple inbetweens. My lowest points don’t have to define me.

That is this biggest lesson of all that selfcare has taught me. That I can be a good writer and have depression (I know I am not alone there!), that I can be a writer and have a career in marketing too, that I can have a career in anything and have depression. Because if I care enough about myself then I can achieve whatever I damn please, in spite/because of/independent of having depression.

If you’re thinking of doing #365daysofselfcare, I’ve got a few tips.

  • Go into it open hearted and with a growth mindset. Or be willing to grow.
  • Want some knowledge and/or support from the experts? I suggest reading Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (vulnerability goes hand in hand with recognising you need to care more, she’ll help. I also suggest her latest book, Braving the WildernessWatch her Ted talk if you’re unsure), The Selfcare Project by Jayne Hardy (I wish I’d had this in the beginning. I’m reading it now and it’s teaching me loads and helping me recognise what I’ve achieved in this year), and lastly, if you’re a creative type then Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • You can do selfcare in whatever way works for you. You can do it for a year and keep a diary of it. Like me, you could post photos and comments on it on social media. You could just tweet or write statuses. I only suggest doing this on a platform which you find supportive. For me, I am glad I did it on Instagram because I’ve found people like makedaisychains (who helped so much with her #boringselfcare drawings) kay_ska, and planetprudence. But do what works for you.
  • Don’t be afraid to not post. It helps, it really does, to physically put out into the world what you’re doing, but also it’s just as fine not to. I found by around half way through that it helped me more to be offline. So that meant I did catch-up posts, because even though I wasn’t posting, I was still doing the selfcare.
  • Not sure where to start? Check out this free starter-kit.

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So, that’s it. I’m ending this year, in my pyjamas with a glass of prosecco in hand, and a smile on my face. I’ve looked at all my photos and I can’t pick my best. Each day has helped me, and I hope the next year of selfcare helps you too.

 

On being a letterer*

*no not the comic book kind. My kind of letterer. Deal.

Today I have written three letters, the first ones for a while. It takes something out of me, which I can’t always tap into or give. I hadn’t noticed when writing one or two a time, but when I wrote four one Saturday, I realised how much energy was going into each one. Just as much as a story. More maybe. They quite often become more personal that I aim for, especially knowing that there won’t be a response. I often get more philosophical than I mean to too, but somehow that can make me work out what is buzzing around my head in that unreachable space. The process is a little like meditation.

Letters

I started writing letters for From Me to You in March. I already sent irregularly timed letters to friends which is why Alison invited me along to their letter writing workshop at Waterstones Piccadilly. Working with From Me to You, I often write to complete strangers who are currently dealing with cancer. This was something I wish I had done for loved ones in the past but these letters have provided so much that I couldn’t have foreseen.

When you’re ill and dealing with the onslaught of treatment, having some escape is vital. You may not have the energy to read a whole book, or the conversations you have with friends may have a habit of coming back to your illness and the limitations it can bring. I have written about my fears around depression, and I can only relate in that way – having never had cancer, but there have also been frank conversations with loved ones who have had cancer who didn’t want to talk about themselves but wanted to hear my stories about my day, or what I was passionate about right in that moment.

So that’s what I try to share with the recipients of my letterees (yes, I just made that word up. If you can be a letterer – I know it’s not the right context, who cares – then you can be a letteree). At first I used to try to justify why I was writing. I felt selfish because I couldn’t ask and listen to what was happening with them, until I realised that was part of the point. This way, the letteree gets to access a whole other life in a moment. Occasionally From Me to You send me the name and a little info about someone who has been nominated to receive letters. I’ve been writing to one man for a little while now, and it was so rewarding to hear that what I’m sending is making his days easier and making him smile. We both have a love for Marvel so I’ve been sharing my theories about the current Netflix series and the latest films. It doesn’t have to be Plato-level philosophy!

The fact that I get something from it also feels selfish, but it’s a thought I’ve learnt to put aside. I give more than I would if I were just making a monetary donation, and instead of a sticker or a badge I get some insight back. If it’s not something that person wants to read, I can’t stop that or fix it – but there is something beautiful about the serendipity of just sending words out into the wider world. That in turn has helped me relax about the stories I write and where they will end up finding homes. See, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

If you’d like to find out more about From Me to You, and how you can become a letter writer (or letterer in my world), then visit their site.

On Awareness

First tip for giving books on World Book Night…do it when you have a voice!

The conversations I had yesterday whilst fulfilling my book giving duties (see yesterday’s post if you haven’t already) where somewhat limited due to my voice petering out within seconds but I loved the challenge of speaking to complete strangers about reading and it’s importance.

From the women in Harvest Moon with the amazing jumpers who were engaged and wanted to know more (thank you for allowing me to slope of when my voice stopped!), to the man who was fundraising whilst showing off his tractors (only in Hitchin) whose non-reading confession came from his friends rather than himself.

 

Thank you to the owners of Chilli B and Groundworks who let me talk to their customers and leave books on tables.

And now it’s a case of waiting. I’ve explained a bit more about my relationship with with Reasons to Stay Alive, the book I gave yesterday, on my previous post. Without a voice, and with some nerves, I decided that explaining that personally to each recipient may be a bit much so I wrote a letter and popped it inside each book to explain why I was a book giver, and why this book. You can read it by clicking the image. I’ve invited those who found or were given the book to get in contact to let me know where it ended up…here’s hoping for some news soon!

wbn

As I explained yesterday, my giving of this book was well timed with Depression Awareness Week. This book has helped so many people, and although there are a lot of resources out there, I’ve collected together some of the articles I’ve read during DAW this year:

If you have any articles, blogs, quotes, and of course books, you think I should add, please let me know. I’d also really recommend checking out the #WhatYouDontSee campaign on Twitter.

I was scared of the title

WBN_logo_in_headline.jpgWorld Book Night is here again! I’m so pleased and proud to be a volunteer book giver for the third year in a row. Two years ago I started bold; talking to strangers on a quiet night at my local pub about reading and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Last year I went even closer to home, reaching out to non readers at my 9-5 with Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit. This year is personal in a different way.

This year, I’m giving Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. The team at World Book Night explain it as

Full of warmth, humour and life-affirming wisdom, this is an incredible little book that offers a lifeline to anyone who has ever suffered, recovered from or encountered depression. Matt Haig recounts his own experiences with delicate precision and tells a compelling story about how reading and writing helped him out of his darkest period.

I did not want to have depression. No-one has ever wanted depression, it is a ridiculous statement to make, but yet this is how simply I thought about it. I was scared of the label. Of the indelible ink tattooed on my face, on my actions, on my very being, once those words were said. I was scared of what it would make me without even realising I was neck deep in being/feeling all the things I didn’t want to face. I was scared of what it had done to people I love. I fought for too long, for too many people I couldn’t help. Including myself.

I was scared of the title. I had heard lots about Reasons to Stay Alive, about how it helped so many people understand or explain an illness that is often inexplicable. The title, the book, doesn’t allow you to run and hide. It confronts the very fears by presenting itself as the ‘pro’ list when the ‘cons’ are reasons not to stay alive. No one wants to hear those words, see those words, and yet by just opening that door to that conversation lives can be saved.

Confession: I hadn’t read the book when I applied to be a book giver and selected it as my choice. However I brought myself a copy earlier this year. I wish I had read it sooner. I wish someone had handed it to me. So far it has opened up conversations with loved ones who have dealt with their own anxiety or depression, and/or support me. I’m sure this blog post and the giving of these books today will open up even more. Timely as it is almost the end of Depression Awareness Week.

Today I’ll be facing strangers and handing them this book. Or I’ll be leaving it in places for people to find in the hope that they will let me know where it ends up. I will try to focus on those who may not read, but I think with this book I can be a little more open and aim to speak to those who could be helped by this book in some way.

IMG_20160423_100708To end this on a lighter note, I’d like you to imagine me out there with these books. I have been ill with a cold/flu bug this week which has left me with no voice. I can only whisper. Imagine me walking around a nearby town, wrapped up in a ridiculous number of layers, speaking to strangers in a whisper about depression and reading. I’d laugh already but that might start a coughing fit.

I promise photos, stories, and more World Book Night celebrations on here later…

On being ready to tell

20160312_182813I first went to the opera eleven years ago. I vividly remember the train journey into London, the panic on my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s face as we arrived late to find the doors closed, the view from our first seats and the move to our actual seats during the interval, the little bar in Covent Garden where we drank champagne and de-constructed ourselves on our first valentine’s. I do not remember anything about the opera itself.
On revisiting the Coliseum for Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last weekend, I explained that I couldn’t remember the finer details of the opera, or even the building, from the last time. I feel I wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready for the experience, that it was too big for me to connect with. After the second opera experience I was left with the memories of how the music made me feel, the way the symbolism on stage fulfilled the story in my mind, my relation to the height of the seats and the grasp of a hand in mine as we waited for the next act.

So why am I telling you this on a writing blog?

I have found myself drawing parallels with this experience and my current writing processes. Stories need to be given time to be told but the story teller has to be ready to to tell the tale.

I have never been a “one draft wonder” and I don’t really believe there is such a writer. Developing your characters, understanding the story’s theme, time, place, all takes redrafting. Some stories take much longer, the ones where you think you’re finished and then you get a hint of something misplaced or missing. If you find that happening, this is my advice.*

Look inwards. Try not to get lost in there, just look. What does this story mean to you? Who is this protagonist to you? What do they mean to you?

This is where that creative writing “rule” comes in – write what you know. I don’t think that it’s true for everything and finding out about new things or writing from a perspective utterly different to your own is part of the creative process but understanding what you know about yourself, your characters, those emotional and mental connections, is vital.

You don’t have to literally put this in the final draft – you just need to know. When you’re redrafting with this knowledge you will connect with the story you’re telling – that’s where the readiness lies.

What did the * mean above? This is advice for myself too, I tend to forget. I have been writing a story that I already thought was flying. Turns out it came back, and sat pecking at my feet until I really began to understand what the story meant to me. Stella Duffy gave me this advice last year at her masterclass for Word Factory – Stay at your desk until it’s all out. It won’t be comfortable, you may find yourself crying it out, but it will be worth it. Sometimes it takes time for advice to sink in. It will always be worth it.

Waiting for stories to fly

Most short stories take time to write. The one I have finished a new draft of this morning as evolved over the past year. A year of thinking about it, writing it in part of another story, and then thinking about it a bit more. And a bit more. Then playing, seeing it from another view until the story I was trying to tell, became the story I am telling.

It is only an initial draft. It has gone through another filter by my reading it aloud to my wife, who I am grateful to have in so many ways but this morning mostly as my first reader. An honest first reader really helps. Then it will be off to the critique group I belong to who will give their invaluable feedback. After any further redrafting with my editor, its next journey will be as part of my short story collection.

I am an incredibly impatient person when it comes to myself, my work. Allowing my stories time feels like an impossible task. But when it works, when it clicks into place, it feels like how I imagine these Jackdaws feel.

 

The story is about a Jackdaw among other things.

News. Of the big variety.

My debut short story collection will be published.

There. No messing about. No, what should I say. No, it’ll be small – nothing to worry anyone about. No, looking at my feet. Because essentially that has what I have been doing for the last couple of months.

The details, which will be fleshed out over the next year or so, are that it will be published by Liquorice Fish (whom I have spoken of in previous posts) who continue to provide a wonderful home for my short stories.

And now I am getting very excited about it. Not least because I just told Ali Smith. And she grinned and gifted me the title of my collection.

In truth she wrote down the words I gave her, when I floundered over what I had been considering as possible titles in the small hours between sleep. And you know what, this is perfect.

Yet to be determined (for those who can read Ali's handwriting)

This is happening. To the people who I have should have told by now, offline, please forgive me.

Baring all to conquer writing fears

photo (2)I’m a procrastinator. To extraordinary lengths. Creating this blog was an exercise in procrastination at the point where my first novel was being difficult. And then of course my writing freed up and my writing almost became the procrastination against having to work out what I wanted this blog to be. But this month I have hit a conundrum. I’m stuck with my writing, and I’m stuck with the blog… I should probably explain some more.

 

My fear for my current writing project is managing to give the characters and ideas justice in words. That my words will be enough. I’m at the beginning of my second novel, and worries about it are causing me to worry more about that than write. But when I’m honest with myself I know these worries are just excuses. I know I’m scared of the ideas/topic/themes I’m crossing into, because they are BIG. They involve dealing with human pain in a way I haven’t conquered in my writing before, and possibly that I haven’t dealt with in myself yet. Yes, I could choose an easier subject; but the thing is I actually can’t. The characters are there, mumbling but very much present and they need to be written.

But when I came to writing the blog, I found my fears lurking here as well and they are similar to the novel. I want to be able to provide a service whilst be professional, but also to be me and be honest. And that’s the fear – can I be both? Can I write a blog about fear and yet be professional about my own fears that are so personal? Well, I’ve done it now, and I can only hope it works.

I dealt with my fears about writing this and continuing the novel by doing what I do best – procrastinating. By researching fear and writing with it as a procrastination to doing the actual writing, I’ve found that I am not alone. I knew this before but now I really understand it. I may debate for many moons on whether all of that was worth sharing, but the research I definitely think it has it’s place for most writers.

You are not alone. This is something we all forget and yet it can take the simplest and hardest thing of reaching out to others to find this out. The hive mind of Twitter was the answer for me. I asked my followers (most of whom are writers or connected to writing/publishing): what do you fear about your career/writing? I fully expected to hear nothing, I wondered if I’d be brave or honest enough to answer the question myself. With time (once the Murray match was over) and a couple of tweets, some brave writers stepped forward with their fears and presented them to me. There were a wide range of fears; finding out that someone else had got their first, wasting people’s time, of the balance between writing and work, of the loss of the career. The most common single fear and overriding “theme” was failure, throughout the whole process of being a writer: of being able to write, of having their book in a bookshop, to get readers. Even failure to cope with failure.

These were the fears of excellent writers and I am grateful they took the time to explain how they deal with their fears. Their fears drive them to keep writing, to work harder on what they produce. When the fear gets too much they know to take time to step away and gain perspective, even if that means leaving a project until the fear has moved away or onto something else. They learn their lessons and hope they remember them for the next time. To just keep going.

If you’re scared of reaching out, there is always a video. In my research, I found that, like most topics, if you can’t broach the subject with another person then someone else will have filled in the blanks via google. I certainly don’t think it is the same as connecting with another human, far from it, but it can certainly add to the not alone feeling. I’d recommend the following sources if you do want to get some more thoughts on dealing with fear and writing with it:

I hope this helps you on facing your own writing fear. Sometimes it will be an uphill battle but it’s always worth the fight. Personally, I’m using Neil Gaiman’s words in my plight.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

― Neil Gaiman