Brian Tyrrell - Autism and Burnout - a guest post for Ehlers-Danlos, ME, Fibromyalgia, and Mental Health Awareness Month
All artwork copyright of Brian Tyrrell @dungeonsonadime
Brian is a multi-talented creative living in Edinburgh. He is founder of the inclusive role-playing magazine Dungeons on a Dime and secretary of the Edinburgh Zine Library. He has a portfolio of writing, illustrations and graphic design work. You can find him on all good social media at @dungeonsonadime.
My latest article for Counterpoint magazine explores the idea of sleep (or lack thereof) as a commodity in our modern world. It's beautifully illustrated by Ollie Silvester and is hand-printed by Out of the Blueprint in Edinburgh, using a risograph machine - meaning each copy is unique. You can buy it here.
Here's a Twitter thread showcasing some of the amazing illustrations for the issue.
Self-Care for Writers – How to look after Your Emotional Wellbeing
We often hear writers talking about the emotional rollercoaster their characters endure, as they fight against the odds to overcome whatever problem the writer has chosen to place in front of them. There has to be stakes – high ones, preferably – in order for the reader to emotionally invest in the character. Plot, pace and dialogue only get us so far. We have to really care about a character to follow them to the end of their journey. How do we, the writer, achieve this? How do we get our readers to gasp, laugh and cry along with our beloved character, just as much as we do? And at what cost to us, emotionally?
Own-voice is trending in the industry, with an increasing number of agents and publishers keen to hear from own-voice debut authors. Why? Because it’s compelling to read a story which is directly informed by the writer’s own life experiences. We are curious creatures: it’s one thing to feel empathy towards a fictional character; but it’s a different thing feeling empathy for a real person. It brings an extra punch to the reader’s experience. Someone real has lived their experience – it’s another layer of connection.
For the writer, going down the own-voice route can be as emotionally taxing as it can be cathartic. Every writer relies on their own experiences to a degree; but an own-voice writer will focus on a particular theme or experience which is or has been prevalent in their life. Own-voice is usually marginalized writers: be it writing about mental health, sexuality, race or class; these themes are most often explored in own-voice novels (think The Hate U Give; All the Bright Places; Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda).
My novel, Fractal, is an own-voice exploring mental and chronic illness, as well as themes of loss, love and self-discovery. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a play-by-play of my life, but there were many moments which were difficult to tackle, and which left me exhausted after some relatively short writing stints because of the emotional draw. At times I was sobbing my heart out over everything I knew my characters were feeling – everything I was putting them through – in order to be true to the story and make it the best it could be. The beauty of painful experience, is that it shapes us, and if we’re lucky, it makes us stronger. But the investment in our writing can be costly, when it comes to our emotional wellbeing and so we must proceed with care on the toughest days.
Awareness & Empathy
This emotional investment is the key to creating a compelling story: and it’s not exclusive to own-voice writers. Writers tend to be hugely compassionate, sensitive people who are emotionally in tune with their self and those around them. They are also keen observers and insatiably curious about others. A writer who notices the nuances in reactions and behaviours of those around them will have a database to rely on for life. These are the people who can readily step into another person’s shoes, try to imagine another life, another way of thinking, of being. This is hugely rewarding and results in distinct character voices, actions and motives – making for a visceral experience for the reader, who is transported into the mind of the characters instantly. I know in my case, when I’m switching between characters quickly in a scene, the emotional jumping can lead to a sort of emotional fatigue; it’s the same after writing a highly-charged scene. I find I feel depleted and need to take the rest of the day to allow my mind to wander, or undertake other less taxing pursuits like going for a walk or a swim (illness allowing). The next day the battery has re-charged and I’m back at it, perpetuating the emotional cycle.
The great saboteur of the aspiring author. We’ve all been there: tearing our hair out endlessly over the same chapter, scene, or sentence; wondering why, universe, why did I think I could do this? Who am I? Just a wannabe writer, with a big dream. Like millions of other people, how am I any different? Imposter Syndrome is the biggest killer of aspiring authors. Beware. I won’t be the first person, nor the last, to say it, but here it is: if you don’t believe in yourself, how will anyone else? First and foremost, you must believe in your ability to write. Secondly, you must believe that you are the only person who can tell this story. Because you are: it’s yours, and only yours, to tell. Once you have those two things, do not let go of them. The time will come when the impostor takes over, makes you feel three inches tall, and whispers poisonous things into your ear through the night. But don’t listen. Keep reminding yourself that you are a writer, a good one, and you can do this. Talk to a friend, or several – ask them to remind you why you are doing this. We’ve all been there. It gets easier with time and soon you’ll be able to ignore it (most of the time).
Is the thing that will get you through. So many writers let the impostor win. You must keep pushing, keep fighting the demons and the nay-sayers, to get where you want to be. It’s the only way. It’s damn hard. Any writer who expects the journey to be an easy one will be in for a shock. You must be prepared for the long haul because, at the end of the day, resolve is the only thing going to get you over the finish line. You might be battle-scarred and bruised, but damn it, you’re going to get there. When you’re tired, run-down, writing on top of a full-time job and raising a family, the hours for writing can dwindle down to nothing, and it can seem like an impossible task. In my own experience, living with chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and generalised anxiety, the bad days do happen, and the best thing we can do is accept it, and try again tomorrow. Sometimes a bad day becomes a bad week (or in my worst-case scenario, six months) but knowing that it won’t last, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, keeps us pushing through. There will always come a moment when you can put pen to paper again – and that’s all you need. It’s an unfortunate truth that if you really want to write, you must make the time. It’s up to you how you find it, but you must find it.
Writing is a lonely business. Loneliness and isolation make for a stagnant state of being. My most productive writing has happened since I set up a weekly writers group. I made the shift from freelancing (after a breakdown in my mental and physical health) to writing full-time at the start of the year, and it was tough. I was used to being busy, traveling a lot, running events etc. and I was suddenly alone, at home, all the time. My mood quickly plummeted and my generalized anxiety escalated. I knew I had to do something, so I organised a writers’ group. I made friends quickly, and discovered there were so many other writers out there like me, looking for a support network. We all noticed a bump in our self-confidence, mood and productivity from our regular meetings. It was only after a few weeks of going to this group with other writers, all at different stages of their career, that I made the mental switch, the shift in my self-perception, which allowed me to call myself a writer. I’d been writing for a few years, reviewing events mostly, and I’d had a personal essay published. I’d written the first 25k of what I hoped could be a novel. But I didn’t allow myself to call myself a writer. That was in January. Now we’re in October and the novel is finished, I’m in the midst of revisions and will shortly be sending out to my beta readers. I’ve had articles on mental health and chronic illness published, along with more personal essays, and I’ve submitted to several awards and competitions. None of which, I’d have likely done by this point, had it not been for the support of the group. Feeling valued, and that you belong, goes a very long way indeed, to being a successful writer. Having people around you who understand what you are going through, who you can talk to, and who have your back at your worst and best moments, makes all the difference to your emotional wellbeing as a writer.
Award-winning novelist, Ever Dundas, and Robin Spinks, Innovation and Technology Relationships Manager at the RNIB, discuss access for disabled people to technology in the current face of austerity.
Dundas opened with a powerful reading from of her freedom paper, What Is To Come, fittingly set against an atmospheric backdrop of drumming and eerie sounds, which raised the tension of the audience to the level of the topic in question. “Freedom is a world without capitalism”, she read, “I will not be your martyr, I will not die on this capitalist cross.” Her articulate and deliberate words, were delivered with the expert control of one well-used to fighting for their voice to be heard: in this instance, above the din of the current capitalist regime of a conservative government. Words which were received with tumultuous applause.
Dundas shared her experience of the welfare system, having applied for both Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) due to her disability, fibromyalgia. Dundas feels the system is completely broken, serving only to punish and humiliate disabled claimants. “They were surveilling me through my entire assessment, to the point of noting on file that I was able to stand up from my chair, and lift half a cup of water from the table.” And deciding, ultimately, that she is not ‘disabled enough’.
Spinks agreed that there is no room for nuance in the current welfare system. He highlighted that disability exists on a spectrum and that our government neglects to address that, only perpetuating and reinforcing stigma. “We should not be peppering our disability assessments with assumptions, but instead make it an assessment of disabilities but also aspirations.”
Both agree that the narrative needs to change and that it must be more complex. The RNIB are running a campaign, #HowISee, which aims to address the misunderstanding of the general public on the nuance of sight-impairment, pointing out that technology is helping us to reform the narrative. “Tech is a great liberator, but understanding must be nestled alongside it – not bureaucratic questions.”
Our current system puts people off at the first point of call, and access to work becomes the first blockade to those looking to get support in going back to work, says Spinks. Yet, technology has bridged the gap for many, when it comes to living with disabilities. He and Dundas shared their own moving accounts of times when technology has done so for them, demonstrating the power of tech to do good in our society. But even good tech must re-evaluate and consider the needs of its disabled consumers, by making adaptable devices. Accessibility is also a major issue, with many adaptable devices costing too much money for those who need it. Dundas emotively described how her world shrunk when she became ill, and how something as simple as an electric bicycle would expand it enormously. Sadly the cost is simply too prohibitive.
Spinks believes that all tech developers should be legally bound to advance life for disabled people, and that the narrative would be changed by having a rolling programme of “embedded understanding” in these companies. Dundas firmly believes that raising awareness in the public sphere is the first step to changing the narrative, and for her, that’s writing about it.
The last lines of her freedom paper – a calling for the disabled to unite against austerity – resonated the quiet but determined hope of the audience, at the end of this bolstering discussion (if not a debate.)
“We hold our idealistic dreams in our hands like flames and we will raze capitalism to the ground. Out of the ashes: rejuvenation ripe with possibility, the freedom of a new beginning.”
The theme of freedom kicked off on Saturday with a discussion of the issues faced by today’s writers and publishers. Author and Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award judge Raman Mundair, board-member at Publishing Scotland, Moira Forsyth and Chair of Literature Alliance Scotland, Peggy Hughes, were joined by author Jan Carson, who was on the National Centre of Literature’s showcase last year.
The panel opened on the strength of publishing in Scotland today, with Moira citing the multitude of ways in which Publishing Scotland supports its staff and members with training courses, conferences and fellowships. Independent publishers in Scotland are thriving (her own publishing house, Sandstone Press, had to close its submissions in June after being inundated with over two hundred submissions). “It’s tough on writers these days with the big corporates insisting a writer must first be agented before submitting to a publisher. It’s driving more people to look to independents, which is great, but when you’re a small team it takes a long time to read through so many submissions.” Forsyth also raised the issue of a writer’s survival, saying “A lot of writers supplement their writing, which you have to do, because you won’t make a career out of it unless you hit the big time.”
When the discussion moved on to arts funding, Carson highlighted the importance of funding for literature, saying “The quality of writing coming out of Ireland today is the best ever.” But with harsh funding cuts, Carson worries for the future: “Community art is not about making something nice to look at; it’s integral to the peace process. Art brings communities together and it’s awful to see that being pared back.” Mundair added, “It’s the people in power who need to pitch the value of art.”
Access to the industry was a recurring theme for our panel, where Mundair shed necessary light on gate-keeping: “I’ve been in Scotland since 2002: A multi-award winning, Shetland-dialect-writing, woman of colour, and yet this is my first appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. So it’s a gate-keeping question. It took me a long time to feel my voice is valued.” In order that literature in Scotland thrive, Mundair asks the question, “How does Scotland make itself distinct from the rest of the world and Westminster? We need to have a voice. We need to reframe the narrative. We need to demand that the gate-keeping changes.”
The discussion resolved that the new writer must be tenacious and willing to trail blaze their way into the industry – and the industry needs to open the gates to them.
Publications, thoughts and reviews
On themes of mental illness, disability and YA.