S E Smart - Brace Yourself - a guest post for Ehlers-Danlos, ME, Fibromyalgia, and Mental Health Awareness Month
January: a loaded word. It strikes fear into the heart of many, as we feel the mounting pressure to kick old habits and be our very best selves – better than we were last year. And the year before that. We will be fitter. Healthier. More successful. Won’t we?
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.
I'm delighted to have contributed an essay on travelling to the latest issue of Counterpoint Magazine, FLIGHT, which you can buy here. It's accompanied by a stunning illustration, which Liam Rotheram created in response to the piece. Counterpoint is hand-printed by Out Of The Blueprint in Edinburgh, using a risograph machine, meaning each copy is unique.
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.
My latest writings, and thoughts on disability, mental health and young-adult lit.