Tag Archives: looking after your mental health

Early Days

Yesterday’s experiment worked rather well, thank you very much. In fact, it worked rather well in spite of myself, for even as I sat down to write knowing that I had a ‘limit’, and that I wasn’t going to allow myself to keep going until my eyes were falling out of their sockets with exhaustion, I didn’t really believe I’d do it. I didn’t really believe I could start writing and then stop, like that, and for it to have been my decision. Normally I go until I can’t any more, which – in all honesty – isn’t really a good policy. Not all the time, at least.

It tends to turn you into this:

Photo Credit: Jason A. Samfield via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jason A. Samfield via Compfight cc

The onset of December has already had a disastrous effect on my energy levels and general wellbeing-ness, so I’m glad to know that I am capable of immersing myself in writing without allowing it to get on top of me. I’ve done that before. Not good, for me or the writing.

I was speaking to a friend at the weekend about creative careers, and the danger faced by anyone who likes to create and who wants to do it for a living. My friend has her own business (she’s fantastically accomplished) but also enjoys baking, and is very good at it. Several people have encouraged her to take up cake-making on a semi-professional basis, as her work is easily as good as, if not better than, some of the cakes you see for sale in shops. (I can also testify to the absolute deliciousness of her work. Someone’s got to look after quality control, after all). However, my friend made the very good point that she loves baking because it’s not her job. She fears that if she began to sell her baked goods, it would take the joy out of it. This, I’ll admit, is something that worries me, too.

At school I was good at art. I loved to draw, and still do (though I don’t get time to draw much anymore), and I liked pushing myself to learn about different techniques and tools. In my final year at school I was halfway through creating a portfolio to apply to art college when I realised: I don’t want to work at something which I’d rather have as a hobby. I wanted to keep art as something I did without feeling pressured or stressed, and as well as that I knew I didn’t have much of an eye for design – I was a draughtsperson, good with line and shade, but not so good with composition. I knew my limits, and I didn’t want to waste my career wishing I could be a better, or different, artist than I was, straining for abilities I didn’t have.

I have limits with my writing, too. There are things which simply don’t interest me, and there are things I know I’ll never be able to attempt because I don’t have the skills – horror, for instance, or crime writing, or women’s fiction. But where art was definitely a hobby, and not something which took over my every waking moment, I feel differently about writing. I woke the other night at four a.m. thinking about the project I began yesterday. I’m constantly thinking about writing, and characters, and stories, and even though I know some of the ideas I have aren’t workable, or big enough, or original enough, to ever leave the confines of my skull, I have no control over the fact that I’m always thinking about writing and ways to improve my writing. I don’t have all the skills and abilities I need to write yet, either – but I want to develop them.

I want to write professionally, and to the absolute best of my ability, in the hope that it is of a high enough standard to be acceptable, but I also want to be able to take a hobbyist mental approach to it. I want to be able to think that the work I’m doing doesn’t have to be perfect first time around, or it doesn’t have to be the best story ever written (even if, in reality, it does!) I want to be able to start and stop as I please, write 1500 words and then leave it at that, or work for three hours and then stop, not because I have to but because it’s the best thing for me. I want writing to be my job, but I understand that working at it in the same way I’m used to working (eight hours straight, short breaks, unrelenting focus, goal-oriented, self-motivated) can sometimes lead to poor ‘product’. Of course, wanting all this doesn’t mean I’ll get it, but I think this is the constant balancing act of people who work creatively – trying to ensure you’re working as well as you can while maintaining your health (mental and physical) and the quality of the work you’re producing. It’s not easy. Everyone writes differently, and what works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another, but I think – though I’m still experimenting – that I’ll try working in short focused bursts for a while, and see if it makes a difference, both to my work and to my mind.

I have completed one book, of which I am proud. I have several ideas for future books, which I want to write to the same standard. I want to write for the rest of my life, and so that means I need to develop a technique which allows me to be prolific and also produce work of a high standard – the best of the ‘professional’ and ‘hobbyist’ worlds, one might say – as well as equipping me to prepare for a long-term career.

It’s early days, but I hope I’m finding my feet.

The Indefinable ‘Ugh’

One of our neighbours has a beautiful little boy. He’s always smiling, always laughing, and he likes to run around to our house and show off his ‘toy of the day’ – lately, it’s been a small plastic handsaw with which he likes to destroy our garden gate, to a soundtrack of throaty chuckles. Today, he turns two years old, and so – feeling organised, grown up, and infinitely practical – I decided to buy him a birthday card almost a week ago. It’s been sitting on our kitchen table ever since so that I don’t forget to write in it; every time I saw it I cracked a grin, not only at the thought of how much fun he’s going to have at his birthday party, but also in the smug realisation that, for once, I got something done right, and ahead of schedule.

See? Not only cute, and awesome, but *timely*, too, what with all the rockets and planets and stuff. *sigh*

See? Not only cute, and awesome, but *timely*, too, what with all the rockets and planets and stuff. *sigh*

I sat down this morning after breakfast – so early it was still dark outside – intending to make writing the carefully worded birthday message my first task of the day, only to discover something maddening.

There was no envelope for the card inside the plastic wrapping.

I didn’t think to check, when I bought the card, that the envelope came with it. The shop assistant at the register clearly didn’t, either. I guess we both assumed that if a card comes wrapped in plastic, the envelope is included. I was so mad, I could have growled. ‘This has messed up my whole day,’ I told myself. ‘Now I have to reschedule this, and do this differently, and I’ll need to change this…

And then I calmed down and realised (with the aid of a few deep breaths) that it was no big deal. I’ll just go and get another card. I have to go out to the shops anyway; it’s no extra hassle. But the initial whoosh of irritation (with myself), and the collapse of my careful edifice of being organised, was overwhelming.

That’s concerning.

Once, years ago, I was waiting in line for the coffee machine during my morning break in work. The café was crowded; there was a long line for coffee. A woman and her friend cut the queue and jumped in ahead of me, and I felt my teeth smash together and start to grind, of their own accord. My body flooded with rage, to the point where I began to tremble, and I have never felt so close to ‘losing it’ – all over nothing. Now, this may have been severe caffeine withdrawal – or it may have been something larger. Something that perhaps happens to people more often than they realise.

It’s strange how you can be so busy, and distracted, and scattered, and everything else it takes to live life in the modern world, that you become totally out of touch with your body and how it feels. I was unaware, until this morning, exactly how much of my sense of organisation and personal capability was based around a two-year-old’s birthday card. During my queue for coffee that morning in work, I was totally unaware (until it smacked me in the face) exactly how much stress and pressure I was under, and how close I was to snapping. It took these tiny life events – forgetting an envelope, being skipped in a queue – to draw my own feelings to my attention, and to make it clear to me that I was a bit out of balance.

I’ve been working away on ‘Eldritch’ for the past while, and it’s been going, but with difficulty. My plotting methods have proved effective, but progress is slow. I fear my main problem with the work is that I don’t love it – not that I don’t love writing, because I do and will always love that – but I don’t love the story as much as I loved the tale of Emmeline. ‘Eldritch’ doesn’t grab me up in its arms and sweep me away like the other story did; it doesn’t make my heart pound like ‘Emmeline’ did, even after the twentieth re-read. I am afraid that I will never write anything I love as much as ‘Emmeline’ ever again, and that it’s pretty poor to have ‘peaked’ before you’ve even begun.

This is what’s on my mind.

I’m trying to be organised, professional, capable, grown-up, but one forgotten envelope and the whole thing crashes into dust. I’m trying to be a writer, and I’m certainly working hard, but I fear the end result will be the same – dust. It’s like there’s a creature with downturned eyes and a floppy, curled-down mouth and a set-upon expression following me around, whispering ‘ugh’ into my ear every few minutes.

Ugh. Don’t bother trying that. You know it won’t work.

Ugh. Really? You think this is what a real professional person does? You think this is the appropriate way to behave?

Ugh. Haven’t you learned anything? You’re no spring chicken, you know! You need to get a handle on things!

I think I’ve had quite enough of that.

So, today will be about remembering to smile, and breathe. It will be about being kind to myself, and taking a walk. It will feature buying a new birthday card and writing a happy, fun-loving message in it, and delivering this card to the bouncing boy who has brought so many smiles to my life, and then, once all that is done, worrying about work.

And, after all that, I’ll give the Indefinable Ugh a slap across the chops, and tell it to be on its way. I’ve got stuff to do, and I don’t have time to listen to its nonsense.