When I was sixteen I knew I could write. At nineteen, with deliberate renunciation, I closed and locked that door. I’m now thirty five, and next June I will have my first novel in my hands.
At sixteen I was depressed and gushing self-indulgent prose. At nineteen I crashed out of my English degree into a psychiatric ward. When they let me out I needed above all to get well. I had no support but my own body and brain, and I had to function in the practical world. I thought mental illness and creativity were unavoidably entwined. I sacrificed my writing self.
What I do I do thoroughly. First I got impressive degrees and became an academic; but for sanity that did not go far enough. Then I leased my brain to the highest corporate bidder. I got a mortgage on the proceeds. I made friends beyond the liberal arts. I learned how money makes the world go round. It was interesting and absorbing and I became admirably successful.
When I was thirty I was back in Oxford ‘on business’, persuading budding academics to lease their brains too. Afterwards, my old tutor and I were drunk on martinis. He said, ‘You should write. Get up an hour earlier. Drink less at night. You can find the time’. I was already getting up at six o’clock. What I had was my commute from gin-and-Jag Surrey to the City. In that regular forty-five minutes I started to write at a rate of five hundred words a day. There was no topic, no intention, no structure, no plot.
The first words I wrote were a romance. Within a page they were describing a psychiatric ward.
I shied away and wrote more romance. My characters were unavoidably depressed and mad.
Corporate shenanigans ended up in that place too.
So I gave up trying to lead my subconscious, and allowed my fingers to tap out long-repressed memories of a hot Victorian-built mental hospital, of the smells, the tastes, the feel of crawling down the corridors, the screams, of rubbing my hands for hours across the rough walls. I found the words already written in my mind.
A year later, ten thousand hard-earned words in and under a range of professional and personal pressures, I had another breakdown. In its aftermath I had new material and a vast amount of time. I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t retrieve my mind from the past. My attempt at a second renunciation of writing fell flat. I wrote.
My characters moved beyond the hospital doors and into a widening world. Writing about recovery gave my mind a path out. Two years later I had eighty thousand words. They were about madness, about relationships, about perception and disconnection and narrative voice. There were characters, and some plot. The writing was good.
I edited and revised ruthlessly. I switched off the subconscious, and switched on my literary training. The text became fiction informed by experience.
I finished ‘the novel’, and I left it on my laptop. Circumspectly, I glanced at it every so often. I aimlessly changed a few details. I wrote a prologue. I deleted it. I submitted a few chapters to a mainstream competition. It didn’t win.
A year later I gave it to my husband to read and, wanting an unbiased judgement, he gave it to a friend. That friend sent it to a publisher who turned out to want to take it. It’s coming out in June 2016, entitled The Storyteller. We’re working on the cover and the blurb this month.
In moving beyond my laptop, The Storyteller has become an artefact which is separate from me. I don’t know yet what that means. I know that my subconscious has escaped the psychiatric ward and is roaming more freely through the world. I know I need to put in effort to gain readers and help the book sell. I know that now, as at age nineteen, I am prioritizing health over everything else. I know that once again that ‘everything else’ includes writing. And yet I know the pull to write is stronger than it has ever been. I’m responding to that pull but I’m taking care. There are calculated risks in this game.
I’m laying out publicly my brain and my life. I have flourished on keeping different personalities apart. I am a businesswoman, a mountaineer, a yogi, musician, patient, wife, friend. I am also now in some form ‘a writer’. Whatever that means, and whoever you are, you will know me differently after this.
I’m upending my own sense of who I am. I’m bringing that ‘writer’ into my explosive internal mix. I’m gambling on the result bringing richness.
And what I write next may be less good. I am holding back from living in the darkest, most unstable recesses of my mind. In those places there is guaranteed material. I cannot allow myself to make unbridled use of it. No exaggeration: I cannot guarantee to come back with it alive.
Risks notwithstanding, having The Storyteller almost in my hands gives me confidence I did not have before. I am writing steadily against a planned daily word count. With that, the next novel is coming slowly into shape. My highly-trained editorial brain is tight into the process from the start.
But I am also writing carefully. I need to sustain and balance my brain. I need to see people, do a matter-of-fact job, walk a lot, eat regularly, keep the alcohol out and the caffeine down.
I’m enjoying writing as I haven’t done before.
I haven’t a clue who this means that I am.
To read about how I’m writing the next novel, click here