The care and keeping of a writer


It happens every few months, or weeks, or years. I get busy, which means I get tired, and then I get sick. I rely more on junk food. I stop exercising. I withdraw from friends and social situations (not always a bad thing; see also the care and keeping of an introvert).

At some point,  I stop writing.

Does this sound familiar? I suspect most of us, whether we have a history of mental health problems or not, will recognise some of what I’ve just described.

It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve realised how crucial writing is to my mental health. If I’m not writing, I’m not matching up to my mental image of myself, and that’s the perfect recipe for self-hatred – which, of course, further contributes to the downward spiral.

(Side note: since I started thinking about life as a series of spirals, my mental health has been much better. I don’t descend into the pit in which I once found myself, realising belatedly that I’d barely made it out of bed for six months. Instead I drop down a couple of loops, realise what’s happening and take action.)

I caught myself in one of these spirals in late March. I was still writing, but it had dwindled to the odd half hour here and there, and I could barely look at my novel in progress. The last time I journalled was in early February, and I stopped then because I couldn’t handle the pressure; I didn’t want to face myself. If I took an honest look at how I was feeling, I’d have to do something about it, and I didn’t feel able to.

So towards the end of March, after working up the courage, I did my usual “sit down with a coffee and force myself to write about what’s wrong”, and came up with my usual “put routines in place to meditate, journal, and so on”. I also made some decisions about things that have been stressing me out generally. And reminded myself that yes, the world is a shitshow, but I am privileged not to have to live with that on a second-by-second basis (thank you, Leechblock, for saving my sanity on Facebook and Twitter).

I made all of those decisions…and then I got sick. Well, truthfully I’ve not really been well since mid-February, but things came to a head and I found myself on two different kinds of antibiotics for two separate infections.

I’ve only really started feeling better over the past week or so, after being truly out of sorts for a while. Mostly, all of those good habits I decided to implement have fallen by the wayside again – to some extent with good reason, since I’ve spent a lot of time in bed.

Aside from the basics (earning money, feeding myself, doing the minimum to get by), the only thing I’ve focused on has been writing.

Despite this, I’m feeling SO much better than I did a few weeks ago. I guess writing really is crucial to my mental health.

I reprioritised so that writing gets done before my paid work, even if all I do is show up and stare at a blank screen, and even if it means working on paid work until ten at night. Last week I passed a milestone on the work in progress, one I’ve been aiming at since I returned home from Sweden. Today I started on a new story, one that’s been nudging at my subconscious for a few months. My fictional worlds are expanding again, filling my mind with wonder and possibility.

It turns out that, while all those other positive habits help, the One True Habit for me is simply writing.

It made me curious about others – do we all have a One True Habit? What’s yours? Is it writing? A wander through a bookshop or your local park? Shutting the world out and reading a good book? Let me know in the comments if you feel like sharing.

March reading: sci-fi, climate change and comfort reading

I’ve started keeping a reading log on here, so am going to throw up the odd post where I talk about all the books. Because books, yes?

1. Ink – Sabrina Vourvoulias. A thoughtful, moving and harrowing look at an America not too distant from the current climate.

2. Red Moon – Kim Stanley Robinson. When did this guy become my safe space for reading? It’s such a relief to read something that’s on my wavelength politically and ecologically.

3. Cold Granite – Stuart MacBride. Excellent writing, good start to a series that’s nearly, but not quite, too dark for me.

4. An Inconvenient Death – Miles Goslett. I’ve been haunted by the death of Dr David Kelly for many years, and this was an excellent review of the reasons why.

5. & 6. Killer Plan and Murder Ring – Leigh Russell.

7. Snap – Belinda Bauer. I’ve seen Bauer recommended so many times over the years, and was glad to finally read something by her. This wasn’t quite what I expected, although very readable, and I’m sure I’ll seek out her other books at some point.

8. Ack-Ack Macaque – Gareth L Powell. This was SO MUCH FUN. And also moving and a tiny bit sad, and there’s an excellent intrepid reporter heroine, and yes. All the good things.

9. Rosewater – Tade Thompson. I really enjoyed Thompson’s interview on Death of 1000 Cuts recently, and bought Rosewater on the back of it (as I did with Ack-Ack Macaque, come to think of it). It’s fab – loads of fun, but with serious undertones, plus good writing and a SEQUEL that’s just come out, so yay.

10. & 11. Streets of Darkness and Girl Zero by A A Dhand. These are too dark for me but still excellent, compulsive reading, and it’s such a treat to find a really good crime series set in Bradford. I probably won’t read more (because too dark), but if you like this sort of thing you should definitely try him.

12. Ghost Wall – Goddess Sarah Moss. Oof, this hurt to read, and it’s so good, so terrifying, I’m still breathless after finishing it.

13. MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood. OMG,  so many tears. It’s my second time through this trilogy, but the first time I’ve read all three books in quick succession (I originally read them as they came out). Reading them the way they’re supposed to be read, all three books fit together beautifully. I cried at the end (and at intervals through the last hundred pages) not only because it was sad, but because I didn’t want to leave the characters. I wanted more Toby, more Zeb, more Blackbeard, more everyone. More Amanda, such an interesting character whom I feel we never quite get inside – which is maybe the point. Also, this is a novel that really rewards listening to as an audiobook. Blackbeard’s narration, in particular, was so perfectly pitched, I basically cried whenever he was talking.

Rereading the first two novels, in January, I was struck by how prescient they are, when even a decade ago the future they depicted felt fascinating but remote (to me). Now it feels much, much closer. This third novel concerns itself less with the mess we as humans have made of our world, and more with how a new civilisation might make its own future. And the ways in which humans will inevitably shape this future, by violence, potentially, but also through well-meaning interference (not to mention creation at the hands of Crake). I see from GoodReads reviews that this novel splits readers into “yay” or “meh”. Count me among the highly satisfied campers this time.

14. The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells. This book has been billed as “terrifying”; it opens with the words, “It is worse, much worse than you think.” It pulls no punches, and I think that’s important. Climate change isn’t just coming – it’s here, in the wildfires of California and the cyclone that just hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, not to mention the increasingly desperate and recurring floods in countries like Bangladesh, and also (to a lesser extent, but still visible) in the UK.

I’ve been trying to envisage what our globally warmed world might look like for so long, it’s oddly comforting to see the potential future laid out in stark detail in this book. Drawing on a wealth (heh, the irony) of scientific research and resources, the author breaks down the factors by category: “Heat death”, “Hunger”, “Drowning”…and those are just the first three chapter titles. Cheerful it’s not, but there is something to be said for knowing more about what we are facing in order to act.

In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein vividly describes her desire not to look climate change in the eye. It’s so vast, so nebulous, so terrifying, and so frustrating to be aware of it, and yet to watch successive governments in most parts of the world fail to act, for fear of short-term losses.

Like Naomi Klein, Wallace-Wells is clear that neoliberal capitalism is behind our inertia, our failure to combat this existential threat to humanity, or even in some quarters to accept that it exists. Aside from this the two books are very different; Klein is concerned with political systems, Wallace-Wells with the specifics of what might happen to the planet and to those who inhabit it.

The real message of this book is that we. can. still. act. The 2018 IPCC report gave us twelve years to avoid climate change “catastrophe” (I’d argue that catastrophe has already hit many parts of the world due to climate change, but in this context they’re talking about the globe). Fatalistic attitudes, a shrug of the shoulder, comments like “we’re f*cked” – all responses I’ve encountered from friends – are understandable, but premature, at least in much of the privileged West.

The power to save our future generations is still in our hands – just not for much longer.

15. Cast in Silence – Michelle Sagara. I recently discovered this series, and they’re great for switching off at night.

16. There’s a Witch in the Word Machine – Jenni Fagan.

17. Everything Under – Daisy Johnson. This is the first thing I’ve read by Johnson, and for some reason I was expecting it to be “hard”. You know, cerebral, difficult structure, maybe not much of a story. My expectations were completely wrong – this is a compulsively readable novel of loss, lost people and identity. Fascinating, beautiful, and brilliant!

18. Vigil – Angela Slatter. I do love a good urban fantasy crime novel, and the writing in this one was gooood. Not surprising, since I see Angela Slatter’s been winning awards all over the place in her native Australia. Will definitely be picking up the sequels to this.

*NB: For some reason, crime fiction comes under the heading of comfort reading, for me.

Total: 18

Books by women: 10

Books by writers of colour: 4