Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?

A while ago, I stumbled upon an interesting article by the novelist, Alex Preston Does Prozac help artists be creative? and reading it reminded me of my own experience of prescription drugs in my teens and twenties.

In his article, Alex Preston interviews a number of successful writers about their experience of taking anti-depressants and one thing that comes to light is that although the pills might help people to overcome blocks and inhibitions so that they can start writing again, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily producing very good work.

I first experienced depression as a young child and I was receiving treatment by the time I was twelve. Before I started taking the pills I had always thought of my extremes of emotion as being like the weather, some days dark and overcast, some bright and sunny. Sometimes, with a sense of dread, I could feel the storm clouds gathering; other times I could feel the dark clouds lifting away.

Storm clouds gathering

Storm clouds gathering

How I dealt with the darkness was through drawing, painting and writing poems. One time, I designed the cover of a poetry book which I called ‘Poems of the Darkness and the Light,’ and my teacher didn’t believe I had made the title up. As if children could not feel the darkness as well as the light.

My darkness and light were part of my nature, they were my micro-climate, and after I started taking anti-depressants I stopped feeling like me. It felt as if someone else was living my life, but doing a better job of it than I would have done in terms of passing exams and doing the work at university.

I stopped taking anti-depressants some ten years after I started, because when my older sister killed herself with prescription drugs it seemed clear to me that they weren’t any kind of cure at all. The withdrawal was terrible.

But in time, I started to write again. I learnt to flow with my own rhythm of highs and lows. It felt like the difference between trying to find your way in the dark within the narrow beam of a torch, then switching it off and waiting until your eyes acclimatise and gradually the dark is less dark, there are stars and glimmers, a faint smudge of hedges, a pale ribbon of road.

All these years later, I remember what it felt like to be numbed out of my own life on a diet of pills. If I hadn’t been shocked out of it by my sister’s suicide I probably would have stayed like that, and never discovered the fertile darkness, or come home to myself.

Walking in the dark

Walking in the dark

The Uses of Sorrow – by Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

My feelings about anti-depressants have come out of my personal experience and I’m sure other people will have very different views and stories. Have you ever taken anti-depressants? Did you feel they helped or hindered your creativity?

You and your writing – true love or passing passion?

It’s easy to fall in love with writing, but can you take it to the next level?

A lot of people love the idea of writing, and hold it in their heart for years as ‘a one day when I’ve got  time’ dream. And when they engage, perhaps in workshops or inspired by a book such as Writing down the Bones by Nathalie Goldberg or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, writing does not disappoint.

Because it really is exhilarating to discover that all you have to do is open the door, and ideas will come pouring through. Characters, settings, stories… it’s astonishing and wonderful what you find inside that you never even knew was there.

This is the honeymoon period. It’s bright, fun and exciting, but it doesn’t last forever. You can abandon it for a while and then start all over again, with another course, another book, loving the romance but not committing, or you can surrender to it fully, and fall properly in love.

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Love is not easy. As Khalil Gibran says in The Prophet, ‘Even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.’

When you fall in love with writing, just as when you fall in love with another person, your centre of gravity changes. You are not the only important thing. You are willing to learn, to strive and to make sacrifices in the service of your love.

Loving your writing means making yourself the best possible writer that you can be. It means studying and practising all the skills of writing, so that you can properly honour the wonderful flow of ideas you have found.

Sometimes it might mean giving up things you really liked – ‘killing your darlings’ – if a clever image you were pleased with doesn’t sit well in the larger piece, for example, or if a descriptive passage you’ve worked really hard on has got in the way of the action.

It means curbing your annoying habits, such as using too many abstract nouns or adverbs, or peppering your text with a few favourite words. What you like is not important; you want to do what the writing needs.

Writing is a labour of love – labour and love, both. When you have setbacks, as every writer does - a book idea that doesn’t work after months and months of trying, a rejection from a publisher or agent, an e-book that’s barely sold a copy – it’s only your love for the art and craft of writing that stops you walking away and giving up completely.

I’ve had times when I’ve felt like packing it in, but writing always brings me back. It’s part of who I am now, not just a thing I do. As Khalil Gibran says, ‘think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.’

What is your relationship with writing? Would you like to commit yourself more fully? Would you like to be able to walk away?

 

 

I’m giving you four stars, amazon

amazon ****

I’m giving you four stars, amazon. You lose that elusive fifth one because of your  absolute resistance to removing malicious or inaccurate customer reviews, such as the one that appeared in amazon UK on my bullying book for children which called victims ‘pansies’ and said they should get in with the cool kids by smoking and doing whatever it takes.

Or the one you’re currently refusing to take down on the same book in amazon US, which slanders me as an authority on bullying by stating that I advise bullied children to hit back.

Surely this is slander?

Surely this is slander?

But notwithstanding such a serious shortcoming, here’s why this author still thinks you deserve four stars.

* You make all my books readily available

High Street booksellers are great at selling children’s fiction, but before you arrived, I wrote eight fantastically well-reviewed children’s self-help books which proved impossible for them to sell. If they stocked them, they didn’t know where to display them.

There wasn’t such a thing in the UK as a children’s self-help section, indeed in most shops, there wasn’t much children’s non-fiction at all, except school-type books and a handful of tired-looking hard-backs about animals.

Thanks to you, most of my self-help books are still in print and selling well, and they’re finding their way into the hands of children who need them, which is why I wrote them.

* You keep my out-of-print books available too

This is even more important nowadays because the modern publishing world can be brutal, with books going out of print within a few months if they fail to reach their projected sales.

It’s hard to write a book. Not just in terms of work, but in terms of emotional commitment. So it’s simply heart-breaking if the book you’ve taken years to write and months to sell, and then waited eighteen months to see in print, disappears without trace before it’s even had a proper chance, to make way for ever more celebrity memoirs and novelty books.

* You make it possible for me to write what I want to write

When I was first published, authors were barely aware of ‘the market’ at all. Now the decision to publish is made by marketing people who will not even have read the book, so there’s not much point writing anything that hasn’t got a strong ‘hook’ and pound signs all around it.

But what if you want to write the books you want to write, and would be happy with moderate sales so long as you could pay your bills? My most frequent feedback from publishers recently is that the book is ‘too niche for the market’ or ‘too niche to achieve bulk sales.’

This is especially hard when they’re really positive about the quality of the book, like with my most recent submission, which has so far not secured a contract: ‘this is a very fine novel, so subtle, yet sharply observed’, ‘a sensitive subject, delicately and carefully handled’, ‘compelling’, ‘highly readable’, ‘the writing is very strong.’

I would be in despair at this stage if it wasn’t for your kindle and createspace, amazon, which mean that even the most ‘niche’ book can at least find some readers, rather than ending up a typescript on a shelf.

*  You make it easy for me to find any niche or out-of-print book I want to read for research 

I used to rely on the library service years ago. My little local branch sought out all sorts of obscure books on dreaming and psychology for me, but it took a long time and wasn’t always successful. Now, thanks to you, I can get any book I want, delivered to my house the very next day.

I still love High Street booksellers, of course – all authors do. High Street booksellers love and know about books – they are people like us. Whereas you, amazon, love and know about money. I deplore the fact that you don’t pay your fair share of taxes; I’m dismayed by your recently well-publicised poor working conditions.

I hate your attempts to force publishers to accept deep discounting by removing their books from your catalogue, although I don’t think it’s much different from what all the major retailers do.

But I personally forgive you all this, because in a traditional publishing environment that has become increasingly difficult for a non-fiction, non-bestselling, niche author to survive in, you make a creative career feel possible.

How do you feel about amazon and the huge online booksellers? Love, hate… or a bit of both?

 

 

 

The ups and downs of the writing life

The second series of writing workshops I was planning this year didn’t work out because I didn’t get enough interest to make a big enough group. This happens from time to time, and it doesn’t faze me.

The reason why is because I invariably find the timing would have been bad for me, and that life was working in my best interests in overriding what I had planned. On this occasion, I injured my back a few days before the first session would have been and spent the best part or a fortnight laid up in agony. The third session would have clashed with a family get-together; the fourth would have come when I was recovering from a sickness bug we all came down with after we parted.

The course, had it gone ahead, would have been fraught with problems, and that’s the point – we don’t know when we’re making plans what the consequences of success or failure might be.

I need goals to give me a sense of direction, and when I set a goal I go all-out to achieve it. Then, if it doesn’t work out, I know it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part, so it’s easy to let it go and look for the silver lining.

Because there always is a silver lining. Take the three books I completed last year, none of which sold on the first time of offering

  1. ‘The Binding’ is a children’s story set on a remote Scottish island. I wrote the first version fifteen years ago, my agent sent it out, it nearly sold, but not quite. Coming back to it after such a long interval, having a much better grasp of the craft of writing, I loved having the chance to make the story much stronger and more exciting. The book has been accepted for publication in 2015.
  2. ‘Drift’ is a YA novel I also wrote about fifteen years ago – which also came very close to securing a contract at the time, but didn’t. It’s a story about sibling suicide, which is close to my heart - too close, those years ago, for me to be able to fully explore the emotional situation of the protagonist. Writing it again was a deeply satisfying experience which I would not have had if the book had sold in its original version, and the MS is currently out with various publishers.
  3. ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is my child-of-the-heart book. It didn’t find a conventional publisher because it’s ‘too niche’ and if I hadn’t loved it so much I would probably have put the MS in a drawer rather than face the complications of trying to self-publish. Because I love it, I’m going the distance with the publishing, doing it properly, and the surprising upside is that the process feels really enjoyable and creative.

Any freelance life involves plans and goals, setbacks and successes. Being a writer, you have to learn how to go with the flow, or else the extraordinary ups and downs would soon make you go under.

How do you cope with the ups and downs of the writing life?

 

The Grand Blog Tour arrives at the House of Dreams!

I’d like to thank Katina Wright for inviting me to take part in the Grand Blog Tour this week. I love Kat’s blog because it’s a joyful celebration of creativity and it’s very pretty. Here’s the link Wright Story

BLOGbanner_USE2011

Everyone on the Grand Blog Tour has to answer four questions, and they’re every writer’s favourite questions to answer.

 1. What are you working on?

I wrote a children’s book about writing years ago and always intended to do one for adults some day – that day has come! I’ve got lots of fabulous contributions from my friends in the Scattered Authors Society, and absolutely no quotations that I’ll need to get permissions for (this is why)

I think this book will sit really well alongside ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ so I hope to publish it in the New Year, a few months after that one comes out in September.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

It’s hard to say, considering that my work covers lots of different genres, but doing something different feels important to me. There wouldn’t be any point in writing something someone else has already written.

When I wrote my bullying books they were – and as far as I’m aware, still are – the only self-help books that focused on psychological self-defence, helping children to deal with high levels of anger and fear in bullying situations, to maintain their self-esteem and overcome any feelings of shame. When ‘Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends’ came out in 2003, the Independent reviewer asked, ‘Could this be the first self-help book for children?’

With my dream book, I didn’t want to do a dictionary/interpretation kind of book because there are already so many books of this kind on the market. I wanted to tell my own dream adventures and offer some practical writing activities that could give others a glimpse into how each dream experience feels, even if they don’t recall their dreams. I don’t think anyone else has done this but even if they have, my own story and the exercises from my ‘House of Dreams’ workshops are obviously unique.

I think my writing book will be different too – as ‘How to be a Brilliant Writer’ was an unusual writing book for children, but I never talk about my work-in-progress. Sorry!

3. Why do you write what you do?

I write to entertain, but also to share ideas that have made my life feel richer. I love new challenges so I choose projects that are going to stretch me and take me into unfamiliar territory.

4. How does your writing process work?

I’m allergic to timetables and routines so I found the years when I was having to fit my writing in around school and playgroup quite challenging. These days it’s completely organic. When I’m at the pondering, pre-planning stage I might spend days at the beach or tramping over the moors. When I’m actively sorting out a plan, I like to take power naps because I find things organise in my mind while I’m asleep.

Once I start the actual writing I can work 24:7 because I never know exactly how the book is going to be and I’m excited to find out.

Then finally, when I’ve finished my first draft, my redrafting works in a nice steady nine to five kind of way, and as soon as I’ve send the MS off to my agent, I crack open a bottle of bubbly.

Now it just remains for me to take the Grand Tour forward to other blogs I think you might love. They’ll will be joining the tour on the 5th May.

Abi Burlingham is a children’s author I’ve got to know over the last few years through blogging and social networking – I’ve never met her but I think of her as a friend. Her blog is about art, life and writing, which is a great mix as far as I’m concerned. here’s the link

Carolyn Hughes writes about recovery and emotional healing on her blog called The Hurt Healer, which has a following of thousands. Like Abi, she’s another friend I’ve never met :)

Tessa Hillman has a really unusual blog called Yoga Stories where she offers stories on demand. She’s a good friend I actually have met, and meet up with from time to time.

When this happens you know you’re on the right track!

The first book I kindled, just to get a sense of what was involved, was my out-of-print parenting book, ‘When your Child is Bullied.’ I up-dated the text, gave it a new title and sent it to draft2digital, who formatted it and made it available on various platforms. I found a designer for the cover on the budget services site, fiverr, and it cost me literally a fiver.

My first adventure in self-publishing

My first adventure in self-publishing

But that was a book I wrote seventeen years ago, it had been published by three mainstream publishers and translated into half a dozen languages, so all I really wanted to do was make it still available for parents struggling to support a bullied child.

‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is different. It’s never been published before, and because I only finished the writing last year, publishing feels like a continuation of the creative process, which is about honing and refining, nurturing and developing your unique idea.

So I’ve hired an editor to look at the text and a freelance designer to create a cover, because I want the book to be as good as I can possibly make it.

But never having worked with a designer before I had too little confidence in my own ideas, and too little clarity, to be able to give her much of a steer as to what kind of cover I wanted, and when her first sample arrived I was disappointed. I had wanted my cover to be colourful and creative, and beautiful too, but this cover was grey and kind of business-like.

While I was wondering whether to just accept the cover I didn’t like because I didn’t know exactly what else to suggest, I had a birthday, and one of my daughters bought me a beautiful ceramic piece by Hilke MacIntyre that I had admired in the Fowey River Gallery. There was an information sheet with it, and out of curiosity I went to Hilke’s website.

'The Visit' by Hilke MacIntyre - my birthday present from visiting daughter and her partner

‘The Visit’ by Hilke MacIntyre – my birthday present from visiting daughter and her partner

There I found a whole page of linocuts, one of which felt exactly right for my book. I sent the link to my designer and she was very keen on designing a new cover around it. Having seen the image, she had a much better idea of what kind of things I wanted my cover to say.

So I contacted Hilke and asked if I could use the image, and we agreed terms with no difficulty at all over a friendly email chat.

When you’re in a quandary and have no idea what to do, and then life places something right at your feet like a great big arrow saying ‘Go this way!’ I reckon you can move forward confidently, knowing you’re on the right track.

Has life ever answered your question when you’ve been wondering what to do?

 

Conquering death through writing and dreaming

I’ve recently been having a chat in a linkedin writers’ group about why we write, and someone said the point for him was to leave something of himself behind after he dies.

I said I wasn’t concerned at all about people reading my books after I’m gone, and someone else said surely there’s no point in writing if we don’t want readers. Which was going off the point a bit, I felt. I mean, of course writers want to find readers.

Knowing your work will be read enhances the experience of writing, but for me it’s about enhancing it now; I don’t think it’ll do much for me after I’m dead.

And yet I do feel that writing gives us a kind of immortality, in that it expands our experience of living beyond the here-and-now limitations of ordinary life. Where am I when I’m writing? I still exist, but I’m not entirely here. My soul is going walkabout among different lives and times.

Dreaming is the same, an experience that is mine yet goes beyond ‘me.’ In dreams, even more deeply than in writing, the dreamer lives on after consciousness is gone.

Writing and dreaming are experiences of soul, which is conscious immortality rather than the kind that might or might not happen after we die, through people reading our books.

Do you think of writing as a way of leaving something of yourself behind after you die?