THE WRITER’S LIFE
It’s Mental Health Awareness week. Have this:
Still considering myself somewhat the novice at this game, I was heartened to read a recently-added column in The Guardian Review section: a writer describing their working day. What was heartening was that this particular writer – a household name – described a day in his working life very much like one in my own. He also suffers from chronic clinical depression and a very high IQ. Although he is fortunate enough to have a separate study in his house, he lives his work. I live and sleep where I work, which is what The Studio has become and that’s no bad thing.
I’ll normally wake up anywhere between 10am and noon, having usually gone to bed at around 2am. This is not a late night drinking session; it’s when I’m at my most productive and I usually retire, not with too many running ideas in my head, but with a knowledge that I have a work in progress I can get straight into later.
I’ll grab an iced coffee from the kitchen, switch the computer and internet on (as my situation dictates) and check emails while smoking the first roll-up of the day. I’ll have a quick look at Facebook, make a shopping list, then take a gentle stroll into the village for lunch, dinner and anything else I need. I might pick up The Guardian while I’m out and very occasionally, I’ll stop for a coffee at Costa on the high street. That’s when the weather is particularly nice and if I’m at a loose end for story ideas. I’ll take my notebook and make notes as I drink coffee and smoke cigarettes at a pavement table. This is when I’m reminded that I have chronic clinical depression.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy taught me that there are good reasons why people look at you for longer than a second: They find you attractive; they wonder what it is that you could be writing. It’s as they stare that the paranoid depressive writer swaps the roles and writes of what he might be thinking as he watches them. The safest place for most of those private thoughts is in a private notepad because they would form the basis of some truly damaged stories. That’s why I’m a horror writer and it’s why I sit outside coffee shops. If I tell people that, they might think it interesting, or run away. Either is fine as I’m used to both.
Actually, I’ve had some pleasant and engaging conversations over coffee and I always wear my heart on my sleeve if anyone asks how it was that I became a writer. Those conversations are dreaded and longed for in equal measure. In the end, it’s a pleasant walk back home, whether or not I’ve stopped for coffee. Just as the big black dog is always there, so too are the rooftop snipers.
Sometimes I’ll bump into my next door neighbour. He’s a big lump and has an aura about him of someone who’d give you unsolicited advice on a fruit machine. He’s served time at Her Majesty’s pleasure: information which he volunteered, because he wears his heart on his sleeve like me. In any case, I don’t judge like so many others would.
Back at The Studio, I’ll have an hour or so reading the news, I’ll plan the evening’s TV viewing, get my personal finances up to date, make any appointments I need to (doctor etc.) and deal with personal shit. I smoke a cigarette or two, contemplate what’s in the kitchen and plan lunch and dinner, even though I already did that before I went to the shops. I make sure that everything is tidy in The Studio: that means I can turn my back on it and face the desk; an oasis of organised chaos. It makes me smile because it represents what I am nowadays: a busy writer.
I’ll make a fuck-off great cup of Latte at some point and I’ll drink that and smoke some more while I go through my Filofax and decide what to do. The life stuff is all taken care of, so now the interesting things can start to happen.
I’m a terrible eater. That’s to say, I don’t tend to eat unless I observe certain times, those being when I have taught myself and my illness it’s time to eat. 2pm is lunch time, so I’ll make a sandwich and have it with coffee, a couple of cigarettes and some more reading. I’ll wonder aloud if there’s anything I might need from the shops before they close and if there’s anything else I need to do, like phone the doctor, the council, pick up medicines and so on, even though I’ve already done all of this on the earlier walk. My brain needs to know that it has a clear path to engage in a sole activity, with all distractions taken care of. At around 3pm, I start to write.
Whatever is top of the to-do list, I usually finish pretty quickly as it’ll be the thing I last worked on before crashing out. I’ll usually have a part-finished something from the night before, which I’ve slept on and will go over again before completing it. It might be a blog entry, stream-of-consciousness recording like this, a short story, a chapter of my next novel, or something completely different. Whatever I’m writing, I’ll usually have some music on in the background. It takes my hi-fi a good couple of hours to warm up, so several kilos of 15-year-old metal, solid wood and gold-plated connectors do that while I do the same.
The life I write about is the same one that people see in me as a person: a veneer. Physical and social interactions for someone with chronic depression are acts in a play, where the actor has had to get into character for hours beforehand and where he remembers his lines and simply gets through the whole charade by breaking the play down into individual acts. Life is easier if you take it one chunk at a time. Like a box of chocolates but having no-one to give the strawberry or coffee creams to and having no-one to keep away from the ones which contain nuts.
At 5.15, I take a break: 5.15 on a weekday is time for Pointless. 45 minutes of feeling smug with one’s own level of obscure knowledge and picking up more. No-one’s impressed.
It’s 6pm by now and thoughts must turn to dinner. Dinner is at 7pm. If I don’t eat at seven, I probably won’t eat at all. 7pm is when there’s rarely anything on TV and I can fully commit myself to the kitchen. The attention span of someone suffering from depression is short, unless they are engaged in something which envelops them. For me, that’s writing but I wouldn’t eat my words. My words are regurgitations of poison. I’m a horror writer.
With my foremost concerns being the cost of ingredients and electricity, and the environmental cost of waste from both, I shop and cook quite frugally. The quickest and cheapest way to cook is to pan-fry. I have become adept at cooking a complete meal in a single pan: cheap, quick, simple and small, to suit my appetite. My local store has a fish counter and a lot of the previous day’s cuts end up in the reduced-to-clear cabinet. With only a mini fridge to store food, I tend to buy what’s available and make something with whatever I’ve got. A fish counter and preferring to pan-fry meals has meant that I’m pretty much pescatarian during the week. So provided I nudge myself into ten minutes of kitchen activity, I’ll have a light supper at around 7pm. Tonight that was pan-fried sea bass with sauté potatoes and green vegetables in a lemon herb and butter sauce: light, delicious, cheap and with little waste.
As a functioning alcoholic, I drink cider throughout the day. Nowadays, it’s almost a pleasurable tipple I could save until later but old habits do indeed die hard. But where once I’d have drunk three litres of “tramp juice” before lunch, now I drink normal strength cider during the day and I’ll have a couple of pints, interspersed with coffees. I do speed up in the evenings, to gain a little differential between the daytime and the evening. When I’m smoking weed, this is normally when I’ll roll the first joint. I chill out for a while and relax in the knowledge – weed or not – that I can sleep nowadays just because I’m tired and I’m on prescribed medication. I no longer have to self-medicate in order to knock myself out and stop my brain from thinking.
I’m about half way through a typical day by now, so I’ll watch whatever is on TV. My viewing is very limited: police and hospital procedurals, wildlife documentaries and eclectic random programmes which just happen to grab my attention. I’ve always got my notepad to hand because I never know where an idea might spring from.
I’ll normally watch TV for no more than a couple of hours. By that point in the day, my brain is firing and I’m full of ideas, so I’m dying to get on the computer. I’ll make sure I have coffee, cider, tobacco and music in place, then I get down to some proper writing. It’s both a therapy and a coping mechanism for my brain. It’s a great stress relief when you’re a fiction writer and you have people in your real life who piss you off. I just kill them in horrific ways and tell the story in graphic detail, smiling as I do so and looking at my hands which are free of blood. My next killing spree will be people who owe me money. It’s not the debt which bothers me so much as the lies. Never kid a kidder: I used to be one of the best liars I knew, so I know the tells. I used to be a semi-pro poker player and I’ve got a very high IQ, so I can see right through these people. That alone is quite satisfying: intellectual superiority. Murdering and dismembering them in brutally detailed prose, just adds to the pleasure. Or I could write something psychologically disturbing, where transparent people like that literally become invisible to all who knew them. Whatever fate I decide, as a fiction work, it will have literary merit: I am a pretty good writer after all. I can make people physically shudder with just words.
I seem to be girl-free at the moment, all three of them having pissed me off to varying extents. They’re just doing the things that teenage girls do. I might not envy their real fathers, even if those men were on the scene. They’ll probably be back at some point and I shall welcome them like I always do. Although I’ve always given those girls credit for being intelligent, it took a while to realise just how calculating they can be at times. Now I see right through them too and they’ve given me further ideas for literary fancy. The chronic depressive tends to be generous in their nature and can give too much credit to people who might take advantage of him. Very often, this can be put down to paranoia and insecurity on the part of the sufferer. People with depression need to have a good network of friends around them and it would be a very cruel thing to take advantage of someone who is mentally ill. It’s also a terrible thing to think that those around you might be capable of. Time will tell if I’m just being paranoid. For now, the bank is closed and the counselling line is incoming calls only.
I genuinely don’t worry too much if I’ve been ripped off personally: they showed their true colours and were never a friend anyway. Maybe they have a conscience but I have the greatest weapon of all: the pen. One of my most lauded short stories was Helvetica Haus, a story which ran to 4500 words because it was written with a pen filled with the blood of one I detested and wanted to kill. The story goes into minute detail and was hailed by one of my peers as, “Written by a genius psychopath.”
I really get into my stride at around 10pm. Whether I’m writing the blog, a short story, a chapter of a book, or something else, the process is the same:
I’ll have longhand notes in my Filofax, indexed and filed with any clippings or articles which relate. I’ll transfer these notes onto the computer, adding to them as I type. In the beginning, I’m just writing it down as it occurs to me: a rough first draft, filled with gaps and question marks, which I’ll go back to later. I can type at up to 80 words per minute, faster than I can write longhand: this comes in handy when I’m tapping away at a first draft. I rarely write a story chronologically at this early stage. Often, a story will make itself up as it develops with the words on the screen. Often, I’ll have a story but no character names. All of my characters are based on real people: people I know, myself and people from history; usually a combination. I conduct a lot of research into characters and although 95% of that isn’t apparent in the final incarnation, my characters all speak and act in certain ways, which are portrayed in my prose. I read an entire biography in order to give depth to a character in my next novel, Infana Kolonia. A small, pink android with Tourette’s Syndrome delivers just a handful of lines but test readers tell me that they love the depth of the character: That’s because 95% of the work isn’t in the final words. If I hit a block, I’ll move onto the next part of the plot which I know and worry about joining it all up later. I’ll highlight parts which need particular attention and add flags to denote that something may need expanding or contracting.
After anywhere between a few hours and a couple of days, I’ll have a first draft: the bones and some excess fat of a short story, say. At this stage, a typical short story of 1500-1700 words might come in at 5-6000. Some of those then go on to be even longer but most are being written for markets with very specific word counts, which I know from the start, so it’s a heavy editing exercise which will get me to a next draft. After much cutting, moving paragraphs around and sometimes changing a story entirely, I’ll have a second draft. Even if it bears little resemblance to the original vision, it will be a worthy story with the work that’s gone into it. It’s the stories which change and evolve that I enjoy writing the most but you can never tell which ones that will be. Sometimes a story simply cannot be adapted to the market guidelines for a competition or publication, so it will sit in my slush pile and sometimes become something else at a later date. For each of the 40+ short stories I’ve had published, there at least twice as many first and part drafts on my computer.
It’s when I’m really deep into the process that my mind is at its most active, not just with the fiction but the thoughts of real life that the situations I write about throw up. Paranoia, alienation and guilt are the three most obvious symptoms of PTSD, something I have many times over. I try to hide it, like most others with mental illness, because although we long to talk about it, it’s hard to speak with authority on something you know so little about: your own brain. If only mine worked properly then life wouldn’t be the living hell that it sometimes is. My situation is made worse because of the empathy I can have with myself, feeling sorry for myself and punishing myself in equal measure. Bad things have happened to me, through alcohol and depression; and they continue to happen on a daily basis as I relive them. But it all got me to where I am, which is a better person, albeit with a lot of baggage. Just one thing would make it easier: my kids replying to my emails more often. They’re just kids and I’ve had practice with the girls for the teenagers they’ll become. Like depression, my writing is a solitary, personal thing.
I’ve tried moving my day around, for variety and in the hope that my inspirational mind wakes up earlier but it never does. Perhaps it never did and that’s part of what’s always been my problem. At 1am, I’ll take my tablets. The anti-psychotic and sedative ingredients ensure that I sleep well and don’t have too many nightmares to act out. At the end of the day, I’ll have two or three pages of good copy, where every word serves its own purpose and its neighbours and those which were cut have a use elsewhere.
Paranoia, anxiety and panic are things which the depression sufferer lives with daily; silently. At least I can put my illness to some use. I’m told that I’m good but that’s mainly when I’m talking to myself. The chronic depressive loves the company he wishes he could escape, just as depression in general is a living death, with one’s expiry a blessed relief.
“…Knowledge comes with death’s release.” David Robert Jones (1947 – 2016)