Caveat scriptor

300px-Distressedpoet-oil

The Distrest Poet, Hogarth c1736

“A writer is a writer not because she writes well or easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Junot Diaz, Becoming a Writer/The List, O Magazine, November 2009

This quote is only one of many from many people: you know you’re a writer when not writing is impossible. It’s an image that conjures up the image of the starving artist in their garret, frantically creating because it’s the only thing they know. It’s romantic. It’s persistent. It’s dangerous.

I’ve not been well recently. I’ve hinted at it in previous blog-posts, but perhaps it’s time to be more open about it. A major life-change occurred and suddenly I was unable to write. My inability to write made me ill, or at least more so.

I hadn’t realised that writing was part of my self-protection, my survival strategy. I didn’t realise just how much my routine had been insulation from depression and self-hatred. Of course I knew of my propensity for mental illness – I’ve had it since I was eight, so I’ve had a lot of time to come to terms with myself. But I didn’t realise that writing – and more specifically my writing routine – worked as a defence. Writing, for me, is as much self-preservation as it is an act of love.

So, for the first time, I really feel I understand these quotes. But I don’t see them as romantic, aspirational ideals: instead they have taken on a darker hue. Beware, writer, for you are so embedded in your work that you are simply a madman with a coping strategy. You are Dr Jekyll. Beware the unleashing of your Hyde.

And beware also these pat statements that seem to glamourise suffering. Be reassured: your writing isn’t going to get any worse if you’re well-fed, well-supported, well-balanced. We should be telling ourselves that the healthiest way to write is to do so as a hobby or as a business, not as a part of our very being. Necessity has a way of sabotaging you when you least expect it.

I’m taking steps to restore balance and to claw back some of the defences I once had. But caveat scriptor: there is nothing romantic about madness. If your happiness is so entwined with writing then at least acknowledge this and ensure you have some sort of safety net should the unexpected sweep your feet from beneath you.

Or is it just me?

Rod for back

Routine

I don’t know who created this: if it’s you please let me know so I can credit you/apologise most humbly for using it without permission

I have carefully, meticulously and with great attention to detail created a rod for my own back.

I have, at various times over the life of this blog, exhorted and advised on the merits of setting a good writing routine: of making creation a part of your day, of building a habit until it becomes harder to ignore than it is to fulfil. Over the past six years I’ve built an impenetrable wall of Work, the hours of which may have changed but its presence has remained unchallenged. Habits have become ossified. Paper has turned to stone.

Now I’m starting to realise that babies don’t work to schedule. I’ve left Paid Employment to take parental leave and my world has come tumbling down around my ears. I’m suddenly (and yes, I know that all this was foreseeable; I did actually foresee it, but knowledge and ‘knowing’ rarely run in sync) faced with the reality: I have to fit my work around the child.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It should be easy. Wait until she falls asleep and then hit the keyboard, hit social media, get on with all the things I should be getting on with.

But I have trained myself to work from 08:00 (or thereabouts) to 10:00ish. Now it causes me almost visceral distress not to be working then – for a given value of ‘work’, at any rate. Writing is medicine, it is sanity: by it I measure life, progress, and keep from staring too hard into the abyss of Failure. When I can’t work I get stressed and angsty and feel all the undone-ness towering over me.

Routine works: the advice I’ve given before still stands. Build your habits and keep producing. Just be cautious, be prepared: the unexpected (and again I realise that I have been in a perfect position to ‘know’ what was on its way: babies are rarely come as a shock outside the world of Victorian melodramas) might sweep everything away.

Don’t become so hidebound that when something comes from left-field the ground is knocked from beneath your feet.