Staying Sane in an Insane Industry
Some years ago, I was asked to give a talk about what I laughably call ‘the writing process’ to a group of psychotherapists and psychiatrists at a Scottish university. This was a rather unusual request; my normal audience tends to be either in diapers or recently graduated to kindergarten, so to actually be able to speak in polysyllables and be understood was quite refreshing. At the end of the talk, one of the psychiatrists raised her hand and said: “Your description of your process is as clear a definition of madness as I’ve ever heard. You hear voices in your head, you carry out conversations with people who don’t exist and you do this for eight to ten hours every day?”
Yes. That pretty much nails it. And that’s on a good day. On a not so good day, the voices don’t come, or they are so obviously me trying to be someone else that I give up in disgust. The best writing days are the ones where I can almost reach out and touch my characters, so real do they appear in my head.
So that’s pretty weird, but also very normal among us writers—it’s our imaginations doing what we need them to do. However, the work itself isn’t what threatens to unpick our tenuous hold on sanity, it’s a couple of other things. One is the isolation necessary to do the work; it’s difficult to hammer out deathless prose in the middle of a crowded office (yes, I know certain books that shall not be mentioned were written in a busy cafe, but that, as we all know, was a true exception in every way) and the other is the publishing industry itself. When we hand our precious MS into the maw of the Beast, we relinquish all agency over it. We have to wait. And wait. And wait.
Whether it ever makes it onto a bookshelf in a bookstore is a crapshoot. Really. I know this is the deepest heresy, but a ton of the titles Out There are a waste of trees. Fact. It’s highly possible that you’ve written something that is ten times better than many of the titles currently tipped for success in 2018. Knowing that you have written your best ever book and that it may be lost in a slew of lesser titles because of fashion, fate, editorial whimsy or the harsh winds of Mammon, is enough to drive a writer to despair.
So here, from the frontline of making a living from books, are a few things I’ve learned about keeping your mental health together before you write your book, during the writing of your book, during the waiting period while your book is still an unpublished MS and after your book is published. I’ve left out the bit about after it finds a publisher and the editorial process; your sanity isn’t under threat at such times.
Before You Write
Before you write your book, whether it’s your debut or your twentieth book, you’re still assailed by the same doubts. Anxiety, the foul twin to depression, lurks round every corner. Every single writer has days, weeks when they struggle to find a shape for their new work. We all head off down blind alleys, start books only to give up in disgust and wonder if we were simply kidding ourselves that we could actually do this writing thing. At this stage, it is massively unhelpful for you to trawl Twitter or Facebook in search of…of what? Sticks to beat yourself with? That loathsome hashtag of #AmWriting? Who gives a damn if somebody Out There is writing. The point is that you’re not. At least, not yet.
Close the computer down. Leave your phone at home and get out of the house. Go for as long a walk as you can stand. Do not think about what you’re going to write. Do not obsess. Just put one foot in front of the other and take your poor, overheated brain out for a walk. Sometimes the best way to begin is to accept that your first pages will make a very fine lining for your wastepaper basket. Like the first pancake of the batch is usually the one to be thrown away, poor misshapen thing that it was. So write. If you don’t know what to write, take two books at random from your bookshelves, turn to page 42 in each of them, select a sentence from each (at random, with your eyes shut) and write a page of your own that combines both of them. Seamlessly.
It’s like priming the pump. In order to write, you have to do it, not think about why you’re not doing it. And the walking? As an ancient Roman said, ‘Solvitur ambulandum.’ It is solved by walking. Trust me.
During the Writing
During the period when you are actually writing your book, if you’re anything like me, you lurch between extreme elation (work going well) to the depths of gloom (stuck, stuck, stuck). Again, you need to get outdoors, even if the work is going better than you could ever imagine, and especially if you’re stuck. The work will wait, the outside world is calling. Sitting inert,
peering at a notebook or screen is all very well, but it does nothing whatsoever for your mental health. Or your physical wellbeing, come to that.
During the Waiting
You’ve written several drafts, tweaked, polished, pruned and finally pressed ‘send.’ Now the waiting begins. First of all, celebrate. Yes, I know your book might never see the light of day, but you must give yourself a huge pat on the back. You finished writing a book. Well done! For your mental health, you absolutely must acknowledge your determination, application, effort and everything you poured into the work. Whatever form a modest celebration may take, take it. In these parts, we pack a small picnic and a bottle of cheap champagne and head off for a long walk no matter what the weather is doing. It is something to mark the day you finished the first stage of your book’s journey. You could go on Twitter and post something smug, but please don’t. Given that an editor could take anything from a few weeks to several months to get back to you, and also given how risky it is to place one’s single beloved egg into one possible basket and hope that it’s a good ‘fit,’ I would advise finding another project to absorb your energies. Which means, going back to stage one. Sorry, but there are no short cuts. Stage one is vital for your development as a writer, for your self-worth and to give you an opportunity to connect with the real world rather than the man-made one.
Your book has been acquired, you’ve gone through the editorial process, you’ve seen the proofs and its publication day/week/month. Resist the temptation to go into bookshops to check if they have your book. Also, if your books are in stock, resist the temptation to turn them face out; you are a writer, not a bookseller.
Remember: comparisons are not only odious, they are totally counterproductive. Piles of hardback copies in the front of a bookshop are just that. Piles of unsold merch. What thrills me more than anything is to find a battered library copy of one of my books with so many withdrawal stamps on the title page that the librarian has had to insert another page. You don’t get that on publication day. And also remember, for most of us, publication day is a day for which the word anticlimax might have been invented. Short of being invited on breakfast television to discuss your ‘writing process’ and thus informing the nation that in common with all writers, you are indeed as mad as a box of frogs, it’s a day when not a great deal happens. If you’re very lucky, you may well be out on tour with your new book, which means, in the picture book world, planes, trains and automobiles and pitching up at a variety of schools and libraries to read and draw from your new book and to be coughed and sneezed on in return. But very occasionally, reading your books to a collection of little people, a small person wraps her arms round your knees and tells you she loves your books best of all, and that does more good for your mental health than anything you could ever imagine.