What it feels like.

People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang. He was right; we’re all strange (some more enjoyably so than others). But who are the strangest people of all? The ones who don’t write, that’s who.

They may well have a rich, active life filled with working and socialising (by comparison with which I’m a friendless cave-dwelling hermit), but something still puzzles me: ‘When do they do their writing?’ 

I’m lucky enough to live near a river (a thing that I’ve never appreciated fully till now), and as part of my ongoing programme of self-help (here and here for the lowdown on what I’m recovering from), I’ve committed to daily – rain permitting – bike rides on the river path, where the clouds of black flies, as you push further into the forest, and splodges of irresponsible owners’ dog-shit are leavened by birdsong, and squirrels attractively leaping on branches, and tethered horses contemplatively munching. There’s something, I’ve found, about pedalling that helps with the composition of sentences. As soon as I’ve stowed the bike back in the shed, and hydrated myself with a gallon of water, the first thing I do is reach for my diary. And even the warm wafts of dog shit that drifted towards me are happy, somehow, when I’ve written them down, because ‘warm wafts’ encapsulates just what it felt like, to me, in that moment – and just what it felt like is always the thing that I’m longing to catch.

So what do you do with all this – all this life, all this shit – if you don’t write it down? More importantly, how do you turn stinking shit into warm, sweet wafts (well, perhaps not sweet…) if you don’t churn it up, spit it out (now I’m speaking metaphorically hereand unless you’re of the canine persuasion I’m guessing, assuming, you won’t take this literally)… if you don’t rebuild your life in words? Rose Tremain knew she wanted to write at the age of eleven: ‘I remember standing in the middle of a very beautiful hayfield with the sun going down and thinking that I didn’t want just to describe how beautiful I thought that place was but I wanted to write down all my feelings about it, and then try to make some equation between that place and what I felt about it and what hopes I had for my own life. I can remember the intensity of it . . . and it seemed to me then that my life would be a life in which this process of describing and identifying feelings would play a part.’

It’s key that she talks about feelings. It isn’t an intellectual art, this fiction thing – no matter what some of the Big Boys of Literature might make you believe. In fact, one of the world’s greatest short story writers – Flannery O’Connor – had this to say on the matter: ‘There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.’

You have to immerse yourself in a thing to make sense of your feelings about it. And how do you capture those feelings? Through using your senses. Of which you have five (well, duh, but you might be surprised by how often we writers rely on the visual). Don’t forget sounds, or the hot pong of dog shit – but touch is their oft-neglected sibling, and one we forget at our peril. We’re not making films; we are writers. We have to plunge in past the surface to really bring feelings alive. There’s a thing called haecceity – loosely translated as ‘this-ness’ – and whether I’m right or wrong in this theory I’ve taken haecceity to mean: just what it felt like. Feeling, of course, has a dual meaning in English. Right now, as I’m writing this blog, I can feel the limp slope of my decade-old sofa, a breeze from the open window, an itch on the tip of my finger. I quite need a wee.

In short, I’m a body. I’m always a body. Your character, too, is a body. We’re often reminded that scenes must be visualised before we can write them (all true, of course), but they have to be bodily lived through as well if you’re aiming for ‘this-ness’. Helen Dunmore, I’ve found, is great at this. So is Julie Myerson. On the other hand, having read (and enjoyed) Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha I’m still none the wiser on how it would actually feel to wear a kimono, to walk in geta, to kneel at the feet of businessmen. It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t quite immerse myself, and immersion is what I most long for as a reader.

Immersion is what I long for as a writer, too. I’m sheltering from life, again, in the flimsy construct of my novel, but honestly I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t have these characters to give my feelings to. So I’ll say it again: all people are strange, but the people who don’t write are strangest of all. I suppose there are those who use music, or dance, or paint, but there seems to be something uniquely therapeutic about writing. In my quest to recover I’ve wandered about on the world wide web, far and wide, and one thing that I lighted upon this morning adds fuel to the fire of this ‘writing as therapy’ proposition. You might like to watch Shawn Achor’s TED talk yourself (recommended especially if you’re depressed – it’s just over ten minutes long, and well worth it), but three of the five small steps that he outlines for building your positivity involve… yes, you guessed it: writing. One is to note down three new things every day that you’re grateful for. Two is to ‘journal’ for two minutes a day on a positive experience. And three is to send a kind email to someone you know. (Four and five are meditation – for two minutes a day – and 15 minutes of cardiac exercise, if you’re curious.)

In that spirit of gratitude, then, here’s my list for the day:

1. I’m grateful for being able to feel the wind on my face whenever I want to.

2. I’m grateful for having loved, and been loved.

3. I’m grateful for this insatiable need to turn things into words, which – as one of my friends wrote yesterday, in quite possibly the nicest email I’ve ever received – is what ultimately gives life its meaning.

All that, and Nadal’s on the telly. Nice.

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Major Disorder and Annie Donia.

‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.’ So said Jane Austen.

Lately I’ve felt the need to apologise for being depressed. We’re weird, that way, human beings. Our brains are – inarguably – the most complex thing in our bodies and yet for some reason I’ve never quite fathomed we’re deeply ashamed when they start to malfunction. This week’s Shared Experience on Radio 4 dealt nicely with the stigma of mental breakdown (and if you’re reading this in 2014 you can catch it here – the programme that is, not mental breakdown; that’s not catching, okay?). Depressed people are tedious, yes. I freely admit that. You look at their world objectively and perhaps, from the outside, it seems like a whole lot of bellyaching about precisely nothing. Other people have coped with worse, so why can’t you? Stop being so negative. Stop whining. Get out, take a walk, watch a film, see friends.

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Not especially related to the subject at hand, but a picture of Annie Hall smiling to cheer us all up.

The problem is something called anhedonia (the working title for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, as film buffs will probably know), which is broadly defined as the inability to experience pleasure. If you’re mildly depressed (as I’d been for the last year or three before things became suddenly worse) you don’t tend to experience this: hence a small case of ‘down in the dumps’ can be cured, or improved, by engaging in normal activities. When mildly depressed, I could still find my usual joy in writing, films, music, a walk on the beach, an open fire, putting my feet up on my boyfriend. I’m not materialistic or greedy or grabbing at all: ordinarily I’m made happy by the most microscopic of things. I’ve never been someone who lusts after handbags or shoes, and I’ve never especially longed for exotic holidays either: I like grass and trees (you can find those anywhere), rain on windows, a really full moon, throwing chips to the seagulls off Cromer pier. (In a sense that’s a problem of mine: I’m too easily happy with easily-haveable things, if you see what I mean. I lack drive. If the world had been left up to me, there’d be no cars or bridges or rocket ships – we wouldn’t even have the wheel, if I’m really honest. We’d all be in caves in our animal skins telling stories. Not a bad life, really…)

But I digress.

When Major Depressive Disorder comes to town (as I write this I’m imagining a moustachioed man in army uniform lightly cuffing my face with his braided sleeve whenever I try to smile) the activity in your brain’s reward centres (the amydgala, etc) flickers and dies (and, yes, Doubting Thomases, this has been shown on MRI scans) – and once Major Disorder has set up his camp it’s a devil of a job to evict him. Your life from now on will be viewed through shit-tinted lenses, and no amount of smelling the flowers or counting your blessings will make any difference: in fact you retreat from your usual triggers (music, books, others’ company) for the sole fact of how upsetting it is that the things you once loved have no power, anymore, to move you. It’s scary, in fact. How do you cheer yourself up when there’s literally nothing on earth you want to experience?

I’m asking, not answering, I’m afraid. There are people who tell you to smile, and that smiling itself will elevate your mood – not entirely untrue – but imagine your life (your whole life) spent like this: Unknowngrinning rictus-style with a sentiment you don’t feel, and what are you? You’re Gordon Brown at the last gasp of the Labour administration – and again I’m aware that people all over the planet lead horrible lives, truly horrible, but losing the chance to feel pleasure is also a horrible thing. Not worse than what other people go through, not at all, and perhaps it is a disease of spoilt Westerners, but still, you know, not very nice and all that.

So I’m going to call a spade a spade, and be open that I’ve had a breakdown. Am having a breakdown. I thought it was going to take a few weeks to resolve. But it isn’t. I’ve learnt not to think in terms of ‘happy’, but ‘temporarily less sad’. In the grand tradition of others before me, I’ve started to write whilst on drugs – I get twenty delightful minutes of peace in the aftermath of my sleeping pill, so I write like the clappers (and edit for England the following day). I find watching ballet strangely tranquil (men in tights don’t go amiss either), and Parks and Recreation makes me laugh. I composed a nice sentence while cycling the other day. I like the scent of my vanilla candle. It’s lovely that my teenage daughter still cuddles me lots. My pets do funny things sometimes. I’m enjoying Bill Bryson’s Short History of Private Life. But, through it all, I’m on auto pilot. I could quite honestly win the lottery – the Booker Prize; hell, even the Nobel – and still have a face like Dot Cotton licking piss off a nettle (to quote the incomparable Malcolm Tucker).

I’ll try in the future to keep this writing blog more closely related to writing-type things. But I wanted to set out my stall on this issue, for once and for all: I won’t be ashamed, and I won’t apologise. This is something that’s happened to me, and not something I’ve chosen. The nicest part of my brain has gone on holiday without me, and it hasn’t even sent a postcard. Wish I was there.

Appreciating small: drawing character from the inside out.

What would you say if I asked what makes you happy? Love, money, holidays, sunshine, alcohol, dancing, sex?

The following is one of my favourite writing exercises (from Anne Bernays’ and Pamela Painter’s What If?) that I’ve done with numerous classes over the years. I think it’s called ‘Mining Memory’ (although, contrarily, I can’t remember). The concept is strikingly simple: the writer keeps a diary over the course of a week, taking note of ten things that make her happy, and ten that make her cross. 220px-Diary_of_a_Nobody_first

The results might surprise you. Amongst the usual sunsets and beach trips and laughter, some odd things emerge: one student, I recall, found happiness in a pair of perfectly white plimsolls. Some struggle to write down anything at all that makes them cross (and, NB, these students are often the ones who have trouble accepting that story means conflict), while some can’t finish either list (and are probably – sorry to say – not cut out at all for writing). A writer must notice things. And the more you notice, the more you appreciate how unique we all are. On a moment by moment basis it isn’t the lure of a lottery win or a week in Barbados that keeps us going – through good times and bad – but a pair of white plimsolls, for instance, a cup of sweet tea when you didn’t expect it, the tail of a curious ginger cat as it chooses which garden to enter, the smell of a book you last read as a child, finding something you thought was lost forever.

The lesson for writers – and why this is such a useful exercise – is this: we, ourselves, are our own best source for our characters. We are each of us strangely specific, unique, and peculiar in our likes and dislikes – and so, too, should our characters be. An antagonist who’s driven by fame and money will always fall flat next to one who yearns for something more specific (a new heart for a dying sister; recognition from a distant parent; the utter humiliation of a woman who spurned him). Once you’ve listed your own twenty things, you can try making lists for your characters (if you like), but be warned they’ll be useless unless they come naturally, from the subconscious. You can’t force these things. It’s much better to blurt for a while, and see where the blurting leads you.

When you’re battling depression, it’s hard to see happiness anywhere. I’ve been training myself, the last few days, to ‘appreciate small; dream big’. I decided to leave my ‘cross list’ for a time when I’m feeling more generally cheerful, but here are the ten things recently that haven’t exactly made me happy (a bit too much to ask at the mo) but have dragged me momentarily from the depths.

1. Green and Black’s dark chocolate with lemon oil.

2. Ted Hughes’ voice.

3. My two cats materialising from thin air at the first whiff of cat nip.

4. Clean hair after five days of wearing it dirty.

5. Composing an opening sentence I liked.

6. Remembering an unwatched episode of Parks and Recreation on my V+ box.

7. The smell of a vest that got caught in the rain.

8. Branka Parlic’s oh-so-slow performance of Satie’s Gnossienne no. 5. 

9. Finally painting my daughter’s bedroom after two years of putting it off.

10. Rewatching The Breakfast Club with said daughter.

So that was my week. How was yours?