This piece includes reference to mental health, eating disorders, and self harm.
How do we safely create work about our demons without feeding them? Is it possible to safely capture the experience without poking the hornet’s nest and getting stung?
In 2013, I was writing original work every day. Then through circumstances surrounding a change in health and wellness, I lost the ability to do that. I felt barren of ideas, of motivation, I felt exhausted, spent, and dried up. In 2014, I managed to create some works just for myself, but by 2015 I had nothing. I decided to concentrate on improving my health, hoping it would unlock something. 2016 came. Nothing. 2017 arrived. Still nothing.
My work had been so completely tied into my mental state, both in subject and in the practical act of writing. Where some writers are planners, and some start writing and see where the writing takes them, the act of writing was a purge to me. I would plan everything meticulously in my head, writing nothing down, until it felt like it was physically bursting at the seams of my skull. Then I would write over a period of hours (or even days) uninterrupted, until I was physically so exhausted I couldn’t do any more.
It wasn’t healthy.
I couldn’t work out why I couldn’t write as recovery progressed. I’m better now, I thought, this is my time to create properly. This is my time to be consistent, to create real work that I could market and share. Why was I so dry?
It’s obvious now that my style of writing was completely linked to my issues with my mental and physical health, and specifically beared a striking resemblance to my disordered eating which had plagued me for years. Binge, Purge. Plan, Purge. Empty the body and the mind to the point of exhaustion. Dispel everything, keep nothing to nourish oneself and grow.
The more stable I was, the less safe it was to engage with that style of writing. The further I got into recovery, the less connected I felt to the writing that had been key to keeping me alive for years. However, I still yearned to write. How could I do it when subject and method were so linked to the illness which plagued my life?
The answer, as I think is the answer to most of life’s questions, came in the form of another question:
What is useful?
Before, my writing had been concerned with dispelling difficult feelings from myself. I was known for “dark” work, work that people saw as having a very “otherworldly language” (which in reality was just how I proccessed the alien world of “normal” people). I was known for odd flights of fancy and work that was spectacularly uncensored. I was not known for research, or consistency over longer pieces, or variation of character voices… for obvious reasons.
I sat and thought about what is useful to keep in that list. The unique voice in the language. The lack of censorship. That’s it. That is all. Logically, those are things I can keep. I can study the language I used and make a choice to replicate my style from the time. I can redraft and note where I’ve tried to censor myself with my newly found control of my being. Those are things that I can repurpose as tools for my craft. The rest isn’t useful anymore. I can start to build skills in researching. I can have the space to build unique voices. I can have a strong enough base sense of self, through nourishing and looking after myself, to start to show the consistency that will make me a more succcessful writer.
I view it as an expedition into known dangers. Plot the map. Know the spots that are going to be the most difficult, and arm yourself with the tools you need to traverse them. Allow for time. Which bits can you navigate around work, life, responsibilities? Which bits need all your attention, and which bits can you not do alone?
Go in knowing there will be risk. Even the most experienced mountaineers fail Everest, after all. Be as ready as you can be, and most importantly, be sure that the risk is worth it.