Tag Archives: Resonance

Buzz buzz

My mum had a fantastic way of describing me – “her head’s full of bees and they’re all buzzing”.

It’s true. The inside of my head is a noisy place. Now it has a name and I know a bit more about Attention Deficit, distractability and hyperfocus, but having lived with it so long and never having experienced anything else… it’s just my brain. That’s just what it’s like.

On the one hand, as I’ve mentioned here before, the hyperfocus element can be remarkably useful. It has led to some fantastic writing binges. It can also lead to some horrible bouts of writer’s block. I’m not sure how other people experience writer’s block, never having been in anyone else’s head, but for me it’s not a lack of ideas. If there’s one thing I have never been, it’s lacking in ideas.

No, for me writer’s block is the sensation of being trapped beneath an avalanche of ideas, trying to claw my way out. I feel like I’m trapped in that moment of inception, it just happens again and again and again. I end up with snippets scribbled on bits of paper, random pages of notebooks, Word documents – I’ve got a whole folder where most of the documents don’t contain more than a sentence or two, because I can’t get past that stage.

When that happens I have a couple of options. If I don’t have a deadline to meet and there’s no strong contender forcing me to work on it, I can give in to the randomness for a while. I read, go on long Wiki walks, watch films, listen to music, watch my cat, hang around in busy places. I keep my notebook to hand (or at least in my handbag) and scribble things down in the hope that at some point one of them will demand my attention. The important thing is to keep going, because when I stop, when I try to ignore the ideas and not work on anything I get stressed and upset. My idea of hell is a long train journey with no pen, netbook or phone to make notes on. When I’m really in the depths I feel better if I have my fingers on a keyboard for as much of the day as possible. It’s just comforting to know it’s there. It used to be a notebook and pen that gave me that comfort, but times change…

The other option is to try and force a writing frenzy. I can pick one of the existing ideas from the Folder of Single Sentences and try to find the right place in my head for it. I need its soundtrack or a particular physical location that I can work in, or I need the right voices in the background.

(Voices in the background are why I watch TV while I write. My television has never been tuned in and probably never will be because the voices can’t just be random, I need particular ones and I need them until I’m done. When I was younger I would achieve this effect by watching the same film over and over again. When I got a bit older I discovered American television with its massive long seasons, so now I’ll happily put a box set and settle down to 20+ episodes of the right voices. The voices keep the bits of my brain that aren’t working on writing occupied, which means they don’t whine and tug at the sleeve of the bits that are. I have no idea if this makes sense to other people, but trust me – I struggle to work in silence, as my every school report can attest.)

If I can find the right sounds and feelings, I can trigger a writing binge that will either last long enough to flesh out an idea, taking it to a place where I can continue to work on it bit by bit, or I’ll finish the first draft in one go. The latter makes my life much easier, since it means I have a sense of actually having finished something. If I don’t finish the draft all at once, it means there’s a strong chance of my becoming distracted by the sound of the other bees and moving on without ever getting it finished.

The partial first drafts annoy me much more than the single sentence ideas. This is because every time I try to trigger a writing frenzy on the same subject, it becomes a bit harder. I struggle to recapture that initial fervour. Those bees don’t buzz as loudly as the new, shiny, unlistened-to bees.

The best feeling comes from the organic, unforced frenzy, when I simply get caught up and can’t stop. But those are comparatively rare, and we all know that the work can’t be dependent on perfect conditions or nothing ever gets done.

For the past couple of months I’ve been struggling with the buzzing. Perfect conditions certainly aren’t happening, and forcing the frenzy hasn’t really been an option as it’s my busiest time of year and I can’t just drop everything because the characters are chattering. So mostly I’ve been writing reviews. Reviews have deadlines, structure, discipline. These are not usually things that I like.

Yet something is working. Despite August being busier than any other month, despite assuming that my creative writing would have to take a back seat to reviewing and performing, I find I’ve done more work on existing ideas in August than I did in the previous three months combined. I have some material for the as-yet-unnamed children’s novel. I have a much clearer idea of where the current play is going and a new completed 15 minute piece. Randomly, I have a plot and the beginnings of a script for a webcomic.

Constraints bring clarity. I should know this, it’s one of the things I say all the time in Affectable. Sometimes having that discipline in one area of your life frees you up to be creative in another. I wouldn’t say I’ve found exactly the right balance yet, and considering that there’s a lot of emotional stuff going on at the moment (dead parents, as ever) I don’t expect that I will in the immediate future. But I feel closer to it than I have done previously, and I’m enjoying the constraints of having to marshal my thoughts and present them in a way that makes sense to other people. That goes beyond just reviewing, that goes for blogging too. As we approach October I’ll be interested to monitor what effect the ninth anniversary of my Mum’s death has on my creativity and my ability to blog here. I might set myself a couple of challenges in this regard.

We’ll see. I’m certainly not committing myself to anything publicly at nearly 2am and under the influence of the Fringe. I have a tendency to convince myself that I’m invincible at this time of year. There’s been sunlight and theatre and nothing can possibly ever go wrong. Best to wait until my feet touch the ground again before I say more.


Exploring the Headspace

In my last entry I began to talk about how I ended up on the scenic route. I focused mostly on my upbringing and dead parents, but there’s another major factor that helped to put me on the long and winding path. Time for another confessional post…

My name is Jen, I am an artist and I am crazy.

I don’t mean crazy in the sense of ‘I get a bit loud at parties’, although this also happens to be true if I’m in the right mood. I mean crazy as in ‘I have lifelong mental health problems that frequently impact on both my domestic and artistic lives’.

I know some people don’t think crazy is a suitable term to use for this stuff. I happen to like it. I love the sound of the word, I love its connotations of crackled glaze, and I love that it suggests the series of hyperfocused crazes that have possessed me throughout my life. So I’ll be sticking with crazy as my preferred term when discussing my own mental illness, and if you don’t like it, well… sorry.

My current collection of labels includes Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Adult ADD, Schizotypal Personality Disorder and mild OCD. Apparently there’s also a bit of PTSD in there following the double whammy bereavement and a couple of car accidents. I’m not entirely sure what I think of the labels, but they help to organise the mess a bit and in a way, they’re comforting. If a label exists for the set of feeling and behaviours I describe, that means it’s Not Just Me.

I like knowing I’m not the only one, and that’s why the arts play such an important role in my life. Contrary to popular belief, I have no desire to be a special snowflake. When I find another artist’s work that resonates with me, it reassures me that there are/have been plenty of other people who think and feel like me. It makes the strange things that go on in my head feel a bit more normal. However, because I still have to live with those strange things going on in my head, I’m still compelled to express the thoughts and feelings – so I create work of my own, and the cycle goes on.

While I feel that my craziness powers my attachment to the arts and provides fuel to sustain it, that’s only true at certain points in the cycle. When the craziness is under control I can work consistently and productively. When I’m on my way into or out of depression, I ricochet between obsessive, hyperfocused work and complete inability to do anything. Once the depression has taken hold I am too busy hiding under the table (sometimes figuratively, sometimes not), sleeping all day and trying to hold my life together and pretend everything’s fine to do much actual work. I might be teeming with ideas, but I lack the capacity/self-belief to do anything with them. I  have better things to do, like staring at blank documents and hyperventilating whenever the phone rings.

Over the decade since I was first diagnosed I’ve had to learn what triggers the crazy. Missing medication, homesickness, over-committing myself, parent-related anniversaries, being too sedentary, lack of light… I’m constantly keeping an eye on these things and finding ways to keep things under control. It can be a losing battle, and it definitely has been over the past year. On the one hand I’ve been happier and more in control of my life than ever before, but things have been stormy inside my head as I try to adjust to the idea of actually being happy and deal with the memories and survivor guilt. It seems strange to say that I’ve been least functional when I’ve been at my happiest, but it’s true – being happy and being stable, it turns out, are not the same thing. Having supportive people around me helps me to deal with the unstable times, but it doesn’t make them disappear.

Knowing that carving out a conventional directing career involves relentless work, massive over-commitment and long periods away from home, I’ve gradually come to terms with being on the scenic route. It’s the only place to be for someone like me, because the conventional path doesn’t really allow for fluctuating mental states. I need to multitask, because there are times when I need to write and write and write and there are times when I thrive on the focus of directing. These tend to be seasonal, and I know which times to avoid – feasible when you’re making your own work, but not so much when you’re doing something like the Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme. If you know that the straight path is a fast road to self-destruction and it’s a journey you feel you have to make, the one remaining option is the scenic route.

So what changes have I made to accommodate the craziness? Well, I ended my stint in London and moved back to Edinburgh, for a start. I grew up here and although I sometimes feel the need to escape, I get ridiculously homesick when I’m not here. I chose to run the Affectable Acting sessions and create my own work rather than seeking out jobs with other companies and promising myself that I’d do things my own way once I was established enough. In committing myself to Affectable and Tightlaced, I created a structure for myself that’s loose enough to avoid making me feel penned in (which I always rebel against) but that provides a buffer against the highs and lows of a rejection-heavy industry. In building the network I found artists who understand and can share experiences. I make sure I have plenty of time for writing and plenty of time to spend with my husband and my cat, both of whom help me to stay balanced.

It’s a start. There’s still a lot for me to work on. 2012 has been really turbulent and I’ve spent much of this year in terror of my phone and email. Yes, I know that probably sounds weird, but seriously, this is the biggest disruption the mental health stuff causes in my life. I often write emails or enter phone numbers and then stare at the screen or the phone for ages, unable to hit send or call, paralysed by the utter conviction that something disastrous will happen if I do. If I miss a call, I do the same thing with voicemail. Once I’ve missed a call or failed to call/email someone when I think I should have done, it starts a cycle of avoidance that is really difficult to break. Every day that goes by makes it harder, because the damage feels worse and the repair feels less likely, so it seems that the sensible thing is just to let the communication go. Of course this is not the sensible thing. I know that. And I know that it should be very easy just to pick up the phone or hit send. But that’s why it’s called ‘mental illness’. It’s about doing things that don’t make sense from the outside. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when I’m in those moments. I’ve CBT’d this behaviour to death and haven’t cracked it yet, but the work goes on. Someday I’ll figure out how to get this one under control, and it’ll make my personal and professional lives much easier when I do. While I search for that solution, I’ll continue finding and implementing measures to lessen the impact of this behaviour on my life and my work.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to write this post. I’ve never kept the craziness a secret, but nor am I usually quite this open about it. People often make judgements and some of them are quite unfair and inaccurate. But you know what? That’s fine. Make whatever judgements you like. If it stops you working with me, fine – but if mentally healthy colleagues are a priority and you’re working in theatre, good luck. I think sharing this kind of thing and remembering that it’s not the end of the world, just something that might require an adjustment of expectations and priorities, is a beneficial thing. I certainly hope it is. And if nothing else, it’s a little more background in the story of how I ended up on this particular path…