Tag Archives: Understanding

Knowing where I stand

There are some obvious difficulties inherent in living with mental health issues. There’s the apathy, the auditory hallucinations, the need to lock the car door three times. There’s the social stigma and the knowledge that by being open about it I might well cost myself opportunities. There’s the day to day management and constant updating of my CBT skills.

But among the weirdest and more difficult things is accurately assessing the severity of the issues. If you’ve never been “normal” or non-disordered, it’s hard to figure out how far from “normal” you currently are. (The world is full of people who try to say helpful things like “there is no normal”, “everyone’s a bit weird” and “you shouldn’t pathologise emotions”. Well-intentioned, but honestly, not helpful when you’re dealing with mental health problems. Yes, everyone has their idiosyncrasies, but there’s a difference between people’s quirks and actual disorders, and identifying mental health problems is not the same as pathologising emotions.) If you’re trying to figure out when it’s time to get help, you need to have some idea of how far into disordered thinking you’ve gone. Figuring that out requires observation of other people and comparison with them – for me, at least.

The tricky thing is doing this without letting it descend into a Crazy Contest. The point is to keep tabs on my own state of mind, not to prove that I am the Craziest Crazy that ever was Crazed. The difficulty arises from the fact that it’s hard to be objective and dispassionate about my own headspace, and there aren’t many reliable external criteria to help.

When I had my first and worst breakdown, the one where I stopped talking, eating or moving unless forced, that was categorised as Severe. Severe with Catatonic Features, to be specific. What I considered “getting better”, my shrink considered “Moderate”. I haven’t experienced full-on catatonia again, and I hope I never will. (Though just as a side note, this is what I mean about the difference between handling a disorder and “pathologising emotions”. I know what profound sadness and loss feel like, and I know what catatonic depression feels like, and I can assure you that they are nothing alike. What I was being treated for back then wasn’t “having feelings”.)

As of my last assessment, it’s categorised as Mild/Moderate. This is the best the headspace has ever been, so this blows my mind in two ways. First, those terms don’t feel like they do justice to the vast gulf between how I am now and how I was then. It feels like there ought to be at least a dozen different words standing between me and catatonia. Second, if this is Mild/Moderate, then what must it feel like if you’ve only ever experienced Mild? Or if you’ve never experienced depression at all? How does that work? My earliest memories of depressive feelings and behaviour date back to when I was only two or three. I’ve never been “normal”, there has never been a time in my life where I wasn’t this way. There are, apparently, people out there who do not live with depression, and I have no idea what that feels like. I genuinely can’t even imagine what it must be like. I’m fascinated by the concept.

That said, I’m fascinated with other people’s experiences of mental health in general. It seems like everyone has either experienced mental health problems or watched someone go through them at close quarters. It surprises me how many people I’ve met who have been hospitalised at some point. Bizarre as it may seem, the fact that I’ve never had to have inpatient treatment is one of those things which, in my darker moments, causes me to question the legitimacy of my own disorder. The “logic” runs this way: If I’ve never been hospitalised then I can’t have been all that bad, in which case my depression (etc.) is much less severe than theirs. Same thing with suicide attempts, I’ve never been caught in the attempt or ended up in hospital, so my depression can’t have been that bad.

Of course, that doesn’t take account of the fact that when I was catatonic, I probably should have been in hospital. If my mum hadn’t been able to take care of me, that’s where I would have been. Well, in hospital or dead. When I lived alone there was always an undercurrent of worry in my mind in case I misjudged myself and ended up catatonic again before I sought the right kind of help. I’ve always tended to go to ground when my headspace isn’t good, so it wasn’t unusual for me to vanish every so often. If I had slipped, I could have succeeded in starving myself to death. Would I have been far enough gone to merit hospital treatment? Yes. Would I have caused my own death without ever having been hospitalised or having any record of suicide attempts? Yes. So presumably these things are not good yardsticks for severity. They’re not legitimising experiences, they’re just experiences that people might have had depending on their circumstances. It’s a lot easier to end up getting sectioned if you have a disorder that causes you to behave strangely in front of other people. Disorders that manifest in withdrawal and introversion make it easy just to waste away unnoticed. That this could have been my lot still frightens me. That’s the thing I am guarding against.

On the flip side of this, I sometimes read  or hear about other people’s experiences and they seem milder than what I’m used to. I work hard to listen and read without judgement, but it’s an emotional topic connected to a strong fear, and I would be lying if I said that I’d never had a rogue thought along the lines of “Pfft, low moods, that’s nothing. Come and talk to me when you can’t feel anything at all, then you’ll know what real depression feels like!”

This is nonsense, of course Different people experience different levels of severity. I know that. I understand it. That’s why there are different categories. Also, catatonic depression isn’t the only legitimate form of depression. I’m aware of all of this. But when you’re dealing with mental health issues, it’s a constant battle to be taken seriously (both by myself and by other people) and to accept my own diagnosis and experiences as legitimate. When I feel myself slipping and decide to seek help, I feel bad about taking up my GP’s time because there’s still a part of me that doesn’t really accept that there’s a whole realm of depression that lies between “fine” and “catatonic”, and that I don’t have to be unable to function in order to justify asking for help.

This is why I feel it’s important for people to speak openly about their mental health, if they can. The more people there are talking about it, the better equipped we as a society will become to talk about it (I hope). The better equipped we are, the easier it will be to assess our own mental health and gauge how we’re doing. I often wish that when I had my first breakdown, the internet had been further developed. I had access to it and was using it in 2000, but the blogosphere was considerably smaller and it would have been great to have had access to the range of experiences that you can find online today. Future Jen-equivalents, I hope you find this and I hope it helps.

Still, as important as I believe it is, it’s just as important for me to remember that my mental health and dead parents aren’t all there is to me. They’ve been major influences on my life and my choices, and I’ve no plans to stop writing about them, but I think that for my next post I’m going to find a less angsty topic (and by that I don’t mean arts politics, the other major strand to this blog). I’m sure I can do it if I try…


When a belief is not a belief

There will be a lot of things in this post that I’ve touched on in the past, but I’ve never explained the full extent of what’s been going on in my head over the past year.

I’ve mentioned before that it was the 10th anniversary of my mum’s death in October and will be the 10th anniversary of my dad’s in July next year. I’ve written at length about my experiences with depression and a wee bit about ADD and PTSD. I know I have a tag for Schizotypal Personality Disorder so I must have spoken about it somewhere, but I’ve never really gone into it in depth because it’s less well-known and harder to explain. But it’s a factor in what’s going on at the moment (or at least it seems to be), so… here goes. I don’t claim to be an expert on this. I’m just someone who lives with it, and I’ll try to explain what it is, what it feels like and how it’s affecting me as clearly as I can.

Schizotypal Personality Disorder is a schizophrenia spectrum disorder. It involves obsessive rumination, anhedonia, eccentric behaviour, inappropriate emotional responses, magical thinking, social withdrawal and anxiety, strange means of expression and occasional hallucinations. I remember the psychiatrist who diagnosed me, back when I was 18, explaining that as someone with StPD I would never see the simple solution to a problem if there was a complicated one available. Apparently the big difference between StPD and schizophrenia is that with StPD, you can still tell when what you’re experiencing is not reality.

Over the years I have learned how to live with and control my symptoms. Getting the obsessive rumination under control was a huge personal triumph, achieved through CBT and visualisation and relentless discipline. My means of expression changed gradually, influenced by years of blogging. By writing for an audience and reading other people’s writing, I got the hang of how other people sound. I gradually let go of my unusual patterns and word choices (though a few little things remain – read enough of my writing or listen to me talk and you might spot my obsession with patterns of three). I learned how to tell delusions and hallucinations from reality – most of the time, at least.

The difficulty – and this is the really tricky thing to explain – is that sometimes I find myself in situations where I don’t believe my beliefs. Ten years ago, when my parents died, they were the only people I truly cared about. (Failing to form close relationships outwith your immediate family is a fairly typical StPD thing.) Those events planted the seed of a rather unhelpful idea – specifically, that the people I love that much will die. That my love can bring about the death of whoever receives it. The basis for this belief seems to be that if my life were a fictional narrative, that’s what I would expect to happen next.

Now, on the one hand, I am well aware that this cannot be the case. The world just doesn’t work that way. I do not live in a novel. What happened to my parents was statistically improbable, but that makes me the victim of a misfortune, not deus ex machina or a particular stage of my journey as protagonist. My love is not some kind of deadly force.

On the other, I know it is true. I’m talking about the kind of absolute certainty with which I know my name, or that the face I see in the mirror belongs to me. It is this knowledge that makes me feel so bloody guilty about loving my husband, because if I know that my love will cause his death. So I feel guilty and selfish for putting him in danger, and I live every day with the fear that my belief will prove accurate. Every time I come home I experience intense anxiety from the moment I arrive at  our building to the moment when I am actually in the flat and have seen for myself that he’s still here, still alive, not imaginary. This is not rational or reasonable. I should be able to leave the house without becoming convinced that something bad will happen to my husband. I should be able to unlock my front door without my heart pounding in my ears. I talk myself through the rational argument every time. Usually, delusions respond to repeated dissuasion and a certain amount of CBT. This one, however, is very strong and extremely resistant to everything I throw at it. It has not diminished over time. If anything, it has grown stronger.

That’s  a big part of the reason why I’ve been so antisocial this year. I’ve skipped so many get-togethers because I just can’t manage the usual social anxiety on top of this. I’ve always been a little bit freaked out by large groups, but usually I’ve enjoyed hanging out with people on a one to one basis. Not so much this year. This year I’ve been a lot more withdrawn because my head is too noisy, and also because as this belief gathers strength, it seems safest for everyone if I don’t let myself feel too close to people.

That’s a tough one to explain to people. “Sorry, I can’t meet because I’m really busy just now” is a much easier excuse to understand than “sorry, I’m worried that being friends with me will cause you harm so I’m just not doing the interaction thing right now”. I try to explain verbally when I have the energy, but honestly, talking this through takes a lot out of me and it’s easier just to write about it and hope that the message gets through.

The reason it takes so much out of me is that I fear people’s judgement. I know there will be people who look at this and think “well, you know that belief is nonsense, why don’t you just stop giving in to it?”, missing the fact that I don’t give in to it. I fight it every single day, I win minor victories every time I succeed in doing what I want and need to do without letting this stop me – but I haven’t won the decisive battle that gets it out of my life forever yet, and that’s not for want of trying. I also know that there will be people who write me off as completely crazy because I have a schizophrenia spectrum disorder and they don’t know enough about what that means to realise that they’re not unsafe around me. And I know there will be a few who think this is just attention seeking. It’s not. Even I am not masochistic enough to want the kind of attention that anything involving the “schizo” prefix gets you.

I’m writing this partly as explanation for why my 2013 has been quieter and less sociable than previous years, and partly because I’ve shied away from talking about anything explicitly StPD-related here in the past. I write about my mental health because I feel that if someone like me can’t be “out” about it, what chance is there for people working in less accepting worlds than the arts? Avoiding the issue of StPD was beginning to feel like a betrayal of that purpose, and an act of cowardice.

So there you go. A bit of insight into my head and hopefully into StPD as an everyday thing. I don’t feel like I’ve given you an accurate picture of how powerful and terrifying these beliefs can be, but I don’t know whether I can. I’ve been searching for the words for a very long time, and finally it felt like I should just get this much down and see whether the more minute, intense stuff follows later.

Hopefully some of this makes sense to people who are not me.


Decade

As the sporadic nature of my blog posts probably indicates, I’m not finding it easy to write about what’s going on in my head this summer. Writing fiction? Not a problem. The things that are going on in fictional people’s heads are just fine. But my own is another matter.

The trouble is the anniversaries. On October 23rd it’ll  be ten years since my Mum died, with the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death the following July (we’re just coming up on the 9th just now). I don’t know why the tenth anniversary should seem more significant than the 9th, but it does. Probably because it’s a decade and having a word for the amount of time that has passed makes it feel larger and more of a milestone.

Ten years ago I was 20 years old and living with my Mum and Dad. I’d moved back in after my first major depressive episode and was just gearing up to move out again. I had learned a hell of a lot from going through depression. I had been self-employed for the first time. I had arranged my first solo trip abroad. I had booked my first professional singing gig. My relationship with my parents had survived a pretty hellish time and we’d found our way back to solid ground. For the first time, I felt like we were three adults rather than two adults and a child. I felt like I was finally getting the hang of this life malarkey.

That lasted for one summer. Just one. I got back from Austria on the 18th of September. By the 3rd of October my Mum was in hospital. She had been having pains all year which had been dismissed as the menopause. The diagnosis suddenly shifted and became cancer. On the 14th we found out it was pancreatic. On the 23rd she died. I couldn’t believe how much things could change in the space of a month. Honestly, I still can’t.

Of course, the changes didn’t end there. My Dad’s death, the car crash, a good friend’s death, the two and a half years of being unable to move out of my dead parents’ house, all of that followed. It all took its toll and helped to shape my expectations for the future. Without realising it, I internalised the idea that if I love people they die, and if I value things they get taken from me in a painful way.

Being stuck in my parents’ house for so long was incredibly painful and I struggle to explain why, because I don’t know what frame of reference to appeal to when I’m talking to other people. It felt like being checkmated. The situation was completely out of my hands and there were no moves I could make. I couldn’t afford to buy, I had no rental history or guarantors, no-one I could move in with, and no idea how long the situation was going to drag on for. I couldn’t even redecorate and make the place mine, because that would have meant destroying something that was very special to my parents (that house and the way it was decorated were part of the long-term aspiration that got them out of their council estates and into the life they wanted). But more importantly, it would have meant conceding that I was going to be there for a while, and that was not an option. I might have had to tolerate the situation, but I did not have to give in to it.

However, there was another problem with being stuck there. It was completely the opposite of what I had wanted from life. I moved out at 17 because I couldn’t wait to get out and start my own life. Moving back when I was ill was galling, but I was determined that I would get myself back on my feet and start again. What I envisaged was a life of moving around a lot, working in different places, being ready to take off to somewhere new at short notice, underpinned by the security of knowing that I always had a home to go back to if I needed it. It’s the kind of life that I see most of my friends in their early to mid 20s living now. Instead, I found myself with a property to look after and legal issues to deal with. I was faced with the realisation that if I decided to freewheel my way around the world now, I would be doing it without anywhere or anyone to come back to. Perhaps there are people who can handle that kind of isolation, but I’m not one of them. I need a little bit of stability underpinning my chaos, so I had to rethink the kind of life I was going to build.

I began a complicated game of hide and seek with myself. I would let myself care about things, about ideas, about career options, about people – but never too much. I always had to be able to look at the thing in question and say “I would be sad if I lost this, perhaps it would stop me in my tracks for a while – but I would survive it, it wouldn’t break me”. That way I could reassure myself that I was still functioning, that I hadn’t cut myself off or shut my emotions down as a result of the loss I had suffered, but at the same time I wasn’t risking too much. Every new connection with another person took me out of my comfort zone a little bit, but I never set foot beyond my safety zone.

That continued until 2011, when I realised I couldn’t go on like that any longer and completely revamped my attitudes towards pretty much everything. The way I work underwent massive change and I finally found my feet as an artist. I moved back from London. I fell in love. We got together, moved in together, got a cat, got engaged and got married in a very short space of time. I had forgotten that I had it in me to be that impulsive and uncalculating. At this point, I am starting to feel like I’ve got the hang of life again – and that is fucking terrifying, because I remember what happened last time.

So I am spending this summer trying to silence the thoughts that tell me that I’m not allowed to feel happy or secure, and that it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops. It’s completely irrational to believe that I can bring harm to people just by loving them. I know that. But the little voice in my head that says “Yes, but look what happened last time” isn’t big on listening to reason, and it’s a pretty large dose of fear to live with. This is why I’m going back to therapy. I cannot let my life be governed by an irrational belief. I will not remain paralysed by fear of 2003 – 2005 happening again. I do not appreciate the last vestiges of schizotypal behaviour trying to re-establish their foothold and getting in my way.

It’s not 2003 any more. That’s the important thing. And that’s what I need to get into my head somehow.


Picking up from roughly where we left off…

Hello blog, it’s been a while. May is always a bit of a crazy month. I’m not sure whether this is to do with seasonal shift or whether it’s a pattern I learned at school when it was always exam season, but the anxiety and depression always seem to squeeze a little bit tighter in May. It was also the Month of Many Deadlines, so between one thing and another I didn’t get anywhere near WordPress. But here I am now. Hello again.

There are plenty of things I’ve been meaning to write about, but I’ve been in the grip of depressive thinking recently. I get to the stage where I can’t face writing about anything because I’ve got the Demon in my head telling me that no-one is remotely interested and there’s no point in writing. My energy diminishes, so the act of writing out my thoughts becomes considerably harder (I am eternally grateful that I had solid plans to work from for my freelance gigs). It’s a significant danger sign for me, because I am always in the mood to pick apart my own psyche unless I’m getting depressed, and I have to be quite far gone before I lose the will to write.

Which brings me, by means of a completely seamless and not at all clunky segue, to the subject of a quote I see doing the rounds on Facebook. It’s attributed to Dorothy Parker, but I have no idea whether this is accurate and I am being too lazy to check. It goes like this “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Apparently many of my writer/aspiring writer friends agree with this, at least to the point where they’ll re-post it. I see an extreme version of this sentiment in some of my ghostwriting clients, who want their name on a book without the hassle of actually writing it. For me, it’s the other way round. I love writing. I really enjoy the actual process of stringing words together and typing them into my laptop, watching the word count rack up. Writing longhand is even better. There is something so incredibly beautiful about putting ink on a page. I like the sensation of forming letters, I like watching the ink turn from wet to dry. I never write with cheap ballpoints if I can avoid it,  because it’s a waste of an experience. Gel pens, fountain pens, rollerballs – those are delicious to write with. When I learned that my husband had a favourite type of pen, my heart skipped a beat.

When I write, my brain calms down a bit. My head no longer feels like a browser window with dozens of tabs open. My focus narrows. I never get as far as a single tab, whether literally or metaphorically, unless I’m in hyperfocus, but I get closer than when I’m not writing. I create a playlist for each project or I put on a film or a series with the right voices to help me get absorbed in the task. I don’t answer the phone (any excuse). I feel more settled.

Then I finish whatever I’m writing. That’s when we ditch the calm and move onto the storm. Goodbye enjoyable act of crafting words, hello maelstrom of self-doubt and anxiety. That’s when I have to actually read whatever I’ve written and see all the flaws and clunky bits staring back at me. It’s horrible. It’s so much easier when you just don’t finish things, which is why I have a “Bits and Pieces” folder. All my favourite stuff is in there. The half-formed ideas that live in that folder are the best ideas, because I haven’t got round to destroying them yet.

I get over it, of course. When I’m writing for other people I don’t have the luxury of all this anxiety. When it comes to my own work, I freak out a bit more. Especially when I write plays, because then I have to hear what I’ve written at some point. Then I sit in the audience and second-guess the reactions of everyone around me. I do all the things I tell everyone else not to do, like measuring the reactions my piece gets against anything else I’ve seen recently and trying to work out whether I think audiences are the best people to assess my work or whether I think they’ll enjoy anything that’s dressed up the right way. It’s fun. My demons get some healthy (for them) exercise. I get to question the extent to which the demons really live in my head and to what extent they’re part of the tortured artist persona that I love and loathe in shifting measure. (Some days it feels like actual mental health torment, some days it just feels like I’m a bit of a wanker. Both statements are true. Sometimes concurrently. Like I said, fun.)

If I were able to skip straight to “having written” without the actual writing bit, I couldn’t do it. All the anguish and none of the good stuff where I spend days in front of the keyboard, wandering the internet to find the music and snippets that keep my brain ticking over, doing stuff with words? Hell no. The angst! I can only imagine.

The next post will be more upbeat. I wrote a play for the Fringe – my first commissioned play, I get paid for it and everything – and now that it’s had a couple of drafts and there are actors involved I’m starting to like it again.  There are things I’d like to say about it, and I should get in practise before August rolls around and I have to start telling people to go and see it.


A Short Post on Artistic Recycling

I have always loved writing very short stories. I had been doing it for years before I found out that there was a name for the sort of thing I write (flash fiction, apparently).

My flash pieces and ten minute plays are usually inspired by paintings, songs, eavesdropping or news articles. For a long time I berated myself with the idea that my attachment to short pieces meant I didn’t have the stamina to write anything longer and that it was a sign of my inability to concentrate. Of course I now know that this is not true. I’ve written full-length  books and plays, proving to myself that I can do it.

I also used to berate myself with the fact that there was nothing I could do with my short pieces. Flash fiction, short stories, ten minute plays – they seemed a much harder sell than novels or longer plays. However, since I started ghostwriting I have  discovered that all those short pieces that I’ve been writing since 2006 are very useful portfolio material. They’re complete, they’re punchy and they demonstrate my technical skills.

I suppose the moral of this story is that you should never assume that anything you write is without purpose. You learn from everything you write, you get a sense of how much mileage there is in an idea, you improve your craft (or at least have the opportunity to do so), and you might be writing your own advertising copy unwittingly and a few years in advance.


A belated write-up of Creative Scotland’s Open Session in Edinburgh

It has been over a week since the Creative Scotland Open Session in Edinburgh. I’ve been meaning to write about it since then, but every time I start a draft I get exasperated and abandon it in favour of the work I actually get paid to do.

The official write-up of the day is here, just so you know: http://www.csopensessions.com/pat-kanes-blog/edinburgh/

The session was 4 hours long, 12 – 4, but nothing actually happened until 1pm. That was far too long to leave people sitting around. I understand the value of chat and know that there’s always a certain amount of time set aside for meet and greet, but 25% of the overall event time was too much. It might have been more useful to have this unstructured time at the end of the session rather than the beginning. That said, the catering was very nice…

The structure of the event was as follows: an hour of dithering, three speakers, a Q&A with the speakers, then 45 minutes of discussion at our tables and a short presentation of what we found. Apart from the first hour, it was all structured and guided in a way that served to kill off any spontaneity or organic discussion.

I’m not convinced by the idea of having three speakers at each event. This is partly because I get bored very easily if I’m watching people who lack public speaking skills. Only Hannah McGill was a particularly engaging speaker. I’m also sceptical about the selection of speakers. I can see that CS is trying hard to bring in voices from all areas of the arts (no, I’m not adding “and creative industries” because I don’t see them as separate entities, that’s an argument for another post) and has invited some outspoken critics of the organisation. However, the very fact that only selected speakers have a voice rankles with me. There are so many people within the arts who will speak not because they have something to say, but because a platform has been offered and god forbid they should ever pass up such an opportunity to be in the spotlight. (Actually, I’m not convinced that’s limited to the arts. I suspect that’s just a human thing.) Add in a fee and few people will turn it down.

One of the speakers, Ed Stack of indie music download company Ten Tracks, chose to show part of a TED talk by Amanda Palmer. Pat Kane, who was chairing the Open Session, describes her as “US indie rock goddess”. If you consider a goddess as an entity that demands endless amounts of attention and tribute from group of fanatical worshippers, that sounds about accurate. I watched that TED talk in its entirety when it came out, and it puts an extremely disingenuous spin on Ms Palmer’s exploitative behaviour towards her fellow artists (again, future post) and completely disregards the fact that her “art of asking” only works if you start from a position of considerable privilege. We should not be basing our ideas about being a working artist on the assumption that everyone has a typical middle-class support system in place. Showing videos made by people who donated their labour for free is all very nice, but it doesn’t help me as a working artist unless you tell me how they’re paying their bills while they give everything away.

Anyway, by the time the speakers had finished I had nearly worn out the battery on my phone by having Twitter conversations, many of which were with people who were actually in the room with me. Since there wasn’t a way for us to talk to each other as part of the event, we found out own damn way. I do hope CS is keeping a record of the Twitter conversations – they’ll find more in-depth discussions there than those that I was privy to in the room.

The Q&A with the speakers was derailed by the very first question. Apparently someone thought it necessary to ask “how Scottish” Creative Scotland should be, plunging us back into the pointless circular debate of the Alasdair Gray stooshie from last December. Suddenly everyone had to prove their Scottish credentials and how non-anti-English they are. Useful conversation ground to a halt. I had a sore tongue for two days from biting it really, really hard. I’m still not sure what the point of that question was.

Tim Licata from Plutot la Vie brought up an interesting point in his question about whether CS needs a “vision” or might be better off having a “purpose”. This is actually the kind of discussion that helps, because it lets us get closer to the fundamental problems that have to be addressed first in theoretical then in practical terms if we are ever to see genuine change. Alas, this was a Q&A with selected speakers, not a free-flowing discussion amongst equals, and the room was still suffused with the energy from the last question – not the kind of energy that encourages debate or diversity of opinion. Although Tim’s question may well have been the most important one asked that day, the response was little more than “hmm, yeah, suppose so”.

Arguing about language doesn’t feel like it should be difficult, but it is. When you actually start picking apart the things that people say (and the things that you say yourself), you start to make discoveries about the ways of thinking that underpin the language. It’s easy to dismiss it as semantics and claim that it’s not action, it’s not important. It is. You can’t change how people think unless you engage with it and attempt to understand it. You can’t do that without looking at how their behaviour is expressed in language, it’s like wanting to see the whole dinosaur skeleton while claiming that sweeping away the first layer of dirt is pointless. We should be prepared to have our words challenged and to defend out use of them. I’ve argued for this throughout my involvement in this conversation.

However, challenge really wasn’t a part of the Open Session format. After the Q&A we were shuffled into groups sitting round tables, being asked to discuss a central question. By the time the shuffling was done, no-one at my table could remember what the question was. We discussed what we’d like to see from the new, improved Creative Scotland and some points were written down on a large flipchart that had been left with a single pen in the centre of the table. So rather than a record of the diversity of ideas and opinions around the table, we had a sanitised version that said all the things you’d expect it to say. On the surface, it looked like consensus. In reality, it was the result of voices being stifled so that we could get some dinky phrases down on paper by the end of our 45 minutes, to be shared with the other groups as someone from each table got up and explained that they had reached more or less the same conclusion as everyone else.  CS should be nice and supportive and understand us and help us. It should nurture this delicate ecology. Pat Kane asked the question about whether Creative Scotland should resemble a gardener, trying to control said “ecology”. As he notes in his blog, someone piped up to say that trying to control ecology doesn’t make you a gardener, it makes you a god. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was me. Gardeners don’t control ecology, they understand it. They learn how to work within it to bring about change. That’s not the same as control. By all means, let Creative Scotland be a gardener, but it must not be a god. That’s how we got here in the first place.

Afterwards, on Twitter, there was a bit of a discussion about the word “ecology”. I don’t like it much, mostly because I hear it used in an attempt to sound scientific and intelligent and to conceal a lack of content or substance. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify the value of art – but I don’t believe we do ourselves any favours by borrowing the language of science (or business, or anything else) without being willing to interrogate it. Also, “ecology” and “ecosystem” are not quite the same thing, and they shouldn’t be used interchangeably just because “ecology” sounds a bit more natural and friendly than “ecosystem”.

Anyway… by the end of the Open Session I felt frustrated and angry. The discussions that we had there were discussions that have already been had, over and over again, online and off. Perhaps the fact that we needed to have them again is indicative of new people joining the conversation, in which case it’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a frustrating thing. But perhaps it’s indicative that while there has been some change at CS, it’s not going deep enough yet.

That same day, the advertisement for the new Chief Executive was posted. The language is more promising – at least it features the word “integrity” – and we know there will be artists involved in the decision-making process, including Vicky Featherstone who seems unlikely to refrain from speaking her mind. However, the salary appears unchanged, and I question the integrity of anyone willing to accept a salary more than ten times in excess of what most artists earn. I question what it means that Creative Scotland still sees that disparity as acceptable. (Someone at the Open Session tried to defend the salary to me on the grounds that being Chief Exec is a difficult job involving long hours. Want to talk about difficult jobs with long hours? My mother was a nurse. She was not on £120K/year. Even without the apples to oranges comparison of arts and medicine, I am a writer and director. I regularly do 16 hour days. I never get paid to sit in meetings. I have coffee with people on my own time and money. My skills have to be extremely sharp and constantly honed if I am to find work in a highly competitive environment. Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for the terribly hard life of a heftily-salaried arts exec.)

I believe in the need for the Open Sessions, but I think the purpose is currently incorrect. Artists need a forum through which they can talk to CS. It needs to be less structured. We don’t need to be talked at, we need to have conversations. We need to meet the people who make up the organisation, put faces to them, let them put faces to us. We need to see that they are people and let them see that we are people. This is how you build relationships. Give us something truly open, where we can bring our concerns (whether “we” are artists, CS, audience or other), meet each other, respond to issues as they come up. Basically, look at the Devoted & Disgruntled model and do that. Not just because it works, but also because it’s an exercise in humility – by relinquishing control and trusting to those present, you make an admission that you do not know best. If CS knew both what it needs to do and how to do it, change would be happening already. It doesn’t. Perhaps no individual or formal organisation does. That’s not going to change without people being brave enough to admit that they don’t know.

That said, I believe that Kenneth Fowler – CS’ head of communication and external relations – actually gets this. I’ve always felt quite hopeful after talking to him. He seemed aware that the format wasn’t quite working and was asking people directly for their thoughts at the end of the session. He said it would evolve. I believe it will, and that’s why I’ve taken the time to write all this. I have no desire simply to be negative about the whole thing. Everything that I’ve brought up in this post has been mentioned because I think there’s a possibility for change. I hope that the attitude that I see in Kenneth and believe to be present in some of the other CS employees will spread and eventually become normal within the organisation. Believe it or not, I don’t write these blog posts just to get things off my chest. I do it because I still believe that thing can change. More than that, in fact. I still believe they must. Which is why, in spite of everything, I’m glad I went.


Writing for Profit and Pleasure

Hello blog, I am sorry for ignoring you. I’ve been busy with a combination of Tightlaced stuff, end of winter craziness and freelancing. I’ve had an unusually long run of people paying me for writing, which is of course lovely and makes my bank account a happier place – but I’ve been noticing how it affects me in other ways.

 

I use a couple of websites to find my freelance gigs. Clients post jobs, freelancers put in proposals for them, clients make their selection. Once you’ve been selected you get full details and are often asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (which is why I won’t be talking about the specific details of the jobs I’ve done).

 

Most of my jobs have been ghostwriting fiction. There’s an element to ghostwriting that I love and fear in equal measure, and that’s the fact that This Is Not Mine. Some briefs are very specific and lay out exactly when and where the story should be set, perhaps a couple of key events, what you’re not allowed to do with the characters, whether they’re allowed to swear. Some are much looser, in which case I prefer to submit sample chapters as soon as I can just to reassure myself that I’m not completely misjudging the client’s requirements and that the story I am writing remains Not Mine.

 

There’s a certain freedom in writing things that won’t appear under my own name. Of course the work still has to be done to my usual high standards – it must be grammatically correct, properly spelled, neatly formatted, narratively cohesive and internally consistent. Characters must still be properly developed and the plot must make sense (for which I draw heavily on the things I learned on David S. Freeman’s screenwriting masterclass, Beyond Structure, which is well worth taking no matter what medium you write in). I find my freedom in the subject matter and the aspects of characters that I can explore when they are Not Mine.

 

Writing with the aim of being published or produced under your own name is exposing. Even if your work isn’t heavily autobiographical, the fact remains that it comes from you and that your work is a statement about what captures your interest and imagination. It is a statement about how your mind works and how you see the world. Your friends and family will see/read it and speculate about what it’s based on and how you get your ideas. (This is where dead parents actually become quite useful. I am somewhat relieved that I will never have to explain to my mother about the play featuring the accidental threesome or justify why some of my work has to feature the word “fuck” quite so heavily.)

 

Writing work that will be signed over to someone else and published under their name, on the other hand… That feels like being given the keys to the parts of my imagination that I don’t visit often.  Suddenly I have permission to play in the dormant bits of my psyche. My usual approach is to write characters who are either aware that they’re characters, or through whom I can explore what it is to be a character and construct an identity. Being paid to write straightforward fiction means I have an outlet for characters who simply are. I can plot without having to deconstruct the genre. Until I started taking on these jobs, I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d done that. It’s not only good fun and liberating, it’s also useful – I sometimes wonder if I get so caught up in picking characters apart and focusing in on detailed studies of tiny elements that I forget to enjoy the broad sweep. It’s nice to reconnect with that and to start thinking about why I work the way I do and my reasons for delving into or kicking against particular elements of storytelling. It’s also raising some interesting questions about how to balance the writing I do for money with the writing I do for art.

 

I’m sure I’ll be exploring this further, but right now I have deadlines to meet. Lots of deadlines. One novel, 23 short rhymes and a 60 minute script – it’ll be a doddle, right? See you on the other side…

 

(Oh yes, and come and see one of my short pieces, One Missed Call, at the Speakeasy next Tuesday. Unless it’s already sold out, which is quite likely because Speakeasy’s brilliant. But if it’s not sold out yet, come and see it!)


A plea to Creative Scotland and its board

It’s been a while since I posted about the Creative Scotland stooshie. In December the board requested a bit of time to consider what to do next. I know it’s only the end of January (probably the beginning of February by the time I finish writing this), but considering how swiftly events moved towards the end of last year, this feels like a very long pause. With the next board meeting looming on February 7th, no doubt there’ll be news soon – but in the meantime, I would urge Creative Scotland and its board to think carefully not just about what they do, but about how it reads to us on the outside. As Henry Fielding puts it:

It is not enough that your designs, nay, that your actions, are intrinsically good; you must take care they shall appear so.

Optimist that I am, I truly believe that the remaining staff at Creative Scotland have good intentions. I hope the same is true of the board. I believe there are plenty of people involved who see the need for change and genuinely want relations between artists and Creative Scotland to improve, who are hoping that whatever comes out of the next board meeting will bode well for the future. This belief engenders hope, not just in me but in many artists. But it’s a fragile, newborn hope, still at the stage where it could easily be crushed by clumsy handling, whether by the organisation itself or by the board.

Creative Scotland’s challenge is to be careful how they present themselves. I was a little alarmed to see them advertising for a Research Officer on Ideastap using phrases such as “key stakeholders” and “deliver the ambitions of our corporate plan”. Seeing this kind of market language in an arts context always makes my blood run cold, but even if I set my personal qualms aside, there’s this: “a commitment to our values will be essential.”

The whole point of CSstooshie was to establish that there was a problem with Creative Scotland’s “values” as they stood. This was acknowledged by senior management and by the board. Creative Scotland needs to figure out what its values are before demanding that people commit to them. I know this is a standard phrase to see on job advertisements, but that’s exactly the problem. It reads like a standard phrase in a standard ad for a standard office job, with no implication that working for Creative Scotland should require a wee bit more. Commitment to the arts in Scotland, perhaps? Perhaps Creative Scotland thinks that’s implicit in asking for a commitment to “their values”, but they haven’t yet earned sufficient trust for us to take that as read. Now more than ever, we need to see meticulous attention to detail in the way they write their job descriptions, because the job descriptions that they write for a new Chief Exec and new Creative Director will have far-reaching repercussions. If they want us to believe that they’re capable of taking such pains over the descriptions for the top jobs, they need to demonstrate it all the way down to descriptions written for Research Officers (who, judging by the fact that they only earn three or four times what most of the artists I know earn in a year, must be pretty low down the CS totem pole).

As for the board, they made a massive step in the right direction when they released the Pitlochry statement and it’s vital that they don’t do anything to undo that good work. As they formulate new plans and begin the search for a new Chief Executive, it’s absolutely necessary that they not only consult and listen to artists, but that they are seen to do so. The easiest way to do this, it seems to me, would be to add some artists to their largely non-artistic make-up. I don’t mean that they should adopt a token artist – I think I’ve made my feelings on box-ticking abundantly clear in previous posts – but that they should consider reshaping the board so they have more representation from the nebulous thing that is the artistic community. They would also do well to make sure the process is as open and transparent as possible, since any hint of cloak-and-dagger dealings, nepotism or taking the path of least resistance will serve to destroy that fragile hope and trust.

So this is my plea to Creative Scotland and its board: if artists are willing to trust that your designs and actions are good, will you take care that they also appear so? Don’t leave us to guess at what’s going on and how decisions are being made. Be clear and open with us. Nurture that hope and trust, because the stronger those things are the easier your jobs and our lives will be.

And if in doubt, ask the artists – we’re pretty good at knowing how things will read…


A bit of a rant about “Skivers and Strivers”

On my way to the studio this afternoon I was listening to the radio and heard something that really annoyed me. I’m not sure what it was, since it was a short journey and I didn’t hear the beginning or end of the programme, but it was someone on Radio 4 talking about “skivers and strivers”. I can’t help feeling that these terms are noxious Cameronite propaganda designed to make people who have recently been shafted by a double dip recession and subsequent high unemployment rates feel bad about themselves. Anyway, some middle-aged man was putting his perfect elocution to questionable use by attempting to describe the frustration experienced by commendable, hardworking “strivers” when they get up for work early in the morning and see curtains closed in houses across the road, where idle benefit-scrounging “skivers” are lolling around in bed. Much was made of an anecdote about a jobseeker who dared express a preference for jobs that started later in the morning, maybe after 9.30am.

I know you should never get too riled up by anything taken out of context, but I was angry. By the time I’d taught today’s session, got home and done some domestic bit and pieces, I was still annoyed. My computer doesn’t get along well enough with BBC iplayer to let me listen to the programme now – which is probably quite a good thing, since throwing things at people talking in my computer is not the greatest idea – so I am writing this blog post from a position of partial ignorance. Perhaps all the points I intend to make in this post were made later in the programme. I hope they were, although I doubt it. Either way, I’ll make them here.

What really infuriates me about that man’s attitude is how rigid and unrealistic his view of what constitutes a work ethic is. You have no idea who is behind those closed curtains. Ever heard of a night shift? The person you’re branding lazy and a “skiver” might very well have been up all night putting out fires or caring for the sick and dying. The people who do those jobs are already underpaid and undervalued – let’s at least do them the courtesy of allowing them to sleep when they’re not at work.

There are also plenty of people who might not be doing lifesaving work but whose hours are not 9 – 5 or any approximation thereof, and we don’t deserve Plummy Radio Man’s condemnation either. Personally, I tend to wake up some time between ten and eleven. I’m usually online within half an hour of getting up. I faff about on social media for a bit while the caffeine kicks in, but social media isn’t just a toy for me – in amongst the cat pictures and updates about lunch choices, there are links to all sorts of things that are important to a freelance theatremaker. I hear about companies, submission deadlines, development schemes and industry news this way.

Then as my brain wakes up, I start replying to emails, writing budgets, plans and applications and drafting articles and blog posts that I’ll revisit and shape properly later in the day. Some days I teach, in which case I head in to the studio. Some days I edit and feed back on other people’s scripts, in which case I stay at home and probably remain in my pyjamas and wrapped in blankets for warmth. Some days I have meetings to go to. Sometimes I have rehearsals.

In the evenings I might be teaching, rehearsing, in meetings, at the theatre or some other event where I can network and meet collaborators and keep an eye on what’s happening in my area of the industry. Or I might be in front of my laptop working on a plan, budget, article or script. If I’m out during the evening, I’ll be back on the computer when I get home. I keep working until shortly before I go to bed, usually between 2 and 3am.

Now, I’m not saying I have my nose to the grindstone from 11am until 3am. Of course I have breaks and slack times and sneaky reads of sites that are nothing to do with anything. I play with the cat, I antagonise my husband (who also works from home much of the time). What I am saying is that I don’t have much of a social life or straightforward non-working time. I’m mentally on call all day, every day (which is not a complaint, by the way, it’s one of the things I love about my life and work because it’s how my brain works anyway). I don’t have many friends who aren’t also collaborators, so although I spend a lot of time with my friends it’s rarely just social. We have work meetings and we cram our catch-ups into the gaps.

On Sundays, Jen rests. I don’t check email, I switch my phone off. If I’m online it’s for entertainment purposes. I avoid company other than cat and husband. I cook. I spend ages reading in the bath. I try not to write, although I don’t always succeed in this.

Like I said, I’m not complaining about what my work life involves. It’s busy, but it’s great. I wish it involved a little more actual earning of money – financially I’d be better off on benefits – but we get by. It might be a while before we can afford a holiday, but as you can see from the above, I don’t have a particularly healthy attitude towards time off. I’m quite happy to work long hours because I enjoy what I do and as Noel Coward said, work is so much more fun than fun.

Just don’t dare tell me I don’t have a work ethic simply because I don’t start work by 9am. I’ve lived my life for a long time and know I don’t function well in the mornings. Even when I was living in London and the alarm went off at 5:50am each day so I could be on the tube a little after 7, I was never on form in the mornings. I know when I work best and I make the most of being freelance to allow me to work during my most productive hours. Does this somehow make me a “skiver”? By Plummy Radio Man’s standards, probably, since apparently only jobs that require you to be in work by 9am count as respectable employment.

Well, I suppose theatre was never considered the most respectable of professions. I can live with that. It’s not so much that I feel personally offended by Plummy Radio Man’s views. It’s more that I find this ideology of “skivers and strivers” and the demonising of those on benefits deeply disturbing. If it’s irritating to be a self-employed freelancer facing criticism for not working at the correct times of day, it must be soul-destroying to be a chronically ill person who can’t work and perhaps sleeps more than the average eight hours due to high levels of pain or medication side-effects. Or to be someone who had a job until they lost it due to the lovely double dip recession that they didn’t cause, and who hasn’t been able to find another one. Or to be someone who has never had a job because they stepped straight from education into high youth unemployment, where some bright spark wants to swap jobs that didn’t pay a living wage to begin with for Workfare placements that don’t pay at all and where unpaid internships have become commonplace?

I must stop before I become too irate to be coherent. I hope Radio 4 had someone putting another point of view. This “one size fits all” way of thinking, this ridiculously naive idea that anyone who isn’t employed and wealthy just doesn’t want to work, is dangerous. It chips away at the confidence of everyone who doesn’t currently fit that image. It erodes our freedom to choose a path other than one that leads to a 9 – 5 job and diminishes our respect for those who do take those paths. If you want to be cared for in hospital, have emergency services available round the clock or even simply to have someone pour your pint when you go to the pub or write the play that you go to see after work, you should respect the fact that they might not work the same hours as you. They’re not “skivers”, and the fact that there’s a small number of people out there to whom that label could accurately be applied does not excuse its sloppy, inaccurate and degrading application to anyone who might have good reason to be asleep while others commute.


Noting a Broken Pattern

Today (or yesterday, I suppose) I had a really useful meeting with Sandy Thomson, Artistic Director of Bell Rock (formerly Poorboy), in her role as a Cultural Enterprise advisor.

I had gone seeking advice regarding Tightlaced’s structure and legal status, as well as hoping to pick up some tips from an artist who successfully runs a theatre ensemble herself. She gave me lots of information and food for thought regarding company structure and how a co-operative model might work, and she referred me on to other Cultural Enterprise resources for anything she couldn’t help me with herself. (If you’re an artist who doesn’t already know about the Cultural Enterprise Office, READ THIS NOW. Then come back here and finish reading this.)

But just as important as her advice was her support. I don’t get many chances to talk to other artistic directors of methodology-led ensembles. Sandy and I spoke about the possibilities and pitfalls presented by ensemble work and she reminded me that considering my own needs and wants is not only allowed but actually essential.

We talked about the boom and bust patterns that seem so difficult to avoid in the leaders of groups who work this way, which led me to acknowledge a very important milestone that I had allowed to pass unnoticed – even by me.

I have not experienced physical burnout since April.

I know that probably sounds like nothing, but for me it’s major. For years I’ve run on 12-weekly cycles, working flat out for three months at a time and then collapsing with a monster cold/flu-type thing which seems to be the physical manifestation of my exhaustion. I’d take a day or two off if I could (by which I mean I’d keep working but I’d do it from home) then I’d drag myself back up to full speed as quickly as possible.

It was a ridiculously unhealthy attitude, don’t think I don’t know that. I once fractured my coccyx and destabilised a couple of joints and went straight from the ambulance to rehearsal with no time at all to rest. That’s one of the more extreme examples, but at the time I saw it as the obvious thing to do. I started behaving this way because I felt I had to, because there was never enough time to do everything I felt I should be doing, then I kept doing it because I was trapped in the pattern.

This time last year I figured out exactly how destructive my pattern was and made a promise that I would get better. I had just finished Romeo and Juliet and I was ill, yet again. I had been deteriorating for over a month, starting with the usual cold and culminating in a kidney infection. I’d like to say that was my last physical burnout, but despite my promises to myself there was one more to come. I completely overworked myself in March and had one last cold from hell to see me through April.

Since then, though, I’ve been doing well. Even though this has not been an easy year in terms of mental health, where physical health is concerned I’ve been a lot better at maintaining my equilibrium. Even if I’m knocked flat on my back by a cold tomorrow, the fact remains that I have come this far. I paced myself so that I didn’t succumb to Fringe Lurgy. I struggled mentally around the anniversary of my Mum’s death but stayed physically well. I was anticipating burnout after the double bill, but in spite of all the long days, late nights and endless energy being poured into the work, I was still standing afterwards.

As I said, this probably sounds like nothing, but do you know how long it’s been since I went more than twelve weeks without exhausting myself to the point of illness? The last time I can remember was 1995. Seventeen years ago. Something I hadn’t actually stopped and worked out until today. So it’s important to me – the footprint of the first tiny steps in the direction of a healthier approach to work and life.

Sandy talked to me about the importance of reward and recognition, and the fact that recognition is often of equal or greater importance than reward. It felt that was. Something in my mind feels lighter for realising this. Perhaps it’s just the feeling of letting up on myself after many years of berating myself for (ironically enough) being too hard on myself. (I’m sure that sentence could be better constructed and not contain the same word three times, but… welcome to nearly 2am.)

There’s more that came out of the session and I’ll write about that as I work through it. Some will be here, some on the Tightlaced blog. But for tonight, that was the big thing. Thank you Sandy. If nothing else had come out of the session, it would have been worth it for that alone.