Writing with mental ill health

This is a blog I wrote back in August for the #WriteMentor Spark Programme. Another of Stuart White’s wonderful inclusive and encouraging iniatives, Spark is a good affordable way to get help with your writing and engage with the children’s writing and publishing community.

How to keep writing when you have mental ill health – 6 practical tips

Alongside therapy, medication, and exercise, many people find writing can help to manage their mental health.

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But there’s a catch: How do you write when depression means just getting out of bed is too hard? Or OCD has you stuck in a loop of some tedious behaviour? Or anxiety tells you that you’re not good enough, you’ll never be a writer, and sends your brain spiralling?

Having lived with chronic anxiety since childhood, plus depression and OCD on the side, in my experience life is always better when I’m writing. Any kind is good – non-fiction, journaling, memoir, poetry, therapeutic – but for me, fiction works best. Here, I offer some practical tips to help you keep writing on difficult days.

How to keep writing – tips

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#1 Keep your tools handy

Sounds obvious perhaps, but have a notepad and pen with you – in your bag, in the car, by the bed. Even if you can’t get out from under the duvet, you can write something.

Write ANYTHING.

Write about last night’s dreams. Write down the brilliant comeback you thought of three hours after that irritating thing someone said to you. Write a word or a sentence that sums up how you feel right now.

Or maybe how you’d like to feel …

#2 Use a routine prompt

Many writers swear by a writing routine however, it can be counterproductive. Not meeting targets gives anxiety and OCD plenty of ammo for ‘you’re a failure’ type thoughts.

It can be helpful though, to have a routine prompt. This is a phrase to use daily, or as needed, to start off the writing. There’s a certain comfort in having it there to fall back on. Make one up, or ‘borrow’ someone else’s.

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Joanne Harris, author of the novels The Strawberry Thief and Chocolat, amongst many others, often tweets a sentence starting: ‘And this morning the Shed is … ’

‘ … a ball of red string, rolling down a corridor … ’ 14 Aug 19

‘ … a beach hammock, strung between two coconut palms, with bright birds singing overhead and the sound of the surf in the distance … ’ 11 Aug 19

My current routine prompt is: ‘This morning’s skies are … ’

Even if you only follow this with ‘blue’ or ‘grey’, you have a sentence. And one sentence is the start of something. But it’s not really about describing the colour of the sky. Use all your senses – how does the day feel? Sound? Taste? Stay real world or go fantasy.

#3 Use a random prompt

Gather random prompts: words or sentences that strike a chord, and keep a list of them in the back of your notebook to use when the thought of a bigger project is too much.

Try: 

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  • Song lyrics, even misheard ones.
  • News headlines – reimagine the story.
  • A snippet of overheard conversation – where does it take you? What comes next?
  • A line from a poem, a novel, a movie

Don’t overthink it. Set yourself a short time limit, and free write –anything that comes into your head.

There are plenty of prompts online, but procrastinating is likely! Stick with one, like Ad Hoc Fiction, which gives a weekly one word prompt for Flash Fiction. It’s a good way to get writing, with the added bonus of a free weekly competition!

#4 Restrict yourself

Although setting rules can be problematic, particularly with OCD, on bad days it’s possible to coax yourself into writing by restricting what you write. (The stubborn part of me that doesn’t like being told what to do, will often rebel, so I end up with more words in any case.)

Try writing:

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haiku – only 17 syllables – you can manage that !Try and sum up a character from your story in haiku form, or the setting. If this is too hard, try and describe a person or place you know in real life.

A 100 word story in one syllable words – not sure where this came from originally, but I first learned of it at a  Writing Events Bath Workshop  where we wrote our life stories in 100 one syllable words. Give it a go!

This type of exercise is known as constrained writing and an advantage for the depressed writer is that it requires a small amount of energy, and provides a satisfying result. For the anxious writer, with a mind spiralling out of control, it provides a focus.

#5 Redefine writing

Are you on a wordcount downer? Not enough energy or focus to write?

Writing is not all about the number of words on the page. There are other things you can do that count as writing. Give yourself permission to:

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DOODLE – particularly good for anxiety and the fidgety. Pen in hand, pen on paper, it’s almost writing. There’s no pressure for it to BE anything, but a doodle might turn into a word, a sentence, a story …

READ – ANYTHING! Picture books, happy books, simple stories, something different to what you’d usually choose. 

Put your own work onto an e-reader, and read it like it’s a published novel. You’ll be surprised at how uplifting this is.

WATCH TV – maybe put the subtitles on. Try and focus on one thing. A character’s voice, setting, dialogue.

LISTEN TO MUSIC – try a movie soundtrack with your eyes closed – how does the music make you feel? What kind of scene does it conjure up?

#6 Turn outwards

Connect with other creative people, many of whom will also have experience of mental ill health, and find your writing family. This can be difficult to do, especially if you have social anxiety, so do it with care, and protect yourself. The #WriteMentor community is a great place to start – safe, supportive and inclusive.

Resources:

Writing and Mental Health Research:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/dec/13/writers-depression-top-10-risk

Writing with mental ill-health:

Constrained Writing:

Writers who write and tweet about mental health: 

Holly Bourne

Matt Haig

Yasmin Rahman

Stuart White

#WriteMentor Summer 2019

It’s back! #WriteMentor – the highly successful mentoring progamme for YA and children’s writers. And I’m delighted to be a mentor again this year.

Why I Mentor

I’ll tell you the truth. This time last year I was pretty low about my own writing. My novel had been out on submission with publishers for a (long) while and things were not looking promising. I struggled to write, had repetitive strain injury from refreshing my emails, and spent far more time than was good for me on twitter.

Then I spotted a tweet by Stuart White asking for mentors for his new #WriteMentor programme. I loved his positive and inclusive approach, and his honesty. I applied to the programme because, even though I wasn’t in a great place writing-wise, I had got this far at least, and had some knowledge to share. And because, I wouldn’t have got this far without the help and support of other writers. And because, following your dream is not the whimsical prance among butterflies and unicorns it sounds. It’s a bloody hard slog up a mountain only to find another, steeper one beyond. Sometimes, it’s good to have a helping hand.

I used to write in isolation, too scared to show anyone else my stories. It took a long time but I managed to overcome my fear, and now I can’t imagine writing without the feedback and support of fellow trusted writers. I mentor because I want to help someone else take their next step.

I found my writing family while studying for an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. But I appreciate that such an opportunity is not available to everyone. So, I’d like to support a writer who may be nervous about sending their story out into the world, or who hasn’t yet found their writing community, or someone who struggles with the whole ‘putting yourself out there’ part of the journey to becoming a published author.

My mentee for #WriteMentor 2018 was @lydia_massiah. You can read an interview about our experience, and the exciting things that happened next for Lydia here. There are many other success stories from the #WriteMentor Progamme, too.

Lydia is now a mentor on this year’s programme. This is one of the many joys of the #WriteMentor experience. It is such a supportive community.

My Background

Qualifications

I have a degree in English Studies (Literature, Linguistics & Creative Writing), a Post Graduate Certificate in Marketing, and a Masters with Distinction in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University.

Experience

My short stories have been published online, in writing magazines, and anthologies, after being placed or listed in competitions. Read an example here.

The Masters in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University is a very practical qualification, which is taught by published children’s and YA authors including David Almond, Julia Green and CJ Skuse. My two years on the course gave me lots of experience of writing in different genres for a variety of age groups, as well as critical reading of published children’s fiction, editing, giving and receiving feedback/critique, and insight into the publishing industry. I was one of three co-editors of the 2016 course anthology Paper Worlds. Read the opening of my YA novel Lightning Ridge.

I regularly edit, critique and proofread for fellow YA and MG writers, several of whom are published authors. I’m also a reader for a couple of writing competitions.

What I’m Looking For

YA and MG

I am happy to mentor either YA or MG. I read, write and edit both. I’m currently reading Fleur Hitchcock‘s wonderful MG novel: The Boy who Flew and V. E. Schwab‘s YA novel: The Unbound. At the moment, I’m writing a YA speculative fiction novel, and a Middle Grade contemporary/fantasy.

I like stories that make me think and have some beauty in them. I’m drawn to dark stuff. Contemporary realism, the grittier the better; feminist anything; speculative fiction; issue books, particularly mental health; multiple narratives; historical; verse novels.

Favourite novels: Skellig; The Hate You Give; One; The Lie Tree; The Color Purple; The Knife of Never Letting Go; The Power; Born Scared; Crongton Knights; Amy Chelsea Stacy Dee; Joe All Alone; The Goldfish Boy; The Handmaid’s Tale; To Kill a Mockingbird; Wonder; Rosie Loves Jack; The Poet X; Long Way Down.

Genre

An empathetic character and a strong narrative voice are far more important to me than the book’s genre. I read and love all sorts of books (with the possible exception of Romance and Pony Stories), but I do understand that some readers and writers have a real passion for a particular genre (usually fantasy and/or sci-fi). I know that these superfans read fantasy in a different way to me – some of them are my closest friends! So if you want that kind of intense, genre-specific reader, one of the other mentors who specifically state that preference might be better for you.

BUT, whatever the genre, your story still needs a plot, characters, setting, voice, tension, pace and so on, and these are all things I am used to working with.

Mentoring process

For me, the mentoring process is not about one writer telling another what they should do. It’s a dialogue between the two of you, and you’re both on the same side, trying to make the story the best it can be. It’s important to be honest with each other, to be open to feedback and suggestions offered. But the final decision is, of course, with the mentee, as it’s their manuscript.

I’ll do a full read through and provide a detailed report on all aspects of your novel, with particular attention to anything you’ve raised as a concern in your application. Where relevant/helpful I may provide notes in track changes for parts of the MS. We will set objectives and deadlines together and I will reread sections of the MS as needed. We’ll communicate on a regular basis via email.

My aim is to provide kind, honest, constructive feedback. I know from personal experience that it can be difficult to receive criticism of your writing, but I also know how much better it’s made mine!

Any questions?

Have a look around my website and the #WriteMentor website for further information. If there’s anything not covered, you can contact me via DM on twitter. @KClarkwriter

More about #WriteMentor and me

I’m sure there are a few writers lurking around the WriteMentor hashtag not asking questions even though they might want to, and wondering if they have the nerve to apply to the programme. It’s scary to share your writing, and I avoided doing it myself for a really long time. But it is so worth being brave, being bold, and doing it.

The #WriteMentors are a genuine bunch who want to help their fellow writers. I haven’t met any of them in real life but we are connected by our passion for writing, and there is a wonderful supportive feel about the whole group.

This week has been frenetic on twitter. I’ve had my first Q and A sessions. It’s been fun, but I do find it pretty hard coming up with answers on the spot. We introverts need time to think before we respond! Also, I like to redraft fifteen times before I show anyone my words, even tweets … and I’ve just noticed a typo in one of them.

Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to have some more considered information about my writing and my critiquing experience.

Here’s a bit about what I write:

I write about the things that scare me. I am fascinated by voice – that’s the character’s voice (narrative voice) rather than authorial voice, and so I sometimes have multiple narrators. I also write speculative fiction – basically sci-fi that’s closer to real world than fantasy.

I write stories for younger teenagers and children, too, usually contemporary realism with a bit of humour, and the odd fantastical element.

I write in first person, third person and sometimes (probably more than I should) in second person. I usually write in present tense, but not always.

You can read an extract from my YA MS and a humorous teen short story on the ‘read’ menu to give you an idea of some of my writing.

What have I beta read, critiqued and edited?

Here are some examples of the types of manuscripts I have been privileged to read and give feedback on:

Middle Grade: fantasy adventure, third person, past tense; magical middle grade third person, past tense; magical middle grade, first person, past tense; contemporary issue-led middle, first person, present; historical detective; dual contemporary/historical narrative; adventure; funny 7-9, first person; fairy, third person; funny, first person, past tense.

Teen: funny detective, first person, present; LGBTQIA romance/humour, first person; adventure, third person.

YA: Historical UK set; Historical Europe set; contemporary detective, first person, present; Sci-Fi, first person; contemporary with magical elements; dark contemporary with multiple narrators; fantasy with dual narrator; LGBTQIA contemporary.

A bit about genre

Genre was coming up a lot in the Q and A. I read and love all sorts of books with the possible exception of horror, but I do understand that some readers and writers have a real passion for a particular genre (usually fantasy and/or sci-fi). I know that these superfans read fantasy in a different way to me – some of them are my closest friends! So if you want that kind of intense, genre-specific reader, one of the other mentors who specifically state that preference might be better for you. BUT, whatever the genre, your story still needs a plot, characters, voice, pace and so on and these are all things I am used to working with.

There are 27 mentors now on #WriteMentor! So, take a look and see if any of them sound like writers who could help with your work. You can choose three to apply to. The closing date for applications is 11th may 2018.

#WriteMentor – why I mentor

So, I’m a mentor for #WriteMentor and I wanted to explain why I signed up, my approach and the sort of ‘mentee’ I hope to support.

See that kitten? That’s me, hiding in a book. Although I’m not as furry, or as cute. But I did hide in books as a child. Painfully shy, an ‘extreme introvert’, books were a way to escape myself. And even now as an adult, when the world gets too much, or even when everything is just fine, reading is where I go. I love to read, and that is one of the reasons I like being a mentor. I want to read your words.

When I started writing seriously over a decade ago, I had this image in my head of the writer as a tortured soul alone in their garret. And I went with that for a few years, writing in isolation, afraid to show my words to anyone.

You can read about my journey out of the garret here if you like. But to cut a very long story short, which is kind of what this is all about, I discovered the wonder of working with other writers – sharing stories, giving and receiving feedback, and positive, constructive criticism.

I found my writing family while studying for an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. But I appreciate that such an opportunity is not available to everyone. So, I would like to support a writer who may be nervous about sending their story out into the world, or who hasn’t yet found their writing community, or someone who struggles with the whole ‘putting yourself out there’ part of the journey to becoming a published author.

While I always try to offer critique in a kind, constructive manner, I will be honest with you if I think something isn’t working or needs improving. I’m also a detail person, and have a bit of a reputation for spotting typos and continuity issues.

An empathetic character and a strong narrative voice are far more important to me than genre. I like books that make me think and have some beauty in them. I read all sorts of stories but in particular I like:

In YA: Contemporary realism, the grittier the better; feminist speculative fiction; issue-led books, particularly mental health; historical. In MG: contemporary; magical; adventure; historical.

If this sounds like the kind of mentoring you’d like, please put me down as one of your choices on the mentee application. If not, take a look at all the other wonderful mentors available.

More Mentoring News

Delighted to say I am now a writing mentor for #WriteMentor,  a programme for unagented Middle Grade and YA writers. We offer the opportunity to develop a manuscript with an agented or published author. There are various options available from a query package to developmental edits on the full manuscript.

Each mentor has something different to offer, in terms of input and style. We aim to encompass a wide range of genres, styles and diversity, and encourage mentees from anywhere in the world to apply, although all work should be submitted in English. There will be an agent showcase at the end of the process in September.

Interested? What’s the next step?

  1. Check out the mentor bios.
  2. Choose three mentors to apply to.
  3. Send your application between 4th and 11th May.