Sunday, 14 July 2013

Grief and creativity: what happens to your writing when your life falls apart?


2013 so far has been, I can categorically state, the worst year of my life. But that’s good for writers, yeah? It’s all material.  That’s what I told myself, at the start of the year, when I found out that I had to leave the flat I’d lived in for 11 years and was plunged into a property market that seemed to have gone insane when I wasn’t looking. When I developed, out of the blue, a medical condition called TMJ, which for about three months left me in fairly constant pain (in my face! Which is as delightful as it sounds). When my mum was repeatedly hospitalised with vague diagnoses that never quite equated to effective treatment.  I’ll get through this, I said, and it’ll all be great material.

Then two days after I moved out of my flat (having spectacularly failed to find a new place to live), my mum’s health took a turn for the worse, and she died, and suddenly it didn’t feel like just material any more. I was homeless, and grieving, and, as an only child, faced with the burden of clearing out my mum’s council flat and sorting her estate alone, all the while (theoretically) house hunting and doing enough freelance work to pay for the roof that I would eventually, hopefully have over my head again. Juggling these demands, while shuttling my belongings between those friends who were kind enough to put me up and dealing with the emotional fall out exhausted me. I was numb, and in shock, not only at how I felt but how others reacted: overwhelmed by the kindness of some, but dumbfounded by the absence of others – of all those messages from people who said things like ‘if there’s anything I can do, let me know’, ‘anything’ clearly not extending to replying to text messages or emails that dared to express any sentiments but the stoic Britishism ‘I’m fine’. And then, just when I thought I was finding a foothold in the new, shifting landscape of my life, a close friend died unexpectedly, and I was abruptly plunged into a community of grief, all of us stunned and staggering with shock, the unique bombshell of a life ended far too soon, and I was back among the people on the other side of those texts and emails, struggling to find the right words to soothe someone who cannot be consoled. What chance does creativity have in amongst all that?

And yet writing isn’t a hobby for me. It’s not something I can afford to shelve until I feel better or have more time – it’s a big part of what I do for a living. True, with no publisher breathing down my neck I have a certain  amount of leeway where my new book is concerned (in the outline stages when the first storms broke, and currently sitting in a pile of notebooks in a friend’s spare bedroom – not, alas, the spare bedroom where I currently am) but I still need to bring in royalties, and to do that I need to promote my books, and I need to maintain that momentum by keeping the series going, because in a competitive market, it’s all too easy to be forgotten. The magazine I write for can’t change its print deadline, and the websites I create content for still expect that regular stream of articles. The world doesn’t stop, however much I might want it to. Writing might seem a trivial activity in the midst of all this chaos, but anyone who writes – because it puts a roof over their heads or just because it lets them be a little saner amongst all the craziness – will tell you that it’s not. So how do you hold onto it? How do you keep going? Here are some things that helped me. Maybe they’ll help you.

Pare back to the essentials – as a freelancer, my main priority had to be the clients I already had, so I concentrated my efforts on hitting the necessary deadlines, and focusing on the work that was in front of me, as it was important to me that I didn’t let anyone down, especially as I rely on repeat business and word of mouth recommendations. This isn’t ideal – I really should have spent the last three months out there generating new work as well, so I may well have a nice little financial crisis looming to add to my woes – but sometimes you have to recognise your limitations. Sure, it was frustrating to have to put my book and other big projects on hold, but when getting out of bed in the morning becomes one of the day’s biggest achievements, you need to marshal your energy. Likewise, if you’re doing a nine-to-five (or, let’s face it, these days, more likely an 8.30 to somewhere after 6ish) you may need to scale back other projects, no matter how important they feel to you. Grief is bloody exhausting – don’t set yourself up for disappointment by expecting to achieve too much.

Think small, think different – one writer friend of mine put her book on hold in the aftermath of a relationship break up, but channelled her creative energy through a blog, which felt like a more manageable commitment. Another novelist friend recommends journaling, and I must admit I have started to find it helpful. You’re still actually putting pen to paper, so it feels vaguely productive, but since it’s totally private, you can be completely unfiltered and self-indulgent, and basically write any old rubbish that you like without having to worry about anyone else judging you for it. If that sounds too airy fairy, think snippets: make notes of ideas without thinking that you have to follow them up or develop them, write character scenes, or sketches. For once, allow yourself to think small.

Don’t feel guilty – let yourself off the hook however you feel, whether it’s good or bad. Sometimes a crisis can be a spur for creativity (I finished my first novel in the aftermath of a massive break up; while the rest of my life fell to pieces, the words fell into place), so don’t feel like you are indulging something trivial or insignificant if you do get the urge to write. I did a couple of pieces recently – snippets, really, that I produced to promote my book – and I found myself feeling guilty for writing them, guilty for enjoying them, then guilty for putting them out there and promoting them. My God, my mum just died! How could I be faffing about on Twitter? But loss brings plenty of misery – don’t begrudge yourself any bright spots when they happen.

Ask for support (but be prepared not always to get it) – some people will amaze you with their supportiveness, others…won’t. They might have their own stuff to deal with (you’d be amazed what’s happening behind the scenes in other people’s lives that you often only find out in retrospect), or they might just be thoughtless pricks, but either way you need to not stress about other people’s reactions. Seek out whoever you find it easiest to be with. I’ve been making my living from writing of one sort or another for 20 years now (alright, generally not the glamorous sort, but still) and some of my friends even now don’t understand how much a part of me it is – and that’s fine. I’m sure there are plenty of blindspots in my own empathy (and god knows I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I have had my own tact bypass when to comes to the lives and crises of others) so I can’t expect everyone to always understand how my priorities work.  For instance, I recently told a friend I had written an article on my mother’s death for a magazine, and she was properly , genuinely appalled, as if I’d stuck the coffin on eBay or something. Don’t feel bad for avoiding people who make you feel worse for caring about what you care about; you can always pick up with them again later down the line when you feel stronger, or realise this is an opportunity to shed some people who no longer belong in your life.

Write about it, or don’t write about it, either is fine – You may feel your situation is the germs of some great creative masterpiece, or it may make you want to write about kittens and romance and shopping. You can feel disappointed in yourself for not tackling big issues in your work when you’re confronted with them in your life, but do whatever works for you. 
Have faith – even if your crisis has plunged you into a massive writer’s block (or your current crisis is a massive writer’s block), the words will come back. I’m already finding my character’s voices popping back into my head again, and snippets of ideas are starting to come to me. It may be a while before I get to develop any of them, but the creative crisis I envisaged has so far failed to emerge, though for a month or so I feared that, on top of everything else I’d lost, the ability to write a decent sentence had vanished too. It may take longer for you – life might just get in the way for a while – but it’ll come back. Trust me on this one; it’ll be ready when you are.

This is how the inside of my mind currently feels

Tracey Sinclair is the author of 4 books including the Dark Dates series, the latest of which is Wolf Night (see Darkdates.org). She’s also currently still looking for a nice little one bedroom flat in Brighton to rent, so if you know of anywhere…

14 comments:

Rebecca Alexander said...

What a wonderfully insightful post. I'm so sorry you're having a ghastly year. Mine came many years ago when my husband and daughter died ten months apart leaving me with a baby and toddler and a fraction of the income. I could only write by cocooning myself in the illusion that it was OK, for maybe an hour a day. I wrapped myself in his jumper, put one of her teddies on my desk and wrote. But what came out was beautiful, looking back at it now, but dark. Now I have to capture a little of that to write dark days in my character's life.
I hope you find a little haven where you can heal.

Derek Thompson said...

Tracey, my heart goes out to you. You've given us such a poignant portrait of grief and not pulled any punches. Good writing is real writing, unflinching and authentic. Thank you for sharing and please keep us posted on your continuing journey.

Likewise, thank you Rebecca for sharing your story too.

Both remind me that writing can be a way of coming to terms with the world and making sense out of the senseless. Wishing you both well. Dx

L said...

What a moving yet inspirational post. Some people, even friends, will cross the road to avoid you when you are experiencing troubled times as they are at a loss for words; others will express their feelings and in words and actions. In some cultures there is a prescriptive grieving process. It doesn't make your loss any easier, but friends and relatives know how to react.
All the best to you.

JO said...

I'm sorry you've had such a terrible time. We all have different stories to tell - and tho yours is unique, I suspect many of has can talk of times when the world just falls into bits.

And that's exactly what it feels like - nothing connects properly. During my blackest year, I loved from day to day (sometimes from hour to hour), with the priority of looking after myself tho it was the last thing I felt like doing.

There were days when I scribbled for hours, and others when I wrote not one word. Both were what I needed to do at the time. And now - I have no need to go back to it. Maybe there is something there I could 'use' but I don't want to. It's behind me now. And one day you'll wake to the song of blackbirds and realise you're smiling again.

Joanna said...

You have definitely not lost the ability to write. Your post is moving and uplifting. I could not stop reading. I am sure your skill and your strength of character will keep you going.

Nita lear said...

Tracey this is truly inspirational, it makes you think which all great writers do. Keep writing we all need to hear your snippets, whatever the subject

Deb said...

Oh Tracey, I'm so sorry you've had such a horrible year and thank you for the inspiring post.
The sentence, 'you’d be amazed what’s happening behind the scenes in other people’s lives that you often only find out in retrospect' struck a chord with me. When my dad died, I looked around the hospital in a daze. Nurses and doctors were going about their business, talking about what they were having for dinner, or where they were going at the weekend and I just wanted to shout, 'Hello? My dad has just died!' It made me realise that the world doesn't stop; people continue to live their own lives, oblivious to others most of the time.
I hope things are on the up for you now. No experience is a wasted experience and how ever painful it is at the time, you can draw on those real raw feelings at a later date and use them in something else.
Look after yourself.
x

Maria said...

I am not sure if I have ever commented here before, but your post spoke to me...

Your words evoked many feelings, times in my own life when I have felt battered and emotionally bruised. I am sorry these things are happening to you all at once. Life is so unpredictable isn't it?

Its taken me years to learn not to be afraid to embrace every day, smile, and tell people how much I value them, be it friends family or work associates. Its worth doing though...

The sun will shine in your life again, you just need some time to find yourself.

Thank you for sharing.

Thrifty Gal said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I really do appreciate them.

Gillian McDade said...

Thank you for sharing with us - a very moving post. I'm so sorry for your loss. I too am an only child. I can only write though when I'm happy (similarly I can only eat when I'm happy and content) so anything like this would throw me completely off course.

Mary J said...

Great article Tracy. Well done and well written also love the illustrative photo.

All best,

MaryJ

Annie Parker said...

Hello Tracey, I found your article as I was googling about, with a vague sense that I needed to reconnect with the trauma and loss I've been through myself. I found it enormously helpful. I am a musician (I play flute, also sax and piano), and although my main focus I suppose is playing, I write too.
I lost my (apparently healthy, and definitely vibrant) mum suddenly 11 years ago. I entered a long period of shock, grief, reflection and a slow, slow coming to terms with it all. At the time mum died, my sister decided to walk out of my life as well, and in doing so, made any connections with my niece and nephew and some other family members tenuous at best, fairly non-existent at worst.
As I, like you, had to find a way through not only my intense grief but also a way to go through all my mum's things (she also had plenty of things of my dad's who died many years earlier, and amazing things from my grandparents who I never knew), I found the only way I could get through it in my new, completely-alone state was to write poems, some were snippets, some were longer, one took about 4 or 5 yrs to write as I slowly cleared (or just sat in) the house. I also began to write songs (I'd not really written songs before). I got very attached to the idea that sometime in the near future I would record a whole album of the songs and sell it not only as music but as potential help to others going through similar loss. However, it was suggested to me by my (wonderful) counsellor that perhaps I had got so attached to this idea that it was preventing me from other creativity that by now might be trying to get out.
This is where I found your article particularly helpful : you talked about GUILT. Right now I feel I am at a point where I have the potential for enormous freedom in front of me : Freedom in how I live and freedom in how I create. Unfortunately, everything has a large dollop of guilt attached to it. Firstly, I have a lot of financial freedom (boing! guilt : through all the loss, I have been left with enough to amply cover my head etc). Secondly, I have freedom in terms of time and geography (boing! guilt : why do I feel so free to move about when others seem so locked in place; what about commitment to my pupils etc etc) Thirdly, although I love what I do, I am not locked into too many projects/work situations/commitments so I have great creative freedom (boing! what on earth will the world think!).
All this is scary, hence my need to reconnect as I said at the start : Recently I have been writing a very different sort of stuff, in fact it's what I've always wanted to do, and maybe now is the time I can come back to it, and give it it's time. I feel guilty, in fact, for arriving at this point. The music I am writing now is upbeat, exciting, rhythmical instrumental stuff, and explores the different cultures of the musicians I like working with - and interestingly for me the more poignant kind of stuff that I was writing before is making an appearance again, but in a slightly different context somehow. The battles I am having to wage against my own doubts and lack of confidence as well as all those perceptions about what I think the world is thinking are immense, but I'm getting there; on reading your article I am realising the importance of not losing sight of the fact that I've been through a time of great loss, upheaval and growth, and to allow the repercussions and impact and effect of that free movement through me and my writing, not to hinder it but to welcome it, let it be what it is, and just carry on as and when.
Thank you for your article, which I found at just the right time, and I hope my rather long comment is useful to someone! Annie

Annie Parker said...

Hello Tracey, I found your article as I was googling about, with a vague sense that I needed to reconnect with the trauma and loss I've been through myself. I found it enormously helpful. I am a musician (I play flute, also sax and piano), and although my main focus I suppose is playing, I write too.
I lost my (apparently healthy, and definitely vibrant) mum suddenly 11 years ago. I entered a long period of shock, grief, reflection and a slow, slow coming to terms with it all. At the time mum died, my sister decided to walk out of my life as well, and in doing so, made any connections with my niece and nephew and some other family members tenuous at best, fairly non-existent at worst.
As I, like you, had to find a way through not only my intense grief but also a way to go through all my mum's things (she also had plenty of things of my dad's who died many years earlier, and amazing things from my grandparents who I never knew), I found the only way I could get through it in my new, completely-alone state was to write poems, some were snippets, some were longer, one took about 4 or 5 yrs to write as I slowly cleared (or just sat in) the house. I also began to write songs (I'd not really written songs before). I got very attached to the idea that sometime in the near future I would record a whole album of the songs and sell it not only as music but as potential help to others going through similar loss. However, it was suggested to me by my (wonderful) counsellor that perhaps I had got so attached to this idea that it was preventing me from other creativity that by now might be trying to get out.
This is where I found your article particularly helpful : you talked about GUILT. Right now I feel I am at a point where I have the potential for enormous freedom in front of me : Freedom in how I live and freedom in how I create. Unfortunately, everything has a large dollop of guilt attached to it. Firstly, I have a lot of financial freedom (boing! guilt : through all the loss, I have been left with enough to amply cover my head etc). Secondly, I have freedom in terms of time and geography (boing! guilt : why do I feel so free to move about when others seem so locked in place; what about commitment to my pupils etc etc) Thirdly, although I love what I do, I am not locked into too many projects/work situations/commitments so I have great creative freedom (boing! what on earth will the world think!).
All this is scary, hence my need to reconnect as I said at the start : Recently I have been writing a very different sort of stuff, in fact it's what I've always wanted to do, and maybe now is the time I can come back to it, and give it it's time. I feel guilty, in fact, for arriving at this point. The music I am writing now is upbeat, exciting, rhythmical instrumental stuff, and explores the different cultures of the musicians I like working with - and interestingly for me the more poignant kind of stuff that I was writing before is making an appearance again, but in a slightly different context somehow. The battles I am having to wage against my own doubts and lack of confidence as well as all those perceptions about what I think the world is thinking are immense, but I'm getting there; on reading your article I am realising the importance of not losing sight of the fact that I've been through a time of great loss, upheaval and growth, and to allow the repercussions and impact and effect of that free movement through me and my writing, not to hinder it but to welcome it, let it be what it is, and just carry on as and when.
Thank you for your article, which I found at just the right time, and I hope my rather long comment is useful to someone! Annie

Derek Thompson said...

Thank you for sharing your personal experiences, Annie. Creativity is a really positive way to find a path to a new equilibrium, as is getting out in Nature. We really appreciate your willingness to talk 'truth' because, at its heart, good writing allows us - writer and reader alike - to be vulnerable and present, to understand what it truly means to be human. A poet friend recently lent me a copy of Anne Lamott's 'bird by bird' and she talks about the importance of writing about the raw stuff, whether anyone else reads it or not. You may want to check it out. With kind regards, Derek and the Strictly Writing team.