Writing my way back to sanity

Mental health awareness week represents different things to different people. Just as people vary, so does mental well-being. Mental ill health has featured in my experience from time to time throughout my adult life. Sometimes extreme, the distress has led to more than one hospitalisation, the last being in 2017.

While completely life-changing, this last experience now seems like a long way in the past. I’ve reframed my outlook so much since then, particularly through my love of creative writing. As an avid writer beforehand, I was left unable to compose sentences following the episode. This was shocking and I remember slowly, painstakingly writing a long list of words to formulate a ‘poem’ of sorts once I was out of hospital. This first attempt at composition was challenging and the intense effort it took was saddening. Afterall, a few years earlier I’d completed a PhD and now I could barely type a sentence.

But I persisted. I started writing lists and short poems in a notebook, partly to remind myself of things as my memory was sketchy, and partly to express myself. Looking back, it seems like the same process as learning how to walk again when both your legs have been broken. It took effort and determination, and gradual baby steps forward. I kept going with the notebook and before long I was writing a poem a day, filling page after page. I also started writing a novel. After a couple of months, I was able to complete one A4 page a day typed, single-spaced. Though it will remain unpublished, the manuscript contains 54,000 words which I see as an accomplishment.

Creative writing was my mental rehab. As my ability to write came back, so did my ability to think and live a full life. I, of course, undertook a plan of care (psychotherapy and medication) and that has been vital. But putting pen to paper was absolutely key to the recovery of my mental health following a severe breakdown. Four years on, I’m proud to say that I’ve published a book of my own poetry, Outside In (Wordville Press, 2021). Other than the usual ups and downs that come to us all from time to time, my mental health is solid these days. I have the written word to thank.

Pulling off the plaster

My debut poetry book, Outside In, was published one month ago and the reception has been gratifying. I feel so touched that people have found the poems meaningful and moving. Plenty of soul searching went into the book’s creation, so it’s reassuring to hear that it resonates with its readers.

The supportive feedback has not come without some internal anxiety on my part about putting something so open out into the world. Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve feels like an understatement when it comes to publishing personal poetry. It feels more like ripping open your chest for all to see: the outside world coming in.

Themes relating to the death of my father, mental ill-health, dislocation and gender identity are covered in the book without sugar-coating. The feelings were raw and so are the words that have resulted. Knowing that anyone can now access, and even hold in their hands, the manifestation of these feelings in print is big. And scary at times.

Ripping off a band-aid is a good analogy. It feels painful for an instant: that moment when a new reader encounters a poem and I fear a negative reaction, or I feel overly exposed. But the result is healing. Beneath the band-aid, the body is new again. Fresh skin has grown over the wound, and the protective first aid strip is no longer needed. The pain is gone.

Self-expression makes the world go around because it’s a form of sharing. “This is how I experience the world; what’s it like for you?” There’s a human connection there and a coming together. This process involves vulnerability, which is scary and potentially painful sometimes. What will the other think? But the exchange is vital. Mutual understanding and growth demand it. We sometimes have to pull off that plaster once and for all, go out into the world and rejoice together that the injury has healed.

Outside In is available to order now via info@wordville.net or on Amazon.

Why I wrote Outside In

Four years ago I started writing poetry regularly. I’d write a poem a day to keep my head sharp and creative following a period of mental distress. The poetry was more than therapeutic, however. The writing was a process of reimagining myself following a personal crisis that I experienced as a catalyst moment. It was a time in which everything changed and I had to rediscover who I was. The publication of my poetry collection, Outside In, is the culmination of that process.

The poems explore my childhood, my identity, loss and growth. By funnelling feelings and memories into self-contained chunks of writing, I was able to add perspective to my experiences and see a larger picture. Within this context it was possible to shed unhelpful conceptions of who I was and empower a vision of who I wanted to be. The poems in this collection provide snapshots of that journey.

Some poems deal with absurdity and take a comic turn. Finding hope and beauty in the ridiculous has always been a goal. No self-reflection would be complete without a laugh.

The title underlines the relationship between our internal and external worlds, whether that be our physical surroundings seen through a window or our emotions that are either shared or not shared with those near us. It also relates to feelings of being an outsider that are often universal. Finally, the title alludes to ideas of “coming out”, whether that be about mental health struggles, sexual identity or gender identity, and the value of living authentically.

I hope readers relate to the work, feel empowered in their own journeys toward self-actualisation and enjoy the ride.

Spoken word versus written word: how to find the sweet spot

In my last few years of poetic enterprise, I’ve noticed how important delivery is when sharing my poems aloud. I do a lot of this now. From open mics to speaking my words with friends and fellow creatives, I’m learning that how you say something is as important as what you say.

For spoken word artists, delivery is crucial. While for poets on the page, perhaps the textual shape and word choice of the poem matters more. Of course, most poets, from what I’ve seen, are doing some variation of both and we definitely don’t want to squeeze ourselves into one or the other, though I guess some people might.

Speaking out

I’m so inspired by artists like Kae Tempest. Their delivery gives every word impact, providing meaning beyond just the words. The tone, rhythm, inflection, facial expression: it’s a real performance on a level with singing or acting. It’s not surprising that Kae is also such a talented rapper and live performer.

The “canon”

There are the dead poets of course whose work we can now only access on the page (barring any recorded readings), and the poets of the literary canon, many of whom are obviously brilliant. However, “canonising” literature raises it to a level of inaccessibility and unhelpful hierarchical superiority within some ivory towers.

The most ancient of poets of course did not write down their words. The power of their work was that it was shared and passed down orally from one generation to the next. For them, there was only spoken word. All you needed were ears to listen, making the art form truly democratic.

End goals

Naturally, binaries should be thrown out the window and most poets are doing spoken word, words on the page and all the variations in between. I’m still learning (as always), trying to figure out where I fit. But “fitting” probably matters little as long as the whole thing is fulfilling. Plus, creativity should probably be the antithesis of fitting into a particular mould.

At the moment, I’m enjoying practicing speaking my poems and discovering how a pause here or an emphasis there can change a meaning entirely. At the same time, I love the writing down, the shaping and crafting of words on a page, particularly hand-written words. There is so much flexibility and flow with a pen and paper.

So the goal is to simply to do more and more. Write more, read more aloud: experiment, experiment, experiment. There’s no sweet spot really. It’s all for the love of words and language, however that expression manifests.

Circular poetics

Since a mental breakthrough three years ago, I have been on a poetry journey that has been enriching, circular and self-revealing. As my confidence grows, I am more able to claim the identity of “poet” in all its complexity, feeling convinced that poetry is more than words spoken or on a page, but a way of thriving in the world.

I’m sure all poets see their craft in specifics distinct to them, and poems are always a process of self-determination. For me, writing poems has been a way for me to conceptualise myself as a whole. There’s something circular about the process of expressing a meaning, a moment or even my own barbaric yawp.

Creation

A seedling of an idea falls to the earth and is slowly, through work, cultivated into new and steady growth. Over a process of time, the nurturing and watering of the concept creates an ever-changing life-form upon which to meditate. So the words are chosen, combined and ultimately expressed to make something new: the very essense of creation.

This act of creation then takes on its own power and teaches me something about myself or provides a mirror for seeing my reality differently, or just anew. I form the poetry, but the poetry ends up forming me in turn, completing the circle.

This give and take (giving life to a poem and then gaining life from the result) is absolutely vital to my process. The poetry feeds me even as I feed it, the yeasty starter to a lockdown sourdough. No Frankenstein’s monster, a poem must be loved and supported to love and support me in turn.

From evolution to revolution

The hundreds of poems I have written since 2017 have all given me something. Now with a solid body of my best work almost ready for publication, a collection that has been moulded and caressed over a period of years, I find new meaning daily. I grow stronger and more realised through the effort put in and the resulting outputs.

I hope this circle will be forever enriching as I continue on my poetic journey. I am more determined then ever to forge ahead, excited about the inevitable self-revolution.

The poetry sails on

Obviously the world is a very different place since my last post in January. I am very thankful for my loved ones, my health and my material situation. I have been able to keep working on poetry during this lockdown period, refining past work, performing new work virtually at Celine’s Salon and featuring on Soho Radio.

The City Lit course, “Ways into Poetry”, taught by Joanna Ingham was brilliant. I learnt new poetic forms as well as exercises to improve creativity. My fellow students were talented and dedicated. During the course I also went to my first poetry fair, met some more established poets over a pint and bought loads of pamphlets.

My current goal for my poetry is further publication and eventually a pamphlet. I have been through about 80 word-processed poems that I have written in the last year (which don’t include hundreds handwritten in notebooks over the past three years), and narrowed down a shortlist of 12 that I plan to redraft ready for publication.

As always I am very grateful to author Lucy Tertia George for her support, guidance and feedback on the poems. I am also enjoying making my way into the London poetry community, particularly getting to know poets at Celine’s Salon in Soho, Speakeasy in Fitzrovia, and the “Cheerfuls”.

There are a couple of deadlines coming up in May for publications that I am focused on and there will be more to follow. In the meantime, the poetry voyage is still very exciting and vital, and I’m lucky to have wind in my sails.

2020: new decade, new opportunities, new courage

The new decade has started well in the land of creative writing. I’m still focusing on poetry as per the goals discussed in my previous post. In that post I also mentioned a published poem which I failed to link to: Lost smugglers.  Thank you to Bridget Holding and Wild Words for the opportunity and support.

My poetry course began last week at CityLit and I can tell it’s going to be great. The tutor is the wonderful Joanna Ingham who has recently published a pamphlet called Naming Bones (ignitionpress, 2019). She got us straight into memory, emotions and anaphora in the first class, which was fascinating and useful. And she’s assigned optional homework that I am absolutely going to do because I love homework.

Another new endeavour recently has been the organising of a new meetup group: Queer Poets. I am very excited about our first get-together this upcoming Friday evening at the Rose and Crown pub in Kentish Town. People are welcome to share poetry, join in a constructive feedback session and then enjoy a social together. I’m very much looking forward to meeting everyone and being in a creative environment with fellow poets.

I have also recently moved into a different flat which has so much natural light my vitamin D levels are probably through the roof, despite the often grey sky. The space is so beautiful and has really been conducive to reflection and poetry rewriting.

All of these new beginnings have boosted my confidence and courage, and I am pleased to be starting the new year on a positive note.

 

 

Poetic inspiration and creative focus

Since my last entry, my creative writing process has been reenergised, refocused and awash in inspiration. Happily I had one of my poems read by an amazing poet on BBC radio. That same poem also won runner up in a competition.

I have made a decision to only focus on poetry at this time which definitely means I spend more time rewriting and editing, instead of constantly coming up with new, undeveloped ideas in my notebook that never go anywhere.

I currently have just over 50 poems in various drafting stages. In January I will begin a poetry course at City Lit. The talented members of the poetry group of which I am a member are flourishing. And I have continued performing, reciting and learning about presenting poetry in public. My goal for 2020 is to publish a collection of poems.

I find writing poetry so important and so satisfying. It’s not just about the initial inspiration, but also the restructuring, the reordering and the finessing. I have not had this much fun with writing since my time in academia writing about history.

Recently I have begun a new phase of poetry writing that is not about grief. This is very refreshing and, again, I am learning what works and what doesn’t. I am also exploring humour. I am enjoying writing discrete episodic poems, in which one small activity or incident is dwelled upon and dissected to the core. Hopefully this brings greater meaning to the mundane.

I am also extremely lucky to share ideas and feedback with an extraordinary writing partner who is fundamental to this process.

So, since my last post things are looking up creatively. And I am very pleased.

Tomorrow I am performing a new poem at Celine’s Salon in Gerry’s Club, Soho, London, 7.30pm.  See you there.

Rewriting and consolidation

At the moment I am struggling with focus and discipline related to creative writing. I’m not going to be too hard on myself because the summer was very difficult emotionally. I’m actually glad that autumn is here, which is unusual for me.

I’m looking forward to the literary nights starting again and I’m hoping that will spur me on. I don’t need to keep writing more and more introspective poems, flash fiction experiments or hectically scribbled ideas for novels. I need to dig deep and work on rewriting what I already have: the hard part.

Besides the literary nights, I’ve been wondering about other actions I can take to get me to do the hard work: back to a writing group, enter more competitions, sign up for a poetry course, splurge on a writers retreat, send poetry to the whatsapp poetry group, create a poetry collection to self-publish,  contact agents again….? All of these actions would help motivate me to put some work in.

I think for now I will focus on the first literary night coming up in a week. I will choose one poem already written and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; I will go one step at a time back to the creative discipline, as the leaves turn golden and start to fall.

Finding your voice

Identifying your ‘voice’ in creative writing is no easy feat. But it is vital, at least within one cohesive piece of writing. The spoken word can enable a writer’s voice. Here, I’d like to explore how our writerly voices and verbal voices relate.

I’ve been thinking about voice in a literal, physiological sense. I’ve never liked my speaking voice, until recently. I’ve had some good feedback from people so I’m going to drop the self-critical impulse in this regard. Anyway, it is what it is. My voice represents my personal story.

I also find this topic interesting in the wider sense of communication: how do you know what to say? It wasn’t just that I didn’t used to like my voice, I found conversation difficult at times. So much to say potentially, but not knowing what to focus on for each particular interaction. I would be sporadically verbose, and reticent the rest of the time.

But that’s also the self-consciousness of younger years, maybe. I found speech hard, but writing much easier. So I did a lot of personal writing to connect with people. It was easier to formulate the arguments and ideas through writing, than it would be in a verbal conversation.

Still, the happy news now is that I am learning, through recitations, performances and conversations, the power of the spoken voice which has also made me consider the purpose of voice in creative writing.

What does it mean exactly? I found this useful piece from Medium that explains it well:

The writer’s voice: what is it and how to find yours

In a nutshell, voice makes your work you. It’s your personality, your experiences, and it is unique. I’m still working on this in writing, and I guess we all are, always. But I have found that strengthening my spoken voice and putting it on a stage has been very empowering.

Speaking publicly forces you to be the centre of attention. So your uniqueness becomes more immediate and more raw. It is not buried in paragraphs. You can’t hide yourself in an essay.

I do think the writer’s voice and the speaker’s voice can inform one another. For me, the plan is to become more confident in conversation and public speaking, so I can also write with a stronger sense of authenticity.