Control- Or, Why I Haven’t Written a Book

People ask me why I haven’t written a book. And because I promised to clean the kitchen earlier, I’m going to sit down and tell you. And it might sound really pretentious. In short, I wasn’t mentally or emotionally capable of writing a book and dealing with the fall out. In long…

I actually had a literary agent in 2009-2010.  A proper one. I met her by accident. She casually emailed me, having found this blog, to ask me in for a chat. So I went.  I’m always up for a chat. I will speak to anyone. A beautiful office off Leicester Square, with this beautiful woman,  bare feet under her desk.  I didn’t think the chat was an interview. I went in there with talc all over a skirt and unwashed tights. I talked about writing a book, maybe. I’m a writer and I want to write a book.  Writers write books. Semi popular bloggers write books. I didn’t actually realise she was a literary agent- or the director of the company.  She was both.  She was one of those women who awe me- tiny little scrawler, benefits crawler.  She was disarming and friendly, wickedly funny and clever, and believed in me. I hoped we’d be friends.

I remember running out of the office to Robert, in blinding sunshine, skipping and dancing. I was going to write a book!  I would do what I had always wanted to do- be a writer, a REAL writer. Not just a blogger, not just someone on Facebook.  I could write a book people keep on their bedside table like I kept, “The Bell Jar” on mine. To find comfort in. I might even get a little advance.  We walked through rich London, past restaurants off-limits to patchwork stigs like us. I held his hand and pointed at menus.  “One day”, I said, “We’ll get dressed up and I’ll take my advance and we’ll eat in here”. It felt like I was entering a whole new world.

It never was, of course.

The agent was lovely.  She sent encouragement when I flagged (often), once even a box of fancy tea and biscuits, which was utterly appreciated because at the time, I could afford neither (fancy or otherwise). I felt cherished- when was the last time I felt like that?  I took the impoverished writer thing and ran with it. Or lurched. Because it’s hard to write a book when you haven’t got the distance from yesterday.  I could put my thoughts down- even use my blog- and be honest. But honesty is terrifying enough when you’re writing words you can hide.  Ones that are published, in ink, and can never be hidden? Pulped, maybe, but read.  In someone’s head, inaccessible to me. I can’t say, “But…”

Then my diagnosis was changed by my psychiatrist to borderline personality disorder. It sent me into a tailspin, because I had spent the past 4 years on a punishing regime of medication, trying to come to terms with things, medication I apparently didn’t need, terms which apparently were not mine to accept. My CPN had written letters about it. In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.  I’d gone there to talk about stopping medication. He approved and the predictable happened. But what I also did was realise I had a lot more control over my situation that I had thought. I’m not saying everyone does. But I did.

I had relied on the bipolar crutch too often. I knew what everyone wanted, the, “Bipolar Memoir”- the most saleable of things. I didn’t want to inadvertently speak for a community I maybe wasn’t even part of.  Highs, lows, glamour, despair- but above all else, blameless. It’s a precious identity. This outside thing. You are the centrifuge. And that wasn’t me. Maybe I still had the bipolar aspect. But what I had ignored, always, painstakingly ignored, was that I had a lot of trauma. Festering memories. Pain, scarred all over my body. Things which I minimised but which were hurting. And the BPD diagnosis made me look at them- really look at them.  It was time to deal with them.  And I did, and eventually I stopped self harming. All of my BPD aspects disappeared (whether age, or insight, who knows). My moods didn’t, but it was still a win for me. To face it all, and still be facing it. Crushingly self aware in many ways, infinitely more anxious in others. But I am a person. Neither borderline nor bipolar was who I was, who anyone was. I am a person and not a set of diagnosis. Not a set of symptoms. I have a history and a future and it’s not all there in a few words. Not even in 100,000.

And at the time, I didn’t feel like I could write a book anymore, when I hadn’t come to terms with those things myself. Things weren’t as simple as I had thought they were.  Bipolarity was half the story. Maybe not even half.  These weren’t just things that happened to me. They were things that were happening to me.

“Can I fictionalise it?” No, because I am the product.

How much of yourself can you give away? How much can you believe your life is fundamentally interesting? How much can you sell?

So I couldn’t write a book when I wasn’t sure myself of what my story was. When I didn’t want to sell myself. There were things I wanted to put down, so much. I wanted to write and write about my dad. The good and the bad. To immortalise, somewhere, somehow, somewhere else than our brains and our increasingly mosaiced memories.  He existed, look! He was here. We are here. I wanted to write about West Belfast. The oddness of growing up in the shadows of a mountain and the British army.  Of having parents with mental illness. Of being working class. Underclass. I wanted to write about the silly things. The annoying things. They things that make you a person. It’s what everyone wants to write about. If it was just those things, I would have written it. But my narrative, my, “angle”, was never clear cut. No-one’s is. And at that time- 24, before I began to really get better- I didn’t have the distance, the objectivity, or, in fact, the balls. 

If I wrote a book, I could never go back. It would be there, forever.  These kind of books require confession. And how could I confess to sins I didn’t know I had committed? I didn’t want to be unfair to my mum, or my siblings, or my family. To my relationships, to my past, my present. It was very much not the right time. I couldn’t write a book that I could never take back, and I couldn’t write in the state of mind I was in, which was always worse than I let on. Those people who are not people, but who are ideas of people filtered through me.

So I didn’t. The agent and I lost touch- she probably exasperated by my flakiness, which became total inertia.  I couldn’t lose the control I had over my own story. I couldn’t submit my history to editing and blurbs. Because it is so dreadfully important to me to have that control. I have this space. I can be uncomfortable in others. I don’t get Twitter sometimes- the flying of the deleted tweet unnerves me. I’m not good at brevity, I can’t do 140 characters, and all my views are grey, not black and white.  These are my words, my thoughts. Ones I’ve had to reclaim, from the child telling her teacher she’s being bullied, to the teachers telling me I’m too ill for school, to psychiatrists reframing my experiences in their language (mania, hypomania, depressive, panic disorder etc), to the government telling me I am worthless, to relationships telling me what I feel is wrong when to me, just feeling is so important and the most integral part of being alive, of wanting to feel, to argue, to talk and talk and talk.

I have regretted it, lots of times. Sometimes I think what an opportunity I wasted. I’d happily take Clare Allen’s job. Self consciously, I have always thought of myself as a writer and always wanted to be one. And I could have been one- and how would the back sleeve have looked then? A smiling face, a glorious kitchen. A fallacy. I wasn’t recovered- not even close. Mad people are only allowed to write retrospectively. Not while being mad. What kind of blurb would have stood astride it?

I’ve seen friends of mine (talented, hardworking friends) become Proper Writers and feel as though I’ve been left behind. Wasted the one big opportunity I had, in the world of Proper People. Probably desperately uncomfortable, probably desperately alone. With a book that was false and awkward. But with a book, with a book…

Now? I could probably write a book. But over time, I have come to appreciate the aspects of my life I don’t write about here. Don’t want to. And you have to. When I started blogging, the confessional was something new. It’s everywhere now, this instant feedback on your life. Sometimes unwelcome. Sometimes asked for.

I still want to be a writer. I have no idea how. Nobody is interested in me now. Nobody would want to be my agent (which I would need as I am horrible at self promotion). Maybe the time has passed. “The Secret Life of a Late Twenties Charity Worker”. That kind of kills, in some ways. This is my life, nearing 30, and I’m not a writer yet. But I still do a lot of what I love. I am glad that I didn’t write my 2010 book. How would I have ended it? It wasn’t the end. It’s not the end.

17 Responses

  1. ‘Neen – this, this and this. I am struggling with a book at the moment and (whilst I know this blog is about you), you could not have echoed my thoughts about NOT writing it, more clearly. You know what? I think you should do it anyway. You have the power as to what you share and what you choose not to share. I think your book would be earth-shatteringly, heartbreakingly gorgeous.

    • Agree with cat lady (who also needs to JFDI) you can write, you are very readable but hey it’s your call. whence the pressure? quite. it’s your choice, your call. you do not have to prove yourself to anyone. so make the choice and decide to write or not write. be happy with your choice and get on with your life. only you put you in Limbo…

  2. Hey there!
    As someone who remembers you when you were 9years old (I was 7 myself) I sympathiese with everything you said above…
    I’m NOT a writer, not even close to it… Frankly speaking I’m a member of the forgotten generation, I went to university, did the whole learning bit… Only to be kicked in the teeth by the stagnant job market here in Northern Ireland and stuck on job seekers allowance. Now as jobs are becoming available it seems they no longer want my degrees…(some jobs stating that they only want graduates from 2011, 2012 and 2013.) I’m rambling here so I’m just going to say what I want to say…
    If you have a book in you, I say write it… Not for an agent or the public but for you! You owe it to yourself!
    Then once you’re finished tinkering with it you can launch it on amazon. A friend of mine wrote a book of short stories, published it via Amazon, (it was a kindle ebook) for every £4 book sold he made about £1.50 so he never got rich off of the booksales, but he did it! He became a Proper Writer, and the next thing he knew he found a print edition of his book in his local bookshop!!! (No Alibi’s in Botanic Avenue, and there it was in the window!) I’m SUPER proud of you, not because of your diagnosis’, not because of what you’ve been through…I’m proud of you because you got out, and you struggled and now you seem to enjoy your dayjob (most of the time!) that’s all I wanted for you!
    Paul M xxx

  3. You are a writer Seaneen. You always have been, and you will write a book when you are ready.

    If you are worried about family and friends reacting badly, or being embarrassed, why don’t you write under a pen name? The story you have to tell doesn’t have to be traceable to you.

  4. Who Dares Wins, you will eventually write a book, trust me. David.

  5. Oh Seaneen, I am so pleased you liked the tea and biscuits. I am still here, still wanting to be your agent. How could anyone who cares about writing read this eloquent essay and *not* want to read your book and wait patiently until it is written? Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea and a catch up? It would be lovely to see you. L xx

  6. I really understand what you are saying here. When you write a blog you can chop things up into bite size pieces, and just talk about the issues relevant to that small piece. But when you write a book it feels like this massive outpouring, like you have to describe in intimate detail every aspect of your life, your childhood, your mental condition, and so on. And it is such an enormous undertaking, it really consumes your life. I would say: when the book is ready the book will come. Much better to leave it until later when the concept is really clear, than write it too soon for the sake of getting it done. You know, as time passes you may find a clever way to structure it so that you don’t have to reveal every intimate detail. Or you may find a certain approach that allows you to share your experiences in a way that is interesting and worthwhile to the ready, but that you are also comfortable with. Good luck!!

  7. Poems and short stories?

  8. Bullocks. You ARE a writer Seaneen, you just don’t write books (yet).

  9. I think you are thinking in a pity me way at the moment and you really need to believe in me mode in order to acheive your goals of writing or whatever you want to do. If you think you can, you will. Good luck.

  10. …I still get weirded out that you’re not even thirty yet.

  11. Gosh, I can relate! Totally relate. You will write that book one day.

  12. Most people have heard of the expression manic depressive disorder, nevertheless there are two newer terms that often are associated with this ailment and for which often most people do not have in mind the difference.

  13. I think this blog has said in more lucid terms more than I ever could regarding my own reservations about writing, especially about something as personal as mental illness.

    Yet I did have a crack at it. I was ill at the time, and still am. You say writing while ill makes you lack perspective, but there is something raw and powerful when you write ill, like you are in the eye of the storm, some aspects of the soul a sober mind could never reach. The despair seems to give you clarity, like a sober mind never could.

    Look at all those artists, writers, poets, and musicians who did their best work during the darkest times in their life. Dostoyevsky wrote his way out of poverty; even the gulag didn’t stop him picking up a pen.

    Writing is a confession, you are right. How many people would you hurt when you commit to it? Is it worth the pain of those close to you against how many people could read your work and empathise, and on an intellectual level be able to appreciate you have said the forbidden, and managed to forge something tangible out of the emotions, out of the language of pain?

    The most useful metaphor I have read for depression is that it is like a script, a script you repeat over and over in your head. I thought “why not?” I’m going to write the script, to make it into a narrative.

    I managed to finish it and put it on Amazon Kindle. With perspective, I needed the cathartic relief, it became in itself a type of personal therapy for me. You have reservations about not writing in 2010, of what would have become of it had you have sat down at your keyboard and started. All I can add is it was the best thing I could have done to combat the depression I was living through. It brings it’s own rewards.

    I only published because a friend encouraged me to. Originally it was just for me. I understand the impulse though, to write down how you feel. It’s a simple act, when you think about it. Your blog is just a series of short stories; together the bones of a memoir are already there.

    I’ve included a link to my own effort all the same.

    You should write a novel, even if in the end it’s just for yourself.

  14. […] Filed beneath: Mental health The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive […]

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