Some Words on Writing, Depression and Not Enjoying Barcelona Very Much

I’m going to preface this by saying I realise a lot of what I’m talking about below comes under the heading of “small violin problems”. All I can say in defence is that since starting this blog five or so years ago I’ve always wanted to document my writing journey (ugh) as honestly as I can. I hope there’s enough about the topic that’s clear and possibly familiar, despite the lens through which it’s looked at. I’ve been wanting to write it for a while, but held off until I was feeling a bit better and now here we are.

So. I really wanted to write one of those beautiful pieces about working through depression – you know, the ones with a lot of wanky water metaphors, illustrated with a cute little picture of a stick figure staring at a black dog (who’s in the water?) or similar – but I don’t know how to do it since the main problem seems to be that I don’t think or feel as keenly as I used to. For me, when I write, I sit at the computer and the images form like on a little TV in my head. For the last half a year or so that TV has mostly been screening static.

It’s an insidious process watching the person you understand yourself to be slip away in increments. Eating a bit more. Running a little less. Cracks from your housemate about how you’re sleeping late. Flagging instead of answering emails. Seeing your pile of work build up and up – work you solicited to get – and having no desire to touch it. Wondering when you last had a thought, an actual thought. Not answering party invites. Until one day you realise your clothes, the ones you’ve bothered to wash, don’t fit and you could be quite accurately be described as a lazy person who doesn’t care about anything very much. Wait. What? I love parties. I love people. I love my job. I’ve worked so hard to get here. This is not me. Or is it? Does this goes back or is this me now?

I don’t quite know what sent me in this direction, and I’m not sure if looking for trigger-cause links is particularly useful. It’s post-rationalising, isn’t it? There are things that seem likely, but how can you ever really know? Nevertheless, here are some things I suspect:

1) Getting to thirty. This was a psychological barrier for me as my mum didn’t make it to that age (29 years, 3 months) and I’ve always had a thing about doing as much as I could before I got there. Now I am, I guess the future feels a lot harder to formulate since, in a way, I figured thirty would be the end of it. I hear athletes can get a bit fazed after tournaments, even if they win a medal, because their whole life has been geared to make sense of that one moment. When it goes, it can be hard to replace it. Maybe it’s a bit like that.

2) The process of making Murdered By My Father. I’m less sure about this one, but the intensity definitely did a real number on me and I’d like to use this space to reflect on that whole experience so bear with me. It feels pathetic to talk about it in these terms considering the subject matter – especially since the incredible people we worked with at the charities deal with it every day – but I guess I wasn’t really prepared for what it would entail. MBMF was my first piece of television and I knew it was going to be quite a visible one. Plus the turn around on it was, from the perspective of someone coming from theatre, ridiculously short. PLUS I already had two theatre commissions to work on that I also needed and wanted to throw myself into.

So there were a lot of balls to juggle, but MBMF by necessity of its looming shoot date became my main concern. I had two maxims floating in my head at all times whilst working on it. The first, “Do right by the victims” the second “Don’t fuck up the honour killing drama for the BBC, Vinay, that would be really, really bad.” It was a hell of a privileged position to be in, I knew that, and it sucked up every thought, every feeling and I became monofocused like never before. I was very, very neglectful as a person during that time and probably not much fun to be around. I’m not going to seek out confirmation of that, but finding myself sobbing uncontrollably in the corner of an AirBnB room in Edinburgh during the Fringe (familiar to the Fringe, perhaps, but I didn’t even have a show on) told me all I needed to know. In way, this is the level of dedication a project like that needed, I don’t regret that at all, BUT! But…you can still probably approach it better.

I had an interesting conversation one day on set with Adeel where I asked him how he managed to play a character like that and still keep himself sane. I had so many dark nights writing him. Adeel told me that there was a tiny part of his brain that he didn’t let that character access. The part which had everything he cared about in it. Shahzad could take over every part of his mind apart from that part. At the time I think I dismissed it as an actor-y thing, but thinking on it later, I wished I had known how to do that myself.

I don’t think I fully grasped how much MBMF haunted me until it actually came out and I felt all the anxiety again but ramped up further still, exacerbated by the responsibilities you have to take for it existing. I love theatre deeply (despite my moaning) but it hadn’t prepared me for the very public responsibility that comes with television. TV can and does go anywhere and everywhere, which is both its strength and its curse. There’s the potential to be judged not just for your take on a topic but on your reasoning for doing it and that judgement can come from literally anyone on earth with access to an internet connection.

Within the production, we had had discussions about staying off social media for the duration of its launch. That was a sensible approach, but I vehemently disagreed with it. I don’t think you can drop something like that show on people and then not be out there, so everything that happened was stuff I was asking for, I accept that. No one forced me to be involved. But it felt necessary and part of my job to take responsibility for what I had helped create. This was no Roland-Barthes-Death-of-the-author stuff. We wanted it to have an impact, so I felt like I needed to take the resulting “hit”. It also was – somewhat contradictory to this post – the first thing in ages that gave me a sense of purpose and frankly I was grateful to grasp it. I did all the interview requests that came in, I wrote articles, posed for some pictures, the lot.

I was surprised and humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response that piece got, but within that there are things that stick and you have to take the good with the bad and sometimes the line between the two isn’t that evident. There’s the man who finds you on Facebook to tell you it reminds him of his own father’s abuse in 1950s Wiltshire and how that experience traumatised him forever. You can’t ignore him, but are you qualified to talk to him about that? Do you risk hurting them even more? There’s a woman who tweets you to say that her Pakistani friend in Northern Ireland was approached by a stranger and asked “Is this what you all do to your kids?” The friend was shaken and furious. My response that I was sorry to hear that (and I was) but sadly, this mostly stems from a lack of diverse representation on TV beyond dramas on these issues, felt truthful but still handwring-y. There’s nothing you could’ve done about it, but it’s still partly your fault.

The few out-and-out bright spots from this time was watching all types of kids take on this issue fully and discuss it with nuance. I also got to chat to so many young adults making their first forays into journalism and fiction writing and activism. I got to do interviews with them (and I liked them way more than the ‘bigger’ ones). I got to read some beautiful response poems. I got to go to an event in a pub in East London where what must’ve been near a hundred young women and men gathered to hear talks and performances about what feminism was and want they wanted it to be.

I was particularly heartened that so many of them were Asian too. It’s everything I wanted to exist when I was a kid and had tentative dreams of wanting to work in the arts but wasn’t sure how to ever make that happen. There was no path that was clear to me. How lovely then to engage with kids who see many different paths ahead of them.

Considering my low bar for MBMF was “don’t start a race war”, this was all a massive bonus. But making it wrung me out and responding to it wrung me out more and was a lesson in being careful in both how you approach a project and how you decompress from it. I was very lucky that by this point I had taken my misery to a GP (it took me getting drunk and swearing aggressively at some nice strangers for me to do that) and I had started four weeks of CBT just before it came out. Those sessions acted as a buffer against the worst of it.

3) Burn out. Again, a bit vague, but I suppose it makes sense. When I first told people I felt a bit off in October last year, just after MBMF had wrapped, they were very insistent that I’d been Working Very Hard For A Very Long Time and that I Needed A Holiday. I’d been on a couple of trips the last few years, mostly for weddings, but I genuinely couldn’t remember when I last went on a proper holiday. I wasn’t even that sure how you did it anymore. Truthfully, I’d rather have spent it in my pants, on the sofa, playing the PS4 I had bought but had not unboxed any games for because there was too much to do. I was then convinced by others that this wasn’t good enough.

So I tried to have a holiday. A few weeks later I found myself in a hotel room in Barcelona, quite a nice hotel room since I’d decided that I Deserve This. It was ok. I walked around a lot and listened to podcasts. But I found the stress of finding vegetarian food in a hugely carnivorous city enormous. I couldn’t bring myself to get on the subway. The football team weren’t even playing that week. I found myself on Diwali night sat in an Indian restaurant alone, overhearing a furiously red-faced Englishman explain curry to a patient Spanish woman, and all the while I wishing I was back home on the sofa, in my pants, playing my PS4.

The morning after I sat in my hotel room all day, writing an email that still sits in the drafts of my inbox that I never sent but can’t bring myself to delete. It was a long plea to my friends to not hate me if they didn’t hear from me for ages because I wanted to just disappear. I didn’t know how to be a good friend to them or how to be present in any meaningful way. I loathed everything about myself in that moment, probably more than I ever have.

So maybe it was this stuff. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just lingering concerns I have about my personality, my inconsistency, my ability to be a functional adult human enlarging themselves til they clouded out everything else. But what’s the upshot of it all?

The bad is that I’ve turned down loads of projects. I’ve even paid back a commission. I chastise myself for not being able to take better advantage of or more enjoyment from this moment in my life and career which by all measures is going fine. More than fine, pretty damn good. I want to grasp every opportunity, I want to be able to have a Jack Thorne-esque level of consistency and productivity but the truth is I can’t really handle it and it’s been better for me to consciously step back and sharpen my focus on fewer things. I might manage to get myself back to spinning lots of projects at the same time, but definitely won’t be doing that soon. It hurts me to say no, but I know it’ll hurt me more to say yes.

The good is that the CBT has started to give me a bit of a framework to make a comeback from. The hourly journalling of mood let me see when I was best placed to operate. Setting tiny goals has been an unexpected revelation. When the big goals disappear as a source of drive and value, I’ve found pushing yourself to consistently do the little things really does help. Cooking a meal for my housemate. Making the time to ring home. Read a book (until this month, it’d be nearly a year since I’d read a work of fiction that wasn’t a play. And even then, not many of those).

Slowly by slowly, through diligent little acts of humanity and progress, the static is coming into focus. I’ve even started using wanky metaphors myself.

Writing in the Dark

Five months ago, I started telling friends I felt burnt-out. My output was slowing, it took longer to get it to a place of quality and I was getting tired quicker and quicker.

And then I went to Edinburgh. For a month. With three commission deadlines to meet.

Now in one way, Edinburgh was One Of The Best Things I’ve Ever Done TM. In another it left me a completely self-loathing, miserable shell of a man. In the weeks and months afterwards, I was anxious, my thinking was foggy and I couldn’t seem to properly empathise with or understand people consistently. As a writer you rely on your clarity of thought and strength of observation so that disconnect was all fairly crippling for my work.

But I had a lot of deadlines.

To be clear, the absolute best thing you can do at this point like this is TAKE A TIME OUT. Don’t read this. Go on a holiday if you can manage it, even if you just spend it in bed with a book you’ve been meaning to read. It might do the trick, it might not. With a lot of occupations – especially salaried ones – you can hope to muddle through until you can get some annual leave or go see someone to get your head sorted (if it becomes as bad as that.) If you’re freelance, however, you could be in trouble since your pay is linked to your output and quality. If you’re anything like me then you’ll have a beautiful Sod’s Law situation when you’re most in demand when you feel like you’re at your least capable. The last few months have been the worst of my writing career in terms of my confidence and mental strength and it just about seems like I’m turning the corner at last. In the meantime, though it was no sort of fun, I still managed to (mostly) make those deadlines. I don’t recommend doing this if you can avoid it, but sometimes you just can’t.

Here are a few tips that helped me get by until I was able to make proper time and space for myself to recover. Use and ignore as desired if you find yourself aching to get away and reset but also needing to drag yourself along a little longer before you can:

1) TRUST YOUR COLLABORATORS AND LET THEM KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON

Whilst I’m usually quite decent at critiquing my own work, when I’m in a trough my compass for what’s good and not good goes right out of the window. After trying to bury this for a little while, I realised I was better off just letting the people I was working with know that I needed more oversight than usual. I did more drafts, looked for more criticism in between them than I usually did.

This can be a tricky proposition with clients/collaborators you don’t know too well and in those cases it might better to not take the job at all, but for those with whom you have a decent relationship more often than not you’re better off flagging it. They (probably) like you enough to want to help you through it.

2) DO SOMETHING ELSE, EVEN IF IT’S JUST FOR A MORNING

3/4 of the way through Edinburgh, I was a total mess. My thoughts were getting darker and darker by the end. I didn’t feel like I could let things go but I also hated everything/myself. Then I had a kind offer from someone I hardly knew to go jogging up a large hill early one morning. And you know what? It was enough. It shocked me out of my state enough to get me through the rest of the festival. So get back in the gym. Go to the park. Play with a cat. Anything that’s not writing/working.

Having said that…

3) STILL WRITE STUFF, MIX IT UP AND LET YOURSELF BE AWFUL

Misery often gets romanticised as a creative wellspring. I know it definitely isn’t the case for me. I rarely wanted to write and what I did needed to be dragged out of me. It’s tempting to sack it all off entirely and whilst that might help for a bit, it’s also true that process can take you through, even when quality seemingly won’t. In fact I’d say maintaining or re-affirming the productive structures/habits you’ve created (provided they in themselves are driving you into the dirt) is more important than you pushing yourself to be at the very top of your game or giving it all up in despair.

That’s hard to accept. At this point, a lot of what you produce isn’t going to be the best work you’ll ever do, it might in fact be really, really, shit, and it will be devastating to you because though we all accept, on an intellectual level, that creativity isn’t a linear curve of progression, we do still hope in our hearts for it to be the case. Do the best you can, but take the foot off your back. Work in shorter bursts. Give yourself longer than you normally would do to try and get your work up to scratch. Try a different method of working to shake off some of the gloom.

4) STOP WORRYING ABOUT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS UP TO

Comparing yourself to your peers is inevitable within any community. I’m probably looking you up right now. Sometimes it drives you to do better – it certainly has done for me. But if you do it too much, especially when you’re not feeling in the best of places, it can get pretty toxic, pretty quickly. When the words aren’t coming easily, it’s natural to try and escape your own loathing by seeing what others are up to, which in turn compounds the initial misery. Don’t do this to yourself right now. In fact, you’re better off not doing it too much in general (the occasional bit of social media stalking is ok) as you’ll likely only see the successes not the failures. We don’t tend to post those on Facebook. On a side note, going schadenfreude hunting for people’s failures to make yourself feel better in comparison is the dark cousin of keeping up with the Joneses. That can be a lot of fun but I promise that won’t help in the long run either. You don’t want to be relying on that sort of kick.

There are, of course, some people who seem like utter magicians, producing pounds of quality output, time and time again. If you tell yourself that sometimes everything sucks for them too and you only see the good bits, I suppose that’s half of the truth. The other half is that on the whole they might well be bloody superstars. Someone’s got to be. Accept that not everyone can work that way rather than drive yourself nuts over it. There’s still space for you.

5) REMIND YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE DOING IT

When you’re in a fragile state, your focus is a mess and it can be really hard to understand what you’re leading yourself into. You might pick projects because you feel like you should rather than because it’s what you want to do, and you do that because you’ve lost sight of exactly what it is you do want to do. How do you fix that?

For me, this was going back to narratives that made me want to create in the first place, specifically ones I loved as a kid. I wasn’t exposed to theatre back then but I did have…erm…Star Wars. So I sat down and re-watched the original trilogy over three nights and while of course it didn’t recreate the giddy thrill of childhood Christmas viewings, it reminded me that I wanted to entertain people above all.

And I didn’t even fast-forward through the ‘boring’ bits of Empire Strikes Back this time.

 

Good luck, kids!

I Can’t Get No Sleep

This isn’t jetlag.

It might be jetlag, but i’m pretty sure it’s not. I spent Friday in the CSSD library being not terribly productive, but it was good to kick off again. On one of my moments of internet distraction, I found out that my 1 page pitch for the BBC Writersroom/Ideastap competition has gotten me a place in the final workshop of 10 people.

I was chuffed, but didn’t really think about it until now. Sunday morning, 4.am. And now, I can’t believe it. How have I managed to land myself in this position? I mean, between this new development, the course and Write to Shine, I can’t help but feel there’s a future in writing for me out there somewhere. Y’know, as a job. Incredible…I genuinely never thought I would get anywhere near pulling this off yet here there is possibility. It is, of course, still a bit of a way off and entirely predicated on me getting down and DOING SOME MORE FUCKING WRITING.

I will. I am. I have my projects, my deadlines, and I can’t sleep for the joy at the possibilities of writing them. Naturally, it is terrifying at first and that first hour I sit down, I want to do anything but start knocking out words. I think it’ll be shit…derivative…non-sensical. And, more often than not, it usually is. But a few hours in and it clicks and I’m happy like nothing before. I’m not a naturally quick person, though I will produce decent stuff eventually. I just need a bit of time to gear up.

Such is the case in the longer term – I don’t think I will knock out anything amazing in the next few weeks, which is why I’ve chosen to start with my most developed project. If I’m sleepless-excited now,  once I’m back in the habit I might just be insufferable.

Tomorrow, I’m going to Richmond for a long awaited catch up with George and Jen. After that, it’s to Bermondsey for the screening of a short film that I helped workshop and flesh out a story for. Then, dear friends, writing, with the hope of more writing to come.

Sorry for the gush post…just had to fap it out.

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Will get typing up on NY Diaries tomorrow – some churning to kick start the thinkin’.