Parenting a child who has depression – Mental Health Matters

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Last September my son left home to begin a new phase of his life at university. Like many mums, I felt a mixture of sorrow, pride, happiness, loneliness, and excitement. I also felt something else.

Fear.

My son has depression, something he’s very open about and shares on his blog. He’d deferred his uni place the previous year, not feeling in the right headspace to go but now…

Now he wasn’t entirely sure but after some medication and therapy, he felt it was now or never.

A few years previously, when his brother had plans to go to uni, I found myself googling student recipes to print out for him, articles on budgeting. This time around I googled suicide statistics for male students.

The results were horrifying.

Men are three times as likely to take their own life than women.  My son hasn’t been brought up with a ‘boys don’t cry’ mentality. As a family, we’ve always talked and he’s openly shared his feelings with me, his mood, his ‘I’ll-never-get-out-of-bed-again days.

But I had a constant gnawing worry – what would happen when I wasn’t there to talk to?

Mostly he manages his condition well. He knows his triggers and has coping strategies in place. His new friends are understanding when he can’t face going out or leaves a gig halfway through.

Mostly he manages.

But there are times he doesn’t.  Times when I check his Instagram story and know from the music he’s listening to that his mood has plummeted.  Sometimes he’ll come and spend a few days at home, but sometimes he’ll retreat into himself and these are the most terrifying of times for me. The dark voice whispers in my head that it’s all my fault – something I did or didn’t do – while I anxiously trawl through his social media accounts all hours of the day and night. Not because I want to know where he is, but because if he’s posted, I know he’s alive. I study photos he’s been tagged in. How does he look? But how he looks is no indication of how he feels. As he said on his blogyou can’t see mental health, you can’t look in a mirror and see the damage being caused.”

And living with that fear. The fear that one day it might all get too much for him creates such a feeling of utter helplessness, of hopelessness it’s a constant battle to balance giving him space to grow, with checking he’s okay. I try not to plague him with endless calls and messages (often I plague him with endless calls and messages).

A few nights ago he sent me an email completely out of the blue, completely out of character. It was a long and lovely message about his brothers and me, and if it had come from one of my other children I would have burst with happiness. As it was, a cold dread wrapped itself around my heart. Immediately I rang him thinking something that no parent should ever have to consider.

‘Is this a suicide note?’

‘Umm, no. I can see why you’d think that, but no. I can promise I will never do that,’ he said with sincerity, and he meant it. But I’ve worked in mental health. I know those long, dark hours where sufferers of depression convince themselves it would be a good thing if they weren’t around anymore. That everyone would be better off. Happier.

That is never the case.

My son raises awareness of mental health where he can, particularly amongst males.  I’m immensely proud of him for being so open and honest. Despite the despair he often feels, he has a desire to help others.

He said of his own journey “I went through a phase where I would drink more in the hope it would fix the problem. I can’t begin to explain how badly this impacted my mental health, constantly throwing yourself into a situation you don’t want to be in is crazy, essentially what I was doing was running as fast as I could into a wall, but every week running slightly faster and hoping that the harder I hit it, the better it would be.”

I hope that one day he stops running.

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This was a raw and emotional write I’ve shared with the permission of my son. If you or your family are affected by mental health issues you can access UK mental health services (including emergency support) here and in the US here, or speak to your doctor.

 

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An open letter to the writer who told me I’d likely NEVER be published

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Hello,

While I was going through some papers I found a report you’d written on my first novel and as I read it I felt incredibly sad. You probably won’t remember it, or me, but in 2015 you almost crushed my dreams.

Almost.

I’d longed to be a writer much of my life but, always lacking in confidence, being published seemed unachievable. I didn’t have a degree, any A Levels. I didn’t have the courage to sign up for a writing course.

In my 30’s an accident left me with a disability and my life radically changed. I then spent several years struggling with chronic pain, and my mood until I started writing a story, then entitled ‘Dear Grace’ about best friends, Grace, and Charlie.

For the first time in a long time, I felt I had something to get up for. A purpose. Often I was awake throughout the night, lonely and uncomfortable but now I had my manuscript – a world I could escape to and I escaped often.

I felt a feeling of immense pride when I finished my first draft but then came a bereavement, one of the people I loved most in the world suddenly gone. My depression came crashing back and I didn’t write for a long, long time.

In 2015 I reread my story and a tiny ember of hope began to smoulder. I thought it had potential but I was plagued with self-doubt.

Could I write?

Who could I ask?

It took much courage, several glasses of wine and all of our savings to send my manuscript off to a well-known organisation who offered critiques. When I heard you would be reading my story – someone who reviewed books for a living – I felt delighted.

Until I received your feedback.

Your report started by saying Writing fiction is a long hard slog for anyone and the chances of getting published are very slim.

Immediately I felt deflated, stupid for ever thinking I could achieve my dream. Assuming that for you to have told me it was unlikely I’d ever get published when I hadn’t asked for your advice nor was it something the agency listed as including in the report, must mean my writing was bad.

Very bad.

After your feedback on my story which you weren’t keen on, you ended your letter with ‘you show some flair but I think, bluntly, you need to face up to how difficult it is to get published. You may want to consider self-publishing. Traditional book deals from publishers are increasingly hard to come by. I’m sorry not to be more encouraging and I wish you the best.

Tears rolled down my face as I packed away my manuscript and my dreams for another six months as I spiralled back into depression.

I am writing this to let you know that dreams are fragile and hope easily extinguished. I googled you before I began writing this post and you still critique for the same agency. Please, please think twice before telling someone how impossible it is to be published if they haven’t asked you for publishing advice. You just might make them feel they aren’t good enough to write. Not everyone has an endgame of seeing their words in print and if they do not everyone is chasing a traditional deal. You never know what led them to the story they want to tell and what it means to them. I overcame depression largely because of my characters and it was something I enjoyed. You made me think I was wasting my time. That I shouldn’t. I couldn’t.

But I did.

‘Dear Grace’ became ‘The Sister’ and it went on to spend several weeks at No.1 in various countries, quickly sold well over half a million copies, has been translated into 25 languages and nominated for an award. Three other novels have followed, all with huge success. My fifth is due to be published this October.

Publishing is so subjective and although you thought I couldn’t, I’m so pleased I found a publisher who thought I could.

And for any writers reading this, don’t let anyone lead you to believe that you can’t and if they do, prove them wrong.

From Louise

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Mental Health – A graduate’s journey through school & uni with chronic anxiety (& why writing helps)

 

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Today, I’m excited to be chatting with Chloe from Chloe Chats. Chloe’s a recent graduate who has had a really tough time with chronic anxiety.  I’m interested learning how she navigated the education system and why writing has helped her therapeutically.

 

Hi Chloe, having first met you the day you were born I’m feeling pretty old right now to see how grown up you are but delighted to welcome you onto my blog.

Hi Louise! The time does seem to just fly by – sometimes I can’t believe I’ve already graduated from university.

Firstly, let’s touch upon your anxiety – did anything specifically trigger it?

I’m someone that has had bad anxiety all my life, I can’t even explain why I feel anxious.

I can relate to that. I felt that way before I discovered mindfulness. Now, I’m a huge advocate of mental health and find it both shocking and saddening that according to the NASUWT teaching union, 96% of teachers state they have come into contact with pupils experiencing mental health issues. Did you find your teachers were understanding?

When I was at school I never told anyone about my anxiety, none of my friends or teachers knew about it. I always kept it to myself.

That must have felt like a huge burden?

Yes. I used to feel more anxious because I was worried that people didn’t understand why I wouldn’t talk so much, or why I wouldn’t join in with all the activities. The only reason I didn’t tell anyone was because at the time I didn’t understand it myself, I thought I was ‘weird’ and everyone else was normal. I used to hate myself for not being able to be like everyone else, I would be so annoyed that I couldn’t just join in with a conversation just because I was too anxious.

So at that time you didn’t have any coping techniques in place?

No. I just tried to get through the day. Even though it was only a few years ago there was hardly any information on it, no one really spoke about it like they do now.

Did you have any support?

I was lucky that in secondary school I had a good group of friends that I felt comfortable with, although things went downhill for me when I reached sixth form. I pretty much lost my main group of friends, we all split up and ended up in different form classes and from there I slowly stopped talking to them and if I did meet them at lunch I would just sit there in silence – I can’t even tell you what happened, my anxiety got the better of me.

That must have felt really lonely. The added pressure of GCSE’s and A ’Levels can’t have helped. How did you find that period?

I ended up doing a lot of the exams by myself in a room instead of the main hall with everyone else. I managed to speak to my tutor at the time and I told her how I just couldn’t cope with sitting in the big hall with everyone and so they organised me to take my exams elsewhere. This was super helpful.

Getting through your exams must have been a relief but also brought the pressure of what next?

Yes. When school was coming to an end I panicked a little because I didn’t really know what to do! I ended up going to university where I decided to do a Media and Creative Writing course. Seeing as I enjoyed my Media AS Level so much and I loved to write I thought that was a great option.

That sounds like a positive step?

I thought so but after a week of being at uni I packed up and left – my anxiety was uncontrollable. I struggled to leave my uni room and go into the kitchen to make food because I couldn’t bring myself to bump into my flat mates. I spoke to my mum and she said to do what is best for me, she did try and get me to stay longer because a week is definitely not long enough to get a feel for it. I went home but I didn’t want to feel so defeated. I called up the uni 3 weeks later and asked if I could come back, and thankfully they said yes!! So off I went back to university again – back to my same room and this time around I stuck it out and I’m so glad I did, my flatmates were lovely, I made some great friends and met my boyfriend!

That was such a courageous decision.  Did you feel more in control when you returned?

I did. The friends I made was the biggest thing that helped me. My anxiety seemed to get better but after I left uni it escalated again –and for the first time I had to put my life on hold. My panic attacks grew worse – I had them more often, my heart palpitations were non-stop, I cried a lot, I made myself physically ill because of how run-down I felt. It was at this point that I got stuck in this never-ending loop, I couldn’t see an end to it. I spent loads of time in bed and would barely eat anything, the thought of eating made me feel sick. I went to the doctors, my family looked after me, but I still couldn’t get out of this cycle. I ended up crying in the middle of a restaurant and it was so embarrassing and at that point I just said to myself this has got to stop – I need help. I reached out to my friend who I met at uni – it was handy as she is in the mental health industry. With her help I got to the stage that I felt a little better and I decided that I wanted to help others.

Which brings us to your blog. Why do you find it so beneficial?

Writing is a great coping method for me, it gives me a purpose, it keeps me busy and what I write about has helped others – I get messages from people, comments on my blog posts, and so many tweets from people saying how reading the blog posts has made them feel positive or inspired. I found it also helps to know that you’re not alone.

I honestly don’t know whether I’d have completed my first novel without the support of the WordPress community, let alone published four. Has blogging about something specific given you a sense of connection?

Definitely. I have connected with so many bloggers and it’s been fantastic to make new ‘online’ friends and to be able to talk about these issues with others.

I read your post on ‘How to boost happiness.’

That’s a great example. As I started to write what helps me feel happy it made me realise how much there actually is!

I do a similar exercise in my mindfulness classes. It’s a brave thing sharing personal posts. When I started blogging about my novel writing journey I can remember feeling absolutely terrified and so vulnerable that I was putting myself out there. How did it feel for you and has it got easier?

When I decided to publish my journey of anxiety on my blog I was terrified. I wrote it up in March, but I didn’t publish it till April because the thought of everyone knowing was a scary thought. My parents and boyfriend knew about it and one close friend but that was it. I remember I published it on a Sunday and my boyfriend was there with me and the support was overwhelming – I received so many messages from loved ones, I ended up crying a little. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and it was a positive step for me. The next thing that I was anxious about was going to work the next day because I knew a lot of colleagues had read it from Facebook likes and messages. I thought I’d walk through the door and everyone would just stare at me. However, I walked in and nothing was different, everyone spoke to me like they normally would. One of my colleagues actually came and sat by me and said ‘I just wanted to say, you’re blog post was amazing and well done for sharing it.’ I had a few others message me on our chat system we had who started to tell me that they have experienced similar things – it was great that it got people talking!  

It is! Finally, Chloe, as someone who has also suffered from anxiety I know how beneficial I have found writing, both journaling and blogging, but I also know how completely overwhelming it can feel to begin. What are your top 5 tips.

  • You don’t have to share what you write on a blog or even with anyone else. It could be that you write it up for yourself – it’s such a relief when you get out all your thoughts onto paper (or a computer) that’s been taking up all that space in your mind.
  • If you find that you’re going to bed with worries on your mind I find a great thing to do is to have a notebook by the side of your bed and write down everything that is troubling you. Sometimes writing them out can just lift that weight off your shoulders. I like to write down what is worrying me and then write some solutions next to them. This can help you have a better night’s sleep.
  • If you have a blog yourself, you can always leave posts as drafts until it feels like the right time share it. Sometimes I will have something on my mind that is worrying me and so I will write a blog post on it because it helps to ease my mind but also think that it’ll be a great post for others who might have the same worry. The reason why I would leave them as drafts for a while is because sometimes I just need to get things out of my mind and so I will just type up everything that is running through my mind – sometimes I just go on and on and it doesn’t make much sense!
  • What I have learnt from being a part the blogging community is that there is no pressure when it comes to publishing blog posts. The important thing I’ve learnt about is that you don’t need to look at your stats every day, you might have days where you don’t get as much engagement as you would like but that’s normal. There’s only so much promoting you can do, don’t burn yourself out. I have come across other bloggers where they’ve had weeks off because they’re not in the right headspace and if you find that you’re just writing posts after post just to get views then you should probably stop and think about why you started your blog to begin with.
  • The good thing about blog posts is that you can write about whatever you like, you don’t have to worry so much if readers are going to like it, of course you want your readers to enjoy it but don’t just write about something because you think that it’s popular and will get you a load of views. They’ll be people out there that won’t like your posts so much and they’ll be others that love it and relate to it. You can’t please everyone, but I feel the most important thing is that you enjoy writing it.

Chloe, It’s been such a pleasure chatting to you and thank you for being so open an honest. I’m sure many people will resonate with this post. I look forward to following your blogging journey on Chloe Chats. Good luck.

Thank you!

You can find Chloe’s blog here. Her Facebook page here. And Twitter here.

Why we should ALL have the same dream as William Tuke #BeKind

This is William Tuke.

In 1796 William used £938 of his own money to offer an alternative to the inhuman lunatic asylums who ‘treated’ disorders with barbaric methods such as chaining people to walls and blood letting.

William’s York retreat offered ‘Moral Treatment’ for patients suffering with mental health problems. This revolutionary treatment was based on kindness, trust, and respect. Warm baths, nutritious foods and exercise were offered as William believed there was a link between physical and mental health. Patients took up gentle hobbies such as sewing.

Patients were encouraged to assist each other and above all, be kind to each other. Paying it forward. The moral treatment gained popularity with experts agreeing it caused ‘organic changes in brain matter.’

Modern day medication has obliterated moral treatment even though recent scientific studies show that helping others boosts mental health and lowers depression.

William had a dream. His dream was to encourage kindness. We should ALL be like William.

Is a sugar free life sustainable with kids, career & a home to juggle? Let’s find out…

 

Avocado toast with egg and herbs on a rustic table

Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

A few weeks ago I blogged how lunch with one of my oldest friends, and long-term cake buddy, Kuldip, led to a complete overhaul in my health (you can read that post here). Admittedly, I stared longingly at the dessert menu as she shared her inspiring journey into her new life without sugar but her energy and enthusiasm was infectious and she persuaded me to give it a go. After a rough couple of weeks withdrawing, now I’m so grateful she did. There have been many frantic messages (from me) and many calming answers (from her) exchanged over the past few weeks and her straightforward, relatable approach to sugar free living as a working mum I thought worth sharing. Kuldip has now started her own fabulous blog, Life Without Sugar, and it’s a pleasure to chat to her today about the white stuff.

Kuldip, let’s go back a few weeks. What was the catalyst for such a dramatic dietary change?

I just felt rubbish all the time. When you are busy, working, have small kids and a house that’s a fixer-upper, it’s natural and forgivable to blame a general malaise on that, but I just knew that I was on the road to poor health and I that I had to change, but change what?

Exactly! I think sometimes the easier part is knowing we need to change and over the years we’ve tried pretty much everything between us haven’t we?

Yes! There are so many diet plans out there, and they will tell you what to do, and some will tell you what not to do, but none of them explains why? Like properly WHY. Without knowing that I failed at all of them because, it seemed that I depended on willpower alone.

But you’ve always been quite determined when you want to be. Do you feel your willpower is weak?

Not weak exactly. I already use willpower. Not to swear in the car when the kids are in there with me, not scream at frustrating emails at work, not to throw things out the window when they refuse to work properly etc. So, I know I have willpower. But why do I need willpower over food? It’s something that felt so odd to me. Then one day I got a look at myself in a full-length mirror, I hadn’t really looked at myself for nearly two years and I was shocked at how terrible I looked. I felt at the end of my tether, honestly at my wit’s end so when I came across an article about sugar, it all fell into place. The need for willpower is because sugar is addictive and sugar is in a tremendous amount of food that we consume, and we aren’t aware that it’s even there. So we try to abstain, and we fail.

What to do? Get rid of it.

Put like that it sounds so simple but I know from experience it isn’t. What were your first steps?

It usually takes me a while to prepare for a diet or plan, but this hit home straight away. Probably because it isn’t a diet or a plan, its simply saying, ‘Sugar doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t have it.’ I immediately researched books and experts and consumed their knowledge and then that was it, I couldn’t stop talking about it, as you well know.

Yes. I never did get my cake that day! My husband couldn’t believe it when I got home. What does your husband think about it all?

Thanks to my history of constantly pursuing the next thing, my husband assumed that I had started another fad diet and braced himself for what I would insist that we eat for our evening meals. He has been the subject of many a dietary change poor fella. But this one, this one has stuck. He was ok with my ridding the shelves of all things high sugar, but put his foot down over the balsamic vinegar, the Asian sauces, like hoisin, soy, and teriyaki and ketchup – which are positively loaded with sugar. But the rest is gone.

I got exactly the same reaction, for exactly the same reasons but Tim has seen all the positive effects on my health so far and is now trying it himself. 

It makes it easier having that support doesn’t it? Now that I have started the blog and am actively reading sugar-free cookbooks, he is taking me a bit more seriously. Before, you would see me with a cookbook if I were handing it to him so he could cook. He has reduced his sugar because there isn’t so much of it in the house anymore, but he still likes a pudding or a handful of biscuits through the day. Though the other day he did say that he might give it up too – I stopped myself from reeling off a load of facts that would make him instantly regret that he had said it and just nodded and said ‘it’s the easiest health choice you can make.’ He’s a pretty healthy eater, so I don’t worry about him too much anyway.

The men are probably the easiest to convince as we’re all getting older with the inevitable aches and pains. The kids though! Yours are so young so it must be easier they can’t source anything you don’t give them. Teenagers are a different matter…

Yes, my two begin so young definitely helps. I started talking to them about it, they have interpreted is as Mummy doesn’t like sugar. Outside and occasionally inside the home, I let them eat cakes because that’s the society we live in, and I don’t want to exclude my family from everyday situations as a result of what I am doing. It has made me want to cook! And find some sugar-free alternatives to those ‘treats.’

Haha – I’m saying nothing about your cooking… Back to the girls, I remember the primary school years so well, the endless birthday party invitations. How do you feel about the food they will likely be served?

I’ll let the girls eat whatever they want at birthday parties. When at parties, I find that they are starting to leave the birthday cake now, so I like to think their taste buds are changing.

My approach is to make the changes at home and hope that they use it as their blueprint for eating elsewhere. For their own birthday party, I requested a reduced sugar cake from the baker, and it went down a storm, nobody noticed. Their party bags didn’t have any sweets or chocolate in them, I just packed them out with little toys which I think are more fun anyway. We only served water – which young children will just accept, especially on a hot day. They had sandwiches and crisps, I obliged a few parents with jam fillings, and my girls had ham. It was pretty easy to party without sugar, and I don’t think anyone noticed the lack of it. It made me realise how much adults impose the idea of ‘children = sugary treats’ when actually, that really doesn’t have to be the case

They have never developed a taste for juices so prefer water and milk because that’s what we have given them at home. They love biscuits, and I’m okay with that as there are some low sugar biscuits about there – plain digestives and shortbread are usually pretty good (about 2.4g per biscuit), and if you make homemade with a sugar alternative, you’re laughing.

Absolutely. I’m baking more now than I was when I ate sugar because it’s so difficult to find treats off the shelf. Perfecting sugar free scones and jam brought tears to my eyes! It’s the one thing I knew I’d really miss. What have you missed the most?

I don’t think I miss anything you know. I thought I would miss ice cream but the need for it has gone. I did accept a Mr. Whippy ice-cream recently – my mother-in-law visited and bought us all one. It was delicious, but I had a headache for the rest of the afternoon, had a terrible night’s sleep and felt ill the next day! So not worth it! 

I felt like that the first time I drank wine after 2 weeks sugar free, I felt as though I’d been poisoned. I’m still having the odd glass though. How about chocolate – I know we’ve both eaten an obscene amount over the years.

I haven’t yet thought ‘ooh I could murder a Snickers’ which was a constant thought during any diets I’ve been on.

I’m eating 80% chocolate now and honestly don’t need more than a couple of squares. I think most of my snacking is emotionally based. I haven’t felt the need as I’ve felt full but I’m still making snacks for my husband and subsequently we’re trying lots of new good. Have you discovered anything new?

My new favourite snack, dessert, breakfast is Greek yoghurt, with a small handful of blueberries and strawberries, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Oh my, I just love it. If you said that I would treat that like I did ice-cream, cakes or my favourite sweets, then I would have told you to leave and not politely! It’s amazing. I found out that cinnamon helped with sugar cravings so started adding it in, but now I just love the taste.

I’m less reliant on them now, but Nairn cheese oatcakes were a godsend for snack attacks. I have fewer snack attacks now as I am full at most meals, but now use them in the girls’ lunch boxes instead of crisps or even as well as crisps, it’s all low sugar and will fill them up.

Chai tea – it’s comforting and although it has minimal sugar, is quite sweet and it has cinnamon in it!

 I’m going to try that with Greek yoghurt. I thought snacking would be my biggest challenge but that has proven to be eating out which we do quite regularly. How have you found it?

I thought eating out was going to be tough, but it hasn’t been that bad. Fish dishes are usually safe to go for; salads are surprisingly tricky because of the dressing, so I ask for it without or on the side. Steak and chips are excellent, particularly if you go for sweet potato chips. I had a lovely aubergine and chickpea burger the other day. I took half the bun off, as I couldn’t fit the thing into my mouth anyway! I figure that the remaining burger bun had at most 1g of added sugar, so let it slide. During withdrawal, I tried to keep down to 10g of all sugars, added or natural. I’m a bit more relaxed about tracking it now, because I have an idea of who much sugar is in things, plus if you keep to whole foods then you really don’t have to worry so much.

Dessert whilst eating out is still a challenge, just because I have had them my whole life – it’s been a habit for so long. I remember eating the main just to get to the dessert! So, I will either kill the urge and have a peppermint tea or go for the cheese board avoiding the pickles.

Oh after over 20 years on weight watchers I’m eating so much full fat cheese and loving it! Lastly, what has been the biggest challenge?

Firstly, withdrawal is not pretty. It’s different for all of us, but I used to binge on sweets daily, so I got hit quite hard when withdrawing. If I could, I would have taken a week off from life to get through it.

I don’t cook – I never enjoyed cooking. I felt nothing for it. I now have to cook and that started off as a challenge. In fact, it’s taking me until nearly day 60 of being sugar-free to purchase a sugar-free cookbook! Most of our evening meals were healthy anyway as I drew upon the many of the books that I have bought with all the diet plans that I’ve tried. Each of them has produced some favourites. But now the mission is to have the odd sweetened treat, but a healthier less harmful version. Watch this space.

BIG thanks to Kuldip for joining me today and for her encouragement. Please do check out and sign up to her blog here and follow her sugar free journey. 

 

 

The valuable lesson I learned on my writing retreat

In 2015 I nervously went on a ‘How to create a submission package’ retreat at Wentworth Castle. I’d finished my first novel and although I didn’t feel quite brave enough to send it out into the world, I wanted to explore my options if I one day I drank enough wine to actually sum up the courage to share it.

Ali Harper and Anna Chilvers were the tutors and after reading the opening for The Sister, felt it would glean much interest and after running through the pros and cons of agents, publishers and self-publishing, encouraged me to craft a query letter and gave me tips on writing the dreaded synopsis. I went home believing, not that I could, but that I might, and I held tightly onto that kernel of hope until the day came when I did drink enough wine to press send on the submission emails that had been languishing in my draft Hotmail folder.

Fast forward three years, four books published, nineteen translation deals and a million sales later I was delighted to be invited back to Wentworth Castle to talk to Anna and Ali’s new students on their ‘Writing Fearlessly’ retreat about my bumpy journey to publication. I spoke about the group I was part of in 2015. How the 15 other students and I were passionate about writing but never believed it would happen for us. How being an author always seemed too far out of reach.  I shared my experience  – how extraordinary things can happen to ordinary people if you can pick yourself up after the inevitable knock backs, always be willing to listen to constructive criticism and never, ever stop writing.

It was in the bar afterwards (where else would you find a bunch of writers) a lovely lady shared with me that she never wanted to be published and had no intention of ever trying to be. ‘I write for myself’ she said ‘for the love of it, because it brings me so much happiness.’

I paused. Lowered my glass and remembered how it felt to write The Sister, with no hopes or expectations, just the pure joy of spending time with my characters. How writing lifted me out of clinical depression and gave me a purpose. I still love writing, of course I do or I’d choose another career but sometimes caught up with the deadlines, the marketing, the accounts, everything else that comes with the job sometimes, just sometimes, it’s possible to lose sight of what drove me to write to start with. The passion, the drive, the possibilities.

The desire to tell a story.

I do hope the retreat participants got something out of my visit, I know I took something valuable away too.

In 2015 I was unable to stand unaided so it was super special that this time I was up to having a little mooch around the grounds, checking out Stainborough Castle and the beautiful countryside. As gorgeous as it was, alone at the castle I was seeing crime everywhere, plots spinning around my mind, picking out potential hiding places for someone to spring out, bodies to be buried. Can we ever entirely switch off the writer side of us?

Rich Hall Comedian – Interview – Writing & what you should NEVER do with a good idea

Rich Hall is one of my favourite comedians. Alongside stand-up he’s a firm fixture on TV panels shows, especially QI. In 2000 he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in the guise of his country singing ex-con uncle Otis Lee Crenshaw.  This week I was lucky enough to see him live where he combined comedy and music in a show that was so funny my stomach muscles still ache from laughing.  During the first half he talked in his trademark drawl, taking an interest in the audience, randomly asking people where they were from, how long they’d been married and what they did for a living.  The second half kicked off with Rich singing a song based around an audience member’s life. I was utterly in awe of how quickly he’d pulled the song together over the interval and my writer mind instantly questioned, how had he done it? As time marched on he sang song after song using new information about different people and I knew these hadn’t been pre-written. How did he, seemingly easily, come up with ideas.

At the end of the show I asked if I could ask Rich directly and blog about his process. Thankfully he said yes.

Rich, I’m in awe of the way you put songs together so effortlessly tonight.

Thanks it’s not always as effortless as it appears.

I thought you’d used the interval to write the first song you sang in the second half but then you carried on singing about audience members. You must make them up on the spot?

Not entirely. The interval helps, trust me. In the interval I’ve got a bit of information to work with. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it but at least I know. I knew that guy drove a mini metro and I could think about it.  I guess it’s a little like you planning books?

I tend to wing it!

Hehe I wing it too but even then I’m thinking ahead wondering what could come next. Sometimes shows are shorter without an interval and then the pressure’s really on but some writer’s work better under pressure. You one of those?

God no! I don’t like too much pressure but I’m beginning to think I’m better with a deadline of some sort. I don’t have one at the moment.

 Yeah sometimes it stems creativity having to produce something. It sucks the life out of it. But sometimes you need that kick up the arse.

A couple of the songs you sang tonight I’d heard before. How do you approach song writing?

Often I work on the structure first and then I sit and teach the band – here’s what I want you to play – then we’ve got a good feel for it and I fill in the words. It comes easier with experience. Writing is writing whatever it is. Practice definitely helps.

 How long have you been writing?

Thirty five years now. I studied journalism at college and then went to work for the Seattle newspaper writing columns. I hated it. I’d always wanted to be a comedian. One day I just decided to go for it.

It’s not only jokes and songs you write is it?

No there’s plays, books and documentaries. All sorts.

Do you write on the road? Are you structured with your approach?

If inspiration hits I’ll write. I split my time between the UK and my ranch in Montana and I tend to do a lot of writing there.

Do you have any rituals?

I wish I did. I wish it was like a tap that I could do something and it would come. Sometimes I get really stuck, don’t you?

I do but I tend to only work on one project at a time so I have to work through it somehow. What do you do?

 I walk away. Writing’s pretty much the same, jokes, stories, whatever and sometimes you have to walk away from it.

If you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?

When you get an idea you know in your gut if it’s a good one and if it is don’t beat it into the ground. If it doesn’t flow and you force yourself to keep working on it you lose confidence in the idea and it becomes old. You’re a writer, Louise. You know what I’m talking about?

Absolutely. I’ve had to put the manuscript for my latest novel, The Date, away so many times because it wasn’t coming and I knew it was too good an idea to let go.

Yeah that’s the thing. You give something space and it could be good.  If you’re sick of thinking about it let it go for a while. That’s what I learned. I was very frustrated when I started out because I thought I had to sit and work on something until it was finished.  Sometimes you’ve got to mix it up. What gets you through the hump?

A mixture of pure panic, cheese and too much wine.

Hehe, I might try that!

It’s been lovely talking to you Rich. Thanks so much for your time.

It’s been a pleasure.