WHEN ‘BLACK DOG’ BARKS!
Some years ago, Simon Brett wrote eloquently in the Society of Authors about his struggle with depression. It was an honest piece written with his customary wit and style. I was briefly introduced to him at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and he struck me as an incredibly warm, smiley individual. I had no idea of the depths of self-doubt that lurked beneath.
And yet it’s an all too familiar story.
There is a well-documented school of thought that believes depression provides the catalyst for creativity. This idea doesn’t simply extend to writers. Vincent van Gogh was a tortured soul. Plenty of musicians have succumbed to heavy-duty drug habits as a result of dancing with the dark side. Chicken and egg, one might think. But what of the reverse – and I’m not talking sunny side up. Does art, itself, make depressives of us all?
The first thing anyone tells a new writer is this: be prepared for rejection. Rejection, one might say, is part of life. You didn’t get the job. You didn’t get elected to the board. Your child failed to get into the school you’d chosen. These are natural, if dismaying, events, but to have one’s work rejected repeatedly feels like a personal assault because, as any writer will say, their heart and soul went into their novel.
I must receive, on average, a couple of emails a week, every week, from writers, often very successful individuals in other walks of life, who are baffled, angry and almost traumatised by what they regard as catastrophic failure to have their work represented, or picked up. My advice is always the same: it’s not personal, take a little time out, keep going, start something new. I rarely tell them that this is one hurdle to vault, followed by a succession of others. I doubt I’d be believed.
Don’t get me wrong, obtaining agent representation is cause for celebration, but the agent then has to sell the novel. In tricky times, publishers are more select about the novels they choose and, consequently, success is not guaranteed. The process, itself, can be arduous as a novel ‘does the rounds’ with a six-week turnaround time between editors standard. Try explaining that to a high-flying business bod who reckons he’s going to make a killing with his spanking new story. I usually say, because it’s the truth, it’s not the agent’s fault and it’s, quite often, not the writer’s either. What is inescapable: disappointment for both can be a difficult path to navigate.
Let’s say your novel is picked up by a publisher, broad smiles all round, but not every writer is a performer, and having to strut your stuff in public or on radio can be a daunting and, ultimately, stressful experience. The first time I did a radio interview I was physically sick in the loo minutes before I went on air.
Schmoozing on social media is now a big part of the deal and not every writer takes to it with flair – another stressor. But, in many ways, this is peripheral stuff. It takes strong mental muscles not to be blindsided by a poor review or lower than expected sales. Obsessively checking Amazon ratings on an hourly basis is a sure sign that a writer is on the slippery slope. There are now so many books and writers clamouring for attention that, if you let it, one’s perceived place in the great literary scheme of things can dominate existence. And, if you enjoy a degree of success, you might then spend a great deal of energy chewing your fingers down to your elbows in a bid to hang on in there while watching the perceived success of others with fear tinged with green-eyed envy. Oh, and did I mention financial insecurity?
God help you, should you ‘fail’ to make the grade in either yours or your publisher’s eyes, because it can sour everything that is good in your life. There are many talented writers whose sense of their own worth has been shattered. Tales of nervous breakdowns are not anecdotal, a genuine example of ‘suffering for one’s art.’ To put it bluntly, self-doubt is a killer.
If you’re a self-published writer, you may believe that you’re off the hook. You might have more control on cover, publication and finance, but marketing one’s own work is not for the faint-hearted and the same laws of the literary jungle apply.
So what am I saying: that writing should come with a government health warning? Not really, but perhaps depression should be viewed as an occupational hazard of the ‘biz’. If put on the spot, I tell new writers to be aware of the risks and go in with both eyes wide open. Don’t put so many high expectations on yourself. Stick with the reason that you became a writer in the first place, not to command fame and fortune, but because stories are what make you tick. Most of us don’t give up the day job. We make a point of not getting sucked in to the extent that we sideline spouses and lovers, family and friends. There’s a smart reason for that. It’s called survival.