Thursday, April 30, 2015

Black Dog Down - April

Writer’s block.

No such thing, I’ve heard a number of writers say. It’s all in your head.

Well, I can’t speak for them, but my head is where at least half my writing gets done. At least, I’m fairly sure all my writing starts there.

Of course, I can force myself to write. To type anything and fill up the page. Indeed, I resort to that on many of my worst Black Dog days, because it’s my only option. Achieving something, anything, is one of my main weapons (or pieces of armour) in my battle. Anything to make me feel a little bit better. Progress on some project or other has often been my measure of a good week.

As medicines go, it’s as effective as any pharmaceuticals I’ve taken.

Warning: potential side-effects include self-reproach for failing to meet targets and reading back what you’ve written and declaring it all to be crap. The words ‘not good enough’ continue to resonate in my subconscious after years of throwing my best work at the brick wall of traditional publishing. Having it bounce right back at me like Steve McQueen’s baseball in The Great Escape.

If you stick at it long enough, you may learn that ‘good enough’ has nothing to do with it. And that’s harder to deal with, because then you have to confront and somehow overcome this realisation that nothing you do makes any difference. It’s not you, it’s not your work, it’s the state of publishing, it’s the economic climate, it’s – basically – factors that are all comprehensively outside of your control. So you keep throwing and maybe one day you’ll throw the right ball at the right wall. Repeatedly doing the same actions over and over and hoping for different results, that’s the definition of insanity.

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.

Still, the ‘not good enough’ mantra echoes from the old days of insecurity and uncertainty. And as we know, the Black Dog loves a weakness or vulnerability to prey upon. Those are its chew toys.

More than the discipline of sitting myself down to write, I have to train myself not to judge. Not to criticise. That’s the substance of the block.

And that was my plan for April – to properly tackle that, head on. I had a very clear schedule and an achievable, if ambitious, target for the month. The plan: write, write, write. Clearly delineated morning, afternoon and (some days of the week) evening sessions. The goal: finish two novels by end of the month. (Don’t worry, they were both in different states of partly written already and one was somewhere near 90% complete. I’m not that mad.)

For the record, I failed to hit the target. I may as well fess up to that now. One of the novels was politically themed and I’d wanted its release to coincide with the upcoming General Election. That ain’t gonna happen now. And I felt bad about that for a week and it’s resurfaced to niggle at me now as I admit it here in black and white.

What threw me off schedule was two days out of commission courtesy of a stomach bug, where all I produced was – well, let’s just say it wasn’t anything good. After the flu-type biological warhead in March, that was all it took to make my goal, well, improbable at best. Two more days to make up was asking that extra bit too much so I revised my aims, moved the goalposts and moved on.

The goal was less important than the psychological training really. So I’m setting the ‘failure’ aside and not beating myself up about it. See, I even put ‘failure’ in quotes to make it less real. 

The training side of the exercise succeeded (in part at least!) in a number of ways. 1) Re-connecting me with the daily discipline of writing, allowing myself to write rubbish, safe in the knowledge that I could whip it into better shape on a better day. 2) Focus: a busy mind has less time to dwell on depression (although it does get tired and the Black Dog is often waiting to strike). 3) It taught me to be kinder to myself. (A lesson I’ve learned many times but one that bears repeating.)

Hard graft warrants rewards and I was mindful enough to make sure I had something good/enjoyable/entertaining between sessions. So that the breaks felt like proper breaks. Even treated myself to some new music purchases and bought myself a ticket to a concert later in the year. And in terms of quantity, if not quality, it was good practice for me to look at what I had achieved on a given day, as opposed to focusing on what I hadn’t.

And there were days when it was – gasp! – a lot of fun. Which is what it always used to be about.

Clearly, I’m some distance from forgiving myself my ‘failures’ altogether and in addition to pretending not to hear those echoes of ‘not good enough’, I also have to fight off the whispers of ‘what’s the point?’ – which are more sinister and more dangerous really.

But I am here at the end of April with the sense of having done a bit more than just survived. There were still some of those (what I like to call) Walking Dead days in the mix, but on the whole I can reflect back on the month and feel there was more to it than that. For one thing, I will have one of the books completed, so that’s glass half-full.

Realistically, I know I’m never going to totally beat my personal brand of writer’s block. No more than I suspect I’m ever going to throw off the Black Dog altogether. But you make what inroads you can and you acknowledge them.

And you award yourself treats, because that’s all part of the Pavlov’s dog training, remember. Of course, I realise that treats like purchases and concert tickets depend on funds and those aren’t always available. But I recommend, if you have any spare dosh, spend it on something nice and non-essential. Such morale-boosts are transitory, it’s true, with the Black Dog ever-present but music, for example, is a gift that can keep on giving. And even a small indulgence can be an act of defiance in the face of depression.

Among the rewards I’d promised myself is a month off ahead of beginning a new project, a chance to rest my over-active sleep-deprived brain. That’s independent of whether I hit my April targets or not so I’m still going ahead with that plan.

A month of R&R. Surely even I can’t fail at that.

SAF 2015