The Madness in the Method – on creativity and mental illness

Like many humans, I sometimes have conversations with other humans. (Real ones, not the imaginary ones I converse with for money.) Inevitably when chatting with someone new, the question of occupation comes up and that’s when I get to tell them I’m an author. It’s wonderful. My twelve year-old self (who couldn’t spell or do sums but had a catalogue of imaginary worlds and characters in her head) does backflips of glee. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I don’t love my profession, yes writing novels is difficult, but it is a privilege and I still have a file of rejection letters in my study to remind me how blessed I am.

Sometimes the news that I am an author is met with questions about what I write, how I got published, how much money I earn or when I find the time to write. Sometimes the response is, ‘Wow, you must have a big imagination!’ This always seems to me like telling Usain Bolt that he must be quite athletic. Yep, I have a big imagination. Most humans do. I put mine to work everyday, which strengthens it and a lot of the time my imagination is very useful to me. But sometimes it can be dangerous. (This is where the Bolt analogy falls apart, unless he starts using his speed to rob banks.)

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits recently and I usually tell students that I think primarily in pictures and I see a story in my head play like a film. The pictures come easily, finding the words to do them justice and communicate them effectively to my reader is the hard part. My mind’s ability to build intricate, detailed scenes is what allows me to write novels. This is helped along by a long-term memory bank which seem inexhaustible; I can remember what colour sweater my husband was wearing on our first date thirteen years ago, for example. Do I remember my son’s school library day is Tuesday? Never. img_0815.jpg

But like it is for a lot of creative people, my mind is a double-edged sword. It can build intricate, detailed pictures of chaos so well that the worst case scenario in any situation seems highly plausible. I recently contemplated getting a quote for someone to clean my kitchen and bathroom once a fortnight, but I decided not to incase the cleaner turns out to be a serial killer. I then flicked through the handy mental list I have of female murder victims from the recent past (admittedly, there have been a lot to choose from) as evidence that inviting a stranger into my home was certain to result in my death. This is kind of funny to read. It seems ridiculous.

I’m still nervous about the cleaner.

Yep, I’m a master of catastrophic thinking. So good, in fact, that I have made a living out of thinking up catastrophes and following them through until the very end. Ever wondered what it would be like to live through a nuclear winter? I wrote a book on it. Read it and you won’t have to wonder anymore. What does the death of a sibling do to a person? I’ve got that covered too. The next book has a grief-stricken boy navigating the world after the sudden death of his mother. Guess what? I have sons.

But sometimes I can’t organise all my anxieties into a narrative. Sometimes they are so real and so threatening that they take over my existence altogether and I have trouble functioning because my mind is so busy worrying and despairing and reliving every distressing event I’ve ever experienced in that same excruciating detail that apparently makes my books win awards. Last year The Protected won three major awards. Everyone kept telling me that I must be so thrilled and excited and walking on air. I was. A bit. But it was coupled with the knowledge that within a month of being offered the publishing contract for that book I was in a psychiatric ward and that the giddy high from the awards came rapidly after one of my most gutting lows.

A huge part of managing my mental health is the acceptance of medication. I was on a very effective regime until about six weeks ago when I thought I might try to get by on a little less. I could write award-winning novels and visit schools and raise two boys and lead the music every week at church. Look at me go! ‘I’ve got this,’ I thought. ‘And imagine how much better I would have looked at the PM’s awards if I didn’t have the extra 10kgs that all the meds bring along with them!’ Yep. That was an actual motivator.

Yeah. It didn’t work. As some guys in skivies once sang, hello darkness, my old friend.

Creative work is the pursuit of perfection. I am not perfect. That sucks.

There is a lot of stuff out there about the link between creativity and mental illness. I don’t know if I can have one without the other. But I do know that with all the problems my mind brings into my life, it brings a lot of good stuff too. It makes me who I am. And to quote from one of my favourite writers, Alice Munro, ‘I am extremely okay.’

 

Children’s Book Council Honour and Inky Award Shortlist…. Hurrah!

Hello dear readers,

It has been more than a little while since last we met in Blogsville and I was feeling bad about this until I realised that while I may not have published a blog in the last two months, I have published another novel, which I dare say is more impressive. Yes, The Protected was released into the world on July 23. (You should go and buy a copy from a good book store, an actual real-life book store because they are an endangered habitat and the government has just approved the dumping of 30000 square squilometres worth of sludge on them. Or maybe that’s the Barrier Reef. Never mind.)

Meanwhile, The Sky So Heavy was awarded an Honour at the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards on August 15. This is more than a thrill. I’m not to sure what the correct term for something that is more than a thrill is, if you find out please apply it here. (My dad said it was a ‘real groove’ but that doesn’t feel quite right.)

AND THEN* just yesterday the 2014 Gold Inky Award shortlist was announced. The Inkys are the only award for Young Adult fiction judged by actual young adults. This makes them pretty fopping significant in my book** (pun intended). It’s really great when adults give prizes, but my books are for teenagers, the stories belong to them, so to be recognised by teenagers is JUST THE BEST THING EVER. (Yes I am shouting.)Award Stickers

The winner of the Gold Inky is decided by Gold Member, that rollerskating Dutch chappy from Austin Powers. NOT. No, the winner is decided by vote, so if you are a whipper snapper under the age of 18, it’s time to surf the internet wave over to http://www.insideadog.com.au/page/inky-awards and vote. Even better, vote for The Sky So Heavy.

Okey dokey, I’m done with my campaigning for the moment. Now I’m going to hop on a plane to the Melbourne Writers Festival right after I go and pick up a ton of Lego off my living room floor and scrape up the squashed sultanas that my toddler mashed into said floor, because that’s the kind of glamourous writerly-life I lead, motherfathers.

*I know you’re not supposed to start a paragraph with ‘And then’, okay? Give me a break, I just published a novel and the words ‘And then’ appear in it hardly ever.

**I have always used the phrase ‘in my book’. Now that I have written actual books this has lead to a punny minefield that is both dorky and ADORABLE.

What you looking at? On being a dickhead.

Well hello, dear readers. It’s been a while. I was going to spend this blog reminiscing about my top five books of 2013, but instead I am feeling quite cranky about the world and I know that I do my best writing whilst I have a bee in my bonnet*, so here goes.

Hey Australian young men, why have you turned into a bunch of aggressive dickheads? Seriously, what’s your beef, exactly? You used to have the reputation of being friendly, ‘laid back’ and slightly inebriated if there’s a cricket match on. Now you’re known primarily for your tendency to punch other people in the head for no particular reason.

On New Years Eve an eighteen year old guy was punched in the head for committing the offence of WALKING DOWN THE STREET. He’s now in a coma. This comes after this other guy was punched in the head for the even more heinous act of walking down the street whilst wearing a pink shirt. And of course after the tragic death of Thomas Kelly in 2012. It really makes one wonder what is going on with the psyche of young Australian males. Why is it that their sense of self-worth is so utterly fragile that they feel the need to randomly punch other guys in the head?

And it’s not that these punchy guys are picking fights. It not a case of ‘Do you bite your thumb at me, Sir’ but without swords and Leo’s tropical shirt. We know that chaps have been punching on, as it were, since the dawn of time – and I’m not about to wax lyrical about the philosophical aspects of Fight Club. This is completely different, this is a premeditated, brutal attack akin to shooting someone in the back. Fist or bullet, there’s no difference. The family of the latest victim have urged the media to stop referring to this kind of attack as a ‘king hit’ and call it what it is, a ‘cowards punch’.

So what’s going on? The defining factor that emergency department doctors point out is alcohol. These people are pissed out of their brains (the youth, not the doctors). Yes, Australians have always liked a drink, but rather than drinking as a means to facilitate merriment, youngens are drinking specifically to get staggeringly drunk. Which seems odd to me in many ways. And sad. Are they so utterly starved for conversation points that there is nothing else to do? Is it perhaps because they don’t know what to do with themselves now that no one dances anymore?

One psychologist blames a generation of under-fathered men. These guys have no decent role models beyond NRL players and ‘(no) respect for authority, little exposure to tradition or ritual and few, if any, skills in anger management.’ Now there’s an interesting thought: little exposure to ritual. It used to be that in nearly every culture there was some sort of act which served to pronounce a boy had become a man. I saw a show called ‘Tribal Wives’ where one Ethiopian lad had to run over the backs of five cows to mark his transition to manhood. (Let’s not get all romantic about other cultural practices, though. The same ritual involved whipping the tribal women until they were covered in open welts and gashes.)

I’m not too sure what the ritual used to be in Western society. It could have been something as simple as a guy getting a slap on the back from his father whilst said father smoked a pipe and said, ‘Well, son, now you’re a man.’ (Let’s not get too romantic about the olden days though, because this sentence was probably followed by ‘Woman, where’s my dinner?’ or something.) Or maybe boys were simply more exposed to the tradition of walking down the street with their father or grandfather whilst observing the way in which said grandfather refrained from punching anyone in the head.

So it seems we have a bunch of broken, fatherless people who don’t know how to relate to each other or define themselves beyond a proverbial masochistic big-dick contest. We also have a society that is as individualistic as it has ever been. We have no sense of being a part of anything greater than ourselves. If life is all about self-gratification there’s no reason not to punch someone else in the head if you feel like it.

And of course, as a woman I can’t help but think of the fact that if this is the way some guys are behaving toward each other in public, one can only imagine what their partners cop behind closed doors.

*This is only half a metaphor, I do actually wear a bonnet whilst writing. Jane Austen etc. etc.

On the shelf

Last week The Sky So Heavy was published. You would think this event would have warranted* a special celebratory blog – but I spent Publication Day at home with a vImageery snotty and severely cranky one-year-old. I did not have a chance to write a sentence, let alone visit the book in a store or spend hours googling my own name (as I would have liked to.) In fact, by the day’s end, I was feeling sort of sorry for myself – which is pretty darn pathetic for someone who has just had a book published.

In an effort to rectify this lack of ceremony, yesterday I rewarded myself with a trip to Ikea (yes, a punishment for some, but not I) and a visit to a bookstore to see if publication was something that had actually happened in real-life. There in the Young Adult section right down the bottom in the corner (such is the fortune of having Zorn for a surname) was my book. In fact, there was even a gap next to it, indicating that a person or persons may have already bought it. With actual money. Not only was the book there, but no one had defaced it or written ‘what rot!’ on the cover. So that’s a plus.

I was going to offer to sign it, but I wasn’t sure if that would be a cool-author thing to do. So instead I had my husband take this photo of me reading my own book in an actual bookshop, which I know is DEFINITELY the sort of thing Zadie Smith or MJ Hyland or any super cool author would do. I then spent a fair bit of time giggling before running out of the store.

*I can not write the word ‘warrant’ without getting a picture of the eighties hair-band of the same name in my head. Does that happen to anyone else? It’s very distressing.warrant6