How I was saved by my creative brain
(first published on Medium on 22/08/17)
Two years ago, the person I used to be had become so small, so insignificant — at least in my own eyes — that one day, my brain shut down, my body gave in, and I collapsed. Up until that point, I had behaved as was expected of me or, crucially, how I thought I was supposed to behave.
I was a functioning adult, doing a part-time job in a prestigious university, I was writing my seventh novel, I was traveling, gardening, socialising, paying my bills. I was doing my job very well, even though I hated every minute of it and the level of boredom I was inflicting upon myself was drilling a hole in my creative brain.
I was overqualified — and was fully aware of it — and because I didn’t think I deserved better, because I was conditioned into thinking that creativity had no other place that in my writing, I was putting my head down, gritting my teeth, and focusing my attention on crossing out items on an ever-expanding to-do list.
The rest of the time, I was writing my seventh novel and trying hard to get the previous one published. I was pushing myself, I was highly efficient, I was doing everything I was convinced I was meant to do. And every day, I was feeling a tiny bit smaller. Not only was I turning into the shadow of my own creative self, but my fate seemed sealed, or so I thought.
Irony of ironies, it is during a live broadcast of Hamlet at my local cinema, that I fell apart. I had booked the tickets many months in advance and was looking forward to a couple of hours of reprieve that day. As it turned out, this was the moment my creative brain chose to remind me in no uncertain terms that it was very much alive and it wasn’t happy. The writer in me could be tempted, at this point, to weave in my inner turmoil with that of the most eloquent (and most quoted) of Shakespeare’s characters. The former literature student in me could even pretend that I experienced a catharsis, an epiphany of some sort, and finally understood his most famous hero.
The reality, however, is far more pragmatic. I wasn’t enjoying this particular version of the play and decidedly found its central character relentlessly annoying [I can hear gasps as I am typing those words, but my position hasn’t changed from my university days, give me Macbeth any day]. I was bored and frustrated, which was not how I was supposed to feel outside of work, especially not when watching a play. I was trapped in a dark room, with a group of strangers, and the pain which had been my silent companion for months was screaming at me.
My creative brain — being creative — had chosen its timing well. So well, in fact, that I left the cinema at the interval, in tears, and went straight to my doctor who signed me off on the spot. At the time though, I had no idea I had just been saved. All I felt was pain, isolation, and extreme loneliness. My brain was foggy, my memories patchy at best, and every movement I made seemed cursed by slow motion, while the rest of the world was charging ahead at its normal pace.
Before I carry on with my story, I need to point out the fact that writing an article about my personal experience with the express purpose of publishing it online, is not only a first for me, but very much out of character. None of the seven novels I wrote started with the need to share my life, rather to explore human behaviour and particular themes and ideas. I wove three first-person narrations into my sixth novel and not once was I tempted to blurry the lines between myself and my characters, not just because they all happened to be male, but because to me fiction is…fictional. And while I am passionate about language teaching, I do not see it as a way to share my experience, although I will happily provide personal examples if it’s helpful to my students.
This article is the culmination of a two-year-long process. One that started with the realisation that, in order to feel like myself again, to feel truly engaged with the world, I needed to figure out a way to make creativity my whole life and not just a tiny part of it, and that my creative brain deserved far more than what I had given it so far.
That creativity is essential to our world is a given. That it isn’t recognised as such, sadly too. What creative people like myself are left with, is not only the sense of not belonging and not being recognised — which in itself is damaging enough — but also with a startling lack of coping mechanism.
Deciding to work part-time, and do jobs that weren’t well-paid and I was overqualified for, in order to have time to write, was a choice I happily made eight years ago. What I didn’t realise at the time was, that giving myself time to write and explore my creativity was one thing, owning it fully was quite another.
An avid reader and natural story-teller, writing fiction was the only thing I wanted to do as a child. When I finally gave myself the opportunity to explore my dream and vocation many years later, it didn’t cross my mind to call myself a writer. It took several years and novels for me to do so, to stand proud and introduce myself as such, even though most of the time, the next question fired at me right after that, was about publication and I had no satisfying answer to provide.
I was a fiction writer, fully committed to my practice, which you might think was enough. I certainly did. But allowing my creative brain to show up only when I wasn’t working, arguing that I had to make a living the rest of the time and work was bound to be less engaging, less meaningful, not creative, meant putting all the weight of expectations and my own sense of self-worth on my writing and my writing alone.
And it also meant that gradually, as rejections piled up, as I spent time cutting out words to meet arbitrary word counts and complying with finickity guidelines in order to format my submissions for agents and competitions, my practice stopped being creative and, in turn, my creative brain stopped generating ideas, stimulating me, and making me feel engaged with, and part of, the world.
I could see myself shrinking before my very eyes and the worst part is, I no longer found it strange or scary. I wasn’t listening to my creative brain any more, I wasn’t acknowledging its importance and, in the process, I was silencing myself further.
Had you told me, by the time I was signed off, that I was already on my way to fully owning my creativity and to making it an integral part of my life, I would have stared at you blankly and understood that you wished me to be published one day.
Had you told me that this particular moment in my life would become a learning experience, I would have struggled not to splash the content of my mug in your face.
And had you told me that it was OK to pause the writing of my novel, I would have pushed you out of my house with the little energy that was left in me, declaring that writing was my anchor and the day I stopped putting words to a page was the day I would finally give up, go back to my warm, safe bed and not leave it ever again.
This particular reasoning somehow kept me going, even though I was in no fit state to develop the story and characters I had lovingly crafted. I kept changing the order and structure of my novel, a sure sign that I had lost a sense of direction, but I refused to stop writing, convinced that it was the only thing that made me feel ‘normal’.
The fact was, I no longer knew myself and pined for the ‘old Caroline’. Gradually, I came to realise, through my work with a talented and insightful life coach, that this old self I missed so much, was the one that had driven me to pain and exhaustion in the first place, because it wouldn’t let me be wholly creative and, crucially, that this old Caroline was already gone. And that even though I felt entirely stuck still, I was already in the process of changing.
I started baking cakes for others to eat, putting my spin on new recipes with various degrees of success, I took Italian lessons again, relishing every new word my tired brain could retain, and I repainted my walls cobalt blue, the colour I love above all else.
Unbeknownst to my own self, I was letting my creative brain slowly back in. I still clung to my writing though, oblivious to the fact that the joy of putting words to the page had gone and every change I made was no longer motivated by my will to create a powerful story, but by a lack of confidence both in myself and in my writing ability.
Quitting a job that had made me ill obviously came as a huge relief. Not only was I not forced to fight boredom any more, but I no longer had to hide who I was on a regular basis. But however big that step forward was, it cannot compare with the gradual realisation that I wanted to help others with their writing.
It began with a couple of workshops and a blog dedicated to the writing process. I then started mentoring aspiring authors, keen to debunk many of the myths attached to writing — in particular, the most pervasive of all equating writing with suffering — and to show them how to engage with their creativity and to own it. I now teach creative writing courses on a regular basis and I love every minute of it. I have designed an online course and I am finishing a book about the writing process.
While the logic of blending one’s own teaching and writing experience to help others find their voice and develop confidence in their story-telling skills may seem obvious — and may well have been staring me in the face for months — I could only see it once I had acknowledged that my creative brain was both my most powerful tool and ally, and it would not be denied.
Every day, I find new ways of making my life wholly creative. This article is the latest one. And as for my novel, it is on hold for the moment, to give me the distance I need to disassociate the writing from the pain I lived with for so long. I miss my characters and I miss my story, but when I finally re-open my file and start editing it, it will be with the knowledge that fiction writing is one of the many ways in which I am expressing myself and with the conviction that whatever the outcome, I am no longer small, insignificant, and unseen.