Every Friday morning, sometime between the first and second coffee of the day, I have therapy for an hour. It's a tricky time to have a session like that. On the one hand, it's Friday, which means I can set up my editing week so I don't work; but on the other hand, it means if the session is tough, I'm a mess for the rest of the day.
Therapy started as a means to work through how I felt about being diagnosed as autistic. It has become about working through why I struggle with writing. Why something I loved to do my whole life has become so painful and difficult. Why it feels, all of a sudden, like a trauma, like a room I'm walking into filled with pain.
Things have ramped up since finishing the PhD and graduating, as though I had to lift that burden off my shoulders before I could really look at this. I'm caught in a trap. If I attempt to write Amnar, my nervous system screams and slithers until I stop. But if I don't, then I sink into a deep depression.
If I can survive the screaming each time, then the release for having written is palpable.
But I don't want it to be like this. I want to figure out what's gone on in my head to make me feel this way, and dig my way back out.
I won't go into everything we discussed, but she did ask me about my writing process. I write a journal as part of therapy, and she has encouraged me to do more of this. One thing she asked me today was what my writing process was for doing the journals. This has led me to think about what my writing process was back in 2003, when I first started writing Amnar, and now.
I'm taking on the idea of "writing process then and now" as a prompt. It's an opportunity to delve into the world of writing in 2003, and what happens now.
When I wrote in 2003–5, it was the joy of my day to get to the bit where I could write. When I worked in the NHS, I would email myself PhD sections and Amnar chapters and work on them at lunchtime and on break. And all the rest of the time, if I'm being absolutely honest.
I walked to work, which was a mile from the flat, so I'd listen to music on the way and plan sections of Amnar, or imagine my future when I didn't have to work a job in an office and could spend all my time writing fiction. I worked during the day, then walked all the way home again.
This was in the era before I went running for exercise.
Where was I? Oh yes, I came home and then had to sleep. Looking back now, I realise this was because I was overwhelmed and I had to reset. I would then have to eat, work on the PhD between 6pm and 9pm. Then Amnar time kicked in and I could write a chapter for an hour or two.
I could write pretty much anywhere back then. I remember in the December, when I started the Amnar books, I wrote in the back of the car on the way to my grandmother's house in Orpington.
But there are some distinct memories of writing and creating a vibe. I had a flat in Sedgley Park. It's a part of Manchester on the edge of the Jewish District, on the western side. The flat was on the first floor of a small purpose-built house in a relatively new development surrounded by gigantic ancient trees. This was wonderful, except for the gigantic tree spiders that got into the flat and sat about, being unintentionally terrifying.
I would sit and write at a huge glass table I'd got when I was with Chris and for some reason couldn't part with. It never fit anywhere I lived. I wrote on my Apple Powerbook, with a huge second screen for playing music and movies. I never had a TV, so I did everything on the laptops. At one point, I had three—two Powerbooks and a PC laptop for finishing off the PhD.
I had immense playlists for writing Amnar, back in the early days of iTunes when it wasn't an awful mess of nonsense. It was my safe space, to disappear into Amnar with the right kind of movie on, or the right kind of music. I had specific movies that would trigger Amnar thoughts and emotions. I often didn't much care for the movies except that they produced a particular mood or had a specific soundtrack.
I go back to those movies and that music now and I grit my teeth to prevent myself feeling overwhelmed, to prevent myself going back to that place. I am a mess of avoidance. I don't want to feel too much, or anything at all. I don't even know what emotions are buried there that I'm trying not to feel. Perhaps it's everything I avoided feeling back then. Under the surface, it was hard.
I was stressed and scared and very alone. Helen lived on the Wirral, which is actually a long way from where I was. We talked a lot on the phone and emailed back and forth but actually didn't meet face to face very much. It's hard to remember specifics, so looking back now, I remember her coming to visit, and going off to various mind, body, spirit fairs.
Sitting and thinking about going back to some of those movies, which might be the most triggering of all, I realise I'm scared of feeling the grief and devastation that it didn't work out. I want to get straight to the point where I've recovered. Through all the stages of grief and out the other side. I say "I'm fine!" and I'm not fine but the emotions themselves are overwhelming.
I am grieving for the loss of a really weird time. It wasn't that everything was great. Most of the time, I was intensely stressed out about having to go to work and navigate these tricky office relationships. Scenarios I hadn't encountered since high school cropped up again. and again. It was hard and there was no six-month summer off.
In an attempt to get back to how I wrote in 2003, I decided I'd write in the slightly magical time post-8pm, when it feels like I have permission to do what I want. So I hold back all day, and then write at night when it feels like if I got really upset, it wouldn't knock me off kilter so much.
But if Tony comes upstairs and sits next to me or I'm on my own and it's too early, then something in me panics and I feel awful about it. I tense up. I don't breathe. I don't know if I held my breath while writing in 2003. I used to write extremely fast. I'd do a chapter a night, at least, which is about 3000–3500 words.
In my head, I have something telling me I have to do something else. I have to read, or I have to write book reviews. Or I have to just do anything else. I do terrible things in a futile attempt to shut out the panic in my head. I watch YouTube drama videos. There's a lot of talking from outside, which shuts up the voices in my head but makes it impossible to hear the writing voice as well.
A voice screams at me in my head: "Nobody wants to read this writing! Stop writing it!" And I've heard it all before. If I don't write in the morning, when I'm at my strongest, I spend the rest of the day knowing I'll have to write later and putting it off. Stressing about not being able to think of plot, having to find time and feeling guilty for doing it, even if I'm at home on my own as I am now.
It doesn't ease until after 8.30pm, which I suppose is when the day is almost done. I'm free to do as I want. The screaming in my head eases just enough, so I balance on the tightrope and write, while also trying to manage my distress. I grit my teeth and try to find the joy while also trying to deny myself the joy.
I try to shut out the words as I try to let the words in. I'm scared. I don't know what I'm doing. I panic when I can't think of the next development, when I take a risk with an idea or a story turn. I've discovered in the last few months that extensive planning doesn't work for me, so I've gone back to flying by the seat of my pants, kind of.
I keep going until I've got the minimum number of words and then the screaming becomes too intense and I have to give in to it. This is, as you can imagine, kind of exhausting. Exhausting and frustrating.
Sometimes, I suspect people might read this and say, "Just walk away." But of course, I can't. I can't walk away because every time I try to do that I fall into a well of despair.
The alternative is to attempt to ease my way back in. I would say "fight" but I don't think that's going to be the best thing. Fighting doesn't work. Fighting makes it worse. It's my nervous system, upset at something that happened that I can't fully put my finger on right now. For now, I will keep trying to ease my way closer.