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She Cried When She Read the Book: An Emotional Ghostwriting Experience

‘Jenny’ first contacted me to edit her domestic violence memoir. She is a passionate woman with so much to say on the subject, following nearly two decades of abuse. She is now dedicated to conveying a message of hope and survival to other victims and building awareness of a subject that is all too often diminished and ignored. It is an important book on so many levels, and I was honoured to work on it. I learnt so much and realised that I was blinkered on the subject in a way that she is at pains to highlight – a victim of domestic violence is not a certain type of person; it is a man or woman who met a monster after dark that refused to let them go.
Jenny told me that she was dyslexic and suffering from PTSD. Writing the book had been a difficult experience for her.

Her determination shone through in the writing, but there were serious issues with the book. She had been incredibly brave to open her laptop and let her fingertips loose on her suffering, and it had naturally flooded out of her in a steam of consciousness. Consequently, it was powerful but muddled and difficult to follow. And there were other issues: she would often abandon the narrative to tubthump the issues surrounding domestic abuse, dragging readers out of the moment and away from her story – a story that conveys her message so much more powerfully than repeated rhetoric; she was also (understandably) guarded with what she was prepared to reveal, often leaving out the most revealing elements of her experience; additionally, she veered toward ‘telling’ her story rather than ‘showing’ it with concrete description and vivid language that draw readers in, so it wasn’t coming alive on the page.

As a writer, my focus is on the experience of the reader, and although this is a painful true story, it is still a story, and I could see how it could be told in a way that would keep readers turning pages. Her focus was, justifiably, on her own experience, so it often felt as if there was a wall between her and her readers.

I told her my concerns, but she had concerns of her own: she didn’t want to simply write a survivor memoir: her scope was wider than this; she didn’t want to bring readers too close to her experience; she had a message that she was determined to deliver; she also had a fixed publication date, and time was scarce. I went ahead with the edit, as agreed, but it was challenging, and I struggled to return it, knowing that it still needed so much work. So, alongside the edit, I compiled a report, containing recommendations, suggestions and pages of questions to help fill in the blanks that the original draft had left me with. The result? Unfortunately, I completely overwhelmed the poor woman. I felt terrible and wished I had simply left her to publish the book. But how could I?

When she came back to me after that, she was beginning to see the merit of what I was suggesting, but she was still completely overwhelmed. It was at this point that she asked me to write the book for her. Time was short, but I knew I could bring it to life and produce a book that honoured her experience while serving as a lifeline to other survivors.

I was excited to work on such a rewarding project … but then she told me that she wanted to see my output every day – every day! – and my bubble burst.
I’m used to having a free rein to produce a first draft, which can then be edited. I felt like I was in chains before we had even begun. However, I am a great believer in pushing my own boundaries, placing myself in situations that are difficult (and that I often don’t like) because this is how we grow. And I respected Jenny’s need to maintain control of the project. It was her book after all.

The result exceeded both our expectations, not just in terms of the end result, but with regards to the process. I would send my copy to her every day, along with a page of questions that would help me proceed, and she would send answers and feedback. Very slowly, the trust grew between us, and she began to feel safe to reveal more of herself and share details that were painful but vital to the narrative. As difficult as this process must have been for her, she would often tell me how much she was enjoying it, and I felt so proud that she was finding it therapeutic and even healing. It was amazing to help her after everything she had suffered.
The energy and compassion of our exchange shines through in the book, and she cried when she read it for the first time. She was so grateful that I had managed to capture this difficult chapter of her life, and I was so proud to have been of service to her. I am truly blessed to be on this path.


Twitter: @hayleystories

Domestic Violence Support, call 0800 2000 247 

The Best Interviewee Ever: You! Interview Yourself for Your Autobiography

Before You Were Born

To set the scene on the incredible subject of your life, you could consider beginning before you even existed. Even if you decide against this, it’s essential that you know as much as possible about the world that you were born into. This information can then be referenced as you write to give readers more context.

What stands out about your family? Are there any noteworthy/eccentric characters?

What stories are passed down through generations?

What kind of upbringing did your parents have? Working class? Strict? An unfamiliar culture?

How did they meet? What challenges did their relationship face?

How were they impacted by the social/political status quo?

Early years

You might plan to write your whole autobiography from memory—you’re the authority on the subject after all—but speaking to the people who know you is a great source of information, and it could lead to interesting revelations. This is especially interesting if you choose to cover your baby and early childhood years. But make sure that you are selective in your choices. Look for defining, original stories, specific only to you. Think about how this information relates to the adult you.

What have you been told about your birth?

What kind of baby were you?

Do you know about all of your firsts (words, steps, etc)?

What are your earliest memories?

What stories do your parents tell about your baby years?

How do these stories relate to the person you became?

Childhood

When exploring your childhood, again, be selective and self-analytical. We are essentially gazing into the depths of the footsteps that led up to the person you became, so choose your episodes carefully. A chronology of childhood landmarks is far less compelling than a series of events selected for their pertinence to your development.

When was the first time you became aware of …

            … the lure of your future profession/passion?

            … death?

            … injustice?

            … the way you differ from those around you?

            … the hidden depths/true nature/hypocrisy of the people in your life?

What events were fundamental in forging your outlook on life?

What episodes in your childhood are noteworthy for their dramatic or entertainment value?

How are you going to make readers laugh or cry?

How are you going to make readers care about you and your life?

Adolescence

What kind of teen were you? Well-behaved? Rebellious?

Who was your first love?

When was your first kiss?

What were your passions?

Who were your teenage icons?

How did you spend your time?

How did your academic career unfold?

How did you relate to the people in your life?

How did you perceive yourself and the world?

How did you see your life unfolding, and how does that compare to the reality?

Adulthood

As you move into adulthood, it is even more important that you are selective about your content, as you are dealing with so many years. The mistake would be to cover every era in equal detail, perhaps opting for a few chapters for each decade, when some years and decades are always more compelling, interesting, informative, heart-breaking, etc. than others. This is doubly true if you are tailoring your autobiography to a certain market and there is great interest in certain aspects of your life.

When you look back over your life, which events stand out as your …

            proudest?

            happiest?

            saddest?

Which moments of your life have …

            taught you the most?

            changed you the most?

            surprised you the most?

What is your biggest regret?

What is your greatest accomplishment?

What has made you the person that you are?

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer @hayleystories

Nervous First Interview with the Subject of My New Ghostwriting Project: LGBT She-Ra!

I contacted ‘LGBT She-Ra’ a few weeks back to see if she would do me the honour of sharing her life story, to potentially create a memoir together. I should add at this stage that ‘She-Ra’ is not her real name. It does, however, reflect what an absolute warrior she is – a warrior of the heart.

She-Ra was thrown out of the Navy for being gay in the seventies and went on to love fearlessly within the confines of a relationship that was destined to always remain a secret, even from those she loved the most, even after her partner’s death a lifetime later. She is a hero and her story fascinated me. So why was I nervous?

I had met She-Ra already on a number of occasions and we had clicked well, which is half the battle won. I was excited to hear all about her life, I had set up the Zoom meeting, got my snacks, notebook and flask of tea ready (I panic when if I don’t have easy access to tea), but I was fidgety. Excited, but unable to settle.

I think it’s because I had been proactive and approached her – it’s usually the other way around – and she had taken a while to get back to me. I assumed that I had overstepped the mark in some way, that I was hoping for too much from her, because asking someone to trust me enough to share their entire life story is massive. I was asking her to lay herself bare, to think about painful memories that she may not have wanted to revisit, to speak her truth, however difficult that may have been. When she finally got back to me, however, she was far from offended; she was just surprised that anyone would care about her story. She’s a sixty-seven-year-old woman now. Why would anyone care about her experiences? It’s funny how we’re blind to how incredible our own lives have been.

So, I was satisfied that she was happy, but it didn’t stop me twisting myself up in a knot, obsessively trying to make sure that the whole experience was okay for her. I created a framework to make her feel safe, deciding that we would speak for just an hour at first, so she would see it as a finite process and not feel stuck with me. I wrote a bunch of prompts and questions, nothing too intrusive to begin with, mostly sticking to her timeline, and she could elaborate when she felt comfortable. I didn’t want there to be any uneasy silences where she felt uncomfortable. And I would make sure that we ended on something positive, rather like the way a counsellor ends a session. She lives alone now, and we’re in lockdown; I didn’t want to send her away with the weight of her own grief or injustice on her shoulders.

I told my girlfriend all about my welfare provisions, and she gave the pat on the head that I always need when I’m being a bit weird, and at 6.30 p.m. she appeared in my waiting room and I welcomed her onto my screen. After a few minutes of pleasantries – a discussion about lockdown hair and our mutual experiences of past crew cuts – she said, “So how do you want to do this?”

Referring to my notes and the rigorous plan I had to control the environment and every second of our exchange, I told her (relaxed, like!) that I thought we could start with a rough timeline.

“Well,” she enthused. “I was born in 1953 …”

Two and a half hours later, she was still talking. She had taken me through her childhood and the navy years, with more bravery than She-Ra facing off against the shape-shifting Catra on the smoky plains of Planet Etheria (Thank you, Google!).

I needn’t have worried at all, and at the end, when I thanked her, she couldn’t believe that she had spoken for so long either. She’s normally a listener.

“I guess I’ve lived my whole life in secret,” she told me. “I want to be heard.”

So, this week, I am grateful for LGBT She-Ra, for not only being an absolute gift with her honesty and ability to articulate her story, but for reminding me of how important stories like hers are, and how privileged I am to be in a position to listen to them and pass them on … Oh, and that maybe I just need to chill out and trust that everything will be okay.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer

@hayleystories

Learning to Breathe Again. A Therapy Session I Will Never Forget

I am sitting opposite my counsellor, not just crying but sobbing with unstoppable force. Her head is tilted, eyes softened, with the helpless sympathy of a woman who just doesn’t know what to do. It’s eighteen months ago. She nudges the box of tissues towards me, but I’m crying too much to reach out to them. The waves of despair hit me over and over again, and I genuinely can’t stop. The panic is rising, because I might die here, of crying. Has anyone ever died of crying before? But I can’t stop, and surely the only end to this level of grief is death. I’m going to drown in my own tears while the sun shines in through the window and my counsellor looks on.

Six months before, I had suffered a catastrophic loss and my world had caved in. I had caved in. I was immobilised by grief, but unavoidably, life goes on. I was now learning to put one foot in front of the other, to be in the world again and cope. I hadn’t been in this terrifying emotional state for a while, and yet it was more intense than ever. I was a heroin addict overdosing on a single hit after a period of abstinence. This last explosion of emotion was going to steal the life from me. I had been getting better. I thought I had been getting better. I thought I could cope. And now I was back to the beginning again.

“Close your eyes,” she whispers.

I take a deep, helpless breath, but I trust her, so I do as she says. I close my eyes.

“You’re in the river,” she says. “It’s choppy, too choppy, wild. It’s throwing you around. You’re drowning.”

What the hell is she trying to do? My panic intensifies, grows colour around it, as I’m thrown around by the unyielding current. How is this helping?

“You try to reach out, but there’s nothing to save you. The current is too strong and you are powerless. The flow gathers momentum, rushes over you, forcing you under.”

This is it. This is the moment that I might actually die. A fresh wave of despair hits me. I’m dying.

“Now, all at once, you use all of your force to jump out of the river. You’re standing on the bank looking down at the chaos. The water is thrashing and foaming, splintered branches are dragged along by the fierce current, but you are safe. You can feel the earth beneath your feet, the grass between your toes. It’s all still there, but you are no longer in it. You are safe.”

Unimaginably, the most incredible feeling overtook me even as she told me to jump out of the river. I gasped as if I had been underwater and was breaking the surface. And then, unbelievably, I was calm, genuinely calm, my tears drying in an instant. The river was still as hungry for me as it had been before, still raging and snarling with promises of death, but I was out of it. As she said, I was safe.

Breaking free of the river was such an incredible, visceral lesson, exemplifying something that I knew intellectually and had experienced through meditation, but I had never felt it with as much force. In meditation, we learn that we are not our thoughts; we are the thinker of our thoughts. Cross-legged, we close our eyes, free our mind and become the observer of the endless dialogue running through our minds, committing to simply watching thoughts drift past without judgement, without engaging with them. Eventually, the mind calms, the thoughts become fewer and further between, and if we’re lucky, we eventually find the silence.

This gives us incredible freedom from the unwelcome and spiralling thoughts that keep us awake at night, or simply from the inane chatter of our monkey minds that will prattle on endlessly and repetitively if left unchecked – about bills and shopping lists, about what the woman in Sainbury’s really meant by what she said to me last week by the checkouts.

That day with my counsellor, I was presented with a new revelation. We are not our emotions either. Just as we are the thinker of our thoughts, we are the feelers of our emotions. Just as we can distance ourselves and even control the spaghetti junction in our heads, with practice, we can step back from our emotions and return to our calm centre, even when they are overwhelming, even when we think we might die of the pain or anger, the sorrow or grief. As far as revelations go, it’s a biggie.

I am grateful that this powerful experience and realisation came to mind this week because I can feel the first signs of anxiety and depression scratching at the door again. I have been writing a memoir about my experiences over the last two years, which has brought old emotions to the surface, and although I’m trying to stay positive, like most people, I’m struggling with lockdown. So, this week I’m grateful to have simply remembered that the river exists – no more, no less. I can’t pretend to have mastery in this area, but the option to feel the cool, solid earth under my feet, respite from the chaotic emotions I am currently feeling, if only for a short while, is a welcome one … to be able to breathe again.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

What’s the Difference Between an Autobiography and a Memoir?

Autobiography, from the Greek Auto (self), bio (life) and graphein (to write), is a book written about one’s own life. Distinguished from a biography, which is an account of someone’s life written by someone else.

Famous autobiographies include:

The difference between an autobiography and a memoir exists within the scope of a book. Autobiographies cover the entire life of the subject; they might employ structural devices that take you backwards and forwards or even start at the end and finish at birth, but they ultimately tell the story of an entire life.

Memoir, from the french mémoire, is generally concerned with specific incidences or eras (e.g. a war memoir). Although background may be given to other periods, the focus is thematically placed on an aspect of life rather than life in its entirety.

Natalie Goldberg calls it “The study of memory, structured on the meandering way we think.” As such, a writer has more freedom to explore within this genre. She continues, “Memoir doesn’t cling to an orderly procession of time and dates. Rather it encompasses the moment you stopped, turned your car around, and went swimming in a deep pool by the side of the road.”

‘Who’ is the centre of an autobiography; we know the author – he or she is a politician, a celebrity, an icon of some kind – and the book gives access to the complete details of their life, where they came from, how they got where they were, the troubles they have faced.

‘What’ is the focus of memoir; we often don’t know the author, but they have experiences to delight or horrify us, for us to learn or recoil from.

Examples of great memoirs include:

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer … @hayleystories

Opera Glasses and a Packet of Frazzles: Visiting the Theatre in the Middle of a Pandemic

I can’t believe I just wrote those words – visiting the theatre in the middle of a pandemic. The NHS is straining at the joints, with doctors and nurses risking their lives on a daily basis, and I’m standing on my bloggy doorstep clapping for the National Theatre. Yes, I was happily listening to the wireless and dancing as the Titanic went down. War? What war? I was having a picnic and playing Cluedo at the time.

But I am genuinely grateful that the National Theatre has decided to stream productions into my living room via YouTube once a week. I couldn’t be more grateful, in fact, because for a whole day we’re able to pretend that we don’t have to stay in, that the world isn’t slowly falling apart at the seams, that we’re normal.

This Thursday, it was our anniversary.

“I wonder if you’ll do me the honour of joining me at the theatre tonight?” I asked sheepishly, as if she might have something better to do.

We’ve been having conversations like this since the lockdown began.

“Where shall we go today? Brighton? We could see our friends, have a paddle, check out La Choza. Nom Nom Nom.”

Sometimes we lick our lips, smile, and let our imaginations take us there. Sometimes we don’t.

But this was real. This was a way out of our ‘Stay at Home’ for a few hours. This was an event.

“We could get dressed up, move the sofa, put the light out, grab the opera glasses and Frazzles.” (Our snack cupboard was looking a bit bare.)

So we did. I in my long pinstripe jacket and bowtie, hair oiled back and moustache drawn on with eyeliner pencil. She in her flapper dress and boa. I have no idea where she found the peacock feather to stick in her hair, but it was a nice touch.

And I’m grateful for the countdown on YouTube before the show began, during which we chatted about how the traffic wasn’t too bad getting there, but we wished they sold better snacks; how I had to queue for ages for the toilet and came back with toilet roll stuck to the bottom of my shoe; how we hoped that the woman in front of us would take off her exceptionally large hat before the show began.

And then the theatre darkened, the curtain rose, and we spent the next few hours laughing at the farcical antics of James Corden and co in One Man, Two Guvnors, breaking only, perhaps ironically, to join in the actual doorstep clap for the NHS at 8.00 p.m., in full costume, before walking back down the dark aisle to find our seats again (H24 and H25 – not too bad for the money we paid, but we would have preferred the stalls, and the man sitting next to me could have slurped his champagne a little less noisily).

I’ve read tweets this week by people who question the worth of financially supporting the arts in these troubling times. I wonder if these same people have done any of the following during their isolation: watched Netflix, TV, YouTube, read a book, magazine, poem or blog, listened to music, a podcast, an audiobook, gazed at a picture on the wall that made them smile or reminded them of better times, been moved by photography or dance or even simply sustained themselves with conversations and memories of times spent exploring the visionary architecture, galleries, theatre productions and festivals of their past … I could go on.

Art, in its many forms, takes us places, gives us freedom, and this is more important than ever as our world seems to get a little bit smaller every day. It makes us laugh or cry and helps us to escape our insecurities and fears, and if we’re lucky, it teaches us a little about the human condition, strengthens and restores us, so we’re able to cope and even find a way to be useful when, for most of us, it feels like our hands are tied.

So, I guess, I’m not just grateful to the National Theatre, but to anyone who has ever picked up a pen, a paintbrush, a guitar, a camera or anything else that can be used to create. I can’t imagine this time without you.

Follow Hayley Sherman …  @hayleystories

Living Truthfully: The Freedom from Fear

BBC Three Comedy-Drama In My Skin and The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck

Teenager Bethan’s mentally ill mother has been sectioned again, and her useless, living-room-masturbating, biker dad is a cruel drunk who’s on a different planet. But …

“Dad? He’s an accountant,” she tells her friend, smiling. “He’s lovely. I’m lucky to have them.”

Lies, lies, heart-breaking lies. And I want to get inside the TV and hug little Bethan in BBC Three’s raw comedy-drama In My Skin. Tell someone! Tell anyone what you’re going through. (I can get quite involved with the TV). Take a deep breath, be brave, tell the truth. But it’s easier said than done when you’re sixteen years old and the other kids are constantly on the lookout for any stick to hit you with. It’s terrifying at any age, and even when Kayleigh Llewellyn wrote the outline of the show, which is based on her own childhood, and sent it to producers, her first thought was that she had exposed herself too much.

Why does the truth have this effect on us?

It’s almost as if we spend our lives guarding our darkest secrets, shielding ourselves from the gaze of others, but what if these authentic parts are our most beautiful and human? What if sharing them brings us closer to other humans and genuine connections? What if people can only really know us when we dare to tell our truths? What if the rewards of honesty outweigh those of vanity and self-preservation? This was clearly the case for Llewellyn, who had been a struggling screenwriter for years. The producers snapped up this story.

And it’s what Bethan’s English teacher is desperate for her to do when she encourages her to stop writing generalised empty verse, with seagulls as a metaphor for love, the grit of industrial life in Wales and other big issues of which she has no experience – and start giving something of herself, something real.

But it’s an exercise in bravery that only time and experience can teach us, as we slowly toss the occasional truth in with the washing, sprinkle a bit on our partner’s dinner or pour a little in a friend’s glass at the bar and hopefully get a reaction that doesn’t scare us too much. Ideally it encourages us to slowly peel back even more of our layers and move towards true authenticity.

The rewards, if one can reach this point, are innumerable. M. Scott Peck sums it up in The Road Less Travelled:

Open people are continually growing people. Through their openness they can establish and maintain intimate relationships far more effectively than closed people. Because they never speak falsely, they can be secure in the knowledge that they have done nothing to contribute to the confusion of the world, but have served as sources of illumination and clarification. Finally, they are totally free to be. They are not burdened by any need to hide. They do not have to slink around in the shadows. They do not have to construct new lies to hide old ones. They need waste no effort covering their tracks or maintaining disguises. And ultimately they find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty is far less than the energy required for secretiveness. The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.

Freedom from fear. I love that.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer.  @hayleystories

Lamb Bingo: A Walk in a Field in Lockdown

It’s such a small, frivolous thing to be thankful for when the world has been brought to its knees by influenza’s older, demented half-brother, with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues, but we were walking out in a nearby field for our daily exercise, shielding our eyes from the early-evening, orange blush, already grateful enough for such glorious spring colours, when the familiar sight of grazing sheep came into view. And then we saw them … tiny, skipping miracles in the grass around them, newly born into the world, tens of them, just days into their earth experience – hopping and nursing, one of them curled up on its mother’s back.

It’s such a small, frivolous thing to be thankful for when the world has been brought to its knees by influenza’s older, demented half-brother, with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues.

We raced over. We thought they were tiny dogs to start with (neither of us passed our farm animals GCSE). But no, they were lambs alright. And we were blessed to be there, to be permitted to walk through such a serene and peaceful painting, full of life. There wasn’t a soul around. It was just for us.

We took pictures and made videos, and as always, we laughed. We’ve been doing that a lot over the last few weeks, which is surprising considering we no longer have to turn on the news to find out that the world is a frightening place, but the human condition is a strange one. We laugh at the memes and videos our friends send us, of the innovative ways that people are considering wiping their bums in a time that we deludedly hope to look back on as nothing more than the great toilet roll crisis of 2020. We laugh at each other and the stupid ways we pass the time – anyone for tampon tennis? And we have both been shocked by the dark, dark jokes that emerge at a time like this, which could never be repeated outside of the two of us.

Back in the field, we laughed at the numbers on the lambs’ backs – anyone for lamb bingo? We laughed when one of us suggested calling social services on number 47, who would obviously rather be off flirting than feeding her lamb, who’s buggered off and joined 51, although baby 51 has other ideas. Then we ruminated on how cruel it is that lambs, which are so cute, lovable and full of energy, eventually become the rounded, dowdy frumps that are nursing them, the irony not lost on us that we are both becoming more and more like our own mothers every single day.

In between laughing and taking photos, there were moments of silence. And I think we both felt it. Not just gratitude, but peace and calm. If we could just stay here. If we could just stay here forever, then … I have no idea. But neither of us wanted to leave. We could almost feel the earth taking a sigh with us, her relief obvious, enjoying a temporary reprieve in her own battle against raging disease. And then it was over. We were losing light, getting hungry and had to leave this perfect moment behind, but we were smiling for the rest of the day.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

If You’re Going to Write, Write Every Day or Pay the Price

If I don’t write every day, I lose confidence, and then I can’t write, because, like most creative people, I am quite mad. There is a voice in my head that dislikes my happiness and creative expression so much that it won’t stop shouting at me – I’m not good enough, my writing is poor, there are already so many books in the world and my words are being swallowed into the quicksand faster than I can write them, I haven’t got anything original to say, writing is stupid, I hate it, I’m a fraud, everyone is a writer now and there are no more readers left. Round and round it goes, but I have genuinely found that writing every day, religiously, is a great way of jumping in front of the brain pigs with a stop sign and holding them off. It sends out a message that I won’t be bullied. I will not down tools. I am in this for the long haul. Cease and desist.

A single day away from writing costs me dearly. The spell is broken, and I am no longer fully immersed. Rather than engaging with the characters, strolling the paths that they inhabit, thinking in their voices, laughing at their antics, breathing in the aroma of their laundry, I am all too quickly on the outside again, worried, questioning, lacking in confidence, ejected from a world that exists only in my imagination, but it doesn’t stop me getting barred from it.

The simple act of writing is undeniably great for mental health, and we need all the help we can get at the moment.

I’m lucky to work professionally as a ghostwriter, and working on other people’s life stories doesn’t present the same problem. It keeps my creative muscles flexed and gives me faith in my craft. You’d think that would be enough to quieten the voices, but I wonder if any level of success can ever really shave off the demented tentacles of the fragile creative ego. I doubt it.

And, of course, in these destabilising times, there is an additional benefit of writing every day. The simple act of writing is undeniably great for mental health, and we need all the help we can get at the moment.

The first book on my lockdown reading list is ‘Writing Well’ (Philips, Linington, Penman), a writing therapy manual of sorts, which is a boost to my creative writing teaching prep. The opening chapters break down just why writing is so beneficial for those with mental health issues (all of us!), specifically in a group context.

Writing provides an opportunity to externalise feelings

Promotes trust and a sense of community

Can prompt reminiscence

Can develop concentration and orientation in time

Can promote a sense of awareness of others and the environment

Helps to develop a sense of self-esteem

Is a means of developing writing skills

It encourages appreciation of other forms of writing.

I would add to this the paradox of it as a means of making sense of the world while, at the same time, escaping it, of exploring feelings at a safe distance, vacationing in the sub-conscious. It is taking control when the world has become too messy. And the times in my life when I have abandoned writing have been the most unhappy. It’s where the magic happens, pure and simple, and I will gladly, bravely, battle my gatekeepers on a daily basis, swinging my battle-ax and roaring into the wind, if it means I get to spend time there. On a good day, there’s nowhere I would rather be.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer …  @hayleystories

Being Disqualified from the Thinking Olympics for Doping: How Steroids Are Messing With My Brain

I’m a buzzed-up giant. The washing machine in my head is spinning my clothes for the 800th time although they’re already clean. I’m a whirr. I’m polo-mint breath puffed onto an eyeball. I’m running three marathons dressed as the end. I’m tinfoil in a microwave and a thousand thoughts in a thimble. I’m a thousand warts in a wimble, and my brain is not my own. I’m a buzzed-up giant – snorted a trail of coke from one end of the street to the other with a scaffolding pole lodged up my nose and now my sun roof won’t close. It won’t close. It won’t close. Stop washing my clothes. Ahhhhh!

And breathe.

I’ve been prescribed steroids before, but I forgot quite what they do to the brain. It really is like being on class-As 24/7, and I haven’t touched anything like that since my insides were young and beautiful and it didn’t take me a week to get over the comedown. It’s not worth it now. Same with drinking. At what point exactly between thirty and forty will nothing short of a blood transfusion from a four-year-old, vegan, pure-thoughted, Icelandic child stave off a week-long hangover, the days of partying all night and going to work the next day a distant memory?

For me, this amplified-thinking hell with no off-switch has taken the form of obsessive inspiration, and I’ve channelled my relentless brain energy into writing. I’ve had no choice. I’ve been almost delirious in the middle of the night with more thoughts than I can possibly process, let alone write, tapping away on my laptop like a Tasmanian devil at a piano. It’s been great for productivity, but that level of obsession and activity is exhausting and almost painful. And aside from the obvious fraying of my sanity, there’s another issue. Although I decided that I wouldn’t make any major changes in the way I work or do anything rash in this time of madness, I haven’t been able to stop myself, and I’m a little worried that I might have trashed my life.

I devoured The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and immediately started to organise myself in a way that I have never been able. In the same way doped runners can smash world records, I was a time-management ninja on my way to a gold. The second ‘habit’ encourages readers to write a mission statement for their life. I’m reading mine now and can’t help noticing that it doesn’t necessarily represent or reflect the me that existed, live, breathed, thought and was sailing the ship for the first forty-two years, six months and four days of my pre-steroid life. No, this two-week-old, drug-addled incarnation has produced bullet points that never occurred to me before I was Super Hayley. Apparently, fiction is out and the truth is everything. If I’m going to write, it has to be honest. It has to be me. If I’m going to bother doing this, it has to be real. I write the life stories of others for a living and expect them to lay themselves bare for me. This is what I should be doing. So my detective and sci-fi works-in-progress have gone out the window, my paid work has taken a back seat, I’ve changed my name, started running again, and I’ve overhauled my website to preach truth and honesty. I’ve officially taken leave of my senses.

My partner is checking everything I’m writing because I’ve lost all sense of perspective and quality control. It could be terrible. I could have filled pages and pages with shopping lists and recipes for bean stew for all the awareness I have. But, surprisingly, she tells me it’s beautiful and I’m brave, and it’s incredible to be that honest. This means the world to me.

The steroids have also shut down all those annoying voices in my head that tell me, despite my many achievements and evidence to the contrary, that I’m not good enough, that I have nothing original to say, that I should just switch on the TV and eat cake instead, and for that I am truly grateful.

But what happens when the course is over, when I stop being Hayley 2.0, the very best, most productive, creative, confident and well-organised version of myself, and return to regular Hayley who likes a nap in the afternoon? What happens when I see what I’ve produced in this time for what it really is? Who knows? But I plan to see it through to a fiery showdown in a clearing with the sun setting behind me and my arms thrown in the air, and then I’ll see what’s left when my mind is my own again – which will be very soon because what started as an overwhelming box of medication has been reduced to rows and rows of empty blisters and screwed-up information leaflets. I have just two weeks left, and for this I am grateful. I am grateful for the whole experience, and the opportunity I have been given to tap into something deeper than I normally would, or at least more personal, but I can’t wait to reclaim my own brain, flawed, imperfect and guarded as she is.

I need a rest.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

Reading ‘Writing Down the Bones’ Twenty Years Later

My God, I was an arrogant writer when I was younger. I knew my work was good, and I reacted to criticism the way flat-earthers respond to the inconvenient truth. I was hot stuff, they were wrong/moronic/picking on me, and the world would have to catch up with my genius sooner or later.

But I wasn’t arrogant enough not to learn my craft. I’ve always read compulsively, and can neck a tall book on the craft of writing in one sitting. I’ve always been devoted to being the best I could be, but that didn’t mean that I was realistic, and I wonder how far I ever really pushed myself into the uncomfortable space where the real magic happens. I loved books that taught me about character and plotting, finding inspiration, pacing, all the components of a good book, all the things I trusted to move me forward as a writer, all the safe spaces, but I was less sure about the ones that pushed me out of my comfort zone. One of which was the classic Writing the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

If you haven’t read it, I suggest breaking out of quarantine and ramraiding a library. It will see you through. I promise.

It recently came back into my life when I was exploring approaches to teaching and writing more authentically, and as the Buddhists say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

It is a beautiful rumination on what it’s like to be a writer, to trust what’s inside you and tell your story honestly and vividly, to communicate in full colour, and spill something of your essence on the page.

True happiness is realising that you have everything you will ever need, and when you know this, it frees you up to simply write the bones.

As a younger writer (and even as a not-so-younger writer) this wasn’t something that mattered to me as much as crafting a good story, entertaining and sometimes showing just how clever I was with nifty twists and turns that kept readers guessing. There is nothing wrong with any of that, per se, except I started to question why I was doing it. What’s the point in writing when there’s already so much book in the world? Why does any of this matter to me? Am I connected at all to anything I’ve ever written? Have I ever written a word of truth? I would turn up to my desk less and less when I couldn’t answer a single one of these questions.

Writing Down the Bones came back into my life at just the right time, and I will share with you the analogy that formed in my mind while I was reading it, as it encouraged me to spill my insides with daily free-writing sessions and let go, to tap into what was really inside of me. I realised that I had been approaching writing from the completely wrong angle.

A tree starts with a seed.

It doesn’t come into the world fully formed.

I had always brainstormed for ideas, found my tree and then worked on replicating it in book form in its fully finished state. I left room for just enough creativity to keep myself interested. I could colour the leaves as I went and sketch the intricate detail of the bark. A feral squirrel might occasionally jump out of it unannounced, but essentially, I knew what it looked like before I began, and I was never going to be too surprised by the outcome.

A seed.

That was what I needed.

A daily writing practice, not knowing what I was going to write and sitting back as the beautiful shoots emerged. Rejecting the idea of shape and form, of neatly packaged ideas, of creating something that fits neatly onto a bookshelf. Getting in touch with my authentic self to see what was there. Using my own obsessions, passions, preoccupations, loves, hates, hopes and dreams to create art, rather than writing with a market in mind that I might be able to capture if I crafted the right character, chose the perfect theme and tapped into an elusive zeitgeist.

As I write this, I realise that I am being too hard on my younger self. It was fear more than arrogance. Diving into the subconscious is terrifying, and the rewards aren’t guaranteed, which isn’t a great sell for a young writer hungry for success, fame and money, none of which matters to me anymore. I have let go of so many things that were once important. True happiness is realising that you have everything you will ever need, and when you know this, it frees you up to simply write the bones.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer …  @hayleystories