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

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