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

Two Walnut Whips in the Library: An Unexpected Encounter Among the Bookshelves

I recently watched a man drink a whole bottle of salad crème in the library, and there wasn’t a salad leaf in sight. Straight from the bottle. Glug, glug, glug. To me, this epitomises libraries in the twenty-first century: a catch-all for those in freefall from the community services and projects that have been cut by the government, looking for a place to belong or snooze or drink condiments. As a writer, obsessed with people-watching, I love it.

It’s possible to work in the separate study room in absolute silence, away from those who have drifted in for weekly colouring-in, reminiscing or language exchange groups, or simply to have arguments with their partners at full volume, and I do this when I’m close to a deadline, but for most part, I can’t resist dropping myself in the centre of this vibrant soup of people, most of whom would be surprised to learn that you can borrow actual books from the library as well as charging your phone. It’s gold, and I don’t want to miss a moment.

There’s also the food issue; the staff in the silent study area are particularly unforgiving and appear at your desk like riot police at a crack house at the slightest sniff of a cookie or a crisp. Sirens have sounded and ejector seats flung for lesser crimes than a rogue sandwich. And I love to eat while I work, which is exactly what I was doing last Wednesday afternoon – working in the noisy part of the library where no one says a thing if you bring a portion of chips, a tub of ice cream and a flask of tea in with you. And then I saw him. The milky-eyed man from Hong Kong.

I’m quite good at zoning the hum of conversation out and getting to work, but I’m less able to concentrate when my curiosity is on fire, and this old guy had every synapse in my brain glowing. Spread out on the table in front of him was an array of goods – books and newspapers, a KFC sandwich and coffee, some kind of dispenser shaped like a house, two multi-pack boxes of Walnut Whips, crisps, and a stuffed bag for life that I would have loved to rummage through. But it was more the arrangement that stood out: sprawled, as if this was where he lived now. And it was the way he interacted with it; he would bite the sandwich before replacing it precisely, glance at a book before returning it, and slowly move around before taking his seat again. Then he would gently rest the side of one hand on the palm of the other, like a knife on a chopping board, close his eyes and disappear into meditation. I couldn’t take my eyes off this strange but peaceful creature.

And he’d spotted me looking.

“Wrong number!” he laughed as he hovered by my table and pointed down at my phone. By now I was texting my partner about him.

His eyes were glowing as he smiled down at me, and I couldn’t help laughing at his humour and the open, warm way in which he had made contact. I was in love with him already.

He returned to his seat after a short exchange, and I continued texting, but when I looked up, he was standing over my table once again with a Walnut Whip in each hand – one mint, one original. Again, his face was so peaceful and full of kindness.

“For you,” he offered and gave an almost imperceptible bow of the head.

I’m vegan, but I was genuinely touched and didn’t want to insult (or bore) him, so I thanked him profusely and happily took the gift. I know enough people who love chocolate.

“I wish I had something to give you in return,” I told him, taking a mental inventory of my bag, genuinely wishing there was something in there other than my notebook and a box of tampons.

“You don’t need to,” he smiled. “It’s not Christmas.”

Gift accepted, we quickly moved onto getting to know each other, and before I knew it, he was sitting with me. He told me that he had moved from Hong Kong with his father when he was thirteen and had been in town for the last forty-five years. I couldn’t imagine the culture shock and impact of being separated from your homeland at such a young age. He told me about the Opium Wars, Hong Kong independence and how good the chicken was in the buffet restaurant just down the road from the library. An old school friend was murdered near there a few weeks ago, but I didn’t bring it up.

He then asked what I did, and I told him that I write people’s life stories. I may have been imagining it, but curtains twitched on a few other tables when I said this. Everyone has a story to tell.

“You should write my life,” he told me. “My life has been exceptional,” he added, and I knew that he was telling the truth.

I looked down at the two Walnut Whips sitting on my laptop, and there was nothing I wanted more in that moment than to write his life story and send it out into the world for posterity. I was giddy with love for him and all the tales he had to tell, and before I could stop my hand from doing it, I had scrawled my number on a piece of paper and arranged to meet him at Costa on Monday. The sensible part of me was already backpedalling, and I explained that I work on so few project that there was only a slim chance that I could do anything for him, publishers are only interested when there’s an exceptional angle, and not all life stories are sellable, but I couldn’t deny that I would love to spend an hour with him and hear his story, and he seemed happy enough with that. I was happy too.

So, this week, I am grateful for the man who drifted over with the two Walnut Whips in the library, made me smile and booked an hour to tell me about his life. I look forward to discovering what Monday brings.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

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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