Cardboard Characters on an Empty Stage

Typewriter B/W....now write the story.Creative Commons License THOR via Compfight

There are some authors who love to outline their novels in great detail before putting pen to paper, (or fingertips to computer keyboard), whilst others prefer to start writing from a simple idea, a situation, and see where it goes.

Suspense novelist Richard S Prather outlined his novels in great detail.

I spend considerable time on plot development, typing roughly 100,000 words or more of scene fragments, gimmicks, “what if?” possibilities, alternative actions or solutions, until the overall story line satisfies me. I boil all of this down to a couple of pages, then from these prepare a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis, using a separate page (or more) for each of, say, twenty chapters, and expanding in those pages on characters, motivations, scenes, action, whenever such expansion seems a natural development. When the synopsis is done, I start the first draft of the book, and bang away as speedily as possible until the end.
Lawrence Block – Writing the Novel

Randy Ingermanson uses a concept he calls the Snowflake Method, to build up a detailed outline for a novel from a simple, one line concept.

Stephen King, on the other hand, prefers starting out with a situation, and begins writing immediately.

I want to tell you about my experiences.

I prefer writing to outlining. Outlining has its place, I’m sure, but writing is what I enjoy doing, and where I feel I am at my most productive and honest. I’ve tried outlining, and I even tried the Snowflake Method once. I finished up with a detailed outline, complete with character biographies, the plot broken down into scenes and chapters, side notes detailing whose point of view the scene was from, and internal and external conflicts. But I never wrote a single word of the story. What I had started out believing was going to be an exciting, action packed novel of tension and surprise, had become drab and boring and completely mechanical, devoid of any joy or life.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that one way is right and the other is wrong. I’ll leave that to the fundamentalist teachers.

But come with me for a moment, I want to show you something.

Joe Coffin looked at the tower block through the rain spotted windscreen. The car’s suspension groaned a little as he shifted his bulk, trying to find a comfortable position. He hated riding in Tom’s car, his head pressed against the roof, despite his best efforts to slouch in the seat. But then there was no room for his legs, either. He’d racked the seat back as far as it would go, but his knees were still up under his chin.

Tom Mills wiped furiously at the windscreen with an oily rag, replacing the mist from their breath with smeared streaks of grease and muck. In contrast to Coffin, Tom was small and wiry. He appeared to be older than his thirty-seven years, his skin flaky and blotchy, and his pinched cheeks making him look as though he was constantly sucking on a lemon.

“You ready?” Tom said.

“You sure this is the place?” Coffin said, still staring up at the tower block.

“Yeah, I told you, these are the guys.” Tom stuck a cigarette in his mouth, struck a match against the zipper on his boot, and lit up.

“You sure?” Coffin said.

“Fuck, Joe, yeah I’m sure. One thousand and fucking ten percent sure, all right?”

Tom held out the open packet of cigarettes, and Coffin took one.

Tom lit it for him.

This is the opening scene in Chapter Two of my upcoming horror novel, Joe Coffin. I’d had the idea for a novel about a man called Joe Coffin for a while now. I hadn’t written a character sketch, had no idea about his family or his friends, but I had a fairly good physical description in my head, and an idea about what kind of person he was. When I came to write this chapter (Coffin doesn’t feature in Chapter One) I had a problem. I needed someone sitting in that car with him (good job, as it quickly turned out Coffin can’t drive!) to talk with, and accompany him into the tower block they are both looking at.

Tom Mills’ only purpose, as far as I could see, was for that one scene.

Tom had other ideas.

He quickly turned into a major character in the novel, and the driver for much of the story and the conflict that was yet to come. I love Tom, and I’ve had a lot of fun watching what he gets up to, and listening to his filthy dialogue.

One of my readers told me she hated Tom, and another one described him as ‘loathsome’.

Wow, I thought. That’s fantastic.

Writing a novel for me, when it is going at its best, is like transcribing events unfolding in my mind’s eye. I have absolutely no control over what’s going on, I simply observe, and do my best to accurately convey what I see. Where my finished novel might not work, or is clumsy in places, or cliched, that’s because I got in the way, and interfered. I tried to take over the plot, and steer my imaginary friends in a direction they did not want to go.

But when I step out of the way, that’s when the magic can happen.

That’s not the way it feels when I outline. Then it is more like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together. Only the jigsaw puzzle has no picture, and I’m trying to solve it in a pitch black room. And there are probably a couple of pieces missing.

The story doesn’t grow organically in an outline. I am simply shuffling cardboard characters around an empty stage, becoming increasingly frustrated and disillusioned as the plot refuses to work, and the characters refuse to come to life.

But hey, that’s simply how I work.

Do you outline, or simply start writing from a basic idea?

 

If you would like to receive regular updates from my blog, plus news about my books, including the Joe Coffin series, and get free stories and ebooks, then subscribe to my newsletter list by filling in the form below. As a thank you, I will send you my collection of short stories, Stories of the Night, in your preferred ebook format.

 

Finding the Time to Write

Keeping An Eye On Time Ian Foss via Compfight

Do you ever look at the ones who have ‘made it’, the successful authors who have a list of published books as long as your arm, and who in their biographies mention that they also perform in a rock and roll band, travel the world, have become martial arts masters, or played professional football, and feel a grinding envy?

Well, if you don’t, you’re a better person than I am.

I look at these people, and others like them, and think to myself, ‘Where on earth do you find the time?’

I’m lucky, I work part time, and write part time. Not everybody has that luxury, and this hasn’t always been the way for me, either. I used to juggle a full time job with writing. It’s difficult.

But let me tell you something. Writing part time and working part time is still difficult. Every day I feel like I am juggling a hundred different priorities. When I’m not at work, I still have to get the children’s lunchboxes made, get them to school on time (dressed and washed, which sometimes seems like an impossible feat in itself) and then do the jobs around the house, or get the shopping, and then I have to collect the boys from school, ferry them to their clubs, take them swimming, and all the other activities associated with having a family.

On top of all that, I’m thinking to myself about how many words I need to write today if I am to meet my weekly goal, have I tweeted any meaningful content yet, did I respond to that email, did I send out my free joining gift to my latest email subscriber, how far am I into formatting my last novel for publication, and on it goes.

No wonder I sometimes feel like I am going a little bit bonkers.

This week my wife and I sat down and had a little talk. She was concerned that I was starting to prioritise my writing over my family.

And she was right.

I was.

And that’s something I had always promised myself I would never do.

But it had crept up on me, without me realising it.

If there was ever a moment in the day when I saw an opportunity to sneak out, and tinker with a manuscript, I took it. I was beginning to resent the time spent doing necessary, real world type stuff, when I could be in my study, transcribing the goings on of that other place, that place that only I can tap into, and where all sorts of weird shit happens. And if something unexpected rose its ugly head during the day, and actually stole writing time from me, boy, that made me angry.

This is the solution I came up with.

Haul my sorry backside out of bed a little earlier than usual in the morning, and write whilst everybody else is still asleep.

This has two immediate benefits.

One is that I am clear headed, refreshed from a night’s sleep, and ready to do the work.

The second benefit is the sense of pride and satisfaction I have for the rest of the day, knowing that, no matter what the day might throw at me, I have already completed my daily word count.

Now, I am not a natural morning person. In fact, the idea of waking late, having a leisurely breakfast, and then spending the rest of the day in bed reading, would be pure heaven.

But I am doing it. One morning at a time, I am hauling myself out bed as soon as I hear that alarm, and taking myself downstairs where I feed the cats, get myself a bowl of cereal, brew myself a strong, black coffee, and lock myself away with my imaginary friends.

If I can do it, so can you.

I’ll leave the final words on rising early to two men much wiser than I am.

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” – Ben Franklin

“Put no trust in the benefits to accrue from early rising, as set forth by the infatuated Franklin …” – Mark Twain

Everybody has their own opinion!

How do you cope with juggling the stresses of daily life and writing?

Getting Lost in New York

Empire State Building, Observatory Dirk Knight via Compfight

Have you ever been lost in a big city? New York, London, Birmingham?

It helps when you have a map, right?
But what if the map you have is of a completely different city?

You’re in New York, but your map is of San Francisco.

That’s no help at all. But, what would be worse is, if you think that the map of San Francisco that you are consulting is actually a map of New York.
Now that map is a hindrance to you, and you will never get where you want to go.

Our perception of life can be like that, some days.

You are trying to navigate life, but the map in your head is the wrong one, and you don’t even know it.
What look like problems to you might actually be opportunities. That failure you are kicking yourself over might actually be a success.

The next time you are feeling down and lost, or you are berating yourself over a self perceived failure, try changing the map.

You might well find you’ve been consulting the wrong one all along.

The people in your novel are real people too.

Do you see yourself as an extra in life? A bit part player, in your own story, or the story of your family or friends? My guess is, you don’t. Even if you have the misfortune to suffer from chronic low self-esteem, you are still the centre of your own universe.

It’s the same for the people in your novel. That dodgy salesman with the walk on part, who’s only purpose in the scene you are writing is to aggravate your heroine’s fear of social contact, with his sexual advances? He doesn’t see himself as an extra. Maybe he is going to be in only one brief scene in your book, but that man has a whole history behind him, and a future ahead. Maybe he comes onto the women he meets because he has a bad case of low self-esteem. Maybe he’s been badly rejected by a woman he loved very much, and this is his revenge on women in general. Maybe he’s suppressing his latent homosexuality, by being sexually provocative with the opposite sex.

The absolute one thing he isn’t, though, is a dodgy salesman who presses his odious body up against every woman he meets, simply because that fits the requirements of that particular scene.

People are deeper than that.

The people in your novel are deeper than that.

Notice here, that I talk about people, rather than characters. Talking about characters automatically makes them sound like cardboard cutouts, two dimensional creations, forgotten the moment they have exited stage left. But people, they live and breath, and have attitudes, and none of them are explicitly light or dark, but all shades in between.

(All right, you caught me. Yes, I know, if you look at previous posts I’m sure you will catch me talking about characters, but I’m allowed to change my vocabulary, right? We’re all learning as we go here, okay?)

In the snippet below, taken from my upcoming novel, Joe Coffin, Emma (our feisty, potty mouthed reporter) has arranged to meet with local burglar Mervin Price, who has agreed to help Emma break into a house for a story she is investigating.

Emma looked at him, his suit and tie, shiny black shoes. “Fuck, Merv, you really made an effort today, didn’t you?”

Merv stood up a little straighter, adjusted his tie. “You like it?”

“Shit, yeah I like it. Look at you, you even combed your hair!”

“Got to look the part, you know,” Merv said, beaming with pleasure.

Emma nodded, smiling. “Oh yes, you look the fucking part, all right.” She looked at him some more. “Okay, Merv, what is it you’re supposed to be? I mean, don’t get me wrong, you look great and all, but I’m used to seeing you looking like something even the cat refused to drag in.”

Merv’s face fell. “Really?”

“Yep, really.”

“Well, you know, it can get difficult sometimes, living on your own, there are some days you just don’t feel like making the effort.”

“Merv, believe me, you live on your own, it’s still worth the effort to brush your teeth and maybe have a wash once in a while, you know what I mean?”

“You never said anything before.”

“I never wanted to offend you. It’s not easy telling someone they smell.”

“I smell?”

“Oh, fuck, Merv, don’t go getting all pissy on me. Look at you, you look fantastic today!”

“Yes, well, I wanted to look the part.”

“You already told me that.”

“Maybe I should try looking the part more often.”

“That’s a good idea, Merv. But what’s the part you’re playing?”

“Oh. Well, I thought, as I am breaking into a house that is the scene of a crime, that it would help if my attire gave off the appearance of officialdom.”

“Right.”

Merv pulled a wallet out of his jacket pocket, and opened it up. “Look, I even made myself an ID badge, just in case anyone asked what I was doing here.”

Anyway, you get the picture. The point I want to make about this scene is this: I know Merv better than Emma knows him. I happen to know that Merv has a secret crush on Emma, and that today he was trying to impress her. He’s far too shy to ask her out, but he had still hoped to attract her attention with his new, clean, smart appearance. Of course he couldn’t tell her the real reason he dressed up, so he invented the story about his cover. Too an extent he probably even believed his own story.

But in reality, he just wanted to impress Emma.

Now, Merv may never appear in any of the Joe Coffin books ever again (and I plan to write a fair few of them) but, just because his role in this story is so brief, doesn’t mean to say he is not as important as the other charact—sorry, people who populate this narrative.

You don’t have to write out a back story for every person in your book, or map out their preferences in sleeping habits, or how often they go for a dump each day. But don’t let those men and women who inhabit the outer regions of your WIP be caricatures, or paper thin characters.

They are people, just like everyone else in that story you are telling.

And just like you and me, they don’t see themselves as extras in life.

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Thank you!

10 reasons why you should just give up now

  1. It’s just too difficult. I can’t believe you even thought you would be able to do this in the first place. I mean, come on, what came over you?
  2. Everybody will laugh at you, you do know that, don’t you? You will fuck it up, just like you always do, and they will laugh at you, and, even worse, pity you.
  3. See those people over there? They’ve made a success out of their lives because they are better than you. Better looking, stronger, cleverer, they have got more friends and more money and a nicer house, and a bigger car and…well, everything about them is just so much better than you.
  4. You had another crap day at work? What did you expect? Every day is a crap day at work for you. Maybe that’s because you’re so shit at your job.
  5. Why do you feel so bad all the time? Because you’re an idiot, that’s why.
  6. Not only are you an idiot, but you are, in fact, a complete waste of space.
  7. Just stop for a minute, and take a look back over your life. Not very pretty, is it? In fact, it’s a travesty. I mean come on, what the hell have you actually accomplished in this pathetic life of yours? I’ll tell you what. Nothing.
  8. All right, so you feel like shit. But don’t you dare tell anyone. It’s not their fault you feel the way you do, it’s yours. Nobody else can help you, the way you feel is all down to you.
  9. Let’s face it, there’s no hope left for you. This is the way it is going to be from now on. Always. For the rest of your miserable life.
  10. So you might as well give up now. Do yourself, and everybody else, a favour, and end it right now. Nobody will miss you.

Because that voice in your head is telling you these things, it can be very persuasive. After all, this is ‘YOU’ talking, right? That internal dialogue that your mind has with itself every day. And if ‘YOU’ are talking to ‘YOURSELF’, then ‘YOURSELF’ will listen, and pay attention.

But I’ve got news for you. Your mind can sometimes (often) tell you a bunch of lies. You believe the lies, and then you internalise them, because these thoughts are too awful to share with anyone else. You don’t want anyone knowing the ‘REAL YOU’, do you?

The problem is, you don’t know the ‘REAL YOU’ by now, either.

Talk to someone. A friend or a family member who you trust to listen. Seek out the help of a professional.

Don’t live with the lies any longer.

Mental Health Helplines – NHS Choices UK

Wilko Johnson is dying, and he says he has never felt better.

Wilko-Johnson-2239135

On the 10th January 2013, the news was out that Wilko Johnson, former member of Dr Feelgood and Ian Dury and the Blockheads, had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. In a statement, his manager said that Wilko had refused to have chemotherapy, and was going to spend his last few months of good health touring the UK, on the ultimate of farewell tours.

Ten months later, and Wilko was receiving an award, and joking that the farewell tour was going to get embarrassing if it extended into the next year.

Now in 2014, and Wilko has just released a new album with Roger Daltrey, and is set to go on another tour, this time in Japan.

The guitarist, described by Graham Coxon as having a “literally white knuckle telecaster abuse” style of playing, has said he has never felt so alive, since being told he is going to die.

I deeply admire Wilko Johnson for making the decision to fill his final days with life, and purpose. But sometimes it seems to me that living is harder than dying.

Alastair Campbell, in his book, The Happy Depressive, talks about the pursuit of happiness. Campbell suffered a serious breakdown over twenty-five years ago, and has suffered with bouts of depression since. For him, happiness is not something that can ever be achieved until the end of one’s life: “For me happiness is not about moments – though they can build towards it – but about fulfilment over time.”

It’s a cliche, but I’m going to say it anyway: Life is a journey. And the ultimate destination is the final stop on that journey.

It seems to me that we fill our lives with false destinations along the way.

If only I could get that job, I would be happy.
If only we could afford that house, then we’d be happy.
Once I am married, I will be fulfilled.
When I have signed that six figure publishing deal, life will be complete. (Yeah, that’s mine!)

But life isn’t like that. Happiness can be a fleeting feeling, easily ruined by an ill word, a sudden change in circumstance, or a gradual settling into a dull routine.

Perhaps it would do us good sometimes, to stop and remind ourselves that one day, we too shall die. And rather than letting this fact plunge us into depression, we should celebrate it, and use it to propel us on, and make every day count for something.

That’s what Wilko Johnson is doing. And it seems to be working for him.

 

If you’re a believer in eating your five a day, take a look at the ‘Five a day’ recommendation for general well being, by the New Economics Foundation.

Connect with people around you.
Be active.
Take notice – be curious and aware of the world around you.
Keep learning – try something new.
Give – do something nice for a friend or a stranger.

And remember to eat your greens!

The Truth Behind the Lie

“There is no doubt, fiction makes a better job of the truth.” – Doris Lessing

“But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” – Ken Kesey

 

Steven Spielberg tells a story about the making of Jaws, when he wanted a fake severed arm made for a scene in which Amity Chief of Police finds a chewed up shark victim on the beach. The special effects team delivered a fake arm for him a few days later.

“This is terrible!” Spielberg said. “The arm looks plastic, it looks totally fake!”

“But wait!” the special effects team said. “This is how the skin would look if the arm had been in the sea for twelve hours or more. It’s totally authentic.”

Spielberg thought about this for a moment. “You know what, I’m not making this film for the one guy who might be in the audience who’s a specialist on the effects of seawater on severed limbs. It looks plastic to me, we’re not using it.”

For the scene that finally made it into the movie, Spielberg convinced one of his crew to lie in the sand, with just her arm in shot, whilst sand crabs scuttled all over it.

Stories, whether they be stories we watch, read or listen to, are lies.

But the most convincing stories appear to be true. Or at least work hard enough that we are willing to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the story, and believe in them.

This is called verisimilitude. The appearance of truth, or realism, within a narrative.

Spielberg was not interested in the real truth, but the appearance of truth within his construct of lies, his story, his narrative.

But fiction can also reveal truth by framing that truth within the confines of a story.

The stories that we read, and watch, and listen to, the stories that we tell each other, are a way of constructing our lives, making order out of the chaos that surrounds us.

And sometimes those stories can tell us a certain truth. Usually about ourselves.

A theme I discovered surfacing repeatedly in my stories over the years was that of the absent father. Recently I have come to discover certain things about my own father that made me realise I never actually knew him.

Although I hadn’t realised it, I had been expressing that emotional truth in my own stories for many years.

First of all there is the Baptist Minister looking for his missing teenage daughter in my second attempt at writing a novel. Over the course of the story he comes to realise how little he knew his daughter, and reflects on his relationship with his own father, and their lack of attachment.

Then there is Jim Kerrigan, in Caxton Tempest at the End of the World. Jim is a Victorian orphan, whose parents are dead. He is rescued from his abusive captor, Marchek Mulready, by Tempest, who then becomes a father of sorts, but he also proves to be aloof and absent.

Dallas Hogan has an abusive father in Population:DEAD!, and finishes the story intent on exacting a terrible revenge for all the years of cruelty inflicted upon her.

Abigail Rose tragically loses her father in a fight, because in part, he has been unable to form a proper relationship with his daughter, in my pirate tale, The Devil and Edward Teach.

But the most pertinent example of all comes in my short story, Dad. By now in my early forties, I still had painful memories and emotions left over from certain childhood experiences. I also had this idea for a story in the back of my mind, about a man who is visited by the ghost of his father. The ghost wants to heal his relationship with his son, say sorry for his part in their troubled relationship..

I meshed my memories with this idea, weaving the truth of my relationship with my own father into a fictional tale, involving fictional characters.

The experience proved to be a cathartic one for me, and has resonated with many readers over the years.

Within the lies of the story lay an emotional truth, one that many people can identify with.

Dad is included in my digital short story collection, Stories of the Night, which I am currently giving away as a thank you for signing up to my newsletter.

The other stories included in this collection are-

Mrs De Runtzen’s Jewels, a Victorian ghost story.

Little Monsters, a halloween horror story.

The Nazi Superweapon, a second world war horror story.

“Drive Fast,” She Said, a coming of age tale involving a fast car and a reckless dare.

Whatever sort of story you are after, I’m pretty sure there’s something in this collection for you.

Except chic lit. I don’t do chic lit.

Seeking approval, expecting rejection

If you haven’t read my previous post, I have a Black Dog and his name is Depression, it’s probably best you go there now, before you read this.

If I know you, chances are that our relationship has been conducted within the ‘Seeking approval, expecting rejection’ framework. Don’t worry, you didn’t know it, and you weren’t responsible for it. You see, I was the one who was doing all the seeking of your approval, whilst simultaneously automatically expecting rejection.

This mostly happened without me realizing it too. I have always had this desperate need to fit in, be part of your gang, your family, your circle of friends, your community, your ‘tribe’.

But, at some point in the process of seeking that approval, that acceptance, I encountered rejection. It was nothing to do with you.

I was looking for rejection. And I found it.

So, this is how I fed the Black Dog.

I sought your approval and acceptance, when you had never asked for it, and didn’t require it.

And I encountered your rejection, when you never actually rejected me, or even thought of doing so.

And because I had sought your approval, but instead only received rejection, I then beat myself up for it. Because it had to be my fault.

And so the Black Dog was fed some more, and grew bigger and bigger.

It took several weeks of counselling before I discovered this truth about myself, although the reasons for it had permeated almost every piece of fiction I have written. (More on that in a separate post, about the hidden truths lurking behind the lies of stories.)

Towards the end of August I was feeling the lowest, the most isolated, I had ever felt. I was no use to anyone, and by now that truth had to be plain to see to everyone I came into contact with.

All I wanted to do was run and hide. From my wife, from my two boys, from my friends, but most of all, probably from myself.

Fortunately for me, the counselling sessions started soon after this point.

I have a few strategies for dealing with the Black Dog. One of the most effective is running.

When I go for a run, I easily outpace the Black Dog, leaving him panting and struggling to keep up in the distance. He does everything he can to persuade me not to go for a run: ‘It’s too cold. It’s too wet, you’re too tired, you can always go for a run tomorrow…’

I have learnt the hard way that the times I feel least like going for a run are probably the times I most need to lace up my running shoes and get outside.

Another strategy I have found that keeps the Black Dog at bay is writing. When I write, I enter a world he’s not allowed into. I didn’t set that rule, this just seems to be the natural order of things.

I open that door into my imagination, and step through.

He stays outside.

(Again, he does everything he can to dissuade me from writing: ‘I don’t know why you bother, you’re a crap writer anyway, who the hell are you trying to fool, thinking you can write books, wait a minute, why write when you could be watching TV, or lying on the bed gazing stupidly at the ceiling for hours on end…’)

But the counselling was different.

There was no running away from the Black Dog there.

In those sessions I confronted the Black Dog head on. Looked him in the eye, and saw my own, naked reflection.

It’s amazing what I found out about myself in those sessions. Amazing because what I discovered did not need dragging out of me whilst under hypnosis, I didn’t recover any buried memories, nor did I discover an evil, hidden side to my personality.

The reasons for why I fed the Black Dog so easily had been there all along for me to see. What my counsellor did was point them out to me, helped validate the experiences I’d had in my formative years, and gave me the tools to rationalize my emotions, and my destructive thought processes.

No more beating myself up, no more thinking of myself as a waste of space.

At the end of one particularly painful session, she said this:

It’s not your fault.

I think that may be the most important sentence of my life.

It’s not your fault.

If you identify with anything I have written here, if you feel worthless, beat yourself up for failing again, have this feeling that you could be doing better, if only you could buck your ideas up, if you think your family or friends might be better off without you, if you witnessed crap as a child that you still think about sometimes, all these years later, or if something happened and you were told, or even if you weren’t, but you still feel it’s true, that you were to blame, I’m telling you now…

IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.

Big White Wall

Mindfulness

Mind

 

I have a Black Dog, and his name is Depression.

blackdog5 In a foul mood, down in the dumps, dejected, gloomy, desolate, a blue funk, despondent, feeling low…

There are many words to describe a state of unhappiness, but only the term, The Black Dog, captures depression’s particular combination of attributes.

My own Black Dog is a very loyal companion. He’s been a part of my life now for going on thirty-two years or more. Sometimes he sits in the background, and I hardly notice him. Other times he is a constant presence by my side, suffocating me with his love.

For many years I thought I had finally managed to cage him for good. Oh, he was still there, and I could still hear his growls and his barks, but it was fine.

He was safely locked away in his cage.

He couldn’t hurt me anymore.

The problem was, sometimes I gave in to all those barks and growls, and I fed him.

Rule Number One: Never feed the Black Dog.

But it’s difficult not to. He can be so damn insistent.

Towards the end of 2012, I started feeding the Black Dog on a regular basis. I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it.

Not until it was too late, anyway.

Wednesday, June 12th 2013, sometime around mid-morning, and the Black Dog erupted out of his prison. He’d been rattling the bars for a few months by now. And with all that food I’d been giving him, he’d simply outgrown his cage.

I had what I can only describe as a mini-meltdown. It mainly involved bursting into tears in front of my work colleagues, and then fighting the urge to go and find a dark corner to hide in.

I was in no condition to do any work, so I went home, and booked an appointment to see the GP. By the following morning I had a prescription for Sertraline, an anti-depressant, I was booked in for counselling, and I had been signed off work for two weeks.

Great, I thought, we can get this sorted.

Fat chance.

The Black Dog was out, and he had no intention of going anywhere soon. He’d missed me.

Oh, and all that time I’d been feeding him in his cage? Yes, he’d grown BIG.

Although I did not know it at that point, I was not to return to work for almost six months.

The summer of 2013, the Black Dog spent a great deal of time in my company. He liked to whisper in my ear, tell me that I was no good, I was a complete waste of space. My family and friends? Well, they’d be better off without me, to be honest.

I took to repeating those statements, muttering out loud to myself, “You’re a fucking waste of space, you’re just a complete fucking idiot,” and other, equally enlightening platitudes.

I lost all enjoyment of life. Spending time with my wonderful family became a terrible chore. I did my best to put on an act for the boys, especially, but the mask slipped sometimes, and the best thing I could do then was go and hide in the bedroom.

I lost the ability to think clearly. The simplest decisions became agonizing, potentially life changing problems, for which I had no answers.

I couldn’t write anymore, and for a while I couldn’t even summon up the energy to pick up a novel, and read.

My anxiety levels shot up. I had a constant churning in my stomach, worrying over…well, nothing actually. I just worried.

I found it increasingly difficult to spend time with friends, even close ones. Anytime my wife and I got together with friends, I just sat mute, unable to think of a single contribution worth making to the conversation going on around me.

Despite the lies the Black Dog liked to whisper into my ear, I knew my wife and my two boys needed me. That if I listened to the Black Dog, and acted upon his insidious falsehoods, their lives would be changed forever.

But it was difficult to ignore him, especially in the middle of the night when I was the only one awake, had been for hours, with no chance of drifting off to sleep in sight.

Even on holiday, lying on a beach in Brittany, the sun’s warmth on my face, I found it difficult to escape the Black Dog. He liked to lie beside me, snoozing. His presence alone a constant reminder that I was an idiot, a complete and utter fuck up.

I mean, come on, was there really any point in me prolonging my miserable existence on planet earth?

The summer of 2013. Not the best summer of my life.

In my next post I’ll talk through some of the steps I took to pull myself out of the valley I was in, and the help that I had doing so.

The Black Dog is not back in his cage, yet, but I have learnt how to keep him at a distance. And, strangely enough, I have learnt how to value his presence in my life, too.

If you recognise any of these thought patterns or feelings in yourself, please, please go and get help. See your GP, or talk to a trusted friend or family member.

The Black Dog doesn’t need to be your constant companion, either.

 

By the way, the inspiration for this post, and the illustration at the top, come from this brilliant book by Matthew Johnstone -

I Had A Black Dog.

The link takes you to Amazon.
And, to be completely transparent, although the links to my own books on this blog are affiliate linked to Amazon, the link to Matthew Johnstone’s book is not, and I receive NO money if you purchase his book after finding it through that link above.