Losing it.

How I lost and regained myself through words.

My house wasn’t quite this bad…but nearly.

I grew up surrounded by books. My mum and dad were always fighting for shelf space for their huge collection and I was read to almost non-stop until about the age of 13. It was only natural that I too should cultivate a passion for the written word. As a small child, I read a series of books called “The Garden Gang”, by Jayne Fisher and it was this which really spurred my interest in creating my own works. I remember turning one of the books over one day and discovering, much to my surprise and delight, that they had not been written by an adult but instead, had been lovingly hand drawn and written by a little girl of 9 years old. Small though I was, this inspired me and I quickly developed the dream of becoming a published author even younger than my new-found heroine. Of course, that didn’t actually happen, but this wild fantasy kick-started a love of writing stories which has never quite burned out in me.

As a child, I was a prolific writer. I wrote poetry, short stories and also produced some non-fiction booklets on topics such as marine biology and human anatomy. I simply loved playing with the English language. However, my childhood had a sad and very abrupt ending at the age of 10. I had come home from my maths tutor (unlike English, I detested numbers) and gone upstairs to my bedroom in order to avoid the oh, so tedious news programme my parents were watching. Whilst upstairs, I suffered what a particularly pretentious doctor would call a “Cerebrovascular accident”. A Stroke. Essentially, a blood clot had become jammed in my carotid artery and blocked the blood flow to my brain. Simply put, my brain was dying.

I was lucky enough to pull through the night and roll over the next morning, completely unfazed to tell my mum that I was going to be late for my swimming class that morning (which, to be fair to me, I was). It was a slow recovery. 20 years later and I’m still going to the hospital every 6 months. The damage that the stroke did to my nervous system is permanent, resulting in muscular twitches, extreme fatigue and the loss of fine motor movement down my right side. I have found ways of coping with all of this but there is one thing I lost which I miss to this day. I am right handed and strongly so. I have tried learning to write with my left hand but I simply can’t make it fluid and fast enough to be of any practical use. I lost my writing hand.

Of course, most writers will work on computers these days, and rightfully so. They make editing and reformatting so much easier and allow for infinite copies of the same work. I quickly learnt to use word processing software and can now type very quickly with only my left hand (friends who have heard me typing liken it to the sound of a machine gun going off) but I do miss the simple purity of sitting outside with a pen and paper or rapidly scrawling story notes on the back of an old Christmas card.

However, through all of this, I kept writing. My love of creating stories simply couldn’t be suppressed by a mere health crisis. I got an A in English at GCSE (GCSE is the last formal exam that students are required to take before leaving school here in the UK) and an A in English Literature and Language at A-level (A-levels are the exams that you take in order to get into University). That was where I had to leave my love affair with creative writing and it felt like a piece of me had been sliced away.

I had an idea that I might enjoy being a writer but I knew in my heart of hearts, that writing is a difficult industry to break into and an even harder one to make into a successful career. I felt that building a life around my art would require an amount of luck that I just didn’t have. I gave up. Instead I went to a leading University and studied Environmental Sciences, a highly eclectic course which involved a solid grounding in a lot of subjects, including biology, chemistry, geography, law, politics and even civil engineering. This required an entirely new type of writing, one which at first I had much difficulty grasping. Before attending University, I was a walking thesaurus. You said a word to me and I could give you at least 5 synonyms, but when writing for science, every word has a very specific meaning and connotation which cannot be applied to words which, usually, would mean exactly the same thing. For example, in science, a theory is not the same as a hypothesis. I struggled with this. I hate using the same word repeatedly. I hate it with a passion. I believe it makes the piece sound stunted and coarse. Imagine the alarm bells ringing in my mind when I had to use the word hypothesis 10 times in the same paragraph!

It took me 6 years to complete my degree, by which time most of the wide vocabulary I had built up as a child through years of writing and reading, had all but melted away into a puddle of a few words. I had taken this degree to ensure myself a good place in the job market, a better place than if I had simply danced after my dreams, but I graduated just as the economy crumbled. There was no job for me.

Whilst I was at University I met the man with whom I would fall in love. Luckily, he graduated before me and managed to get a job fairly quickly, but now, I found myself sitting at home day after day, living off of someone else’s earnings. It quickly became intolerable but no matter how or where I tried I just couldn’t get a job, largely it seemed, because of the restraints put upon me by my own body. Tentatively, I began to write once more but to my horror, where once had thrived a bustling hive of words and ideas, there was now only a husk of my former writing skill. I had the ultimate writer’s block. Not only did I lack the stories to write but I was also without the ability to express them on paper as I once had.

It was here that my love of books saved me. I read. I read wonderful works of fiction by majestic writers such as Patrick Rothfuss, Terry Pratchett and Agatha Christie. I also read a lot of non-fiction on great gamut of subjects. Always remember, writing comes from what we know as individuals. Reading non-fiction can be a great way to find inspiration or a way out of that tricky chapter you’ve been stuck on for weeks. I read books on the history of forensic toxicology, grave robbing during the Georgian era (I intend to use the knowledge gleaned from this book in an upcoming novel I have planned), I read books on the history of London’s sex industry, on how the Black Death came to and exterminated much of Europe. To be a great writer, you have to be a great reader, but this time, I didn’t simply read. I analysed each sentence, savoured every word, thought about how I would have communicated the same thoughts and feelings that the original author had given to me. I re-learned my art.

After a few false starts, I started a book. I had real trouble using a computer for creative writing after all this time as I was still short of the large vocabulary I had cultivated as a child. I found myself using the thesaurus and Google all the time and begun to feel that the computer was writing my work for me. It was not a good feeling.

Sometimes simple really is best.

So, one day, whilst I was out browsing around my local antique shop, I found an old type writer which still worked and I bought it. I began to write my new book on this old machine and it felt right. After writing about 3 chapters using only my mind and the clackity keys (goodness only knows how the neighbours put up with the noise), I began to transfer what I had written onto my laptop. There I edited it, rewrote parts and slowly but surely, continued my story. I was back. Just.

When I began my book, I had no idea what I was doing. I started without any plan (a huge mistake for any book, but I was writing a mystery novel which made my lack of strategy a cardinal sin), and I suffered for it greatly. An awful lot of unnecessary work went into rewriting and editing things which should never have been written in the first place and I began to resent my own story which seemed to be twisting and writhing out of control in my hands. People would tell me that I must be talented to be writing a book, to which my response would always be,

“I never said it was a good book.”

I became despondent and even sulky about my story, snapping when my fiancé asked if I’d worked on it recently and taking months to slog my way through a single chapter. Almost two years rolled by and depression set in. I still couldn’t find a job and now I couldn’t even write well enough to finish my book. I was a pathetic waste of space. Then, my nan died.

I always had a very close relationship with my nan. She was a wonderful, kind woman who laughed lots and lived like she meant it. She was also, a writer. My nan wrote lots of poetry, mostly about her family and the people she loved. It was a real treat to get a letter in the post from nan, with a special poem written all about the knickers you’d accidentally left behind during your last visit. Her death broke my heart but it galvanised me. I wanted to make my nan proud. I wanted something that I could dedicate to her, so that the whole world would know how much I had treasured her. I sat down, in front of my laptop and I finished my book.

Writing “Being Edward Leyton”, was one of the biggest challenges of my life and I honestly thought I had failed more times than I care to mention. It is now available on Amazon, in paper-back and Kindle and, shockingly, people are buying it. I have learnt a lot of things during this long up-hill trek. First, plan your book. Plan it to whatever level you want but make sure that you know where the story is going and what you want to say with it. Second, have a back-up project. Have something else that you can turn to and work on when you become agitated with your book. I find now, that when I become irritated with my primary story, I simply move onto my secondary story and work on that until I either feel better about story number one, or I become so annoyed with story number two, that I go back to number one to get away from it! And third, perhaps the most important one, remember that you can. Remember that other writers are people just like you, people with problems, people who sometimes forget that word…you know the one…it’s on the tip of my tongue…No one is perfect.

I’m working on my next two novels now and they’re going to be much better than my first. I intend to publish them under the pseudonym “Holly Kisdi”, not because I’m ashamed of my first book, but because this feels like a start. The start of something wonderful.

T.H. McNair