One of the flaws of an ambitious creative is our hunger to be the best, and to be the best right this minute. It’s all-consuming at times. We’re desperate to leave our mark on the world and mercilessly hope the mark is profound. A trap many of us fall into (myself included) is being so desperate for legitimacy and opportunity that we run before we’re ready to walk.
I’ve made a lot of rubbish in my (albeit very young) life, because I’m constantly searching for the next great thing (prematurely), but there is something very positive and nurturing to be said for marinating with your craft. Some of my biggest regrets are moments I’ve not stopped to smell the flowers. Moments pass by too quickly to muse upon and before you know it, those moments turn into a memory. How I wish I could go back to when I made that first amateur short, or first financed short and just enjoy every single second without the next career step haunting me. As I work now, I try to enjoy every word I write down, every meeting, and every opportunity.
We all romanticise the idea of being a young prodigy, but with age comes experience and maturity – two things I believe are absolutely essential if you want to be a great artist. I’ve heard stories of inexperienced writers shooting for the most competitive opportunities (I, too, have been guilty of this in the past) and I can’t help but think, why now? Why not wait until you know you have something so special they can’t possibly say no? Why not wait until you are absolutely certain your idea or story will be the best? Why go for this opportunity when there is still so much to learn? While you shouldn’t wait forever, you should wait until you’re ready. It’s hugely competitive – hugely. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, will be shooting for that same shot you are and you have to be the best to be successful.
As a summarisation, I’d like to talk about the last two years of my life, more specifically, studying on an MA. I’ve been studying an MA in Creative Writing part-time since 2019 and the first year flew by. I didn’t have time to enjoy it and now, as I’m starting to prep my dissertation, I find myself preemptively grieving for this incredible period of my life. Coming onto the MA, after a short time of trying to ‘make it’ as a writer, has given me more than I could’ve dreamed for. I’ve always considered myself, first and foremost, a collaborator and a team player, and for the first time, I feel like I have my own identity and voice as an artist and I’ve learned to be a bit selfish with my creativity. Being surrounded by such incredible, raw talent has humbled me. I’m a different person now: I’m someone who has a better understanding of their identity, someone with sturdy self-confidence, I’m self-assured. Taking these two years to focus on the fundamentals of being a writer, understanding what it means to be a wordsmith and stewing with all the questions that come with that – well, that experience is priceless and breathtaking. This period of time, solely focusing on my identity, opposed to querying half-baked work and just trying to get my name out there, has made me ask the question: why am I in such a rush to be a success this minute?
I’ve not written this to discourage people. Far from it. I want everyone to feel this nutrition I’ve felt from having taken the journey I have. I’ve been able to financially support myself whilst studying the MA part-time, and in doing so, it’s given me longer to use the MA to my advantage. At the beginning, I was disappointed I’d have to spend an extra year due to not being able to afford to do it in a singular year, but these two years have changed my life in the best way.
It is true that life is short, but enjoy building your beautiful foundation so that you can enjoy living in an even more beautiful house.
This year, I have had over 125 rejections, and that, at times, has really drop kicked my confidence. HOWEVER, I have had some incredible wins that I am so grateful for this year. Here is my round up!
I made a short film with some really amazing people. The short film in question, She Lives Alone, has gone to seven film festivals (BAFTA and OSCAR Qualifying would you believe!) I just feel incredibly lucky to have made this film, because nothing in life is a guarantee. I learned that hard work does pay off, and that the class-ceiling cannot and will not stop me.
Here are some highlight reviews:
“…Rose’s film is a dark and unsettling take on the period film, with a finale that’s bound to etch itself into the mind of FrightFest goers this weekend…” – Twelve Cabins
“Bleakly haunting.” – FrightFest Goer
“This genuinely gave me chills, which is hard to do these days.” – FrightFest Goer
“A beautifully haunting film [that] gives off Bronte vibes, with ghostly moors. And yet, despite the beautiful scenery, I did not want to venture here. Nope, far too creepy. In many scenes you are unsure whether your eyes played tricks on you or if you really did see a face there in the shadows.” – FrightFest Goer
I wrote a book that I am incredibly proud of, and because of that book, I found my literary voice. I am really looking forward to continuing to work on the novel over the next year or so. Through really finding my authorial voice when it came to prose, I’ve been able to write a small bank of short stories that I am really happy with and I can’t wait to query them in the new year with various wishlist presses.
I’ve read 65 books! Some highlights for me were In the Dreamhouse by Carmen Maria Machado, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, Let me Know When you Get Home from Dear Damsels, The Lodger by Marie Lowndes, A Haunted House By Virginia Woolf. Anyone who knows me, knows that reading is one of my biggest passions, and this year has been an amazing year for me when it came to reading. I really searched for voices and stories that would challenge my school of thought and bring out the best in my as a creative.
I am looking forward to 2021. I have no doubt I will continue to make mistakes, and grow and learn, but I will do it with the tools I have made this year.
Wishing everyone a very happy new year in advance!
In 2020, we’ve all had euphoric highs and devastating lows. I’ve experienced some of the darkest moments of my life in this strange chapter I’m eager to close, but I can’t deny that it has been full of lessons. Across the year, there have been five major take aways, and I wanted to share them with you.
Don’t Hide Behind Allegory
In my own writing, I have often taken very serious themes that relate to some kind of trauma I experienced, and have hidden it behind several layers of allegory and symbolism. What I have learned this year is to be honest. In the past, what people have thought of me or the way people see me has stopped me from being open about how autobiographical my work is, but from here on in, that stops. My writing and my work are authentic because I am honest, and I’m no longer willing to hide behind metaphor, and neither should you. The world we live in is becoming less and less conservative. We are having open and honest conversations about all sorts of things. Writing can be an extremely therapeutic process, especially if you are still healing, but you don’t have to endure your baggage alone anymore.
I feel like I have blinked and lost six months, and yet, I can’t quite shake the feeling I’ve been living this year for A VERY LONG TIME. A huge lesson this year is that time is relative, and though there have often been moments of feeling like a failure, I know now that patience is my friend. My time isn’t right now, but it’s coming. The time in between (the waiting) is excruciating, but that period is our friend and it’s there to let us rest and take stock.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
I can’t be the only one feeling left behind this year. I’ve watched lots of friends and peers get further move forwards in their careers and personal lives while I’ve sometimes felt frozen. I am so beyond proud of them, but there have been moments where I have felt incredibly lost and stuck. The grass is always greener, but the truth is that everyone has their own shortcomings and disappointments. Similarly to the latter, I’ve learned that just because right now it isn’t my time, it doesn’t mean there isn’t space for my success in the future. Believe that there is greatness lying ahead and believe that you can bask in it later – because you can. I know you can.
Work in Stints
Please, future-Lucy, keep working in stints. Working in short stints has made reaching goals possible. It has given me healthy work flows. It has given me rest time when I’ve needed it. Working in stints is such a brilliant way to work, both in a micro sense and a larger one. If I’m working on a creative project, I now work on that project for a set stretch of time (say two weeks), and during my creative days, I work in 25 minute stints with 5 minute breaks in between to stretch my legs or have a cup of tea. This is a small but incredibly brilliant change if you want to have ultimate productivity. It enabled me to write the first draft of a novel in less than two short weeks, and then a two months later (when I was afforded the time) I could redraft. It’s the end of the year now and I have draft 3, and I credit that mostly to working in stints.
Work Hard, but be Healthy
Okay. This is the hard one, because while I have learned a lot, I have also developed some pretty unhealthy habits that I plan to squash come 2021. This year I’ve sent off over 120 queries, and of them, only 11 were successful. Some are still out for query, but my tallied up rejections as of Saturday 12th of December are standing at 52. That’s one rejection every week – though I received three in one morning, which prompted a pretty ugly meltdown and an impulse buy of the entire biscuit aisle of my local ASDA. I kept each rejection letter, and I mused over the growing collection every Saturday, hoping to urge myself to do better. That, as it turns out, is pretty unhealthy. The Takeaway? These rejections are just numbers, and they can’t hurt you. Focus on the good. The creative industries have never been more competitive, and rejection is just part of the game. Make healthy choices, mourn over a rejection, but then pick yourself up and move on.
When I think back to 2020, I will remember the good, the bad, and the ugly, but most of all, I will remember the friends that were firm at my side when I needed them. I will remember those who picked me up during my lows and those who championed me during my highs. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy new year.
The subject of the struggling artist stereotype has long been an interest of mine. Finding happiness in pursuing creativity is difficult if you are under-privileged, because the creative industries, by nature, rejects us. There are great auteurs, all of whom are quite well-off, and usually based in London, New York, LA, Paris or another city akin. They have the means and money to surround themselves in luxury, materialism, comfort and mental care.
I’m worlds away from that – as are most people. I object the struggling artist stereotype overcoming my identity or work. I defy that I should have struggle to create good art, because the word struggle doesn’t fully articulate the torment we face as creators. Not all people create their magnum opus while they are navigating the troughs of their rock bottoms. They build wonder in hindsight while they traverse their peaks.
Over the years, I have picked up a few tips on how to find the right balance and create a space for yourself where you can garner creative wellness, because not all of us find that struggle and heartache is conducive to our best work. I split the tools needed for creative wellness into four different categories:
Mental Health/Trauma Space
All of these subjects link. Our home environment and time are linked to our personal wealth and all of those are often dependent on our mental health or our upbringing. Studies have found that people who come from traumatic childhoods struggle to build basic young-adult foundations; things like personal and professional relationships due to lack of confidence or learned behaviors, or finding stability in a work space due to environmental triggers or confrontation/social misunderstandings. There is a very clear link, and not only that, but there is a cycle and a ceiling that some people are simply not able to break through.
In this blog, I hope I can share some tips and advice on how to balance these four elements so that we can all build a healthy lifestyle while pursuing creativity.
Not everyone has the luxury of a creative space within their home, however, for a healthy work/life balance, there does have to be a degree of separation.
If you have a spare room, great! Use that space to your advantage. Separation is key because that space then becomes a haven where you can come and go as you please – leaving behind creative stressors when you don’t want or need the burden of carrying them.
Some don’t have the luxury of a spare room. I find the space we do the most relaxing is the living room, so avoid that room like the plague, no matter how tempted you are. Use your kitchen space instead (even if that space is somehow connected to your living room). Cooking is a very productive task and so creativity and the kitchen have a strong link. If you can get yourself a free or low-cost stool where you can work from a kitchen counter space, that’s a good shout.
Try and find somewhere with good natural light – somewhere near a window if you can.
Keep your personal and creative space tidy. I know that time is not a luxury afforded to many working-class creatives, but do invest some time in just clearing the space so that you feel ready and fresh while working.
At all costs, DO NOT work in your bedroom. Psychologically, that is a place of rest and if you work hard in a space of rest, you will really struggle sleeping. Sleep is also instrumental in maintaining good mental health.
Surround yourself with nice things. There is a myth (created by the wealthy) that working-class people are not entitled to material comfort because they should be saving. This is a lie. I’ve found beautiful furnishings on community support groups where people post things they don’t need anymore. I’ve grabbed mates and carried desks across towns because I don’t have a car. I’ve snagged deals from charity shops and from gumtree. I furnished my house on only £100 because I found that people wanted the convenience of shifting their old things more than the money they’d make selling them. It’s nice furniture too – all it needed was a good clean down. Be creative, I once bought a clock face for £2.50 and installed it into a baby grandfather clock case I found on a back street. It’s a nice little waist-high clock now!
This one is hard, but I am going to split it into three sections to try and help offer clarity on how best to spend time when you don’t have much of it.
Finding free time to be creative can be really difficult if you are working full-time to pay the rent. After you finish work, spare one extra hour for your creativity and then take the rest of the night off. This can be really difficult and tiring to add to your work day, but if you build it into your routine, it will start to get a lot easier. Another piece of advice is to only use one of your days off for creativity. The truth is, you cannot make your best work if you are exhausted. You need a day of rest.
Work Vs Relaxing Time can be a difficult one because there is always the overhanging guilt of not working, but seperate your time. Once I am done, I am done. It’s very rare that I allow my creative time to slip past my personal time boundaries. Having time to cool down can be really important, especially if you are working on a project that is close to home. Be strict with yourself and do not let one slip into the other. The time you spend creating is sacred and emotionally-draining and consuming.
Down Time Boundaries are also really important. Coming off the point above, making sure that the separation is there is key. My laptop stays in another room and I have all my email apps on a cool down between certain times so I can’t see notifications or access them. Setting these boundaries has been instrumental to creating good work. Now, when I open my laptop and start to work, there is no messing around. I know that this is my only chance to make the most of creativity on any given day.
Mental Health and Trauma Space
Mental health is a very difficult one too. Unlike the others, it is not something we can physically pick up and put down at will. It follows us. It is carried with us. It is heavy. The biggest thing I find is that when you are feeling overwhelmed or triggered, you mustn’t work – no matter how much you want to. It could cause catastrophic side effects to your mental health or trauma recovery. Nothing is worth your mental wellbeing, not a film, not a book, nor a painting. Nothing. You are more important that your art. That might be a hard pill to swallow but it is just the truth. It’s something I have struggled coming to terms with myself.
For the most part, if you are suffering with mental torment, your work will be a physical representation of that. It will be confused and lost because that is often how we communicate our feelings when we are in that place. I find, that when I am at my lowest, I will not speak. Art is communication and if you can’t communicate well, sit down and gather yourself before you try to. You owe it to yourself and to your work to be looked after so that you can do the work justice when the time comes. It is a myth that you must be suffering while you create – that is simply not true.
As much as it hurts you to step away, always get space if you are feeling mentally unwell. Do a solid for future you so that they can create the masterpiece you were born to make.
*Please refer to Isabella and the Pot of Basil.
As we speak, I am penning this wearing gloves, a hat, a scalf, a body warmer, a jumper and a big cardigan too. I am no stranger to struggling during the cold months when the tariff for heating sky-rockets. Personal wealth, out of all the elements, is the one that people usually have the least control over (if you are working-class). My advice to you here is save as much as you can, every spare penny, but allow yourself to live every now and then too. If you deserve a treat, buy that Tesco’s Finest ready meal or treat yourself to fresh orange juice instead of drinking water all the time. The small luxuries are the ones that can sometimes carry us through the difficult times.
Examples of one-off good treats:
A treat food. For example, get that extra expensive cheese every now and then. You deserve Extra Mature Cheddar.
Either something that won’t last at all, or will last a lifetime. For example, foods go quick, but they’re are a good small pick me up every now and then. An example of how not to do this is to buy a mug or blanket that you know will lose novelty in a week. The item becomes instantly disposable, where as the book, for example, will nourish your creativity.
Examples of one-off bad treats:
Big splurges. For example, a camera or a games console etc.
Material items that don’t hold much value in passion or sentimental value. For example, if you see a cushion you like, but you just like it and don’t love it.
Lots of little purchases in a big haul. For example, buying twenty books in one haul is not a treat, it’s a huge splurge.
The point of this is because, even if you aren’t rich enough to be able to afford the fanciest clothes or cars, you do deserve treats. You’re a human being. Every now and then, get a 99p face mask from Home Bargains. 99p won’t break the bank and it will make you feel better, even if only for a short time.
Another top tip is to time these well. If you know that you’ve got a deadline coming up for something or a difficult period ahead, buy these as you go into the eye of the storm and not after you’ve walked through it. Don’t condition your creativity by using rewards as an incentive to finish the work. The reward is the creativity itself and the treat should sweeten the deal or make the difficult periods of creativity kinder on the weary working-class soul. Creativity is a gift that you have been born with and lots of people will try to put a price on that or dissuade you. The difficult periods of creativity should be nourished with self-love and self-care. Do not use it as a period to punish yourself mentally for struggling. I do understand why people use treats as incentives for meeting deadlines or hitting a target, but it can sometimes be quite damaging because you condition your behavior to be that way. It’s a temporary solution to a larger problem, which is, you are struggling to work.
Anyway, I hope my ramblings have helped. To summarize, look after yourself and don’t let preconceptions about what we should or shouldn’t be doing as a starving and struggling artist get to you. Forge your own path.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a very morbid curiosity with dead things. No sick wonder is derived from this fascination of mine, instead, an overwhelming view of all the answers we are not afforded in life. I remember the first time I saw a dead body and how I simply couldn’t fathom that no living thing existed inside of it anymore. I recall my first brush with death – both contemplating it and losing someone I loved. I understood, long before I understood most things, that before we are living, we are dead.That was and always has been my understanding of what death is – life is simply a holiday and we must, at some point, return to our natural state.
So, when ghosts became a part of my understanding, I was fascinated. They escaped the inescapable and were afforded a second life. In real life, nobody on God’s green earth is given the opportunity of comfort or a goodbye. Only in the stories are we that lucky.
I don’t think it’s any surprise, with all that history I’ve just shared with you, that I am drawn to horror, but it wasn’t until She Lives Alone that I attempted to create one of my own.
It was a lazy summer afternoon in late May when I first met Maud (our main character). She ventured, seemingly from out of nowhere, into my thoughts and I recall her, quite vividly, looking around and saying “this will do nicely” – though there was a potent air of judgement in her tone. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lucky to be intruded upon by such an interesting character. She was far too honest for her own good, contrary and quite the modern woman for someone wearing a petticoat beneath her skirts, but I felt an instant bond with her. I had to tell her story.
I wrote it all down and while I penned a first draft, I could feel her judgemental set of eyes on the script as I scrawled through from scene to scene and at the end, I felt her give me a stiff nod. It was an “I suppose it will do” accompanied by a heavy sigh.
Though Maud had a mean streak, I felt protective of her and was quite anxious to share her with people incase they didn’t understand her, but that changed when I met the wonderful Maria Caruana Galizia at Candle and Bell. I knew in an instant that I could trust her with Maud. As we developed the script, Maria got to know her and her story and though Maud said nothing, she strongly approved of Maria – she may have even formed a smile at the corners of her mouth.
We went to the BFI Network (Film Hub North) to attain funding and I feel so grateful that they saw something in Maud and her story and also in us as filmmakers. We received £10,000 in funds to help support the project and we also developed the script further with the organisation to truly make sure the script was the best version of itself. Roxy (our exec) in particular, really challenged and encouraged us to be curious and critical when it came to some of the finer character details, ultimately, making it the film that it is now.
£10,000, though an enormous help which we were very thankful to have, was still quite a challenging budget to work with given our ambitions. We decided, though the script was set in Cumbria (then Cumberland), to film in County Durham to keep costs down. There are very few stone circles, especially ones close to the shooting location we’d found for our interiors and so we decided we’d have to make the stones instead of finding real ones. We then teamed up with the incredible Northern School of Art and worked closely with John Noble and Poppy Hall, who really brought the world that Maud lived in to life. John and his team of amazing students were able to source our props and floorboards and make our stones for the stone circle. Poppy, our production designer, sourced all the furniture and smaller details to really give the set life. I firmly believe that one of the films biggest strengths is down to the attention to the finer details brought forth by this wonderful team of individuals. It really gave something very meaty for the cast to use as an anchor to fall into character when they needed to. It truly was like stepping into another world.
I have a complex relationship with casting. The director in me is eager to find someone to trust with the characters and to work hard to ensure whoever I hand them over to will love them and understand them, but the writer in me is always anxious to relinquish them. It’s something I have always had a hard time with. The casting (for both the writer and director in me) however, was an absolute breeze. We saw a slew of incredibly talented actors, who each brought something unique and interesting to the roles, but there were stand out actors whose performances were really speaking to me. Particularly Rachel Teate (Maud) who offered me something I didn’t know that I needed. Her curiosity when it came to exploring Maud and her ability to question certain strokes of the character set just the right tone. Maud needed somebody like that. Someone who would do her utmost to understand her, listen to her and accept her just as she was. Lauryn Elise, who brought a softer side to Eleanor (one I didn’t know she had) and Karen Littlejohn, who petrified me from the moment she fell into character, were also an absolute dream to work with. They were all so ready to dive into the complexities of the characters and collaborate with me to bring them to life. I feel so lucky to have worked with this particular cast because they are the type of actors who just bring their everything to the role and question things unrelentingly.
Though I have worked with Lizzie before on other projects, this is one we felt we could really, really, sink our teeth into. We spent months preparing a shot list and storyboard with very precise compositions and movements to strike exactly the right tone. Needless to say, though there were possibly hundreds of hours of conversations, debates and challenging each other on our ideas, it was quite straightforward. No one has a mind like Lizzie when it comes to cinematography. I’ve never seen Director of Photography explore the themes of a script so deeply and viscerally. She was able to bring to the table a part of herself and a vulnerability in the way she crafted the visual storytelling. I marvel at her ability and craftsmanship.
(Photography by Sel Maclean)
We were all ready to go. Maria had worked tirelessly through prep and put up with my incessant chatting on the copious recces we had to find our locations and our team was assembled. All that was left to do, was to shoot the film. As with every film I have ever made, I did not sleep at all the night before. It’s a very strange annoying quirk I have picked up over the years. So, the morning I arrived to set I was running solely on adrenaline. Our wonderful AD, Josie, whilst putting together the schedule had already combatted this in advance. She had started us off with some less challenging scenes while we found our groove. Day 2 was a high point for me, because we filmed all the really spooky scenes. There was an amazing vibe shared amongst the team while Karen got to really work her haunting mojo. You would not believe that the beginning of that day we had to rearrange the entire schedule due to unexpected 60mph gales, snow storms and bullet-like hail, but we still finished on time and got everything we needed (thank you Josie). Though the shoot (in its entirety) had a very demanding schedule, we managed to get everything done and wrap on time.
I truly can’t speak highly enough of every single person that was on that set. Each of them had an immense talent, perfectionism and tenacity and I owe a great deal of thanks to all of them for helping to bring Maud to life.
It was the year of our lord, 2020 when Covid struck the United Kingdom, but we were quite lucky to have shot before any lockdown measures were put in place. Though, our post-production was affected by the disease, we worked with an incredible editor called Chris Cronin (who also happens to be an amazing director). He was so wonderful in offering his advice and putting up with (borderline ridiculous) perfectionism when it came to putting the film together, in particular the scene where Maud and Eleanor sit in the kitchen. We also worked very closely with our executive, Roxy Mckenna during the edit to really fine tune the film and push it towards being something especially haunting and cinematic. We picture-locked and then moved onto working with our VFX extraordinaire, Mark Lediard, Colourist, Lucie Barbier (SIM International) and our sound mixer, Phil Quinton. I felt especially lucky to work with the remarkable Die Hexen. She was our composer and sound designer. I instantly clicked with Die and because of that, she was able to perfectly articulate the emotions and themes of the script. The soundtrack is both haunting and beautiful.
Ultimately the reason this film is what it is is because of the incredible team who worked on it. They were resourceful, ambitious, creative, skilled and moreover, hugely dedicated and passionate about the story we were telling. I feel especially strongly about that last point. Without their dedication to the script, this film would not be half the film it is. Finally, the hugest and most sincere thank you to the BFI Network, Film Hub North and Roxy Mckenna for your unmatched support on this project.
Now here we are, exhibitions and festivals. I am delighted to give you this little insight into how this film was made and what a joy it was to work with everyone involved. I wanted to write this in honour of Frightfest because it feels like a milestone moment for me to go to this festival with this film. I have been in past years and really enjoyed my time there, whilst also looking up to the filmmakers in attendance with their films.
Maud, though she has been quiet since Rachel took the reins, feels that what she wanted to say has been said. I know that if she was still here, she would be overwhelmed by the experience of making this film from start to finish.
I always thought that I could somehow make my trauma glamourous or easy to digest if I explored it through making sensible and sophisticated, quiet stories, but I’ve come to realise that you cannot make something that is inherently ugly into something beautiful and you cannot make something inherently loud into something quiet.
Like most, I’ve come to learn that my body of work is a stark representation of where I was in my life at the time that I wrote or made it. It’s a strange but accurate ledger of my thoughts and feelings at any given time.
For the longest time in my career, I always wanted to write romantic comedies, because as long as I could ignore all the terrible things that I went through, I could be happy and I could force my happiness onto the world through a silly romance and some really terrible jokes. This changed more and more as I started to acknowledge my trauma and see a therapist. Things were clearer than they had ever been, but I did not like the way they looked. I wanted them to be prettier. I wanted people to admire them and not see them as strange little curiosities that come along with me. Baggage. Ultimately, even though I was starting to discover strange and ugly things about my past, I did not yet know who I was and that is why my scripts were completely without direction.
I wrote a short film called ‘The Sycamore Gap’ in 2016. The graduate film I went on to make in my final year of university, a period drama made on a shoe-string budget, and a film that really changed the course of my creative life. The story follows a young maid, Mina, who really feels as though she has no control over her life. Ultimately, she wants to escape the situation she is in, even if it means sacrificing something important to her – a relationship she is having with someone and that is what she goes on to do. She is left facing a horizon and the beauty and fear that can only be the result of an uncertain future. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this film was very much a little map inside my head. I left home when I was fifteen and there was a lot I had to leave behind, and they were things I did not face until I was a lot older. Walking away from things that are supposed to give us joy, but in reality, don’t, is a very hard thing to do. But do I think that it was the best way to tell that story? Absolutely not.
It’s 2018 and before I’ve even graduated, I’ve landed a full-time job at a really amazing company, but I am not happy. I’ve made my grad film; it screened at the BFI Southbank and won a bunch of awards. I knew my average would already give me a first before I got my final grades. Why wasn’t I happy? I started working on a script while I was there, something less shrouded in metaphor. It was borderline autobiographical. Perhaps even too close, which was one of the major reasons I think this film was not as good as it could have been. Of course, I am talking about a film very close to my heart, Peak. The story of Emma, a young woman going on a hike to escape her past, but finding herself lost in isolation begins to drown in it.
The film tackles some pretty dark themes but ultimately, because of the state of mind I was in when I wrote it, it came out really experimental. When you suffer from dissociative episodes, finding your memories is like finding Wally on a billboard-sized Where’s Wally challenge. All the memories are laid out before you, but they are so in your face that you cannot see them at all, and you begin to float. Completely untethered to the world around you. Turns out, because of my mental health, that amazing job got very hard. It wasn’t right for me at the time and I had to leave.
It’s October 2018 and The Haunting of Hill House has just debuted on Netflix. I am understating it when I say that this TV show would change the course of my life both personally and professionally in the most seismic way.
Up until this point in my life, I had refrained from watching horror of any kind. Not because I didn’t like or respect it but because it triggered me in ways that would usually leave me catatonic for days. But I was feeling low and reckless and I decided to binge-watch the show in one day. My life was changed in ways I cannot even begin to describe. The absolutely terrifying, hypervigilant, heavy-from-baggage, fear and looking over my shoulder suddenly I could see and make sense of in complete clarity. The show, the genre, articulated everything that I had been feeling my whole life in a way that made it seem effortless. I became obsessive; I caught up on almost a century’s worth of cinema. I read every single Shirley Jackson book I could get my hands on and if you know me, you know that I would lay down my life to bring that woman back from the dead, because the worlds that she spent her life creating and the words she wrote down, make more sense to me than anything. It’s a language I am fluent in.
“I had found something I had been looking for my whole life, Horror, and it was there the whole time – I was just too scared to make friends with it.”
In December of 2018, on zero budget and alongside a whole other bunch of dumpster-fire decisions and mistakes I made, I had a finished film (Peak). One that actually did okay in the big wide world – considering we had no money. It went to the wonderful Underwire Film Festival and was nominated for Best Cinematography. What I came to realise, making that film, is that I was very good at tension and I had discovered that Horror had helped me to understand why. I was always tense – no, not just tense – it felt like my skin was constantly under siege from biting ants. I was scared. Who better to tackle a horror than someone who is constantly scared that her old life will somehow rise from the place she buried it and eat her alive?
July 2019. I had spent seven months writing – non-stop. Every waking moment around three weird part-time jobs. I wrote a manuscript and I wrote a couple of scripts but nothing I was proud of. I’d spent a lot of time inhaling Shirley Jackson’s work like opium whenever I had the chance and I was besotted – like a teenager in love but with words and not people. Because of my influences, there was an idea that kept coming back to me. A woman, unlikeable, isolated but very happy that way and something that she keeps burying. Exhuming my past, I also wanted to revisit the place I experienced my trauma and so my character lived on the fells of (then) Cumberland. 1841. The very year that The Sycamore Gap was set.
I got an email from a producer, whose work I had admired from afar, and we decided to meet up. I walked from Four Lane Ends to Gateshead on the hottest day of that year and sweat through the dress I had carefully picked out that morning. Any illusion of sanity or togetherness was gone. I was a sweaty mess when I arrived, but she was very lovely to me. She offered me a glass of water and introduced me to a colleague (both of these wonderful people, I am very proud to say have become friends). Foolishly, I declined the water because I didn’t want to make a fuss. (Idiot moment – should have taken the water). Anyway, we had a chat, we spoke about each other’s work and what we’d been up to over recent times and I explained (in the best way I could) that I had been keeping to myself and was taking a period to research to explore exactly what kind of work I wanted to make. She asked me what interested me, and I my answer was ghosts and folklore. I saw something in her eyes light up and I knew we would be fast friends – although, I will be honest, I expected nothing to come from this meeting of the professional variety because I was sweating the entire time. Would I want to work with a sweaty woman who showed up to my office and began raving about Shirley Jackson and other classic titans of horror? Actually, probably yes – but only because of my unconditional love for the one and only SJ. The producer asked if she could see a script and I don’t think I let one second pass before I said yes. It was desperate – but I was desperate. Desperate to be seen, desperate to be validated, and to have my work validate other people.
Okay. So. I got in a taxi and made a whole bunch of notes on my arms and hands. I looked crazy but I didn’t care. Our conversation had given me a lot of ideas and so the second I got home, I sat in my chair with the windows open, and just wrote like I had never written before in my life. I redrafted. I nipped. I tucked. And then I composed an email which I sent on the 26th of July at about 9 PM. I tried to keep my cool, be professional, but I am very bad at this.
Now. I am very proud to say that I went on to make the film with that producer I met on the hottest day of the year, 2019. It was the best time of my life. Nothing had ever felt so right. The script. The people. The time. Everything was perfect and the film came out wonderfully. For the first time, I have a film that truly represents who I am. I discovered the only way to articulate my feelings is by writing them exactly how I feel them. Sometimes, it does feel like a horror film is playing out in my head and in my chest.
The reason I wanted to write this blog post is because I couldn’t sleep last night. All the while I am processing things, I am still waking up in the middle of the night, sweating from nightmares. I am still looking over my shoulder, scared to catch a glimpse of what I consider to be my old life. Scared of facing the sense of dread I carry with me everywhere I go, so much so that it’s become a permanent resident in the vessel of my human form.
I could not get to sleep last night. I lay awake, looking for awful faces watching me from the shadows. Looking for disembodied heads or hanging feet. I spend a lot of time deflecting during in the day when I have to act like a normal person so at night-time, the damn is released and last night, it was especially bad and there was only one thing, out of the many techniques I’ve been taught by a therapist that could thwart my symptoms. I thought of my characters. Mina (The Sycamore Gap), Emma (Peak), Maud (She Lives Alone), Jane (Little Fires), and Shirley (She Fixes Bodies).
I was on the floor and I just wanted to sleep. First, Shirley approached me and watched from a distance. It’s just who she is. She can’t get close enough to comfort me, but the sentiment sprouted a tiny warmth in my chest. (She, like most of my characters, is quite stoic and miserable.) Next, Maud came to me. She did not touch me (again, boundary issues) but she lay on the floor next to me and stared up at the ceiling. Then Jane sat by my side and indulged the wildness I often hide to appear sane in public spaces. Then it was Emma, she came to my side and held on tight because she needs someone just as much as I do. Then last, Mina came to me and held my hand. She hummed something. I was surrounded and protected by my pack.
Finally, I could fall asleep.
The message I suppose is that storytelling, to the storytellers, is like science. We are only trying to make sense of what we cannot understand.
At the beginning of this lockdown I think, collectively, we all said ‘I’m going to finish my magnum opus’. It was a joyful thought. There was a moment, in amongst the darkness, where we were able to hold onto hope, but it was very fleeting.
To me, there is nothing more dangerous than writer’s block. It’s wild because I know so many writers who just don’t believe in it. They have never experienced writer’s block before and deny its existence – or, they did, until now. As a country, as a world, we are experiencing a lot of anxiety and fear and trauma, but for many people, this has been their every day for a long time. People suffering from long term mental health problems have been facing these issues for long periods of time. I have a slew of disorders and being able to keep them under control has been hard. I’ve had several bad flare-ups and old habits are starting to creep back up on me. It’s hard to focus on writing when this happens. It’s like I have all the words in my head but there is no tethering them down and when I somehow manage to, they all seem to be pulled into the wrong combination. I find myself in limbo.
Ironically, I have always been a terrible communicator. Ever since I was a child, I always really struggled to articulate my thoughts and feelings. I was terrible at English and Art at school – subjects I wanted to excel at. I did lots of music and performance but I found myself at the mercy of only expressing what someone else had written down. I hated that because I wanted to use my own voice. There was a lot of frustration in the years that followed because I was ‘slower’ than other kids. I was having to relearn a lot of basics to get myself to a level of competence alone and now, I am back there. I am back in that space of feeling like there is no way to describe things I am thinking or feeling.
To a writer, who has no other way of communicating with the world, writer’s block can be the most lonely affliction. It is being trapped inside yourself with no way of reaching outward. Writer’s block is very real. Just because one writer may not have experienced it and may never have had an issue with writer’s block, it doesn’t make our experience any less valid. It doesn’t make us less of a writer. It makes us normal. Especially given what we are all going through right now.
If you are experiencing a block, take a day to clear your head, and if it takes more then so be it. It’s very painful but sometimes you just have to ride it out. If you are experiencing this, I find the best thing to do is free-write because it’s the kind of writing that doesn’t have to make sense. Stare down the blank page and when you are ready, spill all the chaos from your head onto your it. Let the chaos out because you can’t keep it in. Accept it, confront it, and then expel it.
“Stare down the blank page and when you are ready, spill all the chaos from your head onto it. Let the chaos out because you can’t keep it in. Accept it, confront it, and then expel it.”
If right now, what you need is a reminder of how remarkable you are, then remind yourself. Read past pieces that you are really proud of. Excite yourself by stepping onto a familiar path – one you’ve missed dearly. Roam past ideas and try developing instead of writing. If you are desperate to write, try a new mode of writing you’ve never explored before. Try changing from first or third person to second and write an entire chapter through that lens – even if you know it will never make it to the final draft. Write a genre you’ve never explored or a style you’ve never been interested in. There are no stakes in experimenting right now. All it can do is free up some of that anxiety.
I find that being weird is a good fix for many different funks. Being weird is good. There is no better way to live. I hope all of you out there are okay and safe but I especially hope those suffering from mental illness are coping with everything that is happening. Stay safe x
Have you ever wondered what the secret formula to a good book or script is? In general, there are structural conventions that we adhere to. Broadly speaking, that is the beginning, the middle and the end. Something I have been thinking about a lot recently is writing advice I’ve been given, the good and the bad. This anecdote won’t apply to everyone, but in case you need to hear it, I’m writing it down.
I remember the moment I was brave enough to start calling myself a writer. It was one hell of a moment. It felt like I’d made a decision – one that I was finally going to stick with. It was liberating, and something felt right for the first time in my life. However, when I started using the self-appointed title casually in my day to day conversations, fellow and more experienced writers laughed – think a oh sweet summer child, you aren’t a writer yet kind of laugh. I was frequently asked what makes you think you can call yourself a writer? It was a good question, and one I struggled to answer. All I could say is that it was gut instinct and that I just knew. Suddenly, after giving myself this title, lots of other writers around me started to give me advice. You need to read this book before you can call yourself a writer. Have you read Save the Cat? I’m going to be brutally honest, you don’t seem experienced enough; you should read some John York. I’m happy to say that I’d, thankfully, read a lot of the recommendations whilst studying my degree.
I’ve been a little bit misleading because this blog isn’t really about whether or not I was ready to have the title ‘writer’. I knew I was ready and I didn’t really care what anyone else thought. This is about something else entirely. This is about the slew of ‘How to be a Writer’ books that were thrown at me from people who didn’t believe I was ready. There was a short period where I felt really insecure because I was taught all of this at university and the books were outlining strict formulas and conventions that I didn’t want to adhere to.
Learning the secret of being a ‘good writer’ was a pivotal lesson for me. Here it is: there is no secret formula or recipe for a good screenplay or a good book. You can use conventions and follow rules if you want; the How-To books will give you lots of examples of successful prose and scripts that followed the rules. So now you’re asking Why wouldn’t you follow the rules? Simple. Because what the books don’t tell you about is the hundreds of thousands of books and scripts that followed the rules and went nowhere.
I think everyone should go and read the books on how to write. Get a good understanding of the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, but then experiment with those practices and modes of storytelling. At the end of the day, work that is safe doesn’t go down in history. Only the work that is brave and unconventional is remembered and that is the work that ends up being referenced as a success story. That is how conventions are created.
“Only the work that is brave and unconventional is remembered and that is the work that ends up being referenced as a success story. That is how conventions are created.”
Be brave when you are deep in the writing process. Think about why you are writing and why it is important. Constantly get feedback as you go and discuss your work with other writers but for god’s sake, don’t just go and do what everyone else is doing. Every single one of us has something unique and different to say. If all of us read the same books and followed the same rules, every book would be exactly the same, and who wants to live in that world? Not me.
There is no right or wrong way to write or to tell stories. There is no right or wrong process. Experiment, try weird things and be unconventional in your approach. Nothing bad can come of that.
There is no better way to finish this blog than to quote one of my favourite films, Little Miss Sunshine. ‘Do what you love, and fuck the rest.’
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling pretty anxious as of late.
Projects that were blossoming and turning into something beautiful before the lockdown have since wilted and ideas I desperately wanted to explore have lost their value amidst all the anxiety. Hopefully, I am not alone when I sit down at my keyboard and hover my eager fingertips above the keys but find myself unable to write even one word. If I do manage to somehow string a sentence together, it’s immediately rebuffed in revulsion. The page, even after hours of experimenting with different rhythms, syntax and pace, has ended up blank. But, through putting down some creative work temporarily, I have been able to find time for other projects that have been ruminating. These are passion projects that have been pushed to the bottom of my to do list for almost a year. I’ve not touched them. They’ve been left in a cold, dark draw to gather dust until now. I can sense these screenplays and manuscripts are angry at me for abandoning them and for leaving them for so long. Opening the documents after such a long time, there is a sense of distrust – like it doesn’t want to open up to me anymore.
Channelling my inner anxiety into (hopefully legible) prose and script has been really challenging but there is a weapon I’ve been using.
It is the single most valuable tool when it comes to being creative around your mental illness. Be patient with yourself and be patient with your characters. I find that when I am anxious they are particularly unruly, instead of being obedient to the plots I planned, they tend to do what they want. I needed to remember that my characters are as living and breathing as I am as soon as they are written in black and white.
They will disagree with you and they will be obtuse at the best of times but listen to them. Listen to what they need and want and you will be able to write.
“I am constantly at the mercy of my characters. They hold me to account...”
I find the perception of writing very odd. Many writers say that they play god and many non-writers assume that the author is god. I disagree with this entirely. I am constantly at the mercy of my characters. They hold me to account and they make it known when they don’t like what I’ve written or made them do. My characters are just as alive as I let them be and that has been the cure for my anxiety during this confusing and terrifying time. They are confidants and figments of my imagination I can turn to when it feels too much to turn to someone real. They are permanent and are never fleeting so long as I keep a special somewhere for them in my head.
My closing remarks are as follows: Trust yourself and in your characters, let them guide you if you are feeling confused or overwhelmed and above all, be patient.
I experience writers block a lot and frequently find myself met with the phrase ‘there is no such thing as writer’s block, only bad writers.’ Being completely incapable of hiding my emotions, I frown and furrow my brow. That sort of phrase is an easy way to degrade yourself and make yourself feel unworthy of your creativity. I truly believe that no one writes a finished masterpiece without significant creative struggle or reflection time. Writing, as a craft, is challenging because otherwise everyone and their dog would commit themselves to it.
“No one writes a finished masterpiece without significant creative struggle or reflection time.”
As of late, the UK and the rest of the world has been in a constant descent into madness as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve found myself working from home as much as possible and because of that, dedicating more and more time to my writing. I’ve been working on a feature script for a while now but I was finding with each page I wrote that nothing felt right. The plot, characters, dialogue and the words themselves felt like they weren’t listening to me and perhaps I wasn’t listening to them either. Sitting down for the first time in front of a my working draft with a new set of eyes after the anxiety and hysteria caused by the outbreak has given me a lot to think about, but it’s also given me a reason to want to forget about the outside world for a while.
The outside world can be overwhelming and overbearing if you look at it for too long with a watchful eye. Of course it’s important to stay up to date morally with the goings on of the planet but we aren’t built to carry worlds on our shoulders individually and being able to look away from it and get to know your creative focus can truly be the key to unlocking any potential that may have being getting stifled by anxiety. I found that once I switched off my BBC News app, after months of claustrophobic, high pressure and stifling screenwriting, the process became refreshingly artistic, relaxing and even a little bit fun. The screenplay, after feeling that I was being overbearing and not letting it breathe, was listening to me.
This lesson here I suppose is to put your mental health first. I’m not a believer in ‘paying your dues’ by experiencing terrible things first hand. Trauma and Mental Health are not currency and you can’t buy your way into being a good artist. I, personally, find that my best writing comes when I’m relaxed, comfortable and happy. When I am feeling anxious or angry or sad because of my mental health/trauma I go to a place where I’m completely unable to articulate thoughts and feelings and ultimately that is not conducive to good writing. Good writing is good communication.
If you’re computer is overheating, or perhaps even on fire, you wouldn’t carry on writing. You’d let it cool down and put out the fire. Treat your lovely noggin in the same way. Stay safe out there!