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van goughReactions to suicide say much about society’s attitudes to mental health. In Victorian times, suicides were often explained away in order to avoid a social stain on the family. There was also the unhelpful religious belief that those who died by their own hand went straight to hell. So we got things like: he accidentally fell into the pond and drowned, or he accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.

There’s still an air of evasiveness when discussing mental illness, but there is at least a recognition now that it is a real illness rather than a weakness of character. When someone known to us takes their life, the reaction is one of shock that anyone so well liked/loved/respected could ever feel that way and we be unaware of it. But there’s guilt too that we did not see it coming, that we did not do more to help. We feel complicit, guilty in our silence at holding to the secret of others’ despair. But what can one do? Not everyone suffering from mental illness wants to talk about it. And when you realise how little others understand your feelings, you can hardly be blamed for not wanting to share them.

There are no easy answers.

It’s an unfortunate fact that high-profile celebrity suicides raise awareness more than any well meaning mental health campaign. They launch tragedy squarely onto the front pages, but even here amid the collective shock, “normal” people can still be dismissive, telling us celebrities are notorious libertines, usually off their heads on drugs and it should be no surprise they kill themselves now and then. But this is to ignore the despair and the sheer existential emptiness that underlies mental illness, an illness bullet-pointed with unshakable, negative self beliefs:

* My life is a mess;
* I am ill adjusted to the place I find myself in, yet cannot escape it;
* I am unequal to my responsibilities;
* People expect more from me than I am capable of delivering;
*I am letting everyone down;
*It’s all out of control;
*I cannot move another step;
*I am useless;
*I am a bad person;
*My life has no meaning;

Do any of the above ring true for you?

Of course people in the forefront of public life are no more likely to suffer mental illness than the ordinary and the poor. Indeed being poor, being unable to make ends meet is a very dangerous place to be in the mental health stakes, more so as you are less likely to have the money to access competent people who can help you. But we all worry, and even when we have nothing to worry about, like having no money and no job, we invent other worries – seemingly trivial things – and inflate them to apocalyptic proportions. If we are susceptible, these worries will plant the seeds that blossom into hideous mental blooms of distorted self image.

We need to talk about it. Even just sharing the secret with someone can help. I spoke of mental health services last time – admittedly in less than glowing terms. Lack of funding means the gap between aspiration and reality is now unbridgeable, at least for 90% of the population, but the important thing here is that we make the effort. We admit our fears by sharing them with as many healthcare professionals who will listen. Even if the person we’re sharing them with has one eye on the clock, and can never get our name right, the process of sharing can be helpful. But there are other things we can do too, things that are even more effective in returning control of our selves back to our selves.

With a little imagination we can think of the human being, metaphysically, as comprising three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. We need to keep all three topped up. If one of those vessels is leaking, it can be replenished by the others. If all the others are leaking too, then we’re in trouble, but the good news is paying attention to any one of them can help the entire system to restore its balance.

The easiest to fix is the physical.

Among my memories of the darkest of my hours there shine radiant beacons of days simply walking in the Lake District Mountains. I have never felt ill on a mountain. It was when I came back down to earth the problems recurred. Physical exercise of any kind is good for us, good for circulation of the blood and the lymphatic system – getting the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, and you don’t need to do it on a mountain; a walk in the park is good too, or take up dancing, jogging, tennis, Tai Chi,… whatever interests you and suits your abilities. The after-effects of even gentle physical exercise dribble through into the mental vessel, surprising the most depressed of moods with little revelations of relaxation and calm.

It sounds too good to be true, that merely exercising the body can make a real difference the problem is, getting up off your arse when the black dog comes calling takes a monumental effort. We resist it, even though we know it’s good for us. This is another of the mysteries of mental illness; it is as if the pain is itself an intelligent entity dwelling within us and fears for its existence; it sees where we’re going with this and holds us back; it would much rather we vegetate in front of the telly, drink alcohol every night, and drop fatty treats into our mouths. I know, I’ve done it. But we must resist the resistance.

And keep moving.

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man writingRows keep breaking out between Amazon and the world of corporate publishing. It goes like this: Amazon squeezes the publisher’s profit margin by insisting on lower prices, the publisher bends as much as they can, keen for access to Amazon’s awesome distributive power, while trying to maintain a decent cut for themselves. And if Amazon’s not happy with the deal they switch off the “buy” button. If the reader wants that publisher’s titles, they have to get them from somewhere else, they’ll be harder to find, and more expensive. None of this is personal; it’s just business.

From my perspective the struggles going on in contemporary publishing are merely symptoms of a near extinct business model, and its inevitable demise at the hands of a scary new predator. Amazon has sharp teeth and is using them to reshape the way we buy books – or indeed anything else for that matter. The big publishing houses may yet find their balance and survive in some new shape or form, I don’t know, and I find it hard to care. What interests me more is what all this means for the aspiring writer.

Traditionally, a writer plugged away in obscurity for years in order to finish “the novel”, then they spent even more years debasing themselves in search of the beneficence of the notoriously mercurial literary agent. The agent then fixed it so a publisher would read their work. If the publisher liked it, then began the writer’s slow rise from obscurity to mid-list mediocrity – except in rare cases, where a chosen few were invited to the top table of celebrity authorship. Here, in exchange for getting their teeth fixed, they might at last sup from the publisher’s golden chalice.

For the aspiring writer, at the bottom of the money chain, this system left much to be desired. To be a writer, and happy, you had to be either pathologically deluded or well connected. For the publishers and the agents though, it worked very well, enabling them to exploit a limitless ocean of creativity on which they floated their luxury liners. When they were low on talent to stoke the boilers, they just reached down and pulled another one on board. It was obvious anyone who came along and threatened this centuries old system was going to be viewed in a dim light. But unless you’ve been living on another planet this past ten years, it’s impossible to miss the fact that something is changing. Many of the smaller luxury liners have now been torpedoed. The ones that remain have become overloaded with hangers on and are sailing pretty low in the water.

There’s no shortage of writers to stoke the boilers of course, but to stretch the nautical metaphor to destruction, there’s now a problem in the engine room, and it’s this: the route from writer to reader is no longer controlled by the gatekeeper of traditional publishing. That you’re even reading this is proof that anyone can publish anything now, for nothing and find an audience. Surf over to Amazon or Smashwords and you’ll find novels by unknown writers for free, or for a couple of quid. Most of them look and sound crap, as most blogs are also meaningless crap, but this new age does shed rather a clinical light on the traditionally published stuff, a light that strips these expensively marketed and slickly edited works of their mystique, and you know what? A lot of them are crap too.

So, anyone can publish anything? Isn’t that great? Well, on the one hand, yes, but on the other,whether anyone notices you or not is a matter of luck, unless you’re prepared commit some heinous act on the basis there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But by the same token, there’s been many a traditionally published book pulped long before the public has had time to wake up to it. As any aspiring writer with more than ten years experience will tell you, traditional publishing is no guarantee of making any money at all, let alone fame and fortune – neither is the fact of getting that novel miraculously published. So you’re published, so what? We’re still turning up obscure Victorian authors and lauding them as undiscovered geniuses, but who died penniless, believing themselves failures in their own time.

So, the question is this: does the “Amazon” way of doing things, torpedoing those fuddy duddy publishers and bursting the market wide open, make it any easier for your average unknown person to take up the pen and make a decent living at it? The answer of course is a resounding no – indeed, you still have to be slightly mad even to try it. Really, don’t do it. Get yourself a proper job and, write in your spare time.

I can shift a few hundred of my titles on Feedbooks and Smashwords each week, by giving them away, and that’s fine, I seem to be happy with that, but if I were to charge so much as pennies for them, that hit-rate would dwindle to a trickle that was hardly worth logging in to check. True, some authors have done well, financially, by self-publishing, and good luck to them, but then some authors always do make it big – it just doesn’t happen very often and the likes of Amazon won’t change that.

Publishing will always be about celebrity and the shifting of large numbers of catchy titles, crap or otherwise, at a tenner each. As profit margins are squeezed, those writers in the “paid but mediocre” bracket will find themselves squeezed out too as a bigger slice of the marketing cake is reserved for those authors with the perfect teeth. More and more writers will be joining the scruffy ranks of the indy scene, self-publishing for peanuts, while scratching a living doing minimum wage type jobs. It’s not a rosy picture, but then it never was. Creative individuals will always be at the mercy of patronage, wherever it comes from. Yes, things are changing drastically at the money end of the book business, but for your average aspiring writer, it looks pretty much like business as usual to me.

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woman reading letterNothing happened today. There was no news, no carnage, no politicians to be called to account, no food scares, no financial ruin. There was no one to hate, no one to pity.  The nation breathed a great sigh of relief and we all drove to work in soft sunshine, with lighter hearts, skipping along like children let out of school early. A gentle hush settled over hill and vale, I saw my first Snowdrop,… and the world felt like a much better place.

The opening of an impossibly optimistic fantasy novel? No,… our regular news and current affairs programming was off the air because of a strike by journalists, and oh,… what a relief!

I’m sorry. I know it’s important to keep up with current events, to be able to understand and talk knowledgeably about the world. But there’s also a terrible downside, being inundated daily with crap that you can’t do a damned thing about. You begin to form a picture of a world in which nothing good happens, and it doesn’t matter that it bears not even a passing resemblance to the world you personally experience, you feel cowed by it, intimidated, depressed, goaded into cynicism, even afraid to venture abroad for fear of having your head cut off by blood crazed trolls.

So I don’t buy newspapers. I don’t watch the TV news, preferring nowadays to get my snippets in controlled bursts, through my iPad. I read the news briefly, with a cold, objective eye, digest the main points, then turn to the blogs I’m following because they’re so much more interesting.

For example, yesterday evening, I learned about a play in which Freud’s fictional final consultation was with the writer CS Lewis. It sounded like a fascinating idea, but the writer who saw it had felt let down by it. I also read about Innis Oirr, one of the remote Aran isles, off the west coast of Ireland and how the way of life there has changed over the centuries. Then I read about the pope and his reportedly unsympathetic views regarding people who might be labelled gay, bisexual or transsexual.

I realised I knew very little about CS Lewis and have now chased down some more very interesting information about his life that syncronistically informs something else I’ve been thinking about. I also mused that although my grandfather is from the west of Ireland I’ve still not visited his birthplace, and I really must do something about that.  I also pondered on the fact that religious teachings are too often defined so narrowly they cannot hope to encompass the rather more eclectic nature of the human condition. And is that right or wrong?

This is so much better than being blathered at by assertive media types, evasive politicians and pontificating pundits. Through blogging you realise there’s a whole ecosystem of ideas out there, and you can get involved in shaping it simply by writing your own material. But like anywhere else there are abusers in the blogsphere. They contribute nothing, yet expect the globe to laud them in return, catapult them to the dizzy heights of celebrity. A bit like the conventional media then.

Case in point: something odd happened last night. I put my piece up on “Photographing Ghosts”, but in the process managed to lose all the text, so what I actually posted was just the title. I was wondering how on earth that had happened, and whether it was worth sorting out, or if I should just delete the lot and go to bed,  when my iPad started pinging like it had gone mad. Before I knew it I had 3 likes for that piece – which was very gratifying but of course I could claim no credit for my literary prowess because all I’d posted was a blank page.

What was that all about then?

Among the rules of successful blogging the most important is that, apart from posting our own sincerely intended content, we should also take the trouble to read the work of other bloggers who catch our eye, and comment on their blogs as we might in making polite conversation with strangers. If you really like the work, then “like” it. If you consistently enjoy the musings of a particular blogger, and you want a regular dose of them, then you “follow”. What could be simpler?

But it seems some of us are sitting at the gates of WordPress’s “what’s new!” list and “liking” anything that wanders through, even “following” with no more motivation than the hope or expectation we’ll get liked or followed in return. This indiscriminate technique is the same as jumping up and down like a petulant wannabe, shouting “Look at me! Look at me!”. Are  we trying to get ourselves into WordPress’s currently hot list perhaps? Maybe from there we believe it’s only a short step to a slot on whatever passes for our nations top celebrity chat show?

Hmmm.

You cannot be serious. Real blogging is for those with something to say, and who are perhaps denied any other voice. If you’ve nothing to say, if you’ve only web farmed stuff for content , or “products”, or yourself to “sell”, then shut up and go away.

Blog because you like to write, because you like to present ideas, and see what ideas ping back at you. I blog about writing fiction, about the creative processes, the psychology and even the underlying spirituality of it, and if some of my readers are tempted to have at look at my stories while they’re at it, then all the better for my ideas, but I’m not selling anything, not courting my own celebrity here. I’ve been writing for thirty five years now  – I can walk into a bar anywhere in the world and no one will know who I am. And that’s the way I like it. I don’t know how to transform a blog into a WordPress hottie, and to be honest I don’t care. I’d rather remain obscure than lose my virtue vainly trying to escape it. I blog because I enjoy the debate and because that debate informs my own ideas, and because also, crucially, it paints a very different picture of the world out there than the one I get from the TV news.

I’m currently following around 12 blogs. This doesn’t sound like many, but I do read the postings from these authors, and I allow their musings to tickle my own thoughts and if you follow too many, you’re not going to find the time to do any of them justice. And it’s in doing justice to the blogs of others, even in a small way, that enables the blogsphere to collectively reflect, and more importantly to inform the global zeitgeist. Thus begins the slow fight back from a position where our views of the greater world are dominated by an entirely negative and sensationalist press.

I’m glad nothing happened today.

It’s was nice hearing myself think for a change.

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