Writing with the Black Dog on Your Back

depression

As a writer, one of the worst things about depression hitting you is when it paralyses you creatively as well; so many evenings I have sat in front of my laptop, trying to will the words to come, only to either find myself numb and defeated, or berating myself in tears that I have no business calling myself a writer if I can’t even turn my inner pain into something creative. You could argue that perhaps I have set myself up for failure, after an entire day of being in the black dog’s grip, trying to convince myself that it will be all better in the evening once I’ve sat down with a cup of tea and do some writing – that will make everything better, of course it will! But no, either I end up going to bed after staring at a blank page for two hours, or else there are frenzied scribblings in my notebook, with portions angrily crossed out in frustration, starting again, barely getting five lines in before I decide that incarnation is utter rubbish as well. I curse myself as I think of all those other writers out there, who obviously strike gold first time and are completely flawless, and can immediately give birth to words that actually mean something, artfully arranged and dripping with effortless rhythm. I tell myself that I am a fraud – that I only claim to be a writer when in actuality I am a pretender, a liar – I’m merely someone who wishes they were a writer, and feels the poems within his own published collection sitting right there on the table beside him are actually utterly worthless tosh, and that no one would get or feel anything out of them. I convince myself this is the truth, that everything I’m doing (or not doing) is wrong, and that I may as well call it quits here and there.

As I look back over the crossings out in my notebook with a more stable frame of mind, I see the harshness of my own inner critic, many of the attempts reading exactly the same, but I have seemingly told myself each time that I need to start again, not even allowing myself the luxury of seeing where the words take me:

Down here, deep below
The senseless noise of the ‘surface’
Lies the darkness

Down here, deep below
The senseless noise of the surface
Lies the deeper and darker purpose
Of

Down here, deep below
The senseless noise of the surface
Lies the darkness in the heart of man,
The deep, burning burden

Down here, deep below
The senseless noise of the surface
Lies the darker and deeper words
All dripping with intent and purpose
And spoken with utmost precision,
Each breath

Down here, deep below
The senseless noise of the surface
Lies the deeper and darker words
All dripping with intent and purpose
Each breathed with careful precision
To

Until, finally – the next day, I permit myself to just ‘go with the flow’, my mind’s fog lifted, things feeling a lot clearer – and allow myself to just write the damn thing:

Down here, deep below
The senseless noise of the surface
Lies the deeper and darker words
All dripping with intent and purpose
And laced with sensual rhythm;
The smoky, sultry voice of the poet
Heard in secret spots such as these
For those bold enough to seek it.

The lower floor of the bar or lounge
Is the ideal poetical domain,
An alluring lyrical dungeon
Where touch is not used to entice,
They’ll seduce you with words instead,
Tongues twisting with tremouring rhyme,
Leaving an audience on its back, begging for more.

So, there you go! A vaguely suggestive poem about just what dark horses us literary types can be, rife for expansion and modification at a later date. The point is, I wrote something. It’s all too easy to put that pressure on yourself and expect a masterpiece to come flowing forth right from the first attempt, but of course it is not as simple as that. I would not suggest that you force yourself to write by any means, if you are really not in the right frame of mind, but it’s interesting to see how you can improve and adjust things once you come back to it with a more steady head and hand. I suppose it’s interesting as well that I found myself writing about ‘the darkness in the heart of man’ and ‘the darker and deeper words’, and everything being ‘deep below’ – what started as sounding dangerously close to something you’d expect to see in a disillusioned teenager’s diary morphed into a mildly humorous concept of the poet sharing their scintillating wares in a brothel-like environment (inspired by an actual movement which has now become a semi-regular event in my own town).

And at the end of the day, aren’t the constant crossings-out and startings-again the marks of a real writer? The marks that at the time I condemned myself so harshly for, are probably seen in the notebooks of any self-respecting writer, famous, published or otherwise. These will rarely be shared with the outside world of course; the rough first drafts, the experimentation, the half-finished or abandoned ideas – and of course we are not completely privy to their emotional state at the time of writing either, unless it somehow comes through in the words and themes. Even then, we are left to attempt to decipher this. The writer would not share themselves raw and naked to the world; they are wrapped in their words, where any of their emotions (good or bad) are presented in a carefully considered way, with a rhythm that is pleasing both aesthetically and audibly. This is what gives the words their power – a poet can still express their deepest emotional torment and weaknesses, but it is the way their pen or voice has expressed this that stirs and intrigues us so. The words are scars that, while still not healed, are absolved of their ugliness.

A poem that touches on the mysterious, often intangible relationship between author and reader is Charles Baudelaire’s ‘To the Reader’ (Au lecteur)*, and begins with a stirring description of these mental and physical scars (‘Folly and error, stinginess and sin / Possess our spirits and fatigue our flesh. / And like a pet we feed our tame remorse / As beggars take to nourishing their lice’.) It goes on to describe a creature/devil who ‘pulls all of our strings’, not unlike what we have come to know as the ‘black dog’. (‘A demon nation riots in our brains’ is a particularly delicious line, but also an all too apt and relatable description of just what depression can do to us). And indeed, as the poem ends, its name is declared – that familiar and numb non-feeling known as:

He is Ennui! – with tear-filled eye he dreams
Of scaffolds, as he puffs his water-pipe.
Reader, you know this dainty monster too;
-Hypocrite reader,-fellowman,-my twin!

I feel Baudelaire, in this poem, has done as I have previously described – turned his own anguish and turmoil into something rhythmic, something beautiful – proving that sometimes it can be worth the effort to express those feelings onto paper, even if it does end up needing some refinement later. I hope anyone who feels the black dog descending as they attempt to write finds some comfort and inspiration in this post – our pen is our sword, our weapon against the fearsome and dreaded beast – and writers should do everything in their power to fight back against it, and provide comforting and relatable words to those also fighting the same battle.

*’Baudelaire, Charles – ‘To the Reader’ from The Flowers of Evil (1857) – translated from the original French by James McGowan, Oxford World’s Classics edition

***

Read my previous posts around mental health, including my potential poetry chapbook themed around mental health, ‘The Dance of Dark and Light’ (hopefully to see publication soon!)

‘A Letter to Those in Low Spirits’ (World Mental Health Day 2017)

‘The Dance of Dark and Light’ (possible poetry compilation)

‘The Darkness Within Writing’

Weds Poetry Prompt: ‘Versus Yourself”

‘The Power of Music and Rain (A Moment of Reflection)’

2017 April Pad Challenge Day 8: ‘A Mind Under Attack’

2017 April PAD Challenge Day 9: ‘So What Now?’

 

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The ‘To Read’ List (Updated 22nd January 2018)

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EDIT: Updated 22nd January 2018 – Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin added to list.

Last update to this was way back in August, apologies – but rest assured I have been reading since then (honest!)…

…As for the subject of this post; yes, it is the dreaded ‘To Read’ pile that, for those like me who enjoy a good book, seems to grow ever bigger due to the heavy demands and committments of our everyday lives. It became a bit of a problem for me last year, as I was constantly buying books from second-hand bookshops/charity shops, thinking ‘I’ll get to all these someday’, only to find I had so many building up in my room, still unread. It was at that point I literally sorted them into a ‘To Read’ pile, and began, you know, actually reading the blasted things, further vowing to not buy anymore until I had finished them. I’ll admit I make the occassional exception – if there is a new Margaret Atwood coming out I will either buy it or ask for it as a gift, for example – but I’ve generally managed to keep to this pretty well. So, in order to keep an actual list for myself, here are all of the books that have amassed in the pile, with links to their Goodreads pages (I will give my account on there some attention as I work through all of these as well!). Click to read on…

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Recent Reading! (or, very quick book reviews)

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So I’ve been slacking a little on the ‘Quick Book Review’ posts for a while, so I thought I’d put a post together with quick thoughts on the books I have been reading over the past few months (I will shortly post an update to my ‘To Read List’ as well). So here we are with an overview of my recent reading material:

PompeiiHarris

Pompeii (Robert Harris): I’ve always been fascinated and intrigued by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and the destruction of the titular city resulting from it, so I was instantly drawn to this when I saw it in a charity shop. This book tells of the events leading up to it and the immediate aftermath from the perspective of vastly differing characters, which makes it an interesting read. It perhaps gets too caught up in tangents and minutiae a little too much for its own good at some points, but the focus on how it affects the water systems of Pompeii (and the surrounding towns) is nonetheless an intriguing approach.

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Quick Book Reviews: ‘Alfie the Doorstep Cat’

alfie

Alfie the Doorstep Cat (Rachel Wells)

Not to sound snobby, but I was expecting this book to be one of those light, fluffy reads, the sort designed for you to read while lounging on a beach on holiday, i.e. nothing too heavy or complicated in terms of plot or themes. And yes, it basically is, but I still found myself captivated by this tale of a homeless kitty trying to find a home in a scary and unfamilar street. It probably helps that I’m a bit of a sucker for anything involving cats or dogs in the first place; partly why From Baghdad with Love proved such an emotional read for me as well, and why I was inspired to write a poem about my recently acquired pet cat, who himself was homeless and seemingly looking for a home to call his home just like the titular Alfie of this book. As explained within the book, a ‘doorstep cat’ is one who stops at various different homes in a neighbourhood, for food and/or human affection, not simply choosing one to settle in. Alfie feels compelled to do this after his elderly owner passes away, and does not want to be in a situation where he is left all alone again, so therefore opts to have several homes rather than just one. One of the most interesting things about the book is how it is actually told from the perspective of Alfie – he is the one speaking in the first-person (first-feline?) narration. This in turn provides a lot of the humour in the book, giving a feline perspective to the actions of humans, which of course do not always make sense when viewed through the harsh judging eyes of a cat. While the plot and events end up becoming rather predictible after a certain point, and the dialogue often coming off as unnatural and clunky, I still found myself rooting for Alfie and the various humans he encounters, all with their own problems and issues in life. As I said, the book probably relies on you being an animal lover in order to emotionally manipulate you, but a lot of the sentiment does indeed ring true – Alfie brightens these people’s lives, and call me a foolish romantic if you like, but I am convinced that my own cat, Charlie, is able to tell when I’m upset or I’ve had a monumentally shitty day, and is always able to make me feel better. The book is hardly a literary masterpiece by any means, but there is something about it that is still very compelling. I’m even tempted to check out the sequels that have apparently followed, of the further adventures of Alfie.

While I’ve mentioned the writing and dialogue isn’t always exactly stellar, there is a surprisingly deep message from our feline hero at the end of the book, and I will leave you with his perspective of what it is to be be human:

“…Not that you ever become completely healed, you understand. There will always be a part of you that is still healing, still hurting, but that becomes a part of your character and you learn to live with it. That’s what I think happens, anyway, because that’s how it feels to me”.  — Alfie.

Check out my first poetry collection, ‘The Awakening’, avaliable NOW!

Paperback – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Awakening-Selection-Poems-Stuart-Peacock/dp/1911476335

eBook-: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B017BZBH6M

The ‘To Read’ List (Updated 9th August 2017)

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EDIT: Updated 9th August 2017 – The Handmaid’s Tale and A Clockwork Orange added to list.

…As for the subject of this post; yes, it is the dreaded ‘To Read’ pile that, for those like me who enjoy a good book, seems to grow ever bigger due to the heavy demands and committments of our everyday lives. It became a bit of a problem for me last year, as I was constantly buying books from second-hand bookshops/charity shops, thinking ‘I’ll get to all these someday’, only to find I had so many building up in my room, still unread. It was at that point I literally sorted them into a ‘To Read’ pile, and began, you know, actually reading the blasted things, further vowing to not buy anymore until I had finished them. I’ll admit I make the occassional exception – if there is a new Margaret Atwood coming out I will either buy it or ask for it as a gift, for example – but I’ve generally managed to keep to this pretty well. So, in order to keep an actual list for myself, here are all of the books that have amassed in the pile, with links to their Goodreads pages (I will give my account on there some attention as I work through all of these as well!). Click to read on…

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The ‘To Read’ List (Updated 25th July 2017)

toreadpile

EDIT: Updated 25th July 2017 – Alfie the Doorstep Cat added to list.

…As for the subject of this post; yes, it is the dreaded ‘To Read’ pile that, for those like me who enjoy a good book, seems to grow ever bigger due to the heavy demands and committments of our everyday lives. It became a bit of a problem for me last year, as I was constantly buying books from second-hand bookshops/charity shops, thinking ‘I’ll get to all these someday’, only to find I had so many building up in my room, still unread. It was at that point I literally sorted them into a ‘To Read’ pile, and began, you know, actually reading the blasted things, further vowing to not buy anymore until I had finished them. I’ll admit I make the occassional exception – if there is a new Margaret Atwood coming out I will either buy it or ask for it as a gift, for example – but I’ve generally managed to keep to this pretty well. So, in order to keep an actual list for myself, here are all of the books that have amassed in the pile, with links to their Goodreads pages (I will give my account on there some attention as I work through all of these as well!). Click to read on…

Continue reading

The ‘To Read’ List (Updated 12th July 2017)

toreadpile

EDIT: Updated 12th July 2017 – Link to review for Misery added.

…As for the subject of this post; yes, it is the dreaded ‘To Read’ pile that, for those like me who enjoy a good book, seems to grow ever bigger due to the heavy demands and committments of our everyday lives. It became a bit of a problem for me last year, as I was constantly buying books from second-hand bookshops/charity shops, thinking ‘I’ll get to all these someday’, only to find I had so many building up in my room, still unread. It was at that point I literally sorted them into a ‘To Read’ pile, and began, you know, actually reading the blasted things, further vowing to not buy anymore until I had finished them. I’ll admit I make the occassional exception – if there is a new Margaret Atwood coming out I will either buy it or ask for it as a gift, for example – but I’ve generally managed to keep to this pretty well. So, in order to keep an actual list for myself, here are all of the books that have amassed in the pile, with links to their Goodreads pages (I will give my account on there some attention as I work through all of these as well!). Click to read on…

Continue reading