An SF piece in Every Day Fiction today and not for the claustrophobic: ‘[Neela] squinted into the matt black dark, wishing her optical enhancers would come-the-hell on line. She pushed up, kicked; no movement. “Shit!” [She] raised her legs, then both arms, braced her body to test the surfaces above and below. She made a snow-angel. Smooth, top and bottom — but where were the sides? Why couldn’t she feel the sides?’
There’s been a right old rumpus going on via twitter, Facebook, blogs, and latterly, the national news here in the UK, over a Halloween Fright Night offering by Thorpe Park. This is called ‘Asylum’ and features ‘scary mental patients’, actors who chase and threaten visitors through a maze set up to look like a hospital. The issue, that a proportion of people don’t see, is the stigmatising association of mental illness with horror, fear, danger, and threat. Not to mention the idea that being scared witless by ‘mental patients’ apparently qualifies as entertainment. The whole back-story is here, if you’re interested, and there’s an update here
For obvious reasons, I’ve been part of the campaign to get Thorpe Park to at least revert the event to its previous iteration – The Freezer. Just as scary but not stigmatising and harmful. But, as objections rolled in I found myself dealing with questions about the portrayal of mental illness in fiction – mostly films, it has to be said. Many of these were ignorant and spurious, but it doesn’t negate the question. We’re all aware of racist/sexist and other terms that, if used carelessly, are offensive, but what about bonkers, crazy, mad, loopy?
I have done some searching. So far, there is nothing that helps with the use of language that, in many cases, no longer belongs to mental health but has seeped into our common referential lexicon: cf You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps which quite obviously is not a slur. It does, however, suggest a measure of unconventionality, unpredictability, ‘zaniness’, so is it still ok?
Googling ‘writing characters with mental health problems’, I came across a set of links – all pretty much on the first page – that are well worth passing on. They all make the same points: the mental illness is not the character, the character is a person first, everyone is different and so will be the way the illness manifests, don’t make your character stereotypically evil/weak/an object of pity/an idealisation, and do your research – don’t pick and mix symptoms, get them right.
My suspicion is that, if we do those things, the language will follow. We will show characters doing or saying things for reasons well founded in their context and not according to assumptions based on inadequate knowledge. Getting it right is important – one in four of us has or will experience a mental health problem and everyone is a potential reader. In addition to the moral consideration, that’s an alienation we can do without so getting it right has to be a win-win, doesn’t it?
Here are the links:
- Thorpe Park ‘Asylum’ Halloween attraction slammed by mental health campaigners as thousands demand name change (mirror.co.uk)
- This is what a mental patient looks like (purplepersuasion.wordpress.com)
- Thorpe Park defends Asylum horror maze after mental health criticism (theguardian.com)
- Thorpe Park: Royal College of Psychiatrists’ open letter (demtigerpaw.wordpress.com)
- NAMI co-hosting mental health discussion (mercedsunstar.com)
Within the hour, all four were done up like dogs’ dinners, installed in a stretch limo with cheesy piped music, and deposited in front of a gilded reverend of questionable denomination.
‘Dog Day’ is the story of an easy marriage that rumbles along until the social wheels fall off. For Alice and Frank, this could be a breaking point. On Ether Books today.
You’ll recognise all those descriptions of how easy it is to write – ‘stare at the page until your eyes bleed’, that kind of thing – and they work for writers because we have been there. But what about the people who can’t? How do you describe the process in a way that puts them in your space? And what about really understanding it ourselves so that we can be more efficient about our own writing process? Bleeding eyes is not a good marker for success.
Yesterday, struggling first to get ‘out of the room’ as it were, because someone was coming later to fix the dryer and I couldn’t focus, I was suddenly hauled back into the room by a man wanting me to sign for next door’s parcel. It was like being on the end of a bungee – not that I’ve ever been there you understand but I’ve seen what happens – springing back into the real world from the deep pit of my imaginary one and with no time to even drop an anchor.
And there was the image: my writing process involves sitting in automatic mode above ground while my imagination climbs down a long, long ladder into a deep, deep well. Unfortunately, it has a rope around its waist and this rope is attached to the door bell, the calendar, the dog, the radio; any and all of which can drag my precious thinking back up and out into the daylight without warning. There is no opportunity to put my short term memory buffer into freeze frame, no pause button, and no instant replay. It’s like getting the mental bends and it can derail a whole train of unformed thought. Imagine the wreckage!
Of course, I can go back down once the interruption has been dealt with, but not only is the original impetus lost, the only way down is via the ladder – a long slow process made worse if there is further anticipated interruption on the cards. So my imagination hangs there half way down, stepping back and forth like a mantis and getting nowhere at all. Up to now, I’ve needed so much time around the descent and ascent that even the thought of interruption makes arriving at the bottom of the well less likely.
But when I do get down there, instead of an homunculean replication of blank paper, there is a pile of coat-hangers. Wire ones – plain and simple and empty. There’s also an empty clothes rail which I slowly populate with these little moveable structures upon which I will later hang detail. Unlike Stephen King who reportedly prunes his first drafts, I build on mine. The rail and the hangers are the skeleton of the story; they’re the elements of it and I often have no real idea of what they will be before I begin. Once I have them, I can add the colours and textures, shift them around to manipulate time, layer them, mix cardigans with posh frocks and lace with denim, then stand back to see how it all looks. Sometimes I throw the whole dressing-up box at the rail, other times I’m aiming for minimalist chic so the favourite old boots and scarves are packed away back in the repository.
For me, there’s nothing like conceptualising something to enable better management and I find visualisation is invaluable. Now that I have this in mind, I can be more confident about my process and less swayed by the advice of others to ‘do it’ this way or that. I reckon I might also become better at using smaller tracts of time – getting down into the well more quickly and having more control over the return to the surface. I think I will be pulling out the ladder, cutting the rope, and installing a lift.
And now for the imagery, a clear vindication of my brief engagement with Fine Art:
I wrote this in a poetry workshop so it must be a poem, yes? But when I sent it out into the world to be appraised for publication (I know, delusional) they said it wasn’t really. It’s been hanging around on my blog ever since, puffing out its chest and posturing to make up for its perceived inadequacies. So in honour of, or more likely a threat to, National Poetry Day, I give you:
He is brazenly, brilliantly, brassed off by the polished politics of the righteous right.
He heats arguments on pupils bright as buttons of molten jet in eyes alive with intellectual trickery.
He rolls concepts and ideas over the strop of his tongue like globules of mercury, loosed from the tedium of measurement.
His love of chase is betrayed by tiny garnet blushes on nose and cheeks; cooing infants to his icy fire of victory.
He scrubs the thoughts of neophytes with the steel wool of Socratic questioning.
Deftly iterating incantations of hegemonies, he hides exquisite diamond cuts in the woollen clouds of distracting verbiage.
He wears iron filings on his chin and calls them his beard; a professorial promulgation of proletarianism.
His wisdom does not come in glossy spheres to be cast before swine, but in the weft and warp of knit-one-purl-one patchwork blankets of the Workers’ Struggle.
Ideas settle like wise moths in the old, gold grail of his ancient and modern mind, to feed on dusty nets of idealism.
Like neglected and slowly rusting scaffolding, his body is there only to house the sapphiric laser of his intellect.
He chisels and chips at the coal face of complexity, mining for perpetuity in the legacy of runes.
©suzanne conboy-hill 2011
Lovely Girls is a story about the dismal and abusive life of a woman admitted as a young girl to a large institution in the early 20th century. It was first published in 2011 by The Other Room Journal which has now ceased operations and finally removed its archives. Here it is re homed to This Personal Space.
Another little dose of weird:
After a while, with the streets and parks getting less cluttered, it started to look as if some cosmic recycler had dropped by to tidy us up. So then people stopped using the bins and just hung about with their cameras waiting for their banana skin or whatever to take off.
Zouche has been away for a while but now it’s back with its lovely graphics and varied content and I’m delighted to be back too [see A Tale of Two Sixties 2011].
This has been a hoot – a new prompt every day and a right old clamour to get something out. Getting on the selected list – and who knows how these were picked but if you’ve been to a festival you’ll be thinking drink must surely have been involved – was a bonus, especially for those of us stretching our necks to for a sniff at that rarefied air! Where mine made it to the list, I shamelessly took screen shots (well wouldn’t you, really?) so here they are:
- Edinburgh Book fest marks 30th with bumper sales (scotsman.com)
That brave lady, Folly Blaine, is wrestling most expertly with a canny orange tabby and a maverick veterinary ‘researcher’ in ‘Cat Nav’. Up in podcast so you don’t have to try to pronounce ‘prestidigitator’ even in your head.
‘Oars for Legs’:
It’s very embarrassing to have a spasm in the middle of a – how shall we say – romantic interlude. Even more so when you have succeeded in trapping your paramour by the genitals and pinned him up against the wall. Cerebral palsy can be a bugger sometimes.
Out on Full of Crow: disability positive with a giggle and a smidgen of nearly-there science.