How Do We Get Our Joy Back?

Photo of an open gate on the Waterford Greenway, with blue skies and mountains in the background, taken by yours truly

Today I read some of the saddest words I’d come across, from a gifted and generous practitioner of the arts whose ability and intelligence I hold in high esteem: I don’t know if I will ever write again.

The reason for this was burnout – but not from overwork. It was emotional exhaustion from the frankly abusive environment within which so many writers, poets, artists, performers and musicians in Ireland are forced to work. Whether through employment of stigma through review abuse, hostile behaviour towards vulnerable minorities, straight, flat-out racism, sexual harassment, abuse of harsh defamation laws to silence those who speak up, bullying and nepotism in arts bodies and the commentariat, or the constant, constant gaslighting that these closed groups perpetuate against victims because they’re terrified the same thing will happen to them, so of course it’s all our imagination – whichever of these malevolent forces is chewing and spitting out brave people, strong people, gifted people, I’m absolutely fucking sick of it.

I’m sick of seeing good people’s careers derailed and destroyed. I’m sick of those who speak up and fight getting stonewalled and ignored. I’m sick of diversity initiatives that are not worth the paper they’re written on because abusers in the arts scene still retain their power. I’m especially over abusers infiltrating their way into organisations designed to speak up against bad behaviour, either by having publishing power over people in the organisation, or appropriating the cause themselves.

So, what are we going to do about this? How are we going to get our joy and freedom back? I’m saying “we” because there are a lot of us who have been wrung dry by this system. I’ve found my peace, though, and I’m writing again.

I don’t want to fight and overcome toxic systems. I don’t want to plough my energy into conflict with an order that has no real incentive to change. My desire is rather to break free from these feelings of alienation. I want to love writing again.

And I do.

So, in the style of Joanne Harris, 10 Things I Did to Get My Joy Back.

  1. Started earning more money doing something else

I’ll be blunt here. A lot of people in the literary and artistic world look very good on paper and are big fish, but the pond is tiny. It can be very liberating to know that these people have no financial hold on you because nothing they have to offer you (or threaten to withhold from you) could come within an ass’s roar of even a third of your monthly salary!

2. Decided to take no prisoners

Unless I am legally compelled to say nothing (unfortunately, this happens in the arts world) I do not intend to guard any toxic secrets, or spare anyone’s blushes. As Anne Lamott famously noted, “If you wanted me to talk nicely about you, you should have behaved better”. Keeping all the shibboleths that allow awful people to thrive in their awfulness is something I have NO interest in doing. And I don’t need to (see 1) So don’t bother your arse sending me DMs saying it’s bad for my career to keep talking about X. Which leads me on to…

3. Gave up on my “literary career”

The Son of God had it down: anyone who tries to save his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for My sake will save it. (Luke 17:33) It’s paradoxically true that in order to reengage with writing, I had to let go the idea of it being a “career”, and not worry about any bridges I might have reason to burn. I had to destroy my career, but if it involved catering to monstrous people, it wasn’t worth saving.

4. Let your enemies win

If your enemies are that pathetic that they need to put you down to get to where they are, well, let them. Leave it up to God and the universe to sort them out – let them write their shitty books and perorate at their literary panels and create their personal mythologies and blather on about Be Kind and Mental Health and get their grants and adulation and praise. It might seem outrageous at first that they’re getting away with it all, but let them take the W, it’s temporary, believe me.

5. Stay away from drains – and gaslighters

The first part of this step is not my phrase – it’s part of the final written testimony of the late Emma Hannigan, a novelist who succumbed to cancer a few years back well before her time. If someone in the artistic world makes you feel worse about yourself, if they need to deny your reality and tell you to your face that your experience is not what you say it is, and that it’s not valid, take this text (and Emma’s) as permission for you to cut ties.

6. Consider self-publishing

The reason I mention this is that sometimes when you feel absolutely blocked at the prospect of sending your work to people who will reject it and feel weary at the whole process, taking it back into your own hands, with the help of a great editor and cover designer, can be a redemptive exercise. Designing, making, birthing a book into physical reality is a creative and joyous act. The publication and launch of Lucia’s War, my second novel, happened during the first, harsh lockdown via zoom, George Floyd not yet cold in his grave and apprehension in the air. And yet, it was a gentler experience by far than the postpartum period of my traditionally published novel, White Feathers. And that even with a wonderful publisher and agent, who did their best by me.

7. Advocate for those less privileged than you

Promote, buy and boost works by authors of colour, trans authors, and people who have less social advantage. Show that you have their back by supporting them when establishment figures turn on them. Don’t stay quiet out of fear that you’ll annoy somebody important. This is something I need to keep working on in terms of reading more!

8. Love, Fun and Finding Your People

This is basically the second part of Emma Hannigan’s advice. Keep those you love and who love you close, build a joyous life, make things manifest. Try not to have too many rows on the internet. If medication helps with that, then take it on doctor’s advice! I took up knitting during the latter part of the Covid era (which let’s face it, still isn’t over) and I found such pleasure in being able to make things (badly) that I could wear and enjoy. Get involved in a cause that moves you. Basically, live your life the best you can. Let healing happen

9. Keep Subbing, But Ignore Submission Guidelines

No I don’t mean send fantasy to a place that publishes Westerns. It’s just that lots of Arts-Council-funded magazines go on and on and ON about Submission Guidelines and some publishers (not mine, to be fair, they’re sound) write pages of detail regarding what to send and what not to send, but no matter what they specify, you can guarantee that someone who is the daughter of a playwright, poet, novelist, presenter or journalist will land a deal even if they do write a Western. It’s the non-written guidelines that really count. Think I’m being overly cynical? Well, let’s just say that trust lost is never renewed. Send your work to somewhere overseas if you have any doubt. Otherwise, don’t spend too much time worrying about guidelines, and distrust anyone who goes on and on about them.

10. Give yourself little gifts and give gifts to others

There are so many lovely, sustainable, inexpensive pleasures you can give yourself out of self-love and affirmation. Even the privilege of a little stroll in a place you love followed by a cup of coffee in the sun. Or a rose-scented soap handmade by a Syrian refugee resettled in Ireland (soapandmore.ie) or some lovely yarn to make a jumper with, or an organic, sustainable facial wash. And you can give gifts to others too. The greatest gift, of course, is the gift of time – as I have less of it I strive to make the most of it, and simpler things make me happier.

Conclusion

So, I hope everyone who has lost hope or will, who feels despondent and full of self-doubt and exhaustion, can get their creative joy back and shed all that does not serve them. I wrote this blog post for everyone who feels this way. Be generous to yourself, and kind, and forgiving. Healing will come in the morning, and in its wake, inspiration – I promise you x

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