On Mondays we post pieces that fit that month's theme. In March, we're hearing from four writers about their experience of "Making It Into a Book". Today, Kate Richards, author of Madness:A Memoir, gives us some insight into the process of writing a vulnerable, difficult story.
Like many books by first-time-authors, Madness was born in a creative writing course: the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Diploma. I was lucky to have an extraordinary Non-Fiction Project teacher, Di Websdale Morrissey, and over the course of the year, Di and us students formed a kind of ‘writing team,’ like a close-knit sporting team except none of us had to run around an oval or shout at each other. This made all the difference, because although workshopping a memoir about mental illness with a class of twenty strangers was terrifying, it was a wonderfully supportive way to learn how to write the best book I possibly could.
The night before our first class I didn’t sleep much. I’d written the first 2500 words and I knew if I didn’t find the courage to share it with the class the next day, I’d probably withdraw from writing the book altogether.
Many of us with long term illness read books about the lived experience of similar illness to know that we are not so alone and to learn from others’ journeys towards wellness. But I couldn’t find any books written by someone with mental illness that expressed the ragged rawness of their experience, the intensity, the in-the-moment exhilaration or bewilderment or black despair. So that’s what I set out to do.
There were evenings when I sat with the laptop on my knees and thought the whole enterprise was ridiculous. Other evenings I thought there might be a place for my story but it hurt too much to have to tell it. Other evenings I thought the professional and personal risk was too great. There’s still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, especially the kind where you end up in a locked psychiatric ward. But in the end, that was to be the point of the book: to shed some clear light on those kinds of experiences so that people could see and hopefully understand them from the inside.
Half way through that year, a non-fiction publisher at Penguin Books came to class and we all pitched our stories to her and she expressed interest in reading more of Madness. I emailed her all I had (about 13,000 words). She said, ‘write another 20,000 words,’ and I did and sent it to her and she liked it and then I became unwell again and was admitted to hospital for nine weeks. That’s the end of the book, I thought. No one in the publishing industry is going to want to work with a mad woman.
In hospital, the other patients and I talked about illness and wellness and meaning and how much it mattered if the professionals treating us could see beyond our symptoms – could see that the illness was part but not the whole of who we were. It mattered if they helped us keep alive a sense of hope that we could get better. This made me think about the memoir: could it be a way for health professionals like psychiatrists to better understand the people they were treating? Could it also be a way for people to think differently about a mentally ill person on the streets? Could it be helpful for someone trying to support a colleague at work who was suffering from depression?
I got better…slowly. And I went back to class and back to the day job and back to reading books that I loved. Above my desk are printed the words ‘Never never never give up.’ So I opened the Word document that was Madness for the first time in three months and began writing again, only about 100 words that day, but what mattered most was MAKING A START.
I wrote every evening for 12 months, sometimes well into the night. I think the sheer joy of writing, of the story unfolding, got me through. Some evenings I deleted more words than I saved. Other evenings it was like I was flying. Then I sent the completed first draft to my publisher at Penguin, along with a cover letter and author bio and the synopsis we’d worked on in class the year before. ‘Would you consider publishing this?’ I asked. And she wrote back a couple of weeks later and said, ‘Yes.’
Kate Richards is a writer of narrative nonfiction, fiction and poetry. She holds a medical degree with honours from Monash University and a diploma of arts from RMIT University. Her essay about how we care for our people with mental illness, Is there no place for me? will be published by Penguin Books in May 2014. She's currently writing her first novel.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.