You will probably have encountered the conundrum of defining your own Writer’s Voice at some point. This is the distinct signature of an author, stamped upon every written page, and can be viewed as being parallel to the auteur theory of the cinematic world, wherein a director (and quite often an actor or actress, too) will leave their indelible mark upon each film, regardless of genre. The Writer’s Voice is not to be confused with the Narrative Voice. The latter is the perspective through which the audience views a story / text.
If the plot is a road, then the narrative can be viewed as the person(s) walking down it, and it is through their sensory perceptions that the audience will “feel out” the way. Based upon the author’s cast and/or choices of narrative mode (first person/personal, third person/omnipresent, etc) the perspective may shift between chapters or even between paragraphs. This should be noticeable in the opinions given, the elements of life which are prioritized vs. what is overlooked; what is revealed to the audience vs. what is concealed, or is apparently unknown.
For example: I have been (at least) two people in this lifetime – the Anorexic Me, and the Healthy Me. The former, being in a constant state of starvation due to malnutrition and low bodyweight, was wound up in a constant state of nerves and adrenalin, with a distinct fear of losing control of any situation I happened to be in. What this translated to, was an avoidance of any scenario where food / restriction of movement might be involved – say, a crowded room at a party. Paradoxically, every sense would be on high alert, with sustenance the main focus, since the human body is fine-tuned for survival.
I would walk into that room and immediately zero in on any scrap of food / drink, with senses sight and smell in particular having a heightened stimulus effect on concentration. While distracted by this sensory overload, I would be unable to focus on anything else occurring in the room. I would pay little attention to, say, art on the walls, or my host’s choice of furnishings. The language of those around me, vocal and physical, would seem at once cloying and intimidating, even if they paid no attention to me whatsoever – their very presence in the room would be overwhelming, when all my body would be focused on was how to get at the food made available, while my mind (the anorexic part) sought to take me as far away from the situation as possible. Thus runs the paradox of sensory overload / self-denial and control. In this state, I would be unable to appreciate what could be important information passed around, and entertaining company. Since setting, dialogue, subtext etc, make up vital elements of the reading / writing experience, a narrative perspective seen through that Anorexic self would be something like tunnel vision.
Nowadays, in a more healthy state, I am able to notice and appreciate the wider scope of the world, and am constantly in awe of it; finding symbolism and figurative language in nature, listening between the lines of what is said around me in society. Essentially, walking out of the tunnel.
A term that seems to crop up a lot on social media, is “reader’s hangover”: a story creates such an impression on the audience, that to finish it and be forced to find other books to read, is some kind of mental torture. Nothing else will suffice. It’s the itch between the ears when a song becomes so addictive that it must be listened to on repeat, until the damn thing has finally lost its appeal. In childhood, I would simply go back to the beginning of a book, getting a little less pleasure the second or even third time around – because of course, the words (for all their appeal) were still too fresh in the mind. Peeling myself away, I’d let time pass so that the words might collect dust for a bit and blur in the memory, before the book could be pulled down off the shelf again.
Nowadays, I don’t order books according to alphabetical arrangement, but in terms of what their Author’s Voice means to me. The genre of each text might be very different from the ones either side of it, but the written style of the authors are remarkably similar. Whenever a case of “reader’s hangover” crops up, I tend to sift between the culprit’s “compatriots”, to stave off the itch. It’s also a refreshing way to deal with writer’s block.
Who are your Influences?
Alice Hoffman. Truman Capote. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Joanne Harris. Jeffrey Eugenides. Peter S Beagle. These are authors I will return to again and again. They are usually often found lumped together in book-stores and online, in the genre known as General Fiction.
Me, I prefer to know them as the “synaesthetic” authors. Their diction and syntax, have the knack of creating quite vibrant and refreshing colours/patterns in my mind. They are the writers with distinctive Voices, often using symbolism / a cross-over of sense-imagery in their diction, to illustrate a point.
– “Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn. ‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”
Syntax tends towards a simplistic construct – and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but in the free-flow of reading, found in an uncluttered sentence / clause. There are few stumbling blocks; you get the sense that each word has been carefully measured out and chosen for its unique ability to convey as much meaning when stood alone, as when strung alongside others.
- “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – pg 1, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote
- “Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea, as the house was high up a hill; here the sun burned hot but the shadows were cold. Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers. There was only one room; it contained a stove, a teetering mirror on top of a marble table, and a brass bed big enough for three fat men.” – pg 9, House of Flowers, Truman Capote
These authors write about the nuances of life, picking out the seemingly mundane and turning it into a work of art: brown silt and river water, transmuted to gold by the evening sun. In cinematic terms, this would translate to a keen eye for subtext around dialogue, symbolism in misc-en-scene, body language of actors/actresses, the cinematographic choices of camera angles and filters, etc.
- “She held my hand impersonally, as a promise that she’d take care of me in a minute, and gave ear to two girls in twin yellow dresses who stopped at the foot of the steps.
‘Hello!’ they cried together. ‘Sorry you didn’t win.’
That was for the golf tournament. She had lost in the finals the week before.
‘You don’t know who we are,’ said one of the girls in yellow, ‘but we met you here about a month ago.’
‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.” – pg 51, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Complex and technical language are kept to a minimum, with the thesaurus apparently thrown aside – something I am training myself to do when searching for that one perfect word, which was actually stuck between my ears the whole time but had been dismissed, due to my belief that it was far too simple a choice. But why hamper the audience with a stumbling block? Why not string together a perfectly reasonable set of words, to create an image that is still original, still glowing with beautiful colours and pathos?
- “Elv had begun to whisper Arnelle stories to her sisters during the bad summer when she was eleven. It was hot that August; the grass had turned brown… all she’d wanted was to lock herself away with her sisters. They hid in their mother’s garden, beneath the trailing pea vines. The tomato plants were veiled by a glinting canopy of bottle-green leaves. The younger girls were eight and ten. They didn’t know there were demons on earth, and Elv didn’t have the heart to tell them. She brushed the leaves out of her sister’s hair. She would never let anyone hurt them. The worst had already happened, and she was still alive.” – pg 7, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman
These synaesthetic writers are at once easy to read, and rather mysterious; equivalent to the portrait of a woman with beautiful, regular features … and the smallest hint of a dark smile.
After years of battling with my Voice – trying on various guises, as is necessary to discover whose shoes you are most comfortable walking in – I know that it is alongside these “synaesthetic” authors I would prefer to be shelved, should I have the luck of being published. It is through their respective Voices – each one unique, and somehow familiar as candlelight – that I have stitched together the components of my own.
They are the mainstay influences, but this is not to say I would ever restrict my reading / writing habits to only their work. Going with the analogy of shoes, I would say that while the synaesthetic authors are the hiking boots and Converse, authors such as Dr. Hunter S Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk and John Wyndham are the kitten heels. I love their work, but couldn’t begin to emulate their styles. My feet just won’t fit, and the walking is precarious.
When writing became more than a hobby, it was an essential exercise in discovering Voice to write through as many authors as possible – the more distinctive, the better. It’s just as vital to write across a range of forms, to develop audience awareness and an eye for self-editing.
Writing across this “vocal range”, is not plagiarism. It’s not copy ‘n paste. It is simply defining who you wish to sit alongside, who you would deem your contemporaries and influences to be – taking snippets from their respective styles, and stitching them together to form your own. This doesn’t just aid your prospective target audience, when they seek out authors of a similar “flavour” and whose work they can’t help but return to again and again. It can also help a potential agent to find where you might fit into the literary market.
If a Voice does not sit comfortably, and you find your nerves are frayed from trying too hard to be someone you’re not, then the writing experience will be a tedious one indeed. The forced Voice may waver between works-in-progress, as of a mask slipping. I’ve walked away from stories, believing them to be impenetrable, and blaming my own ineffectiveness to get down the vital message; only to return some months later, when a particularly influential / distinctive author I had been reading at the time, was finally out of my head. Their style was pressing in on mine, and though enjoyable to read, it was not something I could hope to replicate as a writer.
In blog entries, there is more chance of achieving an authentic Voice. You’re not trying to keep in character, and are not fretting about plot / narrative. Emotions and ideas are allowed to free-fall. Think back to the blog entries you may have rattled off – the sticky details of childhood life, the golden-hue moments of nostalgia, covered in dust motes, or tears. How easily did these outpourings come, when you were perhaps half-cut at 3am and coming off the rush of a night out or the viewing of a film which had touched your mind; the attached feelings you then just couldn’t keep to yourself, and were forced to offload in a blog entry before you forgot what it all meant?
Think about how that writing experience was, how every image seemed to slot into place – how when, reading it back to yourself in the early afternoon (waking to a faceful of old makeup, wine-stained lips and a head like Vesuvius) you’d felt the strange tang of seeing yourself outside yourself, and wondered where on earth had all this came from? How could it be that this was so easy, when (if you’re anything like me) trying to drag out fictional work can be akin to being prepared for the canopic jars in Ancient Egypt?
Those blog entries hold the Voice that is yours alone, when you weren’t trying to be someone you’re not; you were too excited and pissed to think about anything but getting the message across to your audience. YOUR perspective, YOUR experiences, YOUR views – all of which can be tweaked and filtered according to characterization and narrative perspective, and indeed, the same holds true for anyone in your reality who might have struck an influential spark, and deserves a place in your narrative.
Look at your voice on social media. This is you, taking part in written discourse in what may be a near-immediate environment. How do you instinctively respond to people when they speak to you? What language do you use to pitch ideas and thoughts? Are you pretty stark in delivery, or prone to using imaginative subtext? When I’m writing a blog entry, that Voice is pretty much what you’d get in real life. That’s my choice of delivery. The trick is to keep the trend going, when it comes to writing fiction – admittedly, something of a task, particularly when a multiple-member cast gets involved.
Finding your Voice is putting that stamp on your work. It is defining who you are, where you stand among other writers, how you might relate to them or indeed, be set apart. Crucially, it allows any audience member who might read your work, to come to know what to expect from you in the future.
There’s nothing I love more than to watch for the signs in life. Subtext, subtweet, crossed-wires, imagery, symbolism. In particular, the metaphor can create a beautiful path of words, drawing comparison between one image and another, so that the audience might walk to find themselves at a new truth, a fresh abstract landscape, rather than the tired old concrete definition of some reality.
Synaesthesia – “the transfer of information from one sensory modality to another”, or mingling of the senses – is often used to enhance imagery in writing. We find examples of this every day – “a bitter wind,” “a blue sound”, “a black funk.” As sense-imagery can be a vital part of drawing the audience into a scene, allowing them to experience what the narrative POV does (directly or by proxy), it stands to reason that the use of synaesthesia – the mingling of senses, or connecting a sense to something it is not regularly used for – creates an even more memorable effect.
As a synaesthete myself (sound — > colour/shapes [chromesthesia] and mood —> colour) I find a heightened reaction to words layered with this type of literary device, and will often speak aloud certain words to strengthen their colour/texture:
“There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant” – “Correspondences”, Charles Baudelaire
I already “see” the sound of the oboe in shades of green, even without the additional pleasure of sense Taste (with positive connotations in “sweet”) being connected to the instrument’s sound, and to the smell of perfume.
When using synaesthesia to enhance your own writing, consider the connotations involved.
“The wind was a thin blanket pulled over the city” – a metaphor, which can stand in place of telling the audience that the wind is insubstantial / cold, depending on the context in which it is framed. For a more synaesthetic viewpoint, you might show the audience that the wind is cold by using colour:
“A blue wind slid over the city.”
This relies upon the acceptance of the audience that the colour blue holds connotations of cold, to be chilled, though it may also be interpreted as sadness if that is the context in which you’re writing – the mood you are trying to set.
I chose to swap the verb “pulled” for “slid”, since the former belongs with the image of a blanket being tugged over someone/thing, while the latter fits more neatly with the image of water or something slippery – again, associated with the colour blue, the feeling of (being) cold.
Since the wind cannot be seen (except through whatever it touches/moves) but can be felt and heard, it is the synaesthetic transference to sense Sight which helps the metaphor to work, with the afore-mentioned connotations carrying the message over.
When it comes to depicting a character through synaesthetic imagery, one of my favourite examples is by the US author Peter S Beagle, in his novel “The Last Unicorn.” It’s to this book that I owe most of my writing influences. Having first seen the film at age five, and being marked by its dark magic (I mean that in the sense of the wild world, the quiet woodland, the pathos/comedy of heroism), I tracked down the book to some desolate second-hand store, where the pages of the stacked volumes were old and yellow as the light filtered through papered-up windows.
My copy still smells of old leaves; the very best kind.
It’s through this colour that Beagle chose to sum up the jaded life of the character Molly Grue, a woman brought down to the level of a drudge by harsh circumstances. When confronted with the sight of the last unicorn in the world, her reaction is poignant to say the least.
“But Molly pushed him aside and went up to the unicorn, scolding her as though she were a strayed milk cow. “‘Where have you been?”‘
Before the whiteness and the shining horn, Molly shrank to a shrilling beetle, but this time it was the unicorn’s old dark eyes that looked down.
“‘I am here now,’” she said at last.
Molly laughed with her lips flat. “‘And what good is to me that you’re here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?”‘ With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart. “‘I wish you had never come, why do you come now?”‘ – pg 63, “The Last Unicorn,” Peter S Beagle.
I have yet to find a passage in any text that can move me more than this one. The image is stark, the pathos (particularly when read in the context of the novel) is raw; here then is the image of a yellowed woman, standing before the shining white immortality of a unicorn so much older than she, but untouched by time or care. As Molly says later in the book, “The sky spins and drags everything along with it … but you stand still. You never see anything just once. I wish you could be a princess for a little while, or a flower, or a duck. Something that can’t wait.”
We can look upon the sky, but it is left up to weather to provide us with contact through the other senses – we hear when the storm charges a sound through the static-tumble of thunder, feel our neck hairs prickle with the electricity of lightning’s rise. But to taste the wind?
“So they journeyed together, following the fleeing darkness into a wind that tasted like nails.” – pg 68, “The Last Unicorn.”
Beagle creates an alternative image of something stronger, more memorable, as of a cat flehming to gauge a strange scent on its territory, via the mouth (taste-smelling the air.) You’ve probably come across this phenomenon yourself from time to time, when a smell tingled on your tongue and palate, or a taste filled up your nose.
Placed in the context of the scene – walking through a sullen, grey land – the negative connotations are ramped up with this sense- image of the wind and air “tasting” metallic, bitter.
Similarly, the smell of the main foe, the Red Bull of King Haggard, is described in a unique and quite unpleasant way:
“Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn.
‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”
The image created is something fetid and dark, slippery as rotting fish. Something best left unknown, hidden in the depths of the world beneath Haggard’s castle, surrounded by the sea.
It’s worth mentioning here that context can influence a lot of what you are trying to say to the audience. Pay attention to the connotations surrounding the sense you wish to draw upon, before forming the image. To describe the moon as having a “soft glow” (Touch —> Sight) creates a pleasant setting, as of a balmy summer night:
“Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The silent time of midnight
Shines sweetly everywhere” – Emily Bronte, “Moonlight, summer moonlight.”
Whereas in the setting of a hunter’s time, that same moonlight may become a finger of bone, or a sliver-blade come to slide through the heart of the midnight woods:
“Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.” – W. B. Yeats, “The Cat and the Moon”
The sense Touch is mingled with Sight, creating a bonelight glow synonymous with hunting, the clarity of a cat’s movements; the chill message of death. I find real pleasure in these lines, and know that feeling well – to wander with the night burning the blood – though it’s difficult to understand its origins. Through synaesthetic imagery, Yeats has created a more primitive time, in which the audience can perhaps see themselves reflected – that wilder side, so often lost in the light of day.
When describing a mood, I tend to fall back on how they appear to me – as colours, usually in cloud-form and with no definite shape. A feral mood – all itchy feet and hot blood, a restless spirit – is a beetle’s back, because this is how it actually appears in my mind, all glossy and purple-black. It’s handy for describing this particular mood when writing metaphorical imagery; but I am reliant on the connotations of mystery surrounding these colours, to get my point across.
Similarly, a “pale mood/mind”, can be used to describe weariness. This is because my mind will actually turn pale, like a negative inversion of the black “fadeout” seen in films. It will get to the point where I find it difficult to think (see) clearly. The extreme of this is a “whiteout” (again, associated with and derived from the cinematic fadeout), wherein shock / fear will stimulate a neurological reaction – my mind literally turns white, blinding and stark.
This form of synaesthesia has been known to occur as a self-preservation technique. Take into consideration how you might describe the mood of a scene, through an overlap of the senses – how might fear be conveyed without describing the feeling of cold sweat, goosebumps? Could another sense be employed, such as seeing blinding-bright sparks (of fear), or having an acrid taste (of fear) in the mouth?
Whether synaesthetic or not, I believe that a writer can engage with their audience on entirely new levels of perception when using the syndrome in conjunction with imagery. Particularly if it is to mnemonic effect; I know of several synaesthetes who use their “type”, of colours associated with dates/days of the week, like a highlighter pen on a calendar.
For me, grapheme/phoneme colours of certain passages in a text, can trigger a reaction that leaves a “bookmark” impression. I can then return to these influential snippets as and when needed. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote are favourites for this, as are Nabokov and Alice Hoffman, all of whom are “colour-associative” authors.
Whatever sensory-crossover you choose when using synaesthetic imagery, keep in mind the associative connotations; how these will impact upon the context of events in a scene, the portrayal of a character, the mood surrounding a narrative POV / dialogue.
Using the adjectives “juicy” and/or “red” to taste/sight-describe a cemetery’s creepy atmosphere, will more than likely evoke the wrong image.
We all have our own idiosyncrasies. As a child, I’d arrange toys in a system only I could navigate (so my bedroom resembled a bombsite), setting out scenes and narrating the stories of each “character”, while becoming quite agitated if anyone dared disrupt whatever master plan I had in mind.
On the flipside, it was incredibly difficult to concentrate at school. My grades suffered at the hands of a creative streak that made daydreaming a far more pleasant experience than learning times tables – as I’m sure many of you can empathize with. But it even spread to my favourite subject, English, with a lesson soon abandoned in favour of scribbled little half-stories that went nowhere, poems in paperback binders. Tippex’d quotes on tables. Consistency, adherence to anything, wasn’t a strong point.
Anorexia Nervosa changed this. Aged sixteen, I was fed up with the onslaught of change that had made up my teen years thus far, and was determined to take back control. This is a keyword. Everything was falling away – childhood (with puberty), family ties (my parents were going through an acrimonious divorce), the supportive structure of compulsory education – a huge factor in my life from age five, as I had travelled a good deal beforehand and was something of a late starter, particularly where reading was concerned. Coming back to the UK, settling into the routine of lessons and friendships, had provided a quieting influence.
Where the abuse was concerned, there was a different perpetrator for each incident. It got so that I began to believe I had the word VICTIM stamped on my forehead; that I was somehow sending out the wrong signals, whether by my gender, appearance or behaviour. I went to great lengths to make myself as unattractive as possible, while in a strange double-mindset, wishing to be attractive to the boys I liked with all the fervour of teen hormones. It was a razor-edge time.
Weight loss soon impaired my thought processes, and the little “tendencies” I’d always had, grew into frightening routines which – looking back now – I am stunned to consider were part of my daily existence. I could not go an hour, a minute without engaging in some “behaviour” or another – mostly exercise-related, for this was my “healthy” choice of weight loss. I figured it wouldn’t rot my teeth as with vomiting, or impair my gastric system as with laxative abuse. Coinciding with a decrease of all the “bad” foods in my life, what could possibly go wrong? I didn’t see the latter as starvation, and it certainly didn’t start out that way. It rarely does. It’s a gradual tipping point of Can’t Have This today, so Can’t Have It tomorrow, either. And so forth. All those little bits that get chipped off, soon add up.
Compliments from classmates and my family (not to mention the increased attention from boys in my year, a first) were all related to my weight loss, and seemed an affirmation that what I was doing was right. No matter that it secretly involved some truly odd behaviour, which I won’t list here, as I am ever-wary of triggering or influencing someone who is vulnerable. By losing weight, toning up with increased exercise and enhancing my new “feminine” image, I appeared to be making myself stronger, more in control.
The truth was the exact opposite. I had never felt more alone, and unlike myself. Rather than spending hours reading, I was straightening my long blonde hair to within an inch of its life. Where I used to be down the woods, climbing an oak to reach its zenith for a spectacular sunset view, I was out in the lamplight haven with several peers who I no longer have any contact with – we were joined by a single mindset of alcohol and smoking, escapism in sex and whatever soft drugs were going around. I barely recognised myself. But it seemed the “right” thing to do, as did the secret eating / exercise habits I kept up around all of this.
Anorexia will isolate its victim, locking them in ice and paring off that which is “superfluous” to its needs, and likely to get in the way of control. Emotions are kicked out, in favour of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) routines, controlled eating / starvation habits, purging. I didn’t want the lives of others holding me back from the ultimate goal of losing weight, of becoming “pure” again, after all that had happened. This kind of selfishness is inherent of the illness.
When the world became too exhausting, I shut myself away in my mothers’ house, to play out the exhausting ream of routines. Exercise was consistent but unstructured; I didn’t get a gym pass until after hospital, and only then by my doctor’s notice. So it was an exercise free-for-all, of taking great pains (literally) to go the furthest distance wherever possible. No cutting corners, no sitting down, no taking the lift. If it could be walked, I’d walk it. No circumstance was too difficult, no weather too awful to go out in. If it meant more calories burnt, then more control could be taken back.
One very prevalent habit was the cleaning. I know many OCD sufferers will relate to this, with or without anorexia. I could not leave the house until it had been turned upside down and back again. Having military parents might have had something to do with this, too. Whenever someone dropped something – my brother, bless him, can’t eat without leaving a trail of bread crumbs any witch would be proud of – I would be on it before he’d had time to move away, sweeping up around his feet. My brother felt as though he was in the way, that simply being around was causing me stress. Though only 9 years old, he was (and is) a sensitive little soul, enough so that he went to great lengths to keep me “safe” as possible.
There are certain scenes I would erase from the back of his eyelids forever, if I could. Things that I myself can’t remember, having either burnt them from memory or from being too ill to form them as memories in the first place. Only my mothers’ input and my brother’s recollections have made me aware of their occurrence; such as the afternoon when the former came into our kitchen and found me standing with a meat knife in my hand, staring at the wall. They had been eating a Chinese takeaway dinner in the next room, and the smell was apparently of such torment to my aching senses that I simply stopped still, like a wound-down toy – but not before somehow getting hold of that knife, resting it in my palm, blade pointing to the carpet.
She took it from me, asked what I was doing, with that bewildered / angry despair that was her customary state in those darkest days.
I shrugged. Didn’t say a word, for how could I tell her that my feet hurt so much from pacing? She would only make me sit down, and that was a worse terror – to rest, to “gain weight.” So I stood still, counting heartbeats and blanking out the delicious smells from the lounge, the sound of my brother’s precious laughter.
I still thank Whoever that he didn’t see me like that, at least. But my mother did, and threw me a disgusted look.
“If you’re going to kill yourself, just get it over with,” she snapped, before stalking back into the lounge and closing the door.
Truly, there is no way to describe how I felt from hearing those words, and having the knowledge that I had caused her to
say them. I hurt her so badly, and this is something I will never forgive myself for, no matter how much else I have reconciled as part of the recovery process. I might as well have stabbed myself in the chest, for the pain that nested there. As it did some years later, when my brother – then fifteen – was listening to Eva Cassidy’s Fields of Gold with me. I was (cautiously) en route to becoming well by then. He put his head on one side, looking thoughtful.
“I remember you sitting in the dark listening to this,” he said matter-of-factly. “You said it was the song you wanted to have played at your funeral.”
My mind went pale.
What kind of older sister tells her little brother this? The very fact I have no recollection of it happening, of the words that would stay with him forever, is testament to how ill I had been at that point. Anorexia had done its work.
On the 20th of January this year, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke at a conference in London, which brought together experts in mental health, associative charities and users of mental health services, to talk about how treatment can be improved across the country. He made it clear that public attitudes and social opinions must change.
“Today we’re calling for action – across the NHS, the mental health sector and wider society – to champion change, to transform outdated attitudes and practices and to improve the lives of people with mental health problems.”
Outdated attitudes such as England cricketer Jonathan Trott being told to “pull himself together”, perhaps – that “winners don’t quit.” Or indeed, telling someone who has Binge Eating Disorder that you “know a diet that is really effective; I have the book if you want it.”
Society tends to base its assumptions on what is tangible. A broken arm is cooed over, the cast is signed, time off work is granted if necessary or lighter duties permitted. Condolences are doled out because we can understand physical injuries / impairment based upon what we have experienced ourselves. Everything has a relative link to something else; though I haven’t broken a bone in my body (as yet) I know all too well the pain of a puffed-up sprained ankle, and the boring slog of keeping it still so that recovery can take place.
Physical pain is easier to identify with, I believe, because even an old injury can have painkillers thrown at it, a supportive bandage put on, perhaps some deep-heat lotion applied to take the ache away. Time-consuming perhaps, but not nearly as much as sitting down with that pain, talking to it and teasing out its problems; using the Hot Cross Bun model of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to cut through the emotional cause = reaction cycle.
Following inpatient treatment, I was discharged back into the world, to make of it what I could with all that I had learned. Funding for the halfway-house where I was supposed to continue treatment – as a means of reintroducing me to the world and independence – had fallen through. I remember hearing similar cases of this while on the ward, and being alarmed at the regularity of its occurrence. Deemed a healthy weight for my height and age, I had been out of “normal life” for seven and a half months; though if you want to look at it on a broader spectrum of experience, I had been “out of it” for years. So to still be lumbered with the thoughts and emotions I had been admitted with, seemed a harsh laugh in the face of all the time spent inside. It didn’t take long for me to relapse.
I was nineteen years old, and felt utterly worthless. I had no job, and only marginal experience of full-time employment before inpatient admittance. Due to leaving sixth form early, I had no further qualifications than GCSE level, while many of my peers were by that point already at University. I survived on Disability Living Allowance – the lower bracket, since I was means-tested and found to be mobile enough that I did not require a higher level of benefits. In some ways, this was true, though my bones were fragile and my skeletal muscles were pretty much non-existent. Blood tests every fortnight showed that inherent low glycogen levels (hypoglycemia) would be an enduring problem, particularly if exacerbated by poor nutrition and liver breakdown when very underweight.
My mother could only earn so much to sustain us both – especially as I was already back on a build-up plan. Naturally, I wanted to live off low-calorie “health” foods, and walk/run all over the place. Old habits soon crept in, without the support of the dear friends I’d made on the ward, or the firm eyes of the staff. The arguments with my mother were formed of a tired desperation at having to rehash old subjects again and again (a carer of someone with an eating disorder may know what I mean), and a very real fear that I’d go into a coma. Christmas Eve, my GP rang to tell me that, after checking my last batch of bloods, I wasn’t to move an inch over the holidays.
I laughed down the phone at him.
Looking back, I shudder at my own naivety and subjection to anorexia’s iron grip. I simply couldn’t comprehend how much danger I was in. By that point, I was almost back to the weight I had been pre-hospital – a madness of thoughts, like crows circling in the lowlight:
Have I eaten too much? when can I eat next? how can I take the hunger away? when can I exercise next? have I burnt enough calories off? did I do this right? is anyone watching?
*God I feel like such an idiot. People are watching. They think I’m weird. I never fit in anywhere. Fuck it, might as well continue*
There are always snippets of the Self, shoved up against the side of the brain; the little whimpering voice that pleads to basic principles and beliefs, such as Love and Awareness and Giving a Shit about other’s Feelings. Never quite loud enough to overcome the white noise, which only gets more distorted and violent in pitch the further down you go. It really is like someone adjusting an aerial or dialling the frequency on a radio, losing the presenter’s voice among the fuzz.
Since I couldn’t yet face full-time employment but was determined to stay out of hospital, I went in the opposite direction and enrolled back in college. Having left sixth form early, to be cared for by my Nanna before entering inpatient treatment, I was three years behind my peers in terms of what the majority of them saw as a natural progression – further education, university, maybe a gap year between. I found myself a late starter in October 2004, back in my old college and in the sixth form block, where I’d seen the tall lanky teens come and go in their Levellers t-shirts, skanky jeans and Avril Lavigne makeup. And that was just the ones I paid attention to, the “alternative” crowd.
Incidentally, I can’t stand stereotypes, and will bristle whenever someone slaps this label on me. Alternative to what? Life?
Now I was to take their place, but felt incredibly small and insignificant by comparison. The block wasn’t the shining shrine we’d always imagined it to be, full of gleaming vending machines that we uniformed kids were banned access to, and comfortable with stuffed couches in the lounge. It was small, and stank of BO and someone’s dad’s aftershave; the vending machines needed a kick just to get them to light up, and the couches haemorrhaged their stuffing with every tatty-jeaned backside that flopped into them. Mind you, the wrestling matches didn’t help either.
It was loud and bristling with hormones; bright with Punky Fish a-line hoodies, beanies and those bloody awful punk-ballerina skirts that were the rage at the time (Avril, you have a lot to answer for.)
Sixth form seemed at first worlds away from the inpatient ward – raucous and fervent with the fast-approaching future, an extension of the playground rituals and classroom laws of childhood. But after a month or so of watching my younger classmates, I realized how uncannily alike we were, despite their optimism and the age gap. Here too were the crossed-wires of hormones, the mood swings, the searching for identity, which can beset a recovering anorexic and leave them so utterly confused as to where they stand, how far away death might be in relation to life. Listening to their talk, absorbing it all, I didn’t feel quite so alone. Though it took a good few weeks before I’d dare to open and talk to any of them.
Despite maintaining a low body weight, I still felt emotions (much to my annoyance), and desperately tried to cancel these out by visiting the gym next door as often as possible. All this did was tire me out so that my grades began to suffer – and what a novel concept it was, to realize that something other than weight loss actually mattered. I wanted to do well, to overcome the memory of the balls-up that was my GCSE’s. So, with the patient help of my teachers and Form tutor (all of whom were aware of my condition, and went to great lengths to make sure I had avenues of help in the school nurse, or just a listening ear) I flung myself into studying. Nothing is ever worth doing by halves.
Anorexia was by this point sitting back on its sharp haunches and looking around in confusion:
What? She doesn’t want me around anymore? What’s going on? We’re still terrified, here.
As it tightened the noose, trying to claw back, I became silently abhorrent in behaviour – perhaps more so than before hospital, for now I had the driving force of exams up ahead. Racing towards the finishing line, though in all honesty, I had no thought for what lay beyond. University still seemed a distant dream. I just had to get through A Levels, first.
In appearance, I was all right-angles and hunted eyes. Incredibly defensive, walking with a strut that belied the cower beneath, with cropped, multicoloured hair that made up yet more jagged lines. I didn’t see this for myself, except in photos. These acted as a conduit between what anorexia showed me in the mirror, and what others perceived. This still holds true today.
It didn’t take long for me to gain the reputation of a loner. I was mingling with the younger brothers and sisters of my old classmates – a weird enough situation, without the fact I still had to carry food-packs around with me all over the place, just to stay upright. We were allowed to eat in class, within reason, but public eating will always be a wary subject for me. Still, I had to maintain my weight, and to do so meant eating very regularly. I was allowed to sit at the back of every class, so as not to draw attention to myself. I could leave whenever I wished, and would often do so before the bell rang, just to make sure I could gain access to a certain treadmill in the gym. OCD dictated that I had to use this particular machine, and I’d be fiercely agitated if it wasn’t available.
The strong support system allowed me to progress, both in health and education. At any one time, I could speak to a counsellor or teacher, and have them liaise with my local NHS care team. This is essential for stabilizing a child / adolescent’s sense of security – they must feel as though they are being heard, that their health issues are not being ignored, while maintaining the delicate balance with continued education. While an inpatient at Bethlem Hospital, I observed several younger patients attending the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School, which provides education for child / adolescent inpatients. This prevents students from falling behind, while keeping in touch with the outside world – an essential feature of regaining physical and mental health, without becoming institutionalized.
For all the support and sympathy of the adults, there were several kids in my college who would have benefited from increased awareness of mental health issues, and subsequent care. About four months into my first year, a small group of lads – all still in uniform – took to following me around the campus and sometimes through town too, calling out “Annie Anorexic” while giggling into their hands. The humiliation of this was, I can assure you, quite exquisite. I was already exhausted from juggling anorexia, OCD, education and part-time work. Retreating into myself, I ignored them and beat out frustration in the gym.
When this no longer sufficed, and I was found sobbing in the girls’ toilets one afternoon, it was reported to the head of sixth form. A man of the old-school style, he scared the Hell out of me (and most of my peers, plus several younger teachers) when I was in uniform. By that point though, he had become a good friend. I will never forget that afternoon when he put aside his entire hectic schedule, to sit and talk me through all that had happened – not just the teasing, but everything, dating right back to when I had been his student in compulsory education.
I wasn’t present to see the dressing-down each of the boys got, nor did I wish to receive a personal apology from any of them. What I was gratified to note were the measures immediately put into place to prevent the bullying from spreading further. Turns out I wasn’t the only one being wound up. An assembly was called for the benefit of the school, with information made available about mental health awareness, and relative care / support systems. I’d like to think that it caused several others to come forward, who might have been hiding in silence.
When summer 2006 rolled around, I was still stuck in a mental rut where health was concerned, but had somehow managed to soak up an education. My weight had remained static for two years – a real achievement. The routines that seem so dull to me now, agonizing in their meticulousness, had kept me in a safe status quo that allowed me to dial down my thoughts for studying. It’s the equivalent of turning your phone off or putting it on silent before a meeting or writing session. But while anorexia wouldn’t allow my emotions or those of others to filter back in, with education, I could at least put the book down and walk outside again. It became easier to do so. I had reasons to leave the house.
I owe all of my teachers a great deal, for allowing me silence when I couldn’t find a word to say, and listening when I chose to speak up. It was as though college had become an extension of hospital; a place where I could find courage enough to regain trust in my opinions and beliefs, and the voice to express them. For years, I would laugh at people who applauded my efforts – this now seems an ugly, ungrateful thing to do. I will try to be gracious wherever possible.
I must admit, I did cry a bit while accepting a hug from each of my teachers, when the exam results came through. I’d not only made it into the top set with all three subjects – English Literature, Language and Film Studies – but top of the regional sixth form tables. It made the local paper …which I didn’t keep a copy of, because I didn’t think anyone would really care, or that it was worth keeping around.
Some old habits die hard.
Clegg has made his stance on mental health awareness / treatment known, while Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband is backing the YoungMinds Vs campaign, stating that their “survey exposes some of the pressures children are under in Britain today, from bullying and sexualisation to worries about job prospects. And when they feel depressed, too many young people are afraid to speak out or find a lack of support when they do… Mental health is the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age, and young people’s mental health must be a top priority for Britain.”
Personally, I could care less which party oversees an improvement to the overstretched mental health services across the country, so long as it is sustainable and not a flash-in-the-pan. Mental health awareness is here to stay. Actions over words, as ever.
Where my own mental health is concerned, it is still one day at a time. I can laugh at things that would once have set me back; but this is through my own progression, over a matter of years. Others, I know, have not been so fortunate.
I keep them in mind, even while walking forward.
Our language is wonderfully diverse. For every one word or phrase assigned to something – whether in description, as a preposition, to denote an action – there are countless others with the same or similar meanings, but different graphemic / phonetic constructs, waiting to be used. As any writer will tell you, it’s often the most agonizing part of the whole process … trying to find that one word which will encapsulate the message you wish to convey, in a sentence.
Collectively, these words/phrases are known as synonyms. Their function, broadly speaking, is to add flavour to communication in speech and writing. If we were all to use the same words in our vocabulary then conversation would soon become strained; in text, all prose/verse would seem repetitive and lacking depths of meaning. We would know what to expect from others, with little chance of gratification from being surprised/charmed by a turn of phrase not our own. Synonyms step in to alleviate this wearing-out of language.
When a word or phrase is described as being synonymous with another word or phrase of the same language, its meaning can be taken as the same or suggestive of it:
“His name became synonymous with that of the Devil” (suggestive of evil in a character, through deeds)
Beautiful is an adjective. All well and good when used in the simple sentence, “She was beautiful.” Now imagine it being repeated across a more complex sentence structure, with additional features thrown in: “She was beautiful, with a beautiful nose and beautiful eyes.” By this point, beautiful is starting to look a bit strained around the eyes itself. To liven things up, it can be substituted after its first appearance with “a cute nose and lovely eyes.” Even these words are on the generic side, and don’t really add much in terms of describing the features mentioned – but they are synonyms of beautiful nonetheless, in the denotative sense of being attractive, and in their positive connotations.
Context is a pivotal factor when choosing to replace one word with another. Fine and pleasing are synonyms of beautiful, but they might not make as much of an impact when describing someone’s features or personality. Substituting it for foxy when describing the appeal of an ancient church, wouldn’t quite make the right impression; likewise, bewitching has connotative links to magic and enchantment, which would seem unsuitable in the religious context.
Bright is an adjective, and can be replaced with glittering, shining, aflame, vivid, argent, etc. However, as argent is associative with the colours silver and white (from the noun Argentum, chem., the metal silver) it may not be the best synonym to use in lieu of bright, when describing a pair of eyes. It would however fit the context of a night sky, and a full moon.
When writing, take into consideration the environmental / lifestyle factors that could affect someone’s personality, appearance and decisions, which in turn will influence your word choices. If the context was to be the description of a feral hunter or mercenary warrior on the campaign trail, chances are you could be looking for words that will reflect a life of guerilla movements, outdoor living conditions and tight rationing. In terms of appearance, you could describe them as being strong, but it doesn’t convey much in terms of imagery.
“He was sinewy with muscle” vs. “He was brawny with muscle.” Though both denote strength and a compact, toughened physical form, the word brawny is more closely associated with the image of size and muscle mass. For swiftness of movement and tenacity in battle, the character is more likely to need / to have built up a lean muscle mass that resembles steel rope, braided and sinewy, as opposed to large blocks of muscle that might actually slow them down and make them more conspicuous in battle. This is only a personal observation, of course; but I choose sinewy over brawny to suggest a lean style of living, reflected in the physical form of the warrior / hunter.
Synonyms can be used to denote authority: “It is the first time British police are being issued with the “non-lethal weapon“‘ – as opposed to, ‘…are being given the “non-lethal weapon.”‘ This report refers to police Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE. To issue is a verb – synonyms include to give or to dole out, but neither fit the professional context of the action and the impersonal tone of the text. There is technically nothing wrong with using the word “give”, as it is a verb and concerns supplying someone with something. But it doesn’t have the same authoritative ring of issue and to give is more closely associated with gifts and presents, or acts of charity.
In obituaries and epitaphs, words synonymous with death can be used as part of a euphemism, to deliver a softened approach to a subject that is taboo for some (where open discussion is concerned), and raw for those in mourning. As the concept of death can be surrounded by negative feelings (grief, anger, loss) and the word itself holds connotations of fear and the unknown, it is useful to have words synonymous with it (when placed in context), which deliver a message that isn’t quite so direct. These synonyms often have restful and positive meanings, or humour intended to take away the sting of loss; they might also reflect the religious beliefs of the one who has died / their family.
(courtesy of http://kaionegal.typepad.com/)
In contrast to synonyms, we have antonyms. These are words that stand in oppositional meaning to others:
The word itself is an antonym of synonym, and is just as reliant on context. Hot is a word that can be made relevant to the weather when placed in a meteorological context – say, the comparison of two countries’ climates. But it can also be used to describe someone’s physical attractiveness or success, in a colloquial sense.
When seeking the antonym of a word, be aware of unintentional connotations becoming linked to your desired message.
There are three types of antonym.
Graded antonyms could visually resemble railway lines on a map, with the starting point at one end and the destination at the other. In between lie calling points to be stopped at first. Between Love and Hate, there is Like. In the context of a dimmer switch on a light, there is an Increase – Decrease of illumination, before On / Off occurs.
Relational antonyms cannot exist without one another.
You may greet someone with Hello, and bid them Goodbye
A door may be Opened and then Closed (or Shut, if you want a synonym.)
In weight-training, Flexion is the bending of a joint, bringing the bones that create it closer together. Its counter (or antonym) is Extension – straightening the joint out. Likewise, there is Elevation and Depression (raising / lowering.)
Complimentary antonyms have only one outcome – words meet and greet without gradients of meaning between them.
You can either be Alive or Dead.
Something can be True or False
A light can be flicked On or Off
“If you are one, you cannot be the other; these are ‘absolute’ opposites.” - Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 2013
Be careful when using your Thesaurus. Overdoing it on the fancy variations doesn’t make a text look more professional, and may actually harm the rhythm of your words. As ever, consider context – what message are you trying to convey? what connotations are linked to the word/words you wish to substitute? – and read aloud what you have written. Sometimes, the word we’re trying to avoid is the most likely candidate, with the truest message, after all.