There are four photographs attached to this. I have chosen these images because they capture something of my fluctuating states of mind last year and into 2016, and perhaps most importantly, three are selfies. The other was taken by a photographer after a brief shoot at the Hay Festival, and the result surprised me. Of course, we can manipulate the camera’s gaze, and vice versa, but what struck me about these images was quite how much they chimed with my feelings at the time, without me doing very much at all.
There are enough essays about writing, and states of mind, about 'being true to yourself’, ‘how to be your best self’. How to be happier, brighter, more successful. How, how, how. They're never that good, unless cut with the scalpels of Solnit, Mantel; Didion, Rankine. I don’t want to tell anyone how to live their life. I’m just going to tell you my story.
I keep thinking that last year was 2014. (True: after writing this, I comb my dates carefully. Every time, without fail, I'm a twelvemonth out of synch.) Of course, last year was 2015. And personally, it was the fullest, most confusing and amazing of my life. Over a million people bought my first novel, the TV rights were optioned, Martin Scorsese put it onto his Kindle, a Spice Girl tweeted about loving it, Vogue asked me to pose for a portrait. I was invited on a private visit to the studio of my most favourite living painter, I travelled the world, and heard from readers in all its corners. I finished another book, I renovated a house, and my 2 year-old goddaughter told her mother that she loved me. And yet I realise, with no small degree of pain, that last year fell through my fingers in a way no other before it has. It got lost. Concrete triumphs, achieved through mist and smoke.
In her essay, The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit meditates on creativity, motherhood, and above all, the notion of ‘happiness’. Solnit observes: “people who think being happy is important are more likely to become depressed.” Elsewhere, Tavi Gevinson notes, after attending a concert of the singer Joy Williams, that Williams, “talked about how many changes took place in her life in a condensed amount of time and how, in the face of a challenge, you can either break down or break open.”
I have done both; I have broken down, and now I am breaking open. Solnit’s and Williams’s observations resonate deeply for me, because last year – when so many changes had taken place in my life in such a short space of time, when I was supposed to be the most powerful and ‘happy’ I’d ever been, and when I was faced with the challenge of completing another novel, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
In fact, I have lived with anxiety for much longer than I give it that name.
Late last year, at my parents’ house, my mother had piled up all my Roald Dahl novels, their spines deeply cracked. Wedged among them was a Dahl diary for 1992. It was the sole book whose spine was clean. The only entry was January 1st. In neat, joined-up pencil, I’d written:
Nothing much happened, except for one thing. Me and Mum were watching Death on the Nile. At night, I had all these visions and ridiculous things… I swapped my parents’ vitamin pills for poison.
I was 9 years old when I wrote this, but I can tell you exactly, at the age of 33, about that first, fresh day of 1992. I can remember the film’s sinister imprint on my psyche, how I understood that any person is capable of murder, therefore I was too. How I understood the terrifying flexibility of the boundary between fiction and reality. To have such visions, to be so frightened of your potential that you tip into breathlessness, tears and self-hatred, to the point that you have to write it down. To be crushed by your own imaginative power, and to struggle to regain some rationale; these are forms of anxiety. ‘Nothing much happened, except for one thing…’ is a phrase I have come to repeat, in various reincarnations, ever since. It is the basis for my writing life.
Of course, I was going through what many children realise: I could think anything. And so I could go to the dark places. But rather than know what to do with these thoughts – to let them pass as clouds and be distracted by the next thing – I allowed them to overwhelm me. I did not want to poison my parents; I loved them. But the contradiction of being able to imagine such a thing horrified me. If I thought something – if I could picture its details in painterly form – I believed this meant I actually wanted to do it. I believed my thoughts defined who I was.
I wish I’d been able to understand the ability we have to hold in our heads so many opposing concepts. Hate that can be loving, happiness that hurts, loss that leads to gain. That contrariness is in our DNA, and our minds are plastic and boundless. But also this – that all thoughts which pass through us are not the last word in who we are. What is left of us after our thoughts is another matter, of course; and actions generally speak louder than words – but I held imagination as a dangerous thing. I wanted my thoughts to spray me like the edge of a wave, not drown me in their oceans. I was too raw-skinned and porous to know they could be harnessed for good.
Four years after the Dahl diary, I read Hamlet at school. The observation that there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so remains my favourite line in Shakespeare. It remains a beacon of light, but for me, there have always been broken borders of perception: I have experienced thoughts that will intrude and skewer me with guilt, leading to vertiginous flushes of hot terror, a certainty that our shared ‘reality’ is a façade, a deep feeling of falseness and a fracturing of the idea of my ‘self’. I feel a sense of dread and a desperate desire to flee – from what exactly, is never clear, but the best I can say is – from my mind. Sometimes I feel like I’m missing an extra layer of skin.
At home, growing up, we would call it the ‘Who Am I?’ feeling. The feeling would often be triggered by the fear that I was going to say or do something completely heinous, however much I had no desire to at all. It was as if there was a big gap between me, and, well, me. By the age of 11, I would be sitting up late into the night, reading Jane Eyre with a desperation to keep my roving, mercurial mind on the page and nowhere else. At moments of happiness, it would swoop in to ruin everything. It taunted me at practically every opportunity.
Where these thoughts came from would require more than I can truly tell you. I wonder if it is chemical as much as coincidental, for I was generally a happy child, loved and sheltered. Nevertheless, I always overthought, was dutiful, hard-working, ordered, particular, perfectionist. I catastrophised - and did everything I could to avoid what were already unlikely disasters. Whatever the reality was, I would think of tenfold possible other outcomes, each one more dreadful or transgressive than the last. As I grew into adulthood, I knew how to manage these feelings when they swelled out of control. I tried hard not to give the sensations credence, and usually they passed. I fought back and did things that scared me. But it has not always been possible to do this. Last year, for example, it was not possible.
For the first time ever, I told a therapist about all this. She told me that some of the symptoms I was describing corresponded to an anxiety disorder called depersonalisation, or derealisation. While I resist the implications of the word disorder, as if everything is out of place inside me, I must admit that it was a relief to know I was not alone. But if anything, I would call it hyperrealisation – the world is so weird and bright and strange, and I just can’t believe everyone’s going around colluding in this gigantic myth of existence, no problem with it at all.
Let me put it here: anxiety is torturous. It is not some 21st century malaise, recently invented for lazy millennials. Your thoughts are racing demons, spiralling you upwards into panic – or downwards into a shameful mental space, a narrow, dank, bleak cell. And yet, I’m quite glad that when I was a child, we just called it the ‘Who Am I’ feeling – because who has the final say on the human mind, after all? At the same time, it might have been nice, when, aged 15 – and the panic attacks increasing in regularity – I’d finally plucked up the courage and told my doctor, that he’d not dismissed me with, ‘you just have an overactive imagination’. I could have been given some coping mechanisms much earlier on, to understand that I was still a relatively normal person.
That doctor was signed off with depression a few years later, funnily – or unfunnily – enough.
Turn and Face the Strange
When The Miniaturist sold back in 2013, to several countries in one week, at some fairly high prices, I didn’t sleep for days. I was so nervous that somehow I would never be able to write again for the change, and that my friends would disown me. When The Miniaturist was established as a bestseller in 2014, people would say, ‘don’t let this change you!’ This was quite a dangerous thing to say to a person as susceptible as me. I realise now that adaptation was the very thing required. We’re not made of pure, fixed essence, else we would not have stayed alive on this planet so long. The battering ram of life requires you have some survival strategy. If that means you have to change, then so be it.
Don’t go changing is a cookie-cutter phrase characters trill in the movies, as if the inability to adapt and augment oneself is a good thing. One should remain resolutely unaffected by new experiences, be the hometown girl, everything bouncing off as you remain rigid. The surtext is: you’re nice as you are, don’t become a diva, a bitch, too big for your boots – but the subtext is: don’t exit the limits of my understanding. Consider Anne Hathaway’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. She actually does her difficult job brilliantly, but this is portrayed as a bad thing, because she is changing with the demands of the job, and her people don’t like her sliding from their worldview. (Also, because apparently being interested in fashion makes you thick and shallow. Duh!)
What I can see now, with the perspective of 18 months, is that the ground beneath my feet was falling away, and I was experiencing an over-speedy augmentation, one exerted on my psyche rather than my body. I knew that my circumstances were changing, but I didn’t know how long they were going to change for. I didn’t want to seem ridiculous – going around pretending I was J.K. Rowling or anything. I knew I wasn’t a famous person; and all of this could disappear as quickly as it had come. I also knew people liked it that I ‘seemed’ the same. So I felt a bit silly admitting it, and for months and months after the novel came out, I denied that anything had changed for me. But inside, I realised a big thing had happened, and nothing was the same.
When something you have made in private is mass-consumed, the irony is that the magnifying glass burns even brighter on you as an individual. Who you are, where you come from, how you make your work. And if you do not have immediate answers to this, because let’s face it, who truly does, then boy, are you in for a bumpy ride. When something like this happens to you, however minor it might be in the great scheme of fame, you never know what’s waiting in your personal wings. You never, ever know how the spotlight on your identity is going to make you feel. You may hypothesise that you’d be really good at dealing with it, but forgive me that I beg to disagree. We live in a world where we analyse ourselves all the time, where we think that people listening to us on Twitter, looking at our faces, is normal. Maybe it is normal? It’s a kind of normal, these days. But public success – however long desired – can be as difficult to handle as public failure. Failure was my friend much longer than success ever had been. I knew its rhythms; had adapted my step to its jolting gait. But success, oh, she was standing waiting for me, one hand on hip, looking impatient.
It is impossible, almost, to describe what happens when you become successful to a degree unprecedented in your previous life. How it blows your carefully-constructed identity apart, how it gives you new duties as well as new adventures, new ways of thinking, new opportunities to fuck things up. And, if you have a fairly fragmented way of looking at yourself in the first place, anxiety makes it a real full house.
Writing, seeking an agent and the dream of being published, had given me two things in life: the mirage of a destination and therefore a sense of purpose. It was an externalised, collective narrative that all unpublished writers slip into. It was not one I had constructed myself. A by-product of this borrowed mirage was a fixed (yet false) sense of destiny and identity. The act of striving was the mould into which I poured, how I cast myself to those around me. The creative endeavour was everything, the distance between myself and my ‘dreams’ the occupied space, the energy that kept me going.
These were hard periods of frustration and despair, of feeling my life was never going to be the one I’d always envisaged for myself. Yet perfectionists don’t give up, and the desire for something one does not have is the most effective rocket fuel. I ploughed on towards these ‘goals’, and the ploughing made me relatively happy because it made me who I was, despite any lack of results.
But in this case, the destination actually solidified. As time went by, I was delighted to find myself working on edits, the front cover, the plans. The early months of publication were a glorious, mad and giddy time. It had actually happened. People liked my book. I loved them for reading and sharing it. I still do. It is the best thing that has ever happened to me. It is the greatest, most complex privilege I have ever enjoyed.
But after those first months, came the weird sensation of knowing that I ‘had what I’d always wanted’, and discovering the irony that none of it was particularly easy to embody. The space between an individual and her dreams is a zone of necessary deception. I lived in it in order to see myself better, to size myself up against my projected ego. I fed a fantasy, because there was not much proof else to sustain me. But, on the rare occasions that dreams are achieved - indeed, exceeded - the gap closes. The fantasy runs out.
And I didn’t know what was supposed to come next.
Me, writing one day in January 2015
Maybe the shock of this discovery seems naive, but I had spent nine years since leaving university trying to make my dreams of acting and writing a reality, so there was a certain script I’d been sticking to. I had worked for most of that time in jobs I had not wanted, and often hated. Nine years is not a lifetime, but each one of them felt long. And suddenly, it had happened. I had unlocked the world I'd always promised myself. It was the biggest coup I’d ever pulled off in my life.
The subsequent fall-out was not an overnight thing. It crept upon me very slowly. In the pursuit of creative satisfaction, of transformation, I had shunted so much of myself to one side. Now published and successful, I expected this drive of mine, this activity to soften into a moment of grace. I was desperate for a means to penetrate what had happened to me. But grace and understanding were not forthcoming. The happiness which I hoped lay dormant, deep within, wasn’t rising. Unfortunately, something else was coming instead.
September 2014 in Brooklyn, New York, and I’m standing in a bookshop talking about my book. This isn’t like when I was an actress in plays. I don’t have a gang of friends up there with me, ready to dissect the disasters and triumphs of the performance in the pub afterwards, once the costumes have been hung on the hook. I’m not even playing a part. The problem is that I am, apparently, me.
I sway on my feet. I’ve lost my coordinates. I’m far away. I haven’t even flown in from London – I’ve come via Oslo, and yet barely saw the place. I have done nearly 200 events and interviews, I have talked about my novel and my experience to British and Americans, to French and Norwegians, to Scottish and Spanish, to Dutch and Israelis and Germans, Australians, Canadians, Italians and Portuguese. I have talked about my self until I do not even know who that person is. Who am I?
My palms glide over the lectern. I am speaking of a clown who shares my name. The people look bored. Here comes the old dizziness, the strong desire to flee.
I should have noticed it, then. I should have picked up on the old signs.
What had happened was a miracle, but by Boxing Day 2014 in London, I couldn’t even find the energy to get dressed. This wasn’t hangover tiredness. This was something else. I lay on the sofa with a tray of pigs-in-blankets on my chest, watching the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. The next day came. I put more pigs-in-blankets in the oven, and settled down to more episodes of Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. I shuffled a path between kitchen and sofa. I felt so alone, and so ridiculous that I might feel like this, with all the bounty that had come my way.
Here, I must ask you to forgive me. I know I had great, unimaginable luck. But I think this was part of the problem – I knew what this all looked like from the outside; I had feet either side of the line. You simply don't imagine beneficence will be anything but, well, benign. But at this point, exhaustion was reconfiguring me, leaving gaping cracks where anxiety was surging in. And I have enjoyed a proximity to anxiety for so long, that I can assure you how little it cares for the concept of bounty.
I’d never felt like this before. Of course I’d never been the ‘girl next door’ who’d written an unexpected international bestselling novel before, and had my face and my life written out in the papers – so with hindsight, what happened was possibly inevitable. I was overwhelmed, and this was making me stressed, and this was making my anxiety slip into depression. And a paradox compounded all this; I was getting better and better in my book events. I loved talking to people! I just hated myself. It was like Jekyll and Hyde, and I couldn’t tell which was the real me.
To top all this off, the real icing on the cake: I was writing another novel. This was creating a secondary, persistent, wired exhaustion, layered over the chronic catatonic sensations I was enduring. Fragmented, disconnected, I stared out of windows, knowing it was time to write, trying to find inside the will to do this all again. I felt bleak and stagnant. ‘I can’t write, I can’t do this,’ was my daily salutation to the pathetic January sun of 2015.
Writing a novel requires a deep connection with yourself, concentrated, fluid, open-handed. Perhaps it could be described as an act of true self-belief. Whereas I was sick of myself. I was talking glibly about writing whilst simultaneously not knowing how to achieve what I wanted to do at all. But here’s the thing: somehow, I was doing it. I was writing a second novel, however painful it was, however awful I thought my words were – and this contradiction oddly made everything worse. It was like scratching a raw wound. Shouldn’t I be some diva-esque artist, refusing to perform on cue? I was obedient, and angry about this obedience. I didn’t deserve this good fortune at all; I was despondent at my inability to enjoy any of it. I didn’t so much have writer’s block, as writer’s shock.
I have no right to feel this way. I do not like myself at all. I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself. My family feel alien to me. I am scared I will never feel positive again. Every day, a battle with my psyche. A character in my first novel was asked, ‘what happens when things go up and up?’ His reply? Things spill over. Well, here it was; my revelatory waterfall. I’d written those words, too innocent to realise they might actually come true.
I became adept at ignoring close people’s counsel. Unprompted tears on the sofa, unanswered texts from friends, decisions to drift to the local park bench on my own and look east, towards the Shard. I used to work near there, in the City – how I’d longed to leave – and I never, ever wanted to go back. I’d escaped that place, but now I was locked inside my head. The price I’d had to pay for all this new ‘happiness’ was the loss of my identity – and therefore, ironically, my former happiness. It was infuriating that I couldn’t find a way to put myself back together. I knew finishing the first draft of the second novel would free me up, but that was months away. I was trapped in limbo. I felt flat inside; absent, half-dead. I remembered Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, Mrs Midas. Doorknobs, turning to solid gold, so solid, they no longer opened doors.
I genuinely do not know how I managed to write another novel. I don’t even remember writing most of the first draft. It’s the only thing that really happened in the lost year of 2015; that much I know. I didn’t see friends for months. My mother had to make do with minimal phone calls. I couldn’t give them any more. I felt that after the success of The Miniaturist, everything I wrote was abominable, and I was not robust enough to tell myself this was possibly untrue. The fact that The Muse was written and in many ways, is a superior piece of work to The Miniaturist, is quite frankly nuts. Maybe the work actually saved me? I don’t know. It’s too early to tell. It certainly helped me work out a few things about myself, as painful as the process was.
The challenge of writing another book, given what had happened with the first, began to prove too much. And because when you have written a surprise international bestseller, you are not supposed to complain that your mind is crushing you. You feel obliged, by no one but yourself, to perform this success, an abstracted happiness for the collective. Yet you can’t even grab one moment of it. And you despise yourself for not performing it correctly. And you say nothing.
I finally confessed, of course. It was that, or buy a one-way ticket to Nova Scotia. I was sick of bolting from my desk in tears, panicking every time something innocuous was asked of me, favours like elephants on my chest. I was sick of feeling overwhelmed with sadness. I was sick of the vicious voice swooping in within milliseconds of my more natural thought processes. I was struggling badly with my first draft and could no longer hide my feelings. My anxiety was paralysing me. I’d never felt so tired. In March 2015, an old friend – a doctor – said she’d suspected, as I started crying in a café in Camberwell, my hands shaking. I’m an imbecile, I thought – never one to let myself off the hook, even as relief flooded in.
‘I’m still me, and I’m not up to all this,’ I said. My friend replied that I was. She told me I was good at talking, and that I should find someone to talk to. She said, it sounds like depression.
She also said: but don’t think this defines you. This was an important afterthought.
Depression was a difficult concept for me to accept. I never thought myself a likely candidate. I didn’t know how to identify it, and I think partly because it can be such an elusive, wispy thing, but also because life is life and you carry on. I just didn’t realise how deep in I’d got. I was pretty tough, always pushing myself to do brave things. I guess all I can say is, the bravest thing I’d ever done was write a book and get it published. And once you’ve done the bravest thing you’ve ever done, you never know what’s going to happen next. You’re a donkey, I told myself, later that night, lying on my bed. You dangled the carrot in front of yourself for years. You finally got to eat the carrot. It was bigger than you thought and it’s given you indigestion.
You still want the carrot.
(You will always still want the carrot, regardless of how complex a vegetable it turns out to be.)
Admitting that I was struggling was the start of accepting something needed to be done. I was mentally unable to push much more. I felt pulled apart. I felt that I could not legitimately state publicly that every stroke of great fortune comes with its own subsequent set of challenges that no one really talks about. The benefits of success silence the valid call for help. Success can be as fracturing to your sense of self as failure; it just traumatises in a less qualifiable way. We are not equipped to 'live the dream', and probably for good reason. But still, old narratives no longer worked.
The psychotherapist suggests that intellectually I am well-developed(!), but emotionally perhaps a little slower – or at least, that I don’t draw upon, or scrutinise, my emotional reserves. All head, no heart. I think of that one diary entry in 1992, the only one in the whole of my childhood. She makes me feel like south London’s answer to Rain Man, but I go with it. I think I’m actually quite an emotional person – it’s just where I’m directing my emotion is the key. I don’t tell her about the seven months’ worth of poetry I wrote after being dumped for the first time, aged 17. I submitted that fictionalised pain to the London Schools’ Poetry Competition, came runner-up, and Margaret Atwood doled out the prizes. And thus came my first Ephronesque lesson that everything is copy.
As an academically ‘achieving’ child, I had always predicated my self-worth on how I shone – gold stars, A-stars, degrees and distinctions. I have never thought about who I am, because that existential lily pad dunks me in the pond. But during the year since publication, I have not been able to avoid such questions – who am I? What do I want? What don’t I want? I have been given the privilege and the challenge of these questions on a monumental scale unprecedented in my previous life.
We learn that I possess the latent fear that people only want me for my achievements. Likeability still plays a huge part in my psyche. With the biggest achievement ever in my life, I felt like my admirers are a collective Dorothy walking my yellow brick road, soon to peer behind the curtain and see the truth. The therapist explains that my immediate instinct is to rationalise things, put them under control and curate them – but what has happened with the book is way bigger than I am used to dealing with, and it has imploded my usual coping mechanisms for the vicissitudes of daily life.
In times past, through heartbreak, loneliness, career worries, existential angst – I’ve been told (or I have told myself) to keep on keeping on, stiff upper lip, do the work, eyes on the old mirage of a destination – and this has been enough. But the therapist says that when you actually achieve your dream, exhaustion of arrival can set in, meaning that the usual barriers of rationale and self-awareness and self-love are lowered. Feelings of imposterhood, fraudulence, guilt, worry, fear, are magnified, allowed to become far more powerful than they should.
She suggests that part of the problem is that I’ve been viewing all this through other people’s eyes and not my own. I think that either I should be flying, glowing, lapping it all up – or, holding it at arm’s length, with detached irony. Both performances of success, and I’m not adopting either. I am convinced there’s a certain way to behave, that literally any other person would demonstrate with perfection, had this happened to them. Instead, I am a blank. I am crying and feeling gloomy and hopeless and fraudulent. I can find no balance. I am not the person my book deserves.
This is a key problem: the book and the writer of the book – what is the distance between the two? Which one is the wildly successful party in this? As an artist, I didn’t know how to position myself in relation to my book’s success. One side of the argument was that the book was a smaller, paper version of me. I was a successful writer, and my book was a secondary party to that. What I’d offered up was myself, fragmented into fiction, and I had been adored and hated. It was a raw, umbilical thing.
There is validity in this. When an artist makes her work, it is almost her duty not to have any perspective away from it. She is the work. Do, don’t watch yourself doing. Leave interpretation and voyeurism to editors, marketeers, publicists, reviewers, readers. Any distance, and the product stops being pure and subjective. Made at arm’s length, it will generate lesser expressions of interest, love and uniqueness from those who go on to consume it, and also it will bring lesser benefits to the artist, if she stands with the others, viewing herself from the outside.
This novel reflected my true and multiple selves, indifferent to the external world, partly because there was no guarantee it was going to be published. Some of these selves were a mystery even to me, but the multiplicity of them strongly compounded the bonds I had to it. So say I was wry about my book’s commercial success, in order to assure people I wasn’t ‘changing’. If I gave its success no value at all, did that mean I was, in fact, betraying myself? How to find a way to be proud without calcifying my work process?
And at the same time, I was not my book. That was preposterous. My writing as experienced by others was a metaphysical thing. How on earth could I ever be its embodiment to hundreds of thousands of readers? It was a madness to hope to be so. I was not the same woman who’d started writing it, four years ago. I was as much a commentator standing at a distance, as I was the creator with my face in the pie. Once it was written, I had no control on how it would be interpreted, and by the time it was published, I would have moved on. It was bigger than me. And I couldn’t speak for it, because it was destined to be read by everyone, save myself.
But even so, I was called upon to speak for it, pretending as if I fully understood what had happened. I wrote it because I didn’t have the answers, not because I did.
There was no solution to the two sides of this argument. So I blundered gamely on.
In my first couple of sessions with the therapist I feel vulnerable as a child, bawling towards the end of the hour – this weird wellspring of tears coming from nowhere, as the fabric of the conversation thickens, and I can tell that she can tell we're getting to the core of certain issues. The air changes, my voice changes; she remains exactly the same. I just need reassurance that it’s ok to feel like this, that I’m not going mad, that to have a pretty low-grade career one minute and then be on billboards the next is going to do something weird to you, ripping open old hurts and fears and things you’d set to bed years ago, thinking you’d extinguished them for ever. That even though you know it might all be over in twelve months, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening now, and you need to deal with it. That you never thought your story of a miniature world would grow so big. That yes, you might be allowed to feel angry at how out of control you feel, and how no one understands.
Most of the sessions are really great. I feel like I’m so much lighter when I walk out of them, lighter than I’ve felt in months and months. I’m just me! That’s all! The who am I feeling vanishes, and it’s just this moment, walking down the hill, past the ice-cream shop and the Italian deli, and the nail bars, and this is all there is – no past, no future, just this moment. It is a wonderful feeling when you remember what it’s like to be unburdened. Not happy; just peaceful. Being at ease in your own skin, no euphoria, no lows, just being.
There are other sessions, however, where even when the dread of going is so much worse than the actual hour in the room. For days after I feel psychically bruised. ‘You’re a work in progress,’ the therapist says – and for me, still trying to finish the first draft of The Muse, this is blackly funny. Because there is always a book to write, and a life to live, and it appears I can’t do both at the same time, even though they are essentially the same thing - and I am miserably convinced by now that being anxious is the dominant aspect of who I am.
The therapist suggests I write down my dreams, or tell her about them. Squeamish, I ignore this suggestion and don’t bring it up for a fortnight. A month ago, I would never have considered therapy, and now the woman wants my dreams?
Then one morning, I wake, lean over, find my phone and start transcribing the night visions in my mind’s eye before they evaporate. It’s the Dahl diary, all over again – except this time, I’m going to tell someone about them and take them into my own control. I worry I am going down some solipsistic un-English route, into the land of Freud and Frasier, but there is great relief in it. Looking over these dream-scripts, there does seem to be a repeated theme – me, exposed, ostracised, isolated, humiliated.
In one long, operatic dream, full of sexual tensions and a big music festival crowd, I have a baby, and I stuff him in a book. (Yes, really – I stuff my baby in a book. Can you imagine writing such a pat image in a novel?…) There he is, his little pink head no bigger than a turnip, popping out of a cut-out circle in the page. I push the book closed, and then I don’t know where he is anymore, and I’m wailing, ‘where is my baby? Where is my baby?’ And everyone is laughing at me – because after all, this is only the neurosis of a first-time mother, babies don’t just vanish – and then they find him, pressed in the pages of the book, far away from where I am. He’s completely fine, we pull him out, and then I am so relieved he’s still alive, I don’t even care they’re all laughing at me for my foolishness.
Motherhood, success, happiness; the three-pronged fork that follows not just women my age around, but also the menopausal women ahead of me, and those younger ones bringing up the rear. Sometimes it’s all so boring. I wish I could just have a repeat of the dream I had years ago, when I went flying with Britney Spears.
Writing Yourself Out
Intense anxiety and depression continued to hold me in their grip through the months of February to April 2015. I had another dream. My best friend (the one who told me to find a therapist, of course!) and I were in a small and crowded attic. A man was working on the side wall, pulling it away. It looked like the top of a proscenium arch, as if we were up in the flies of a theatre. We both knew this building was going to collapse, and so it did. The floor caved in, we fell three ceilings down and landed at the bottom. Blackout: I lost sight of my friend. She could have been anywhere. And we all know how dangerous it is for women in attics.
Still in the dream, I woke in a tiny air pocket, and my friend was next to me – of course she was! – the two of us holed up and covered in white dust. We knew that the whole building – the floorboards, the exposed wires, the chunks of plaster – was upon our heads. Everyone else was dead and even we were in a space no bigger than a coffin. But we pushed through, and discovered that whilst we had indeed fallen three floors down, thanks to the metaphysics of dreams and the bouncy unconscious, we had also remained in the attic. We were able to escape, scrambling through the exposed roof towards an idyllic scene. Blue skies, rockpools. I also remember shallow water.
Whilst some might find it facile to interpret dreams as direct responses, in 2015 mine had been so vivid and riven with fears of being exposed and isolated, hated, in the wrong, that I believe this different blue sky was definitely some part of my psyche making peace with the experience of the past 18 months. It was a message that I still deserved friendship, however much my thoughts were telling me otherwise. And that maybe, in my own way, and not anybody else’s – I would come out on top.
In early May 2015, my Spanish publishing house invites twelve of its top journalists to Amsterdam to undertake an immersive experience of the novel, visiting the Old Church, the dolls’ house itself, a merchant’s house, the works. I speak Spanish, so it's a really fun trip. There is one quite famous Spanish journalist among them, and I like him immediately because he is so boyish, even though he is easily into his fifties. He writes longhand in his notebook, and goes round the misericords in the Old Church, delighted to see that the ones I had described in the book are really here, under his nose. He's one of those people who feel things openly; such a good and rare experience. In our interview, which at times feels as if I am sitting opposite yet another psychoanalyst, he says to me: you have written your life out in your novel. You are the miniaturist. You have become the architect of your own fortune. You have moved from innocence to experience. I laugh, but I know that it is true.
It was easier once it became clear to people that things had been difficult, and sometimes still were. I rarely use the word ‘depression’ – in fact, here, I’ve been bolder than I’ve ever been before. We’re not a family who talks much beyond ‘melancholy’, and most things are assumed to be solvable with a long walk and external activity. I actually think long – and even short – walks are really great, but when your job is to be very internal, and alone, things can pile up. One part of the battle had been trying to explain to friends and family how I was feeling. I could see that it might not make sense – you’ve got your dream, how could you possibly feel sad?
Here’s the next photo: Me, at the Hay Festival in late May of 2015. I look like I’ve seen some bad shit out on the prairies. I look…seasoned. I'd been to bed at 4am and hadn't slept a wink because I'd sold out the biggest tent and was about to go on. The photographer got this image in five minutes.
But actually, I loved the Hay Festival. It was one of my best events. I’d nearly finished the first draft of The Muse, and I could sense the weight lifting from my shoulders, the carnival atmosphere looming with the coming achievement. The journalist who interviewed me asked, rather spookily, ‘so who is really up here with me today – is it the real Jessie?’ And I told her, and the 1000 odd people who’d come to see us, that yes, this was the real me.
I had been fragmented, deeply, but I was in coming back in charge of the fragments now. I loved being up on that stage, talking to people, joking. And I felt, for the first time in months and months, entirely comfortable with who I was. I felt a…centring beginning to take place. I’d been skirting the outsides of my self, looking for a way back in. Perhaps, finally, I was finding an entrance? Perhaps I could fit this laughing writer in with all my other personae, and this was a fine and sane thing to do?
When we finished the interview, the journalist said, ‘well, that’s your last event for The Miniaturist.’ And I couldn’t help it; I cried in front of all those people. It felt so good to let it out. And she cried too at the sight of me sobbing, because we’d really got on, and it was so weird, as if this giant marquee were a church, and people applauding so loudly, and the screen above us fading to black, ridiculous and filmic as we sobbed into each other’s shoulders.
Here’s a thing no one tells you – working alone, day in, day out, for days and months and years – is pathologically hard. This might sound idiotic. You cannot write a novel by committee, and sometimes I think, more’s the pity. I miss being in rehearsal rooms – god, sometimes I miss the offices I worked in, where there was always an ally or two, a friendly face. Alone does not mean lonely. Lonely is when you’ve lost the ability to find your way back to people. Lonely is when you’re working in your head, non-stop, and you don’t realise you need to take a break. Your loneliness is then agitated by a melee of press and people and events. There's no balance in between.
After The Miniaturist sold, my mother told me I should get a side job, which I thought was ridiculous, but as ever, I wonder if actually she was right. When I write my next novel, I’m not going to do seven days of the week working on my own. But I’ve learned so many other, bigger things about myself last year, more than I ever thought possible, maybe more than I’ve learned in the entirety of the previous decade. One day I’ll talk about those things too, or probably put them in a book. Most of it was good, and some of it was unbearable, but I wouldn’t change any of it. If it didn’t spring directly from the Miniaturist, the occurrence of The Miniaturist certainly dragged it into the light.
A little while ago, I read an actress in an interview – someone I once understudied, in fact – recommending my book. She said I had transformed my life from ‘jobbing actress to bestselling novelist’, and that she was ‘in awe’ of my courage. It was an extremely kind thing to say, but courage, in my opinion, does not really enter into it. I wrote because I have always written. I do it out of selfish, not noble, actions, and I think that policy makes for better art. And yet, I have sometimes felt apologetic for my first novel, because I didn’t know how else to deal with what happened to it – and by proxy, to me. Being sorry is a nice British default stance to take (and I’m sorry for that stance too, because it appears I’m still British, despite all the international travel.)
Nevertheless, I am finally being able to look back to April 2013, along the joyous route of 2014 and the much, much longer haul of 2015, and learning to be proud and thankful for my experience. Still, there’s always one eye on the wheel of fate. Because once you’re at the top, you’re just a piñata for the furies. But I’m more proud of what I’ve managed the second time round. I never thought I would work harder than I did on The Miniaturist, and it turns out that with The Muse, I have. The Muse was no easy thing to achieve, and I am happy with it. Am I allowed to say that? Well fuck it, I just did. Of course it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I have tried to write a novel full of life. I have written a book whose themes interest me, a book I would like you to read on a gloomy English night, a book to transport you as much as it chimes close to home.
When I was writing The Miniaturist, the dream of being published sustained me along with my own voice saying, keep going, you deserve this! Did I deserve it? Of course not. But like I said, such thoughts are necessary to get us artists out of bed. Ironically, with The Muse, I have written against a different voice, the one telling me I didn’t deserve this, that I was no good, that the naysayers were right. I can count on one hand the times I’ve written anything down that was strictly biographical - and whilst clearly I prefer to fracture everything through the prism of fiction, The Muse is partly a diary that once again I had to write.
I hope it doesn’t sound stupid when I say that I never really thought much about the act of writing before last year. I just wrote. Writing sometimes still infuriates me, it often bores me, I would rather do anything than write. But then something changes, and I find I do it with passion. It is not romantic. I don’t quite know what it is. Perhaps it is an act of graft, of forgiveness, of deep self-understanding, of a willingness to meet yourself head-on. I think this was one of the problems – that I hadn’t faced up to a few things about myself, and the seismic psychic changes wrought by the Miniaturist were making this obvious, so writing turned from something unthinking into something excruciating. I couldn’t use writing to escape any more.
What I needed to do was learn how to live in my new reality. The book had taken me so far beyond what I had imagined for myself; the borrowed narrative no longer worked. I had to accept my new reality first, and then manage it. It is a reality I never thought possible. And it is wonderful.
I can't end this with an ending. Life goes on. But I’ll finish this up in Colombia, where I am now. It is a country I’ve always wanted to visit ever since I was 16, and thanks to The Miniaturist, I have. I was invited to talk about it at the Hay Festival Colombia, and I decided to stay on. And as I sit here in the night’s heat, the mountains that ring Medellin distant from my balcony, I realise I owe everything to my book, and to the people who helped me make it. Everything. In fact, someone who worked on The Min with me just messaged to say that she was so glad I'd written it, as it meant that we had met. I feel the same – she is someone I care deeply about now. So everything has, of course, been entirely to the good. It just took me a while to catch up with it. It pays my mortgage, it bought fancy shoes, it took my mother to a city she always wanted to see. It has given me a freedom many women in their thirties can only dream of. I acknowledge here, in the country that gave me magic realism, and I store it in order to move on, this truth: the act of writing nearly destroyed me in the process of my professional and personal salvation.
I used to say I’d do anything not to have anxiety – but in fact I worry that without it, I wouldn’t be in the possession of its positive side. That is, its elasticity of thought, of being able to go that extra mile in someone else’s shoes. Ironically, I wouldn’t be who I am without it. It is essential to a writer of fiction.
I still have anxiety, and it’s unpredictable, unlikely to vanish in a puff of smoke. I'm just astonished at how long I've gone managing it on my own terms. I am not a person of moderation, and normally this fact has always served me well. I am not that interested in trying to change. We all do that anyway, mostly without trying too hard. But I feel finally I can be open about anxiety, and that this is something I needed to do. It is something about me I don't want to hide. And although I was super nervous about this solo trip to South America, in the whole month I have had only one slumpy afternoon, where the old gnawing, twisty weirdness start to swill in my stomach, my palms sweated, my mind jumped like a gnat on speed. And only one crying bout, hungover and vulnerable, in a glamorous hotel bathroom in Cartagena da Indias.
Perhaps it is because I am out of context here, and normal rules have melted away, but I don’t think so. Perhaps, because when you smoke anxiety out of the burrow, it becomes less the thing that defines you, and just one more element of your complex and brilliant self. Whatever it is, I feel younger and more joyous than I have in years.
I was lucky enough to have the means to pursue immediate, private therapy. I think that was singularly the most helpful thing I did. My depression was not deemed so severe as to require anti-depressants, even though I desperately wanted a pill to make things better - but this was a choice I made. I would have fought for a prescription if I’d needed to. I wanted to try other things first. Although the sensation of therapy can be unpeeling and thoroughly uncomfortable, through it you will hopefully realise that what you fear is not to be feared at all. As for the artist’s worry that psychoanalysis will ‘solve’ you, and therefore remove your neuroses – aka the very structures that produce your work – is, in my opinion, unfounded. If anything, those conversations set me free. I learned to be more in touch with myself, my unconscious and my artistic impulses than I have been in years. It helped me take myself seriously in a lighter way, if that makes sense. I’m quite tempted to return.
Finally – I want to say thank you for reading to the end of this, and if you’ve read The Miniaturist, thank you too. I didn’t really have the wherewithal last year to acknowledge the joy and amazement and wonder this novel’s success has brought me, and it’s really down to people wanting to read it in the first place. So, thank you. So much. And I truly hope, that when it’s published, you enjoy reading The Muse. If you don’t like it, that’s ok. I mean, objectively ok. Because I like it. Actually, perhaps if you don’t like it, I will personally come round and poison your vitamin pill?
Me, 21st December, 2015, after finishing the last edits of The Muse
If you are suffering in silence about anxiety/depression, and its monumental fuckery, this is what I’ve learned.
Medellin, Colombia. 18th February 2016