I recently submitted a story called ‘The Journey’ to an online competition. As it was Mental Health Awareness Week recently – and the competition was run by Mind, the mental health charity – I wanted to talk a bit about the story and how I came to write it.
EDIT: You can now read the story here.
A couple of months ago, I got an email from Mind saying that they were running a short story competition on the subject of ‘Journeys’. That was it; that was all the guidance we were given. Great creative freedom or a terrifying lack of direction, depending on your point of view!
I sat down and started to make some notes. I had some vague ideas about a character going on a journey that in some way included (or was a metaphor for) a battle with mental health. It wasn’t long before some of those ideas coalesced and once I started writing, the story just poured out. I wrote the whole thing in one weekend and had redrafted it to near-completion within a week.
The Journey is the story of David, who finds himself in a fantasy world that I’m sure people won’t be surprised to discover is a dream (as well as a hopefully-not-too-clumsy metaphor!). His world comes crashing down around him and he finds himself lost in a desert, trying to get home. Along the way, he encounters several characters who give him advice and help him on his journey, as well as various demons that he must confront and defeat in order to complete his quest.
I will post a link to the full story once it is available, after the competition results have been announced.
Behind the Story
This is probably the hardest thing I have ever written. Not in terms of technical difficulty, but because of how emotionally draining it was to write. This is because David’s journey is based on my own experiences with anxiety and depression.
I considered rewriting it and changing some of the details to make it less like my own experience. But it is difficult to talk about anxiety and depression in a way that someone who has not been through it can understand. In ‘The Journey’, every character and object was designed to represent part of my experiences. I can’t say I’m particularly keen to relive or to share those experiences, but I felt it was important to keep it as authentic as possible.
Some of the details have been tweaked. For example, some characters’ identifying features have been altered, which I did mainly to make it easier to distinguish them from one another and to describe them in as few words as possible. Also, the order of events has been changed slightly to better fit a traditional story structure. But all of it has at least some basis in reality.
Other details are taken from my notes. When I was in therapy, I decided to write myself a kind of guide to help me through it. I called it “A Muggle’s Guide to Dementor Defence” (because I’m a massive nerd!) and I tried to put as many little stories and as much humour into it as possible so that it wasn’t just a dry series of notes and boring diary entries. A lot of ‘The Journey’ is based on those notes. My therapist, Jo, (on whom the Oracle is based) was instrumental to my recovery and I thought it was important to include some of her real-life advice in the instructions that David is given on how to fight his demons.
People often ask where writers get their ideas. Writers often don’t have a good answer to this question. However, in this case, I know exactly where I got my ideas from (beyond the parts that are based on my life!).
I wanted to tell a complete story, as best I could, but I struggled to tell it within the competition’s word limit. I wrote several additional scenes, but they had to be cut to focus on the main story. Eventually, I found a solution, which was to draw inspiration from mythology. I have recently read (well, listened to the audiobooks of) ‘Norse Mythology’ by Neil Gaiman and ‘Mythos’ (a retelling of the Greek myths) by Stephen Fry. So, when it became obvious that my usual writing style wasn’t going to allow me to tell the story with the available words, I decided to re-write it in a more mythological style.
Other elements are taken from common fantasy tropes/cliches. I wasn’t able to ‘waste words’ by describing new, original monsters or environments, so I chose to stick to things that are fairly familiar; harpies, trolls and demons all make an appearance, as does a magic sword and a wise old oracle. None of these is original by any stretch of the imagination, but by using these familiar tropes, it was easier to focus on turning them into the metaphors for the things that I was trying to make them represent.
So, that’s the story behind ‘The Journey‘. For obvious reasons, I am very anxious about putting this story out there. But, regardless of any success it may or may not have, I am glad that I’ve written it. It has been challenging, but it has also been therapeutic and has inspired me to write more about my experiences. I hope that some people will be able to empathise with at least some of it, but even if it only helps to draw a line under my experience – and maybe raise some awareness about mental health – then it will have been worth it.
If you are struggling with Mental Health Issues, then check out Mind’s website. It was through them that I was pointed towards a CBT Therapist who helped me turn my life around, and for that, I am eternally grateful. What worked for me probably won’t work for you, but there is a lot of information on there, as well as some good advice on where to get help and support.