THE BOOK IS HERE!

After years and years of hard work and preparation, Lighter Than My Shadow finally went out into the world on October 3rd. The above photos are from the launch party in Foyles, Bristol, taken by James Phillips.

It’s all been terribly exciting, and you can now buy copies of the book in actual bookshops as well as directly from me at several upcoming events or online, where of course I’d be delighted to sign it for you.

 

ABOUT THAT FIRST DRAFT…

First Draft 1

I felt really embarrassed by my first draft.

First of all, the drawings! People are often amazed when I say I knocked out a first draft in three weeks, but that was only possible with the most basic, gestural drawings. I was mostly only drawing for myself, and I knew which characters were which, so they had very few distinguishing features. It was really just about getting the bare minimum on paper to give the sense of the structure and pacing of a scene.  There was no point in spending any longer on what were, essentially, disposable drawings. I conveniently forgot I would have to show them
to one of the most prestigious publishers in the country!

First Draft 2

The best parts of it I could only just tolerate to read. For the most part it made me cringe. It was clumsy, obvious, clichéd and lacking the subtlety and emotional depth that I wanted to create. I sound like I’m berating myself and being incredibly harsh, but actually the process was just coming to accept that this is what a first draft has to be. As Graham Linehan said (in an interview for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe), the first draft is just toilet paper.

In addition to the (large) bits I felt were complete rubbish, there were the bits I left blank. So much of the story had been unbearable to sit with, I’d just about managed to get a sense of how long those scenes took in the story. I’d not been able to to plan to any extent beyond that, to even begin to draw what had happened. There were panels, pages, and even great chunks up to 14 pages long that had no drawings on at all.

First Draft 3

So in February 2010 I sent Jonathan Cape 500 pages of work that made me cringe, and prepared myself for hearing feedback on work in such a raw state that I would never normally show it to anyone.

TRIGGERS

For years I avoided triggers. For me, that meant avoiding anything specifically relating to eating disorders and recovery, any information about dieting or weight loss; anything that might upset my long-fought-for fragile balance of not hating my body to the point of wanting to obliterate it.

It also meant avoiding sex. Not only the physical act but books, movies, anything that reminded me of its existence. Sometimes even the word was enough to trigger a flashback, and words like rape or abuse had even more power. (As a result of thinking about triggers, I’ve given some thought as to whether I should give ‘trigger warnings’ for posts on this blog. This cautionary note explains my feelings on the matter.)

When I was on my writing retreat and finding it difficult to reconnect with those emotions by choice, I decided my best way forward was to try and trigger myself. I set about reading a stack of books I’d diligently avoided for years…

Triggering Myself

It worked.

This post is the second in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.

RECONNECTING

This post is the second in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.

Hard to Reconnect

Despite my fears, what I found at the start of my retreat was that it was hard for me to be affected by my past, even when I wanted to be. Perhaps I’d left it further behind than I’d thought. Perhaps I’d become so used to avoiding the difficult stuff as a way of protecting myself from the emotions it could stir up. I could reason out why I had suffered from an eating disorder, but I couldn’t remember what the suffering had felt like. I found it surprisingly hard to reconnect. I needed to find a way to remind myself.

In the earlier stages of my recovery, I had written in a journal every day, sometimes several times a day. Years later, when I was having one of my moments when I decided that writing a book would be a stupid cliché, and I wanted to forget it all had ever happened, I destroyed every single one of them…

Burning Ceremony

I wish I hadn't done that...

FEARS

This post is the first in a week-long series about a writing retreat I took in January 2010, to work on the first full draft of Lighter Than My Shadow.

Looking Back

I was afraid of being alone with all of my ‘stuff.’ I was afraid that putting myself back into an eating disordered mindset in order to write about it would make the behaviour all too tempting. I was afraid that in three weeks without anyone to check on me, I would find myself fully entrenched in a relapse.

I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to cope with flashbacks or anxiety attacks, and that the pain would become overwhelming and result in a complete nervous breakdown.

I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work at all.

This illustration was created in 2009, before I signed the contract with Jonathan Cape. Some variations on the concept have appeared in the book, but this exact image didn’t find a place. However, it seemed perfectly fitting for this blog post.

THE BOX

Lighter Than My Shadow Display Box

In working on Lighter Than My Shadow as a college project, I knew I couldn’t tackle the whole thing. Instead I picked a few moments from different stages of the story to work up into comics, giving an example of what the finished work might look and feel like.

At that stage, I was a lot more shy about things being made public than I am now. I don’t think I ever really believed the book would be published, and I was horrified enough that my college work had to go on public exhibition. I set about thinking of a way to display the work that felt less exposing than hanging the images on the wall. I wanted people viewing the work to have the intimate, private experience of reading a book, but equally I didn’t want my exhibition to seem unenticing and visually dull.

I came up with this book-box-thing, housing each of the short extracts in a separate compartment. I think this helped the viewers/readers to understand that these were disparate parts of an incomplete project, rather than something finished. The box was displayed on a plinth, and above it I hung a wire sculpture of the snarling black cloud that appears in the first illustration. I WISH I had taken some photographs – the cloud was an unwieldy 3ft across and so I decided to throw it away after the show. Perhaps I will recreate it for the book launch…

These extracts, along with a vague synopsis and some notes about why I wanted to do the project, became my book proposal. I graduated in June 2009, and showed the pages to Jonathan Cape in September of that year. In January 2010, thrilled and in utter disbelief, I signed the contract that made everything real.

WHY III: GENERAL HAM-FISTEDNESS

It's Complicated

Despite my experience of mental illness colouring the majority of my life, I can be remarkably inarticulate when I try to talk about it. I’ve always felt frustrated at not having the words to explain what I went through, or to express the complexities of the recovery process. And I’m not speaking grandly about trying to educate the public here: I struggle even talking to my friends. This is such a huge part of who I am, I’ve always felt that I’m not fully myself around people who don’t know about my ‘stuff’.

When I first tried to explain anorexia to my family, I painted a picture (quite how it took me a further 6 years to realise I should make a graphic novel, I don’t know). My family and I used the painting to communicate, because usually I would clam up and find myself unable to speak at all in a hospital or doctor’s surgery. Sadly the original painting has been lost – perhaps ceremonially burned, I don’t remember. I would have loved to include it in the book. The moment, however, of finding pictures more adequate to express how I was feeling, remains a significant part of the story.

Sneak peek from page 161

Sneak peek from page 161.

From that first painting it took me 12 years and I don’t want to talk about how much drawing, but now there will be a less ham-fisted telling of the story that I am (mostly) satisfied with.

WHY II: STIGMA & MISUNDERSTANDING

Awkward

Things like this happen. It doesn’t upset me any more: I’m fortunate enough to be in a space where I can take the remark in the spirit in which it’s intended. The person means I look well. It is supposed to be a compliment. 

What bothers me more about this incident, though, is the idea that one can look anorexic. While it’s true that eating disorders can and do affect physical appearance, weight is not always the best indicator of whether or not someone is sick. During some of the hardest parts of my illness, I was dismissed by doctors because I looked ‘alright’.

Whenever I’m confronted with stigma or misunderstanding about eating disorders, I try to remember there was a time when I held the same misconceptions.

I used to think that eating disorders were a choice. I used to think that anorexics were vain teenage girls not eating because they wanted to look like supermodels. I thought they should stop being stupid and just snap the heck out of it.  Until anorexia was the diagnosis given to me, and someone asked, “Why don’t you just eat?”

My lack of understanding meant that recovery was a steep learning curve. I fully expected that everything would return to ‘normal’ once I reached a healthy weight. I gave myself a very, very hard time when it didn’t.

There are so many misconceptions about eating disorders, and what generally appears in the media doesn’t help. You could be forgiven for thinking that the only eating disorder is anorexia, and that anorexia only affects white teenage girls. That the condition is only serious or life-threatening when someone is at a dangerously low weight. That’s it’s all about appearance and wanting to be thin.

I wonder, if I hadn’t had such preconceived notions about anorexia being a stupid illness, might I have approached recovery differently? Might I have been kinder to myself? Would it have been helpful if I’d been prepared for the deep psychological work it would take to get better, and known that ‘normal’ would never mean the same as it had before?

These days, I try not to get angry when someone asks a poorly worded question, or makes the assumptions I used to make. It reminds me why I wanted to write a book, and that talking about my illness honestly and openly is important. The more we talk about things, hopefully the less people will mistake these complex mental illnesses for vanity and stupidity, in others or in themselves.