Top 5 shy women artists

It’s hard sometimes, being a woman artist. We don’t get called “poetesses” any more or have to write under male pseudonyms like the Brontes, but if you read the comments on any interview with a woman writer most of them will probably be about her looks rather than her books.
Women artists get judged a lot on their personas, too. If you’re confident and egotistical you’re criticised for being “too much”, but the quiet and reserved JK Rowling has been attacked for being “cold”. So as an antidote to this weirdness, here’s my celebration of shy, quiet, introverted, reserved women artists.
I’ve missed out Emily Dickinson (who probably had social anxiety, and rarely left her room) only because she’s probably the poster woman for shy female artists. Here’s my top five:

1. JK Rowling

JK Rowling doesn’t need an introduction: the author of Harry Potter is one of the richest and most famous women in the world, adored by millions of people. But she has a surprisingly low public profile, and the first time I heard a radio interview with her it struck me how soft-spoken she is. This wonderful article explores how Ms Rowling has been criticised for her quietness and reserve (Gawker’s Caity Weaver wrote that it made you “not want to hang out” with JK Rowling). JK Rowling is an affirmation to shy, introverted women writers everywhere.

2. Dora Carrington
StracheyCarrington.jpg
Known as Carrington, she was a painter and decorative artist who was friends with the Bloomsbury Group after World War One, and had a long and probably platonic relationship with the gay writer Lytton Strachey. Although she is often seen as a hanger-on around more famous people, Carrington was a distinguished artist in her own right, and her paintings hang in the Tate to this day.
Carrington was a tomboyish, bisexual woman who was painfully shy. The artist was self-conscious and often found it easier to communicate with animals than people; she “suffered from physical awkwardness, turning her feet in and hanging her head”.*

3. Alice Walker

Alice Walker is an American author and activist, known for her novel The Color Purple and other works dealing with themes like racism, equal rights, abuse and redemption. On being asked if she “screams the truth”, she replied “I never scream and I think that silence is the best way to get real attention.”
As a child, Walker was shot in the eye with a BB gun fired by her brother. When a layer of scar tissue formed over the wounded eye, she became painfully shy and self-conscious. The scar tissue was removed when she was 14 and she later became valedictorian and was voted queen of her senior class. She says that she drew value from her injury when she realised it had allowed her to begin “really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out”.

4. Regina Spektor

Regina Spektor is a Russian Jewish American composer, pianist and songwriter. She is probably best known for her radio hits like ‘Fidelity’ and ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, but has composed thousands of songs. A CNN profile said that “in person, the classically trained pianist is shy and soft spoken”. Spektor tours a lot, but keeps a low public profile and rarely shares much about her personal life; she sometimes releases interviews, but seems to prefer staying in the background and out of the public eye.

5. Ali Smith

Ali Smith is a Scottish writer and the author of short stories and novels, such as Hotel World, The Accidental, and How to Be Both (which recently won the Baileys Prize). She creates beautiful, playful, inventive fiction which explores themes like love, loss, and justice.
Ali Smith has described herself as “quite shy” and prefers to talk about her work in interviews, rather than herself. A Guardian profile said: “Smith has always believed that an author must remain as anonymous as possible or risk impeding the fiction for her readers. Too much biographical information “diminishes the thing that you do” she says. “You have to remain invisible.””

*Virginia Woolf’s Women, Vanessa Curtis, 2014

Can you learn to love reading?

I have a young cousin who doesn’t like reading. She’ll open a book and read it to you, but after a minute you realise she’s making the story up or telling it from memory. Drag her through a text, word after word, and she quickly gets frustrated.
I’ve tutored other kids who felt similarly. They know how to read, but it’s such hard work – whether that’s because of learning disability, bad teaching, or any other reason. They have been taught to read; technically they know how to do it. But ask them questions about what they’ve read, and they go blank and shrug. To them, the page is full of traps. Reading is a horrible, grinding, plodding chore.
You can teach someone to read. But can you teach them to love reading? To read a book and understand and enjoy it? Plenty of people leave school knowing how to read, without learning to love reading. I’ve met educated adults who have never read a book for fun.
The latter always surprises me, but then I can’t remember when I didn’t read for pleasure. I thought reading was for pleasure, even though at school they said it was work.
Once I’d learned to read, I was unstoppable. When I was six my teacher phoned my parents and said wearily “We’ve run out of books for your daughter.” Dad asked if the school had a library. “She’s read the Junior Library,” the teacher replied.
Being a bookworm as a child is probably more fun than being one as an adult, because most adults aren’t really expected to read. No one will give you a gold star if you’ve read twenty books in a month. You don’t have to read for pleasure.
Why should you read for pleasure, anyway?
One could argue that reading is a necessary skill, and it doesn’t matter if you love reading so long as you can do it. You don’t have to love driving to drive a car. You don’t have to love maths to pay a bill. Reading for pleasure is just an extra.
To which my response is: what a drab, dry view of the world, where enjoying art is an extra! Where everyone reads the bare minimum only because they have to!
I think reading for pleasure is one of the best things anyone can do. Reading fiction helps you become more empathetic. Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom, it develops the mind, the imagination, and the heart.
And in daily life, we are now more than ever surrounded by words. On sites like tumblr and AO3, everyone is writing. Everyone is reading. Almost no one earns money from it. Why are we all doing this, if we’re not getting something out of it?
A love for reading is an advantage – albeit to the soul and not the wallet, although books in any format are less expensive than most hobbies. Capitalism doesn’t reward a love for reading, but then capitalism will only reward what is beneficial to itself, not what is beneficial to you.
Returning to my point: you can be taught how to read, but you can’t be taught how to love reading.
Not directly.
Good teachers can infect you with their enthusiasm for books. You can be put in the vicinity of a lot of books, which always helps.
But you’ve still got to sit down with the book and fight it out. You and the page. You and the author’s voice. You have to go forth and conquer.
To me, it seems people usually learn to love books by being… interested. There is no way to understate the amazing things humans can do if they are very interested in something. Take 
the author Sally Gardner:

I eventually ended up in a school for maladjusted children because there was no other school that would take me… I had been classified as “unteachable” but at the age of fourteen, when everyone had given up hope, I learned to read. The first book I read was “Wuthering Heights” and after that no one could stop me.

Then there’s the author Sue Townsend:

I was afraid of my primary-school teacher because, when we had to read out loud, she’d slap our legs if we got a word wrong. As a result I didn’t learn to read until I was eight, when I stayed at home ill… My mum brought a pile of Just William books home from a rummage sale and I taught myself to read with William—The Outlaw… Once I started to read, I never looked back.

I am not saying that being interested in something can always make you able to do it. What I am saying is that a love for reading cannot be taught, it is something you must discover for yourself. There are no short cuts, but plenty of rewards.
Virginia Woolf wrote:

“However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books, a lonely battle awaits us at the end. There is a piece of business to be transacted between writer and reader before any further dealings are possible.”*


*The Common Reader, Robinson Crusoe

Getting out of the woods: the joy of linear storytelling

I discovered Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit when I was seventeen. After I rescued it from the back shelves of the college library, I swiftly realised it was a magic book.
It’s haunted me since, this anarchic little novel. It radically restructured my mind, it opened doors to new vistas. I was absorbed from the first line.
This is despite the fact that I’m really a terrible reader, and back then I was even worse. I read Oranges at lightning speed, occasionally checking how much reading time I had left till my next class. I was like oiky Mr Toad, speeding through a beautiful forest in an obnoxiously noisy car.
The sections which diverted from the main narrative (including the fairytales and the Book of Deuteronomy) were sadly lost on me, as I was too eager to get back to the main story to appreciate them. Why have we strayed over here, into the woods? I don’t want to hear about Winette Stonejar or knights. Where am I? Take me back to the plot.
Everyone creates their own, private version of the books they read. After I inhaled Oranges, it worked away quietly at the back of my mind, changing my thoughts on structure, autobiography, and what a novel could do.
After reading Woolf, Calvino, Winterson, Joyce, and a handful of other authors, I drew the conclusion that books with a straightforward, linear plot were a bit… inferior. Straightforward plots were just unimaginative. (Winterson calls them “written-down television” – as though television plots are incapable of being smart, imaginative or non-linear.) It was around the time that Twilight was popular, so it felt like the smart thing to criticise linear storytelling. I was the educated rebel finding a source of discontent. Books, I told anyone who’d listen, were about more than story. They were also about language, images, ideas.
At seventeen, I drew the conclusion that straightforward plots were “unimaginative” because I hadn’t yet sat down to write and realised that even writing a straightforward plot is as difficult as fitting an entire watermelon in your mouth.
PG Wodehouse said that he wrote about 400 pages of plot notes for each novel and would generally fall into despair halfway through – and his output mostly consists of relatively slim comic novels. Although Wodehouse used similar plot structures and motifs over and over during his career, each plot taken by itself is meticulously put together and executed. That does require imagination, and it’s a craft which should not be overlooked.
I’m glad I can admit now that I like a story. I like a linear plot. It eases my mind to admit it, somehow. Five years later, it’s the story of Oranges – that central relationship between the mother and daughter, the daughter’s quest for love and freedom – that I remember most vividly. In the interim, my mind has stripped away the abstractions.
And I still adore Oranges, of course. There are many books with non-linear or experimental structure that I like and admire very much. I am learning how to read more deeply, to appreciate text more fully. But story is a large part of my reasoning for selecting new books to read. I like to be emotionally engaged, and to me that isn’t possible without a coherent story, preferably told in a linear way.
That doesn’t mean non-linearity is intrinsically incoherent, of course; sometimes it’s the best way to tell a story. I enjoy writers like Ali Smith, who combines a poetic lyrical intensity and subversion of structure with excellent storytelling. Books like How to Be Both prove it is possible to subvert conventional narrative structure and still tell a great story.
On the other hand, I do not enjoy writers like Winterson taking a prescriptive approach to what I should and shouldn’t enjoy as a reader. There is nothing wrong with linearity in itself: the earliest myths and legends are linear tales, after all. Nor does it make you somehow less smart to enjoy a linear story. Stories aren’t for that. Stories open your mind, forge empathy and take you to new worlds. If you become smarter from reading them that’s a by-product, not the end result.
I began to feel less guilty about all this when I read an article by Matthew Haig, which I referenced here in an earlier post. Haig wrote about how books helped to lift him out of his depression: “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
Well, exactly.
The great thing about a story is that if you’re a poor kid reading a book in an inner-city library, you’re catapulted out of your world and into another. Stories move you, and not just emotionally. When your world seems mired and rutted, linear storytelling reminds you that movement and change is possible. You follow the line through the labyrinth, and out the other side.
You get all the joy of following Harry Potter away from Privet Drive to the house on the rock, to Diagon Alley, and to Hogwarts. You leave the Shire with a gaggle of hobbits and follow them all the way to Mordor. You can visit Neverwhere, over and over. I can vividly remember being seven years old, lying on a flowered bedspread in a small bedroom in Southampton, and following Lucy through a wardrobe into an unfamiliar snowy world.
These are not just the pleasures of childhood, either. We are allowed to experience the joy of narrative and story for as long as we live. No intellectual snobbery should crush this private splendour: the reader, the page, the story.

Notes

Essay on postmodernism and storytelling: ‘What’s wrong with heroes? – Some thoughts on superhero narratives’
Read Jeanette Winterson’s thoughts on Oranges are Not The Only Fruit here

Why I love sad stories

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” – Lemony Snicket

The thing is, I don’t really… get positivity culture. I have a spiritual resistance to mindfuless books, daily positive reminders and inspirational quotes. They make me want to scream “Oh, screw you.”
It’s not always been this way. In 2011, when I was newly diagnosed with OCD, positive quotes helped me. It was only as I worked on building a new, clearer worldview that I realised constant positivity just wasn’t… enough. So much positive advice – go for a walk in the woods! If you have a toxic, negative person in your life, cut them out! – seemed to be written by, and aimed at, people who were able to switch the world off.
I found myself skipping from recovery websites to news feeds: refugees, wars and revolutions. I started reflecting on childhood trauma. Positivity culture felt empty and escapist, in a way that Trudy’s tweet* put into words for me.
In day-to-day life I’m optimistic and cheery, but on a deeper level I understand gloom. I suppose I don’t really think in terms of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ any more, and instead I try to see interwoven qualities and nuances in the world around me.
Where positivity culture gets interesting for me is its intersection with storytelling.

There are two arguments I’ve come across, which frequently overlap. The first argument is, ‘I want positive representation of minority characters, who are often poorly represented in media’ – which I absolutely want. Argument two is, ‘I want the stories I consume to be positive and optimistic, rather than presenting a cynical worldview’. My feelings on that are more complex.
Some art provides both these things. When Pacific Rim came out, back in 2013, bloggers celebrated the film’s optimism, (along with its diverse, positively represented cast), and contrasted it with the bleak, grimdark aesthetic** of films like The Dark Knight. (Grimdark: “an adjective used to describe a setting or situation in a fictional work that is considered dark, depressive, violent or edgy.”) On Tumblr, people have been crying out for years for optimistic stories.
In a discussion between Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks, hooks talked about 12 Years A Slave and said:

“one of the things I stand on all the time is that film does not exist for the purpose of giving us reality. If my life is shit, I don’t want to go pay $10 or $12 to see it displayed. What I want for us all the time is a pushing of the imagination…”

hooks was speaking specifically about the representation of black women in film. After hearing her incisive comments, I found myself reflecting on this, and on what people want from stories in general.
My own view is that some people need positive stories, for many excellent reasons – both personal and political. But that doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with creating art that is realistic, dark or cynical; art like this can be a deeply validating reflection of depression, melancholy and terrible experiences.
I know it’s not a popular view. But as someone with cyclical depression, I really do love art that expresses dark, difficult emotions, and acknowledges structural issues. I identify with seeing that shit validated and displayed on a screen, or in a book. And if you are struggling, feeling left out of a culture that tells you to surround yourself with positivity you can’t relate to, here’s your permission to opt out. To decide what you want, not what you think you should want. You are not alone.
Continue reading

Anxiety & Me, part 6: About Mr Milligan

[this is the last in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Read part one here]

I was brought up worshipping comedians.

I knew that Tony Hancock, Paul Merton, Spike Milligan and a lot of the others were mentally ill, and always somehow assumed it made them funnier – that it fed the black humour that made them special. I assumed their illness gave them insight into a kind of dark wisdom that other people didn’t have.

But then I saw a picture of Spike Milligan in a depressive episode. He looked destroyed. A sad, broken old man. And I realised something then: wherever his art came from, it didn’t come from bipolar.

“I cannot stand being awake,” Spike wrote about his illness. “The pain is too much … Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet.”

What on earth can you learn from something so awful?

Some would say that there are a handful of qualities you can develop, if you live with mental illness. Compassion. Empathy. Gratitude. Experience. Mindfulness.
Well, yes. But these are all things you could learn anywhere, in any circumstances. None are linked directly with mental illness, or indeed, with any negative life experience. They are all qualities that we, thinking people that we are, develop ourselves as we grow – and it’s possible to develop them even without a mental illness.

In contrast, creating art usually requires a lot of very practical skills and attributes. Like concentration, energy, stamina, and a basic belief that what you’re doing is worth the time you put in.

All these qualities are contingent on being able to sit down and work.
Which is difficult, if you’re not at your best.

If you can do it at the moment, good. If not, don’t blame yourself. Most importantly, when you can create, it doesn’t matter what your brain is like – it’s what you do with it that counts.

There is no direct correlation between being “a little bit mentally ill” and being an artist. It’s absurd – like saying that you need to have imbetigo to be a traffic policeman, or that you can only be an accountant if your dog got run over. Again: having depression or anxiety is an illness, not some kind of creative superpower.
Yes, we can use mental illness – because that’s what we would do anyway, using every scrap of experience to build something new and beautiful. Yes, we can and probably should talk about it in our work, opening up a space for those who feel scarred by it.

But let’s destroy the assumption that someone must become more interesting and creative as soon as their brain starts to riot. Forget the idea that all artists are somehow damaged, that troubled artists should feel fired up by their experiences instead of thinking “well, that was a bit shit”. Dismiss the supposition that we must all be productive all day, every day, or else we are failing. Mental illness is a fact of life; and there is a deeply personal connection for every artist between work and life experience, which defies attempts to be universalised into a feel-good message about how illness makes us braver and more creative.
It is our own talents, experiences, voices and strength that make us into artists. Not our weaknesses.

Anxiety & Me: How mental illness nearly killed my creativity

[note: This post was originally written for Bootleg Noise, a wonderful blog for young people in London which everyone should go and follow. It takes the form of six short essays, which are being serialised here and on Bootleg.]

Intro

I started writing this just after Robin Williams died. Since his suicide, many beautiful articles have been written about his life, his legacy, and the link between creativity and mental illness.

I realised that this article – originally just a collection of short and funny essays – needed to be rewritten. Rewritten – not as reflections about Robin Williams so much, but as reflections about the stories we hear about mental illness, art and recovery. That includes the stories we tell ourselves.

Mentally ill people are surrounded by stories on TV, in books, and in newspapers about our conditions. Most of these stories are told by people without mental illnesses. These stories, often told from a position of ignorance and fear, can irrevocably shape how a mentally ill person sees other people and themselves.

For those of us who grew up without a diagnosis, these stories often teach us that having a mental illness is shameful and can only be revealed to close friends, as a sort of Tragic Backstory. The default point of view in most books, films and TV shows is that of a neurotypical person (not mentally ill) which makes us feel like side characters in our own lives.

People who have a diagnosis, such as OCD or schizophrenia, will encounter stories – fictional or allegedly true – which paint people like themselves as scary and violent. Never mind that almost everyone knows a seemingly normal person who has a mental illness (about 1 in 10 people in Britain have mixed depression and anxiety). We’re always seen as odd, in need of special attention, or not trying hard enough.

There is a strong difference between the way society sees us and the way we see ourselves. To paraphrase the novel About A Boy, “It’s different on the inside”.

In the week after Williams’ death, I heard two comments that stuck with me: “It only proves that those who act the most happy are the most sad”, and “How sad that he let his demons win.” These both just show how willing people are to look at a real person suffering a mental illness, and twist their lives into a story: The Man Who Let His Demons Win. The Great Tragic Funny-man. And so on.

That’s what we do, as people: we tell stories. But not all of them are true.

1: “A little bit mentally ill”

Last summer, the author Matthew Haig tweeted advice for writers: “Be an insomniac, eat peanut butter, have trust issues, be a little bit mentally ill, forget to moisturise, talk to cats.”

Well, I enjoy a joke, but only when it’s funny. And the words “be a little bit mentally ill” left me wanting a strong drink and a lie-down.

Instead, I calmly tweeted Mr Haig and told him I thought the joke was a lead balloon. A proper Dude, Not Funny.

Yes, the quip seems harmless on the surface – but I live below the surface. Where I talk to amazing, kind, magical young people whose natural confidence and energy has been crippled by mental illness. Twitter has incredible support networks, but you’d never know if you see a snarky quip about mental health. After a while, the jokes get exhausting.

Matthew Haig replied that his own mental illness history had “seriously… helped his writing”. To which I cried, “But it didn’t help mine! Or anyone else I know! Your story isn’t the same as my story! This isn’t true for everyone!”

Personally, I don’t believe mental illness helps my writing. Many of my friends are artists and apart from Matthew Haig I’ve not met anyone, not one person who claims to be more productive or inventive because of their bad brain chemistry.  I have no patience whatsoever for the tortured artist myth: mental illness, like any other sickness, is generally innately destructive.
When we talk about Robin Williams, to say “How sad he let his demons win” ignores the fact that he fought those demons for decades, knowing that they intended to destroy him. Mental illness is not a muse, it’s a life-sucking parasite; and the fact he lasted so long is a sign of his strength. You wouldn’t blame someone for ‘losing the battle’ to cancer, so why criticise someone for being so ill that they commit suicide?

The last thing I would advise any artist to do is to have a bad brain.

But we work with what we’ve got, right?