An honest and resilient account of writing for film while coping with depression
It’s easy to get lost in the woods as a writer. Hacking through an idea, surrounded by pages, applications and pitches, you suddenly can’t remember how you got there, let alone find a clear path for where you’re headed.
A few months ago I got a little lost. I had completed a couple of new pitches, was facing the application deadline for a scheme I had been rejected from a couple of years running, and I was also coming to the end of a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) treatment.
After the pitches were finished, I realised that any meetings I might have off the back of them would eventually segue into “So, what else are you working on?” territory. I had to find the next idea, something I was equally as passionate about, something that could concisely answer the ever-asked questions of “Why you? Why now?”
But sitting at my keyboard, I was stuck. I went through old notes, made a dent in my backlog of saved-for-later articles, tried all of the exercises you’re supposed to do, but all I had were the flippant answers: “Because I’d like the money” and “Because I’d like the money relatively soon, please.” Admittedly not my best work.
I finished the application for the scheme. I was resigned to a third ‘not this time’ email, worrying that I hadn’t achieved enough in the year to make a difference since I last applied. Upon digging up my application from the previous year, however, I realised that the 12 months of little steps that I’d taken since had added up.
Among other little nuggets, I’d co-written a short film made through the London Calling scheme, was collaborating with new directors and producers from BFI NETWORK x BAFTA Crew, and, after a series of meetings with companies I really admired, my first TV project was in development.
Comparing the past and current applications forced me to take a step back and take a more objective look at my progress. Even if I never got on to the scheme, I could see that I’d moved forward. Past me’s efforts had made a more experienced present me. But how could present me, currently lost, help future me? I couldn’t even see where to lay the path.
This concerted effort to take a step back was something I’d been practicing in between CBT sessions. I’ve had depression since I was a teenager, but over the past year or so, much like Boris Johnson and measles, it staged a bit of an unwelcome comeback.
I would be invariably cruel to myself. Stuck in a brain fog that forbid me from looking forward, I only saw a past littered with mistakes.
After a referral from my GP and a multi-month waiting list, thanks to the chronic underfunding of our mental health services, I was learning how to write out my negative thoughts and identify their impact on my mood and the feedback loop that this cycle would then produce. Forming it into words helped give me distance: what had been a nebulous cloud was right there in front of me in black and white.
For me, the skills I was building were about learning to recognise when you’re lost and building the tools to guide yourself out of it. In one sense, you are zooming out to see the whole picture, but in another you zoom back in to identify the tiny achievable steps you can take to move forward.
Being reminded of these tools came at the perfect time. I sent off the application, embracing the progress that I had made, and not belittling myself for not making more of it. Then I gave myself an actual break. Not one of those breaks you do as a freelancer where you just move to something else on your to do list, but actually closing all the scripts and guilty Twitter procrastination tabs. I started a slightly cult-y YouTube exercise course, read a non-work book each night before bed and actually went to sleep without hours of gazing into the apocalyptic void of a phone screen.
Soon I was better rested, my thoughts were quieter and a few images were starting to coalesce into ideas. Just like that cliché about the love of your life falling into your lap when you finally stop looking, new stories appeared at their own pace and grew in the space that I had allowed myself to have in my head.
Then to my surprise, and immense gratitude, I made it on to the scheme. BFI NETWORK and BAFTA threw me into a brilliant group of mentees at BFI FLARE, and I got to be a happy queer sponge in an amazing 10 day programme of films, talks and networking events. And dancing. Lots of dancing. I met new collaborators and made new filmmaker friends, again getting out of my head and into the world beyond my laptop.
Throughout the festival, we were pitching ourselves as filmmakers: where we’d been and our ambitions for the future. Once again, a few self-deprecating jokes aside, this made me actually acknowledge the hard work I had put in and focus on all the things I want to talk about and achieve with my writing.
Since FLARE, I’ve dived back into meetings on my pitches, edged one project closer to production and started work on the new ideas that had taken hold which I really love. I’m about to start the mentorship aspect of the scheme and yesterday’s passes are, touch wood, inching their way towards becoming today’s commissions. The “Why you’s?” are ready and the “Why now’s?” are filling me with anger, joy and hope.
It’s sometimes still a struggle to take that step back. Writing this is part of that: a reminder to make something hard to grasp into something solid, a muscle that I can strengthen. What I am learning is that for anything hard there often isn’t a quick fix. It’s the slow and steady work, the long term relationships and measuring your own success that makes the difference. Those, and supportive loved ones and a circle of inspiring peers who I wouldn’t trade for the world.
We go in and out of the woods. I know now that it’s okay to get lost, but most importantly that there’s always a way back, always a way forward.