Author and mental health campaigner Jonathan Lee discusses how writing became his therapy.
I began to take writing seriously when I was at the lowest point in my life. Aged seventeen, my brother jumped from the multi-storey car park in my home town. Amazingly he survived. Fifteen years later, in 2004, he finally succeeded, when I returned home one weekend to find he had hanged himself in my kitchen.
I always thought I would write a novel, and with the life events that had taken place, my first novel felt like unfinished business. Life for me had been an endless goal of desperately trying to be the sibling who didn’t cause my parents any problems. Eventually the weight got too much, and my writing became my therapy, and perhaps my legacy.
Although I knew what my story was and how it ended (the manuscript became my nationally shortlisted debut, The Radio) I had no idea how to begin. As I began to type I was immediately filled with fear. On that first day, I spent around four hours on the first sentence. It was certainly no fun. And, it was going to take forever.
The next time I knew I needed to work more quickly. That night, as I wrote I felt like something heavy and deep within me was stirring. By day three there was no stopping me. The words flowed, and I felt like I was unburdening myself of things unsaid. I had no idea how good my writing was, but it didn’t matter, the feeling was amazing.
A few weeks later I was a chapter in and I decided to sit down and edit it, to hone my sentences, to make it sound as good as possible. Soon I was happy with it.
This editing process went on for four years. And yet in spite of this long and sometimes laborious process, the experience was incredibly cathartic, like I was emptying my soul. The book focused on a father losing his son to suicide and some of the descriptions are entirely true to life, as far as my memory will allow. There were times when I wondered if I should be so honest, whether it would upset my parents, but I felt if I didn’t tell it how it was I’d never get better.
Eventually the manuscript was finished and fortunately it was published, coming second in The Novel Prize 2012.
I was still far from okay, and far from telling my wife, friends and family the secrets I had been holding inside, but my mental health was improving, and I recognised how much the writing was helping. It was allowing me to get the jumbled words whizzing around my head into some kind of order. They were no longer a bowl of spaghetti letters, they actaully meant something.
As the years passed, the written words became spoken words. I wanted to tell the world my story, and let people know they are not alone. I began to host mental health evenings and went on the radio and spoke in interviews truly and honestly for the first time. Did I want my wife and parents to know how close I had been to taking my own life? Probably not. But without being truthful and telling people that this can happen to any of us and nobody is alone helped. In 2015 I released my most open novel to date, A Tiny Feeling of Fear which was effectively putting into words exactly what I’ve been through and also made a film “Hidden” with Sheffield Film Director, Si Gamble to share with people my personal strategy. You can see this on YouTube by searching “Hidden M Jonathan Lee”.
All these experiences have added an extra element to my writing. I seem able to observe and understand human nature more completely than most, probably because of the hundreds of hours I have spent studying what makes me different to others. I also now write my novels completely out of order and sometimes more than one novel at the same time. I never ponder over a sentence for more than ten seconds. If it doesn’t come, I move on. It helps the words to flow. And all the editing and piecing together chapters comes at the end.
Whether my first novel had been published or not, the release of the words was a defining moment for me. Looking back, I think if I had simply pushed the words from inside into a diary or journal it would still have the same outcome. Whether a distraction, or just something to pour your soul into, writing certainly helps.
Drift Stumble Fall (Hideaway Fall) is out on 12th April £8.99 paperback