When I was about 9, I was involved in an altercation with an authority figure that turned out to be quite formative for me.
Our class was making one of those massive wall friezes on a sheet of lining paper, with some of us drawing the scene (possibly something involving David Livingstone?) and some of us colouring it in. I drew some monkeys in a tree, of which I was particularly proud. Then, disaster struck. One of the boys on colouring-in duty covered up my monkeys in green crayon! He just scribbled over them as if they were nothing, like they were part of the background foliage rather than the most amazing recreation of simian life ever to come out of rural Perthshire. And what’s more, nobody else even noticed.
Naturally I was devastated by this loss. I’ve no idea whether he did it to annoy me, whether he genuinely didn’t notice them, or if he just wanted to get the colouring in done as quickly as possible. What I do remember is reporting this injustice to a figure of authority, our class teacher, and nothing happening about it. I complained to my friend, which the teacher overheard – and that was the point at which she yelled at me, in front of the entire class, ‘oh for goodness sake Alison, stop wallowing in it.’
Obviously this was used against me by my peers for some weeks (and indeed brought up years later in high school as ‘mind that time someone drew on your picture and you cried in front of the whole class’ – which, by the way, I did not – as discussed I whinged to my pal. That’s a formula which has continued to this day, as most people who know me IRL will be able to attest). To be honest though, my classmates had quite a lot of other material to work with when it came to making fun of me, so I wasn’t as bothered by that. No, what I remember finding outrageous was the injustice.
Someone sullied my pure and beautiful art, and by rights that person should have got in trouble. If they weren’t going to exclude him from school forever, he should at the very least have been forced to make a formal apology for his transgression, preferably in front of the whole class. Maybe at assembly. Possibly in writing? Instead, I was the one that got yelled at in front of everyone.
Was she right?
More than twenty years later, I occasionally find myself thinking about that phrase ‘stop wallowing in it’ – because sometimes, I probably do. The thing is, I’m not sure whether it’s actually a bad thing as that teacher implied, or a healthy process – something that makes more sense than bottling my feelings away for an explosion at something innocuous later on, or something in between. If something is upsetting or unfair, shouldn’t you get it off your chest? Surely it’s that or put it all in a tell-all book which then has to go through some serious legal biz before publication…
I get that talking things out can be annoying or boring for confidantes who have heard it all before. However, it can also be cathartic, or it can lead to hilarious hyperbole, or sometimes it can even spark ideas for constructive change. Mulling over things internally for long periods of time might make great art for some folks, but it doesn’t inspire me to Plath-like poetry. It just makes me feel sad, and less like writing than eating my feelings.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because over the past little while I’ve been feeling low-key unhappy a large amount of the time, about some very specific aspects of my life. The main problem I’m having is that I don’t have as much time as I’d like to make art (I haven’t drawn a monkey since this Not All Mandrills comic in 2015) or see friends (like the ones I talked to about Monkey Gate), because my day job takes up so much of my time and energy.
At the moment I’m averaging 40 minutes extra on top of my contracted hours every day, plus 2 hours of commuting. This is a trend happening across the UK though, and in comparison to a lot of people I get off extremely lightly. My 3.3 unpaid extra hours a week pale into insignificance against those of a friend who works in London and regularly does 12-14 hour days, for example. Not that she is trying to write on top of that, which in itself is a pretty full time occupation… but I ought to be counting my blessings, oughtn’t I? At least I have a steady job, at least it pays me enough to get by, at least I enjoy a lot of aspects of what I do. So what if they get around £1.7k of work a year out of me which they don’t pay for. So what I haven’t been for a run in two years. So what if I still haven’t queried any of the books I’ve written. I’ve still got my health, my big tub o’ peanut butter, and a folder full of nearly-finished manuscripts. Am I just wallowing in it?
Life As A Wallower
Well, possibly. But it’s hard at times to focus on the positive aspects of life when you’ve got into the habit of sitting in the dark on the internet, reading horrifying articles about what’s going on in the news, seeing women you respect and admire leaving social media because of constant trolling, and wanting to help but not really knowing how.
It’s hard not to feel bad about yourself when you then look at Facebork’s ‘on this day’ feature for a bit of light relief and remember how on this day three years ago you were writing almost every day, had just finished the C25K so were feeling quite good physically and mentally, you had the energy and confidence to go out to more gigs and see people you loved and fight for causes that mattered, and frankly you were drawing monkeys like it was going out of style.
I’ve seen a lot of articles kicking about recently about how spending too much time on social media is bad for your mental health, and how we should probably all just turn off the wifi and bound up a hill like it ain’t no thang. I think there’s probably something in that, although conversely, the internet is also an excellent place to find people who are going through similar things – people whose advice and experience might help you to muddle through. And mentalhealth.org reckon the jury is still out. And, I really don’t think sticking my head in the sand about world events is the civically responsible thing to do at this point in time.
However, it does seem clear that a couple of changes are required for me at 12 books HQ. Essentially I need to set myself some boundaries, to help me spend less time looking backward and inward. I need to work less, get out more, and draw a considerably higher number of monkeys. Being tired and drained is not conducive to creating the sort of art I want to make (silly and fun, not literary and srs), and it’s definitely not allowing me to be the kind of person I’d like to be – confident in speaking out about things that matter without worrying I’ll be told to ‘stop wallowing in it, Alison.’
Ultimately, though, I do think a bit of wallowing is probably OK. Just as long as you then pull yourself out of the mud and do something about it.