Posts Tagged mental health

The Undercover Soundtrack – Diana Stevan

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Diana Stevan @DianaStevan

Soundtrack by Janis Joplin, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Patsy Cline, Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, Helen Reddy, Andy Williams, William Warfield, Cat Stevens, Johnny Nash

The Rubber Fence was inspired by my work on a psychiatric ward in 1972 and couldn’t have been written without the songs of that time playing in my head.

Inspired by workplace

I had just graduated with a Master of Social Work in 1972. Dedicated and ambitious, I found myself working on a psych. ward where shock treatment was still taking place. Years later, troubled by what I had seen, I wrote The Rubber Fence.

The Undercover soundtrack Diana Stevan 1My novel is about a psychiatric intern, Dr Joanna Bereza, who finds herself up against a system as stuck as the people it treats. Assigned two patients, Joanna struggles to keep them from getting shock treatment by an arrogant shrink, who happens to be her supervisor. Complicating matters is Sam, one of her fellow interns, who looks like a rock star and is as loose as she is tight. She can’t help but be attracted to him, especially when her relationship with her husband, Michael, is on shaky ground.

Music that speaks of freedom

Because I wanted to immerse myself in the era and recall the emotions that served as the underpinnings of my story, I played 60s and 70s music with lyrics that spoke of freedom, broken ties, and love outside of marriage.

Music that encouraged breaking free served my writing of both the patients’ stories and Joanna’s. The patients in the story are not only trapped in their own misery but also in a system that doesn’t have time nor often the heart for them. Joanna is trapped in a different way. She’s in a crumbling marriage that she doesn’t know how to fix. And she’s working in a system where she has little control.

With Joanna’s unnerving attraction to Sam and the independence he represented, Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby McGee came to mind.

The Beatles’ Hey Jude sparked my memory when I wrote a scene that takes place in a city park. It’s where Joanna and her husband see all the hippies on the move across country, having the freedom they both long for.  Now, the lyrics of Hey Jude don’t connect directly to what is going on emotionally for Joanna, but it was the song I heard one of the hippies play when I went to that park in the 70s. It brought back the images of all those young people sitting on the grass.

The girls were braless, the shape of their nipples pushing at the rayon fabric of their tie-dyed T-shirts. Peace sign necklaces, long beads, and broad leather wrist wraps signaled the deeper changes ahead.’

Same for music like Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song (also known as Feelin Groovy). Hearing that song set the tone for the pub scene, where Joanna goes to relax with her fellow interns. It was also how she needed to feel after struggling with her patients’ progress.

A woman’s plight

And when Joanna worries about her husband Michael and his fidelity, songs Crazy by Patsy Cline, and If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot helped me find both the mood in those settings and Joanna’s internal monologue. It also helped me discover what Michael might’ve been feeling and from that, I could write his behavior and dialogue.

Torn by all that is happening, Joanna’s lost. The lyrics of Helen Reddy’s I Don’t Know How To Love Him  speak to that confusion. Not surprisingly, Joanna wants to check out. I’m Leaving On A Jet Plane by John Denver was the perfect song to capture those exit plans and the emotions that drove the arguments leading up to them.

Writing about Joanna’s shattered hopes of a lasting love was also helped by the music from that tragic film Love Story. Where Do I Begin, so beautifully sung by Andy Williams.

The Undercover Soundtrack Diana Stevan 2As you can imagine, traveling the ups and downs of a relationship with your protagonist, accompanied by music that tugs on the heartstrings, makes for a few tears at the computer.

And for one of Joanna’s patients, Theresa, a young woman, who stopped talking after the birth of her baby, the tune and lyrics of Old Man River, sung by William Warfield, popped into my head when I wrote a group therapy scene. In it, Sam plays the guitar and sings this old lament. Some of the patients join in, but Theresa doesn’t. The significance of the music’s lyrics finds its way into Joanna’s thoughts.

Had Sam consciously chosen this song—one that seemed to speak to Theresa’s condition—or was it one of those synchronous things that happens in life?”

Writing in hope

For the scenes where Joanna begins to see some possibility for change, I used Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens and I Can See Clearly Now The, The Rain Has Gone  by Johnny Nash. These classic hits underlined for me Joanna’s hope for some kind of resolution, for a rainbow promising a better future.

Rubber Fence ebook coverHelen Reddy’s feminist anthem I Am Woman  gave me the spark to write the scenes where Joanna takes on the head shrink and the medical establishment (all male) over its indiscriminate use of shock treatment.

As I write this, I’m struck by the power of music to soothe, stir up feelings and generate thought. Thank you, Roz, for suggesting I write this post. Music unleashes that inner world, not only of a writer’s characters, but of the writer herself. And what better way to touch a reader than to expose that underbelly.

Diana Stevan has worked as a clinical social worker, model, professional actress and writer-broadcaster for CBC Television’s Sports Journal in Vancouver, Canada. In later years, she wrote three screenplays, two novels—A Cry From The Deep, a romantic adventure, and The Rubber Fence, psychological fiction—a  novelette, The Blue Nightgown—short stories, poetry, a stage play and some children’s books. She’s published articles in newspapers and poetry in a UK journal. She is currently working on her grandmother’s story, set in Russia during World War I. Diana lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia with her husband, Robert. Find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter @DianaStevan

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Suzie Grogan

for logo‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by Suzie Grogan @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb

Soundtrack by Nick Drake, Kenneth Branagh and the Moody Blues

An ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ reflecting the writing I have been doing over the past two years, and which I will continue to work on for the foreseeable future, offers a particular challenge. Not specifically character driven, yet evoking a sense of collective trauma across a century, my most recent book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for author picBritain’s mental health is a call to arms for those responsible for supporting service personnel and their families on into the 21st century. It is a tough subject, taking a writer to scenes of horror and despair worthy of the darkest psychological thriller; yet the writing must inspire hope and promote understanding and compassion. Some 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock during the Great War, but that is a gross under-estimate. It does not include those that broke down post-war, or who suffered in silence until the ends of their lives. It does not include those on the Home Front – families torn apart by grief, or affected by the trauma of air raids. The soundtrack to Shell Shocked Britain is a varied one indeed.

Gentle despair

The first track I have to mention is Day is Done, by Nick Drake. Drake was a precociously talented young man who found the world a difficult place to live in, despite the opportunities that it offered to express himself through his love of music. My poor husband, regularly working with me at home, was shushed and ignored as I tapped away to the complex and unorthodox guitar and the melancholy lyrics.

Can despair ever be gentle? As I wrote Shell Shocked I came to realise that ultimately it was the return to what passed for normality, the requirement to fit in to a world forever changed, that broke many men post war. One young man wrote, in a note found in his pocket following his suicide

The day is one of intense loveliness, but the purpose for which I came down must be accomplished.

He had served with great courage at the Front, but life had become meaningless for him. Men lost their way, could no longer communicate with loved ones and found solace in self-medication.

Occasionally I would reach a point in the manuscript where I felt drained of any emotion and it was then I would turn to Nick Drake. He ended his life with an overdose of antidepressants, planned or accidental. The track recharged my commitment to expose the horrors and give that despair a voice.

Wilfred Owen

Is it cheating to include a recording of poetry? Kenneth Branagh reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen (a poet whose death occurred so close to the end of the First World War that his parents received the telegram on the day the Armistice was signed) was a track that I turned to when I really wanted to evoke that real sense of horror at what the men in the trenches suffered, without any graphic depiction of the physical privations. Read so simply, the deep meaning can elude you. But if ever I needed reminding that despite all the warnings, in the face of so much evidence, a man’s emotional and physical well-being was denied throughout the period of the Great War and then for years afterwards, this is the track I turned to. Those final lines are chilling:

Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Researching Shell Shocked Britain I was not surprised to read that those in government were reluctant to step back from the horrors, but I was stunned at the level of ignorance that continued well after the war, and which left families to cope with damaged men, or consigned them to lunatic asylums.

The question

Finally, no other song threads its way through the pages of my book like Question, written by Justin Hayward and sung by the Moody Blues. Question – how would we respond to a Spanish influenza outbreak that killed 200,000 people in a year? Question – how could anyone really believe that a spiritualist medium could talk to sons, brothers, lovers lost in shellthe mud and blood of the trenches to the point where some 5000 séance circles were established and thousands would crowd halls large and small to hear a medium communicate with the dead? Question – why did doctors continue to believe men with symptoms of shell shock were malingerers or cowards well beyond the end of the war, leaving thousands of men lost in local lunatic asylums? Question – why do we hear so little about the rise of the eugenics movement post First World War, little realising that many historical figures advocated the eradication of the mentally ill from the ‘breeding’ stock of Britain. And Question – why, 100 years on are young men and women still suffering levels of PTSD wholly unacceptable in a modern military?

We may not have the answers, but we, like the Moody Blues, must keep asking the questions.

Suzie Grogan is a London-born writer, researcher and editor, published in national publications on the subjects of health (focusing on mental health), women’s issues and social history. She has had two books published and is currently working on two further commissions for Pen and Sword Books for publication in 2016 and 2017. In her spare time she dabbles in fiction and has her own imprint, Mickleden Press. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage… Find Suzie on her website, her blog, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where she is both @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb. Shell-Shocked Britain is available on Amazon or from the publisher.

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‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’ – Suzie Grogan

for logoMy guest this week is a writer of non-fiction. Her book is an exploration of the legacy of the World Wars on mental health – the soldiers who developed shell shock, broke down afterwards or endured their nightmares in silence. And those on the home front too, the families torn apart by grief or traumatised by air raids. Her soundtrack is honest and searching, seeking a way to do justice to a tough subject. There is the gentle despair of Nick Drake, the Question of the Moody Blues, and a reading of Wilfred Owen by Kenneth Branagh. The author is Suzie Grogan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘A harsh, frightening and lonely book to write’ – Tabitha Suzuma

for logoThe most haunting pieces on The Undercover Soundtrack delve far deeper than inspiration. My guest this week shares a very personal story. Her debut novel, about a teenage piano prodigy, didn’t come from a captured track in headphones. It was her own brother learning Rachmaninoff piano concertos in the room above hers. The character struggles with bipolar disorder, as she has in her own life. A later novel tackles an incestuous and doomed love between brother and sister, a harsh and frightening story that she says took a severe toll on her own mental health. Her fiction has won multiple awards and her brother is finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. She is Tabitha Suzuma and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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