A Week in My Life (Reading Week)

A while back, I had a reading week as part of my university semester, where classes don’t happen and we stay home to focus on our studying. Being a part time student meant that it wasn’t much of a change as I’m only at uni one day a week but not having to expend the energy that that requires allowed me to do more, both in terms of uni work and in other areas. Yes, I researched for my essay, prepared for a presentation, and wrote songs, but I also did a whole bunch of things for my job as a singersongwriter.


MONDAY

I got up, did my hair and makeup, and caught a train to London. I’d booked a slot at the Selfie Factory at The O2 Arena, thinking that Richard (Richard Marc, who also does all my photography – he’s a photographer as well as a writer, musician, and producer) and I might get some good social media content. I get very self conscious having my photo taken but I’m trying to get over that anxiety and it looked like fun.

I used the train journey to send a load of emails, which made good use of the time, and then I met Richard at The O2. The Selfie Factory was small but it had some really fun set ups and we had great fun, especially in the ballpit.

We got some nice photos and when our time ran out, we headed home. Again, I used the train journey to be productive and worked on a rough script for my university presentation – we all had to give presentations on our essay subjects the next week when we were back in regular classes. I’d already made the slides with the information but I wanted a rough script to keep me on track and provide extra information.

I got home and, even though I was exhausted, I practiced several of my songs as I had a recording session coming up later in the week that I needed to be prepared for. I wasn’t super familiar with the arrangements of the songs I was singing so it was quite hard work but I definitely made progress, getting used to the rhythm and melody. It was a good practice.


TUESDAY

I started the day with another big batch of emails: uni stuff, music stuff, gigging stuff.

That took an hour or so and then I spent the rest of the day doing research for my assessment essay. There’s not much to write about here really; I just read relevant sections of books, read articles, and pulled useful quotes, putting them in separate documents to keep everything organised. This session was focussed on imagery, specifically in songwriting, obviously. It’s surprising how few books on songwriting go into any detail around imagery.

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At least I had some good company (and entertainment).

I had a gentle evening, working on a blog post and watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. There’s something very comforting about the familiarity of them and the time when I first watched them.


WEDNESDAY

I spent the morning practicing for the recording session, going over the songs, and then, after lunch, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist.

The practice had moved since my last appointment so there was an element of anxiety about going but it was okay and turned out to be a really productive session. My psychiatrist agreed with my decision to come off the Aripiprazole, since it clearly wasn’t working, and we discussed what else we could try to help with my anxiety. We also talked about what could be causing my drowsiness and decided to try reducing my Pregablin as it’s clearly the current medication situation that’s causing it. So we’ll see how that goes. And considering we’re changing that, we decided to stick with the Diazepam for my anxiety so that we’re only changing one thing at a time and can clearly see the results. Otherwise you can’t tell what’s causing what. So that’s progress and we’ll just have to see what the effects are.

Late in the afternoon, I caught a train up to London in preparation for the recording session the next day, using the time to do some more reading for my essay. My frequent train journeys are great for any reading I have to do for my course. From Victoria, I made my way to where I stay in London: the flat belonging to one of my parents. I was suddenly, out of nowhere, overwhelmed with anxiety and although I took Diazepam as soon as the feeling started, it obviously doesn’t kick in straight away so I spent most of the journey talking to said parent, a mix of distraction and reassurance. I’d just started to feel calmer when I got there.

We had dinner together and then I spent the evening in the pursuit of catching up with my diary. It feels like a hopeless task; I’m so behind, what with the time taken up by uni work and managing my mental health. I’m hoping to catch up once I’ve submitted my essay. It’ll take a while though.


THURSDAY

I slept terribly. So terribly that I barely got any sleep at all, the worst I’ve slept in years. Maybe I was nervous about the recording. I finally got a solid hour or so just before my alarm went off. But it was an important day so I dragged myself up, got ready, and headed to the University of West London where we were using one of their studios to do the recording.

It was a beautiful studio and we had a lot of fun. Having said that, we worked bloody hard. We worked from about eleven until six, filming and recording for a project that I’m not going to talk about yet. It’s a surprise. It does mean there’s not a lot for me to write about, other than the fact that I’m super grateful to everyone (all tagged below) for the work they put in. I really, really appreciate it.

When we finished, I was so tired that I thought I might throw up. I manage to help pack up a little but eventually I just had to leave. I felt bad for not staying to the very end but everyone was very understanding. I got home and barely made it through dinner before falling asleep at about half past eight.


FRIDAY

I slept for twelve solid hours and woke up feeling like an entirely different person. Still, I had a slow, gentle start. I had breakfast, got showered and dressed, and did some reading for my essay.

Around lunchtime, my Mum arrived, on her way home from visiting her Mum (this was when we still thought we were going to Nashville and she’d obviously wanted to spend some time with her before we went). She’d stopped in London because we had a plan to have lunch with one of my best friends, Sharné, and her Mum, who had come to visit her. The four of us had hoped to spend a little time at the songwriters circle I’d played (the one I mentioned in my previous A Week in My Life post) but it was busy and loud and it just wasn’t the right setting. So we’d planned lunch at this awesome Italian restaurant.

It started out quite stressfully due to pouring rain and terrible traffic but once we were all together, it was lovely. They’re both so lovely. We all got on really well and have a lot in common; it was just unfortunate that we didn’t have longer. Hopefully we’ll get another chance at some point.

We said goodbye and me and Mum headed home to Brighton. When we got in, I curled up on the sofa with a couple of the cats and had some diary time. I was exhausted and really just needed some quiet, rest time.


SATURDAY

Richard came down first thing because we were performing at the Access Open Day at The Brighton Dome. We picked him up from the station and went home so he could drop off his stuff and we could have a quick run-through, especially of the songs that we’ve only just started to perform like ‘Clarity.’

We headed to The Dome and had everything explained to us, where we could store our stuff, hang out between sets, and so on. We were playing once at 12.30pm and again at 2.15pm so we’d have time to kill between sets. There were other talks and activities going on but I’m never able to concentrate when I’m about to perform.

Both sets went really well. I felt like my voice sounded really good, I didn’t make any (obvious) mistakes, and I felt really confident in my body and how I was moving as I performed. I’ve done a few gigs recently but before a couple of months ago, it had been a long time since I’d performed so it’s felt a bit like starting all over again. But this felt completely natural and quite possibly the best I’ve ever performed. I’m just sad more people didn’t see it because they were performances I was really proud of. But I had a great time, telling the stories behind the songs and singing my heart out. It felt so good. And that’s the important thing.

This is a picture from the first time I played there:

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When we got home, we were both still buzzing with adrenaline so I suggested we write a song since we’re not getting a whole heap of opportunities to write together at the moment with both of us on Masters courses. So we got to work and managed a track and half a song before we ran out of energy. It was really fun and I’m really excited to finish it.

And before the day was up, I put up a blog post as I always try to do on a Saturday. This one was the one about February Album Writing Month, where I tried to write fourteen songs in the month of February. I’m proud of succeeding in the challenge and proud of the post I wrote about it.

We had an early dinner and were basically falling asleep on the sofa so we dragged ourselves up and went to bed early. I was asleep within minutes.


SUNDAY

We had a gentle morning, watching Friends together and companionably working on different things. I finished a blog post and put it up, #30dayfeb Challenge For Tommy’s. It covered my attempt and completion of Liberty’s Mother‘s challenge to do something positive for your wellbeing from the 1st February to the 1st March. I’d chosen origami.

Richard went home because I had a few things to do, as much as I would’ve liked to have him stay and work on the song and chill out together. So we dropped him at the station, came home, and I got to work, practicing my presentation for the following Tuesday. I was confident with the material and the questions I wanted to ask; I just wanted to make sure it was within the time limit. So I ran that a few times and then spent the rest of the day resting. I also have dinner with some of my family on Sunday nights (when we can manage it) so that was really nice.


So that was my reading week. Not as productive uni work wise as I would’ve hoped – I wanted to have started writing the essay rather than still adding research to my structure – but it was very productive in the working-as-a-singer-songwriter sense. And those opportunities don’t come around super often so I’m really grateful for them. So it was a good, if exhausting week.

The First Semester of my Masters Degree

Now that I’ve finished my assessments, I thought it might be an interesting idea to sit down and write about my experience of the first semester of my Masters Degree. Because I’m doing it part time (mainly to protect my mental health), I’m only doing one module rather than two, which is what the full-timers do. The module I did was called ‘Creative Process’ and it was four hours of uni time, a two hour seminar where we talked about different areas of the creative process and then a two hour workshop where we played the songs we’d written based on the ideas and concepts we’d talked about the week before. It was a really interesting module and I wish my mental health had been better so that I could’ve focussed and enjoyed it more.

I feel really lucky when it came to my group and my tutor.

My group was only about nine people (when the other groups were much larger as far as I know) and they were all absolutely lovely. We were all really different, both musically and life experience wise (but I guess that’s what happens when you get to Masters level), which was really interesting when it came to writing and socialising and… just everything. It was a completely new experience and one that I’m really grateful for. Up until now, I’ve mostly been surrounded by people my own age with similar experiences.

Everyone was so, so good, all in their own way. They all had their own style (some had particularly beautiful musical signatures, some wrote from interesting perspectives with thoughtful lyrics, and so on) and it was so interesting and exciting to see how they developed over the semester. We were and I know will continue to be so supportive of each other’s music and development as songwriters. It always felt safe to bring in something I felt unsure or insecure about and the feedback was always constructive and because the person wanted you to get better; I never once felt like someone was being mean or looking down on me. It was such a supportive atmosphere and I’m so grateful because I think that was a huge part of what helped me to grow so much as a writer.

I made two really good friends in particular, both of whom I’m still in the same group with to my absolute delight. They’re truly beautiful souls. One of them, Luce Barka, wrote this amazing song during the semester and has said she’s happy for me to share it with you guys. I really, really recommend it…

I also had a fantastic tutor, Isobel. She’s a really cool, independent singersongwriter, which I think made her an especially good teacher because she’s very immersed in the industry we’re all trying to get into, in her own, distinctive way. She’s also dealt with serious health problems (which she has talked about publicly so I’m not breaking her confidence or anything) so I felt like she was a really good tutor, especially for me. She understood, or had a kind of understanding, of what I deal with. She was a really, really great tutor, in discussions and when giving and guiding feedback. But for me personally – and this is my blog after all – she was incredible when it came to helping me manage the course against all of my issues. When my anxiety was overwhelming, she helped me adjust the tasks to make them easier while still allowing me to do the task and learn the skills. I am massively appreciative of how accommodating and generous and kind she was, even before  she received the Student Support Agreement (the document with all my information and recommendations).

Anyway, she was amazing. I learned so much, obviously from the course but also from the way she delivered it and the feedback she gave me. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a writer and I feel like she’s a really big part of that. Plus, I’ve never had a teacher who was so understanding, who helped without hesitation, with just my word to guide her. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate that. It’s never happened to me before and it felt so wonderful to be treated as if it was something you just do, rather than being made to feel like a burden or an obstacle to be manoeuvred. So, as much as I learned (and I learned a lot), that is what I’m most grateful for and one of the things that I will always remember about this semester.

The first few weeks were really, really tough. After my massive meltdown in Victoria station, I was having meltdowns every day (as I wrote about here), which was having a big impact on my mental and emotional health, also leaving me physically exhausted. That significant meltdown was triggered by an email from the Disability Coordinator (who was also an Autism Specialist), suggesting a very last minute change of plan for our scheduled meeting which still leaves me bewildered. As an autistic person, sudden changes of plan are known to be highly problematic. That, plus my existing anxiety, caused a massive meltdown that took a very long time to recover from. And it left me feeling less than confident in her ability to support me even though we had had a positive first meeting and I had left feeling cautiously optimistic that this time it might be different. It then didn’t improve as actions promised at that meeting didn’t get done, leading to more meltdowns. So that was a real complication and painful part of the semester.

Having said all of that, I loved the classes. We learned about songcraft, collaborating, imposter syndrome, professional practice, perfectionism, and so much more. It was fascinating and fun and the briefs, while often stressful (with only a week to write the song), were interesting and challenging. I wrote some songs that I’m really proud of and I feel like my songwriting grew a lot because the briefs were challenging.

We watched this video in one of the classes and I thought it was really good so I thought I’d share it:

I loved it – loved getting better at songwriting – even the bits that pushed me and made me feel uncomfortable.

However, out of class was another matter. We were expected to do research that would later become the foundations of our assessment essay and presentation. Except whenever I asked, they wouldn’t tell me what the assessment entailed and just said it was ‘self directed learning’ so I didn’t know what I was actually researching, which caused me terrible anxiety. I created a reading list of books, articles, and interviews about creativity and songwriting but as hard as I tried to do the work, my OCD – my need to write everything down – battled against it. And usually won. So if I wasn’t writing, I was reading. I had no downtime. I was constantly anxious, like, end-of-the-world-anxious. And I felt like I was failing.

They explained the essay and presentation in the last couple of weeks but I still didn’t really understand. The language was complicated and vague and while I understood the general idea, the grading criteria was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t know what I had to do specifically to get good grades. I need clarity. It was incredibly stressful.

It took a couple of last minute meetings with my module leader to really understand what was expected of me but I was now facing a myriad of problems. The research I had been doing had little relevance to the subject I was writing about so I’d have to redo all of that, as well as actually write the essay and prepare the presentation. Plus we were in the final two weeks of the semester and the university would soon be closed for the Christmas holidays so I would have no way of contacting anyone for any support. I was wound so tight I felt like my spine might snap. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I’m really grateful for those meetings but I just wish the assessment had been clearer earlier in the module so the research I was doing could’ve been more focussed. With all the problems associated with Autism, like chronic fatigue and chronic pain, time is something I have to be incredibly thoughtful about.

I worked every day of the entire holiday (apart from Christmas Day, which I spent with my family – something I don’t often get to do) but the assessments were always in my head so I felt like I couldn’t take a break or have any time to rest and recharge. I still didn’t feel sure that I was doing it right but still, I worked hard on it and gave it everything I had. I finished both the essay and the presentation with time to spare, allowing myself time to redraft and prepare, giving myself the best chance of doing well. I submitted the essay, despite big technical problems with the system, and I did my presentation to the best of my ability, despite finding presentations incredibly difficult. Now I just have to wait for the marks.

Now, having run through the whole semester (and having reflected a lot on the difficulties), I just wanted to share a couple of specific, positive experiences:

  • For one of the early seminars, we had a guest tutor, who works primarily as an expert in Personal Transformation, come and talk to us. Because we were such a small group, he was able to really talk to each of us about our lives and our creative struggles. Considering how little we knew each other at the time, it was amazing how open everyone was and I think it’s part of the reason we became so close and supportive as a group. It was a real bonding experience to hear all of these personal stories and I personally felt really honoured to be part of it, to have been trusted with those stories.
  • One week I brought in a song that I was really proud of. It had a repeated line in it – “it’ll get easier” – and everyone picked it up really quickly, singing along and harmonising. It was beautiful and emotional and it was one of the most special moments of the semester for me.
  • During my research, I found a quote by Paul Gardner that I’m endlessly inspired and intrigued and excited by: “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” There are so many things that could mean. What do you think it means? Or what does it mean to you about a particular thing in your life?

Overall, it was a very mixed bag. The good moments were great and made me feel amazing. I got a lot out of it. But I spent a lot – A LOT – of the semester in crippling anxiety and I had a lot of meltdowns. It was fucking hard. And the marks haven’t even come back yet. I’m terrified that I’ve done horribly. But I’m trying not to think about it. I’m just trying to get through this new semester. Which may be even more stressful than the last.