Meet Susie Stead
Susie is an award-winning writer who has been writing and creating drama in community settings for the last 20 years. She’s written and produced plays, drama sketches, street theatre, short films, short stories and a memoir. Two of her plays were theatrical biographies (on William Tyndale & C S Lewis) but “Stephen, From the Inside Out” is her first biography intended to be read not performed and unravels the life of a man whose story has never been told.
You can read more about Susie’s work on her website.
About "Stephen, From the Inside Out"
For our readers, can you tell us a bit about the book?
This is a biography (but not a straightforward one) of a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and autism. Stephen was born in 1955 and says that at the age of 3, a psychiatrist told his mother that he was ‘the sickest child’ he’d ever met. This book is about his life, often with commentary from Stephen in his own wonderfully idiosyncratic style, but it is also a conversation with my life, as someone who has never been diagnosed with a mental illness. I’m not related to Stephen and was never in a romantic relationship with him, nor did I decide to write a book about mental illness and then seek him out. I started out in the role of ‘Good Samaritan’ and over 18 years went on an eye-opening and bumpy journey getting to know him (and myself). Stephen’s life was a patchwork of drama, difficulty, fairy godmothers, damnation religion, humour and moments of great tenderness. This book asks: What does it feel like never to fit in? What do we mean by mad, bad and god? What is it that gives our life value?
Why did you choose to write about Stephen in particular?
Because he had a very different take on life and he was a powerful character with a story to match. He was extraordinarily honest and unable to be anything other than himself, whatever the cost. Up until the last couple of years of his life he had a photographic memory together with a wide-ranging vocabulary and a colourful turn of phrase and so he was able to capture and give us insight into what it was like to grow up and live with severe mental illness (and undiagnosed autism) in the UK from 1955 until his death.
Did writing about someone with special needs provide challenges?
Firstly, I don’t like the phrase ‘special needs’. Both getting to know Stephen and writing about him provided challenges, but this is the stuff of the book! Sometimes I would drive 100 miles down to record him for this book and he wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind or he’d need me to do some practical things and no recording would happen.
Another challenging aspect was that he was paranoid that people would find out who he was and the authorities would sue him because of the claims of severe abuse that he makes in the book. On the one hand he wanted justice but, on the hand, he was terrified of both being sued and getting into trouble with the authorities. I had to keep assuring him that I’d get any publisher to ensure that I’d done what was needed to keep his anonymity.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect about writing about Stephen was that by his very being and personality he was constantly exposing my assumptions, dogmas and false beliefs.
Writing Tips from Susie Stead
Do you have any tips for overcoming writers block?
Depends on where you are in the process. I’ve found Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life” very helpful. She talks about looking for that hair-line crack in your narrative.
I think that sometimes I can’t write this chapter because I haven’t ‘got there’. I’m not writing truthfully, instead I’m talking in clichés or have gone off on some rant. I couldn’t finish this book until Stephen died because I couldn’t yet fully see what he’d given me and I couldn’t get a perspective. However, I didn’t know that till he died. I’m sad because I’d have loved to have seen his face when I told him it was actually getting published.
What’s your biggest writing pet peeve?
I don’t know a way around it but I hate it when people ask me ‘how’s the writing going?’ If its going badly or I’m not writing, my lips go thin and tight, I give a fake smile and I change the subject. If its going well, I don’t want to talk. In fact, I don’t want to be there at all because I want to be in front of my laptop. It feels far too personal a question, like asking me how my sex life is going.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of writing?
Having a passion and energy about the subject you want to write about and then writing and not worrying about what that first draft looks like. It is just a draft. When I write, whether its sketches, playscripts, or this book I write many, many drafts. Someone said that with sculptors, they have the clay but with writers, we have no clay until we’ve written something. Once we’ve written some text, we’ve got some clay to mould.
How do you handle writing scenes that exhaust you or stress you out?
I practice mindfulness and as part of that I try to notice when I’m stressed and then be kind to myself, acknowledge that suffering is here and give myself breaks. After Stephen died, I couldn’t write for 6 months and then I was able bit by bit to get back to it.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Stop writing about your dreams and write about all those interesting people you’ve been meeting and what you thought about it all. In 10 years when you want that beautiful information, you won’t remember!
Writing is important to you. Don’t reduce its value.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
“All writing is re-writing.”