Could it be… ADHD? ADHD and writing by Juliet Clare Bell

I have a terrible confession to make about Picture Book Den. So... we take it in turns to write blogposts each week and there’s a rota of who goes

only I don’t know where that rota is

…which means I don’t know when I’m meant to post. Which means
I periodically get a heart-stopping moment where I think ‘oh no [though much less
politely], it might be my turn and I’ve forgotten (again)’ -but I don’t think
the thought through properly enough in the run-up to the Monday
when someone posts (and ignore that nagging feeling), I think it on the Monday… but I have an almost
pathological fear of checking to find the rota to see if I’m right (that I’ve missed
my date). 

Sounds ridiculous, right? Because it is. Why don't I just write the dates on a calendar? And why would I choose to stick my head in the sand and NOT check the dates when I know that I haven't posted for ages? 

And yet I do it time and time again. When someone else posts on a Monday, I
breathe a sigh of relief as it can't have been my week after all...  Over the years, I’ve occasionally remembered to write down my dates for the whole year onto
my calendar which means I’ll get them in on time for that year -(IF I’ve
remembered to look at my calendar regularly, of course) but mostly I don’t. And
so, shamefully, I am reminded when I’ve already missed my deadline. It’s not
that I don’t want to do it. I love being in the Picture Book Den. I’m only posting this because shame thrives on
secrets (thank you, Brene Brown). I’ve got plenty of terrible confessions I could make
about opportunities missed because I have huge difficulties prioritising
anything, and how I can be 98% through a writing task but cannot make myself do
the last two percent -for often weeks, or months, or years. But all this
confession talk is working up to something that happened about four weeks ago…

It was my Usual Suspects moment (you know, when the big
reveal all comes together and it’s like ‘no way! [another realisation]… no
way!... [and another] no way! With each additional realisation that you’re
suddenly bombarded with, you think. Wow. 





It reminded me of the lightbulb moment in my most recent
picture book, Ask First, Monkey! (illustrated by Abigail Tompkins). Monkey gets it wrong time and time again and
doesn’t realise what he needs to do in order to work out whether someone wants
to be tickled or not. 

(c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

And then…

                                                         (c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

The realisation...

                                                            (c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

It doesn’t mean suddenly that he’s always going to get it
completely right and never makes mistakes but it’s that realisation…

I suddenly realised -at the ripe old age of fifty, that 




For three months after a family
member suggested that both she and I had it and asked me to do an online test like she’d
done I had been in complete denial. I went and did one and the ‘this result strongly suggests you have ADHD’ didn’t
even leave me questioning if I had; I simply assumed it wasn’t a good test
(though I was totally on board with my family member having it). I took three more tests at various points over the following months (with only the last one feeling in any way like I was doing it to find something out about me and not the wrongness of the test). Obviously everyone must come up looking like
they had it. I am similar in my difficulties to quite a few friends and family and surely we didn’t
all have it?! Unless, of course, you’re drawn to people with a similar
slightly chaotic way of thinking/living…? And unless there’s a large genetic
component and actually you might come from an extremely neurodiverse family but
you all thought it was just normal (and that it was other people who
were different and not you…)  

loads of my life made sense for the first time. Before there were so many
individual things that I really struggled with but hadn’t put together (really MESSY
in real life -no idea how to keep a tidy home, and frantic tidying (or hiding
away of mess into various cupboards before anyone comes round), always FORGETTING
things, including how not to forget things -like writing things down… (and periodically thinking I'd invented an amazing new device comprising writing down what I was doing on each day before realising, once again, that that was a calendar and I had one -and could use it), not
being able to stay FOCUSED -except on certain things (I could do
mindless puzzles for hours, or follow some random research thought down a
rabbit hole for hours), my whole pattern of work history when I worked in
academia…, massive trouble PRIORITISING, having my work in one of nine places (I
counted for this post) because of real difficulties ORGANISING anything, being
really messy in my writing scribblings, not being able to FOLLOW even the simplest of DIRECTIONS or INSTRUCTIONS,
a shockingly bad PROCRASTINATOR, an almost pathological DIFFICULTY FINISHING
things. And then I think about our childhood -and, of course! I could go on
(and I do, I could talk for ever, and I’d INTERRUPT you loads, too -another
thing I’ve not properly realised, or at least admitted to myself, until now) but I

It’s a bit embarrassing to have been so blindingly unself-aware
for so many years (I used to be a research developmental psychologist! I’m a
writer! Surely being self-aware is pretty important for those jobs and I’ve
seen myself as being a pretty self-aware person, so my pride took a bit of a hit). I had become more aware in some respects over the past
twenty years or so -mostly since having children) and this had spilled over
into my author visits in a really positive way. We play games around
embarrassing moments -doing or saying the wrong thing (of which moments I have a considerably greater than average number) and we talk about why writing is brilliant -because I can
be messy, I get to be in charge, I have to let go of perfectionism (for so many
years I hated making mistakes and the crippling anxiety that goes with it…), I even
do projects with children called ‘I am a work in progress’ and mention about
how I was bullied in school for being different, and look good humouredly at
all the things I struggled with.

We made a whole book about it! (Thank you to Hallfield Year 4s and 5s)

It was great way of engaging with children and helping them
feel better about themselves… And the playing of lots of what if…? games
where we go down those crazy rabbit holes and things become ridiculous are
loads of fun

 but I still hadn’t
put all the pieces together…


In the past, I was very harsh on myself and I all always
asked the question

why can’t I do things that normal people can do?

I would berate myself that I could do a PhD (even if each chapter/sub-chapter
deadline was scarily last minute and I had to stand up whilst writing for the
last three days before I handed the whole thesis in as I knew I’d fall asleep
if I sat down to write) but I was completely incapable of keeping a room tidy. I’d
be furious at myself and think

What’s wrong with you?!

Even now, keeping a room tidy for a few days feels like a
bigger achievement than getting a book published because it feels like I’ve finally,
inexplicably gained this secret knowledge of how to be normal... 

And then I lose
it again.

So what does this actually mean for writing?

There are parts of writing and related activities that seem
to work pretty well for me (the more sociable bits -where I’m with students, or
I’m doing school visits -doing, not organising them; the organising
and admin around them are very painful). I can come up with really interesting
ideas for books and love doing the research parts where I need to. And the fact
that I have trouble with sustaining focus whilst working from home means that no one sees me when I do
things in tiny bursts of productivity amongst long periods of zoning out. The
productivity can be really productive for short bursts and I have to
accept that it does work out sometimes as I DO get books published occasionally! And I have had periods with my accountability partner (2020)
where lots of things come together and I have what looks and feels like a
massive rush of things going right before it all goes extremely quiet again. And
actually, when I am commissioned to write books, or get a book deal, I ALWAYS get them in on time. It’s down to the last minute of course (often literally) but I do deliver when I’ve got a firm deadline. But
it comes at a personal cost, relying on heaps of adrenaline to make me finish it, and I’ve also
missed amazing opportunities because I wasn’t able to prioritise and didn’t
turn opportunities into these firm deadlines like publisher deadlines.

But the children’s writing community is lovely (check out SCBWI if you haven't already) and
there’s loads of support to be had. I’ve been trying to ‘self-medicate’ with numerous
productivity planners and books on getting organised/escaping chaos, and accountability
partners and in-person/online write-ins for years without realising it all
stems from the same thing. There’s even an ADHD term for the write-ins and
similar meetings up: using a body double, where you get someone to be in the
same room as you whilst you’re doing something you find difficult to do. The
other person doesn’t help you; they’re just there. I find it really hard to get
started and to finish things, so having people around makes getting started much
easier. And I have a wonderful accountability partner (a fellow picture book
author). Now she knows, she’s going to hold me accountable for some of the
things I find unbearably difficult -by being my body double. I have about one hour
of paperwork I need to do for part of my job each week that’s really simple if
you do it straightaway but I have an almost pathological dread of doing it straightaway,
so it then takes three or four times as long to do it later. From now on, my
accountability partner and I will stay on our zoom call for an hour after our
weekly accountability session and she’ll do whatever work she’s working on and I’ll
specifically do the thing I can’t bear to do -which is actually a really easy
task if there’s someone there.

And soon (pandemic permitting) I'll start back with some in-person write-ins in a local cafe. With write-ins, there’s an element of not
wanting to look bad by not writing anything and feeling less inclined to look
online as someone will see me, but it’s actually much more than that. My
totally illogical anxiety involved in actually getting it started just isn’t

I’d really recommend body doubling for reading, too, if you
struggle to read, or finish a book. My children asked to read together (not out
loud, but silently, in the same space) over lockdown, and it’s actually got me
back into reading in a way I haven’t read for over 25 years. I’ve probably given
up on five books for every one that I’ve finished when I’m reading them for
myself, and the ones I’ve read are mostly young adult books where they’re
designed to get you engaged from the first page. I read so much as a child and
I absolutely love it again now. Our reading sessions together are highlights of my week.

I realise I’ve written plenty of blogposts relating to
aspects of this (especially on procrastination and motivation) and each time it
feels that it’s the start of something new (I am an eternal optimist), but it’s
different now (no, really!). There’s a difference between thinking something is
helpful and knowing it’s necessary. ADHD isn’t an excuse for anything I’ve done
(or not done) or do (or not do), but it’s an explanation and I feel like I’m
arming myself with knowledge that will equip me really well for writing -and life!- in the
future. Self-awareness is always good when writing authentically, and knowledge
about a whole person approach (including good sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness,
specific strategies for prioritising, making lists, using a calendar
consistently, setting loads of alarms to remind me to do things, etc. and possibly
stimulant medication) is a really positive step.

One of the biggest changes in my thinking over the past few
weeks is about raising my expectations. I’m naturally a happy person. I am daily extremely grateful for my life and family and friends. But in order to decide that
this wasn’t a huge personality flaw (to believe that I wasn’t lazy and
stupid and selfish) and to accept myself for who I am, I did lower expectations of myself quite significantly about ten years ago. If laziness
wasn’t the reason I wasn’t writing as much as most writers (and why I had a messy house) then
there wasn’t much I could do about it except accept it. I actually didn’t want
to have much more going on writing-wise because I didn’t think I’d be able to
cope with the extra workload. But that’s all changed. I feel like I want to do
more, now -because if I use the right strategies and get the right support
then it’s not an alarming thought to think of having more deadlines from
editors. And imagine if I managed to get organised enough to do the right kind
of publicity for my books? And if I sorted out a system for doing author visits
that didn’t feel like the admin was so grim that it might not be worth it (and
where I could do that admin with a kind body double who was just getting on
with her work on skype whilst I finished my admin?). (And what about a calm,
tidy house?! Now that would be something…)

Waiting lists are notoriously long so I haven’t got an
official diagnosis yet (believe me, I’ve refrained from including the dozens of
personal stories which would make it feel like I didn’t need to wait for a diagnosis
to know!) but apart from stimulant medication which I may or may not try, I can start doing
all the other things now. It’s going to be a life-long process (we’re all a work
in progress after all...), but I’m enormously relieved and really
excited. Next fifty years here I come. And as for the picture book den
deadlines? I’m going to find the dates tomorrow and write a year’s worth onto my
online calendar which I’m going to check every day. I’ve even set the alarm (with
accompanying label) to do it…  

Are you a writer with ADHD (I’m guessing there are quite a
lot of writers out there!)? If you have any tips for writing with ADHD, please
share them below. Many thanks.

Juliet Clare Bell (always called Clare) can be found at www.julietclarebell, though oddly enough, her website needs updating...


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