Writing my story

I kept a journal during much of my depression, particularly in the later stages when I had more energy. I wrote to express my feelings and describe what I was experiencing in an effort to make sense of this very unfamiliar world in which I found myself.

My journal became a frequent companion.  It gave me comfort, and at times, valuable insight. Sometimes it was the only thing that got me out of bed in the morning. Simply to write how hopeless I felt gave me some strength to keep moving forward.

Later, when writing Out of the Woods, these journals became useful references. They accurately described how I felt when depressed and I used them to form scenes and dialogue in the book. The journals kept the story very close to my own experiences. I was writing several years after many of these experiences and I may have minimised the pain of depression and anxiety had I not had the journals to remind me.

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At some point in my recovery the focus of my writing shifted. I began writing as if I was helping someone else. In reality I was still doing it for my own healing and understanding, but this did give me a sense of purpose, which in itself was encouraging.

Around this time I started reading medical school health newsletters — simply written summaries of research findings on depression and anxiety. I was encouraged to see that many of the things I was doing to help myself were supported by sound research. This gave me positive feedback for my own recovery, and the confidence to keep writing.

Even at this very early stage, I had a sense that if I was going to write a book it needed to be more than just words. When my depression was at its worst I couldn't read. I was too exhausted to focus or concentrate on words, yet this was when I most needed good information.

When I did start to read again I was first drawn to personal stories by people who had experienced depression. They had a real impact on me. Even though my life was very different to theirs, I shared so much of their inner worlds and I was deeply touched by their courage. So, when I started to form a more serious intent to write a book, I knew it had to be a personal story – to connect emotionally with readers, and it had to be visual – to make it accessible to people who were struggling to read.

In my work as a community lawyer, most of the resources I produced were comics and videos— real stories of people asserting their legal rights or managing personal health issues. I hadn't written a graphic novel before but it felt like the right vehicle, and I was in familiar territory. With the support of my long-time friend and colleague, James McLean, I thought I could at least write my story up as a script and then worry about the visual execution of it later.

At first the story's central character was loosely based on me – more an 'every-man' character who shared information about depression but not much of his personal life. This was me hiding out, still feeling ashamed about my depression. Not surprisingly, it was really hard to write. I was sitting on the fence. James encouraged me to make a call. It had to be one or the other. As I was not a health professional and my own experience was all I had to offer, it was clear which it had to be.

When I started writing purely from my own experience it started to flow. I felt I had little control over the process from that point on. It literally poured out onto the page. When it didn't, I stopped and did something else. Then, inevitably, the next chapter or scene would emerge and urge me to pick up my pen. This was very new to me — both writing explicitly about myself and writing without effort. It was exciting and exhausting. I was fortunate to have good company around me at this time. I could walk away from the story each day and engage with WWOOFERs (willing workers on organic farms) in activities like gardening, gathering seafood, collecting firewood, and cooking.

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Even though the story now captured my personal experience of depression, the first draft made no mention of my father. His influence was still so strong I never thought I could write about him or my relationship with him. It was my therapist, Alisa, who questioned this omission. She was very familiar with the role he played in my life.

Her questioning prompted an avalanche of new scenes and new conversations in my therapy sessions. In fact, the book — its content and the writing process — became a part of my therapy. Alisa didn't let me hide behind the book, nor keep the characters or their influences buried within the pages. And I am so pleased she played it this way. It added value to the book and helped me in my recovery.

James shaped the new scenes into a more coherent second draft, and then I felt I had a story I could show to some mental health professionals. I wanted to check that it was safe to turn into a book that would be read by others. I sent the script to Dr. Simon Bainbridge, a psychiatrist who worked both at a private clinic and public hospital and who also lectured at the Auckland Medical College. I also sent it to Dr. Tony Marks, a retired psychiatrist who was familiar with my case. Both were encouraging, and this gave me enough confidence to proceed to the next stage – that of turning my script into a book.

 

Finding an artist

I posted my need for an illustrator on Deviantart.com – a website for illustrators and artists. Several illustrators approached me and some submitted illustration examples, but none of them felt right.

I looked on the site myself and was getting a bit disheartened until I saw an illustration that stopped me in my tracks. 

Colossus by Draldede (AKA Korkut Öztekin)

Colossus by Draldede (AKA Korkut Öztekin)

I remember being struck by the power of the scene, its characters, colours, and textures. It was a single illustration by an artist with the name 'Draldede'. I eagerly investigated his work and it got more exciting the more I discovered. He could clearly work in sequential art, he had done several graphic novels, and his diversity was immense – from super-hero action figures to intricately drawn portrait character studies. I had to write to him. All I knew was that he was from Turkey. I had no idea if he was available or interested, or even if he spoke English.

I wrote. He replied a few days later with a 'sorry but I'm too busy finishing off Frank Miller's RoboCop: Last Stand and teaching at a university etc.' But I was delighted –he could speak English! I wrote again, this time sending him the script. No reply for several days... then up popped an email: 'I think I have some unfinished business... I want to work on your book.'

Ravenswood by Korkut Öztekin

Ravenswood by Korkut Öztekin

Of course he knew the territory, otherwise his work wouldn't have called out to me so powerfully. We skyped, we agreed on the style and the approach and how we would work together, and then very slowly, we started turning the story into a graphic novel.

 

Working with Korkut

Korkut asked me to design the page and panel layout, give detailed instructions on the action and dialogue, and support this with photo references. I was pleased to do this. Basic storyboards were what I used to do for my video dramas and it kept me involved in the story's realisation.

Korkut could only work in his evenings and he also had to contend with the serious illness of his mother, the birth of his first child, and political and social upheaval in his region. At times this was frustrating, but really, the speed was perfect for both the book and me. I was not strong enough to launch into a busy project, and the time it took meant I could really delve deeper into the content, and like with my journal writing, use it as a way to support my own recovery – not undermine it.

Korkut had a free hand to create the artwork style within each panel and page. Using his pens, brushes, paints and various paper stock, he set about capturing the essence of the story panel by panel. Rather than making the story a slave to one particular artistic style, Korkut roamed freely, letting the emotion of each scene guide him. This felt so appropriate for my rollercoaster-like journey.

Left to right: Brent's initial sketch (never seen by Korkut); Korkut's initial pencil drawing; and final artwork

Left to right: Brent's initial sketch (never seen by Korkut); Korkut's initial pencil drawing; and final artwork

I decided on a very simple panel and page layout, so that it would be accessible to non-graphic novel readers and people who were depressed. I also wanted to use as few words as possible ­– just enough to help the reader move through the story. My descriptions to Korkut were always in words. I did very bad pencil sketches to design the page layout and work out the action and dialogue, but I never showed these to Korkut. He was too much of an artist to be influenced by them I'm sure, but I liked the way we divided the tasks, worked together and respected each other’s roles. Occasionally Korkut would say that the words I had used to describe the action to him should stay, but once he had captured my words visually, I was always keen to discard them. And that's how we worked – panel design, words, pencil sketch, colour artwork. It was a very slow process but this was good for me and good for the book. It gave me time to research new findings on depression and anxiety. This helped my own understanding, and ensured the messages in the book were honest, accurate, and well supported.

 

Adding the dialogue and narration

I completely underestimated how much would change when lettering was introduced into the panel. It made me acutely aware of how little space was available, how conversational the lettering had to be, and how critical it was for the dialogue and narration to sit comfortably together within each panel.

For these reasons, I wanted a lettering and font style that would fit with the artwork and make it feel like the characters were speaking. I didn't want it looking like a layer had been pasted on top.

Left to right: Korkut's original pencil sketch, coloured artwork, final page with lettering.

Left to right: Korkut's original pencil sketch, coloured artwork, final page with lettering.

Pippa Keel, a graduate of Massey University in Wellington, who is herself a very talented illustrator, came up with the lettering style. Initially Pippa started handwriting all the dialogue but I am so pleased we abandoned this approach. It would have made editing impossible. Instead she created a font based loosely on my handwriting and this gave us a hand-written feel but with the ability to handle all the editing and proofing.

 

The end result is a collaboration of many people and I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to them all and acknowledge them below:

Illustrator: Korkut Öztekin
Editor: James McLean
Lettering: Pippa Keel & Tom Barclay
Cover design: Cato Brand Partners
Cover illustrations: Korkut Öztekin
Copy editor: Mitch Marks
Author photo: Emily Fawkner
Illustrator photo: Mehmet Kostumoglu
Research assistance: Stephanie Houpt
Typing: Jessie Leov
Publishing assistance: Cassie McCracken

The professionals who so generously commented on drafts of the book:
Dr. Ben Beaglehole, Dr. Tony Marks, Dr. Simon Bainbridge, Patricia Gerbarg MD, 
Professor Shaun Holt, Alisa Hirschfeld, Carina Gallegos, and Dr. Bronwyn Sweeney.