Interview with Anouchka Grose: “I fuss around and procrastinate like mad on Saturday mornings.”

Anouchka Grose is a writer and psychoanalyst practising in South East London. She is a member of The College of Psychoanalysts and The Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research, where she regularly lectures.

She has been working one-to-one since 2003. Before that she ran writing workshops for people experiencing mental health difficulties. Anouchka writes about psychoanalysis, current affairs, art and fashion, and has contributed to  The Guardian,  Radio 4, and Resonance FM. 

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Hi Anouchka, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, we’re so glad to have you here with us today! Can you tell us about your background as a psychoanalyst and how it influences your writing?

Hi Hao, thanks for having me here. I began to train as a psychoanalyst twenty-two years ago, shortly after writing my two novels. My baby was a year old when I started the course so I didn’t have much time to write. I really missed writing, but I felt like everything in my life was changing and my writing wasn’t keeping up. I kind of lost my nerve for a few years.

Then when I had to write my papers to complete my training I felt I hardly knew how to do it any more. It was horrible. I didn’t think I’d ever write anything again. Luckily, my marriage broke down and I had to rethink everything about how I was living, and what I wanted from life.

One thing I’d learned from my own analysis was that, when my thoughts become excessive, the quickest way to feel better is to write them down. There was something about the combination of a personal crisis, plus a whole load of new ways of thinking about life’s difficulties, that just naturally turned into writing.

I wrote a non-fiction book about love. It was very different from the fiction I’d been working on before and it just kind of reopened something. Since then, I’ve never become quite so blocked again.

Your latest book, How to Manage Your Eco-Anxiety, combines your expertise in psychoanalysis and environmental issues. Can you discuss the process of writing this book and the insights you gained while working on it?

That was a stressful book to write because it was commissioned by a publisher who wanted it very quickly. It seems strange now, but the term ‘eco-anxiety’ wasn’t widely used or accepted at the time and I was worried my colleagues might think I was crazy for entertaining the idea of it at all.

I definitely wanted the book to be written from the point of view of a fellow sufferer, not as some kind of expert who pronounces from on high, but that meant coming clean about my own fears. The book was written in four months, while also working full-time in my clinical practice.

This basically meant devoting every weekend to it and giving up any kind of social life. I think I got quite depressed, partly because the subject matter is so overwhelming, and partly because I wasn’t following my own advice and continuing to try to live an enjoyable life alongside taking action on climate!

Since finishing the book I’ve been lucky enough to meet loads of incredible activists and campaigners who really demonstrate that you can follow the science, be angry and upset, work towards change, and also continue to appreciate the beauty and complexity of life on Earth. 

In the book, you mention the importance of building resilience when it comes to managing eco-anxiety. Can you expand on this idea for us?

I think that one of the best lessons that comes out of any psychotherapy training is that it’s very important to be able to live with uncertainty. In a sense, that’s what a psychoanalyst or a psychotherapist IS — someone who admits that they don’t know and can’t control everything.

It’s surprisingly hard to learn. You can think you’ve got the hang of it, but then you realise you’re still really inflexible and try to know best the whole time — even about being flexible and uncertain! Resilience is a funny one because it’s good to have the idea that you’re not completely helpless — there are things you can do to make a difference or bring about change. But you can’t just bend the world to your will. Sometimes you have to bend with the world, even when it feels uncomfortable.

One big problem with the climate emergency is that we can’t know exactly how or when things will happen. However sophisticated our predictive modelling is, it can’t definitively answer questions about when ice flows will crack or when mass migrations will occur, for example.

So part of managing our anxiety involves living with the idea that we don’t know what’s around the corner. You can get a bunker and an armed security guard, say, but you’ll still have to worry about where your food and water are going to come from. It’s not an emergency that you can realistically prepare for. Knowing and accepting that can make you more mentally resilient.

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You also talk about the comfort that can be found in community. Can you give us an example of how connecting with others can help manage eco-anxiety?

I think many of us have been indoctrinated into the idea that human beings are fundamentally selfish and competitive, that anything good we do is just a cover-up for our callous individualism. But increasingly that idea is being undermined by both science and history.

Each one of us is a giant colony of co-operative cells, and history provides numerous examples of cultures and communities based on co-operation and sharing. Rather than thinking about how to keep looters out of our bunkers, we need to be thinking about how we could collaborate with others to create sustainable communities.

And we need to be doing that right now. It’s not crazy prepping, it’s starting as you mean to go on. I’m lucky in that I live on a very diverse street in South London where everyone looks out for each other. I definitely feel happier and less paranoid here that I’d be locked up in some billionaire’s climate-proof apartment.

You have also contributed to well-known media outlets such as The Guardian and Radio 4. How does writing for different audiences and platforms compare and how does it affect your creative process?

I like it that my writing ends up in all sorts of different places. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of them, so they balance each other out. I love writing for really uncompromisingly nerdy psychoanalytic publications, say, because you can go straight in without having to explain the basics. But then again it’s really good for your clarity of thinking to have to find ways to say things that non-specialists can understand.

Recently, I wrote a second book about eco-anxiety, this time for children. I was scared because it felt like a lot of responsibility. But I was also worried about getting the tone wrong, either by being simplistic and patronising, or verbose and alienating. I asked the publisher to give me some examples of writing for ten-year-olds and the amazing thing was that it was pretty much like my normal writing. Basically, I’d been writing for ten-years-olds my whole life without realising!

In addition to your own work, you also run writing workshops for people experiencing mental health difficulties. How has this experience influenced your approach to writing and sharing your insights with others?

I haven’t done this for years — it was one of the jobs I had while I was doing my analytic training. I loved it! You could either go to the classes because you just felt like improving your writing skills, or you could be prescribed the classes by your GP. No one knew who was who, unless they felt like telling each other. It was very good for letting go of stereotyping.

For instance, there was a young man who would come and write these flamboyant stories about sex-workers urinating on clients and stuff, and I’d sometimes worry about some of the people in the class who were in their sixties and seventies. But they adored him and weren’t at all shocked, and they always had intelligent things to say about points of style or whatever.

Or there was a woman who wrote this really hardcore story that came out of her experiences of racialization. She just wrote it on the spot in response to a banal writing prompt, and then she immediately read it out to a load of white people. We had such interesting conversations about it for weeks afterwards. The people there were so fearless. I absolutely loved them, and I hope they made me more fearless too. 

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

Because I work eight hours a day, five days a week in my analytic practice, most of my writing happens at the weekend — or late at night if there’s a looming deadline. I fuss around and procrastinate like mad on Saturday mornings. I think, ‘Oh no, this is never going to happen. I’ll just have to finally admit that I’m not a writer.’ I drink loads of coffee and eat regrettable foods.

Then, when I start to feel really awful I say, ‘OK, just write something provisional. Don’t worry if it’s rubbish.’ I have to kind of trick myself into it with the idea that it doesn’t matter — that it won’t be any good and I’ll just have to admit defeat. Somehow that allows me to get a few words out. Then a few more. At some point a phrase will pop into my head that makes me laugh or that tickles me in some way and then I start thinking I might just be a genius. It’s pathetic!

But once I’ve had that idea I can write all weekend, and it’s blissful. Then of course I read it back later and it doesn’t seem as awe-inspiring as it did at the time. But by then I have a first draft and I can start knocking it into shape. At the editing stage I don’t seem to need to think of myself as a complete idiot or as some kind of literary mastermind. I just get on with the job. 

That’s so embarrassing — I can’t believe I told you!

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

Jane Austen and Sigmund Freud are my two absolute favourite writers and I’d like to have a big three-way. I think Austen must have been a very good planner. The way the stories unfold seems so perfect, and her blending of the micro and the macro is just mind-blowing.

I’d also like to know whether she made herself laugh, and whether she thought she was a genius. If I was writing stuff like that I’d be impossible! My head wouldn’t fit through the doorway. And I’d be very interested to hear about Freud’s super-egoic inner monologue. Did he give himself a hard time about his writing? I know he referred to his ‘Viennese sloppiness’, which makes me think his inner critic might have given him a bit of trouble. But then again, maybe he got through it by allowing himself to be a bit laissez faire. 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I just read Adam Andrusier’s Two Hitlers and a Marilyn: an autograph hunter’s escape from suburbia. The first few chapters made me laugh so much I could hardly believe it. But by the end it’s actually quite devastating. It becomes serious by stealth. I read it in two sittings — I just couldn’t stop. 

Now I’m reading James Bridle’s Ways of Being. I wish I’d written it, but if I had it wouldn’t be as good! It brings together so many disciplines — mycology, botany, anthropology, zoology, the latest thinking around A.I. (which I’m completely obsessed with). Bridle is an artist and a scientist and seems able to think in tangential and surprising ways. They are also very accessible — probably even to a ten-year-old. It’s actually helping me to feel a little more optimistic about the future too.

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