An interview with Jo Swinney – belonging, writing and mental health

 

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This week Jo Swinney joins me as we talk about her writing journey, explore the meaning of ‘home’ and what has helped her through times of depression. You can read my book review of ‘Home: The Quest to Belong’ here. Happy reading!

Tell us a bit about you – your background, your journey to faith etc.

I was raised mostly in Portugal from the age of five. My parents started a Christian charity called A Rocha so I grew up in community; it was a field study centre with a lot of people from different walks of life – many of them Christians of different traditions. Living together with my parents living out their faith in such a vivid manner and having examples of people of different ages, nationalities and faith traditions was a really good grounding in seeing what Christianity looked like and meant at its heart.

When I was 11 I had an experience of God for myself. I think the combination of those two things has given me a really solid commitment to Jesus. Along the way I’ve had major wobbles and deviations including a relationship with someone who wasn’t a Christian which was a big turning point. Issues with depression have caused me to question God’s love for me, not his reality. I’d say that pretty much from the age of consciousness my identity has been profoundly shaped by my faith.

I’m married to an American who I met in Canada and he’s now a vicar in Bath and we have two daughters.

When did you start writing? Is that something you’ve always done?

I would have been too scared to aim to be a writer, but I have always written. My official first attempt was in my mid-twenties with the book on depression. We’d just moved back to England and I had just come through three years of therapy and had a lot to say. I think I felt like I had a lot of hope about depression and when I got back to England from Canada I realised it was still very stigmatised here at that point (2004-05). There were a couple of things that happened that made me think ‘Oh my gosh, I really think someone needs to say something as a Christian about this.’

I was on a train journey and did a spider diagram of everything I would want to say and I looked at it and it was densely packed. I thought maybe there was enough here for an entire book.  I contacted somebody I knew who knew how to put together a book proposal, so I did it and I got a contract from the first publisher I approached. I didn’t realise at the time how crazy that was.

You’ve written six non-fiction books – what advice would you give to writers? 

The first bit of writing advice I would give is you need to write. You need to start and put one word after the other and go and get your first draft out. Don’t get precious over your first sentence or you’re never going to move forward.

You need to write from your heart to the heart of the people you have in mind who you’re writing for. You’re always going to have voices in your head telling you that what you’re writing is rubbish, pointless and useless. You just have to take that as a given and write over the voices.

Write only what you really have to say. Don’t pad out with the things you feel you ought to say. One of the things I found really valuable was having a small group of people I trust who would be honest with me but kind and having a few other perspectives before sending it out.

There’s never a good time. Don’t wait for this big wide open space to write. When I was first writing I had a full-time job and I was helping with the youth ministry – there were never any good times to write. I didn’t have a good place to write. I used to sit on my bed surrounded by bits of paper and books and my laptop. I was writing between having babies and toddlers. You just have to seize what moments you have.

Your book ‘Home: The Quest To Belong’ was published last year. What inspired you to start writing it and how did you find the writing process?

I had been thinking about the idea of ‘home’ for a really long time – probably all my life in some way, shape or form. By the time I came to write it, I was drawing from really deep wells. I had so many conversations with people, I had read a lot about it, I had been alert to the subject matter for years so it was probably my most enjoyable writing experience. It’s always slightly agonising for me – writing – just because of the voices that I talked about, but I just found it poured out of me in a way I haven’t experienced before.

It was a tight deadline and I divided up the word count – I know how many words in an hour I can do – and I put the hours in my diary. I would go to this gorgeous coffee shop in Surbiton and just pound away and try and meet my word count targets. The editing was done more thoroughly than I had ever done before and I didn’t enjoy that as much.

You have lived in five countries in over 20 different houses. What would you say the highlights and drawbacks of moving around so often are for you? 

The highlights are the world becomes a big place and you get to see it from lots of different perspectives and meet a lot of different people. It’s exciting and nice to start again. It’s colourful and interesting. I find the whole process of packing up a house and then putting together a new house intensely creative and quite therapeutic.

Drawbacks are there is some really profound grief and loss when you leave somewhere. The whole question of home is more complex. You have to search around, you have to broaden the definition out and remind yourself quite consciously of long-term relationships. Around our house we’ve got lots of different artwork from different places and those things are really important to me because sometimes I do feel quite fragmented and rootless.

What are you hoping readers will take away from your book?

I know for people it can be a painful idea that some people carry around with them a profound sense of homelessness, so I wanted to give people hope that it is possible to create home for yourself. Also, I am hoping it will help people be home, make home and welcome people into home who need home. I think sometimes we don’t realise how important we can be for other people in that regard. I have really enjoyed seeing people sharing their stories with each other. When you meet people at different points in life sometimes you don’t know what has brought them to that point e.g. which places have been significant, which element of home matters the most whether it’s family, our a country, or a culture, or a house. I think I wanted thoughtful and emotional engagement with the idea of home.

You have blogged about depression in the past and you wrote the book ‘Through the Dark Woods: A Young Woman’s Journey Out of Depression’. Can you share what helped you through your journey?

I had three years with a really amazing Christian psychiatrist and had been on medication for ten years. Other practical things like getting enough sleep, exercise, having a good support network of people who keep tabs on me when I’m dipping, being disciplined with my thought life. I am trying to memorise more and more scripture because I really find with my depression that it takes over my thoughts and it’s really hard to argue with that. Turning instead to different Bible passages – I find that really helpful. Forcing myself to run through all the things I have to be grateful for. Little bits of self-care. Noticing when it’s becoming more of a two-day or three-day blip.

What advice would you give to someone who is supporting someone who is going through depression? 

Get some support yourself. Don’t be a one man band. With the permission of the person you are supporting, find one or two people who you can be carried by in that. Be a faithful friend and don’t desert them. It’s very small things like text and showing up when you say you are going to. It’s practical things like doing the dishes for them, helping them make a doctor’s appointment but that can all be summarised as just – be there. Really give up the hope of trying to fix it because that way lies frustration. If you try and reason with them or pray for healing (do pray for healing, but then don’t show up the next time and expect them to be fine), it might be a really long-term thing, it might get better in a couple of weeks or months but they might stay there for a while so let go of the ‘fix it’ mentality otherwise you are just going to get really enraged.

We will keep Jo in prayer for her future writing endeavours – to have courage and keep going as she continues to share her heart and bless others through her writing. Thank you Jo for joining us here!


Jo Swinney is an author, speaker and editor. She lives in Bath with her vicar husband and two daughters and spends any available free time buried in a book or cooking for friends. She blogs sporadically at www.joswinney.com.

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Freelance writer, award-winning blogger, wife, mum and many other things too.

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