When my memoir came out, I got a brutal shock. Vulnerable writers need protection

I called her Terri The World Gets. She was the outward-facing me, the woman I’d spent decades curating. And Terri The World Gets was about to be rocketed into space, never to return.

September 2019, a Friday afternoon, and the Bookseller announced that I’d written a memoir, Coming Undone, to be published by Canongate the following summer. A memoir, the press release explained, about (deep breath): poverty, self-harm, physical abuse, sexual abuse, anxiety, depression, dissociation, suicidal ideation, alcohol and drug abuse, and being sectioned in a New York psychiatric ward.

I was, on that afternoon, the editor-in-chief of Empire, the film magazine. And almost no one – whether colleagues or friends – knew about anything in the list above. So the moment the release was published, I felt exposed and overwhelmingly, unexpectedly vulnerable. The next minute: beep, beep. Two messages: one from my agent and another from my editor. They were both checking in, asking if I was OK. That wasn’t the first or last tricky moment for my brain during the process of publishing my memoir. But support was always there, at the end of the phone, and for that, I was lucky.

There has been acres of discourse on Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare. And this week, via a piece in the Bookseller, the conversation turned to whether enough is being done to support those writing memoirs.

If you’re writing a memoir, the moment of panic at your own specific revelations will come. Once it’s out there, there’s no withdrawing it. There’s no erasure of what is now known. And truthfully, upon contact with the world, it becomes something else entirely, something that no longer belongs to you.

Nothing can prepare you for writing a memoir, for it’s not just the writing. The process for me was one of revisiting the worst, most painful times in my life. Excavating memories that I buried decades ago. I had to not just dig them out, but summon the life itself.

The damp spot on the sheet, a knuckle under my chin. The smells, sounds and tastes. Because this is what’s stored in the smoke trail of your experience. And there’s something almost masochistic in resurrecting that.

But, we’re told, it’ll be OK in the end. It’ll be cathartic! Bollocks. It’s a feat of endurance and yes, a relief in completion. Well, until your editor’s line edits; the copy editor’s edits; the legal read; the press you do to promote the book; the reviews; the live events.

At which point you’ll receive opinions, observations and criticisms from others. And when it’s a story of your life, it’s impossible to take them constructively. It feels less an objective evaluation of art than a subjective takedown of you as a person.

I remember my own personal low point vividly. It wasn’t even the man on Facebook who wrote: “Another one with Daddy Issues” after the first extract ran in the Guardian. It was the book’s legal read. The lawyer (doing their job), wanted to remove an incident of sexual abuse, as there was no proof. I was devastated. I was furious. I ranted about the nature of childhood sexual abuse. Of how you’re violated and then silenced. Of the importance of truth. My editor calmly, patiently walked me through it, knowing that I felt, for a moment, like I was being undone all over again.

So, while you can’t really prepare, you can ask yourself: am I ready? You can ensure you work with people you trust, pretty much with your life. These people should actively work to protect you, to guide you. That said, publishing professionals aren’t therapists or mental-health practitioners. And pastoral care can’t be conflated with professional help. Not to mention that they’re often struggling with their own very heavy loads.

Right now, we rely on single good people. Could a shared central resource exist? A set of agreed principles and harm-reduction guidelines? A directory of counsellors, therapists, helplines and specific support organisations – after all, each author’s needs will be as specific as their stories. But ultimately, authors also need to conduct a thorough, robust self-examination. Can you write it? Right now? Feeling pain is to be expected, destroying yourself in the process isn’t. If it is a no, it’s as brave, perhaps even more so, not to write.

Today, my memoir is in a new stage of its life. I’m developing it for television with the production company Bad Wolf and Netflix. And almost 10 years on from walking out of the psych ward and eight years from when I wrote my first word, I know some things that I didn’t then.

That when my brain is full and loud and cracking open, I need to close my laptop and go for a walk over the moors. That I should not drink when I’m working with particularly difficult material. And that there’s no shame, not an ounce, in saying to those you’re working with: I’m struggling. I need to stop for today. I need some help. Can you help?