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Mapping the Writing Process:
The life and opinions of an ADHD creative

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Figure 1. Caroline Pedler, The Accidental Gardener - cover art - acrylic and crayon, collage on paper, 2020. 60 cm x 30 cm.  © Caroline Pedler

The Accidental Gardener

 

'This activity of translating an intangible fear into a tangible outcome was cathartic, and on a creative level, helped me silence the critical commentary of the publisher’s eye, and momentarily released me from the pressure of it. It was here that I wanted to be, with something real and meaningful.'

Caroline Pedler, 'Sketchbook as therapist: Self-authorship and the art of making picturebooks,' Journal of Illustration, 2020.

Within illustration there are endless creative possibilities of medium, application, process, and context, a discipline undefined by how it looks or acts and more by the efficacy of its communication with an audience. As illustrators we respond to the subjects we ‘recognise as most urgent in the here and now’ and through storytelling we make the invisible visible. We can communicate, highlight, evoke, warn, protest, teach, inform, enlighten, or simply decorate. As picturebook makers we do this through a series of signs and symbols carefully applied and composed within the pages of a book format, activating the reader to fully engage with the book’s message, while cultivating empathy, knowledge and understanding. 

 

I have been an illustrator since 1998 and in that time, I have created the artwork for roughly 60 picturebooks that predominantly illustrate relationships between animal characters in various natural contexts. I had little contact with the different writers and illustrated each book through a lens that was more focused on the will of the publisher than my own inclination and intuition. It wasn't until 2018 that I started illustrating and writing my own picturebook that was entirely intuitive and created through personal experience and which would later help me challenge my own experience of the world.

At that time, I had just experienced two years of life-changing events which concluded in an acute attack of anxiety. It wasn’t my first panic attack, but it was the most visceral.

Within that period of time I felt scared and small, the colour had drained from the world around me and everything I had dreamt of in my future crumbled in front of me. A dark fog engulfed me and sunk into my bones, and I felt hopeless. Although the anxiety became more generalised as time went on and affected my long-term personal mental health, the attack itself, although frightening, was surprisingly impactful on my creative health, initiating a creative focus for the next five years, where I felt compelled to respond to my emotions  through drawing in my sketchbook. Like the artist in me was tearing through my heart and on to the page in hope to understand what I was experiencing.

 

'We would do well, therefore, to think of the creative process as a living thing implanted in the human psyche. In the language of analytical psychology this living thing is an autonomous complex.' (Carl Jung) 

 

On reflection, I was reordering my world on my terms, translating my anxiety into tangible creative outcomes that revealed a new understanding of how I experience and translate the world.

Figure 2. Caroline Pedler, wax crayon and paint on paper, 2018. A5 sketchbook. © Caroline Pedler.

The sketches felt raw, honest, and authentic and would go on to inform my first self-authored picturebook, The Accidental Gardener - a story about a character, Bobo,  who experiences overwhelm and through hope, and by sharing seedlings he nurtured into life, discovers a love for gardening and the joy of sharing kindness within a community.

Figure 3. Caroline Pedler, paint on paper, collage, 2019. 57 cm x 31 cm. © Caroline Pedler.

Figure 4. Caroline Pedler, brush pen on paper, 2018. A4 picturebook journal. © Caroline Pedler.

The title The Accidental Gardener was chosen to reflect an un-deliberate job choice, a role that came naturally from following free-will through healing. I made the character look as though the colour had been drained from him, as I had experienced. I wanted his name to mean something to me, so I finally chose the name Bobo, after my beloved Spinone Italiano who died in January 2020 from cancer. Aesthetically, Bobo evolved from a character I was working on years before with musicians from Australia for their debut single. The character later reappeared in a personal project for my master’s degree in 2009-11, about the shadow and its meaning in my life, haunting my dreams, as a child into adulthood.

Figure 5: Caroline Pedler, pencil on Japanese paper, 2010. A4 sketchbook. © Caroline Pedler.

Diagnosis v Process

 

Two years after that anxiety attack in 2018, on Friday June 12th at 6pm, 2020, I was diagnosed with ADHD. I was 47 years old. We were in lockdown one and I was writing an academic paper for the Journal of Illustration. The academic paper was about how and why I created that first self-authored picturebook, The Accidental Gardener, and took me most of that summer to complete. At this point I was still experiencing anxiety on a regular basis. Two months previously, as the lockdown was starting in March 2020, I was also finishing off what was to be my final commercially ‘manufactured’ picturebook with my publisher of 15 years, as well as teaching and mentoring online for Arts University Plymouth.

 

I came to write the paper after presenting at the 10th International Illustration Research Symposium, ‘Illustrating Mental Health’ in Nov 2019 in Worcester, UK. I had always loved writing a blog and kept a diary but had only ever written academically in my dissertations for my BA and MA degrees. Writing the paper felt like an opportunity to extend my creative practice, delving in to find the truth of my experience in hope to understand myself in more depth and find a higher level of creative fulfilment. I had experienced a similar unlearning and reassembling of myself and my practice during my Master's of Illustration at Falmouth University in 2009-11.

 

'We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.' (Kurt Vonnegut)

At that time, the need for doing a master’s came from dedicating ten years to illustrating children's picturebooks and reaching a point where I felt invisible in the work I was creating and wanted to step away from wearing a commercial mask and begin cultivating a more personally enriching and sustainable career. Returning to university immediately ignited an excitement around immersing myself in my personal practice, but the road ahead proved to be more involved than I anticipated. 

 

‘Sometimes, the right path is not the easiest.’  (Brian D’angelo)

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Figure 6: Caroline Pedler, photocopied images of ink on paper, pencil on Japanese paper, 2010. A4 sketchbook. © Caroline Pedler.

I was fully committed to the part-time two-year master's course, but during the first year I struggled to meet the critical requirements and felt unsatisfied with my progress. My outcomes lacked originality and direction, and my writing was mediocre. In my second year, almost impulsively, I decided to take the dyslexia test offered by the university, not expecting to be diagnosed dyslexic with suspected dyspraxia. This revelation was the first of many insights that highlighted how I perceived and interacted with the world.

Following the diagnosis, I received one-to-one study skills support that immediately felt transformative. Having someone to be accountable to in real time created a feedback loop, allowing me to reframe my approach to writing and the composition of my work. My grades thereafter improved from passing at 50% to achieving distinctions at 70% and I realised I loved writing about creative practice and, more importantly, reflecting on my own practice.  

That period of reflection through objective, critical writing also helped me highlight and unravel a dark mass of more personal feelings, behaviours, and perceived failures I had experienced all my life without realising it, including areas of discomfort in my education. 

 

The established constraints, objectivity and critical thinking of academic writing helped me make sense of my world personally and creatively. I found it to be the perfect rudder in guiding me through the emotive nature of my creative practice at that time. Not unlike the experience of an illustrator, who turns up with the attributes, skills, and mindset of an artist, only to remove themselves emotionally in order to facilitate the meaning and message of the client, writing academically relocated me from the centre to the side-lines of my work, giving me a clearer, more distanced point of view.

 

In the seminal book Illustration Research Methodologies, Rachel Gannon and Mireille Fauchon discuss the varied experiences and knowledges of being an illustrator and talk about the experience of illustrators where, ‘the intention to visually articulate what is understood requires deeper thinking. The act of drawing or image-making encourages a sophisticated sort of comprehension, one that involves a kind of internal sense-making when we need to communicate with others’. I would argue this is similar when ‘writing’ for a specific audience, like writing my final evaluation for my masters. Thinking at a deeper level, making sense of my experience as an artist, illustrator, and writer, through mapping out each stage of my process and practice to date.

The process of writing my final master's evaluation involved taking lots of wrong turns and creating lots of wasted material, but when I located a hook that would guide the reader through the paragraphs, something that read well and made sense, it was like finding gold. Only then did I feel like I had something authentic, by which I mean defining my creative experience efficiently through a lens that meshed critical accuracy with poetic delivery. 

 

I didn’t know it back then, but the critical mode of my master’s work enabled my  professional and personal 'self-authorship' – a term defined by Robert Kegan as ‘the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations,’ allowing an adult the ‘ability to be self-initiating, guided by their own visions, responsible for their experience, and able to develop interdependent relations with diverse others’. In my case self-authorship meant bringing personal experience, identity, and skillset together to engage, communicate and represent myself and my creative and academic community truthfully. 

 

While writing for the Journal of Illustration in May 2020, just before my ADHD diagnosis, I continued to build upon these insights from 2011. I explored how my sketchbooks had reflected the redefinition of my practice back then, over the following decade and beyond, highlighting all the actions I had been taking to alleviate anxiety, depression, impaired gut health, memory loss, and a variety of other symptoms of losing control in my personal life and my creative career coming into 2018, and that anxiety attack. These actions included yoga, meditation, hypnotherapy, and acupuncture, with the aim to remedy creative blocks, find my full potential and find inner peace. Without knowing it I was managing ADHD symptoms all along, which in hindsight were exacerbated by perimenopause.

 

This seems so obvious now, but then it was too late to include this insight into the journal paper, especially without an official diagnosis. I was still personally processing the possibility of having ADHD and was so stripped bare by writing academically that I felt unable to consider the diagnosis critically. I found exploring the blind spots in my brain through writing cathartic, but also one of the hardest things I have ever done. The feeling of paralysis at times was so acute I wanted to tear my hair out and disappear down a black hole. Filled with self-doubt, self-loathing, self-depreciation, and shame, I knew I had to carry on because letting the editing team down would feel a whole lot worse. So, I would return again and again to looking, reading, cutting, and pasting - rinse and repeat until something made sense, while hoping with every inch of me that it would make sense.

'The feeling of paralysis at times was so acute I wanted
to tear my hair out and disappear down a black hole.'

Figure 7: Caroline Pedler, The Accidental Gardener - acrylic and crayon, collage on paper, 2020. 60 cm x 30 cm. © Caroline Pedler

In the middle of writing the paper I was struggling to see a way through the trees of text and notes, for it to make any sense at all, let alone academically or poetically. It wasn’t until I opened up to my writing mentor about waiting for an ADHD diagnosis, saying that I was struggling to get to a point of conclusion, that this shifted. I was in what I now know to be a ‘perfection paralysis spiral,’ totally incapable of finishing to the high standard of writing I had in my head. That moment of vulnerability meant my mentor stepped in and helped me make some minor yet tangible adjustments to my composition and sentence structure that had more impact than just telling me where I was going wrong. It was this edit that brought everything together and helped me get it to the finish line. The feeling of shame switched to a feeling of accomplishment and joy, a feeling that maybe my words did make sense and that I could be seen and heard academically, on my terms. That was so powerful and although I don’t mention it in the paper, the experience of ADHD is weaved through the sentences.

Figure 8: Studio floor with A4 sheets printed out. © Caroline Pedler

In the process of writing the paper I realised that I need time to write with freedom, to wander, research, walk and think, then to mind dump, then to edit that down to begin all over again! I need to physically print the words out so I can see the edges of the pages, to gauge the length and breadth of it visually, cutting and pasting with scissors, tape and a highlighter. My natural writing process is drawn out with lots of lows and a couple of highs, just high enough to keep me going. The highs are those golden nuggets of authenticity, which help me move through and finally sprint to the end, just like my running style at school. 

 

With ADHD there is a lack of dopamine, a chemical messenger that is essentially the brain’s reward system, and responsible for releasing ‘feel good’ hormones, so people with ADHD are constantly looking for hits of reward externally. My dopamine highs, in this context, come from moments of clarity that connect experience to fact or theory and enable insight that positively affects how I continue.

 

These are the activities that I now know encourage these highs for me when writing:

  • Crafting, composing, and channelling my words through and within academic boundaries, viewing and challenging all gathered information critically and objectively.

  • Paying attention to the etymology of words (socially and academically), with an acute attention to their dictionary definition and context, while sometimes mixing those contexts for a more creative and metaphorical approach.

  • Scanning relevant critical publications for ‘buzz’ words, or relevant keywords and sentences.

  • Using a wide variety of resources, inc keeping my eyes peeled when wandering in and around unrelated contexts. Inhabiting ‘The Wanderer’ role.

All of these  feel like finding the truth over and over again. To me, authenticity in writing means that I have composed the most truthful and accurate explanation of the conditions and feelings within the experience that I am writing about, while using the most eloquent words possible, and also representing and communicating my creative voice effectively.

Figure 9: Drawing creative processes. © Caroline Pedler.

What helps me map, and therefore maintain, the authenticity is to visualise my practice through drawings, inspired by The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, where Laurence Sterne includes a series of illustrated plot lines drawn by Shandy. I use this method on a regular basis to draw the journey I take when writing or making, essentially mapping the storyline of my process so I can see it and understand it more objectively. This enables me to pay attention to personal inclination, habits, weaknesses and strengths, partly in hope to progress, but mostly to highlight how I make, so when I reach a tricky point in a making context, for example, I can recognise and trust that I will move through it into greener pastures. This was incredibly helpful and encouraging when writing this article for Dx: Diagnosis and Writing. When I hit a slump and thought everything I had written was incoherent and inconsistent, mapping the writing process of the Journal of Illustration paper allowed me to see and therefore trust that it would be ok, I just had to stick with it and follow my nose.

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Figure 10: School report 1985. © Caroline Pedler

‘Must try Harder’

Having an official diagnosis of ADHD filled the gaps of understanding that remained from my dyslexia diagnosis, opening insights into personal traits and experiences that I spent a lifetime trying to rectify and build strategies around. For my ADHD consultation I was asked to provide anecdotal or physical evidence of relevant symptoms as a child, so I looked through some of my old school reports to see if they could help. I wasn’t sure what I would find, being that I hadn’t seen them for 35 years, but they didn’t let me down. The most enlightening and saddening discovery was that most of them, apart from art subjects, said that I lacked the necessary effort and attention and that I must ‘try harder.’

This wasn’t my memory of school. I don’t remember details of my achievements or failures, other than in the art room. What dawned on me was that I have spent my whole adult life unconsciously trying to address those comments, working so hard and feeling exhausted and oftentimes deflated because I didn’t find what I was working so hard for. I didn’t know who I was trying to prove something to, or what I was trying to prove, until reading those reports back. It all made sense! 

 

This epiphany was validated by the research I had done on ADHD just before and after my official diagnosis, which highlighted the fatigue that the neurodiverse community experiences on a day-to-day basis, mainly from existing in a world designed for neurotypicals, including masking traits and behaviours, but also due to the countless tiny decisions that must be made in order to achieve a basic level of functionality. For me this includes the attention I give to every moment, movement, or action and considering whether my actions are appropriate, helpful or interesting etc. Add to this the disruption of intrusive thoughts and getting distracted a hundred million times every day. It is exhausting!

 

However, there are positives that I experience including: increased creative focus when fully engaged in a subject / project, attention to detail, the ability to see patterns visually and in behaviour, heightened emotional intelligence / sensitivity, a good sense of humour (so I am told!) and acute self-awareness. I would consider myself as having high-functioning ADHD. By high-functioning I mean that although it can be hugely debilitating in certain contexts, those with high-functioning ADHD have the capacity to create strategies that enable a more effective, enjoyable and successful experience of life. In 2019, Jane Ann Sedgwick, Andrew Merwood & Philip Asherson carried out a qualitative investigation of six (male) successful adults with ADHD. In their conclusion they explain the more positive aspects of ADHD defined by six core themes:

Cognitive dynamism - ceaseless mental activity.

Courage - living with ADHD, confronting fear and dealing with uncertainty.

Energy - internal experiences and capacity for action.

Humanity - social behaviour (social intelligence, humour, self-acceptance and recognition of feelings), 'the participants described humour as being dominant in their lives, along higher emotional intelligence with sensitivity towards others, their feelings and the ability to recognise feelings in self also.'

Resilience - strategies they used to cope with ADHD.

Transcendence - appreciation of beauty and excellence.

The authors also include a list of subthemes: divergent thinking, hyper-focus, nonconformist, adventurousness, self-acceptance and sublimation.


Just reading this list makes me smile. Although the study is small, only looks at male adults and therefore doesn’t represent the full breadth of the ADHD community, it still ‘affirms the positive human qualities, assets and attributes in ADHD that can promote and sustain high functioning and flourishing’. This is so refreshing to witness. Although limited, the article is a celebration of the traits of those with ADHD, shining a new light on the capacity and energy of those with a diagnosis, which is a revelation! The paper asks 'how we might reconsider the behaviours associated with ADHD so that they are seen as valuable and worthy of conservation?' highlighting the need to promote new language around ADHD, moving away from a vocabulary of deficit, limitation, abnormality, and stigma.

'I didn’t know who I was trying to prove something to, or what I was trying to prove, until reading those reports back.'

Figure 11: Caroline Pedler, The Accidental Gardener - acrylic and crayon, collage on paper, 2020. 60 cm x 30 cm. © Caroline Pedler

Figure 12: Caroline Pedler, The Accidental Gardener - acrylic and crayon, collage on paper, 2020. 60 cm x 30 cm. © Caroline Pedler

Conclusion

Writing this article about writing has allowed me to map out personal experience and process, while highlighting and validating creative traits in a new context. It has let me ground the knowledge I have acquired in a network of authentic insights or ‘highs,’ like plotting landmarks on a map creating a clearer picture of who I am and how I communicate that to the world. In consequence, I feel seen and heard on my terms. 

I have defined academic conditions and methodologies that keep me on course, helping me channel and sift my scattered brain through a critical lens, enabling the delivery of my personal story through creative insight, learning and understanding, rather than situating myself as the wounded storyteller where healing is located in repetitive retelling. Instead, I have excavated the true value of my experience with room for the reader to learn alongside me.

 

Opening myself up to new opportunities and possibilities through asking for help, being open with mentors, therapists, health specialists, especially tapping into the support system for dyslexia and ADHD has transformed how I organise myself and how I turn up to my work desk. 

'Feeling seen and heard is important to my fulfilment, mental health, and wellbeing, allowing me to feel like I am thriving rather than just surviving.'

Figure 13: Caroline Pedler, The Accidental Gardener - acrylic and crayon, collage on paper, 2020. 60 cm x 30 cm. © Caroline Pedler.

Creating and crafting The Accidental Gardener, exploring that process through academic writing, and reflecting on both experiences in this essay has helped me come to terms with personal trauma. Sharing my experience of anxiety and later diagnosis through a lens of critical objectivity has helped me make peace with the more undesirable traits of having ADHD, reconsidering my own behaviours associated with ADHD as 'valuable and worthy of conservation'. I have been able to create neural pathways that finally accept, rather than dismiss or judge, while inspiring me to be kind to myself, finding enjoyment in sharing the fruits of my labour, just like Bobo does by sharing his love of nature within his community. So, in hope that you find something of interest or resonance here I leave you with some of my own highlights, gathered since diagnosis as an ADHD creative.

 

  • I can put words together that make sense and can provide meaning to others.

  • Writing can enhance and help define my creative voice.

  • My tolerance levels of other people’s behaviours, habits, needs and traits has increased tenfold, and it has given me a level of awareness and objectivity that I didn’t have before diagnosis.

  • Writing from the heart gives me a feeling of catharsis and clarity.

  • Authenticity is a ride and not necessarily a destination.

  • I have superpowers.

  • Paying attention to how fellow ADHDers go about organising themselves has inspired and helped me create my own strategies and appreciate my own.

  • I have always been part of a vibrant, engaging, inclusive, tolerant, creative, and exciting community all this time. So, what else is out there?

  • Something you love to do can be difficult too. Invariably so.

  • Turning up time after time can make a difference to the outcome, no matter how impossible getting to the finishing line feels at the time.

  • I can translate my creative and personal experiences through writing, with creativity, clarity, and insight.

  • Feeling seen and heard is important to my fulfilment, mental health, and wellbeing, allowing me to feel like I am thriving rather than just surviving.

  • Asking for help can really help, and it feels good too!

  • Writing has enabled a greater sense of ownership over and within my practice and helped me distinguish my roles as artist, illustrator and writer. 

  • Working in the creative field makes the disclosure of neurodiverse diagnosis easier, meaning its impact on my professional opportunities is more within my own control.

  • My ADHD diagnosis has meant that my experience is more visible and therefore more impactful for my neurodiverse students.

  • I love writing and being curious through the writing process.

  • Everything is [my] practice

  • Surrounding myself with people who do not judge me and give me what I need to thrive, who understand me and my traits and understand that nothing I do is directly meant to be awkward or uncaring, but is simply out of my control. 

  • Critical, like-minded friends are gold dust!

 

…especially thank you to Eva for the time you gave me and the feedback and encouragement on my words and composition. 

(Read my short reflection on this work here - Ed.)

Works Cited:

Experiential Education and Self-Authorship: An Examination of Students Enrolled in Immersion High Schools. Accessed on 5 September, 2023.

 

Fauchon, M., & Gannon, R. (2021). Illustration Research Methods Paperback (1st ed.). Bloomsbury.

High-Functioning ADHD: The Reality Behind Success. Accessed 5 September, 2023.

Jung, Carl (1978), ‘On relation of the analytical psychology to poetry’, in C. Jung (ed.), The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 65–83. Accessed 3 March, 2020.

 

Pedler, Caroline (2020), ‘Sketchbook as therapist: Self-authorship and the art of making picturebooks’, Journal of Illustration, 7:1&2, pp. 147–177.

 

Sterne, Laurence. (2003). The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1st ed.). Penguin Classics.

 

The positive aspects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a qualitative investigation of successful adults with ADHD. Accessed 5 September, 2023.

 

The Wander Society - Membership Card. Accessed 5 September, 2023.

 

Top 10 Reasons People with ADHD Make Great Writers. Accessed 5 September, 2023.

Caroline Pedler

About Caroline Pedler

Caroline Pedler is an Illustrator, artist & educator who has illustrated children’s  picturebooks for 24 years and had her work exhibited in the UK, Italy, China, Russia, Japan, USA and The United Emirates. Most recent commissions include artwork for Visual Identity for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy 2023 and creating the leading image for the Dulux Colour of the Year global campaign 2023.

Along with running creative workshops locally, Caroline is a lecturer in BA & MA Illustration at Arts University Plymouth, a tutor at Newlyn School of Art and also holds the position of external examiner for MA - Illustration - Authorial Practice at Falmouth University. 

Growing up in Cornwall, Caroline’s colour palette of muted tones, contrasting details, texture and bold shapes is heavily inspired by family time spent in rock pools, beaches and climbing the Tors around Cornwall.

Whether for picturebooks, exhibition or personal exploration Caroline’s work is a combination of painting, drawing, cut-paper collage and digital manipulation.

She is currently working on a self-authored picturebook and continues to champion authenticity and quality in her own work and those she works with.

www.carolinepedler.co.uk

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