Inside The Bell Jar is a new quarterly literary journal based in Belfast and Carrickfergus, dedicated to providing an honest insight into the complexity of mental illness. We speak to founding editor Sami Clara about the journal and their Kickstarter campaign.
As self-described, Inside The Bell Jar focuses on work “that encapsulates how it feels to live with a mental illness.” What was your prime motivation in setting up the journal?
Well, as a person living with mental illness myself, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to find accurate representation of what we go through on a daily basis. This is particularly true in fiction, where characters living with a mental illness are usually dulled down, or romanticised. However, this isn’t only true of fiction. Before I set up Inside The Bell Jar, I sent memoir-style articles to numerous online and print publications, who responded by telling me that my work was ‘too negative’ or that it ‘didn’t have a happy ending to please the reader’. Now, I do understand the importance of giving fellow sufferers hope and encouragement, but that isn’t always possible, and sometimes sufferers do not want, or are not ready, to hear a positive ending when they are living in their own personal hell. I think what they need is understanding, compassion and above all, someone they can relate to.
Each of the pieces showcased on the website comes with a brief editorial summary. I’ve rarely seen this method used, but it’s very effective in getting across the scope of the work. Was this something you purposefully decided on doing to try and be a bit different from what’s out there already?
Thanks! You know, I wish I could take credit for those summaries, but they are mostly formed by my associate editor, Matt Sloan – founder of our sister site Between Worlds Zine. It’s a funny story actually. See, I knew I wanted to include the summaries from the first issue, as a way of briefly explaining what the reader is about to experience. There I was, trying to piece together these summaries with great difficulty, and Matt wanders into the study, takes one look at the poem in question, and comes up with this incredible four sentence description, perfectly summing up what I’d spent an hour trying to say. So that’s when I told him: “You know that you’re going to have to do that for all future submissions, right?” Luckily, Matt rather enjoys crafting the summaries, and he’s a natural at it, given his English degree.
As for trying to be a little different, I don’t think so. I think I just wanted to give readers an insight into what they’d be reading, and also give something strong and positive for the writers to take away; something they could happily use as a quote when summarising or sharing their work.
You received over 300 submissions for your first issue, an impressive feat for a new journal. Do you feel this is testament to how important an issue mental health is for society today?
Absolutely! I think as well, there aren’t many places out there that allow writers such freedom of expression where mental illness is concerned. That said, I am still incredibly shocked at the end of each quarter when I round up the entries, and see that the number is growing larger each issue. I think that alone shows how much those living with a mental illness not only desire to be heard, but need to be heard.
In your submission guidelines, you state you aim keep the number of poems and short stories featured to roughly two per issue. With the number of submissions you received, is this a case of less being more?
Oh, gosh no! Absolutely not. This is purely due to us being a self-funded journal, with every successful submission being paid for out of our own pockets. This is what makes choosing who to publish so difficult, because we do not reject people based on their writing being poor, but instead because we cannot afford to publish more than a set number per quarter. That’s why we’ve recently set up a Kickstarter, which (if successful) will allow us to buy the rights to more creative pieces per issue and to increase our standard payment amount. We have many stretch goals too, one of which is to fund a creative writing course for LGBTQA+ teens suffering from mental illness.
Sylvia Plath is a clear influence on the journal. What other writers do you feel give a realistic portrayal of mental health issues?
Yes, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar meant so much to me growing up. It was the book that first introduced me to someone else’s experience with mental illness. Despite later learning of Plath’s suicide, the book gave me hope and mostly reassurance that I was not alone.
Other writers I believe to be influential and realistic in their portrayals of mental illness include Tamara Ireland Stone, Amanda Lovelace, Susanna Kaysen, Kay Redfield Jamison, Kiera Van Gelder, and Lily Bailey. Sadly though, the majority of my favourite writers do not write fiction, and are instead dedicated to writing memoirs, which I find to be most realistic and honest.
It is my hope that we will see more realistic depictions of mental illness in fiction over the next year, especially with the #ownvoices movement.
Your tagline is ‘fiction and poetry from the darkest depths of the mind’. When you are reading through the submissions, are you thinking “the darker, the better”, or do you feel the message of the writer can be obscured by being too dark (if that is even possible)?
We certainly don’t choose the darkest work and reject the happier, more positive pieces. I like to think that we pick the work that conveys the illness most realistically. In some cases, we have chosen work that is lighter, and even some that is humorous and quite surreal (‘Follow the Rabbit’ by Paul Jameson, for example).
As for submissions being too dark, hmm… good question! Honestly though, no. I don’t ever think that something can be too dark. I think the darker pieces do absolutely need to carry trigger warnings, and we work carefully to do so. I’ve never rejected something for being too dark, though I have had to pass darker pieces on to Matt because they have been too triggering for me to read; poetry and stories on sexual abuse, for example, which is one of the traumas at the heart of my own suffering and current housebound status. I tend to pass on anything like that to Matt because it triggers my own memories.
On the Kickstarter campaign:
“Our goal is simple – to secure funding for another year of featuring incredible, diverse voices that often struggle to be heard – that is, the voices of those suffering from mental illness. It is clear from the number of submissions we received that the demand is there outside of our own small team – sufferers want to make their ‘darkness’ known. This is why our Kickstarter is necessary – our main goal, in addition to funding administrative costs for the next year, is to increase our quarterly number of published pieces and to offer higher, professional payments to those published.
“While the £8,000 goal guarantees continued life for the literary journal and advertising to ensure growth throughout 2017, our stretch goals highlight the ambitious heights we hope to achieve. At £9,000, we aim to hire mentors for selected young LGBTQA+ writers, who will engage with these vulnerable young people to help them better find their voices through writing. It is often attested by our writers that writing has saved their lives, and the NHS shows that “lesbian, gay and bisexual people show higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal feelings than heterosexual men and women.” At £10,000, we will hold a yearly writing competition with huge cash prizes for aspiring writers.
Beyond that, we hope to continue giving those struggling with mental illness a place to be heard into 2018 and beyond. With a selection of great rewards for backers, including an Inside The Bell Jar t-shirt and a goodie box filled with things sure to put a smile on your face, we want to give back as much as is given to us.
To visit the project on Kickstarter, please visit http://kck.st/2h8hew2. The project will run until Jan 3, 2017.