What it's like to write a book.

Last week I got my hands on the first copies of my book and it felt amazing. 

Writing a book for me was always a dream, although not a goal, it wasn’t something I wrote down on a list it was more of a distant fantasy and when I got offered the chance to write one, only then did it become obvious that it was always a dream for me. Of course, I love writing.

Writing a book gave me a renewed sense of purpose and direction in my life. Last year I decided to step away from being a CEO, which was a tough decision that felt counter to what I “should do”. The opportunity with Penguin presented itself to me as a breadcrumb leading to a new path for me, albeit I still don’t fully know where that path will lead.

The book-writing process gave me purpose in that void, when I felt unsure and it was the perfect task to undertake during 15 months of isolation and lockdown.

I felt good at something again. Whilst I could rationally see all the good I had created with Sanctus, I never ever really felt good running a company, I constantly felt like I wasn’t doing enough or I was letting people down. I think some of that’s in the nature of startups and some of that is in the nature of me. I never felt good as a Leader, yet I feel good as a writer and having the recognition from an established name like Penguin was a confidence boost. 

I enjoyed creating something so intimately too, having total control, having such a personal connection to what I was crafting. In the early days of a startup, I had that, that deep intertwined connection with the business, yet as Sanctus grew I became more distanced from the building blocks. I loved the intimacy and the depth of writing a book - I was in that world completely and whilst it was very hard, I loved it.

I underestimated how hard the writing would be though. I underestimated the sheer time, the sheer drudgery of just having to get words down. I never imagined how evocative the process might be, bringing up feelings of guilt, embarrassment and again, that old feeling of not feeling good enough. Some days I would open up Scrivener (chosen writing app) and stare at it, thinking "I can't do this" or "I hav no idea what to say" and the only way that feeling would dissipate was to just start typing. 

My perceived lack of credibility and that I’m “not an expert’ resulted in procrastination for months and it was only Sarah’s encouragement that forced me to start getting words down along with some supervision from our Sanctus Supervisor, Kate. I was avoiding getting started, mainly because I didn't feel good enough to write a book on mental health, but also because I was scared of what I was about to begin. I was scared that one sentence would lead to another, then to another and I was afraid of the mass of tangled webs I was about to encounter.

Our supervisor for Sanctus, Kate, helped me see that my expertness is in not being an expert, in being an expert talker, writer and storyteller. That my truth, my story, my experience is unshakable as it is my own. From that place, I was able to write and tell my story, and the stories of others too. A couple of conversations with Kate were tantamount to me being able to begin, I felt connected to my why, because the fact I felt nervous to write about mental health in my book is exactly why the book needs to be written, because that's how everyone feels.

Finishing the book felt like a marathon, bit by bit, getting words down on paper every day. One sentence after the next, like one foot in front of the other. Looking back I can hardly remember the countless days and mornings spent writing, I just got up, got a drink, opened my laptop and logged on and I started.

It was never done, ever. Every time I felt like I kept saying; "nearly there", because once the first draft was done, then there was the redraft, after that the final submission. Then there was the, what felt like thankless, task of editing and proofreading. A brutal process of reading, re-reading and editing, cutting and questioning. I changed the book completely during this, completely restructured it and sat there questioning; “is this any good?” Finally submitting the book is what felt the worst in a way, I felt relieved, but also a bit sick.

I didn’t share it with loads of people, if I’m honest I was afraid to. I felt quite vulnerable with it, I shared with people close to me, George, George Bell and Sarah - I knew they’d be honest with me, but I was a bit scared to share with anyone fully outside my comfort zone. I was scared of feedback, of more work and in my heart too, I knew I didn't want to change much.

Some of the feedback from Penguin felt earth shattering, I had some poems in there that didn’t make the cut, I loved those poems and when I saw the first edit of the cover I felt a rage I haven’t felt many times before, I hated it, it wasn’t the cover for my book. I breathed heavily and sent an overly emotional e-mail, thankfully Penguin took it well and I now adore the cover. I'm surprised still at how attached I feel to the book, I love it. 

Once the book was off to the printers, silence ensued and I hit this period of nothingness where I was left feeling a bit depleted and sad that the writing process was over and not feeling ready to market it and shout about it. It's strange that I'd not wanted to begin the writing process, but not wanted it to end either.

When I finally got my hands on the real thing. I held the book, I smelt it, I felt it, I ran my fingers over the embossed cover, I flicked through the pages, I read the introduction twice. I felt pride, joy, love, it was an incredible feeling.

What I’d been working on for 12 months, is real. It exists in physical form. It is real and will stand on bookshelves until the paper rots away. Writing is a solitary process and somewhere along the way I'd forgotten that what I was doing, is a real thing, not just something I've made up in my head. What I’d been doing wasn’t just a lockdown dream in this distorted world, it matters.

Finally, I have since begun sharing the pre-order link with friends and family and people have been buying it. I can’t begin to describe that feeling. I’ve sold products to customers, we’ve had six figure annual contracts, but nothing beats the feeling of someone buying something you’ve written, or you’ve created by hand. It feels awesome.

Again, five years of work in mental health, five years on a path, a random path in a random field in mental health, in entrepreneurship - often feeling like a mixture of a freak, a failure or a genius and never knowing which one - for friends, for family to see some of the hard work and value some of the output of all of that. It's really hit home.

It's been 170 newsletters, a lot of linkedin statuses, slightly less public blog posts, hundreds of talks, one two businesses and now one book. Publishing this book feels like a moment in time for me and one to celebrate.

Much like creating a business, writing a book is a similarly windy, treacherous and exhilarating path. One that I'd encourage to everybody interested, yet warn everyone of too. For some reason, it's the path I've chosen and I'll keep sharing my stories whilst I'm on it. 

James x


  • You can get early access and updates on my book; 'Mental Health at Work' published by Penguin by signing up here.
  • You can pre-order my book from Amazon, Bookshop.org,  Foyles and Waterstones.