Dedication: For all writers who struggle with mental illness. But particularly, for Aubrie Cox Warner and Jill Talbot who, whether they realize it or not, continue to inspire me to be vulnerable and open. With thanks to Ben Barnes for assistance with self-portraits and so much more.
The last time I did a guest post for s[r] blog, I wrote about writing, depression, and vulnerability. This week my second book—a chapbook called No Man’s Wild Laura—is out from Hyacinth Girl Press. All four pieces in the short collection are feminist-fueled stories about hopeful, disenchanted, grateful, damaged, and sometimes, angry women. At 39, I no longer believe these things are mutually exclusive. The following is a letter to my 17-year-old self inspired by my own struggles with mental illness and writing.
I see you have hunkered down in your bedroom again. Your black balloon shade is drawn, the door locked, candles lit, and opium incense burning. The window is barely cracked so the smoke drifts above you. A mixtape is playing as you doodle and write and copy down poems and songs and passages you like in your sketchbook. A guy who plays guitar made the tape for you. In a few months, he’ll make you a “fuck off” tape. You will feel a little bit sorry about it, but mostly relieved because you don’t tell people what’s happening in your brain unless circumstance forces you.
I want to tell you this is temporary.
I want to tell you this is the worst it will ever be.
I want to tell you that your difficulty maintaining friendships will wane.
I want to tell you the chest pains will cease.
I want to tell you the urge to stay under water in the tub or break open the disposable razor passes or when you finally do learn to drive at twenty-four that you won’t ever think about pressing down on the gas and pointing yourself at some large, immovable object.
But the best I can do is tell you to hang on, to keep doodling and playing with words. Keep reading. Read more. Write more. Forget the mean girls. Forget the guitar players. You won’t find your love at a show. You will find your love on a dilapidated porch and unlike most people in your life to date, he will ask questions when you look unwell, when you start pulling your hands and shoulders in as though you could make your body fold in on itself, become invisible. He will buy you bread when he learns you haven’t eaten for three days. He won’t give a damn about lactose or the cause you’ve slapped to your food issues. Hang on, girl. I can’t tell you it won’t be twenty years, but once you get there, you will know that all of this made you into the writer you become. The writing saves you. Again and again. It’s the only way you’ve found to release the valve of your malfunctioning brain.
I want to tell you you won’t need medication for the rest of your life.
I want to tell you you won’t stop taking it from time to time and let yourself drift into an almost speechless existence.
I want to tell you that all your people notice, that they come running to your rescue, that they don’t let you push them out of your life.
I want to tell you that having work published, books even, cures you.
I want to tell you you feel wanted and loved, but even when the rational side of your brain argues for the objective truth and counts the ways, you will always feel far away—like you watch those you care for from the dangling basket of a hot air balloon. This will never change, but it will make you observant, insightful. This is good for the work, if not for your well-being.
You already know your biggest truth. I see it from here as you ink lines from Their Eyes Were Watching God and Beloved and three-quarters of Emily Dickinson’s poems into your notebook. It is only in the repeated act of writing itself that you are free.
With love and hope that you can one day learn to look at yourself with kind eyes,
I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.
I write this with the full weight of it causing my shoulders to spasm. I don’t write this as a threat or a way to evoke fear or pity. I write it as a statistical fact based on my diagnoses: major depression, anxiety & panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (including body dysmorphia). I have been in treatment for twenty-two years, but my troubles started long before I ever stepped foot in a therapist’s office. I used to ask myself in the vein of Nick Hornby’s protagonist from High Fidelity, “What came first—the writing or the misery?”
The truth is I’m not sure. Even before I could write, I made up stories to escape the trauma of my surroundings. Many of my earliest memories are violent and lonely. The rest are soft, sweet, and full of the joy of storytelling in the varied timbres of my brother, Mama, Grandma, and Grandpa seeping past and through our always-rocky financial situation and the great, gnarled yarn of mental illness among us. No one had to tell me we told ourselves stories in order to live. We all made something. Grandpa with his carvings. Grandma with her sewing, etc.
I know one of the reasons I’m alive today is because I write. As an adult trying to eke out a career in a creative field, I’ve devoted a lot of time to reading about the link between creativity (writers in particular) and depression. When I learned of Ned Vizzini’s suicide last year, (author of: Teen Angst? Naaah…, Be More Chill, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Other Normals, and House of Secrets) I found myself crying for him and crying for myself. I did the same thing for Robin Williams. As I did for all three of my friends who killed themselves over the years. As I’ve done for the ones who overdosed. As I will do over and over.
Sometimes, my outcome seems inevitable, but I write to combat that feeling.
Inevitable can get bent.
Like Dylan Thomas implores, I will rage against it. I urge other creatives out there (and everyone else fighting this terrible disease) to rage with me. Rage against it by making things. Do what you do and do it to survive. Rage against stigma. Rage against shame. Share.
TheAtlantic devoted a large chunk of their July/August Ideas Issue to the neuroscience of creativity. Dr. Nancy C. Andreason researches the link between creatives (including writers, visual & performing artists, and scientists) and mental illness. I think most of us are aware of the famous (and too often romanticized) suicides, but I’m also interested in those who have or did manage to cope, succeed in their fields, and somehow, survive their mental illness. Andreason reports:
“One after another, my writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out their stories of their struggles with mood disorder –mostly depression, but occasionally, bipolar disorder. A full 80 percent of them had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group…” (68).
Andreason’s work shows there’s not necessarily a correlation between high IQ and creative genius, but more of a similarity in personalities. Creatives tend to persevere. Creatives are better at forming associations. They tend to be “adventuresome and exploratory.” Creativity tends to run in families alongside mental illness. The part I want to keep in my pocket for later use is her claim about creatives being risk takers:
“They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”
I am not the only creative in my family and brother, you have no idea how deep the mental illness and addiction goes in our clan. I come from a proper, southern, religious, sweep-that-mess-back-under-the-rug-where-it-belongs (try not to snicker at the contrast) family. Don’t dare talk about your problems. Poor Mama. She wound up with a writer and a musician for children.
You may wonder what all this has to do with you and your writing or art (whatever form that takes), whether you struggle with depression or not.
It has nothing and everything to do with your creative work. For some of us, it is survival. It’s about anchoring ourselves to the few things we can rely on when, for great swathes of our lives, we cannot rely on ourselves. My anchors are the act of writing, my husband, and my animals.
If you are like the 80 percent Andreason talks about, you get it. I hope you’ll join and rage with me. If you are one of the fortunate few writers (& artists) who do not struggle with depression, it is no matter. Ponder these ideas when it comes to what you create and how you interact with the rest of us sad sacks. It’s not something we can shake off nor should it be for your characters. I recommend Charles Baxter’s craft essay, “Regarding Happiness,” (from Burning Down the House) in which he argues against “happiness” as sustainable in any narrative form. Baxter claims:
“I’d argue that in 80 percent of all narratives, the young couple and their happiness are not the story; the story resides in the unhappy onlooker –Satan, watching Adam and Eve; Claggert, staring at Billy Budd; Iago, looking at Othello and Desdemona…” (208-9).
What I find most interesting is how much Baxter’s essay reminds me of a discussion with my therapist about the meaning of the word “happiness” –its mythic, unattainable stature, and how what we should really strive for are moments of joy and self-care. I have major depression. It’s the one thing I write about that causes so much discomfort and unease. I lose more followers when I’m open about my depression than anything else I post about (even the constant stream of cat and dog photos). I struggled with whether or not to write about depression. I wanted to write something safer, but I chose the topic that made me most vulnerable. Most times if you are working hard to avoid writing something, that’s the very thing that begs to be written. Walk right into the dark, bubbling middle of that thing. Stare it in the eye. Writing without vulnerability is worthless.
I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.
Downstage center, the footlights warmed my bare feet. I had run down the long hall, through the double doors, and kicked my shoes off upon entry –my first ritual. At the end of the school day, I no longer had to navigate the social cavern of being the Principal’s daughter.
A deep bow. My hands raised, With plenty of air behind my words, I said, “My name is Beth. This is my theater.” Since my brother had moved on to middle school, in his absence, the auditorium became mine and mine alone. Jenny, a teacher’s daughter joined me on occasion, but I was often by myself while my mom was hard at work in the office doing terrifying Principal things.
I practiced dance routines until my soles were black from stage dust. I was proud of my feet, though I wasn’t entirely sure why people praised them so much. I had good turnout.
Other times, I just lay on my stomach and did homework in pencil. When I finished, I stared at the ceiling with its crisscrossed lines, ropes, and bags. How it all worked was a mystery, but I taught myself to raise and lower curtains and snapped lights on and off in varied patterns. Just cool blue and green made the world right. I grew fond of the way the velvet felt on my arms as I slipped from behind closed curtains. And always, as though hovering just below the surface, ready to come up for air, was an audience. If I just pulled a little harder, they’d appear.
By the end of the fourth-grade, I’d written a play with Daryl Hall and John Oates as central protagonists. I’m both proud and mortified by this fact. Unfortunately, there is no surviving copy of what was surely my masterpiece. Mom absconded with it, too disturbed by the multiple sex scenes to let the thing live, but before the manuscript was confiscated, I’d blocked out the play, and bossed Jenny into being Daryl Hall’s lover.
Somewhere in the dip of time and space on that stage, I became a seeker, and what is an artist but just that? Writers, dancers, painters, musicians, what have you, we all seek. We fight silence, each in our own way. We talk to each other through our works. Some rhetoricians and philosophers might call this a form of dialectic, or even the trialectic when we get down to ekphrasis or the attempt to interpret and transform one form of art into another, most often the verbal representation of the visual arts, but I’m not here to dig into a bag of big vocabulary. What I’m concerned with is how to get past what most call writer’s block, but I prefer to think of as writer’s funk.
Sometimes, the faces emerge easily. Just a slight tug and there’s a cast of characters fully formed in all their toxic glory. There are days it’s just one face, one body, that shows up in a seat, maybe in the back left, maybe down front, but it’s there. Other times, there’s no one who’s materialized, but you can feel them in the distance, a murmur. When I write, I do everything I can to pull that tiny sound up and out. For me, this is inspiration and these days, I see it as less ephemeral than I used to. I can still summon that stage when I need to, though I haven’t stepped foot on it in almost thirty years. When I get stuck, it is my touchstone, my birthplace as an artist, where I first learned to seek. This wasn’t always the case.
A year ago, I finished an extensive revision of my first novel. I’d recently graduated from my MFA program, and I was exhausted. Unsure of my future or myself, I curled up with disenchantment, draped it over me like a blanket. Some writers say to read when you feel yourself drifting, but I was at such an insecure point that I couldn’t even read without thinking I could never do that. I still read, but it was not the answer for me at that moment in time. Two graduate degrees can burn the reasons you love to read, too. It was during a particularly Scarlet O’Hara bout of self-pity that I decided to visit an art museum. And there, in a sculpture built of trash, a voice seeped through.
I’d heard of and done a few writing exercises using ekphrasis before, but this was different. It wasn’t just about describing the sculpture. It was creating a world around it, a cast, and story. I had forgotten how important non-verbal arts could be to an artist working primarily with words. During the days, weeks, or months when I feel unproductive and bad at what I do, it’s usually because I haven’t left the house much. I’m too immersed in words. Though I aim for 3-4 hours of uninterrupted writing time per day, it is difficult to maintain. I get depleted. Faces recede. Distance grows. Writing becomes the equivalent of walking into the same wall over and over. Writer’s funk takes hold.
In an effort to understand why ekphrasis works for me, I looked for other writers who’ve used the technique. According to Michael Trussler, writers such as Donald Barthelme, Salman Rushdie, and John Edgar Wideman use ekphrasis to “intimate structures of feeling or those aspects of consciousness which exist apart from taxonomies.” Formally speaking, its aesthetic “preoccupation with flux and transcription serves to check our propensity for thinking in immutable categories.” In other words, this method of representation can be fruitful because it attempts to get at the spaces in between the visual and verbal. And so I say to you, writers, do what you have to do to get on that silent stage, to walk the land of the in between, to pull those strings a little harder. Go to paintings. Go to plays. Go to music. Seek and see what emerges. And in the meantime, we must all learn to be okay with the quiet times for they will always be.