My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘writing’

Depression, Mania, and Mystery

Writing a book takes a certain amount of mental stability. Also, you have to be a little crazy.

Despite the fact that in the popular imagination, creativity is linked with insanity, having a mental disorder is not all that conducive to productive work, particularly to the sort of sustained, focused writing that a book requires.

Still, bipolar, OCD, schizophrenic, and other writers have managed to write books – and some very good and highly acclaimed ones.

I have taken on that venture myself. I am writing a book.

Now, settle down. I am not (yet) asking you to buy this book. It is still only a book in process. Nothing has been published. Maybe nothing ever will be. Nevertheless, I persist.

Actually, I have two books in the works. One is out of my hands now. It is languishing at a publishing company, where it has languished for a year, waiting for them to determine if their interest in it will lead to actual publication. That book is a memoir of sorts, based on these blog posts. Unless I want to start pimping it to agents and other publishing companies, there is nothing more to do with it right now.

In the meantime, my attention has turned to the other book. It is a mystery, and has nothing to do with bipolar disorder. Except that the writing of it has everything to do with bipolar disorder.

First depression. Depression is great for writing certain types of scenes – deaths and reactions to them, for example, which are good for mysteries. Depression, however, periodically leads to the “this book is shitty” phenomenon, which I understand is not exclusive to depressive writers.

When depression leads me into that trap, I stop writing. Instead, I do “research.” If I am not too depressed to read, I delve into books about the craft of writing – plotting, description, etc. Or I study the works of writers that do things exceedingly well – dialogue, word choice, narrative voice. I highlight examples of good technique. Then, at some point the depression lifts and I try to put what I have learned into my manuscript. Of course this means lots of rewriting and revising, which slows my progress, but, I hope, makes the manuscript better.

Then there’s mania. Or at least hypomania, in my case. It carried me through the first eight chapters of the mystery before the depression hit. If it’s a truism that depression lies (it is and it does), mania is a liar as well. Recently I was tootling along at about 500 words per day, and it occurred to me that, at that pace, I could reasonably expect to have a rough draft by July 4, ready to send to my beta readers.

This was mania talking. Lying, rather. In fact, there was no way I could maintain the pace, meager though it was, of 500 words per day and not a chance in hell that I could meet the self-imposed deadline.

What came next? More depression, of course. More research, this time into how various authors use dialogue tags. And a confusing attempt to improve the pacing by scrambling the order of the chapters.

Until writing mania sets in again, I plug away at scenes I know need to be written, even if I don’t know where they go, and keep my eyes and ears open for both the depressive lies and the manic ones. I have over 45,000 words written and refuse to abandon them now.

So I don’t know all that much about whether bipolar disorder is a help or a hindrance to creativity (I would suspect it is both), but I do know that it is possible to work around it.

Eventually, if I’m lucky and persistent, I’ll ask you to buy my books. Someday.

Why Do I Write About Mental Illness?

I have bipolar disorder. But that by itself isn’t the answer. Here’s why I write about mental illness and mental health.

It’s what I do. I’m a writer. It’s what I would be, bipolar disorder or not. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and writing and editing professionally for decades. But that isn’t the whole answer either.

It’s what I have to do. I have plenty of topics to write about besides mental illness. Over the years I have written poetry; a few children’s stories; and articles about martial arts, religion, cats, education and teachers, technology, architecture, and other subjects. In addition to this blog, I have another – janetcobur.wordpress.com – in which I write about whatever crosses my mind or my path – books, news, humor, and the things that made me name my blog Et Cetera, etc.

But this blog is the one that I have to write. It started as journaling but quickly – in a matter of weeks – became more.

It’s what I am. Mentally ill, that is. A life-long acquaintance with – or rather, experience of – a mental illness makes the subject one that goes to the bone. I can’t call up a memory from my childhood that doesn’t involve desperation, sobbing, and disaffection, or fragile, giggling glee at things no one else noticed or cared about. My college years were marred by distress, anxiety, and apathy. My adulthood has been marked by breakdowns, immobility, and psychotropics. I can’t get away from the subject, even if I try.

I have the skills for it. I have read a lot about mental illness and bipolar disorder, in self-help books, more scholarly works, memoirs, and even fiction (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-nE). I have an academic background and an intelligent layperson’s knowledge of science and psychology. I can share that perspective with others.

It helps me and others understand. Examining aspects of bipolar disorder necessitates that I learn more about it – and therefore about myself. Planning, writing, and editing posts help me clarify my thinking about this illness I live with every day. Sometimes I am just too close to it until I step back and look at it from a different or even new perspective. That’s one of the benefits for me.

The feedback I get – comments from readers and other bloggers – leads me to believe that what I write has value for them too.

It needs to be talked about. The general public – society at large – doesn’t understand mental illness. There are widespread jokes, misunderstandings, and inaccurate media portrayals. Above all, there is discrimination – in jobs, housing, medical treatment, the legal system, and more. There is more trash talked about mental illness and psychotropics every time there is a mass shooting incident or a domestic terrorist bombing.

One of the solutions to these problems is education. Most of the writing I’ve done in my life has been on (or near) the subject of education. I consider myself an advocate for education. And now I am an advocate for education about mental illness. That education should start in public and private school health or social sciences classes. It should continue in adulthood for those who never learned it in school.

Celebrities like Glenn Close and Richard Dreyfuss have big names and big audiences and a vital message to spread about mental illness. I don’t have the big name or the big audience, but I do what I can.

Because the people, including me, who live with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses every day, need messages of hope and sympathy and experience and activism and explanation and thought and outrage and kindness.

And that’s why I write about mental illness.

 

 

 

 

As a Muse, Depression Sucks

Pencil tied in a knot on a white backgroundRecently, someone commented that I didn’t write like I was depressed, even though I actually was at the time I wrote.

This week I am even more depressed, so I thought I’d give you a look inside my head as I try to write while depressed and/or anxious.

::typing:: “Donald Trump Is Not a Monster. He may be a liar, a bully, and a misogynist who is uninformed, egotistical, and thin-skinned, but he is not a monster. Monsters are mythical. They are what we invented to be The Other. To say a person – Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, Donald Trump – is a monster is to say that they are Other: not human beings. In reality, they are all human beings, who may have done monstrous things. But they are motivated by the same things as all humans: greed, fear, hate, sex, fame…”

::thinking:: No. That stinks. Half the people who read my Et Cetera, etc. blog will hate me because I said Donald Trump is not a monster and the other half will hate me because I compared him to Timothy McVeigh and Ted Bundy. I’ll offend everyone at once. Maybe I could write “How to Offend Everyone at Once.” No, that’s a terrible idea. My goal is not to offend.

::still thinking:: Why am I so afraid of offending anyone? Is it because when I’m depressed, my self-esteem is super-low and I can’t afford to lose any more friends? Is it because I’m female and was raised to be a people-pleaser? Then why haven’t I pleased more people? Is it because I don’t want to be called a “special snowflake”?

::still thinking:: My knee hurts.

::still thinking:: Maybe I should write something about education. What, though? The education issue everyone is talking about is Betsy DeVos. I only know about her what others have written. Writing about her would be useless and boring. Crap. It’s already Friday and I don’t have anything. I’m not going to have a thing to post this week.

::still thinking:: What’s another go-to topic? Books. I just re-read The Handmaid’s Tale and that’s totally relevant.

::typing:: “The Handmaid’s Tale: A Tale for Our Times”

::thinking:: No.

::typing:: “Written Thirty Years Ago and Still Relevant”

::thinking:: No. Hardly anyone reads my book posts anyway. How can I have been doing this for three years and not have more followers? Is that why I write? Ego gratification. I’m a sad, sad person who needs external validation instead of interior satisfaction.

::still thinking:: My husband doesn’t even read my posts half the time, even if I mention him. Maybe I could write about bipolar disorder and sex. No, I’d have to do too much research and I’m running out of time. Besides, with my luck, my husband would read that one and not want our sex life all over the Internet.

::still thinking:: My knee still hurts. How long have I been sitting at this stupid computer?

::typing:: “I Hear Voices” – I’ve been meaning to write that one.

::thinking:: No. I don’t hear voices like psychotics hear voices. All I hear are Pete Seeger singing pizza commercials or a men’s chorus or an NPR broadcast that I can’t quite make out. That’s boring. My life is boring. Besides, I’d have to do too much research and I’m running out of time.

::still thinking:: I could look up some quotes about bipolar and say whether I agree with them or not. More research again. Besides, who cares whether I agree with them or not?

::still thinking:: Maybe I could re-post one of my old posts. Wouldn’t that be cheating? If I can’t some up with something by tomorrow, I may have to. But that’s like admitting failure. Like I can’t write. Maybe I can’t write anymore. Maybe I’ve already written everything I know.

::still thinking:: Maybe I could write about not writing. Too boring? Too meta? Don’t people hate stream-of-consciousness? Especially stream-of-depressed-consciousness. It’s so bloody depressing. I’m so bloody depressed.

::typing:: Recently, someone commented that I didn’t write like I was depressed, even though I actually was at the time I wrote…

::thinking:: Now how am I going to illustrate this?

Blogging While Bipolar: What I’ve Learned

Next month, this blog will be three years old, an unruly toddler of a blog with jam on its face and a sticky plush animal grasped in its fist. Except for one dry spell of about a month during the first year, I have posted every week in both this and my general purpose blog, Et Cetera, etc. (janetcobur.wordpress.com).

My husband often tells me that he’s proud that I am doing this and that I have stuck with it so long and faithfully. (He doesn’t often read my posts, but that’s another matter.)

nightblogWriting while bipolar is not always easy, but blogging has taught me a few things about myself.

Blogging is a substitute for going outside and having a social life. While it’s generally true that my disorder has abated over the years, at least from its worst, I am still unable – or perhaps unwilling is more accurate – to go outside for more than a doctor’s appointment, or a brief errand and lunch with my husband. But I am still connected to the outside world through my blog. I have friends, I have conversations, I get feedback. I have special blogging friends like Bradley, Raeyn, and Dyane. (I also live vicariously through Facebook, but that’s another story.)

I need structure, and blogging gives me that. I used to post randomly, whenever I felt like it. Pretty quickly I discovered that Sunday was the day when my blog got the most traffic, so I made that my official blog post day. Working at home as I do, I tend to lose track of where I am in any given week. Is it Tuesday? Thursday? It’s hard to tell. But having a writing schedule clears that up.

On Monday and Tuesday I pre-write – think about articles I’ve read or conversations I’ve had and jot down a few titles or ideas or URLs. On Wednesday I begin writing. My goal is to have a rough-ish draft by the end of Thursday and a nearly finished one on Friday. Friday and Saturday are for tweaking the writing, selecting a visual, and tagging. Then Sunday, I proof and post. (I also tweet a quote from my most recent post on Tuesday and a quote from an earlier post on Wednesday, plus a “coming attractions” post on Friday announcing Sunday’s topic.)

It’s a loose enough schedule that I can build in actual paying work around it.

For me, blogging and other forms of writing are better than journaling. My journaling quickly turned into whining. It was boring, even for me. I need real content to interact with, whether that be my blogs, a memoir, or the mystery novel I’m working on. Writing engages and invigorates my poor broken brain, giving it something to do other than wallow or turn to mush.

Even when I think I can’t write, I can still blog. Back when I was able to work full-time, I wrote and edited for magazines and textbooks. I used to boast that I could write 1000 words on anything. Blogging is more forgiving. I can stop at 500 words if that’s all I have to say. I can pick my own topics instead of writing to order based on someone else’s priorities. And that schedule I mentioned? It’s not an actual deadline, so I don’t have to worry about it whizzing past. When the pressure’s off, I can almost always make my Sunday goal.

Blogging validates me. I have two degrees in English (one from a pretty classy university) and worked in educational publishing for about 20 years. Then my brain broke and it all went away. Now that I’m writing regularly, I feel that in some way I’m using both my education and the skills I’ve built up.

By blogging, I prove to myself that bipolar disorder may have taken away some parts of my life, but it can’t have everything.

Advice for the Bipolar Writer

Writing can be therapeutic – and more.

Writing can save your life – or someone else’s.

Every one of us, depressed, manic, or bipolar, has something to say.

I say, “Say it!”

Although I’ve never been one to respond to that ancient exercise in which you express your unspoken thoughts to an empty chair, I am a proponent of expressing your unspoken thoughts. I just think writing is a better way to do it.

Getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper or preserved in pixels is a positive, life-affirming action, even if your thoughts might not be. Giving voice to your inner workings can help you understand yourself and your brain better.

And if you choose to share them, they can help others too.

There are many different kinds of writing you can explore and experiment with until you find the one or ones that are right for you. Here are a few you can try.

Journaling. Many therapists recommend journaling to keep track of your moods and mood swings. You can also keep track of your exercise and sleeping and eating patterns in your journal. These factors may help you pinpoint physical symptoms that accompany your emotional ones. And you can get a read on how your meds affect your symptoms and how troublesome the side effects are.

Unsent letters. I have a separate file in my computer for these, just so I remember not to send them. I write letters not to send when I need to vent at or about a person, but am not sure whether I’m overreacting. I can express my feelings without taking the chance of ruining a friendship or hurting a loved one.

Sent letters. Sometimes, after you’ve let those letters or emails sit for a while, you decide that you do need to send them – or at least parts of them. Letters or emails are often the best way to communicate regarding difficult topics because you can think about what’s important to say, consider the best way to say it, and revise if your thoughts are not coming out the way you want them to. You still might want to wait a day before you send them, though.

IMs and comments. When you read someone’s post or a comment that really resonates with you, don’t hesitate to let that person know. If you don’t understand something in a post, just ask. If you disagree, feel free to do so politely. These are chances to open a dialogue, get more information, or correct misconceptions. They can lead to friendships if you comment regularly, but even a word or two of support or thanks can mean a lot to the writer.

Blogging. I started blogging because my journaling was boring and whiny, and I decided I had more important things to write about. There are basically two kinds of blogging about bipolar disorder. One is to share your experiences – your mood swings, your triggers, your relationships, your healing, your thoughts and meditations. The other is to write about issues related to bipolar disorder – treatments, stigma, social policy, news items, books, or opinions. Of course, you can combine both types of writing in your blog, which is what I try to do.

Blogging is powerful. It lets both professional and untrained writers speak their truth and share their thoughts. A blog about bipolar disorder has a “niche” audience – people interested in the subject themselves or because they have a friend or relative with the disorder. This means that you will likely never rival the Bloggess in numbers of readers, but you can touch the lives of hundreds of people.

Blogging does not have to be difficult. You can post every day or every week, every month, or just when it suits you. You can write informally or in a more academic vein. There are a number of platforms, such as WordPress and Live Journal, that make it easy for you to get started, and to make changes as your blogging needs evolve. You can add illustrations and video clips, and links to news stories or other blog posts. Eventually, you may want to have your own personal web page to host your blog.

Fiction and poetry. If you don’t want to put your own experiences out on the web for anyone to see, you could try transforming them into fiction or poetry, or inventing characters and plots that resemble you not at all. Many magazines and other outlets use short stories and poems, and works that feature bipolar characters and themes are not common. Fiction and poetry can be ways to reach an audience that might otherwise never learn about the reality of bipolar illness and its effects on people and relationships.

Longer works. You could even write a book (which is something I’m trying to do). There are many genres to choose from, including nonfiction, memoirs, and novels. Aside from Abigail Padgett’s Bo Bradley series of mysteries, there isn’t much fiction featuring bipolar characters that are true-to-life and not stereotyped. These are long-term projects and, truthfully, you (and I) may never finish them or have them published. But just the effort is worthy.

Whatever form of writing you choose, get started! Whether you write for yourself or for a larger audience, you can make a difference. And if you feel the desire, you should definitely try.

The 5 Stages of Depression

One of my depression triggers has been well and truly tripped and I am experiencing the long plunge downward. It’s been quite a while since this has happened, but oh, how well I remember it.cracked egg conceptual image for birth

In the classical Five Stages of Grieving, depression is the fourth, right before acceptance. For me, in the Five (or however many) stages of depression, the first stage is (duh) depression. I guess the next four would be immobility, numbness, despair, and Total Meltdown.

Right now I would have to say that I am somewhere between depression and immobility. I got out of bed for a few hours today, and I am writing this. I managed to get a big project done before this bout of depression hit, which was a Good Thing. I also now have a good supply of meds on hand, which is, I think, an Even Better Thing.

The Best Thing is that I have Dan, my husband. He just made sure I got a hot meal and is now giving me space and alone time, which is what I need more than attempts at engagement. And a cat just licked my face, which would be comforting if he hadn’t just been licking his butt.

As Jenny Lawson says, depression lies. Right now it’s telling me I’m useless, helpless, guilty, and ashamed. I hope that at least some of these are lies, though at the moment they’re what my brain is telling me is true. Then add in a large helping of catastrophizing, which at the moment is more likely to happen than not. I can’t see a way out.

Since I’ve been through this process before, I know the things that will help (at least a little) and those that won’t. I’ll try to keep my brain engaged enough to continue writing, and I’ll try to intersperse the doom and gloom with some ideas I made notes on before all this hit. I feel a responsibility to this blog and its readers to keep the thing going as best I can.

Based on my estimate, this episode is likely to last a minimum of two months. Maybe this time I can stop the slide before Total Meltdown. Wish me luck.

A Crowd-Hater at a Conference

“I’m gonna kick butt at this writers’ conference!”

I was a wee bit manicky.

“I am a writer and I know it! I’ve had articles published in lots of magazines! I have two blogs and I write in them every week! I can do this!”

It was a conference for humor writers.

“I know I can do this! I’ve written funny things about ratatouille (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z) and possums (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46) and being burgled by Frenchmen (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1B).”

So, comes the conference…at a time when I’m not the least bit manicky.

Forget what I said about having developed a few social skills (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2M). I was there alone, and confronted with a large group, not small groups or individuals.

And I had paid a lot of money to attend.

Yellow ladybird is marginalizedIt was noisy. It was people-y. It had multiple panels scheduled all day. Every day lunch was an Event with big round tables. Every dinner was an Event with big round tables and important speakers. Everyone there blogged daily or had three blogs, an agent, and/or a book contract.

What to do?

Give myself permission to do what I could do. And skip the other stuff. Ignore the money. Build in breaks. Find quiet spaces. Admit when I’m exhausted and go home. (I lived in the area. If I had stayed in the hotel, that would have been “take naps” and the quiet spaces would have been easier to find. If I had better social skills, I might have made a friend and asked to borrow her hotel room.)

This is how I got through it all. Or most of it, anyway.

Do what I could. I combed the program book for Sessions I Must Attend, Sessions I Would Like to Attend, and Sessions I Can Skip. Then I looked for sessions that were offered more than once and decided which offering fit my schedule better. I tried to avoid more than two back-to-back sessions.

Ignore the money. Yeah, I paid quite a chunk of change for this. But it would have been ridiculous for me to calculate how much money each session was worth and try to make back my investment. I had to tell myself that I spent a lump sum and that whatever I got from the conference was worth it.

Build in breaks. The conference had what they called breaks – 15 minutes between sessions when everyone rushed the snack tables, compared schedules, and chattered up a storm. My idea of a break was to sit in the lobby in a comfy chair, stare at the program book so no one interrupted me, and carry snacks with me (boxes of raisins are good).

Find quiet spaces. When I needed something quieter than a hotel or conference center lobby, I searched for unused classrooms. In a hotel, the bar is usually pretty empty during a conference and is a good place to sit and relax with a nice glass of iced tea and maybe even complementary peanuts. Sometimes I was lucky enough to find that if I went to the room I wanted for the next session, it would be empty or contain only a few people. When all else fails, there are always the restroom stalls. (Unless there’s a line.)

Leave when exhausted. On the last full day of the conference I found myself slumped in a chair in the lobby, totally wrung out. There were events scheduled that evening that sounded fun and that I had signed up for while manicky (see above). But I just couldn’t. The events were mostly entertainment rather than educational anyway, and I was not in a headspace where I could absorb entertainment. The fact that there was a flu going around made my disappearance more understandable (even though I wasn’t physically sick).

So did I learn anything at the conference? Did I make new friends? Did I come back revitalized?

Sort of. I learned that the one-on-one “speed dating” with experts was perhaps the most valuable thing I did. I learned that showing up early for a session allowed me the opportunity to meet one of my idols (the speaker) and spend a little time with her and a small group before the session started. I learned that if I sat near the door it was easier to slip out when panic struck.

I even learned a thing or two about writing – how to write a better query letter, how to improve my blogs, when to consider self-publishing, and so forth. I learned that, despite my manicky expectations, I was no better or worse than the other attendees. We all had skills and valuable experiences and we all had things to learn.

Did I make a lot of new writing friends? No. At least not then. The conference had a Facebook page for attendees and I got involved afterward, online, where I am more comfortable than in crowds. I recognized names I had seen on nametags and had conversations with them. I posted some material from my blogs and read what others posted. I commented and read comments. I “followed” some of the instructors. I read books that attendees had recommended.

To tell the truth, I think I got more from the conference after it was over than when it was going on.

Am I glad I went? Yes. The experience was good for me in more ways than one. Paying attention to my own limits and not trying to live up to artificial expectations made for a good – and survivable – learning experience.

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