When You’re Visited by an Unwelcome Guest: Writers, Downtime, and Depression

When You’re Visited by an Unwelcome Guest: Writers, Downtime, and Depression

Six weeks ago, I submitted my latest manuscript to The Writer’s Hotel Conference for review. The project is a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. Always a last-minute waffler, I let my mouse arrow hover over the send button as I simultaneously experienced the delight of finishing my manuscript and the terror of actually sending it out.  When I finally clicked the send button, the knotted muscles in my neck relaxed. I had a good cry. I spent the weekend on an “I did it!” high, aware that the next phase would be even more difficult.

I was entering the fallow field.

Originally a farming term, writers sometimes use the fallow field metaphor to describe the period between drafts when projects are laid to rest. In the idealized version, this fallow period is a time when eyes clear, the mind recalibrates, and ideas marinate largely at an unconscious level. Some see it as a welcome respite. Others go into panic mode as they wonder how to cope with the discomfort that can accompany downtime.

I could write a post about how to capitalize on your fallow period and offer helpful tips about starting new projects, resuming morning pages, or going on vacation. Instead, I want to talk about the Big D that often accompanies any fallow period: Depression.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10.4% of US women and 5.5% of US men experienced depression between 2013 – 2016. Many research studies point to correlations between creativity and mood disorders, suggesting depression rates in the writing community are even higher, especially for men. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes that depression is “a normal phase of any writer’s life.” In other words, if you’re a writer who has experienced depression your experience may be more common than you think.

Symptoms of depression can range from mild sadness, agitation, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities to suicidal ideation and death. Famous examples of authors who lost battles with depression abound. Virginia Woolf. Ernest Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. But many writers silently suffer with what can be a debilitating illness.

There are many reasons why creative people might be more susceptible to depression. In general, we are deeply sensitive. That sensitivity feeds our creativity and allows us to transform ideas and experiences into art. But sometimes that gift is a burden. We feel too much—something a concentrated slog through weighty material can intensify, no matter the genre. Our work requires us to spend lots of time alone. Then there’s the grief writers may feel once a project is shelved and they’re no longer spending time with the characters they dearly love. Self-doubts can surface as you anticipate feedback on vulnerable work. And, then there’s the exhaustion that comes from setting aside big swathes of time to meet deadlines. Add to that the ambiguities we’re forced to sit with (Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Does anyone care?), and the silences as we waitwaitwait for what could possibly be rejection.  No wonder we struggle. 

Depression has been a lifelong companion I’ve learned to live with—one that used to visit often. Past major depressive episodes were so severe I experienced physical pain. Every day felt like I was operating in a world where the air had been replaced by mud. My brain transformed into a bad neighborhood with street names like Piece of Shit Avenue and Who Do You Think You Are Boulevard. Eating ice cream was so joyless it might as well have been creamed fish. I’ve spent many years studying the art of self-care and the causes and treatments of depression. This has lessened the severity of my symptoms, but they still crop up. So, when I submitted my manuscript in February—one of depression’s prime times—I anticipated my old friend’s arrival.

We frequently see depression as the enemy and want to kick its ass as we send it to the curb. But depression isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it signals your body’s need for self-care. It slows you down so you can rest. It isolates so you can reflect and address feelings that require attention. It makes you vividly aware of the world (even if it only shows you the bleakest picture) and reminds you of the sensitivities you need to nourish.

In short doses and at a mild level, these experiences can be adaptive. In these cases, focusing on self-care and journaling about depressive thoughts or what depression wants you to know can give you insights into your symptoms. But if the duration is long (more than three weeks) or severe (leading to thoughts of self-harm, feelings that you are a burden, or beliefs that others would be better off without you), it’s time to get help. Talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling. Contact a mental health professional. If you’re not sure where to go, or if your symptoms require immediate attention call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline(1-800-273-TALK). Operators are available twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. You don’t have to be in a crisis to call them.

My fallow period included a couple of weeks of mild depression. The big push to finish had exhausted me. My body said slow down, and I did (though I wasn’t always a willing patient). I journaled about writing fears, reached out to friends, and wrote a few funny pieces that didn’t require much vulnerability. When my energy returned, I resumed my exercise routine, spent time in the sun, and enjoyed the cherry blossoms outside my house in preparation for the next phase of revision.

Mental health issues frequently get a bad rap. Some view these experiences as a sign of weakness, which makes it more difficult to talk about. In her memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, Susan Klebold refers to depression as a brain illness because the brain is what’s sick in depressed people, just like the pancreas is sick in someone with diabetes. We wouldn’t tell a diabetic to ignore their symptoms or suggest a better attitude would lower their blood sugar levels. We would tell them to seek treatment. The same holds true for our mental health.

Over the weekend I attended a spiritual talk given by Don Chudd, a former Lutheran priest. He said, “It’s not our output but our wellbeing that is our greatest contribution to the world.” Wellbeing is an inside job that requires us to nurture our gifts so we can share our best with others.

Wellbeing doesn’t require us to produce anything.

It only requires us to be ourselves.

The real me is very curious, highly energetic, and sometimes depressed. I accept this without shame or self-pity. I share it with you, because I truly believe our stories—both big and small—matter. In saying, “Yes, me too,” we normalize each other’s experiences and help one another care for our precious gifts during both productive and fallow periods in our writing lives. In doing so, we make the experience between the click of the send or save button and the moment we resume our work is a little more pleasurable.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Schmoozing for Introverts: How to Network Like a Pro

Schmoozing for Introverts: How to Network Like a Pro

This post was originally published on the Jane Friedman Blog on March 19, 2019

I’d like to thank writer Sharon Harrigan for her excellent mentorship, and Leigh Camacho Rourks for sharing her fabulous story about her whale-blubber-related happenstance moment at an AWP conference. Without them, this post might not have been written. 

 

Maybe you’re like me, someone with a mile-wide idea shelf but a short, stubby one for people. Perhaps you like your fellow humans generally, but your introvert soul prefers small-group interactions to huge crowds and forced small talk. Or maybe, like me, you grew up in a place where networking was either mentioned with disdain or not at all.

A writing conference may be your first professional networking opportunity. During my first few conferences, my angst could’ve lit entire cities. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Sensing my discomfort, a gracious mentor debunked the mysteries of networking for me. Studying her at future conferences revealed several tricks I could use to schmooze like a pro, or at least operate like a less awkward version of myself. This gift is one I’ll spend the rest of my life repaying and one I’d like to share with you.

Creating A Birds-Eye View of Your Book

Creating A Birds-Eye View of Your Book

Three years ago, I saw my literary hero Nick Flynn speak about the challenges of writing memoir at the University of Virginia. Playwright, poet, and serial memoirist, Flynn discussed the differences between writing a poem and a book. With a poem, he said, you think and wrestle and cajole your words into some kind of meaning over the course of a morning then you go to lunch. But with a book, you spend years walking around with all of these pages in your head. You fear that moving too quickly or paying too much attention to the outside world will send those pages tumbling to the ground. Sometimes it takes so much energy and headspace to manage those pages you become an asshole. 
 
Sound familiar? 
 
I’ve spent years balancing the stories inside my head, hoping to form them into something coherent and maybe beautiful. But in June of 2018, I signed up for the 2019 Writer’s Hotel Conference and was forced to reconsider how I tackle book-length projects. As a conference attendee, I was given the following submission deadline for my yet-to-be-written manuscript: February 15, 2019. To be ready, I needed to knock out the entire draft over the next seven months. Then life took over, as it always does, and frankly, I got stuck regarding where to begin. With four months left to my deadline, I had no choice but to fast draft and find an efficient way to tame my pages into some semblance of order. 
 
Let me introduce you to my new BFF: the chapter summary project. 
 
Chapter summaries are exactly what they sound like: three-to-five sentence summaries of the major events in each chapter. They should include what’s happening, any major conflicts, plot points, and revelations that move the story forward. When part of a book proposal, they have one main goal: make the reader want to know more. As the writer, they can give you a birds-eye view of your narrative arc. 
 
Rules to follow when writing chapter summaries are listed below. For the purposes of this post, I also suggest some additional items that can help you tame an unruly project. 

 

  • Write your chapter summaries in the first person, present tense.
  • Spill the beans. While your story may contain cliff hangers and surprises, chapter summaries let it all hang out. Reveal the major conflicts, revelations, and decisions made by your protagonist so you can see what kind of story you’ve written and how it’s resolved. 
  • Be succinct. If you’re having trouble doing this, it’s likely your chapter is unfocused or too ambitious. For now, record everything that occurs. We’ll return to these chapters later on. 
  • Label each chapter summary with the following itemstime markers (such as month/year when things occur or the age of the protagonist), locations (if there’s more than one), a list of characters who appear in the chapter, and the chapter’s function in the overall narrative arc. Chapter functions may include introducing certain characters, heightening the dramatic need, or serving as major plot points. While this information is inappropriate for a book proposal, it’s a must for your chapter summary project.  

 

 
Once you’ve created your chapter summary project, take a one- or two-week break from your work. Bake yourself a cake. Do your favorite dance. Throw yourself a party. You’ve just completed an extremely difficult exercise. Celebrate this milestone! 
 
After your break, here’s what’s next. 

 

  1. Identify the narrator’s/protagonist’s dramatic need. What does he or she really want? If this is a memoir, what broad theme are you trying to illustrate through your life story? For example, are you trying to illustrate how to find your voice, make peace with the past, or regain a sense of wholeness? Whatever it is, write this down.
  2. Interrogate your story to ensure all events drive toward the resolution of your dramatic need. In memoir, this can be challenging because life is filled with funny, powerful, and poignant experiences. But in story world, only the events that serve the protagonist’s dramatic need belong. Each one should serve a purpose and carry the appropriate weight for the story. For example, if your story is about finding your voice in a troubled mother/daughter relationship, wild childhood adventures with siblings or friends only belong if they helped you find your voice or impacted the mother/daughter dynamic. If they don’t, cut them. Losses can happen at pivotal points in our lives. If you introduce a major loss in the final third of the book, there are two questions you must ask yourself: Does the loss fit with this narrative arc? Can I write about it in a way that drives toward the resolution of the main story? If it creates a gaping wound for the narrator that overshadows the original dramatic need, requires the introduction of many new characters, or cannot easily tie back into the main narrative arc, perhaps this loss belongs in its own book. 
  3. Identify your main characters. Make sure they appear early and return often. Weed out secondary characters who aren’t serving specific purposes and slim down character lists in overpopulated chapters. 
  4. Determine how you will use time. Ask yourself whether you’re creating a linear story, a frame narrative, braid or patchwork quilt. If this your first book, or you’re early in the drafting process, keep it simple. A linear structure is always a good starting place. Once structure has been addressed, look at your time markers to see if the amount of time addressed by each chapter feels reasonable or whether leaping through time would be more effective. Create some rules around how to navigate time and memories then use these rules consistently. Here are a couple of examples. In Sharon Harrigan’s memoir Playing with Dynamite, she tells her story in the simple past tense, however, imagined scenes are written in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy. Rob Spillman’s memoir All Tomorrow’s Parties is a braided memoir that simultaneously tells of his coming of age in Berlin and his return to Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The child’s story is told in the past tense while the adult story is told in the present tense. 
  5. Examine your unwieldy chapter summaries. Ask yourself the following questions. How do these events move the story forward? Are they necessary? Are they in the right spot and of the right length? Justify everything then bend your chapter summaries to the will of your book’s narrative arc. Give each chapter a focus and a purpose. Delete tangents. Separate events that don’t go together. Make sure everything is in the right place. Modify the connective tissue between chapters so that it includes enough “therefores” and “buts” to create a compelling, inevitable end. (Check out this essay on story structure.)
  6. Print your completed chapter summary project. Paste each chapter summary onto an index card so the project is easy to manipulate. Lay it out and see if anything needs to be added, rearranged, or revised to create a seamless flow. Get it as right as you can before you revise your draft. 
  7. Return to your manuscript knowing you have a handle on your work. As things change or new revelations occur, revise your chapter summary project so you don’t have to keep all those pages in your head. 

 

 
In August of 2019, I’ll have a chance to see Nick Flynn again at the HippoCamp Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers. I can’t wait to see what other gems he’ll offer. If I’m feeling brave, maybe I’ll thank him for validating the struggle I’ve felt around the pages in my head and share how that struggle led to a major change in my drafting process. 
 

 

Heart Speak Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir

Heart Speak Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir

Co-authoring a book under optimal circumstances can be a trying experience, but add intermittent cognitive impairment or cognitive decline to the mix, and the challenges are monumental. Learn how to move past heartbreak and outmaneuver the challenges dementia adds to the writing process as I respond to our latest letter writer in Heart Speak, The Memoir Writing Advice Column #2: When a Medically Impaired Mind Derails Your Memoir. Like to post your own question? Learn about our submission process

Twenty-two years after my brother’s suicide I’ve found peace

Twenty-two years after my brother’s suicide I’ve found peace

Twenty-two years ago today, my brother Joe died by suicide during a mental health crisis. He was twenty years old. I was twenty-two, the same age as his death. This morning I walked along the road by the writing retreat where I’m spending the weekend so I can finish the first revised draft of the memoir I’m writing about this loss. It’s almost sixty degrees. Every once in a while, the sun peaks from behind the clouds. Peepers, returning geese, and a very persistent rooster fill the air with the songs of nature. Daffodils threaten to bloom. Life goes on, and I go on with it.

It’s fitting that I’m cloistered away so I can write about him today. During the past four months of intensive writing, I’ve relived much of the pain I felt after his death and the challenges of experiencing a loss so devastating I wasn’t sure if I could ever recover. There’s been much snot-bubble crying, but also some laughter and a sense awe, not to mention a deep feeling of connection to him. Writing resurrects those we’ve lost, and in the process, we resurrect the parts of ourselves we lost too.

If I could talk to my brother, I would tell him I love him and that sometimes he’s an asshat (just like me). I’d tell him that I’m proud of him for trying so hard in spite of all that happened to us and the challenges he faced as a person living with a very serious mental illness. I would tell him I wish he could’ve made a different choice and stuck around long enough for me to give him shit about his gray hair or wrinkles or sagging pecks. We would both lament how the music that once defined us is now “classic rock” and how we’re not sure what’s cool anymore. But most importantly, I would tell him that while I wish he was here, I am at peace. My life is a good one, I spend most of my days feeling very grateful. Maybe he would remind me that he’s never lost as long I keep saying his name and continue to put my pen to the page. Maybe he’ll remind me of the thing he said in his final letter to me: You’re doing great and I love ya.

Before he floated back to that space of memory he now calls home, we’d hug one more time and say the precious words that ended so many of our conversations: love ya. In hearing those words, I would remember that love and life are what we’re here for.

Live fully, love each other deeply, and say I love you as often as you can. If you are concerned about a loved one, say something. If you’re not sure how, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273- TALK (8255). They will show you how.

Shanti Namaste, Friends. I love you.

 

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