Depression

Published Writers in Pain Part II

Some time ago, probably after the release of my second novel, I wrote a post called Published Writers in Pain about the phenomenon of post-publication depression. Today I came across another quote on the subject from a 1985 Washington Post interview with John Fowles.

After you finish [writing a book], you are intensely depressed. It doesn’t much matter whether the reviews are good or not. You feel empty, a field lying fallow, and you must let it stay fallow for a while. You love a book when it’s being written. You are so close to it. You’re the only person who knows it and it’s still full of potential. You know you can improve it. Then, suddenly, there’s the dreadful day when you have the printed proof texts. You get a feeling of ‘That’s it. This is the final thing and I shan’t have the chance to change it.’ It’s a feeling of death, really.

 

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The Unbearable Heaviness of Publishing

Writing is a meditative act. Writing in flow focuses the attention to a single point. The next word, the next breath. It can scare away the meaning crises that might otherwise fill our days.

One of the dirty little secrets of book publishing is that it marks the end of something meaningful and comforting for the writer. The release of a book, which most people expect should feel like the euphoria at the finish line of a marathon instead marks the beginning of a period of mourning. It is done. There is nothing more to write. And it takes a long time for anyone to read books. Sometimes a bit of negative feedback early on adds extra weight and heft to the already brewing storm of depression. When the initial reviews do come in, even if they are glowing, they do not quite touch the places where the author feels alone. You long to hear other people talk about the characters in the way you want to talk about the loved one who has died. It is comforting to know that other people have experienced these individuals, whether they share your opinions of them or not. It means they lived. In the case of fictional people, it means they continue to live. They have been given life.

Lynn Arbor, featured on this blog today, calls the experience Post Bookum Depression, and it is normal– but few writers expect it even though few escape it, not if the project means anything to them.

One way to deal with these blues is to try to throw oneself back into a state of writing flow, the solution I offered in a post I wrote a couple of years ago.

My other meditative practice is to go to the library, walk to random shelves, pull out books that catch my eye, scan them and jot down thoughts if I am so inspired.

Today I went to the library and found a desk beside the genre fiction shelves, right where the mostly black covers of the mysteries give way to the mostly pastel covers of the romances. I wandered through the general fiction, trying to replenish my soul in the stacks.

I had such a heaviness about me, however, that I could not imagine myself focusing for the length of an entire novel. I went through and pulled out books based on the skinniness of the spine. Realizing I had left my reading glasses at home, I also needed a book with large enough print to see without squinting.That is the unglamorous way I ended up selecting Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

23878Santiago Nassar is going to be murdered. Everyone in town knows about it, no one really wants it to happen, and yet no one stops it. The novel explores the dynamics of a community,

It is a mystery, but the central question is not “Who done it?” Or “How was it done?” Or “Will the criminal be caught?” It is “Why did this happen?” What events conspired to make the tragedy inevitable? Was everyone complicit or was no one guilty because they all thought someone else would intervene? Thus the solution to the mystery lies in the heart of the reader. Why did this happen? What does it mean?

I don’t have a big closing to tie all of this together. But a thin book can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered.

Forcing Life to Mean

Moirae the Fates Book Reviews has a recurring feature called “Falling Behind Friday.” The idea is to pick up a book that has been languishing in the “to be read” pile and to write about it.

Yesterday, as I was writing about my early literary influences, I mentioned that the first author who I really fell in love with was Douglas Adams. I thought back to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and what had stayed with me all of these years later.  Of course The Hitchhiker’s Guide taught me that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is 42. But the idea that I find I go back to most often is the Total Perspective Vortex.

The vortex was a form of torture. A person thrown into the vortex was given a small glimpse of his size in relation to the entirety of the universe and this proved to be such a trauma that no one could survive it. This got me to thinking about a book that has been on my to be read file for some time.

16131197The book is called Denial and I am attracted to its premise although reviews of the final work are mixed. The book was written by two biologists, Brower began the work and Varki completed it after Brower’s death. Their novel concept is that all human culture developed out of a need to deny the reality of death. All of human philosophy, religion, and art evolves out of the talent of human beings to deny reality.

Varki and Brower put their own biological spin on it, but they were not the first to venture into this territory. Douglas Adams got there first in his own comic way and Albert Camus explored the meaninglessness of all endeavors in the face of death in his novel The Stranger.

Our search for meaning is beautiful, poetic and essentially absurd.

Psychologist Eric Maisel in his book The Van Gogh Blues argues that it is the search for meaning that causes depression in creative types. He refers to this kind of depression as “a meaning crisis.” Creatives produce art that does not find an audience and wonder “what is the point.” Artists seek the meaning of life in the outside world and are confronted with their own version of the total perspective vortex. They see themselves and their works in the greater scheme of things and are knocked down by a sense of futility.

The answer, he proposes, is to “force life to mean.”  In essence, instead of asking “What is the meaning of life?” You ask “What do I want my life to mean?”

Accepting that the universe– and society and large for the most part– are not concerned with whether or not you finish your novel and carve that statue or beat a grand master at chess, you decide to make your life about that anyway. As Albert Camus wrote of the mythological Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push the same boulder up the side of a mountain only to have it roll back down for all of eternity, “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I think Tim Minchin sums all of this up best in the speech he gives in the video below.

“There is only one sensible thing to do with this meaningless existence,” he said. “Fill it.”

Demonic Pigs and the Construction of the Self

“When the world itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies.”-Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman.

A couple of years ago, after writing a novel from the perspective of a Christian minister, I decided that I wanted to become more familiar with the New Testament of the Bible. I wanted to read it through word for word, in the order that scholars believe it was written, and to form my own opinions of what I read. I tried, as much as I could, to put my preconceived notions aside. A number of things surprised me and caught my attention.

One was just how often Jesus goes around casting out demons. In the post-Enlightenment age, we tend to focus on his miraculous physical healings, but not so much on his demon casting. Generally speaking, modern people don’t believe in demons. In the Bible, there are demons everywhere. They were part of ancient society’s everyday understanding of how the world operated.

In one particular episode, Jesus speaks to a group of demons that are in possession of a man. (The man has a sense of humor about his condition. When Jesus asks his name he says it is Legion. “For we are many.”) The demons listen to Jesus and speak to him. It seems as though they recognize him as another supernatural being. (Although Jesus insists later that his disciples have all the same powers to do what he does if they would have faith.) The demons beg Jesus if he is going to cast them out to please cast them into a group of nearby pigs. He does, and the pigs run into the sea and drown.

This brought up a number of questions for me. What are demons? What did the authors of the Bible believe about demons? Why were there so many demon possessed people? What happens to the demons when they are cast out? Do they go to possess someone else? Do they die? Are they exiled? When Jesus sends them into the pigs, was it a trick? Did he agree out of compassion for the demons and their presence just drove the pigs mad? Or did he intend for them to drown? If he had to trick them, this would imply that he had to negotiate with them and that they have powers that he might not be able to counteract. Or did the pigs run into the sea for comic effect in an era when most people didn’t read and stories were passed along through memorable performance? The other interesting thing is that pigs are “unclean” animals, so the nearby pigs must have belonged to gentiles. Did he cast the demons out of the Jews and into Roman pigs and was there some subtext to that?

Luke’s account of the demon pig incident describes the man with the demons in a way that makes it clear he was what we would today call mentally ill.  His description seems to be of a schizophrenic, which made me wonder if all of the people “plagued by unclean spirits” were suffering from mental illness.  Could there have been so many schizophrenics? Is insanity shaped by culture just as sanity is?  Do people go mad in ways that are shaped by the cultures in which they live?

Steve J. Ayan and Iris Tatjana Calliess, in a Scientific American article “Abnormal as Norm,” use the example of men in Malaysia who believe they have a condition called “koro” to illustrate how different cultures treat varied behaviors as normal. Men who think they have koro are afraid their genitals will retract into their bodies. So to prevent it, they hang weights on their penises.

“The fear, and the uncomfortable antidote, is not common, yet it is accepted in this long-standing culture,” they wrote, “But in a Western country, an adult male who acted on such a belief would certainly be labeled as emotionally disturbed.”

If pumping iron with your privates is normal in another part of the world, then maybe what we consider normal behavior is just as insane or conversely, what we call madness may be entirely normal.  I have started reading a book called Constructing the Self, Constructing America by Philip Cushman.  Cushman is a historian and psychologist  and he explores the history of modern psychotherapy from a cultural perspective. He argues that each era develops a different conception of “what it means to be human.”

“…all of these selves have had important political and economic functions within their eras and that each profession responsible for healing the self has put forth the claim that the self of its era is the only proper self, that its technologies are the one true healing…I want to convince readers that there are good and bad things about any sociohistorical era.  I want readers to agree that there is no single, transcendent truth that can be used by humans to heal in any perfect, universal, apolitical way.”

These are not easy questions for anyone to answer.  They are the big questions of how to be human in the world.  When should your beautiful, mad, messy personality be given expression and when should it be constrained? When should you resist conformity and when is resistance unhealthy?  It takes a lifetime to work these things out. Anyone who says he has the answer is not telling the truth.

Here are a few of my related articles:

Imagining Jesus on Zoloft

Non-Suicidal Poets Tend to Live Long Lives

The Invisible Famine in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Fry, Flow, Frustration

Published Writers in Pain

Fry, Flow, Frustration

My subconscious was having a British pop culture night recently.  I dreamed I was on the set of Downton Abbey. I had an acting role, it seems–the character of a person who had died and come back as a ghost.  I was chatting with Stephen Fry about my recent ballet tour.

It was because Stephen Fry showed up in my dream that I decided to look up his web page and I discovered his open and honest post about his attempted suicide and struggles with bipolar disorder.

There was a line in his post that I related very much to.  (The version of this sentence for grammatical purists: “to which I very much related.”)  The grounding power of having a book to write:

“In the end loneliness is the most terrible and contradictory of my problems. I hate having only myself to come home to. If I have a book to write, it’s fine. I’m up so early in the morning that even I pop out for an early supper I am happy to go straight to bed, eager to be up and writing at dawn the next day. But otherwise…”

I write, not because I like the way it sounds when I say “I am a writer” or because I dream of writing a best seller that is made into a movie and getting an Oscar for best screenplay adapted from my novel (although, I must admit I have these fantasies).  I write simply because the idea of not writing makes me go off the rails a bit.   The process of writing, the focus, the flow keeps me centered.  When I am working on a book (or play, or article or speech) and I have that momentum, I feel as though I am in harmony with the world, not fighting against it.   It is not a thought that comes up in this way, because all I am thinking about is the work, but when I am writing I have a sense of purpose, a sense that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.

There is an expression that I took away from a book called The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel.  The author described the depression that artists often experience as “a crisis of meaning.”  Artists, Maisel posits, suffer from “being dropped, willy-nilly, into a world not of their making, which they are forced to make mean something.”

When I am in the process of writing, I never have a meaning crisis.  When I step out and enter the world of selling and marketing the finished literary work I am constantly confronted with crises of meaning.  If you follow my blog, you may have noticed a theme of frustration with the business of publishing and a lot of musing on failure. Writers are always failing, I wrote.  (See also “You Weren’t Expecting to Be Paid, Were you?” and “How Writing is Like Working at McDonalds.” and my series on the near impossibility of selling an indie or small press book, my post on post-publication depression, my post on the frustration of having your book stamped with an inappropriate genre label,   and  But What if My Ship Doesn’t Come In? in which I discuss the taboo of failure in America. So, yeah, I’ve written about my frustrations quite a bit.)

There is no easy route to publishing.  Go to any forum for independent authors and you will find their list of grievances against traditional publishers: they don’t support authors enough, they want to make changes that detract from the work, they are risk averse and focused on the bottom line. What is more, it is hard to get your work accepted by them.  Indie forums sometimes sound a lot like high school, where you complain about the popular kids and how superficial and mean they are and how they won’t let you into their club.  But the biggies don’t corner the market on badness.

I stumbled across an article on “The Plague of Independent Publishers” today (while looking for a small publisher for a new novel.)  It does a good job laying out the downsides of going with a smaller publisher.  A small indie publisher can be the best of both worlds– lots of personal attention, lots of freedom but not having to go it alone, or it can combine the inattentiveness of a large publisher with the lack of distribution and marketing of self-publishing.

Finally, self-publishing, which is a huge amount of work and generally does not yield the kinds of results most authors dream of.  One of the things that is not often said about self-publishing is that it can be expensive.  The cheapest professional editing is likely to cost around $2,000 and that is before you get into cover design and layout. If you are a starving artist, self-publishing actually has a very high barrier to entry if you want to do it to a professional level.  (And if you don’t, what’s the point?)  The financial burden can make it harder to break into for some people than traditional publishing.

None of these struggles are anything new.  Writers have always faced these kinds of issues when they looked away from the page.  There is no method of publishing that makes a writing career easy, and there has never been one.   Moving out of the state of flow of the writing process and into the harsh world of trying to find readers can seem like running full speed into a brick wall.

Now, I don’t write posts about the challenges of being a writer in order to whine and whinge.  I don’t explore these topics for sympathy and attention.  (One of the most interesting criticisms I read of Stephen Fry’s admission that he had attempted suicide was that it was a plea for attention.  I don’t know much about his life, but attention does not strike me as something Stephen Fry lacks.   Follow the link above to his article about the experience.  I think a lot of people will relate to what he has to say about feeling lonely and yet wanting to be left alone, whether they suffer from clinical depression or not.)  I do not even write about the pitfalls of publishing for that old TV talk show standby reason: so that others will hear my story and feel that they are not alone.

Rather I write because writing is how I find meaning and I am trying to force the challenge itself to mean something.

So what does it mean?

I don’t know yet.

So I’ll keep writing.

Published Writers in Pain: Dealing with Post Publication Depression

I was surprised today, while going through Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers and Agents, to find an essay that articulates something I found hard to express in the wake of the publication of Angel last September.  It was (and is) my first novel, and I was pleased with my work on it.  It was even getting overall highly positive reviews although it wasn’t (and isn’t) selling well.  As people smiled and expressed excitement about my achievement I felt– for most of last year– a deep existential sense of sadness, loneliness and futility.

I knew that I could not be alone in this, but it seemed ungracious, not to mention poor marketing strategy in a culture that prizes cheerfulness, to bring it up in my blog.  I just couldn’t find quite the right words.

Jeff Herman wrote: “No one directly discusses or recognizes this genuine condition because newly published authors are expected to be overjoyed and grateful… After all, each published author is amongst the fortunate ‘one-out-of-a-thousand’ struggling writers who make it to the Big Show.  In reality, people who reach the pinnacle of success in any filed of endeavor will often feel an emotional letdown in the wake of their accomplishment.  The feelings can be comparable to a state of mourning, as the thrill of chasing the goal instantly evaporates and is replaced by nothing.  Writers are especially prone to wallowing alone, as theirs is a solitary process by design… Seeking or initiating communities of ‘published writers in pain’ should be what the doctor ordered… Pain isn’t punishment but a consequence that expands the writer’s integrity, authenticity and relevance.”

Any other writers out there who felt isolated in their post publication mourning period?  Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Imagining Jesus on Zoloft

There is an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal called Mental Illness and Leadership.  It advances the theory that in times of crisis the best leaders are those who suffer from depression.  It is another entry for the “creativity and madness” file, a topic that has been of interest since at least the era of Cervantes and Shakespeare.

Nassir Ghaemi, the author of the article, says that depression has been shown to encourage traits of both realism and empathy.

“Normal” nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.

Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is.

(A turn around on Don Quixote who saw the world not as it was, but as he thought it should be.)

…Depression also has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores. This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past. Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.

Ghaemi uses Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples of people who suffered from depression and whose strategies of nonviolent resistance were based on an assumption of empathy.  Ghaemi concludes:

India was fatally divided because Hindus and Muslims could not accept each other… The politics of radical empathy proved, in the end, to be beyond the capacity of the normal, mentally healthy public.

The observation left me questioning the author’s “sanity.”  That is, to say, I question his definition of the word.

It sounds as though mental health, in this context, is synonymous with conformity.  Is conforming to a social structure that is filled with prejudice rather than empathy really more “sane” than refusing to conform?

Having the positive illusion of greater control over ones environment could actually be a cause of a lack of empathy.  If you think you control your health through positive thinking, for example, you’re less likely to have empathy for the sick who, it follows, should be able to prevent their own illness.

The studies in the article, at least as they are explained by the author, seem to suggest that depression is the cause of greater empathy and realism.  But correlation is not the same as cause.  Could it be, rather, that a person who is more empathetic that usual and who does not have a positive illusion of control is more apt to suffer from a depression that evolves out of a sense of not fitting in with a culture that seems a bit heartless and which, it seems, he has no power to change?

The person who is in step with larger society is likely to have an easier time of it.  That’s why most people try to do that.  That is also probably why they tend to be happier— they’re not banging their heads against the wall.

But does it seem a bit backwards to anyone else to define the person who sees the truth others do not as the one who is insane?  To define the person without a mild delusion of grandeur as the one who is less mentally healthy?  To say that recognizing common humanity before the particular social definitions of one’s time and place is insanity?

Is sanity synonymous with happiness?  Could it be rather less sane to be happy and content when the situation does not warrant it?

Is sanity synonymous with fitting in? Is being content with the way things are actually sane if things are not that great?

To quote Don Quixote (the version from the musical play Man of La Mancha), “When life itself is lunatic who knows where madness lies.  Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest still, to see life as it is and not as it ought to be.”