Learning to Write without Wanting to Kill Myself – a lesson for all of us
I was sitting in my novel writing class last Tuesday. This is a 6-week course at a local writers workshop that I have taken several times over the last year or so. I LOVE this class, I love my instructor Stephanie and my course mates (some are new each session and some, like me, love the course and keep coming back and I secretly hope they never finish their book so I can keep paying for their friendship and weekly camaraderie).
For a while I was writing my fiction novel prolifically. Notes scribbled on napkins and receipts, dictated into my phone, hand written in an assortment of notebooks and then pieced together on a laptop. And the feedback of this writing was actually really good. But deep in my soul I knew it would be, because if there is one thing I know I can do well it is to tell a story.
But earlier this year I signed up for the class and something shifted. I barely did my assignments. I think I even skipped a session or two whereas before I would have moved heaven and earth to ensure I made it to class.
I knew pretty early on what the issue was, but months went by before I could tell anyone. I was embarrassed, I was forced into a creative place of “be careful what you wish for” and I was unsure of how to get out, even if I should get out of this place I had created.
I would sit at the bar in my designated seat and order a glass of Pinto Grigio and hold my pen in my right hand and prepare my napkin stack for its transformation from utilitarian bar accoutrement into my writing canvas. And nothing came. I would create nothing. I could create nothing. My characters, like me, seemed to lose their purpose, their humor, their insights. They were no longer vibrant souls that lived within me but stiff and lacking depth.
So months went by, the entire summer of 2018 and some of that spring too I didn’t write much. Nothing in terms of fiction really and maybe a bit of an essay here or there, I don’t really recall. I do know that sometimes, like this article for example, sometimes the title would strike me and I’d make a note in my phone and then promise to give the title a life, a purpose with words. But I never really did anything with them.
I told my boyfriend what I thought my problem was. He listened and said something that was probably kind and supportive but the truth is I don’t know for sure because while it was so important to have him hear me I, at the time, could not be bothered to hear him.
So what happened that got me to sit here today and write. A few things actually.
The first was sitting in a non-fiction writing course which was one day a week for 3 weeks with Lisa Lelas as instructor. It was a course that sort of fell in my lap and it was one of those things that you don’t realize how much you needed it until you were sitting there and it’s sort of bashing you over the head with the practicality of it and the deeper impact it has while you sit there and your course mates take notes and you are just sort of quietly rattled to the core.
Lisa told a story about Stephen King, how he can’t remember writing anything in the 80s. Apparently Stephen King wrote drunk and stoned with the blaring music. So when he got sober he wasn’t sure if he could ever write again. So he dedicated blocks of time to blast music and sometimes he’d write and sometimes nothing would come and sometimes what he wrote was garbage but the key was his intention was there.
As I write this I can feel my nerves revving up. For me its a warmth in my stomach and odd sensation in my throat and my hands are freezing cold and I feel as if I am at the edge of a cliff with my emotions and that if someone snuck up behind me and just gently touched me with one finger tip I would fall off and the tears would come hard and fast. But no one is behind me. I am alone and so I breathe deep and keep going. Committed to this, the writing as well as the promise to myself to begin to create with intention.
I sat there at the dining table in Lisa Lelas’ home listening to this story about Stephen King and I thought, “I know exactly how he felt.” And then a week later I was at my fiction class with Stephanie and she asked us who had written since the last class and I said I hadn’t written a thing and in my mind I thought of Stephen King and I listened to Stephanie talk about the writing process and then while she critiqued a course mates work she said this, “what you wrote here is so good, it’s really good but you’ll probably end up throwing it out in the next edit.” (I’m paraphrasing of course but you get the idea) and, as so often happens in my mind, pieces shifted: my conversation with my boyfriend, the story of Stephen King and Stephanie’s simple statement about how sometimes good writing gets thrown away and with that a door unlocked in my mind.
I went home from class and straight to the bar and found my seat and ordered a Pinot Grigio and this time rather than writing on napkins I started typing in my laptop and I wrote 11 pages of fiction in under 2 hours.
You see in 2018 my lifelong battle with depression began to ebb, as so often depression comes in waves and ebbs and flows like a living companion of our daily lives. I write my best and my most when I am deeply broken with depression (see 2015 and 2016 as evidence of that). In fact some of my best writing has come when I have been at the edge of a suicide. These days when I had to write in public for the simple fact that I didn’t trust myself at home alone. This is not a new phenomenon to me. I have had these thoughts and feelings since as far back as high school.
My family has a lot of depression and undiagnosed mental illness in it. As a whole we don’t discuss it, with the exception of wonderfully brave and bold cousin Victor who is also no longer keeping the family secret. But unburdening oneself of the secret of depression or mental illness makes space for the stress, aggravation and anxiety that can come along with the labeling of it.
I have battled depression my entire life. It has ebbed and flowed, it has nearly smothered me at times crippling me while at others it has just been there with me on the day-to-day at the grocery store, out with my kids, at work, just a comfortable companion of sorts.
But this year my depression began to ebb and the result was I couldn’t write and I found myself in this weird place of desperation wanting so much to continue my story and thinking that the only way to do that was to have an epic relapse. What do you wish for? Sound mind or access to your gifts? It’s a shitty place to be to feel like you have to choose between the two.
But the reality is at this moment while I write this (aside from the anxiety of outing myself as someone who really has had some deep dark days with depression) I feel really good. I feel better than I have felt in a long time and I AM WRITING.
I am proof that the way we condition ourselves to perform is something that can be changed. If we need to make a change in any part of our life we can do so with intention and with small changes – for me it’s going to straight to the laptop and skipping the famous napkins of my depressed and manic past and in making this change in how I create I am retraining my brain. I am teaching myself that I can create within a positive context. And my brain will relate the keys on this keyboard to a successful writing project and that will lay the ground work for long term change.
So how does this relate to you, my reader who likely isn’t a writer and who hopefully isn’t affected by depression as severely as I have been. Well, I guarantee there is something positive in your life that brings you joy and that it is born out of something that is not in your best interest. Maybe you love your children but your relationship with your spouse causes you pain, or maybe you love getting your paycheck each week but your manager makes you feel like you are not good enough for a promotion or maybe, maybe you love looking in the mirror at how good you look in your jeans but you know you lost the weight by starving yourself.
You see each of us has something good in our life that is born of something bad. But I can guarantee you that there is a way to keep the good and remove the bad. I promise that if you can create a tiny nuance of intentional change to eradicate the bad that will ripple across the entire experience of your life and begin to reinforce a healthier way to maintain your joy and achieve new goals.
Today, and hopefully for a long time to come, I will be able to write meaningful and moving content and stories without my insides hot and crawling with anxiety and despair. I know this new way of writing might be challenging at times but I also think allowing myself to learn how to create when I am in a good headspace will provide me with many more writing days than I ever had before. Just think of the possibilities when we create small changes with intention and commit to new, healthier foundations, everything is possible.