Weekly Musing: Madness and the Written Word – Part Two

Note: Part One can be read here.

Last week I explored the topic of writers, mental illness, and creativity. This week I relay my own personal experiences with mental illness and creativity.

I have gone through several periods of depression and have General Anxiety Disorder. I’ve been in therapy on and off to help me deal with both and to work through life events. I’ve also been on and off anti-depressants, been suicidal, and currently on anxiety medication. While I feel like I’m in a much better place, I see a therapist every once in a while when either my anxiety or depression or both flare up.

By now I recognize when either one or both creeps in to take over my life. The biggest signal is when my desire to write is too overwhelming. It’s not the normal writer insecurities and gremlins; it’s something far more crippling. My whole body seizes up. My breath is shallow. My heart races. I’m afraid of words and writing. Since writing is what I do, I find this upsetting. It’s not unusual for this feeling to last from a few days, if I’m lucky, to several weeks.

But in researching last week’s blog post, a study trying to determine if there truly is a link between mental illness and creativity caught my eye and got me thinking. The researcher discovered mental illness for some isn’t great for creativity. Schizophrenia, for example, doesn’t lend itself well for written word expression but can be useful for other artistic pursuits. Other forms of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, can greatly inhibit creativity when the writer is in the middle of a bad spell. It’s not until one feels better that their creativity can flourish.

From my own experiences, and anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be treated as gospel, when either my anxiety and/or depression take over it is pretty much impossible for me to write. I try and sometimes force myself, but my already overly analytical personality quickly dismisses anything written, any idea, as utter shit. Again, this feels different from normal concerns. It’s more intense and saps any joy or motivation to write. This in turns feeds my anxiety and/or depression and quickly I’m stuck in a giant cycle that is difficult to break.

Until early last week I felt as if I was the only one who went through this. Then I stumbled upon an Op Ed piece in The New York Times. In it author Julia Fierro relays her own recent experience where she admitted to an audience at a reading she’d stopped writing for 8 years due to battling OCD, anxiety, and depression. Like so many, she bought into the myth suffering fuels creativity. But for her it stopped altogether.

During those years she taught writing, conducted workshops, got married and had children, and ran a small business. She’d convinced herself clearly there weren’t enough hours in the day to carve out even a minute for writing. However, the truth was she needed to become well enough. Once she understood her mental illness was a lifelong condition and found the right medication, she was drawn back to writing. She rediscovered the joy of setting fingers to keyboard and her creativity flourished.

This was refreshing and freeing to read. It helped put my own struggles into perspective and lessen the extreme amount of guilt I feel every time I got through my own creative halt. Other people find their creativity lost when their mental illness acts up? You mean it’s not laziness? For me, and I suspect others like Fierro, it’s impossible to openly state, “Yes, I can’t write. Not at the moment.” After all Rule #1 of Writers Club is ASS IN CHAIR NO MATTER WHAT! A writer cannot simply come out and say this without incurring at least a few eye rolls and advice to write no matter how bad you feel.

Another thing I’ve noticed while my creativity is halted, I still do write. I just write more in my personal journal. And that is still writing. I’ll write in it for hours and usually daily. In addition to being therapeutic, journal writing helps me work through struggles and uncomfortable feelings. The act also frees up brain space gradually allowing for more productive thoughts. When I’m in a good space, I don’t write in my personal journal because I’m too busy working on my creative writing.

Over the past two weeks I have learned creativity and mental illness may go hand-in-hand in both a positive and negative way. Some are able to work through troubles and use the pain to spur their art. Others are paralyzed by it until they can get themselves in a good place. Either one is okay. What’s most important for anyone with mental illness is to get the care you need. Whether through therapy or medication or both, realize you do matter and that your health, both physical and mental, are important to live a productive and creative life.

Weekly Musing: Date Much?

One of the more puzzling pieces of advice given to writers, especially new ones, is to discourage the use of details which could “date” a piece. What this means are references to TV shows, movies, songs, people, books, dances, etc. anything which is considered a cultural reference. The reasoning is when future readers read the piece they will not understand any of the references and will stop reading.

But let’s stop and examine this piece of advice. Does it honestly make sense? No. No, it doesn’t. Not in my opinion and I’ll explain why. Think about all the books written by authors long dead set in a time period future readers would not have been alive for. Now think about the references to clothing, musicians, dances, people, what have you. Did you ever feel this dated the story enough you couldn’t even begin to understand what was going on? I daresay your answer is “no.” Why? Because it’s the story and characters you make a connection with more than knowing (or not) who Scott Joplin is or what a farthingale is or how the dance the Twist goes.

Now let’s look at our own lives. Are there bands or singers you love which pre-date even your conception? Are there old movies and TV shows you love? Is your favorite book written by Jane Austen? Love to dress up and go to Renaissance Fairs? So, why in the world should writers refrain from tapping into the culture of its characters and setting? We all have a favorite something from long before we were born.

Adding in cultural references characters would know doesn’t “date” a story. It gives the reader a little more insight into what kind of people the characters are. For example, say a book is set in the 1990s. One character is into classical music, but maybe his or her best friend is all about grunge. What does this tell us about these two people? How could two people with such divergent musical tastes be best friends? What else about characters is so different?

Cultural references also add depth to the story’s setting beyond just physical background. For example, a story is set during apartheid South Africa. In addition to describing the living conditions of characters, having a character listening to the radio, noting his or her favorite songs, or reading a book by a particular author allows the reader to get inside the mind of the character.

As a reader who enjoys historical fiction and has read some of the classics, there are frequently references I don’t understand. My lack of understanding ranges from being ignorant to common, everyday terms to more complex references to history and people. Does this bother me? At times a little depending upon the level of detail I’m given or not. It’s not the culture I’ve grown up with after all. Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there were an easy way to be able to look up information! Oh, wait. There is. Off to the internet we go!

And that’s one of the main reasons why this piece of advice irks me and one which I wish would stop getting passed around. To me it’s very similar to not using big or uncommon words in prose. This idea that to do so slows down some readers is insulting and a bit much. If a reader honestly stops reading to look up a word or Google a reference and gets discouraged from reading on, that’s the reader’s problem, not the author’s.

If writers don’t add in those cultural references, it risks turning the story and characters into something generic, basic, and bland. Would anyone want to read such a thing? Personally, I don’t. How is a reader supposed to get to know the characters and see them as individuals? How can I better understand the world the story is set in if I don’t have details unique to it? As writers, let’s not be afraid of adding cultural details into our stories. At the end of the day it is our job is to tell a story and use whatever details which will bring the world and characters in the story to life.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Stravinsky Intrigue by Darin Kennedy

This month’s book review is the sequel to The Mussorgsky Riddle by Darin Kennedy. The Stravinsky Intrigue follows psychic Mira Tejedor as she is called upon to solve why little girls are suddenly leaving home only to be found unresponsive and in some kind of undefinable coma state. Also like The Mussorgsky Riddle, the answer seems to lie in the labyrinth mind of Anthony Faircloth. This time instead of being obsessed with Mussorgsky, he’s obsessed with Igor Stravinsky, specifically his “Firebird” ballet.

The book opens with Mira days away from making a permanent move to Charlotte to be closer to her boyfriend, psychologist Dr. Thomas Archer. In a few days her daughter will be joining her, but when the first little girl disappears and is found a day later in the middle of a park, not suffering from physical trauma but some kind of psychological trauma, her attention is diverted. Quickly she notices the similarity between the girl’s state and what happened to Anthony Faircloth the previous year. At first Mira wonders if Anthony somehow has something to do with it. The situation further escalates as more little girls follow the same pattern and a new possible suspect comes into play. With Mira’s contact with them and Anthony, she is soon sucked into an equally bizarre world as the one she was trapped in The Mussorgsky Riddle.

What I liked about this book is though it is a sequel, it’s one that lives up to the expectations set forth in the first book. Without the need to explain Mira’s abilities, the book is able to focus more on some of the supporting characters and tests the relationships between Mira and Dr. Archer and Anthony’s mother who is extremely reluctant to allow a much recovered Anthony from being dragged into the psychic link he and Mira have in order to help solve the case. All the characters returning from the first book are still interesting and develop further.

The twist in the book is well-done and Kennedy does a great job of getting the reader to question who is really behind the sinister plot. As you read you think it’s one person then another then you’re not sure at all until the twist occurs. It comes at a plausible point in the story without totally catching the reader off guard.

The pacing of The Stravinsky Intrigue is quite good though I think it was rushed a tad as more little girls turn up in the strange comatose state, but I don’t think the reader needs twelve different scenes. It would drag the story down.

Along with the pacing of the book, I think the ending was strong. Like the first book, it ties up the story and is not a cliffhanger as so often happens in a series. Though this is a sequel, it can be read without having read the first book. A reader doing that will not be lost, in my opinion. I actually like that as too often as a reader I’ve been frustrated to pick up an interesting looking book only to discover it’s not the first book in a series.

Overall, on a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Stravinsky Intrigue 4.5 pencils. A worthy and interesting sequel and I can’t wait for the next book.

Weekly Musing: What Fuels Creativity?

Note: Apologies for being MIA for over a month. Life had been intervening, not in a bad way, for the past several weeks. Things should be calming down enough to allow me to get back on track. Thanks for your patience.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been fascinated by creativity. Going as far back as elementary school I would watch behind-the-scenes specials of shows and movies. I was blown away by how special effects, storylines, characters, sets, etc. were created. As I’ve gotten older I am still fascinated by creativity in all areas from music to art to dance and of course, writing. To see other people’s expression is amazing. How did they come up with that? It’s awe-inspiring and intimidating to know someone’s mind works on a different level than mine.

To this day I still love watching special features and listening to interviews with fellow creative types to learn where their inspirations come from. Often I have wondered what sparks creativity and listening to others has taught me it can come from anything. Many joke without coffee or tea the muse will continue to slumber. Others joke without copious amounts of alcohol and drugs they are unable to create.

Beyond those stimuli, what really is the root of creativity? It’s this need, this want to express ourselves in whatever form fits. An individual’s life experiences also spur it acting as a healthy way for us to deal with emotions and events both good and bad. Seeing the world around us and wanting to process how it makes us feel also causes us to create. Some use their art to comment on what they feel is lacking or is too much of in society.

Obvious writing is my creative outlet. What drives it is it the only outlet I feel comfortable with and seem to have some aptitude for. What inspires me to create comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes it’s a show I’m watching. Sometimes it’s what I see going on in the world. Other times it comes from an internal struggle I’m going through. Other times I simply can’t put my finger on where an idea comes from; it just comes.

To me it is vital we all have a creative outlet. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees it and one certainly doesn’t need to pursue it as a career. Not to sound New Agey or full of “woo”, but without a creative outlet of some kind a person risks burying emotions clamoring to be released. Creating something, no matter its format, allows for such a release. Whatever drives your creativity, embrace it.

Weekly Musing: Bad Education

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

The above quote is attributed to William Faulkner and it’s a great piece of advice for both readers and writers. As a reader, it’s frustrating as hell when you read a poorly written book. Your rage bubbles up, you stop reading the book, or continue reading to see if by some miracle the author gets his or her shit together, or you throw the book across the room. Bad books make you appreciate the good books and the talented authors behind them.

I’d argue as a writer, you gain more benefit from reading bad books rather than good ones and the classics. I’m not saying reading only bad books; just realize they probably provide as valuable of an education as the good books. Yes, great books can show you how to really dig deep into your character’s soul. Show you the power and loveliness of the written word. Show you how to immerse you reader into a world they won’t want to leave.

But bad books have more value, in my opinion, because they don’t intimidate a writer. By being bad they can show you what NOT to do. Analyzing where you believe the author dropped the ball can boost your confidence knowing your writing is better than drivel not even worthy of lining a litter box. Use poor prose to push yourself to do better.

That being said, reading shit novels can also mess with you because you realize an editor, a publisher, an agent somewhere read a draft and went “Yup, we think we can sell this.” Some incredibly bad books have sold stupidly well, making their authors rich, while great books written by more talented authors languish.

As a writer when you read an awful book, carefully examine what about it bugs you. Is it the author’s use (or misuse) of the English language? Is it because the characters are underdeveloped and act inconsistently? Is the plot trite? Are you having problems visualizing the world? Is that world uninteresting? Are the descriptions laughable or confusing?

After asking yourself these questions and others you draw up, look at the answers. Use those to improve your own writing as you revise. If you use beta readers, pose those questions to them upfront so they know what to be on the look for as they read.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to apply analysis to everything you read. Trashy or bad books can be a joy to read, sometimes more than great books. Reading for the pure pleasure of reading is the same as writing for the sheer joy of it. Not everything written has to serve a deeper purpose and can be for the hell of it. At the end of the day, as long as you read you’re learning whether consciously or subconsciously.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson

This month’s book review comes courtesy of a murder mystery set on fictional Seward Island off the South Carolina coast. In Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson we meet interior designer Maggie Stewart who goes to Seaward for a much needed vacation and to re-evaluate her life. Within her first day, though, she discovers a dead body of a young art student. She clashes with the local sheriff believing he isn’t taking the cases serious despite this being the first murder on the island in quite a while. Deciding to launch her own investigation she enlists the help of several residents. Along the way she enters the first stages of developing a romance with one of the lifelong residents.

Murder Swings the Tide is extremely problematic. Everything from the main character to supporting characters to the plot to the prose to the pacing of the novel, it’s less than 200 pages, doesn’t work for me.

First, let’s start with Maggie Stewart. She’s incredibly irritating, egotistical, condescending, and judgmental. It was very difficult for me to buy her as someone smart enough to solve a murder better than the sheriff. For some reason she believes he’s not taking it seriously and is constantly asking him where he’s at with the investigation. She bugs him with her half-baked theories, all based on conjecture and no real evidence. It’s as if she’s watched watch too much “Law & Oder” and fancies herself some kind of expert.

In the beginning of the book she wasn’t too terrible. But as the murder investigation goes along, the more grating she becomes. For some reason she believes “employing” some of the dumber locals to help her makes sense. Never mind one of them is one of the most unreliable characters I’ve ever read. She’s incredibly judgmental upon meeting many of the locals, viewing them as stupid yokels. She shows her insecurity when meeting a lifelong friend of a guy she’s interested in. Immediately she writes the woman off as a bitch, she is overbearing and abrasive, and concludes the two are having an affair. As written there was nothing to suggest to the reader this is true. Not sure how she came to this conclusion no matter how many times he explains to Maggie the woman was his dead sister’s best friend.

The supporting characters are caricatures. Despite the author living in the south, she still writes many of the supporting characters as negative stereotypes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cast of characters we meet in the local bar (or saloon as it was referred to earlier in the book). Pretty much they are dumb white trash types who need Maggie to save them and show them they can do better in their lives. Even Maggie’s potential love interest is just a caricature; stereotypical rich guy from a well-established family who is firmly anti-development. He’s boring though I do appreciate he’s a nice guy.

The plot is ridiculous, again because of how much of a pain Maggie is. It’s completely possible for a non-law enforcement person to be a competent investigator. Plenty of mystery series feature such characters such as Miss Marple and Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey. The plot doesn’t work because the motive for the murder is thin and the person who committed it suddenly goes into psycho mode. There’s no evidence to support it, other than the scene where the killer pulls the “This is how I did it and if it weren’t for you meddling, I would have gotten away with it!” There’s an unnecessary subplot only vaguely related to the murder in that a couple of people involved she thought were suspects.

The prose of Murder Swings the Tide is incredibly stilted. Too many short sentences. Ordered oddly. As if Robertson was in the draft stages of the story. This doesn’t make for smooth or interesting reading. Descriptions are generic. The dialogue is often silly and makes little sense. When she tries to write in dialect for the locals, she makes them sound stupid and uneducated.

The pacing of the book is all over the place. It starts off at a reasonable clip, but then the last third of the book just plows through things as if Robertson was told by the editor to hurry up and just end it. Unlike a lot of mysteries where there’s tension, this book doesn’t have it. I never felt Maggie’s life was in danger other than in her mind.

Overall Murder Swings the Tide was one of those books I should have stopped reading. It’s a mess and doesn’t work as a murder mystery. One a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give it 1 pencil because there’s a puppy named Possum in it.

Weekly Musing: Critique Group Dos and Don’ts – Writer Edition

A component many writers groups offer are critique sessions. This is a time set aside where an agreed upon number of pieces, be they a short story, poetry, or chapters from a novel, are submitted to the group for feedback. While the person critiquing the piece has a responsibility to be honest and fair, the author bears some responsibilities when submitting the piece. Below are a few things I’ve noticed within writers groups I’ve been a part of. Seemingly simple things I wish every author would do as it would set up critiques to be about the content instead of other issues.

So here are some suggestions for an author when submitting work for critique:

Don’t submit an unedited draft – First drafts are garbage. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, doesn’t matter if you’re a published author or not, your first draft is going to be a tangled mess of ideas. Because you are still trying to figure out what the story is, it’s not the draft to submit to your critique group.

What I mean by unedited is at very least clean up the grammar and spelling as much as you are able to. Most writers struggle with grammar and spelling. There are plenty of books, websites, and classes to help improve.

If I’m reading a piece and I have to stop to remind you put a period at the end of a sentence, to capitalize where appropriate, how to use (or not use) a semi-colon, etc., then I can’t concentrate on the story itself. When it comes to the story itself please go through your rough draft at least once to organize your thoughts. Make sure scenes are in some kind of order. Submitting a draft and admitting it’s in no particular order, and it’s not intentional or experimental, is frustrating as the reader. It’s not my job to cobble together the sequence of events.

Format the manuscript in the industry standard – It is easy to find via a simple Google search of what Standard Manuscript Format – Short Story and Standard Manuscript Format – Novel  looks like. Often publishers will even include a link on their Submissions page. NOTE: Times New Roman or Courier New are the accepted fonts.

To make life easier for you and for any potential reader, format your work in the industry standard from the very first draft. You can even set up a template in Microsoft Word for this. As a reader it’s frustrating tapping the writer on the shoulder to remind them of something as simple as Standard Manuscript Format.

In addition to putting your piece in the accepted industry standard, make sure you understand how to properly denote a scene break. Sometimes I see blank lines in between paragraphs. I have no idea if there’s a formatting problem that wasn’t caught or if there’s a scene break. I know I’ve read several novels where this was how a scene break was noted, but the industry standard is three *, sometimes you’ll see three # used, centered with double-spacing before and after. Also, learn how to use Window/Orphan Control.

Clearly note chapters – I’ve read a few pieces where it wasn’t until several pages into the story I came to a page saying “CHAPTER TWO” that I realized everything I read up to them was chapter 1. For me this changes how I read and analyze the piece. When I read a short story I’m looking to see if it’s a complete story. When I’m reading chapters from a book, I’m looking for something else. Does this chapter tell me a piece of the larger story? Should it be in the novel and at this point? Is there too much backstory? Am I intrigued enough by the character(s) to keep reading? Make it easy on your reader, note those chapters.

 

Putting your work out there for others to read and critique is a nerve-wracking endeavor. Your heart beat speeds up. Your hands get clammy. Sweat breaks out on your brow and/or your armpits. Your stomach is in knots. It’s a big step as you let others see what you’ve been working on for months or years. To make it easier on yourself, put forth your best effort. Correct the grammar and spelling, format the piece correctly, and learn to self-edit. I want to focus on your story. I don’t want to be distracted by easy fixes, things all writers must learn to do unless you want your work to be rejected without being read. It takes a lot of work to edit and revise. For many writers it’s not their favorite thing in the world, but it’s a necessary evil. Make the critique of your work easier on yourself. Allow the reader to focus on the content and how to help you improve.

Weekly Musing: Madness and the Written Word – Part One

Note: This is part one of two posts regarding mental illness, creativity, and writers. Part one discusses what research has to say on the subject. Part two will relate my own personal experiences.

 When people hear the word writer most immediately think of a tortured, mad, insane, person who toils away in poverty. One day he or she dies, usually by their own hand, their art undiscovered and unloved until revealed to the world post-mortem. This gives the impression all artists, especially writers, must have some form of mental illness. After all we’re in a profession where rejection is the maddening norm, characters talk to us all the time, and we imagine new worlds. As someone who is both a writer and has both depression and anxiety I got to thinking. Is this really true? Is there some correlation between creativity and mental illness? Are writers a bit more off the deep end than the general population?

Curious, I decided to do some research and see if there were answers to these questions. After I poked around the internet and discovered studies have indeed been done I came to the conclusion the answers were mixed. Some psychologists and psychiatrists have used control groups to study the matter. Others have examined retrospectively the lives of famous authors, both those who committed suicide vs. those who did not, to see if there’s a correlation.

One of the first in-depth studies was conducted by Dr. Nancy Andreasen in 1987. In her study she used participants in the famous Iowa Writers Workshop and examined them against a control group. Her results indicated a higher occurrence of mental illness in the writers than the control group. In particular bipolar disorders, depression, and alcoholism were higher for the writers vs. the control group.

In 1997 Dr. Arnold Ludwig concluded people in artistic professions were more likely to have mental illness. In his study he examined several different artistic professions studying biographies published over a 30 year period.

Following the method of retroactively examining the lives of famous writers, Dr. James Kaufman also concluded writers, in particular female poets, suffered from higher rates of mental illness. In fact the rate of mental illness was so noticeably higher than male poets and other kinds of writers of either gender it earned the nicknamed “The Sylvia Plath Effect” after the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath who committed suicide at the age of 30.

But do these studies show a correlation between creativity and mental illness? Does one cause the other? Articles I read disagreed. Some believed yes, while others, including one written by Dr. Albert Rothenberg, argued against drawing such a conclusion. Yes, some writers fit the stereotype of “mad” writer, but for every Sylvia Plath or Ernest Hemingway there are writers like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Anton Chekov who did not suffer from mental illness. Was they’re creativity affected by not having a mental illness?

There seems to this tendency to romanticize suffering from mental illness as fueling creativity. We see it as people turn to drugs or alcohol to jump start the muse. Other may refuse treatment because to receive help will interrupt the fire of creativity. I need to be able to feel pain and suffering dammit!

But for others, having mental illness and it being the sole source of creativity isn’t the case. For example, depression and anxiety, when more active, seem to suppress the level of creativity. When the mental illness is being treated, the writer’s stress level is low and he or she is in a “good place”, creativity usually flourishes. Other kinds of mental illness, like bipolar and schizophrenia may help creativity.

 

While the evidence seems to lean toward writing, creativity, and mental illness going hand in hand, it’s vitally important for every writer to realize 1) just because you are a writer it doesn’t mean you have a mental illness, and 2) if you do have a mental illness, do not ignore it. Do not eschew treatment. Suffering doesn’t make a person nobler or stronger. Suffering does not equal great art. Your mental illness is not responsible for your creativity. You, and you alone are responsible for your words.