Paula’s Post #120 – December. A month when we are supposed to be happy. Full of Christmas cheer as we anticipate the arrival of Old Saint Nick and happy times with the family as we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. For those of the Jewish faith, this is the time of Chanukah, the festival of lights, and for those of West African heritage, Kwanzaa. All celebrations; all times of joy.
At least that’s the idea.
But as we know all too well, the spirit of the season collectively known as ‘The Holidays’ is more often than not, just as likely to be fraught with anxiety and depression as it is good cheer and joyful merriment.
Here at the 5writers, we’ve embarked on our own ‘season of angst’ with each of us battling issues, big and small, that seem to be getting in the way of our collective productivity.
If you read my colleague Silk’s post of yesterday, The Art of Course Correcting, you’ll know that as writers, sometimes we must face ‘painful truths’ about the deadlines we set. In our case, our collective realization that ‘the second time around’ we may not have had either the ability or frankly even the same enthusiasm for writing an entire novel in 5 months. In Silk’s words:
Because I know I’m not going to have this first draft finished by our 5writers deadline – artificial as it may be – of February 5th. It’s just not going to happen. So I polled the other 5writers, and it seems I’m not the only one whose productivity has fallen a bit short of where we all should be in our stories by now – if we want to be typing “The End” in exactly 60 days.
Rather than avoid the problem, deny the reality, guilt ourselves into a demotivated state of inertia, painfully wedge enough scraps of writing time into the holiday season to make up for lost time, or just give up … we are discussing a course correction, including a reset of our challenge deadline to April 5th. This would also give us more time for mutual support, including some in-progress critiquing and feedback, and virtual group meetings.
Paths to any goal in life, after all, are just plot lines. They do take twists and turns, with something to learn around every corner. And if you’re afraid to make course corrections, you may never get there.
In my case, I was particularly captivated by Silk’s reference to building in “more time for mutual support”. If you’ve followed the adventurers of the 5writers you’ll know that, more than anything, this is what we are really all about.
While I had to look it up to confirm, the current 5 members of our little writers’ group have been together for almost 6 years. That’s a pretty good run. Some of us have been together even longer. We started as a traditional critique group, exchanging pages by email, then meeting to critique each other’s’ work in day long marathon critique session. These meetings occurred on more or less a regular basis and though often left mentally exhausted, we almost always came away with fresh enthusiasm and dedication to our craft, each of us committed to becoming better writers.
Flash forward six years and we are struggling.
Although we started out strangers, we are now friends. Friends who, first and foremost, are committed to supporting one another, as difficult as that may be now that we live in five separate places in two different countries.
But that mutual support is what keeps me going, because I know another scary truth: writers are vulnerable.
In his blog, Electric Lit, Joseph Jaynes Roistano writes:
The idea that creative writing is linked to mental abnormality is ancient: Socrates argues in Phaedrus that poetry is a form of divine madness. The literary world has lost many of its greats to suicide: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few. But are writers actually more prone to mental illness—or is this a myth fueled by memorable anecdotes?
In the largest study on this question (including almost 1.2 million Swedish patients), researchers found writers to have more than double the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder compared to a control group of accountants. Writers also faced a greater risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.
Depression… anxiety disorders… substance abuse… bipolar disorder… schizophrenia – that’s quite a scary little laundry list!
Not content to rely only on Mr. Rositano’s research, I decided to delve a little deeper, discovering another blogger’s contribution and a coincidentally familiar sounding title: In ‘5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illness and the Impact it had on Their Art‘, Professor Kim McCann of Southern New Hampshire University explores the lives of five authors who not only ascended to literary greatness, but who, whether privately or publicly, also suffered from what were often debilitating mental illnesses: Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and, yes, not to be forgotten, Ernest Hemingway.
If there is a bright side in all this, at least we don’t write poetry. According to Ms. McCann:
In 2002, Dr. James Kaufman of California State University in San Bernardino conducted a retrospective study of 1,629 writers that showed poets — specifically, female poets — were more likely than non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. As such, the link between creativity and mental illness is frequently referred to as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”
What does this all mean?
The heck if I know! But if I’m honest, I also have to admit I’m not the happiest I’ve ever been.
Bipolar Disorder? Maybe, certainly mood swings.
I never embraced the idea of writing as a ‘lonely profession’, much less a lonely avocation. But quite frankly, right now, that is what it has become for me.
Up until a couple of days ago I was steeling myself for a grueling holiday season of lonely, marathon writing, envisioning a Christmas with the grandchildren where Nana locked herself in her room to write to deadline in an attempt to get back on course to complete my novel in 5 months.
But is this what we all want out of life?
Is this the cruise we’ve signed up for? I confess, I have a secret desire. A desire to poll the top 100 popular fiction writers – those committed to the ‘book-a-year’ deal with their publishers – and ask them, if they had it to do it all over again, would they walk down the same path?
One of the reasons we embarked upon our original five months challenge was to try to simulate the lives of these busy authors and the book-a-year schedule that demanded completion of a first draft in something under six months. Relentlessly, each and every year.
Well, having tried it, let me share with you what I’ve discovered: it’s haaaard!!!
Sure, sometimes it’s fun. In the heady beginning, when you’re fuelled by caffeine, adrenaline and enthusiasm, plotting and dreaming up exotic locales and fascinating original characters. But that ‘creative’ phase quickly wears off. Somewhere around page 80 or 100 or so you realize you have a long way to go. But by then, you’re already looking back and filled with overwhelming doubt about the choices you’ve made and the course you’ve charted.
That’s where I’m at now.
I’m depressed and filled with doubt. Right now, I don’t really want to take this novel any further down the line.
I long for the days when my 5writer colleague Helga and I co-authored a fun romp of a culinary novel, filled with wacky characters, luscious food and layer upon layer of plot twists. If one of us got down or depressed, the other was always there to put a positive spin on things and get our writing back on track. With culinary wiz Helga at my side, we used our husbands as test kitchen dummies and re-created the recipes in the novel in a series of spectacular Italian themed dinners.
I long for the days when my 5writer colleagues met on a regular monthly basis. For the days when, mired in the muddled middle, I had Silk and Joe and Helga and Karalee to ‘brainstorm’ a way out. Where we shared our doubts and our anxieties in a support group that was as much about real life as it was about writing.
Bottom line, this time around, I don’t think we 5writers have taken sufficient care of our mental health on this challenge. And I say this knowing that I’m not the one in our group facing the biggest challenges at this time. If I’m feeling this way, how must my other 5writers be feeling?
Pollyanna that I am, even I don’t believe that for every problem there is a solution. And this time around, I admit it, I don’t know what the solution is to the dilemma in which I now find myself.
If I’m going to continue writing, it is going to have to be fun again, because right now, plain and simple, it’s not. At least for me.
But I’m not giving up.
While there may not be one, all-encompassing solution, there are positive steps I can take that can help.
Step 1 – Balance: Was I really, absurdly, contemplating locking myself in a room this Christmas to write, write, write as carols were sung and chestnuts roasted on an open fire? Well to hell with that! Nix that. I will write if I feel the joy and the inspiration this holiday season, if not, forget it. If that means I’m not ‘a real writer’ then so be it, I’m at peace with that.
Step 2 – Read: Perversely, one of the huge disappointments of taking up the ‘writing life’ is the negative effect on the ‘reading life’. If I were to poll the other members of my writers’ group, I bet I’d discover I’m not alone. With only so many hours in the day, something’s gotta give, and that something is the joy of reading. This is not inconsequential: if writing is correlated with negative mental health, reading is correlated with positive mental health. The term ‘bibliotherapy’ first coined during the time of the First World War now encompasses a wide expanse of therapeutic approaches through literature. In this regard, I highly recommend Ceriden Dovey’s fine article published in the NewYorker, earlier this year, “Can Reading Make You Happier?”
For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of MRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.
Step 3 – Group Therapy. Okay, this one is going to be the the tough one. We 5writers have become most geographically challenged indeed. We’re not quite sure how we are going to get all five of us in a room together for an extended period of time. Admittedly, we may need to explore communicating by Facetime or Skype, but somehow or other, we all recognize that we are at our best as a group. Recapturing that group dynamic will not be easy, but we all feel the need to get back to basics, to get back to 30 pages a month, to get back to a soothing schedule of certainty and the knowledge that we are not alone.
So that’s my self-help prescription for ‘battling the monster’. How about you? If you’ve got any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you, in the meantime, I’m off to read a book.
Reading right now:
The Brutal Telling , Louise Penny’s fifth Inspector Gamache mystery.
A Banquet of Consequences, Elizabeth’s George nineteenth Inspector Lynley mystery.
Circling the Sun, Paula McLain’s reimagination of the remarkable life of aviatrix Beryl Markham.
How about you? Any suggestions for a little ‘bibliotherapy’.