Ill Lit

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Ill Lit

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aug 19, 2007, 11:51 pm

Ill Lit

What role does mental illness play in the creation of art? What role does mental illness play in the life of the writer? Do you strongly identify with other writer/artists who share your mental illness?

In order to write about this topic properly, I suppose it’s necessary to identify my own mental illness. I have super-rapid-cycling, mixed-state manic depression, coupled with OCD. What this means is that, while many with manic depression experience dramatic mood shifts every few months or so within a year, usually offset by latent periods, my cycling can speed up so that I can have drastic shifts every few minutes. The “mixed-state” means that, while manic depressives are usually either manic or depressive, my own particular variant can be either or both simultaneously.

When experiencing both mania and depression simultaneously, I generally lose all orientation. I do not know where I am, or who I am, or who the people around me are. I’m unable to move, but my thoughts are racing so quickly that I can’t hold on to them long enough to articulate them. I weep uncontrollably and senselessly. I have no ability to speak or control myself.

According to the doctor I recently began seeing, manic depressives are something like ten times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. In my case, the figure significantly increases. Suicide has been tangible to me since I was a child, and, again according to the doctor, most people with my condition, who have gone unmedicated through their lives like myself, have already killed themselves and it’s a miracle that I’m still alive.

Coupled with the manic depression I have OCD, which, put together, causes me to have both visual and aural hallucinations. I remember my first hallucinations: I think I was five. I sometimes look in the mirror and there is a monster glowering at me. Voices tell me to do terrible things. And generally it’s very difficult for me to know if something really exists or not. Because of the hallucinations, I had previously been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but the new doctor claims the hallucinations are not psychotic, but only created because of various obsessions. I don’t know if he’s right, but I like the diagnosis better.

In any event, I am now on a mood-stabilizer, which has helped me, I hope, think and write more coherently and consistently. But, to address the questions above: what role does mental illness play in the creation of art?

For me, it plays a large role. When I am manic I read and write furiously, and my abilities are amplified. When I’m depressed, I can’t move or think or care about anything. When I’m in a mixed state, I’m not human. So, a large part of the creation of art is governed by my moods. Yeats has a short poem I love called “The Moods.” I’m writing from memory, so read it on your own if you want, because I may make mistakes.

“The Moods”

Time drops in decay
Like a candle burnt-out,
And the mountains and winds
Have their day, have they day.
What one in the rout
Of the fire-born moods
Has fallen away?

What I love about the poem is the struggle between nature and humanity, and, though my take my be auxiliary to Yeats’ intention, or to the poem’s meaning in general, I’m deeply moved by the way the mountains and winds, the force that is nature, seems to rush at us because of the anapestic nature of the line. I always see Birnam Wood storming Dunsinane.

And, for me, that’s sort of what my life is like. My nature, my genetics, are trying to kill me. But, if I take medication, the person I naturally am is lost, and he can sometimes be good to be. This struggle over whether or not to take medication is common among manic-depressives and, I would imagine, others with mental illness. To take medication is to admit you are sick and that you are weak. No one wants to think they are sick or weak. Pride can kill you.

But there are deeper implications to the medicine question. If so much of our life is governed by nature, if DNA factors so greatly in our identity, then our personalities are not our own, they are nature’s. And, it follows, our actions are not our own, they too are nature’s. The problem is that, somewhere along the way, free-will dissolves into nature, and we are no different from beasts. If we can’t choose to make ourselves who we want, if we can’t choose to change, there is no hope. What is hope but the belief you can change your life?

So, I have to disbelieve that my DNA is responsible for my actions. Which is difficult, because my going crazy has ended every relationship I’ve ever had and, during the process, I’ve greatly injured those who love me and whom I love. But, in order for me to believe my life is meaningful and that there is hope, I choose to believe that I’m the monster who has ruined my own life, meanwhile taking medication that, if it functions, proves me wrong. I acknowledge that I manipulate myself to stay alive. I think it’s Kafka’s story “Before the Law” which has a sentence near its ending that says something like, “You do not need to believe it’s true, only to believe it’s necessary.” I choose to believe (in a Jamesain pragmatism that contradicts my usual personality) something entirely irrational, knowing all the while it’s likely just a hoax I’m playing on myself.

Of course, these philosophical questions factor into my writing. These questions influence my work greatly. And I think they influenced, in various manifestations, a lot of other manic-depressive writers: Roethke, Dickey, James Wright, etc…all of them, when I read their work, I view as writers trying to convince the world, and themselves, that they exist: their poems are the enactment of their trying to be.

For that reason, and for a lot of others, I do strongly identify with their work. There is a ferocity, a tenacity that I feel there, a sense of urgency that, at least to my eyes, is often lacking from more sane types. Henry James would never gouge your eyes out to prove he had hands.

In terms of my life as a writer, again my mental health factors heavily. Because of my condition I’m constantly starting over, moving on, leaving destruction behind me (sorry if I’m being overly dramatic and absurd…my life is overly dramatic and absurd). The greatest problem of life with manic depression is that no one can help you. When it sets on, I disappear, and the people in my life try to help, but can’t, and therefore feel helpless and begin to resent me for making them feel helpless. I don’t blame them. But, because of this sort of incremental repetition in my life, I never have a home for very long.

And I force myself to believe in the importance of the hunt. I start every semester teaching “Whoso List to Hunt,” and try to instill in my students, largely because I need it instilled in myself, that without the hunt, without the seeking, one turns complacent and back-slides out of being toward anonymous sub-stratum. I’m abrasive. Many people don’t like me. I’m very hard on myself and often very adamant in my arguments for what I believe, all the while conscious that I may or may not actually believe what I’m saying, but also knowing that I have to believe it.

Someone whose work has meant a lot to me is Franz Wright, son of James Wright. Franz is a gentle and sweet man, and a wonderful poet, but his entire life he’s had many of the problems, in whatever form, that I’ve had. And he’s been the only poet I know of who has written with such humor, with such grace, and with such hope about being manic depressive. I identify very strongly with his poems, and I really owe a lot to him. For any of you interested in mental illness and poetry, I highly recommend his books. My favorite is The Beforelife.

But, to conclude (I think I’ve gone on far too long already), my writing very much reflects that in every place I am a stranger, and I most identify with other strangers like me.

aug 20, 2007, 12:15 am

You said of Roethke et al:

"when I read their work, I view as writers trying to convince the world, and themselves, that they exist: their poems are the enactment of their trying to be."

This rings very true to me. You have stated their brilliance beautifully. Perhaps I am attracted to their work because, for different reasons, my work is an "enactment" of my "trying to be." I wanted to call my novel WHAT I'M SAYING because I'd been silent so long. The publisher said it was a bad title, so I had to let it go.

I think some of the books we share are Franz's. Have you read Wright's letters, recently published? He wrote the sweetest letters sometimes to Franz.

And Franz really is gentle, sweet man.

I gain strength from his poems, as well as his father's, and Roethke's (especially). I see that life can be hard, but there are ways we can carry on, good ways, meaningful ways.

You have said much in your post. I want to think about it a while and I will post here again (and again, and again).

Thank you for your willingness to share.

aug 20, 2007, 9:04 am

I believe that people who have some form of mental illness do see the world differently and want to share that vision. Part of the appeal is that they can open the eyes of others giving them new insight. My ex was a writer/poet/musician/ lyricist/electrician etc. whose bi-polar disorder meant that no matter how brilliantly creative he was, he never finished anything he started and was too insecure to perform publicly, so he self-medicated. He perhaps was also mixed state as his mood swings could shift hard within five minutes from leaping joy to doom and despair. As a result he was perpetually unemployed, frustrated and destructive. Despite repeated urging from family to accept professional help, he agreed to attend counselling, but refused medication in the belief that it would ruin his creativity. He finally finished a degree in psychology after our marriage ended. Because his psychiatrist kept billing my insurance company, I did discover that he finally succumbed to medication management. Now years later, I Googled him to discover that he's become successful in working in a creative field and was apparently able to manage his illness to maintain his creativity and develop a stable career helping others develop their artistic side. I'm not sure where I'm going with this other than to say that wildly creative people have a gift.

aug 20, 2007, 9:14 am

I think that intelligence and insanity go hand in hand. The problem with intelligence is that you see things that other people do not see and it drives you crazy. True lovers of knowledge cannot hoard this knowledge for themselves and become frustrated when other people cannot understand them. As such, art becomes their medium of social interaction. And in this case art can be anything ranging from numbers to science, etc. Art is just another name for the manifestation of imagination. And our imagination pervades our lives in every way. As an 18 year old 'crazy' individual who has attempted to commit suicide when I was 15, I came to one truth: it is the world that is crazy and not me. The world is so screwed up and hypocritical that it tears a hole in my heart everyday. However, I have realized that it is up to me to either succumb to this craziness or face it directly and live!

Redigeret: aug 20, 2007, 5:49 pm

--Do you strongly identify with other writer/artists who share your mental illness?

Depression is prevalent, yes? I agree that often intellectual & creative gifts are accompanied by mental illness. My hope is to transcend it by doing what it is I'm supposed to be doing. What I mean is, I think much of the psychic pain comes from trying to fit in where you don't fit and be like other people when you're just NOT (sorry for the caps, I haven't figured out how to italicize yet). Artists often require specific environments and protections, etc., and if that is not understood...disaster ensues. So, I believe that being true to one's own nature is a path to sanity.

But I do not want to downplay the havoc your own brain can wreak on you without any help from outside. How are you supposed to cope when your mind takes in information faster than you can emotionally process it? Or when you FEEL things that others don't? Or when you're just more intense?

These are questions I work on everyday. A book I recommend is The Gifted Adult by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen. It helped me see that my problems are not unique to me and that there are other ways of channeling my energy than being pissed off and depressed.

For the record, I am medicated for depression and adult ADD, the latter is a relatively new diagnosis (that's a whole other topic - is it REALLY a disorder?). But my shrink feels that the depression is a result of untreated ADD. (shrugs, eh) Who knows? Weird thing: when I first went on the ADD meds, I was writing constantly, almost uncontrollably. That's why I don't want to go off of them.

Redigeret: aug 21, 2007, 2:23 pm

So little is now known about the human brain. I have heard that that the brain will be the new frontier in medicine in the 21st century.

I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker recently about people who had been brain damaged and ended up having an uncontrollable urge to play and to write music. They dreamed of music at night, wrote music in their dreams, and obsessed about it all the time. They bought instruments and started to play. These were people who previously had expressed little or no interest in music. Another thing that happened to them was that they felt closer to the sacred aspect of themselves and expressed that they felt more empathetic toward others.

This amazed me. It shows an intriguing correlation between music and worship, for one thing. A correlation between empathy and art.

aug 21, 2007, 8:07 am

Re #6 TheresaWilliams:

I do not find this surprising at all. I think that the very nature of any art demands that we are empathetic and merciful. When we bare our souls and write music or write fiction we cannot contain it. It's like it bursts out of us with such force that we must share it with the world. When I listen to John Coltrane I can hear his soul. I can hear the conflict within his spirit. He wants me to hear this, he wants me to empathize with his struggle.

Art is a re-creation of life, so it only makes sense that artistic people would be more in tune with the best aspects of humanity, it only makes sense that we would be merciful. Art takes the world as it is and shows us how it could be!

aug 21, 2007, 2:25 pm

#7 bigal123: Beautifully expressed--thank you. I like how you say Art is a re-creation of life. In essence, Art is Life. I also like that you say art and artists are merciful. I never would have thought to use that word. It's a good word.

sep 18, 2007, 11:51 am

I knew it was no accident that I followed the bread crumbs to this topic. I am bipolar and when I looked at JMatthews page I felt that aha! of recognition. I needed to post before I explored further, but I hope to spend a lot more time here. Librarything is becoming a sort of refuge for me and I hope to find a shelter with this group.

sep 18, 2007, 3:19 pm

#9: Welcome! We hope you will post here often. We look forward to what you have to say. Feel free to start new topics also.

sep 26, 2007, 5:02 pm

It is true, many artists are also insane. It is also true that many artists are not insane. I think they share a trait of porous awareness, which allows stimuli to be noticed in an acute way.

My ex is bi-polar and sociopathic. He is also extremely artistic, but never expresses his art. I believe he would find a tremendous source of coping if he did. I think mental illness and artistic ability can come from a fluidity of boundaries.

sep 26, 2007, 6:04 pm

Porous awareness - what a great way of putting it!

The New Yorker recently published an interesting article about colic in babies. Apparently, no one knows what causes it, but according to one theory it is related to an unusual level of sensitivity to sensory experiences. For example, people who were colicky babies are more likely to be annoyed by hats. My husband and I were both colicky, and neither of us are big hat-wearers. My husband often cuts the tags out of the backs of his shirts, and I've always disliked knit caps because of the unpleasant feeling of static electricity in my hair.

sep 26, 2007, 10:00 pm

The colic and hats thing is really interesting. Similarly, there's a correlation between childhood strep throat and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which I just think is incredibly strange.

sep 26, 2007, 10:38 pm

Margad: the recent studies about the relationship between the brain and the gut have been of great interest to me. Apparently they share a great deal in the way they work. They are now calling the gut the second brain.

I also like the term porous awareness and fluidity of boundaries.

sep 26, 2007, 10:39 pm

Windy: I also like the term porous awareness and I also like fluidity of boundaries.

sep 28, 2007, 12:16 pm

JMatthews, I find it interesting that you equate taking medication with admitting you are weak. I'm a diagnosed depressive, child of a wildly cycling manic/depressive. I fought going to the psychiatrist for years. It was only after my mother died and I literally could not get out of bed, endangering my child and my marriage, that I went. When I said those words to her she said,"What is weak about admitting you have a problem? What is weak about going out and finding help? I think a person has to be very strong to see themselves, see they cannot do this alone and find someone who can light the way a little." Those words have given me comfort for over twenty years, through things I hope never happen to anyone.

I think there is a certain amount of DNA that causes many physical and emotional attributes of a human. I'm a short red-head, the only one in my family, a throw-back to my great,great, grandfather. I'm prone to developing skin cancers. I've had seven removed in the last ten years, non of them life-threatening. I also, as I mentioned suffer from depression. Now, I cannot do anything about any of my inbred traits, except be aware of them and take precautions. I take my medication every day. If I were a diabetic would I be weak for taking insulin? I consider my depression to be the same. I Am Not Responsible For It. I didn't choose it and twenty years ago I made the decision to take back my life.

I realize your situation is much more severe than mine, but your ability to voice your fears and face yourself tells me that you can take back your life too. Don't give up,the doctor, the medicine, this site or your art. Your genetic material cannot run your life, you can.

sep 28, 2007, 12:50 pm

I concur with everything you say Siubhank. I am bipolar and learned the hard way that I must take medication for the rest of my life, but I can control what kind of a life it is. I am trying to help a niece who has been diagnosed bipolar at a younger age than I was to accept her diagnosis and realize she needn't give up her goals for herself. Thank you for your post!

Redigeret: sep 28, 2007, 1:22 pm

Yes. I agree with 16 & 17.

1. Like siubhank, I view my medication as analogous to insulin for the diabetic or the puffer for the asthmatic. We don't need to put the illnesses between our ears in a separate category for the purpose of judging ourselves more harshly. I had to educate myself and my own mother when I went through the severest depression of my life several years ago and one way I made it through was by not judging myself as weak, which I was very tempted to do. But it only makes things worse. People who don't understand your struggles can be harsh enough when your behavior doesn't conform, don't make it easier for them by joining the chorus.

2. It is your question that seeks the connection between mental illness and art. As an artist, by definition you think and feel differently. Don't forget that the majority of the customs, institutions, etc. of our society were created by nonartists. If you don't meet their behavioral expectations, that's no reflection on your strength, but on your individuality.

3. There was time when every thought I had hurt. If I was awake, I was in pain. I couldn't even foresee the day when that wouldn't be the case. I had no real concept of what that would feel like. I had forgotten the times in the past when I wasn't in pain. Now, most of the time my thoughts don't hurt and, looking back, I see the amount of strength it required to get through every single moment of every day and not give up. The point is, I wasn't weak at that time, even though I may have felt it. I don't think most people have any concept of how hard it is to put one foot in front of the other when your brain is holding you hostage. It takes enormous strength. Every day that you make it through is a testament to your will. Remember, the people who may judge you as "weak" would be knocked on their asses if they had to carry what you do. Medication just lightens the load. Why carry what you don't have to?

I'm not implying that happy pills make everything better, but they can help. And I think we can all use all the help we can get. That's smart, not weak.

sep 28, 2007, 2:09 pm

#17 you are certainly welcome, I hesitated a while before posting, no matter how long I live with this, I'm still a little shy about throwing it out in front of everyone, I've got badly burned a time or two.
#18 I think you said it better than I. I remember that pain, that feeling that I was moving more slowly than the rest of the world. I used to get up at 5AM so I could walk out the house by 8:30. No one, including me at the time, knew how much energy it took just to get showered, blow-dryed and dressed.

As to the connection to Art, I'm an artist myself. I've been writing for years, I could paper a room in rejection slips, but that's OK, I'm working my dream instead of moaning about it. I've taken up an interested in touchable art in the last few years. Finally have room enough and time...I build wooden art pieces. I draw plans, cut, (power tools Grrrr) paint and assemble. I've sold a couple of pieces, but that's not the point. The point is all these things live inside my head and when I make them real, it takes them out of my head and leaves room for other stuff. Don't know if this makes sense, but I feel my medication has freed me to be more creative, I don't have to monitor myself constantly. Sometimes I can even just live.

I agree, those of us who are artistic are *different*, to rework a time-worn old saw we not only walk to a different drummer, we've got an entire other orchestra.

sep 28, 2007, 3:38 pm

I envy you all who have found an artistic outlet for those *different* ideas. I have an abundance of ideas, but because I suffer from something I've been told is fear of success (maybe perfectionism) I have yet to find a channel for creativity. For instance, I feel I would only be a successful writer if I were published. How have you solved this problem (if it has been a problem)?

sep 28, 2007, 8:08 pm

What do you mean by published? Does it have to be a NY based conglomerate that everybody's heard of or can it be some small or local press where the people that read your stuff might be your friends or neighbors? I had a friend who published her poems in the local weekly newspaper. People would stop her on the street to tell her how much they enjoyed her poems. To me, that is being successful. A lady from a writers center I used to go to paid a local press to have a book of her poems published. She was able to give copies to all her friends.
Now, people post their stuff on the internet. There is a reward in having a printed copy of your work in your hand but there is well, O.K. almost as much satisfaction from published W/O payment as there is from getting the big bucks. Almost.

sep 28, 2007, 9:28 pm

I, too, have suffered from fear of success. Or something - I think it's a little more complex than that brief descriptive phrase would imply. For several years, while I was writing my first (still unpublished) novel, I would lie awake at night and call myself a self-important fool for presuming to imagine I could be a writer. I had terrible trouble advancing beyond the first few chapters of my novel, because every time I sat down to write, I felt compelled to revise everything I had already written in order to correct various glaring inadequacies. I would go through periods of binge writing, staying up until 4 a.m. because I was afraid if I didn't get the next sentence down I would lose my train of thought forever, and then not write for weeks because I was exhausted and not "in the mood."

I just kept slogging on. I would argue back to myself, reminding myself that lots of perfectly normal people are writers and that, objectively measured, I did have skill and was developing greater skill as I kept writing. Working with a "critique group" of other writers helped me gain objectivity and see what I was doing well already and where I needed improvement. It also gave me the extra motivation I needed to produce work at a steadier rate, so I would have something to bring to the group at every meeting.

I still feel I would not be a successful writer if I were not published. By now, I've published a number of short stories and magazine articles, and I have an agent who is looking for a publisher for my most recent novel. Nevertheless, being unpublished is not an indicator that someone should give up. Every published book was an unpublished manuscript for a significant length of time before it was published. And most writers publish their first work only after producing a stack of manuscripts that will never be published.

Writing is a form of communication, so most written work is not really finished until it has a reader. At the same time, I write because I love the process of putting my ideas and imaginings into words. I would still do it even if an infallible prophet came and told me nothing I wrote would ever be published. I guess that's why I was able to keep slogging on until my work finally reached a level of polish that began making it publishable. Gradually, the denigrating self-talk dwindled and my confidence rose. I publish fairly regularly now, several times a year, and feel like a professional even though I don't yet make a lot of money at it.

Keep playing around with your ideas, hinsdaledog, and you'll find your creative channel. Go where your joy takes you.

sep 28, 2007, 11:18 pm

Okay, I'm bipolar and I hate the insulin analogy.

I dunno.

The average diabetic never has to convince himself - beg himself - have his parents beg him - to take his insulin.

And I think I've suffered more than the average diabetic. And I don't like the idea of that being downplayed to try to help people understand.

sep 29, 2007, 1:29 am

I sure wish Jim would come back. I miss him. I would love for him to write on some of these topics. Jim, where are you? What do you have to say about perfectionism, success, and the writer?

My class has been studying Whitman of late; he revised Leaves of Grass his whole life long. And the huge audience he had envisioned for it never materialized. He died in 1892 and just a few short years later, the modern poets changed the course of poetry, pronouncing nature poetry to be irrelevant. Other than Hart Crane, no one relied on his widom for many years, not until Ginsberg's Howl. As Donald Hall Remarked, the modern era and new criticism could not find a place for Whitman.

Yet most of us would say Whitman was successful. And then there is Emily Dickinson who wrote in secret for years, publishing hardly anything at all. Her poems were not published as she had intended them to be read until the 1950s. But we think she was successful.

Then there is Thomas Builds the Fire in the short story collection by Sherman Alexie who says it doesn't matter whether or not anyone will listen to his stories: "It doesn't matter," Thomas says, "as long as I keep writing my stories."

sep 29, 2007, 1:31 am

#23 The purpose of the analogy is not to compare the degree of suffering, but to illustrate that there should be no moral judgment attached to either illness. :-) And diabetes can lead to renal failure, blindness, the loss of one's feet and coma. It's no picnic either.

sep 29, 2007, 1:34 am

BTW, since this is a thread about ill lit, does anyone have a theory as to whether or not Whitman was bi-polar? Jamison suggests that he was in her book Touched With Fire.

As a creative writing instructor, I work with many students who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, such as depression and bi-polar disorder. They all say it is a difficult situation. This is where I try to point them to writers like Theodore Roethke who struggled with bi-polar for years and still wrote poetry that won every major poetry prize there is. In fact, I would say that his poetry, his journal keeping, and his teaching were all a salvation for him.

sep 29, 2007, 1:35 am

#21 and #22: persistence is all.

sep 29, 2007, 1:38 am

#19: We are glad you are here and are delighted that you are willing to share aspects of your condition with us. I know that it must at times be a hard thing to talk about. But I definitely am interested and am thankful for all that you are willing to share.

sep 29, 2007, 5:16 am

Around the time I left off posting regularly, my meds quit doing much in the way of helping, and I started drinking as a way to save myself. I’m still not back on meds, so forgive me if my thoughts are not cogent, but I’ll attempt to voice an opinion on some of these issues.

I think you’ve missed the manifest philosophical problem of admitting nature governs identity. My problem is not so simple as admitted I am weak; rather, it is admitting that I do not have control and am not responsible. If I am not responsible, if I do not control my actions, then my actions are meaningless. Furthermore, when am I not governed by brain chemistry? At what point am I acting, and not my biology? There is no way to tell. So, in order to salvage the value of my actions, of any action, in order to believe there is anything I can do which is not a farcical enactment of some force beyond me, I choose to disbelieve that my brain chemistry governs me. If I believe brain chemistry makes my decisions for me, I am not a man. I am an animal. This is not machismo, or pride, but a fight for existence, which is to say: I know I’m weak, and I deal with that, what I’m fighting for is not strength but the foundation of my own humanity.

Your comments on pills interest me. Personally, I feel that, if I take pills, which work through an interaction with brain chemistry, and they so much as dull my problem, I’ve admitted that chemistry governs man, thereby rendering will a moot point. There is no will if chemistry governs us: there is only nature. My fear of pills is that they will make me better and, in doing so, prove my existence meaningless.

“Many a best seller could have been prevented by a good writing teacher.” - Flannery O’Connor….Publication is not a sign of success. Creative expression should not be about any sort of material “success.” Rather, I think, it’s about personal, subjective success: the success of being honest with yourself and striving to be better than you can be, striving to learn the truth, pitting yourself against yourself and, more intrepidly, all history. When you let go of external evaluations of merit, and forge internal evaluations, creation becomes much tougher, and much more rewarding, I’ve found.

To be a bit more in depth, and more personal: there is no such thing as success for me, in the sense that we think now of success as having done something completely, having fulfilled its possibility. As a writer, dealing with an inherently flawed mechanism (language) there is no such thing as perfection. I tell this to my students every semester; then I proceed to point out flaws in Shakespeare’s sonnets. While I’m certainly a bit presumptuous to do so, I think that understanding the fallibility of humanity, and subsequently human creation, is essential to engaging literature or the self on any substantive basis. There is no perfect man, no perfect writing. There are sections that poems that seem impeccable: this too can be a flaw. The thing is, there’s always something missing, something lacking, something to be desired: so to evaluate success as, say, a businessman would is self-defeating.
The only success a writer can have is to create to the best of his/her ability, having gone as deeply and thoroughly through him/herself as humanly possible and given the utmost to the creation. It is never enough. But that is all the success I’ve ever had: publications, awards, prizes, money…these mean nothing. If they did, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott and all those Nobel winners would have nothing to keep writing for. They don’t write for respect, or cash, or anything other than the process of writing itself, the exploration, the discovery. To succeed as a creator, as an artist, is to discover what you didn’t know you knew.

Perfectionism in an artist, I think, is essential. Art is about the highest standards for one’s self, and, yes, artists are different from the average person because the artist, at least the great artist, refuses to excuse himself, to let himself off easy. The great artist never flinches. He relentlessly pursues something beyond himself. The average person looks to be content with the way they already are.

But we can’t let ourselves be governed by fear. The artist has to be intrepid, has to put herself out there, risk it all, take the leap and actually create. The artist has to put herself up against Shakespeare and try to go all twelve rounds. When perfectionism stifles the creative impulse is when we expect too much too soon: no one can expect to pen their first play and turn out Macbeth. You have to be bold enough to fail, to be not good enough, to find out you aren’t Shakespeare and then to keep going. Essentially, I look the abyss in the eye every day, and, though I’m no great artist, I think I would not even be the meager talent I am if I turned my head; and if I let my fear of failure look through me I’d never write a word.

It is bold for me to write what I’ve written: it’s presumptuous, foolish, maybe even narcissistic. But writing is all of these things: it’s an attempt to be as honest as possible and a willingness to put forth the best you can do for other people to judge. Most of us aren’t good enough, never will be. But that’s no reason not to try. I’ve always liked Flaubert’s quote, “Being a writer is a dog’s life, but it’s the only one worth living.” I tell myself he’s right anyway.

Thanks, Theresa, for thinking of me. I’m sorry to have been absent: I’ve had a pretty rocky go of it lately.

sep 29, 2007, 9:22 am

JMatthews, I'm glad to see you back as it was you who led me here in the first place. I need to reread your post a few more times, but at first reading I wonder how it feels to lay out your thoughts without knowing to whom you are talking. Is it easier in a forum like this than in conversation with more immediate reaction and feedback? Thanks for coming back.

sep 29, 2007, 11:29 am

To all, you've given me many things to think about. I've got to mull these posts over, especially yours, Jim. So don't worry if I'm not here for a bit. I have to write this out and most of what I will write would be unpleasant to impose on others. I may pop in with a comment, but, I've got to order my thoughts so they are clear to myself, before I can make them clear to anyone else

sep 29, 2007, 1:48 pm

I am not an artist, although the Great American Novel has been rattling around inside my head for ages. It's trapped in the time bubble known as mañana. I once heard Jim Lehrer on a book tour talking about one of his books, and the thing he was most proud of was "I kept my butt in that chair day in and day out until it was done". I just don't have that level of will power and long-term concentration. When I write, I either write long, rambling, stream of conscious diatribes that are basically cathartic that I never want to see again, or I write the same sentence over and over, trying to get it just right before going on to the next one. When I do finish, I don't remember where I was going and have to quit. Writing with purpose is excruciating for me. this kind of stuff is fun. As anyone who reads my prose on these groups can tell, I could probably get my writing mechanically correct with lots of practice, but without talent, the ineffable that separates authors from writers, I will never be the kind of author that I would want to be, JL's author driven beyond self into that zone of transcendent word.

I just finished reading a book for one of my groups, Deep South that was a pot-boiler, page turner, typical genre fiction. (One thing I learned in the Literature department of my university, UTD, is the proper pronunciation of "genre fiction" contains a certain tone of disdain, mixed with aloofness, as if genre fiction is to literature as Archie is to Pogo). Anyway, It came to me that as with everything else, there are Just two kinds of people in the authorial world, those who write to honor the word, and those who write for the bucks. If I had the requisite desire to do it, I would write for the word, the honor of reaching for the untouchable. There is nothing wrong with writing for the bucks, but if you do, don't hope to be confused with literature. Once again, pure entertainment has as much a place as does a work wrenched from the guts of the author, but don't confuse it with greatness. It's just that the shallowness, the wooden characterizations, the lack of interior awareness, the rush of the prose are not my style. I would much rather read and savor The Golden Bowl than read The DaVinci Code or a Harry Potter. (Touchstones not loading).

OK, Ill-Lit. With the exception of ADD or ADHD (I was known as a daydreamer as a child), I am, as far as I can tell, devoid of psychological problems. Thus, writing, rather than providing relief, just irritates me more. This brings me to wonder if folks with psychological problems find that writing is some kind of purgative, or an act of exorcism of their personal demons? Does writing relieve some kind of psychological pressure that is somehow related to mental well-being? Is writing a coping mechanism?

I know some great authors felt that unless the demons were active, the juices would not flow (to use a cliché). Is this what you'ns find?

sep 29, 2007, 3:51 pm

Count me out on psychological; I only claim physical/chemical (bipolar).

sep 29, 2007, 7:05 pm

#29 Personally, I feel that, if I take pills, which work through an interaction with brain chemistry, and they so much as dull my problem, I’ve admitted that chemistry governs man, thereby rendering will a moot point. There is no will if chemistry governs us: there is only nature. My fear of pills is that they will make me better and, in doing so, prove my existence meaningless.

These are complex statements, implicating serious issues, so I've given them serious thought.

A few issues jump out at me, being informed by other statements and questions you've presented in other posts:

1) what impact does mental illness have on creativity and vice versa? The artist fears the loss of art and self through the process of healing and in the state of wellness. How much of the art is the demons?

2) when a person possesses -- let's use the word "exceptional" --exceptional gifts in the areas of, for example, intellect and creativity, what kind of relationship can that person negotiate with influences outside of himself, in this case with chemicals prescribed to effect brain function. A person with a gifted mind has a very intimate and sensitive relationship with that mind, and has to be careful. This relationship is complicated by the fact that there remains so much unknown about the mind, generally and personally, and the difficulty of seeing oneself objectively.

3) And somewhere in there is the question of personal will.

These are issues that I have considered, in great detail, for many years. I can only tell you what approach I have come up with and hope that you find something useful. This is very personal and I am not completely comfortable sharing it, but if it's helpful....

There are certain beliefs at the base of my approach:
+ Any given characteristic, trait, ability, etc. of a person is a neutral element.
+ The value of the gift is determined by its possessor, according to the use to which it is put, and which aspect of the gift is emphasized. The possessor chooses the use and the emphasis.
Believe me, these beliefs were not easy to come by.

The first question is whether I know what I want: what am I striving for, how do I want to live, what do I want to create, etc?

The second question is a question of faith, it is whether I believe it is possible to realize these desires. It is important to me to always answer this question in the affirmative. That's my will right there. I don't let any person on this planet tell me I can't achieve something that I intend, including myself. Does this mean that I will always accomplish every intention exactly as I intend? No. I am not delusional. But the dream is enough to get me up and moving every day. If I fail, I now know that I am strong enough to handle it, to reassess and move forward. How can I know this? I have hit what I believe is my personal rock bottom and I survived it. I have seen hell, I've courted the devil and escaped. The devil was inside of me. (I trust that everyone realizes that I speak metaphorically.) I know the signs of when I'm getting close, and that's when I drop everything and do all in my power to reverse my course. If I had not escaped I would be dead. That is a fact. And now I know for certain that I do not want to be dead. And I don't ever want to get close again. That's why I choose to take the pills and to make other decisions that support my health. If I had died, I wouldn't be writing anything anyway. Would I write better if I were severely depressed? I don't know. I really don't think so. I'm not going to take the chance to find out. The role of chemistry is not to take my control away, but to act as a tool to give me the psychological space to figure out how to use my creativity to accomplish what I intend. Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to be okay and not be on medication. Maybe I won’t.

I don't want to imply that I am "cured." I'm not. I have accepted that I never may be, but I decided that it was possible to push the demons away and, thank god, it was. It's not easy. It's not simple. But I believe it's worth trying.

I wish you luck.

sep 29, 2007, 7:41 pm

#34: The devil was inside of me. (I trust that everyone realizes that I speak metaphorically.)

I once went into a doctor's office and asked for an exorcism. Sometimes I'm not entirely clear on whether it is metaphor, when I say Satan's in my brain. Clearly, since I don't believe in God or Heaven or Hell, I shouldn't believe in Satan. But that son of a bitch that gets into my head during the depressions deserves the name, even if he is just a part of my chemistry.

Anyway. Apparently the devil gets around, is what I wanted to say.

Redigeret: sep 30, 2007, 2:34 am

JMatthews, Citygirl, I think you are both very wise, though you have made different decisions, and may come to still different decisions in the future. One of the things I have learned in life, and am still refining my understanding of, is that each of us is an individual, and while we can learn from others' experiences, what is right for one person may be exactly wrong for another. Also, what is right for us at one time in our lives may be exactly wrong for us at another. This doesn't make decision-making an easy and simple process, and a lot of people want decision-making to be easy, to be the kind of thing you can just stamp out with a cookie-cutter.

I'm always intrigued by what isn't reported when I read newspaper reports about various medical discoveries - there's always a certain percentage of patients who improved on X drug vs. a lower percentage who improved on Y drug - but what about the patients who didn't improve on either? Or the patients who didn't improve on the "more effective" drug but did on the "less effective" drug. Our culture always seems to leap to the conclusion that X is a better drug, when in fact, it's only a better drug for the people it works for. And what does "improve" mean? For example, one person may just want pain relief no matter what, while another person would rather tolerate a certain level of pain if having it relieved would mean feeling sleepy all the time.

I do think we are all both chemistry and will/spirit/person all the time. What is eating, after all, but adjusting our body chemistry? Meditation does the same thing. Anything we do affects our body chemistry. I would agree that modern drugs tend to adjust it in a particularly unsubtle way, but I don't believe they cancel our free will - which is always limited even under the best of circumstances. We don't have the free will to fly, for example, or to stop breathing. Personally, I would never take an anti-depression drug no matter how depressed I got (at least I don't think so), but not because I feel I need to manage my moods through force of will. Rather, it's because other things (like acupuncture and managing my diet) work better for me, and I have so many allergies and sensitivities, I'm afraid drugs might do me more harm than good.

sep 30, 2007, 9:05 am

Jim, i get so much from your posts. Thank you for continuing to post here.

sep 30, 2007, 4:18 pm

#36 each of us is an individual, and while we can learn from others' experiences, what is right for one person may be exactly wrong for another. Also, what is right for us at one time in our lives may be exactly wrong for us at another. This doesn't make decision-making an easy and simple process, and a lot of people want decision-making to be easy, to be the kind of thing you can just stamp out with a cookie-cutter.

margad, I think you're right. These questions are so complex and each of us has such a unique experience that we have to figure out, as individuals, what the right answers are. We can try to learn from each other and apply what makes sense. The good news is that there is much to learn from, here and elsewhere.

sep 30, 2007, 4:35 pm

Depression lurks in our family. For years the only name I knew for it was "The Nothingness" - a blank void that waited to obliterate - it could have been a character from a Steven King story but the name I gave to the feeling was from a Capt. Marvel comic strip. Depression & I grew up together.Instead of "Taking to my bed" as so many of my female relatives had done upon entering their 40's, I was saved by science. Its name "Prozac" & we have lived together ever since. Along wioth Depression, ADD & I the case of our oldest daughter, Asperger's. Her adolence was a disaster, but her piano playing, Organ, Keyboard & French horn were amazing. She married another musician & I raised her daughter. The daughter she had by a 2nd. man was raised by his mother. She disregarded medicine & self-medicated with pills & alcohol. Sshe lives in CA. she came home for her sister's funereal, & lost it, but all the rest of us were also lost.
This isn't what I started to write about. The message is doing what ever we can do to make it through the day. Because we were born with a creative gene, those of us posting here have this urge to write down words, on paper or computer screens & impart some aspect of our vision of the world to other people. So we scribble away & mostly it's like no one pays attention to us, but every now & then, we make contact & WOW! We want to do it again. However it is not magic. We don't wave a wand, we work. Hard work sometimes.
Geneg's example of Jim Lehrer "Keeping his butt in the chair until it's done" is a good one. But we have to get out butts into that chair. & pick up that pencil. It isn't always easy under the best of circumstances, but if you don't apply the butt to the chair & the pencil to the paper nothing happens. And that is where I was, struggling to get the words down & the dinners cooked & noses wiped when Prozac came along. It helps. Man, does it help! If I have to take a pill in order to stay out of bed & at the typewriter, then that is what I will do & I will bless the scientists & docters forever for making it possible. If someone tosses you a life presever do you say no, no artificial remedies for me - my art is pure. BS! Thin of all the artists that died young -- wouldn't they have appreciated a 2nd chance? Maybe it won't solve everything, but whatever gets you through day. So that you can write again tomorrow.

sep 30, 2007, 4:37 pm

Denne meddelelse er blevet slettet af dens forfatter.

Redigeret: okt 1, 2007, 1:58 am

Geneg's example of Jim Lehrer "Keeping his butt in the chair until it's done" is a good one. But we have to get out butts into that chair. & pick up that pencil. It isn't always easy under the best of circumstances, but if you don't apply the butt to the chair & the pencil to the paper nothing happens.

So true - and applicable to so much of life besides writing. Not everyone is meant to be a writer, but everyone has challenges in life that can only be met with determination and persistence - and hopefully also a sense of fun along the way.

okt 1, 2007, 2:35 am

margad, yes, fun. I think this group is having fun. That's one reason why I like it. Writing without pressure; it opens up a valve in the heart and joy seeps in. I was reading Roethke tonight, and again I was struck by how the poems waver between doubt and pure joy. I think many people live for those moments when their writing takes them past their troubles and into the realm of joy.

okt 1, 2007, 2:38 am

Marian, I did not know you suffered from depression. I'm glad you found a way out of the void.

okt 1, 2007, 2:40 am

Jim, I am so glad you are back. I like your comment about your "desire." As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was reading Roethke tonight and came across that line of his about his desire. In essence, his desire became his will to live. His desire was his life. (I am glad you are feeling better, Jim.)

okt 19, 2007, 4:14 am

"But we can’t let ourselves be governed by fear. The artist has to be intrepid..."

Thanks #29 - (Jim) I love that word...intrepid.

There is a lot to take in on this thread and now I'm thinking it might be too early in the morning for a coherent response!

I am grateful for the candor and insight that I've found here. Perhaps I will come back with more later.