Depression and Writing

I was shocked when I came across a January 2010 posting from author Marian Keyes detailing the severe depression that has halted her writing. I like her books a lot, in large part because they have such surprising depth and heart considering how entertaining the stories usually are. I even reread Anybody Out There right after my husband died because I remembered how she got grief so right. But I had made all the same assumptions of Marian Keyes that I usually do of successful authors – she had arrived; she had it made; her life was charmed. She was livin’ the easy life on the good side of Writer’s River, while toiling schlubs like me were still trying to figure out how to cross over. To discover that depression had debilitated her to the point of barely getting through the day was to make her human.

Make no mistake – there is no Schadenfreude here. If anything, I feel a sense of kinship with Ms. Keyes, suffering from depression as I sometimes do and currently am. But while I’m sorry for her pain, I’m also grateful for her honesty, because I think it helps deromanticize the myth of creativity and depression. We like to glamorize the dark pockets of our writers’ and artists’ minds, equating great suffering with great art. But as Elizabeth Wurtzel says in Prozac Nation, “‘Madness is too glamourous a term to convey what happens to most people who are losing their minds. That word is too exciting, too literary, too interesting in its connotations to convey the boredom, the slowness, the dreariness, the dampness of depression.'”

With a grandmother who killed herself in 1965 (read Ila’s Gloves), depression is the darkest thread in my own family tapestry. And while my current bout with low-grade depression may not be the full-blown “howling tempest of the mind” of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, it has still brought all work on my novel to a halt, leached the creativity right out of me, and created the click-and-whir – the psychic noise pollution – that keeps me up at night. There is nothing gratifying, ennobling, or productive about depression. Maybe once you’re through the dark woods you can look back and describe the horrors of the forest, but it’s impossible when you’re in it, fighting to get through.

Heading for the Rocks

I’ve been struggling a great deal with the current WIP. The first draft is almost complete, and written in record time, but I feel completely disengaged from the protagonist. This has never happened to me before. Usually, my characters are very clear, very real individuals in my head, almost as if they’re people I know. Naming their favorite food, color, music, etc., is a no-brainer. With this project, though, I’m at a loss. The MC just won’t spring to life for me, and if I’m not finding her interesting, how in the hell can I expect a reader to? This is also the first time, however, that one of my story ideas hasn’t started with character, and I’m beginning to suspect that may have something to do with it.

Of course, while I’m forcing myself to stay interested long enough to get the first draft done, three other half-finished writing projects are calling to me, their siren songs trying to lure me away. This story, they whisper-sing. This is the story you were meant to write. Those other silly books don’t mean anything – only this one… And as we all know, there’s nothing more perfect, beautifully crafted, and gorgeously written as the project you’re not currently working on.

Incite a Riot!

For many years, I’ve been a seat-of-my-pants kind of fiction writer. Heck, I’ve even bragged about it, at times. You know the type of thing: “Oh, I prefer to be organic and let the muse speak to me. I couldn’t possibly be tied down to something as rigid and prosaic as an outline.”

Then I asked myself  “How’s that workin’ out for you?”
And the answer?
Let’s just say there might have been some tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth, and maybe even a little fetal position crying. Not well, in other words.

But, as my beloved Nina would say, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me. And that means smartening up and having a plan. At least a little one. In my research into this new endeavor (before I got too far along on the current project), I found a most excellent tic-tac-toe plotting method, which C.J. Omolulu beautifully explains in her blog. With zeal, excitement, and determination, I sat down to make said grid, only to get stuck immediately. Because Box # 1 – the “inciting incident” – made me realize I didn’t have a clue what that was. At first, it seemed perfectly straightforward. I promise you – it’s not. I trawled the Internet for several hours, only to discover hundreds of other people equally as clueless as I. While movie/play examples abound, none of them were really applicable, and in some cases, the definitions/examples/etc. were flat-out wrong.

Then I discovered Les Edgerton’s blog post on inciting incidents. Hallelujah! I have seen the light! The man is a genius, for not only defining the inciting incident very clearly (The inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the story problem to her), but also for so thoughfully analyzing others’ writing, and using an example that made beautiful, wonderful, writerly sense. Check it out. I bet you’ll be surprised. Or is it just me? Please share!

The Mystery of Great Writing

I had a heated discussion with Sassy Man last night about this sentiment of Hemingway’s. Hyper-logical creature that he is, Sassy Man thinks great writing is like a computer – you can break it all down into its parts to see how it really works.

I emphatically disagree. With any of the creative arts – whether it be painting, dancing, or writing – I think those works that soar above while at the same time reaching something deep within are un-dissectable. It’s a case of the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts, what they call “dancing between the steps” on SYTYCD. You can take a passage from a book, or even the whole work itself, and analyze everything about it down to word choice and sentence construction, and still not come up with why it moves you so. I’m torn on whether or not you should even try, although the best stuff does seem to be impervious to our chipping away at it. And isn’t that what Hemingway was saying to begin with?

Given the ridiculous number of writing books I have (future blog topic!), it might seem I’m being hypocritical here. I’m not. In always striving to improve technique, you are merely adding tools to your kit, so that when you do have that magic moment – that in-the-zone, this-is-it, I’ve-reached-new-heights breakthrough – you’re not waylaid by a missing screwdriver, as it were. But that magic moment is about so much more than the nuts and bolts and screwdrivers. After all, you can give the same exact toolbox and wood and pattern to ten different carpenters, but only one might make a chair worthy of Chippendale.