Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Talking the Walk (12)
Catching Up to Yourself (Part 2)
How did your wife’s diagnosis effect you?
Well, the long answer to that is the fourth section of the book: “The Lily Pond,” which became the title for the whole. The manuscript was originally just the first three sections. But after Heather got sick, was diagnosed...and came through a very rough time...after that, we agreed that I should try to write about it. Heather encouraged me to do so. In fact, earlier she had said she felt there was “something missing...another piece” from the story. That may have been partly her own premonition of illness. Which usually gives an advance aura of itself, and seldom, if ever, comes truly out of the blue. The short answer is that I was affected much as I imagine anyone else would be. I felt sadness, worry, fear, exhaustion. Bewilderment. Helplessness. My own history of mental illness gave me a general purchase on what was happening, but still...it takes different forms, poses new perils, in each person...even someone you know very well. No amount of preparation can make it predictable or fully understandable. You can’t tame it. You can learn a bit to manage the terror and bafflement, but you can’t erase them.
Was writing this book a catharsis?
I don’t know. I started writing it three years ago, and it was published three months ago, yet I still feel I’m coming to grips with it. Catching up to it, maybe. I think that might be true for a long time to come. Publishing froze the text at a certain point, but the processes it describes are still unfolding. One thing I’ve noticed, a mixed blessing: writing down the past gave more of it back to me, recalling things I’d thought were lost, making connections I hadn’t seen before...but that strengthened past now seems to crowd into the present more, bullying it at times. There have been moments of catharsis. It still feels like early days.
What is your advice to writers with bipolar disorder?
I don’t know that I have any general advice that would be helpful. Every writer is up against the same challenge (though the challenge may be more extreme in the bipolar writer): how to find the rhythms and processes that work for you. We're handed so many fantasy templates of what it means to be an artist–and we hand ourselves so many–that it’s an arduous task to keep recalibrating back to the basics: Yes, but what works for me? What tools and procedures actuate my talent, my vision? Experiments can be useful. I talk about one in the “Leavetaking” section. My psychiatrist noted that over the years I’d become resigned to my own productivity being geared to the cycles of illness: sleepless non-stop writing in the energized phases, wordless inactivity in the lows. And she encouraged me to question both assumptions: that quality work came only from the highs, and that nothing worthwhile could be accomplished in the lows. And numerically, empirically, she and I proved that the poles weren’t so clear-cut. That there was middle ground where much could be done...and done more surely, clear-headedly, than during a lurching, veering high. Still, I doubt I could ever be a steady, year-round producer. Mild depression is a workable state for a writer–even a favourable one for some parts of the writing process–but serious depression, which still lays claim to me regularly, is a destructive state to attempt work in. Depletion falls to even lower ebb if it’s not acknowledged. It’s a time to minimize, conserve...convalesce. In a fight where you’re being pummelled, there’s a time for the defensive crouch, to protect the vitals.
Was there anything you couldn't put in the book that you wanted to for various reasons?
No, I can’t think of anything. I felt free to say what I had to say.
You wrote “this is the first time for me as a writer that the period after writing has proved far more difficult than the writing itself.” Can you expand on this?
Full expansion might need a therapist and lots of hours, but here are a couple of ways I’ve found it difficult. Unlike other books, which have receded after being written, this one has remained “right here.” Because I’m “still living it,” as I’ve been reminded. But also, I think on some level, not consciously, I expected some resolution–maybe the catharsis you spoke of–from writing. Yet mentally I’ve taken some frightening tumbles this fall...episodes so bad, I’ve felt that no time has passed and I’m right back where I began. Despair, mental anarchy: these are timeless states; in a sense, they occur outside biography. All that I’ve learned gives me more means to manage psychological upheaval, but doesn’t prevent it. That’s sobering to realize. “There’s no cure” is an easy thing to say, to understand intellectually...but tougher to come to grips with as a lived reality. And there’s another difficulty. Giving talks this fall, reading from and reflecting on the book–I realize as never before how much of my life has been spent on the rat’s wheel of mental illness. Along with a strengthening sense of my own resilience, for hitting bottom so often and reinventing myself, there’s a corresponding sense of waste, of sheer destruction. So much time and energy–and how much else?–have been chewed up by that wheel. Time and energy that might have gone toward other things. These are autumnal thoughts, wintry thoughts. But it snowed last night, and it’s near the end of the year.
How do the poles affect productivity? You said they are not always so clear-cut.
Well, the simple fact I’m finally getting straight is that the mood in which you work is no accurate measure of the work’s quality. Euphoria colours things brightly; depression colours them darkly. But some of the glittering things lose their lustre if you wait a while, and some of the drab things gain. Of course, waiting doesn’t come easily if you’re on fire...and if you’re ashes, there’s nothing but waiting. Realizing there’s more middle ground than you thought is not the same as knowing how to utilize it. Rather than the two poles, here, very crudely, is the 5-zone range that I think I operate in: low...heading down/up...baseline...heading up/down...high. Good work is done in the stable middle and the transitional zones on either side. At the highest extreme, vast quantities are produced, little of it worthwhile; at the lowest, nothing can occur, it’s a dead zone. It helps to have things lying around at different stages of development, since the different zones have their characteristic energies. For example, the energized loose associations of the upper end are ideal for generating ideas and possibilities...but not so good for evaluating them. Mild depression, as I said before, may be sluggish at generating new stuff, but good at evaluating and revising. A degree of disillusionment and irritability could amount to sober second thought. Of course, there’s a world of subtlety and discrimination in that “degree.” That’s what makes this a living issue, which is to say endless, and not a science project. (Though rational experiment has its place. I describe an experiment my doctor prescribed for me in the book. In a manic burst one January, I’d written several dozen poems in several weeks. When that sputtered down, my psychiatrist suggested I try writing some more. I didn’t see any point to it, but gave it a go. And did manage to write a few more poems, though they seemed rather dull and workmanlike. Yet when it came time to finalize the contents of my collection A Thaw Foretold, the editor and I picked 6 from the frenzied burst and 5 from the assigned work. Considering the size of the starting pools, “a better hit rate” from “mild depression” than from “wild euphoria.” The conclusion seemed obvious: my perception of my ability swings more wildly than my actual ability. There’s a real oscillation of faculties, to be sure, but the pendulum swing of self-assessment is even wider and more erratic.)