Thursday, June 2, 2016

No One Can Tell You How to Be a Writer

Hi, there.

I’m Katherine Lampe. In the unlikely event that you’ve heard of me, you probably know me as the author of the Caitlin Ross Urban Fantasy series. Or as a loudmouth with no censor, who doesn’t balk at sharing her bathroom habits on social media. But you might not know I have Bipolar Disorder (Type II).

Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t balk at sharing the details of my mental health, either.

Bipolar II isn’t the “fun” kind of Bipolar, where you do things like blow your savings on fantastic money-making inventions or tell random strangers you’re a movie star incognito. That is, it isn’t characterized by extreme mania. When those of us with Bipolar II experience mania, it’s generally of a milder sort. The kind that lets you clean your entire house in a couple hours, which is useful, but not particularly exciting. The main feature of Bipolar II is debilitating depression, sometimes lasting years. The depression has its own rhythm. There are days or weeks when you can’t get out of bed. Then there are periods when you’re kind of functional. You can accomplish stuff that needs done, but all of it is drained of emotional content. Nothing’s particularly worrisome, but nothing is particularly enjoyable, either. Sometimes duty and expectation are the only things keeping you going, because you don’t want much. Nothing appeals and nothing matters. And when you accomplish something, you don’t feel any internal sense of reward.

About ten years ago, give or take, a bunch of stressors fell on my head all at once. I’ve been in a Bipolar depression ever since. And before you ask, yes, I’m in treatment. Without it, I wouldn’t be alive to write this. Medication alleviates some of the distress. It doesn’t make me normal, whatever that means. I have about as many good days as bad days now. Of course, on the bad days the good days seem nonexistent. And even on the good days, good feelings are distant. More an intellectual recognition of “Oh, I don’t want to die today,” than true wellbeing.

At the same time as I’ve been experiencing this extended depressive period, I’ve written seven novels, six of which I’ve published (the seventh is due out in August). I’ve also written and published a book of fairy tales and another of short stories, and I’m piddling around with a trio of related novellas. All without any motivation or feeling of gratification from the process.

Okay, there were those twelve weeks when I was manic and I completed two novels. That was pretty cool.

Until now, I’ve never really thought much about how I wrote seven novels in the state I’m in. The first one, I’d been plodding along at for some time. When the depression got bad, I abandoned it for years on end. Then a new medication started working, and one day I went back to it. Rewrote most of it. That’s when the manic period hit, and I wrote the next two books in the series. The mania left, and I didn’t write for another couple years. After that, I found reasons. Sometimes reasons within the series itself: an event that needed to happen, an issue that needed to be addressed. Sometimes it seemed like writing was the only thing I could do, the only thing I’m good at. When all else fails, I can still put words together, whether or not they matter to me. Maybe sometimes I was just telling myself stories as a kind of distraction from the dreariness of life. This last novel has been an absolute nightmare, by the way. It took me two years, and in the process I tried and abandoned half a dozen different plots and tossed tens of thousands of words.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter how I did it. I found a way that worked for me. If my way doesn’t look like anyone else’s, who cares?

Well, sometimes I care. I care when I see people post writing tips or blog about How to Do It. I have a bad habit of comparing my process to other people’s process, and when mine isn’t the same, I wonder if I’ve Done It Wrong. When a writer I follow on Instagram or Twitter mentions in May they’ve completed three manuscripts since January, I wonder what’s wrong with me. What essential quality am I lacking?

I know the answer. What’s “wrong” with me is, I have a mental illness. What I’m lacking is the normative distribution of chemicals in my brain.

Most of the lists of writing tips you see, most of the posts about “how to be a writer,” are written from a neurotypical perspective. An ableist perspective. (They’re often classist and sexist as well, and probably racist, but I’m white so I can’t speak to that.) When you’re struggling with a chronic illness, be it mental or physical, advice like “write every day” isn’t just worthless, it’s actively damaging. Well-meaning saws like “it’s not always going to be fun” or “don’t wait around for inspiration or the right moment” are meaningless when you never experience “fun” or “inspiration” and every moment is wrong. Saying “push through and get it done,” without considering whether your audience has the physical and mental stamina to push anything is insensitive at best. It really drags down those of us who write but are unable to follow the directive. It contributes to an already frustrating experience, and sometimes provokes us to overextend the few resources at our disposal. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a friend struggling with the balance of illness and writing say “I just have to knuckle down and do it,” knowing they can’t do any such thing, knowing they’re going to judge themselves later when they don’t “measure up.”

A lot of that advice comes from a capitalist standard where output at any cost is considered more inherently valuable than a person’s wellbeing, and where failure to make quota is taken as a sign of laziness or not trying hard enough. It relegates words to the category of product rather than art or expression, and it’s bullshit. If you perpetuate that standard (or suspect you do), I ask you, please, to check yourself and knock it the hell off. If you suffer from that standard, I’m here to tell you it’s okay to ignore it. The most anyone giving advice can do is tell you what works for them. Being a bestselling novelist does not make anyone an authority on you and your process. No one else can define “what works” for you. No one else can tell you how to do you, and you don’t have to feel guilty or beat yourself up for not listening.

Maybe you write every day for three months and then not at all for two years. Maybe you think for a week before every word. Maybe you don’t think about writing at all for weeks on end. It’s all fine. It’s fine if you finish things, and it’s fine if you don’t. It’s fine if you’re published and if you’re not, and it’s fine if you don’t care one way or the other. It’s fine if you want to write but health limitations mean you can’t right now, and it’s fine if you need to spend quality time with your cat. It’s fine if the stories go away. And you know what? If they never come back, that’s fine too. It’s a loss and a grief, maybe. Maybe it’s a relief. Whatever your feeling about it, it doesn’t make you, the essential you, worthless or invalid.

You have the moment in front of you. Nothing else. Do it your own way and screw the haters.

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