Tag Archives: mental health

tell me, what else should I have done?

prayer2

(Please note: there’s some mildly NSFW stuff in here. Not images, just words.)

I think should is a bad word.

My previous therapist and I talked a lot about should. It’s a word I overused and still do. It’s a word I used and use to beat myself up, to make myself feel guilty for not performing to my own standards and frankly to give the perceived standards of others way too much importance in terms of how I live my life. One of the worst things about that last is that often I’m not giving other people enough credit – they aren’t holding me to standards, at least not those. They’re not nearly as hard on me as I am on myself.

Very often the only person making me unhappy is me.

But should won’t go away. And it serves to drive me away from things that I enjoy, that I and other people find fulfilling, that I’m good at. Should tells me that doing those things is worthless and I should be ashamed of doing them, and I should keep it to myself regardless of how much they matter to me.

2015 was an especially bad year for me and should. All kinds of things happened that year that gave me wonderful new opportunities to be an asshole to myself. Probably the most perverse of these is that in 2015, I had the most remarkable writing experience of my life, and while I’ve stumblingly gone into it with individual people, I’ve been too frightened to talk in any seriously public way about it.

Because it’s not what I should write.

Continue reading

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

image by Rob Wanenchak

image by Rob Wanenchak

People love you. You need them. You can’t live without them. They help you. But in the end the only person who can make you well is you. – I’ll Be Yours For a Song

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but what kicked me into it now was two things. The death of David Bowie turned out to be a big one, and it was primarily sparked by what people were saying regarding what he personally meant to them: That he stood for the idea that it was okay to be weird and awkward and vulnerable, that outcasts have worth and value. That if you love what you do, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. And so many of my friends – and acquaintances/colleagues/whatever – are creative people and also people who have felt weird and ill-fitting for most of their lives.

Though I think a huge majority of people feel that way. I think some people are just better at faking that they don’t.

And the other thing was this post by Chuck Wendig on self-care for writers, specifically the part regarding shame.

I want to write about shame more some other time, because it’s something that I’ve been struggling with on a number of levels, and it’s been enormously difficult. But what I’ve especially been wanting to talk about is vulnerability, and being open, and not pretending to be okay.

Which I think too many of us feel like we have to do.

Continue reading

LABYRINTHIAN: why I stopped giving fucks and started writing porn again

tumblr_m3zddgC5b11rt2r0xo1_1280

My first paid sale ever was in 2009, a piece of flash erotica to Circlet Press for $5. It was a revelation: I could write stuff and people would pay me. More, I could write smut – something I enjoyed (and enjoy) doing and had been doing for years as part of the fanfic I was producing – and people would pay me. Everything that’s happened since – the novels, the short story sales, the best-ofs and joining SFWA and getting drunk at cons – is probably due to that one little $5 bit of porn.

(It’s been collected in a Circlet microfiction anthology, which will be out soon, so watch for that).

So for a while after that pretty much everything I wrote and sold was erotica, specifically erotica with a speculative element. Usually I was publishing through Circlet’s (fantastic) themed anthologies. My first non-erotic short fiction publication was months later, in January 2010, and it was to a little non-paying zine called The Absent Willow Review, which has since folded. In the fall of 2009 I and my co-author Lisa began the massive undertaking that would eventually become Line and Orbit, which is very solidly in space opera/science fantasy territory, so it wasn’t all porn. But that was a lot of it, and for a long time after, even once I branched out a bit, it remained the backbone of my writing.

Then I drifted away from it. There were a number of reasons for that, mostly to do with ambition. I beheld the big name SFWA-qualifying zines and I wanted to crack them more than anything, so I battered at them with my stories until, one by one, I broke through. I continued to write erotica here and there – especially when friends put out calls for specific projects – but for the most part my energy was going elsewhere.

But I honestly think there was something else going on, and that thing was a subtle sense that if I wanted to make a career in this genre, erotica wasn’t the “right kind” of writing for me to be doing.

Never mind that some of the best stuff I’ve ever read has had loads of sex in it. Never mind that I’m pretty damn good at it. Never mind that I owe it a huge amount – writing about sex taught me to write about people, about emotion, about the intensity and even the violence of intimacy. It taught me to write about ecstasy and transformation, and therefore ultimately taught me to write about death, which is something I keep returning to in my stuff.

Erotica gets a bad rap. I think some of it is that there’s a huge amount of it and it’s very commercial, which (somewhat correctly, in my opinion) leads one to the belief that a lot of it isn’t very good. But that’s true of almost any commercial writing. But I think some of it is that it’s often if not usually people who identify as women writing, buying, and reading it, and that’s obviously a point worth a degree of attention.

I think I came to believe that I shouldn’t spend my time on porn. That I shouldn’t put it in my short fiction (though thankfully I didn’t completely buy into that) and I shouldn’t put it in my novels. Not if I wanted to be taken seriously. Which I do.

Then I had a rough fucking couple of years.

I took and passed my PhD qualifying exams, which a few months later led to an emotional and mental crisis point that kicked me back into therapy and back on a fun array of medications. I wrote and defended a dissertation proposal which led, through the course of the next year, into months and months of anxiety and internal conflict regarding my advising situation and my relationship with my department. I began to question whether I wanted to work in academia, whether I wanted to finish my dissertation, whether I wanted to do any of this at all. In the middle of it I began a trilogy of fantasy novels (Casting the Bones) that’s been both rewarding and exhausting to write, in part because it’s been an arena for the exorcism of some demons. I was also dealing with some very painful and frustrating business surrounding the (still homeless) Line and Orbit sequel, and I wrote and then rewrote another book which I ultimately had to give up and shelve.

14794919024_73b09979e4_cAnd then, last fall, I just fucking had it. I was a thousand percent done. I threw up my hands, dug into the bottom of my Idea Sack, and wrote Labyrinthian in about a month.

I wanted to write something fun. Something silly and pulpy. Something wherein I abandoned the idea of Being Taken Seriously, where I allowed myself to get tropey as all hell, wherein I could play. And particularly, I wanted to write something with a lot of sex. Part of this was because books with lots of sex often sell decently and I happen to like money, but it was also because I like writing sex and goddammit, I’m GOOD AT IT. And I had no more fucks to give. My box of fucks was empty. The field in which I grow my fucks? You know the state it was in.

Labyrinthian is about a lot more than sex. It’s the story of two broken people learning how to be together physically and emotionally, but it’s also a story about trying to go home when you’ve lost all certainty of what home even is, and about trying to find family and simultaneously to find independence from the same. It’s about confronting death gracefully and about trying to discover meaning in life when your life is about to be cut short. It’s about rage and letting rage go, and all of these are things with which I wrestle every day.

But there’s also a lotta porn in it, boy howdy.

I’ve done a lot of talking in 2014 about how I’m trying to write about the stuff that scares me, the stuff I’m not sure I should be writing about at all. I’ve made it my mission to take anger and fear and ugliness and make something beautiful out of it, for myself more than for anyone else. So here’s what I want to do in 2015. Here’s my Writer Resolution, such as it is.

I’m going to write about whatever I fucking want.

url

(and here are preorder links for Labyrinthian if that’s something you’re into.)

One Foot After the Other: writing when things are generally shitty

from here

from here

I posted a couple of quotes on writing the other day, to accompany a Difficult Writing Time. I think everyone can sympathize with this, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves “writers”, because although too many writers like to get misty-eyed and emotional about how very differently important writing is from everything else, when you get right down to it, it’s work, and everyone reaches points with work wherein they just cannot even anymore, where everything is going wrong and nothing is easy and it all just seems unbearably crappy, and motivation has been eaten by a sullen cloud of horrible. But in those moments you don’t actually have much in the way of real options besides the simple task of dragging yourself onward, one foot after the other – not in front of, because that implies more momentum than you actually have – and trusting in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that things will get better, that they will somehow maneuver themselves back into where you vaguely remember them being.

Yeah, that’s me right now.

I should say at this point that I honestly haven’t once suffered from writer’s block in the half decade I’ve spent trying to write for money. I have not yet been locked into a period where I wasn’t producing anything at all. But I do go through long periods where I’m convinced that none of what I’m producing is very good, and often that feeling is actually correct, though it’s still something to be regarded with healthy skepticism. Interestingly, these periods often also coincide with the completion of large, long-running projects – usually novels – and I think that makes a degree of sense.

I used to think I would feel a sense of accomplishment upon finishing a novel, but as it turns out, at least for me, that’s not true at all. What I feel after typing the end is instead a kind of exhausted hollowness, an utter lack of any sense about what to do next. To be sure, there is a bit of YAY I’M DONE, but it never lasts more than a day or so, and then the blankness asserts itself. I had no idea what to make of that, until I took – and passed – my doctoral qualifying exams, and suddenly it all made sense. When you’ve spent months doing something very difficult – maybe doing it every day, maybe for hours – your brain, on a fundamental level, has no idea how to deal with the prospect of not doing it anymore. It panics and shuts down. It’s so burned out that continuing is more than it can deal with, but it’s forgotten how to function without that daily energy suck around which to orient itself.

I fell apart after my qualifying exams. It took me a few months – mostly because I had a semester of teaching to provide structure – but once that was gone, I broke down. We’re talking nearly-paralyzing-anxiety-with-sensory-triggers-trip-to-the-ER-back-on-meds-after-15-years level of breakdown. The point is that we need to be ready – as writers, as workers, as human beings – for our brains to be assholes, and for that assholishness to bleed into all aspects of our work, as well as to come from the work itself. Sometimes even from what looks, on the surface, like major productivity.

I don’t think that’s exactly what I’m going through now – though I did just finish not only a novel but the final novel in a trilogy – but I recognize something similar. Thanks to the loss of my departmental funding and some other things that fell through, I’m not teaching this semester. Next semester is also doubtful. I remain uncertain regarding whether I can finish my doctoral dissertation. I’m very angry at my department, my university, and academia in general, because I think that last is devouring itself and I hate being in a position to watch it happen. I’m now unemployed, and so far the job hunt is less than encouraging. On paper a lot of my life is still pretty good, but almost everything on which I’ve relied for structure and momentum and security – for nearly a decade, counting college – is going away.

That’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself.

It can be very difficult to write when you’re wrestling with emotional and mental issues – I think many people find it almost impossible when things are at their worst – and it’s certainly true that it can be so much harder to produce your best work when your head and heart are not at their best. But I’ve also found that writing can be a refuge when everything else is difficult, because at least writing is something over which I can exert almost complete control. I may not feel like I’m doing it as well as I can, but I can still create a world of my own populated by people I’ve made; I can invent my own escapism and retreat there, tell myself a story and – upon emerging – have something concrete to show for it. It helps. Sometimes it’s almost the only thing that does. Sometimes it’s what you need.

But then sometimes even what you create doesn’t feel like the right kind of escape. The joy fades and it just feels like work again, and it doesn’t feel like work you’re doing well enough to take real pleasure in.

And that’s where I am now: this thing on which I rely to keep myself together isn’t doing what I need it to, which means it’s just one more thing that feels like it’s slipping away, and that is so, so terrifying. Everything else I’ve accomplished in the last months and years – the books sold, the short stories published, the good reviews, the people who have said nice things, even the goddamn money – all fades into the background and provides no comfort at all, because none of it makes the words work any better.

So what do you do?

If you’re a writer – if you’re a person – you have two options: a) go fetal and cry, and b) suck it up and, to the extent that you can do so and still take care of yourself, keep going. One foot after the other. Drag drag drag.

I’m writing another novel right now – one of three currently waiting to be written. I have no idea if it’s working; I thought it was but now I’m really not sure. None of the prose feels like it’s smooth. None of the pacing feels sharp. The direction is hazy. I’m hoping that this – finally – will be my Agent Book, but I’ve also written less than stellar novels before, and I’m filled with dread that this might be one of those. But what else is there to do? I’m 41k words into it; I can’t really stop now. Drag drag drag.

I was talking to my friend and Long Hidden ToC-mate David Jon Fuller about this on Twitter the other day, and we were commiserating about the feeling that nothing is going right and none of what we produce is good. I said something to the effect of why the hell did we ever start doing this, and he said something that isn’t necessarily a big secret but is therefore one of those fundamental truths so obvious that it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it now and then:

He’s right. Nothing beats it, when it’s really happening. When it’s happening, it feels like the most amazing thing in the world. Get a taste of it once and you’ll never stop wanting it; call us addicts chasing the next high if you want, because that probably isn’t very far off. And maybe it does have some kind of deeper, broader significance as an act, maybe it has some kind of grand universal meaning, and maybe it really is something worth getting misty-eyed and emotional over, but me, I think it’s ultimately about healing, about getting well, about being alive. It’s about you, and me, and really no one else, not at its core. It’s about being reminded that there’s something good about existing, and that you can find that again, no matter how shitty things are, because your head is a house of treasures.

And that doesn’t make you special. It just makes you human.

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Tom Bissell provides wisdom on publishing

I’m currently working my way – bit by bit here and there – through Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, and of course, being Tom Bissell, it’s full of good stuff (it’s actually part of why I decided to put together A imageBrief History of the Future). And he has a wonderful passage on publishing and what it does to a writer’s brain that rings so true at the moment, given that I just finished up the second round of edits on Labyrinthian and Ravenfall comes out this month.

It’s nothing I haven’t heard before, actually, but it never hurts to hear it again, given my (perhaps incorrect but I don’t think so) impression that many aspiring authors either think it won’t happen or, when it happens, think it must be unusual.

To indulge, briefly, in further autobiography my first published book has just appeared in stores. The last year of my life – the year of finishing it, editing it and seeing it through its various page-proof passes – ranks among the most unnerving of my young life. It has not felt good, or freeing. It has been nerve-shreddingly disquieting. Publication simply allows one that much more to worry about. This cannot be said to aspiring writers often or sternly enough. Whatever they carry within themselves they believe publication cures will not, I can all but guarantee, be cured. You just wind up living with new diseases.

If one of the things you deal with in your life is mental illness, or emotional disregulation, this process will make that worse in almost every possible way.

And yet I do think it’s worth it, somehow, in the end. At least, so I’ve been given to understand.

An open letter to all the other writers who, like me, panic at midnight about being failures

time

The first thing you need to do is breathe.

Really, do that. Sit where you are and pull air into your lungs. Feel your body extracting what it needs and expelling the rest. Feel your blood collect it and carry it to all the other parts of you. Feel your pulse, feel the beat of your heart. Feel the firing of your synapses, if you can. Imagine all those little lightning flickers, and then imagine your brain lit up in brilliant rainbow colors as it goes about the endless process of making you who you are.

Reflect on how the myth that we only use ten percent of our brains is just that: a myth. Reflect on how you’re using most of your brain in some way most of the time. You are not a waste. You are not wasted. No part of you will ever be wasted. When you are done being you, every one of your atoms will go on to do something else. You will never run out of things to be, until the day when nothing is anything at all anymore.

So you’ve got all of that going for you.

Do you create? You’re a miracle. Do you create badly? You’re still a miracle, and just because you create badly now doesn’t mean you always will. Do you think you don’t create enough? You create as much as you should, and if you should create more than you do, you’ll find a way to do so. Do you have things left unfinished? You can finish them. If it turns out you can’t, you can’t. It’s not a crime. Forgive yourself for it.

Forgive yourself in general.

Maybe you love creating. Maybe, like me, you feel like you have to. Maybe you feel compelled. Maybe you feel empty and useless when you don’t. But that’s a lie. You are not empty, and you are not useless. You are full of wonders; you are a house in which every room brims with treasure. You are a cloud of interstellar dust in which stars are born. You are a strange and marvelous creature in a strange and marvelous universe.

And you are not alone. You are not unique. This is not a bad thing, because it means you are in good company. At this moment, feeling empty and useless and afraid, you are one among thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions that stretch into the past and extend into the future. And let’s have none of this silliness about creative people being somehow exceptional; everyone feels empty and useless, and no one is, and everyone feels alone, and no one is.

You think you will never be the writer you want to be. You’re probably right. Make your peace with that; it doesn’t mean that you won’t be extraordinary. And even if you aren’t an extraordinary writer, you are not a writer who is a person – you are a person who is a writer, and the value of your existence does not depend on your ability to put the precisely perfect number of words in exactly the correct order.

Breathe. Then get out of your chair and walk. Maybe go outside, just for a moment. Look up into the dark and think about where you’ve come from and where you’ll go to. Think about who you were when you were born and who you’ll be when you die. You were born into and of worlds, and you’ll die there. That in itself is something to celebrate. That you are here, in this moment, breathing and heart-beating with your wonderful head like a jar full of fireflies.

Now go back inside and have some tea or something. Pet an animal, if you have one. And go to bed.

All that we see or seem

307

Two things happened in the last month. The first is that I came out to my students – gender-wise, and my unconformity. The second is that I wrote a thing for my department’s newsletter about social media and how I use it. I didn’t realize those how connected those things were until about ten minutes ago.

There’s a third thing that I think might be behind most of that connection, which is that I will not be receiving funding next year. That in itself isn’t necessarily something to be angry about – I got more than a lot of grad students get, nationwide – but how it happened was, without going into detail, less than satisfactory, and I’ve been doing some major reevaluating about my place here and my relationship with this institution and what it all means to me personally. And what started as real anger has turned into a kind of freedom I didn’t expect.

I don’t care anymore.

Which, ironically, might mean that I can actually care about the right things for the first time in my entire graduate school career.

So  I came out to my students. I explained what “genderqueer” meant, and then I put myself up there as an example. I did it mostly in passing – an “and I’m that, so you know what that is already” – but it felt big.

It’s not the first time I’ve come out to a class, and it wasn’t the first time this semester where I used myself as an example. I’m a weird confluence of identity categories, exactly like most people: white, middle/upper middle class in many respects but growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood on a lower middle class income, born with a female body but not identifying that way in terms of my gender, sexually sort of all over the place, able-bodied but possessing a wacky constellation of mental illnesses, disorders, and cognitive disabilities. Whatever, nobody’s normal, we all agreed. There’s no such thing.

I had not yet been informed that I wouldn’t be funded. Maybe some part of me knew already that this semester was different.

It’s always an interesting question, how much of yourself you reveal to a class. How much of yourself you reveal to yourself. Coming out to someone about anything strange or uncomfortable makes that person into kind of a mirror; see yourself through their eyes and suddenly you might see something different. It might not be true, but it’s there. In my mid-twenties I came to an understanding of myself as genderqueer, but I’ve never been comfortable with gender, and I’ve never been comfortable with my body, and I’ve always felt like my mind was actively trying to hurt me. I’m not comfortable with anything. At all. Ever. But life has become a process of getting to be Okay with that, and talking about it to other people is part of how I’ve been getting there.

So then I wasn’t funded, and while I’ve been decoupling from Giving A Shit since my comprehensive exams, this finally kicked me away completely.

Abruptly I was saying everything. I was just talking. I told them a lot, in private and in the classroom itself. My final class, I sat on a table in front of my students and I told them the story of the last few weeks. I told them I wouldn’t be teaching again in the fall and how sad that made me. I told them how angry I was. I told them about how diseased higher education is, and about how increasingly their own institutions are cheating them. And I told them what I had realized, after many conversations with wise people: We don’t have to stay here. We don’t have to chain ourselves to failing institutions. We can make space elsewhere for the work we want to do. For some of us it’s easy and for some of us it’s so much harder, but we have to try. Those of us with power have to step back and empower others. It’s painful, this kind of self-confrontation.

But it was more painful to keep lying to them, and lying by omission is still a lie.

I’ve made 2014 the year I started writing my rage, and now I’m making it the year I stopped lying and started talking. I’m making this space aggressively, with my fists and my fingernails and my feet, with my tongue and my teeth. I’m learning how to live in my body. I’m working on not being afraid anymore.

I wrote this for the newsletter, among other things:

We’re taught that we’re not supposed to do that, to be vulnerable. Life teaches us this, but I think academia teaches it especially hard. When you’re in graduate school you’re highly susceptible to fear—What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to find a job? What do all these faculty think of me? How am I coming off? Does so and so hate me? Am I letting people down? Oh God. That kind of fear can break you, but keeping it inside for even greater fear of looking weak makes it even worse, and at some point I decided I couldn’t do that anymore.

It’s more terrifying for me, now, to continue to pretend I’m not terrified. So I’m going to stop. I’m going to dare to be a human being in the most public of ways. We’ll see what happens.

~

Sometimes, when I’m in a certain place in my head, I imagine slicing my chest open with a boxcutter. Somehow it’s sharp enough to pierce the sternum, and I pull my ribcage apart with my bare hands. A flock of crows explodes into the air. There’s never any blood. Inside I’m smooth and clean and full of whispering birds.