Raising the Stakes

When my drug addiction was at its worst, the stakes were life or death.

Many years later, the stakes are still life or death.

But it’s different too. Back then, in the state of despair I was in, losing my life felt like a numb inevitability. My major regrets about the idea had to do with how it would hurt the people I loved.

Now, I feel as if there’s a lot more to lose. Through a process that has taken years, I’ve come to value the things I do have to give. I feel at least somewhat useful to my family and even my community. I have things I value so highly, and so sharply, that the thought of losing them makes the idea of dying before my time suck. Especially my writing.

I’ve been clean for more than seven years now, but I recently had a couple of brief bouts with overeating after being relatively sane around food for the past 2 years. Each only lasted a day or two, thank goodness, but it was enough to remind me of the insanity it brings. One thing I really noticed was how frustrated I felt not to be able to write or even think effectively about writing. The obsession, the fear of gaining weight, the shame…they were all there, but there was also the sharp awareness of a wall the binge eating had put between me and my creative self.

I have a richer life now; a more precious life to be destroyed if I make the choice to use drugs again.

Writing Into the Void

So, about that voice in my head saying civilization is doomed and there is no point to me writing…

I’ve been writing a lot, both poetry and prose. My nonfiction book is beginning to take shape in my mind as the segments I write start to arrange themselves in order and bring ideas as to what should go between them. It’s raw, it’s real, and I genuinely believe it will be worth reading. My first full-length poetry collection is taking shape nicely as well…neither of these things will be done soon, but they have a new level of form and reality.

Then I hear the latest lecture on climate change and nihilism crashes into me. We’ll all be dead soon. No one will ever read my work and it wouldn’t do them any good if they did.

Granted, those thoughts belong to the extreme end of the spectrum…not everyone believes in the very short-term extinction of our species. What is certain is that change is here, much of which is irreversible. Life will get harder, conflicts over dwindling resources will grow, and catastrophic events will occur.

So is there a point to me writing about the subjects I do? Why try to help addicts, or the mentally ill, or both, when the larger world is in crisis? Why does it matter, in the quick or slow apocalypse, whether John Doe stays off drugs or out of the hospital?

I start to drown in these thoughts, and must return to my most basic principle:

It matters to me.

Even if it’s only about how present people get to be for whatever happens, it matters to me.

Being conscious and capable of love matters. Suffering and dying as a human rather than a numbed zombie or cornered animal matters. Being in the mix, a member of humanity, instead of watching from the sidelines, matters.

Poetry to the Rescue

Last post, I wrote about being flooded with old memories as a result of nonfiction pieces I am writing. Fortunately, I know one remedy to feeling overwhelmed by a project: Write on something different for a bit. It won’t fix everything, but it helps.

So I took advantage of a little writers’ gathering to focus solely on writing poetry; specifically, the kind of writing that strives to be uninhibited and often leads to brand new drafts of something. Very raw drafts, but a thing exists that did not exist before.

A short project to rest from a long-term project. A project done for simple joy of creativity instead of the more purpose-driven work. And two brand new poems, hurray!

A change, a breath, an infusion of fresh energy. Checking in with the poetry part of myself that has felt a bit neglected for the past month or so.

I don’t know what the difference between a writer and a poet is. Maybe there really is none. But my psyche relates differently to what I think of as my poetry from the way  it does to my prose. Both are vital; neither appreciate neglect.

There’s more work for me to do. I still feel shaky and vulnerable and craving. But I did one positive thing, used one positive coping mechanism. Go me.

Flooded

How do we know when we’re writing too much?

It’s tempting to think they’re’s no such thing as too much. Maybe that’s true for some people, especially if the things they write cover a variety of styles and subject matter.

But this week, I’m conscious that I may be writing too much of a project too quickly. My nonfiction project contains many memoir-style pieces for the purposes of outreach, and I am working on some that cover a very dark time in my life.

My task is to convey, at different times, an authentic tone of what it’s like to be a practicing addict, to take doses of drugs you know might kill you and not care as long as you get high, to be deep in clinical depression or overwhelming anxiety, to be suicidal, to be convinced that suicide is the best thing you can do for those you love, to know that you have lost and drugs have won, to plan your own disappearance and death, to know that you deserve nothing better…

My task is to write it so well that an addict or a mental illness sufferer will identify strongly, while someone not familiar with the feelings will have a window opened to a bit of understanding.

Strong feedback I’m getting tells me I am at least partially succeeding in this. But there’s a cost: I’m writing it authentically enough to affect myself as well.

Floods of old emotions, ones that are always there but more in the background, wash over me. Old grief, guilt, and shame come up often. The otherworldly loneliness of that time echoes.

Too much of this is dangerous to my current mental health. I’m noticing hits to my self-care and changes in how I relate to my family.

These things need to be written…but I need to pace myself.

Fighting Fire With Poetry

Readers who don’t live in California may still already know this, but just in case–we’re on fire. Worse than ever before. Hundreds are dead and more hundreds missing. Ash and smoke have rendered the air bad enough to close schools and other things; masks are being worn for hundreds of square miles.

What do poets do at a time like this? We write, of course. We write about what’s going on–and sometimes, for our own survival, we go on writing about other things too.

Or we write about what’s going on, but indirectly. We write things that come from ourselves after we strain current events through the cloth of our psyche. Odd inspirations that come to us, or characters inspired by people we met or heard about.

I had an experience like this a couple of nights ago when I read a wildfire-related poem at an open mic. It was a strange one–for some reason, what came from my psyche was a poem about visiting a friend in the psych ward while the fires were burning, and about the way his mental illness was severe enough to cut him off from being able to feel or care about them.

But strange can be good sometimes–as I know I’ve said before, writing about the same basic things from a million perspectives is what poets do, because you never know which angle will touch somebody.

 

Why Feedback is Awesome

As you know, I am relatively new to the concept of showing my writing (especially prose) to people who actually express opinions about it face to face. It’s scary and empowering at the same time, it motivates me to complete writing goals, and it gets me excited about future projects.

Sometimes it does something even more important: when I share a piece with others, their response shows me positive things about it I didn’t see. I come away realizing it’s a better piece than I thought it was; that I’d blinded myself to some of its merit because of insecurity or lack of perspective.

Yesterday I brought another of my memoir-style prose pieces to the writing circle. I had struggled with this one; the kind of struggle where you sit, stare, type a sentence, stare, erase the sentence, repeat ad nauseam. I thought the completed chunk was not bad, but perhaps not up to the standards of some of my others.

They fucking loved it. One said it was their favorite so far. Okay….

So why didn’t I like it that much? And who is right? Ultimately, I have to be the final arbiter, because I’m the one who stands by the words and claims them as mine. But it’s good for me to give it a chance, to see if other perspectives help me warm up to something.

Seeing Strength

I spend a lot of time making sure I am aware of my weaknesses and limitations. Not (most of the time) in a self-critical or self-defeating way, but out of the necessity for managing my conditions responsibly. No one is helped if I take on too much and end up unable to do anything. So, through the years since the last time I needed hospitalization, I have worked hard on this.

Last weekend, though, I got reminded that it’s okay for me to take a moment to see strength. For the first time in nearly ten years, I attended my local Unitarian Universalist church. I used to sing in the choir there, and met some wonderful people…and, eventually, slunk away because of my insecurity and my worsening mental health issues. Already near-suicidal, I came away from every sermon more ashamed and more depressed, the calls to action and social justice reminding me how little I was doing for the world as I struggled just to stay here in it. 

I had considered trying again for a while, and on Sunday I got to see that things have, indeed, changed in the last ten years. The old tapes did play, often, but they did not rule me. I felt plenty of social insecurity, but not enough to make me flee. As I sat and listened to the sermons, I realized that the process in my head was different. Alongside the old tapes, a different track played…ideas for poems, ideas for other ways I might be able to help, a consciousness that, even though I am not doing as much as I might wish, I am doing something.

I came away more at peace with what I am and what I do these days. More at peace with the fact that my battlefield is the psyche, that my focus is on helping others like me escape from prisons inside their skulls–so that, one day, they can be more present in the world and help fight the battles that need fighting.

Spaghetti Brain

I’m finally feeling creative again after a days-long crash following my exciting reading. Creative–but wildly unfocused.

My brain is trying to think of the following things simultaneously:

  1. The status of my fellowship application to a writers’ community
  2. What to enter in a Bay Area poetry contest coming up
  3. Plans for compiling my first full-length poetry manuscript, and whether I could get it together in time to submit to a certain press by their annual deadline
  4. Which memoir-style piece to tackle next for my nonfiction project
  5. Two different ideas brought up recently for collaborative pieces with poets I know
  6. Bits and pieces from pretty much all of my old poems, thanks to recent work of pasting them into a new format
  7. Submission to a women’s magazine whose reading period just began
  8. A community chapbook I have been thinking of getting together and whether I should go ahead and send out calls for submissions.

And…Hamilton lyrics, which are awesome poetry but an immense distraction when they keep popping up during any of the above.

You Gave Me Money For This?

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For the first time, I have exchanged poems I wrote for money. What a trip.

When I was the featured poet at a reading on Friday night, I brought copies of my first chapbook with me. Chapbooks are simple, low-budget productions, usually containing between 10 and 15 poems. I didn’t think I would get it done in time, because my date for the reading had been moved up, but with the help of my spouse I did.

I was looking forward to the feature, and determined to focus on enjoying myself at the mic and not worry about whether anyone would want a copy. Realistically, I expected to sell 5 or less to the modestly sized audience. I sold ten, so I’m very happy.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog, or my old one, knows that me writing and then beginning to join the writing community has been quite a process of change. You might have read an entry two years ago describing my first attendance at a poetry open mic. or my first submissions.

So if you write, and long to develop your writing more, I hope you will take encouragement from the things I share. I’m a messed up person, but I took one step at a time and I did these things. I think you can too.

Blankets Kill

I hear a lot of blanket statements about mental health care these days. The people making them usually mean well, and do not realize the harm they are causing.

In recent years, there has been growing awareness about the overprescription of psych meds, the irresponsible assigning of diagnoses and other toxic aspects of the domination of Western medicine perspectives. This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, however, it is getting translated into a common and frequently aired attitude that ALL psych meds are bad and anyone taking them is some kind of a) ignorant victim in need of enlightenment or b) lazy, compliant sheep unwilling to face their feelings without some kind of crutch.

Blanket statements about ANY group of people are dangerous. When the group of people is at constant risk for serious to fatal behaviors, blanket statements can kill. They can kill by increasing stigma and decreasing the tendency to get help.

Anyone managing a mental health issue has been on the receiving end of so much stigma and judgment already that your words have incredible power.

So you’ve got opinions about this issue. So you think Big Pharma is evil and out for money. Fine. But quit with the black and white thinking and admit you don’t understand the contents of everyone’s skull. Open your mind to the idea that there can be people who have tried many things and found a responsibly managed meds regimen to be the least of evils. People, like me, who choose it because it allows them to be more present in the world, to help their families and others, to stick around instead of hurting themselves. People who find it a useful tool to add to the psychological and emotional work they ARE doing.

You want to help? Advocate for making competent help available to all, so people aren’t getting these meds from unqualified doctors. Advocate for making competent psychotherapy and counseling available to the non-wealthy, since we know that with or without meds this is a huge need. Advocate for a general decrease of stigma.

And stop judging us. Somebody, somewhere, committed suicide today because they were caught in a web of shame and saw no road out. Blankets kill.

Eight Days

This morning, I had thirty-five days to get ready for the feature I’m doing. Now I have eight.

Long story, but due to some unavoidable circumstances I’ve just been asked to feature on October 12 instead of November 9 as originally scheduled. So now I have eight days. The chapbook I was going to make for the reading doesn’t exist, unless I want to do a quick and dirty job within a week. While working on a couple of special poems I really wanted to have ready.

The little kid in me is throwing a tiny tantrum because she wanted everything to be perfect. It’s only the second actual feature I’ve ever done, so the novelty has not worn off.   I really want to be amazing, and I need to understand that’s not how all of this works.

It’s not. If I bring my desire for everything to be perfect and impressive, I’ll be distracted from being authentic.

My Book is a Bastard

So what are these projects that have been sucking up my writing spoons? Well, as far as poetry is concerned, I am trying to put together a chapbook for a feature I am doing in November. It will be the first time I offer written poems for people to take home. It’s just a low end thing, but I have to go through the horror of figuring out which poems to put in it.

The other one, the really new one, is my nonfiction book. I have always had a vague idea of using the essays I’ve written for the last five years as raw material for something, but recently I’ve hammered out much more of a plan and begun writing pieces that are targeted specifically for that.

This book is a bastard. A hybrid. A mutant.

Why?

Because it doesn’t fit into an easy category, like memoir or inspiration or self-help. I don’t want it to be just another “here’s the story of some shit that I survived” memoir–but there will be memoir pieces in it designed to help a reader identify or get a perspective on eating disorders, addiction and mental illness. It’s not a “here’s what to do to change your life for the better” book–but it will contain some ideas of things that might be worth trying, or tips on finding your own ways. It’s not a psychology book–but part of what makes it a bit different will be the experience of going through some of this stuff as a person who already had a clinical background, and where knowledge is and isn’t helpful. It’s not a “spiritual inspiration” book–but will certainly contain some metaphysical thoughts on why not to give up.

From a marketing perspective, some might say I’d be well advised to change it to fit a category, because bastards are hard to market. But I don’t think I can do that; I need the outreach element to be there. We’ll see. It’s all so embryonic that the most important thing to do at this point is to keep writing.

Something New

Six years of essays, three years of poetry…and now adding something completely different.

My essays have always been personal, but in response to some feedback from fellow writers that saw a few of them I’ve been experimenting with longer pieces of more intimate and detailed memoir. These would ultimately form part of my pet long-term nonfiction book project.

I’ve gotten very good response on them so far, but it is a new kind of writing for me with a new quality of emotional experience. I need to be careful not to get overwhelmed.

I also don’t want to neglect my poetry (haven’t so far) or posting here on this site (which I definitely have.)

I have this idea that I’ll challenge myself to post every day for the coming month of October–but, knowing me, there’s a certain probability of that being bullshit. I want to post a lot, though, because there are interesting things happening with my creative life and its interaction with my health and sanity.

The Best Thing I Ever Write

Periodically, I need to remind myself why I am writing. It’s not to get my ego stroked. It’s not for the high I get when performing. It’s not for the thrill of getting published. Those things are all gravy, and it’s easy for me to get drawn in to this exciting subculture and try to do too much. When I do that, it’s easy for me to start judging myself for not having the energy to go to nearly as many events as a lot of poets seem to do.

I am writing because the very best thing I ever write might help someone someday. That’s what started it, and that’s the core to which I return. I want there to come a time, in the dark watches of some wakeful night, when someone picks up something I wrote and it helps them get through until morning.

I will never know what the best thing I ever write is. It might not be what I expect. It might make someone feel less alone, or it might cause them to feel more accepting of some darkness within themselves. It might carry a metaphor that helps someone create their own personal metaphor as a talisman. It might be a piece that I don’t even rate very highly among my body of work.

Returning to this basic idea is even more important as I begin to consider pulling my prose together and morphing it into a longer project. Changes in style and a thousand different ideas about voice and structure try to distract me, but I must not let them.

Discomfort Zone

When I grow, it’s because I did things beyond my comfort zone. Granted, there are times my comfort zone is smaller than my own skull, but whatever it was at the time, I made conscious efforts to leave it. In everyday living, in social interaction, and especially in writing, I try to push the edges and perhaps push them a little further next time. And, naturally, I dance with the questions of whether it’s wise to push a certain edge at a certain time.

It isn’t productive for me to push in ways that will render me nonfunctional for days. It’s productive for me to push just enough for discomfort, just enough to require some courage. Enough to have consequences in my thoughts and emotions for days or weeks, but have them be consequences that I can manage without being propelled into a serious dip that will make me useless.

I’ve been sharing poetry with others for two years now, and I recently began to share prose for the first time. My essays on my blogs, theoretically, have been shared for years, but never critiqued by other writers or otherwise given feedback. That’s the new thing I did this week, and it was a very different experience from sharing poetry.

One piece of feedback I got is that people wanted more personal detail in some of the pieces. They encouraged me to depart a bit from the conversational style of these essays and branch out into a more personal viewpoint. So this week, I’m writing a piece that focuses more on describing an experience and isn’t about outreach per se.

It’s hard. It brings back the memory in a more visceral way, without the intellectual and the clinical to soften the edges. Even without that discomfort, it’s just different. For the millionth time, I’m the new kid at school.

Give Me An Inch…

Sometimes it’s good to get greedy.

I’m currently working on applications for no less than three different “if you win you will get some writing-related experience for free” scholarship contests for writers with financial need. One is for a fellowship in a writer’s community in SF, one is for a literary seminar and one is for an editorial services scholarship.

These feel different from regular submissions. Usually, I’m submitting a piece for judgment and the result is solely based upon the reaction to the piece. For these, I’m presenting myself. In addition to writing samples, I am putting together essays about me and why I’m a good poet to subsidize. Why I have potential, or why I am useful to the poetry world.

I had an incredible time at an open mic last Friday, and got asked to feature soon at another. I’m on a “high” that is probably fueled by a bit of hypomania, but I believe it is also genuine happiness about what being a poet means to me these days. These feelings are helping me take action on these scholarships.

Sometimes, my opinion of my work crashes and submitting things feels ridiculous. This appears to be pretty normal for writers. But when the opposite is happening–when I believe in myself and I’m excited about the things I am going to write–well, why not try?

Time To Pay the Piper

Well, it is starting. My “up phase” is transitioning to the not-so-fun part of the process. The energy that sparked through me, that last week required caution to manage, is now turning to anxiety. I can almost feel it–it’s like listening to an engine rev and then suddenly hearing a grinding, clanking sound. Energy is now stuck and fouled up in the gears of my brain instead of passing through. It’s overflowing into my body, making it hard to breathe deeply or sit still.

Bipolar II, like its more acute cousin Bipolar I, is classified as a mood disorder. However, sometimes it makes sense in my own experience to think of it more as an energy disorder. Some more philosophical types even compare it to kundalini energies and such–whatever it is, the brain is taking in and/or processing some type of energy a different way. Mood changes are either a result or a parallel process. Not that other issues don’t relate to energy as well–one reason those who deal with depression suffer so much frustration when given advice that is only mood-based. 

At any rate, I feel it and I know from experience what will come. “But wait,” I can hear the next self-appointed free-lance psychiatric counselor I meet say, “Aren’t you being negative expecting bad things like this? What about the power of positive thinking? You’re creating defeat for yourself.”

To which I reply, take your chemically balanced brain and go…well, to put it politely, just go away.

Understanding my patterns and making “weather predictions” based on past observations is NOT defeatism or negative thinking. It does not exclude the presence of grace, the opportunity to make progress in handling whatever happens, or the power of hope. It’s a tool like any other. It’s hiking through mountains and canyons with my eyes open instead of being blindfolded and experiencing terror with every drop.

The Eye Roll

Part of living with bipolar disorder is encountering the Eye Roll from loved ones.

The Eye Roll goes like this: I, currently in an “up” state of mild or moderate hypomania, gush about all of the new things I have decided to do. Classes I have decided to take, new languages I have decided to learn, writing projects I have just decided are awesome and should receive devotion, exercise programs I have decided to start…you get the idea.

These bursts of dedication can happen to anyone; certainly we have all had the experience of starting and abandoning new projects. However, with hypomania they are ALL trying to happen at once. In a single week or less I experience–and babble to my family at length about–all of the above and more.

So the Eye Roll is a normal reaction developed over years, in someone who has watched me start so many new projects only for them to disappear during my next depressive phase (and often, rather than reappear during my next up period, be replaced by my NEW set of great ideas.)

My loved ones want to encourage me in taking actions. They’d rather see me engaged than depressed, so they try not to make the Eye Roll obvious. Nevertheless, it is felt and I have enough self-knowledge to respect it.

The spirit behind it has helped me put some cautions into practice. If an idea or desire recurs over months, during a series of up phases, it may be worth following up. However, if it is brand new, it’s not an idea I should spend significant money on or make any life-altering decisions about.

A little money, well, that might be okay. Buying a new wall calendar to lay out plans, or downloading an app, is no big deal. But it’s NOT the time to buy a treadmill, spend hundreds of dollars on a class, or get a tattoo. I need to wait and see if my wonderful new idea has legs or not.

Useful

How do I maximize my usefulness to others? How do I assess my strengths and weaknesses honestly and make good choices about how hard I should push myself at any given time? How do I repeat this assessment frequently and deal with the self-doubt that tries to make me push myself too hard out of guilt or shame? How do I resist the impulse to apologize constantly for what I am doing and the fact that it’s not enough?

I’ve written on this theme before. I’m sure I will write about it at intervals for the rest of my life. Two years ago I wrote this, in fact:

“I don’t want to live my life as a walking apology, but I also don’t want to become the kind of person who sees no need for regrets about how my condition and/or my shortcomings affect others.

Where is the line; where does a realistic assessment of my condition end and making excuses begin?

Could I be allowed to stop making promises, or even implied promises, that set me up for the inevitable apologies?

There’s no way for anyone else to assess, or even for me to assess reliably, the subjective amount of effort I’m making. So how can I, when unable to perform consistently, express that the thing, principle or person is still important?

Can I ever be good enough, do enough, love enough to have it mean something?”

Looking that up was interesting because it really made my point: This theme recurs. It recurs because the question is always relevant in a world that needs us to do our best. It’s not going to stop recurring, and I need to meet it with honesty and humility whenever it arrives.

Poetry Speed Dating

Here’s one challenging thing about poetry readings: You have to pick something to read. Usually you have about two minutes at the mic. That’s enough to read one poem or perhaps two or three short ones. You don’t get to lay out your entire body of work like a huge tapestry to be admired.

Tomorrow there’s going to be a poetry reading at the gallery show that’s featuring pieces done on one of my poems. I am supposed to read that piece and one (repeat: one) other poem.

Which one?

This is a special reading, and I want to do it justice. I’m working on a draft of something I think is appropriate, but if it is not done to my satisfaction by tomorrow which poem will I choose instead?

It feels like speed dating, or like a job interview with only one question. No piece could give a stranger a full sense of who I am as a poet. This is why doing a feature was so much fun, but it may be a long time before I get to do another one of those.

I have to accept that I can’t convey all I want to convey on any given occasion. I can only leave the impression of the pieces I am able to read.

Actually, that’s not the only impression I can leave. My presence leaves an impression: my voice, my expressions, and my body language speak to a discerning eye of who I am.

Sweet Rejection

I got a rejection email this morning from an online journal. I’d sent them three poems and the editor is “sorry they will not be able to use them.” Oh, sweet rejection.

Why do I call this sweet? It’s simple. Getting a rejection letter means that I TRIED. I went through the footwork and submitted something. I put something out there.

I’ve been trying to get more comfortable using Submittable, the most popular submission software used by magazines’ websites. I’ve been trying to compile a more current list of publications I would like to explore. I’ve been trying to reach out on social media to more of the poets I have met at readings.

Doing something, no matter how small, in the category of advancing my writing gives me a welcome sense of accomplishment. Insecure as I am, I can say honestly say it doesn’t matter that this particular editor didn’t want them.

More Than Words

I feel as if I somehow gave birth to two beautiful aliens.

The gallery opening was amazing. The work of sixteen artists on display, along with the ten poems that served as inspiration for them. There were two paintings that used my poem as their source.

How do I describe the way seeing them felt? To say I was touched is ridiculously inadequate. Especially since the subject of my poem was so personal (it’s about my daughter) it was overwhelming to see works that artists made with so much time and care.

I got to meet both artists and talk to one of them in more depth about her process. It was clear that the artists put their hearts into the pieces; that my poem resonated with them strongly enough to bring forth this kind of dedication on their part.

Staring at one of the paintings, I felt my mind journey into the depths of the abstract scene portrayed. I felt the world in it take on a life of its own. I had a visceral experience of the fact that a poem can be more than words, more than a set of ideas. That a poem, or any other creative work, can be a spark that ignites an unknown universe.

On Display

I can’t describe how hard it was to start sharing my poetry with others a couple of years ago. It has become easier and far more enjoyable with experience, but there are still times when stepping up to that mic or podium feels like opening the book of myself and inviting hordes of savage critics to have a go.

Now I get to take another step out of my comfort zone, thanks to a gallery show that accepted one of my poems. One or more artists did a piece about it, and my poem will be on the wall of the gallery with the pieces for nearly a month. On display. With my name on it. When I go to a gallery reception tomorrow, I’ll be introducing myself to people as my name and work are displayed on the wall.

This is such an honor (and it’s interesting to note how much I have been minimizing it when I talk about it to others, emphasizing that it’s a small show, etc.) While I work on overcoming my inertia and submitting more writing to publications, I get to have the experience of standing by my work in public.

It’s excruciating to have that one piece be the representation of me as a poet. It’s like sweating over which poem to read at an open mic, times a hundred.

It’s a wonderful problem to have.

Suddenly, It Sucks

Many writers know this experience. We’re chugging along with our stories or poems or whatever. We don’t think they are perfect, but there are things we really like about them. Then, WHAM! We hit a pocket of insecurity.

Suddenly, everything we have written sucks. It’s cliched. Trite. Boring. Unoriginal. What were we thinking?

I experience an augmented version of this when I am in a depressive phase. Today, I am aware of a general feeling of pessimism about all aspects of my life. My writing is no exception; I am looking at drafts that pleased me a week ago and wanting to scrap them.

Actually, as recently as two days ago I was really happy with a work in progress that I’m planning to read at an open mic this weekend. I had that impish grin I get when I’ve just successfully completed a draft, and was looking forward to reading it. Now I’m not even sure I want to go, and not at all sure I feel comfortable reading my new creation if I do.

The good news is, I’ve been through some crap that has taught me I shouldn’t always believe what I am thinking.

Many Doors

One could say the things we write are never unique. How could they be, when there are basic human experiences that provide the material for us all? We make things out of the basics the way a chef makes a complex dish from basic ingredients.

You never know what will reach someone or what will be the most effective way of accessing the heart. Recently, I heard about a submissions call for poems to be used in a gallery show about women’s issues. I decided to write something new for it, but as I sat and pondered several ideas I felt stuck.

There was no doubt I have strong feelings about these issues, yet as I thought of them I felt a bit numb and words did not flow. I could write as a woman who has experienced misogyny and internalized misogyny…yet nothing was flowing. I could write from the perspective of a disabled person terrified of a harsh future in my country…yet nothing was flowing. It went on like this, until I started thinking about my daughter and how these issues relate to her. Like a dam breaking, the block dissolved and words came. On that particular day, that perspective was the way in to my emotions and my words.

This is why the arts are important. This is why we must never stop expressing the same idea in millions of different ways. Every soul has many doors, and we cannot know which ones may open and when. We cannot know which of our poems or paintings or stories is a key to one of them.

How to Take a Compliment

I know I am not the only one who has trouble with this concept. I’ve actually worked pretty hard to learn to respond to a compliment with a simple “thank you” and put a period at the end of it. Just say “thank you” instead of making some self-deprecating remark, or some remark about how it’s no big deal, or some remark about how I could or should have done it better and this is why that didn’t happen.

I am getting a refresher course in this skill as I continue to get positive feedback about my poetry from people. I went to a reading last night and had several people respond positively to my recent work. Also, I recently had a poem accepted for a gallery show in June that is going to feature artwork inspired by local poets’ work about women’s issues. Right now, as I write this, some Bay Area artist is working on a piece that is inspired by my poem. My poem is going to be on the wall of the gallery for several weeks along with the artwork. I’m going to be reading at the gallery opening. How crazy is that?

I noticed that after learning my poem was in, I had a tendency to minimize it when telling people. I emphasize that it’s just a small gallery or just a local thing. Why do I do this? The truth is, this is awesome and I feel honored to be a part of it. It doesn’t matter that I’m a relative newbie in the poetry community. It doesn’t matter who else is in the show. I sent in work and somebody thought one of them was a good fit for their vision of the show. I’m allowed to feel good about that.

So are you, poets out there. You’re allowed to send your work out if that’s something you enjoy. You’re allowed to read at open mics. And when you get a compliment about your work, you’re allowed to accept it.

The Fear of Sentimentality

Recently, I finished a first draft of a poem called “Ladders.” I liked it a lot when I finished it, but now realize that I am hesitant to read it at an open mic or send it anywhere because I’m afraid that it will be heard as sentimental, schmaltzy, cheesy, overly inspirational, or other adjectives that might relegate it to a realm better suited for Hallmark cards than serious poetry.

Why am I afraid of letting some of my poetry reflect the unabashedly inspirational parts of my writing psyche? My prose essays drip with it; I have no hesitation about expressing fierce compassion towards others, trying to spread illogical hope, or digging for beauty in dark places. Why am I afraid to let more of it into my poetry; that a poem speaking inspiration directly to others will be dismissed as too sentimental?

I have spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m a person who has tasted a tiny bit of nonlinearity in this universe, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m passionate about giving others a feeling of acceptance, wholeness, being valued, or just being seen, and I’m not ashamed of that. My poetry should not be ashamed of that either.

It’s appropriate for me to look at a draft and ask if the tone is what I want the tone to be. It’s appropriate for me to ask myself if the poem needs revision to change the tone to one I think will be more effective. But these questions should not be asked out of fear.

Stream of Consciousness

For a week or so I’ve been trying to do daily personal writing in the style of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. In this book, she recommends a thing called “morning pages.” It’s supposed to be three pages of complete stream of consciousness, done without any pauses or editing. You’re not supposed to stop, even if the result contains things like “pause…mind blank, eager to be done, blah blah blah why can’t I think of a single thing to write right now?”

She’s not alone in recommending stream-of-consciousness writing, or course. A poetry exercise I read about calls for ten days of ten pages a day, to be examined later for potential poem material.

I chose 1000 words for my daily target, which may or may not be as many words as three pages but it is a nice round number. The new writing software I’m working with lets you set session targets, which is perfect.

I’m trying to do this to help with my resistance to writing anything that is not meant for a fate involving other people. I’m also doing it because it is supposed to be good for creativity. You’re advised to put the pages away when you finish them and not look at or reread them for a while. For me, I imagine rereading them after a month or so and highlighting phrases I think would be useful for an essay or poem.

I have two main fears about doing this. Firstly, I am afraid that doing it will exhaust my writing energy for the day and I will spend less time working on other things. Secondly, I’m afraid that I will fail at doing it consistently and experience the familiar negative emotions that come with starting and abandoning something.

The Importance of Being Evil

I cannot be a whole person unless I understand and accept that I am partially evil. This understanding took me years of work, and the acceptance of it will probably be a lifelong task. 

The idea that we all have evil is not new, but I am not concerned with that. Nor am I taking on the endless task of defining what exactly evil is and is not. I am only speaking for myself: some of the things I personally define as evil undeniably exist in my psyche. There is some dark crap in there, and it’s not going to go away. Self-improvement and spiritual work can help me improve my behavior, but there are some things that cannot be changed. I will never be pure. 

Why is understanding this so important to me? It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to explain the huge leap in self-acceptance I made when I was able to incorporate these parts of myself into the whole. It’s hard to explain how much closer it makes me feel to the rest of humanity (a feeling of closeness I need, since I so often feel alienated.)

Instead of my self-esteem being based on inherent goodness, I can base it on my behavior. Now I don’t have to feel like an impostor every time an uncharitable thought or angry fantasy comes into my mind. 

I can be angry at people doing bad things and still understand that I am not a different species from them. I can know that however dark and twisted the labyrinth of their actions and motivations might be, it is still a human labyrinth and I have one too. I can understand that I am just as capable of terrible things as anyone else given a different set of circumstances, different brain chemistry, different trauma–even different past life baggage if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m not better than anyone. I am a potential supervillain.

Battling addiction, mental illness and general despair requires a powerful sense of self. Anything that makes me more connected with that sense of self has the potential to save my life and give something to the world. I’d rather be a partially evil person trying to act non-evil than someone whose useless quest to be good helped to kill them.

Non-Zero

“Just get a non-zero amount of words on a page.”

I have a series of files containing the scraps of future poems. Some files have nothing but the poem title. I open one up, stare at it, and if nothing seems to be happening I close it back up again.

I do this because it is a lot less intimidating to look at one of these than to look at a blank page. The act of establishing a place for the piece to come gets me over a psychological bump about starting something. I’ll put in the words or phrase that inspired the idea, give the project a title, and that is that. Sometimes I will let myself stare at the file for a few more minutes and see if something arrives–but that is not the plan. 

The philosophy of non-zero applies to other aspects of my life. Just do a non-zero amount of exercise. Just make a non-zero effort to reach out socially. Setting the bar that low can get me past inertia, and the non-zero amount might grow. If it doesn’t, it is still better than zero.

Ah, the psychological tricks we need to play on ourselves! What would it be like to be someone who just decides to do things and does them?

Not Enough

How often we get stuck not doing anything because we have been taught that whatever we do will not be enough?

I drag myself to a support group meeting. More frequent attendees ask “Where have you been?” I manage to get to a poetry reading. Other poets ask “Too bad you missed yesterday’s event, are you going to make it to tomorrow’s?” I stumble into tai chi. Classmates say “Haven’t seen you for a while, are you coming to the workshop?”

Now, to some people, all of these things might have a very different connotation. These comments might simply mean that these people like me and want to see more of me. But do you think I interpret it that way? No, I interpret it to mean that I am not doing enough, not being enough, not giving enough to that particular community.

It’s easy for me to think that if I compare myself to people who have thrown themselves deeply into one community and seem to devote themselves to it on a daily basis. If I set a standard like that for myself, a standard that fits neither my health nor my current lifestyle nor my devotion to more than one thing, I will always feel deficient. 

If I have the clarity to question my thinking, I see that my feeling of constant deficiency is not fact. I also see that it cannot be fixed by doing more; that I would still manage to find a way to see myself as deficient because the idea is ingrained deeply enough to defy logic.

For me, and for many, many others who are conditioned the same way and surrounded by a culture that continues to encourage the deep belief, the automatic assumption of deficiency is one of the enemies we battle daily. Like our other demons, it is the enemy of creativity and joy. It wants us silent, bound or dead. What it does not want is for us to get up and do something.

Ant Logic

I remind myself again and again about how subjective poetry is. How it’s possible for the same poem to be liked, ignored, sneered at, or adored by different people. When I forget, I think of a poem called Ant Logic. It was written by Susan H. Maurer and published in Rattle Magazine in 2016.

The poem consists solely of the phrase “ant logic” repeated many times.

I liked it. I thought it was quirky and cute. But I have to admit, I was surprised to see it published in a prestigious magazine that receives thousands of submissions for every issue and has turned down pretty much every poet I know.

Well, an editor took a liking to that poem and decided they wanted it. They didn’t need a reason; they might not even be sure why they liked it. They just did.

So Ant Logic has come to be an encouraging symbol for me of why I should submit pieces to publications or contests that appeal to me. It’s impossible for me to know what will appeal to an editor or judge.

So send your Ant Logic in. Read your Ant Logic at an open mic. Be proud of your Ant Logic.

Through the Clouds

I want to believe I’ll be creative for the rest of my life.

I want to believe that if I get very ill I’ll use the time and the change in perspective to write, or at least expand my mind by learning a new language or something. I want to believe that if I die of natural causes at an advanced age, my feeble fingers or quavering voice will still be trying to communicate. I want to believe that my mind is and always will be more powerful than my body.

I want to believe my drive toward thought and clarity can always overcome issues with my body. And there is some truth and merit to the idea; there’s truth in the idea that my mind and soul have a great deal of power. There’s truth in the idea that the battle for clarity is not hopeless and that it’s well worth fighting.

That belief, however, is not always backed up by actual experience. My experience has been that my mind’s activities are linked to the functioning of a physical object known as my brain. This organ, whether I like it or not, is a part of my physical body. It’s affected by every other organ I have. It relies on the contents of my bloodstream for oxygen and nutrients. When my body gets sick, or is affected by hormone fluctuations, or takes a new medicine, my brain gets a different cocktail. There’s a tipping point to these things beyond which it’s very hard to muster enough energy or original thought for any productive act.

The truth is that for someone like me, the state of optimal body and brain function is more like a theoretical norm than an actual one in the sense that there always seems to be something going on. As I age and experience more physical issues and age-related cognitive decline, the clouds may get thicker. This thought scares me quite a bit.

As I often do when I feel fear, I grope for a metaphor. Today it’s astronomy.

Astronomers, as least the old-school or amateur types who must perform their observations from the surface of the Earth, try do their field observations on clear nights. When it is cloudy, they reschedule, because the portable instruments they have may not be powerful enough to get anything useful through the cloud cover.

But what if the climate changed and it was always, or nearly always, overcast? They’d have two choices: give up astronomy or build more powerful instruments (or do all their observations from space, but in this metaphor that seems like a post-death thing and we are looking at this lifetime.)

Even if they began to build better instruments, they’d have to accept that they now get less data for more work. They’d have to decide it was still worth the work and dedication.

I have to accept a similar thing. I have to believe that an effort I make on one of my bad days is still vastly, stupendously superior to doing nothing.

Everyday Resurrections

How have you come back from the dead lately?

Today is Easter Sunday, and some people are celebrating the event of their savior returning to life after being crucified. Easter is also, according to some, an evolution of far older spring holidays celebrating other resurrections as well as the general truth of nature’s resurgence into new life after the sleep of winter.

Celebrating resurrection in any form appeals to me. What greater cause for joy can there be than to see something dead now living; something asleep now awake. For me, one day a year to celebrate resurrection is not enough.

How many times a year do I come back to life? How many times in a year do I emerge from the metaphorical tomb and feel the sweet air on my skin? Each time I come back from a dark phase, I step into a new life with new hope. Never mind that my enjoyment of it might be temporary–I am here now; the darkness did not kill me this time. Once again I see beauty; once again I feel gratitude.

The passing of a dark phase isn’t the only kind of resurrection I experience. I awaken from a small death when I devote myself to learning something new or succeed in putting down a behavior that’s sucking the life out of me. I awaken from one when I reconnect in any way with the part of me that can’t die and remember that it exists. I awaken when that spark of knowledge reignites a flame in the dark.

Just Sick Enough

When you have a psychiatric diagnosis, there are times when it’s obvious you need help. Other times, it might not be as obvious.

I had to jump through some hoops recently to get seen by a psychiatrist with my new insurance. Among these hoops were multiple rounds of the same questions about the nature and severity of my symptoms.  As I tried to answer as patiently and honestly as possible, I was aware of feeling anxiety about whether I would be deemed “sick enough” to be worthy of care.

You see, although I have been under some form of care for many years, it’s been seven years since the last time I was in a hospital outpatient program and nine years since the last time I was hospitalized outright. I’m only on one relatively benign mood stabilizer.

In recent years, I have been aware of how lucky I am to be where I am. I work hard not to throw this good luck away by falling back into addiction or other self-destructive behavior. But should “doing well” mean I don’t need help any more? Especially with bipolar, where patients are quite likely to float out the door while in a happy place, stop their meds, and wind up in the ER?

So it’s a dance. Be sure to appear “sick enough” to be taken seriously, without appearing so ill that you get a level of intervention you don’t need or want. Be eloquent enough about what goes on in your head to make sure someone knows you aren’t “fixed.”

Why? Why not just have enjoy having fewer appointments and one less thing on your current record? My reason is simple: my condition means that matter how well I am doing, it is possible for me to have a serious episode and need more help. Having a psychiatrist of record means having someone to call for an urgent meds adjustment. In the event of dire need, it means I have a name to give the ER staff.

It’s regrettable that people like me must defend our need to be responsible and prepared for trouble.

The Things I Must Not Write

Some poems, and stories, and essays of mine are not ready to be written because they concern other people too directly. It’s a pity, because I’m sure they would be rich, and dark, and searingly honest. I know some people write memoirs and let the chips fall where they may, but for me it would feel wrong to write really raw stuff specifically about people who are still alive.

Part of my decision is based on fear, I know. The fears many of us have about confronting sources of our deep and sometimes illogical terrors. I’m all about trying to face my fears more often, but I also know my own limits and know that pushing certain things would harm people who don’t have the capacity to deal with it.

I’ve sometimes been advised to write pieces and simply not share them with anyone–don’t read them, don’t submit them, don’t self-publish them. Occasionally I do write some things for a recovery activity or when working with some kind of counselor. In general, though, I feel frustrated at the idea of writing things I am supposed to keep secret.

It doesn’t make sense. Journaling is so highly recommended for creative types; why can’t I get on board with private writing? Is it that I have a hard time giving myself permission to create without some small chance of it enriching others? Or is it just ego?

Tea Works Better When You Drink It

Pretty frequently, my daughter reminds me that the untouched tea, or coffee, or snack near me is doing me no good sitting there.

By the same token, getting my writing seen and appreciated by more people is a lot more likely if I actually send it out. Submitting pieces might not lead to them being accepted by a certain publication…but not submitting them definitely won’t. Reading at an open mic might not help me get new connections and meet people who like what I have to say…but not reading definitely won’t.

Recently, I sent out a couple of different pieces in response to submission calls I had heard about. Just local things, but I was very excited when one was accepted. I would like to get into a more regular habit of submitting work. I have everything I need to do it; I just need to acquire some discipline and get into a rhythm.

It helps when I have a clear notion of why I want to submit work to publications; what I want to get out of the process. I suppose what I want most is to be more open to possibilities. Also (and this part is important) I enjoy a childlike pleasure in having something out there because it means there’s always the possibility of a nice surprise coming.

The Trap Door

An old dating show had prospects standing on a trap door above a dunk tank while being asked questions. At any moment, the contestant asking could push a button and splash! It was all over and the next person would move to stand on the trap door.

I often feel as if I’m in that situation. The feeling grows stronger when I meet and interact with new people, especially if I have a strong desire for those new people to like me and want to see me again. Everyone can have the “If they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me” feelings, but mine tend to center on a few specific things.

For example, yesterday I spent the day with a group of writers at a workshop (an awesome experience, and I am so grateful I was invited despite my lack of funds.) The social part also went well, but I did have one instance of the “trap door” feeling. It happened during lunch when the topic of psych meds came up briefly and several people expressed the common attitude of all psych meds being bullshit and/or evil.

The gears rumbled to life in my head and I began to project. So, if and when they know that I’m someone who chooses to take medication, they will have contempt for me. They’ll decide I am weak, or lazy, or unwilling to face difficult times, or just a compliant sheep controlled by Big Pharma. They’ll write me off. And if they would write me off for this, how quickly will they write me off once they know I am a drug addict in recovery? Should I speak up and tell all of these things about myself as early as possible so they can go ahead and write me off instead of wasting their time?

I felt the trap door opening under my feet. I felt the familiar brick settling onto my chest. I felt the familiar loneliness that tells me “You don’t belong. Don’t get fooled into thinking you could.” 

These moments are part of life for me, and I try not to let them control my actions. I try not to let them trigger defensive counterjudgments or mentally put people into boxes, but it’s hard sometimes. I’m aware that when I do that I am judging people in the same way I don’t want them to judge me.

Poetry…Because Drugs Didn’t Work Out

I used this phrase when meeting my new psychiatrist and got a quizzical look. He’d just asked me what coping mechanisms I use to deal with my symptoms. I’ve used the phrase before with others, or referred to poetry or writing as my “newest vice.” Some people get it right away, some don’t.

It’s like one of my favorite snarky T-shirts, that says “Writing…Because Murder is Wrong.” That one either gets a laugh or a vaguely uncomfortable look.

Poetry, and other writing, are indeed a coping mechanism for me. Doing them is part of my ongoing efforts to break the old patterns that want to keep me silent, ashamed, and stuck. Doing them can help me get through the disorientation or despair of an episode, or at least give me reference points before and after.

Poetry, and all art, is a form of therapy as well as whatever other purposes it has. Some might sneer at those who seem focused on this aspect of it, or draw distinctions between such people and “real” artists. I believe there’s a place for a critical voice in our process, but I also believe there’s a special corner in some hypothetical hell reserved for those whose contempt or elitism discourage creation.

The word therapy comes from the Greek root for to serve. Psychotherapy translates to serving the soul. Whether it’s our soul or others, or what the ratio is, the service exists. When we create something–anything–we influence the world.

Reminders

No matter how well I am doing, I must not forget what I am. No matter how much I am enjoying being a poet, or how invested I am in being a mother, I must not forget the conditions that have the ability to destroy it all if I don’t deal with them as responsibly as I can.

I live with a mental illness, and I’m an addict in recovery. These things become less and less obvious to people as I rack up more years clean and have the good fortune to stay out of the hospital for years as well. But serious mental health crisis always has the potential to happen–and, of course, relapsing back into my addiction would bring all my progress crashing down on myself and my loved ones.

Many of the people I meet these days don’t know about my past. Sometimes I am nervous about if, or when, or how to talk about it. I don’t know to what degree I will encounter stigma. Sometimes I expect, on some level, to be “written off” as a new acquaintance gets to know me. Not that I can’t be written off for many other things about myself, or just for general social awkwardness.

At any rate, my learning and growth have to be balanced with continued maintenance. New adventures have to be undertaken with an honest knowledge of my limitations. Even when I can “pass” for normal, I have to remember and accept that I am not.