First Principles

What helps me when I get overwhelmed by my writing projects, or by life in general? Sometimes nothing…I get to be overwhelmed for a while. I do mindless things, try very hard to choose mindless things that are not self-destructive, and generally buy time until the intensity of the feeling passes.

But when the overwhelm is about my books, it helps if I can go back to what I call my first principles: Why am I working on these projects? What is my duty in regards to them? Do I understand that I am not in control of how they are received when the time comes to send them out? Am I willing to do my best, with no guarantee that they will be published or widely read? Am I willing to resist comparisons and fight insecurity when I hear of fellow writers’ productivity, networking and other successes?

The insight I had (and was questioning) about the structure of my nonfiction book has crystallized into an updated plan. This is exciting, and it’s making me more connected to the book’s arc…which, in turn, sends my mind into the future where the book’s a book and I’m querying agents et cætera. This is not the time for those thoughts. Maybe some writers can do it, but I know I need to concentrate on getting a draft of the book done.

I’m not trying to seal off any knowledge of or respect for the realities of the publishing industry. I’ll continue to get feedback from other writers, but right now I know I’ll hamstring my creativity if I try too hard to write for anyone but me and the people I’d like to help.

Inspiration or Hypomania?

Both of them present the same way: I have an idea. An amazing idea. The best idea I’ve had in a long time. My head begins to whirl with plans for executing it, alternative plans, and alternatives to the alternatives. I sleep even less than usual because the ideas keep chasing themselves around in my head.

Eventually, one of two things happens: If it’s just inspiration, I question it obsessively, but (hopefully) eventually overcome procrastination and insecurity to take some step toward carrying it out. If it’s hypomania (a symptom of my condition, Bipolar II) I just whirl and whirl until I eventually burn out and crash. After I come back from whatever self-destructive crap I might have done while crashing, the idea seems ridiculous or lackluster.

But what if it’s not either-or? What if it’s a little of both?

The large-scale planning of my book continues. It’s reached the next level after a recent attempt at rounding out a chapter instead of focusing on shorter segments. For several days, I could tell my brain was in high gear, no matter what I was doing. I did mindless things quite often in an effort to slow down and relax, but while I was doing said mindless thing the thoughts were churning in endless circles.

Then a breakthrough seemed to happen: I had a vision for a new way of organizing the chapters that would be more blended and less choppy. It calls for changes about what goes where, using the 90,000 words I have so far as raw material but not necessarily in their current segments.

Evidence on the side of inspiration: I’m already making a lot of notes and at least trying to get the ideas down in some form, which counts as action.

Evidence on the side of hypomania: My brain fucking hurts and I really want to go eat donuts to club it into silence.

Tear It Apart

So I’ve written something. Do I have the guts to rip it apart and put it together a new way? Or more than one new way?

The workshop I went to a few days ago talked about this. It was interesting to hear–although I’ve read a lot about revising poems, I’m not as exposed to writers talking about how to revise a short story or book. Joshua Mohr, the instructor, wasn’t shy about suggesting big changes instead of just small ones.

Chop out the first 600 words of this scene and start here instead. Move this scene and do this other scene first, then put in some of the first scene with suitable alterations. Shuffle the chapter order in your book. Cut a chapter that no longer fits with the arc of your story. Take the whole damn piece and rewrite it in a different voice.

I notice that, even when I’m excited about the possibilities a change has, I’m resistant to some of the big ones. One reason is I cling to the version that exists because it’s been around long enough to be my baby. To change it, I have to say goodbye to the previous version–or at least shove it into a smaller area of my brain to make room for the new one.

Perfectly normal. But the other reason change is hard for me is one that’s more problematic: it’s an attitude of scarcity.

Wait, I spent time and effort writing this. Maybe every word was an ordeal if I wasn’t in a good place at the time. If I rewrite a scene, or drop it completely, all that effort has been wasted! Oh no!

This flawed logic leads me farther into the land of scarcity: I only have a certain amount of time, strength, focus. I have a limited amount of words in me! If I don’t use every single one I manage to squeeze out, I’ll never write the things I want to write!

Unsurprisingly, I don’t write very well when I have this attitude. Nor do I enjoy it very much. My first book’s an intimidating project, but I must make room for the happy preschooler with her scissors and paste.

Cinderella

I spent yesterday in a fairy-tale world, feasting on delicacies and dancing with handsome princes and princesses. But the ball had to end, and I departed without leaving so much as a shoe behind.

Okay, so it was really a one-day writing workshop at the office of ZYZZYVA magazine in San Francisco. They accepted my piece for the event, and I’d promised myself that if I got in I’d go. So I did.

I call it a fairy-tale world because it’s so unknown to me; I had never been to that type of workshop before. I compare it to the ball because I associate it with having more money than I have; the cost was such that I don’t expect to be able to do such a thing again any time soon. Let’s just say I got my Christmas present early this year.

I enjoyed myself very much. The author who led it, Joshua Mohr, had insightful things to say about writing personal narrative. Here’s a distillation of what I feel was the most valuable reminder for me as I work on my book:

When you write a narrative that’s about yourself, you still need to treat the “you” in the story like a character. You need to pay attention to the same things you’d look at when working with a fictional character you’re creating: Are they interesting? What am I doing to let the reader get invested in them and want to know more? Is it clear what they want, or think they want? What are their obstacles, internal and external? Am I building complexity; giving the reader new perspective on them with every scene? Do I avoid either idealizing or demonizing them?

This kind of perspective will help me as I make choices about the structure of my book: order of chapters, what to keep and what to cut, and what isn’t written yet but needs to be.

I’m aware of a part of me that feels envious when I think of how many workshops and classes some of my fellow writers go to, or that focuses on my wistful desire to be someone who can do the same (or, for that matter, who can submit a ton of stuff without worrying about how those submission fees will add up.)

But that’s my baggage talking. It’s understandable that I want these things, but focusing on what I don’t have is toxic. I create things when I am focused on what I do have, what I truly want, and what I can do to move closer to it.

The Devil’s Playground

There’s an old saying that “an idle mind is the Devil’s playground.” This can be especially true for addicts. Not only addicts, of course, but anyone to whom the inside of their skull is a potentially dangerous place.

Today I have the house to myself for eight hours. I’m not used to being alone here for more than a couple of hours at a time, because between my spouse and our 19-year-old there’s usually someone around. But my daughter just got a job (yay!) so she’s at work (weird!) and I’m here by myself until it’s time to go pick her up.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of things to do. I could work on one of several writing projects I have going. I wouldn’t even have to write; I have storyboarding and planning I need to do. I could unpack more stuff. I could put away the laundry sitting in the dryer. I could take a walk, or do ten minutes of my neglected Tai Chi. I need to take a shower. If I feel the need to be completely unproductive, I could watch a show or read a book or play a video game.

Or, I could eat things that harm me. I could sit and stare at the wall, building darker and darker scenarios in my head, with no one here to ask me if I’m okay. I could call up someone toxic in my life and have a conversation I’ll regret. Anxiety has been especially troublesome for me lately, either paralyzing me or goading me into unwise action.

So for the moment, I decided to do this. And now that I’m done, I’ll have to decide what to do next.

You Don’t Say?

So, my psychiatrist thinks I am depressed.

More than usual, I mean; my general diagnosis includes a type of depression. But just because I told him about how often I’ve been thinking about death lately, and how much I’ve been struggling with food and other self-destructive behavior, and how much time I spend in circles that talk a great deal about the dark aspects of all our futures on this planet…he thinks I need more help with depression.

So out he comes with this particular health care organization’s chart of meds and starts suggesting things to add to my regimen.

Poor man. He means well. But either he hasn’t been taking notes at our previous sessions, or he hasn’t been looking at them.

The names of the meds are listed in little boxes by group, and as he proposes things I have to keep shooting him down.

No, we can’t add anything from this box. I’ve tried many of them, and they increase anxiety to a dangerous level. No, I don’t care if this one is new, I’ve seen the chemical formula. They moved a hydrogen atom so they could get a new patent, that’s all.

No, we can’t add anything from this box. They’re all addictive. I know my addiction history is in my chart. I made a point of putting it there.

Dear God, no, we can’t add anything from this box. Two of them almost killed me when I tried them; I’ve told you that before. You cannot give me any of these unless I’m an inpatient under close supervision so I don’t walk into traffic.

We could try a slight increase in this one med I’m already taking, or we could try one from this tiny box here…or maybe we could get me a therapist I could see more than once every six weeks.

Ha, ha, just kidding, I know that’s not going to happen.

Doing Nothing

My job today is to do nothing. Specifically, my job is to do nothing self-destructive. I hate days like these, where I’m just trying to get back to zero by letting my body and mind recuperate from whatever abuse I inflicted on them recently.

But the days when I’m actually doing the harm are, of course, worse. After nearly a year and a half of grace on my let’s-keep-diabetes-in-remission way of eating, I began to struggle in the spring and have not yet recaptured the blessed place I was in. A week or two of difficult abstinence has tended to be followed by a few days at a time of the hideous and painful rituals of binge eating. Although I haven’t relapsed on drugs, the eating disorder brings plenty of suffering in the form of sickness, shame and secrecy.

Sharing about this is important, because I don’t ever want anyone to get the idea that the work I’ve done on myself has solved anything. It hasn’t. I’ll be dealing with my issues for the rest of my life, just like I’ll be an addict in recovery the rest of my life.

If you think that’s a defeatist attitude, I understand, but I must disagree. Understanding that these things are a part of me and my life, rather than some demon I can exorcise forever if I just get it right, has been vital in acquiring more self-acceptance.

This is only day two back on plan. If and when I rack up a few days and get my mind clearer, I may look at whether to get in touch with my psych team over the general pattern I’m seeing (sleep worse than usual, biting nails until they bleed, anxiety spikes.) It’s the usual dilemma: are my struggles a sign that I need more help with my symptoms, or do I just need tough love and other attitude adjustments?

But today, the goal is nothing. Like the old story of someone who’s deep in a hole crying out to their God, “Please, God, get me out of this pit!” And God replies, “Okay, but I can do it faster if you stop digging!”

I’m not digging today. And that’s going to have to do.