On Writing, Ranée

Disorder

Creativity requires a certain amount of disorder—a good kind of chaos, if you will, and I fully admit to being a bit Scarlet-Witchy (OK, more than a bit). However, in this post, I’m talking about the bad kind of disorder, the sort that comes from a lack of clarity and has nothing to do with creative spirit.

I’ve spent some time this week migrating content that I’ve written for my current story from my notebooks into Scrivener and, in the process, I’ve come to an important realization—I should not be writing when I’m depressed or stressed out unless I’m just writing about how I’m feeling. I haven’t got much of substance to show for the months when I’ve been trying to write while feeling bad; the little that I do have is a jumbled mess. All of the more organized threads that flow into actual chapters were written prior to depression and anxiety setting in. It is exceptionally difficult for me to maintain a decent level of concentration and to organize myself when I am depressed or anxious; that’s always been true. The difference now is, I’m aware of it. I know now that this was the real reason I could never finish a book let alone really get one started—my emotional struggles caused me to lose focus to the point that I just couldn’t get it together.

The other lesson I’ve learned is that I need to follow my own advice and when nothing good is coming or I’m just not feeling like working on a particular project, then I need to write something else, whether that something is journaling, writing a blog post, or working on another creative project. With regard to the latter, I’ve been forcing myself to stick with one creative writing project at a time out of fear I’ll never finish anything if I don’t make myself plow through, but I’ve realized that, by doing this, I’ve been hampering my own creativity (and as I noted above, the real problem for all those years was depression, not my tendency toward chaos-witchiness). I hate doing the same thing all the time; I get extremely bored and end up feeling constrained. I certainly need some structure to keep me on track, but instead of forcing myself to push on when my heart’s not really in it, I should instead embrace my own dynamic nature, be flexible, and work on whatever project I feel like on a given day (employ an organized chaos, so to speak). My hope is that by changing things up, I’ll avoid stagnating and will instead keep the embers of my creative fire burning.

Along the same lines, while my story ideas tend to be nonlinear, with scenes/flashes coming at random, I need to write in chapters. If I have a scene in my head, then I will write it but I also need to write what goes around or with it, connecting the dots. This will save me having to go back and fill in loads of blanks later and will help to keep me organized. I mean, even when Wanda was completely disrupting people’s lives, she still provided a substantial amount of structure. The least I can do is turn random scenes into full-fledged chapters (the fact that I have already done it is proof I can do it again).

So this will be my new process once I’ve moved over the stuff I’ve got in my notebooks. Maybe I’ll even consider going back to writing on the computer. Ha! Sorry, but computer writing for creative projects is reserved for revising . . . unless I find a good electronic approximation for a pen and notebook that can be transferred straight into the computer and integrate with Scrivener, but that’s another topic for another day.

On Writing, Ranée

Cosmic Dancer

I danced myself right out the womb
Is it strange to dance so soon?
— Marc Bolan

Ever since I can remember, there was music in my life—Mom singing me nursery rhyme songs or dancing around the house to one of her favorite tunes, Dad making up silly (sometimes dirty) little ditties or playing his records, the Pittsburgh Oldies station, 3WS, playing every time we went somewhere in the car. That exceptional early exposure to and shared passion for music left an indelible impact on me. I grew to love music just as much as I loved stories and, just like stories, music has ever been my muse, my outlet, and my savior.

You know that scene in Guardians of the Galaxy where Starlord presses play on his Walkman and dances and lip syncs to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone? Yeah, that’s me. When I was a kid, I used to dress up, pop a cassette tape into my purple boombox, grab a brush to serve as my makeshift microphone, and lip sync to Jem and the Holograms songs. As a teenager, I performed in choral groups and a musical, knew all the words to pop songs on the radio (even the ones I couldn’t stand and, yes, I always sang along), and made dozens of mix tapes and CDs. Even now, I have songs that resonate with me so much that I consider them theme songs, everything that I write has its own soundtrack, I have something of an obsession with vinyl records, and I have loads of playlists on my phone for everything from workouts to my quasi-pyromania. It was music that brought my husband and I together. I met him at a bar in Kent, Ohio the summer after I completed my master’s degree. He drove me back to my car and we sang along with the radio and in that moment, I felt more comfortable with him than I had with anyone I’d met in the entire two years I’d spent in my program. This is all to say that I truly think my musically obsessed nerdom might be at the Rob Fleming level.

At one point in High Fidelity, a depressed Rob wonders “Which came first, the music or the misery?” It’s a chicken and egg question really and I totally get what Hornby (through Rob) was saying about the power of music. It affects my emotions like nothing else, amplifying or altering my mood far more than any drug ever has. That power was never more evident to me than when I began to heal.

I became depressed back in high school and it stayed with me for decades, festering. Music, like writing, became my solace; it helped me to both embrace my bad feelings (acknowledge them) and escape them. I would write about what I felt, what I experienced, because I didn’t believe that I could or should talk about it. It was a lot of very dark, moody, material, reminiscent of E. A. Poe’s gory, weird tales of horror. I would also write what I wished that I felt, what I hoped that my life might be like, creating characters who talked with each other about what they were feeling, tried to help one another heal, and showed each other love. At some point, the music, like my writing, began to fade. If depression hadn’t made me such an utter zombie, I would’ve seen that as a clear sign that things had gone way too far.

Then one day, I walked into this little record store at the mall where my husband had shopped a few times before, intending only to buy him a record or two as a birthday gift, but as I strolled around the store, browsing the racks, something strange happened. I saw albums and artists that I’d grown up listening to and it began to rekindle my lost love. I hadn’t owned or even really listened to a record since I was a kid, but when my fingers flipped through the “R”s in the Rock/Pop section and found that rather worn copy of Lou Reed’s Transformer, I felt compelled to buy it because it was mine, it belonged to me. When I brought that record home, put it on the turntable, pressed play, and heard the opening guitar riff of “Vicious” issue from the speakers, I was transformed. From that moment on, music, followed closely by writing, re-entered my life again in earnest, turning up the volume on my emotional and psychological healing. It was no accident that I found that record that day. Music and writing are a vital part of my self, my soul; without them, I withered and when I found them again, I began to bloom. They were my voice when I had none and they helped me to finally find my own.

Ranée

Silence Is Golden

I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to disappear.  I remember staring out of my bedroom window, looking down at the snow and imagining myself falling into it, sinking deep beneath the vast whiteness, until I was completely covered over, frozen and blissfully numb.  I wanted to feel nothing because every emotion that I did feel was just too intense to bear. 

That desire to turn off my emotions stayed with me for most of my adult life—for nearly twenty years.  I took all the pain of fake friends (the “cornflake girls” or “mean girls”) and bad, meaningless relationships, including a sexual assault that I blamed myself for, and shoved it down as far as I could.  I became the very thing that I hated—a liar.  I hid my true self behind a mask every day because I was desperate to conceal the turmoil inside me.  I spent an excessive amount of money and time on expensive clothes I couldn’t afford and on perfecting my outward appearance because I was determined that no one would see what was really going on with me.  That’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  If you feel bad, you’re supposed to just suck it up and get over it.  When someone asks how you’re doing, you’re supposed to say “OK” or “good” or some other positive word regardless of whether you’re genuinely feeling that way.  I put up walls to protect myself, to stop anyone hurting me again, to keep people from seeing through the carefully crafted facade, and to keep myself from feeling for them because the last thing I wanted was to feel someone else’s pain on top of my own.  

Despite my efforts, I could never completely turn off my emotions, even when I tried to drown them in alcohol.  All of the negative thoughts and feelings that I kept locked up inevitably escaped, often in the form of anger or tears. 

Depression is a secret, silent predator because it strikes from within.  It eats you alive.  Depression coupled with anxiety is absolutely paralyzing, like screaming in silence.  The longer conditions like these are left untreated, the worse they get.  You become stuck in quicksand and you can’t even move or try to pull yourself out because you just sink deeper and faster.  It took having panic attacks at work to scare me into finally talking to my doctor and then a therapist and a psychiatrist about what I was going through.  

That was five years ago. I’m still seeing a psychiatrist and have been through a series of reiki healing sessions, but am proud to say that thanks to other changes that I’ve been able to make in my life, including a complete rehaul of my diet and beginning an exercise regimen, my medication dosage has been stepped down to the lowest level. Allow me to pause here to say that taking medication to ameliorate symptoms of a mental health condition is not a bad thing. In my case, my doctor, my therapist, and my psychiatrist all agreed that my specific depression and anxiety were situational, that in order to really battle them, I had to be able to change my lifestyle. I couldn’t have done that without the immensely helpful boost that medication gave me. But not all mental health conditions are the same; causes as well as treatments are unique to the individual, so needing medication or higher doses of it should not be seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of progress. What I’ve learned in my recovery process is that there are two things that are vital for all of us to have good mental health: self-care and a supportive environment.

Self-care means taking care of yourself on all levels—nourishing your mind, body, and soul. I didn’t really start doing that until a year and a half ago. When I did, it kicked my healing into overdrive. Things that have helped me are eating healthier, exercising daily, meditating, spending time in nature, finding a good work-life balance, and making time for things that I enjoy doing like writing. For me, maintaining that creative outlet is essential.

Apart from taking care of yourself, you also have to surround yourself with genuinely supportive people who have your best interests in mind, ones who aren’t deaf and blind to your pain or contribute to it, but recognize when something is off and encourage you to talk openly about whatever you are feeling.  They will do seemingly little but incredibly meaningful things like say, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you seem down/stressed?  Tell me what’s going on” or “How can I help?”  For a long time, I lacked those sorts of relationships or kept myself from having them out of fear of incurring further pain.  Now that I do have them, I foster and cherish them.

There is one other thing that I believe is essential to coping with and changing the perception of mental health conditions and that is to talk openly about them and encourage others to do the same. There is still such a tremendous stigma attached to mental health conditions, but we can collectively change that. If those of us who have experienced these issues share our stories, first with each other and then with the world at large, then we can tear up the labels that ignorant, insensitive souls want to assign us. There will be no more screaming in silence but a chorus of voices too loud and beautiful to ignore.