Daily Archives: March 26, 2010

Reader Request Week 2010 #6: Depression

Womyn2me asks:

Have you ever been depressed or introspective in a way that was harmful to your relationships or way of life? What did you do to find your way out of it? Do you think people would be surprised or motivated by the depths that you have experienced and come out of?

I’ve been what I would consider profoundly depressed twice in my life. One of these times I’ve discussed here before, including the steps I (or more accurately, we) took to get out of that state, and rather than rehash that one I’ll just commend that link there to you; the piece is worth reading if you haven’t already.

The other time was when I was a teenager and I had had an overwhelming crush on a girl (like, for years) and all the drama of that came to a head in the summer between our senior year and the first year of college. I won’t go into detail about that particular event right now, but I will say looking back that it was probably the one time in my life where I believe that I truly would have benefited from psychological and/or pharmaceutical intervention. I wasn’t suicidal — never have been — nor was I violent, but I was pretty much everything else. Lacking outside therapeutic intervention, I just eventually got over it and moved on. It probably took longer than it should have.

Beyond those two times I don’t think there have been times where I have been depressed to such a great extent that it had a substantive effect on my life, although I also note that I am perhaps not the best judge of that, and maybe others would tell you differently. What I can say is that at no other time have I felt paralyzed by depression to such a degree that I was aware that there was something genuinely wrong with me, and that my state bordered on illness.

Beyond that, well. I certainly get into moods, and always have. The way that I tend to describe it to people is that I have a wide dynamic range to my emotional spectrum. In my particular line of work it can be useful; it has the potential to make you particularly empathetic, which writer should be. But the flip side is that the volume knob on your emotions is twisted all the way over, and this can be problematic. This was something I think was especially noticeable when I was younger, and had less emotional control of myself. If you speak to anyone who knew me as a kid or a teen, most of them can tell you stories of me being far more wound up about things than I should have been.

As an adult, I still have that emotional range but I’m also rather better at dealing with it, a thing which is part of that process we commonly call “being an adult.” Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, because I’m aware I have that sort of emotional range, I also pay attention to when it starts skewing to an extreme, and work to deal with it before other people have to. I think I’m generally successful with this, although again I’m not necessarily the right person to ask.

Having said all the above, I’m aware that some folks out there will now be taking their pencils and plotting out where on the bipolar spectrum I lie (“He’s totally cyclothymic!”). It doesn’t help that I’m a writer, a class of human more showily prone to bipolar disorders than other professions. I’m not going to discourage your fun, or even deny that it’s possible that I could be on that spectrum somewhere because hey, it’s not impossible (although I suspect if I am, it’s something sub-threshold-y). But I’ll note that it is also possible to have a wide range of emotional states, and even occasional bouts of depression, without an underlying mood disorder. I know, I know. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. Even so.

These days, I don’t have much cause to be depressed — my personal relationships are good, my home life is groovy, my career is chugging along, we’re all healthy and have money in the bank — so I’m generally not. The thing that is most likely to make me depressed these days is work, and the (lack of) progress therein. This is especially the case at the start of a new project, when I occasionally have to kick my own ass to get started on it and then kick my ass to keep at it. I get agitated getting myself back in gear. This is one very significant reason that last year I basically rebuilt my book writing process, so that instead of writing, say, 8,000 words in one gout and then spending a week not writing, thus making it more difficult to start up again later, I switched to writing some significant amount every work day. It made a difference in my mood, and as far as I can tell it didn’t hurt the writing any; The God Engines, for example, was written this way, and people seem to think that works pretty well.

Oddly enough, writing poorly doesn’t (generally) depress me. A couple of years ago I was writing the sequel to The Android’s Dream, and it wasn’t going very well — what I was writing just wasn’t working, for values of working meaning “Something I would want to read myself.” Eventually I realized I was going to have to scrap it and start again some other time, and that this was better than trying to keep polishing the turd I currently writing. This pissed me off — I had lost time and blew a deadline — but looking at it analytically rather than emotionally meant I didn’t get that “oh, shit, what do I now?” thing that writers sometimes get, followed by panic, followed by depression. Basically, remembering that writing is (also) a business, and looking at it dispassionately from that perspective, has been a really good regulator of my mood. I don’t suspect this is all that surprising.

One thing I would like to note here is I am a very big believer in people, when they are depressed, finding help for it. Whether it’s an isolated incident or indicative of an continual underlying problem, there are ways to deal with it. Deal with it. I noted above there was at least one incident in my life where my depression was profound enough that I should have gotten help for it; if it weren’t for Krissy being a heatsink for me that other time, there would have been two. Let my own stupidity be a cautionary lesson.

The Big Idea: Kelly O’Connor McNees

Louisa May Alcott is the noted author of a beloved work in the American canon… and what else do we know about her? As it turns out, not as much as we might, despite the public and active life the author led in her time. So when Kelly O’Connor McNees chose to make Alcott the subject of the novel which would become The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, she knew that she’d have to go beyond the facts to get to the woman behind Little Women. Here’s how she did it.

KELLY O’CONNOR McNEES:

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott imagines a fictional affair between this beloved writer and a young man named Joseph Singer, who would later inspire the character of Laurie in Little Women. But that’s just the novel’s premise. That’s not the Big Idea.

Louisa May Alcott was a complex, passionate, and ambitious woman who is remembered for a single novel she wrote in 1868. Written for young readers, Little Women tells the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, whose father is away in the Civil War serving as a chaplain. As the story unfolds, the girls come of age under the wise and gentle eye of their mother Marmee. Each learns to overcome a weakness in her character, and, most famously, Alcott’s altar ego Jo finds a kindred spirit in the next-door neighbor, Teddy “Laurie” Laurence. He later asks Jo to marry him, but to most readers’ great surprise, she refuses.

A longtime admirer of Little Women, I began to read about Alcott’s life a few years ago and found myself completely engrossed by her. Very quickly I understood that I wanted to write a novel about her, but I had no idea how to do it.

The more research I did, the more apparent it became that Alcott’s voice was elusive. I realized that we take for granted the idea that we know this iconic woman—a woman who gave us a story that became an essential part of American girlhood. But it turns out we actually don’t really know her at all. I read several carefully researched biographies and found them captivating, but I couldn’t find Alcott’s voice there. Next, I turned to Alcott’s own letters and journals, and while her words offered a clearer picture, I knew it was incomplete. Alcott was famous in her own lifetime and, fearing the biographer’s eye, destroyed swaths of letters and journals.

It was through this struggle to truly see her that I came upon the Big Idea, which was really more of a question I tried to answer by writing this novel. How do we disentangle Louisa the person from Louisa May Alcott the historical icon? It’s easy to forget that she even was a real person. From 2010, we see her life story and all her accomplishments as inevitable, but I’m sure they didn’t feel inevitable to her. The 150 years of mythology between Alcott and us—the voices of academics who seek to put her in the broader context of American literary history and feminism, as well as Alcott’s own attempts to “edit” her legacy—is quite a lot for Louisa the person to carry on her shoulders. To render her in fiction, I knew I would have to try to strip all that away and get at who she was before she wrote the novel that would make her famous.

I began to imagine Louisa at twenty-two, when she was full of ambition and confidence but had received no confirmation from the world that her confidence was warranted. I pondered who she might have been then. I asked questions like, what kind of person, particularly a woman at this time, makes a conscious choice to believe in herself and try to achieve something without anyone telling her she can, or should?

She succeeded, so we say, “Of course—she knew she was destined for greatness.” But what if she had failed? Well, I wouldn’t be talking about her right now, but in some ways that is irrelevant. What interested me, as I tried to separate the woman from the icon, was not what she accomplished. It was her initial leap of faith, the decision to try to be the thing she wanted to be. That faith stemmed from something, a kind of determination, within Louisa herself. I felt if I could wrap my head around that, I had a place to begin.

Paradoxically, it seemed fiction was the only avenue through which I would be able to see her fully. And just what kind of story could I tell about this woman, a real woman holding equal parts doubt and hope, who is on the cusp but doesn’t know it yet? The answer, it seemed to me, was the commonest story of all: the euphoric and miserable experience of falling in love for the first time. For Louisa, as for many of us, this love would be a threat to life as she knew it. Whatever she did about it, whether she embraced or rejected this love, it would change her. My story, then, would be about how this love shaped her and her writing. It would be about the choices she was forced to make and how the echo of those choices might have appeared later on in Little Women.

On any given day we are, simply, the product of the choices we made on all the days that came before. Alcott’s accomplishments—writing a cherished novel, serving as a Civil War nurse and recording that experience in the fascinating Hospital Sketches, advocating for suffrage and abolition—were not ordained by history. They were not inevitable. To believe that is to deny the existence of the real woman, and the real woman is the essence of the story.

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The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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