I am not sure how I would define myself, or even if I want to. Like most people, I contain multitudes, sometimes all at once, sometimes sequentially. I recently tried to define myself by way of some personal essay writing, based on my experience of living with mental illness. The goal was to submit to paying markets, and hopefully earn some cash. All in all, the result left me feeling kind of icky. This could be for a lot of reasons, the most important among them being that although I’ve enjoyed reading plenty an essay in my day, the form doesn’t feel right to me as a writer. I certainly didn’t enjoy the process.
This seems perfectly understandable. We all have our affinities.
I like to make things up, and that’s okay, and if you like to tell the truth about your life as you see it, that’s okay too. You might even like the way I make things up and I might like the way you tell the truth about your life. What I am trying to say: If you’re a fiction writer who condemns memoir or a memoirist who condemns fiction…I don’t have a lot of time for you. Please get over yourself. Thank you. If you can’t do this, consider working on your spirit of generosity.
I find that when I write short stories with characters who have mental illness, I can imaginatively (but, key here, also accurately and matter-of-factly) relay their experiences. For example, if a character hears a voice or experiences a delusional thought, I can tell the reader what the voice says or describe the delusion in detail. In other words, I can create rich, vivid description and texture surrounding these elements. But if I wrote a personal essay about my own experience living with those same symptoms, I’d run across one of two problems. Either my essay would have to describe how I experience those symptoms, or possibly at the very least describe what symptoms I experience from time to time. Or, conversely, my personal essay would be devoid of some elements that would endow it with richer texture, thus making it seem somewhat, well, impersonal.
One of the things I’ve realized over time is that I don’t want to share the nitty, gritty details of my own experience of mental illness (in writing for an audience of strangers) because when I do I feel simultaneously overly confronted by and distanced from my own life. Maybe that’s weird. I don’t know. But it’s a very real feeling that I have.
I have, however, found some comfort in embracing other aspects of who I am and writing about that in a way that readers can consume.
Along those lines, The History Worker, my third collection of poetry, recently came out from Black Lawrence Press. (You can check that out here.) The book definitely contains some of my multitudes.
The whole book was inspired by a visit to Hearst Castle, which included some George Hearst Is Great propaganda. But at the time, I was watching Deadwood, which portrays him in a very unflattering (and murderous) light. I started thinking about all the complexities and vagaries of human character.
This, in turn, led me to explore my childhood fascination with Richard III. Maybe you’re thinking: She was probably wondering if he killed his nephews. Nope! I was always pretty sure he did. It seems like the likeliest explanation. I was more fascinated by people who couldn’t fathom that Richard III probably contained multitudes himself, and that a medieval king’s multitudes might have been different than our current ones. In other words, yes, yes, sure he was pious, and gave us tort law (good thing, that), and also caused the deaths of his young nephews. Kind of like how Barack Obama is the hero who gave us healthcare but also, you know, killed people with drones.
Hearst Castle is on the Chumash Highway, and this also led me to explore the idea that land, like all the artifacts in Hearst Castle, has provenance and that those of us of primarily European ancestry exist because land has been taken from Natives. Think about it. Maybe your family, like mine, has roots all over Europe, but at some point, a bunch of our different ancestors left those places (that were far away from each other) and settled in the US and somehow converged all their DNA in such a way that you, we, I have come to be. In other words, if the massive immigration enabled by land-theft had never taken place, a nation’s worth of those of us with a bit of Heinz 57 ancestry wouldn’t be taking place either. That’s something I think more white people should think about. (However, I also try to consider that there are some very good reasons that people want to leave their countries of origin.)
Along those lines, I also take a brief look at my fascination with alien-human interaction and how that’s played out in the science fiction of our day. My take is, historically, when foreigners show up on one’s shores, that hasn’t boded well for the natives. But yet we have these narratives where plucky Earthlings throw off their technologically-superior overlords through, you know, pluck. (My husband, however, claims that any society who could gain the technology to travel even from the nearest star to Earth without first blowing themselves up would have to be so evolved that we might be okay. I think we should all hope he’s right.)
Plus there’s a lot more. So that’s my book.
Meanwhile, I’ve been quietly dabbling in writing some poetry that takes mental illness into consideration. This feels safer to me than the personal essay as a form for this subject matter. These poems involve fairy tales at a high level, and as we all know, fairy tales make everything better.
Signing off for now. Thanks for reading.