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A Year of Depression

The end of this month marks the one-year anniversary of when I first came down with depression.

It happened quickly. There was no known trigger. I was driving, almost home, likely singing out loud, and BOOM. I felt my mood plummet like all my happy chemicals took a running leap off the side of a bridge.

At first I thought maybe it was cyclical hormones. But it wasn’t the right time, and anyway, this didn’t feel like that. It was a feeling I’d never had before, scary because of the newness, and scary for the feelings themselves.

When I bring up depression so many people ask me, “What exactly IS depression, anyway?” We have a cultural impression it simply means sadness, but it’s so much more complicated than that. I have struggled this whole year with trying to put words to how depression feels. What can I say, what metaphors can I use, to communicate this strange feeling to someone like myself, who had never experienced it before that day?

Heaviness.

Weariness without being tired.

Apathy without the lack of energy.

Loss of will without loss of capability.

Despair over nothing at all.

Words from anti-depressant commercials came back to haunt me: “Are you losing interest in things you once loved?” It’s not just that, though. You lose interest in EVERYTHING. Even laying on the couch zoning out to TV. It’s not like having the flu. There is no comfort to vegging out. There is no comfort to taking a day off.

There is no comfort.

I tried so hard to observe my emotions without being controlled by them. To analyze my feelings without believing I was my feelings. Even as I suffered, the writer in me wanted to learn, to understand. Sometimes the feelings won, though. Sometimes it felt like my brain was panicking, like there was part of me rocking back and forth rapidly in my head to self-soothe, to make it go away.

Sometimes I would find myself frantically going through a list of things that might bring me comfort: food, alcohol, calling out of work, crying, venting to someone, standing on my head — ANYTHING to get rid of this horrible feeling. Usually I could control myself. Usually I would remind myself that those impulses are just that — impulses. The body trying to self-soothe.

I don’t blame my body. It’s in charge of ensuring my survival. But it gave me one more thing to deal with — controlling the impulsivity, on top of the despair, on top of the cloudiness of mind that made it hard to process quickly, multi-task, or make clear decisions. My instinct for the correct action to take in a situation used to dart like a silver fish through clear water. Now my decisions rise up as if through syrup.  Murky. Slow.

I don’t remember very much of last fall. I know I got through my full load of classes. I got A’s. I held out, hoping it was the stress of work and going to school full time, plus some family drama, that was making me feel this way.

But it wasn’t.

In February I finally got on medication. Except they didn’t warn me the medication might make it worse for a while. That sucked.

Then it got better.

The medication started working. I started to feel like my normal self again: buoyant, excited, capable. I got back on a diet, lost twenty of the pounds I’d gained. I moved to a gorgeous and inspiring new house. I had success at work. I even learned through some family members that depression apparently runs in my family! Wow! Solidarity!

Unfortunately, over the past couple weeks the depression seeped back in. I had a particularly bad day, the worst day so far, and actually had to leave work for the first time. Driving home was so hard. Every moment I had to force myself to stay present, to keep making all those little muscular changes involved with driving. Resisting the pull toward entropy was exhausting.

By the grace of God my doctor had a cancellation and I was able to see her the very next morning. She put me on a second anti-depressant, one that deals with different chemicals. I have felt a little better each day, and still have more upward swing to look forward to.

Things have been hard lately for another reason: apparently my first anti-depressant gave me a new side effect: anxiety! Another fascinating and new experience. An irrational panicking of the brain — I know when it’s happening, but the feelings are sometimes stronger than logic.

Google ‘clinical depression’ on your smart phone to take this test.

And still, I’m lucky. So, so, so lucky. I don’t have panic attacks. I don’t self-harm. I’m not suicidal (a sincere thank you to everyone who asked if I needed more help than I was letting on. You’re doing the good work). Heck, most of the last year, even in the darkest times, I was still able to write. Beyond lucky.

It’s this privilege that makes my depression hard to talk about sometimes. Fellow sufferers have implied I have it relatively easy, so I shouldn’t complain. Well-meaning individuals have implied it’s my own fault: I’m not trying hard enough (I am), I’m not taking the right vitamins (I had all my levels checked, and my thyroid), I haven’t figured out what’s really bothering me (pretty happy with my life, thanks), I’m not leaning on my faith hard enough (God’s not punishing me, promise), etc.

These experiences can make it hard to feel comfortable sharing, but I persist because I have the right to own my story, and I still need support. I persist because being open about it helps others.

I am so proud to be able to say that several strangers — strangers!! — have reached out to me online or by phone because they saw my story, or someone else told them about me.

In my professional life I have been able to meet fearful confessions with solidarity — me, too! It’s so easy to get wrapped up in our own heads and play by rules we forget are made up. So easy to think we shouldn’t get help until we’ve taken care of everyone around us. So easy to not notice how bad it’s getting because you’re so focused on getting through one day, one minute, one second at a time.

So easy to feel alone when no one else around you is talking about it.

So I’m talking about it.

Holy crap you guys, I have RELATIVES with depression! Coworkers! Friends! Current and previous sufferers — we are all around you!

Normalizing the fact that for whatever reason my brain doesn’t always make the right chemicals has been so liberating. It’s an illness like any other, a slight issue with one of my body parts. And I’m treating it.

These are the things I want to say to you, if you think your brain might be giving you depression.

Objection: I probably don’t need help, it’s not that bad

I mean, it’s your choice. But don’t forget this: you DESERVE to feel okay. You DESERVE to be healthy. You are the caretaker of your own life, your own best advocate. Treat yourself like your dearest loved one: If they were suffering, would you tell them it’s probably not that bad and they don’t need help? No, you would drive them to the doctor’s office yourself, wouldn’t you? Do the same for your own self. Take care of you.

Objection: it takes so long to get help

I’m not going to sugar coat it. Yes, it takes a few weeks to get an appointment, then to be analyzed, then to get a spot to see the prescribing physician. Then to ramp up on medication. Then to get the dosage correct.

But the time will pass anyway. Why not spend it on working toward a future when you feel better? IT IS WORTH IT.

Objection: I can’t afford treatment

I won’t sugar coat this one either. It’s expensive. I am so lucky that I can afford it. But don’t count yourself out just yet. Call around to clinics and ask if they take your insurance. Ask about copays. Ask about financial aid. Ask about discounts. You can find someone to help you.

Objection: I want to get help. I just can’t.

It’s getting pretty bad, huh? Time to tag in a friend. A teacher. A manager. An HR Rep. A librarian. The customer service line for your health insurance. The national suicide hotline. Someone doesn’t have to be your relative, your BFF, or your significant other to want to help you. You will be SHOCKED by the number of casual acquaintances or even strangers that would LOVE to help you look up resources, to help you make an appointment, or give you some encouragement. Just try it. Say this:

“I think I might have depression. I want to get help, but I can’t seem to do it for myself. Will you help me?”

Resource: How to cope day to day?

For a headache, you can take aspirin. For a cold, there are oodles of products. For anxiety, you can take a prescribed medication, like Xanax. Unfortunately there is no quick-fix, take-as-needed pill for flare ups of depression. I know, because I asked.

Instead there are things you can do to prevent episodes, and to manage them as they come. Often these are the same things. Here’s what the doctor recommended for me: Get out of your own head. Exercise. Meditate and be mindful. You know, all those things that are super hard to start, but once you get momentum it helps keep you on track.

Sometimes the only way out is through.

Forward

I have no plan to quit the anti-depressants anytime soon, but I might try it in the future. School has started for me again (only 8 classes left until my Bachelor’s!). I still have books to write. Dreams to achieve. Better days ahead.

When I’m in the throes of an episode, sometimes my words fail. Communicating is exhausting. I put out a call for support on Instagram recently and the love you sent me was so helpful. Thank you to everyone who wrote a note of encouragement. It’s good to know you’re listening.

I hope to update you soon with news of improvement. I’m confident this will happen.

Until next time,

<3

Savannah

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Personal Update: Moving, Glasses, New Stories, and more!

I can’t believe it’s been 3 months since we last talked. Time has definitely gotten away from me. Here’s a quick update on everything to catch you up on what’s happening!

Moving

Chris and I moved! Into what is basically a modern day fairytale castle.

Here’s what went down:

Continue reading “Personal Update: Moving, Glasses, New Stories, and more!”

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Seven Sentences with Maggie Stiefvater

It has long been a dearly-held dream of mine to meet Maggie Stiefvater, and last weekend it finally happened.

Maggie and Courtney Stevens hosted a workshop called Seven Sentences that took place in a beautiful lodge on a lake outside of Nashville. Chris and I had stayed the night before up in Nashville due to a mini family reunion on his side that coincided perfectly with the seminar I’d signed up for months ago.

The things is… I was totally dreading it.

When you envision meeting your heroes, you imagine you’ll do it as your best version of yourself. Going into the workshop I felt like the opposite of that. My depression was better but still kept me quiet and dull, due to the emotional eating I’m not at a weight where I feel great about how I look, I hadn’t written anything new in a month, and I don’t even have the credibility of being signed with an agent right now. Even so, it turned out pretty good, and I’m glad I went instead of bailing, as I was tempted to do.

Maggie and Court were insightful, hilarious, and their presentation was incredibly well-prepared. They showed slides of their pictures from childhood, detailed examples of their own writing, and fun demonstrations of all the concepts we learned.

The theme of the workshop, of course, is that the first seven sentences set the reader expectations for the book. They are both hook and thesis statement, inciting curiosity and forming a connection with the reader instantly. But the workshop wasn’t so much about composing those seven sentences. Instead it was about getting in touch with our individual emotional expertise as a writer, how to frame scenes and plots to communicate a defined message, and the biggest lesson at all — that it’s okay to fail, and start over.

These are my favorite of the things we learned:

The Wheelhouse

In our workbook we were challenged to identify our personal Wheelhouses. What are the subjects you are an expert in? These subjects come in a variety of topics, including Relationships, Settings, Characters, Genres, Stories, Experiences, Moods, and Skills. It was totally awesome to see Maggie and Court put up their own personal wheelhouses. Here’s Maggie’s:

From here we explored what this really means, and how getting to the core of our expertise can translate to other stories. Here’s an example from Maggie:

In this way you can identify the emotional truths underneath your expertise and apply it to your stories.

Lenses

This lesson totally blew my mind.

Apparently each sentence addresses the reader through one of seven different lenses, from Stranger (presenting facts only) to the Character themselves (intimate personal experiences). Adjusting the lenses adjusts the tone, and even the speed at which a book can develop (Stranger is fastest, Character is slowest).

I loved this activity because a) it was an entirely new concept and b) it showed me that I often focus my writing between Best Friend and Character. I have conflated the creative, descriptive intimacy of Character with ‘good’ writing. Something to think about for the future.

Failure

During the entire presentation, a large stack of boxes arranged in a 7-foot tall Jenga tower waited ominously in the front of the room. I’d heard of this tower from one of the MadCap Retreats (in 2016 I think), and Maggie and Court frequently joked about how they’d encouraged attendees to pour their hearts onto the box… only to burn them on the final night.

Our demonstration was not nearly as fiery.

Instead, at the end of the seminar audience members were invited to come up and literally play Jenga. But the boxes were different sizes, and it soon became difficult to create the tower and keep it standing. Finally the tower grew so large that even when standing on chairs the other writers in the room weren’t able to get the boxes to the top.

“Do I have a tall friend in the audience that could help us out?” Court called.

My entire row looked to me. I knew my time had come:

As any long-time readers or friends know, I’m 6’2 and then some. After only two rounds of this the tower grew so unstable that with Court’s urging we let the tower lose a few levels, then she and Maggie knocked the whole thing down.

“What is the point of Jenga?” Court asked the audience. “To knock down the tower.”

We were so concerned about preserving the integrity of the tower, but nothing bad happens when it falls down.

The lesson?

It’s okay to fail when writing. Nobody dies. No one gets hurt. Don’t take it so seriously, and have fun.

I met several lovely, friendly, supportive writers, to whom I gave my apologies for not being my usual upbeat self. They were very kind and sympathetic, and have my gratitude <3

Also, I got to meet Maggie.

We were outside in the courtyard pictured above, many attendees already heading out. I wore my heart shaped sunglasses and she wore her aviators.

“The Raven Boys changed the trajectory of my writing,” I told her. I still clearly remember that moment in The Raven Boys when the gang enter Cabeswater for the first time. My whole body lit up with goosebumps. “This is magic,” I thought to myself. “I want to make magic like this.”

I have read The Anatomy of Curiosity, a book Maggie and her two friends wrote dissecting how they construct a story. I’ve seen Maggie deconstruct some scenes from The Scorpio Races. I never felt ready to enter that level of analysis with my writing, relying on my same old tricks of instinct. But now, after this seminar, I feel ready to take my writing to the next level.

Just a few more things to edit on Shotgun Girl, and it will be ready to send out into the world.

I’ll let you know how it goes ;-)

<3,

Savannah

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Depession Strikes Back

 

(Psst, I’m going to be at Seven Sentences with Maggie Stiefvater in Nashville on April 2nd. If you will be, too, pop in and say so! Let’s meet up!)

When we last spoke about this issue I was full of hope and excitement, having passed through a hard, dark chapter in my life. Or so I thought.

I regret to inform you that my depression made a comeback at the end of January. I countered with medication, which at first seemed to help, but then sort of… didn’t. Unfortunately my doctor’s office had to reschedule my follow up appointment so I spent about a month going through the worst episode I’ve experienced so far. Not getting it right the first time and having to do tweaks is perfectly normal, but it also super sucked.

One of the questions they asked in my appointments, both with the initial therapist and later the doctor is, “are you experiencing feelings of hopelessness?”

And my answer at the time was… no! I had hope for the future, and I acknowledged these feelings I’m experiencing aren’t normal or reflective of my regular self/life, and that I am both able to and willing to get help for them. I felt confident the doctors and I could handle it together.

But I thought more about that question as I witnessed myself living with depression, and analyzed how I felt and acted. I thought about the nature of hope, and about all the books I read (some of which were incredibly influential) where hope is considered a driving force of life and humanity. And how, very slowly, bit by bit, day by day, something in me was eating away at my hope.

The future once was something to look forward to, something bright and exciting. A climb. But over the past month it seemed like a meander over flatlands. Repetitive, boring, unfulfilling.

As a writer I strive to put words to these feelings, and accurately describe what I’m experiencing.  One of my breakthroughs recently is that depression doesn’t sap my energy — it takes away my stamina instead.

A subtle difference.

I had the energy to accomplish something, but the driving force to get there was gone. It took an external pressure, like an impending deadline, to get me into gear. And if there was no external pressure, something like cooking healthy meals, exercising, doing laundry, and sometimes even showering just didn’t get done.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I had good moments, hours, days. And even in the throes of it, I am so grateful that I’m able to remain functional and otherwise physically and emotionally healthy. And I’m able to keep the faith that this is temporary, and it will get better. I am so, so lucky that my life is otherwise stable and drama-free.

An interesting side effect of depression is that it didn’t leave me any energy for non-essential concerns, or playing mental games with myself. Through inability to exercise and emotional eating I gained back almost all the weight I lost a few years ago. That was a disappointing thing to realize, but I also care less about it than before. My response to discovering my stomach isn’t as flat as I like is now, “well, whatever, everyone can just deal with it,” instead of obsessing about it all day. I found it was easier to send emails asking for favors, or to say direct, firm things to people. I guess the depression made me less self-conscious, and I appreciate that. Silver linings!

There have been some other interesting and positive things to come out of this experience. After I made the announcement on my blog, several people reached out to me to share their own experiences with depression. Mentioning it at work or in public has led even more people to open up in confidence, which is so wonderful and helps me feel more normal. There’s an invisible network of depression-sufferers out there, and so far they have all been warm and encouraging :-)

I was particularly grateful when a relative reached out to share they’d had the same experiences, down to being able to detect when their depression starts and stops. What a relief to hear that! Apparently this ‘episodic’ depression is rare and unusual, and several people and even doctors met my descriptions of what I felt with skepticism. But I’m not the only one!

I hope that being open about what I’m going through will help reduce, even in some small way, the stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses. Perhaps if I’d known I had blood relatives who have gone through this I would have recognized what was happening earlier. Not to imply anyone did anything wrong here — I live states away from the core of my family and am relatively young myself. I mean, when is it ever a good time to sit down with a relative you see maybe once a year and tell them your mental health history? But on the other hand, I know about my family’s physical health risks — the history of cancer, BRCA status, heart disease, etc., but no one ever talked about mental health trends in the family. I want to make sure my little sister knows what I’m going through, and what it feels like, in case this happens to her someday.

And look, talking about this is… risky, I know. I don’t want depression to define me, or for other people’s internal prejudices or misconceptions to affect our interactions, especially at work. It’s awkward, too, sometimes. But on the other hand, to my knowledge no one has treated me differently, and I haven’t suffered any negative consequences by being open about this. That’s a wonderful thing, and I’m glad for the courage of everyone before me who disclosed stuff like this, when it was much harder and riskier. I stand on their shoulders.

Thankfully, when I could finally see the doctor they got me some help and modified my medication. As of Monday I’m feeling so, so, SO much better. I was able to get back on my healthy diet and start running again. I also finally feel ready to confront Shotgun Girl edits once more.

Over the past month I didn’t write very much, because Shotgun Girl was with some amazing critique partners, whose time and attention have been a marvelous and generous gift. They say it’s ready, you guys! Just one scene left that needs some tweaks. I took the time off to read a ton and tentatively dream about my next project. I like to have something in the wings even while I should be focusing on Nameless. Shotgun Girl took two years to incubate and I don’t have another project queued up like that, but lots of faint ideas I’ve been waving at distantly for several years now. Maybe one will come forward and announce itself soon.

I’m not sure where my mental health will go over the next few months, but I did want to disclose it’s been hard to stay active on social media. I also can’t seem to reach out to people very much, but if you get in contact with me I can enthusiastically respond in kind, so feel free to say hey.

Also, if you know of any un-put-down-able thrillers, please recommend them to me!

I loved Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter, and The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon.

Also also, is anyone else so excited to read Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor? My pre-order came in this week but I haven’t even cracked it yet. I know it’s going to be so good I want to savor the idea of reading it just a little longer.

<3

Savannah

PS: Look how big and pretty that Gracie-dog has gotten! She’s gained 20 pounds and grown much taller since we got her at the beginning of December!

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On Being INTJ – And Growing

(Psst! I’m making this blog post available as a Podcast for the first time ever! Check it out here, if that’s your thing.)

Can I be really brave with you guys in this post?

This message has been growing in my heart over the past few months, but I’m nervous to share it with you. I’m afraid that the fact that I’ve struggled so hard with this stuff will reflect poorly on me. I’m afraid of getting this message wrong, or that no one will find these topics as moving and powerful as I do.

But here’s the thing: I really, truly believe in this message. And I made a commitment to be brave this year, and uniquely myself, and I think this post qualifies.

Here’s my truth:

A few months ago I was explaining to a friend the struggle of growing up INTJ and how I’ve changed (and changed myself) over the years. How embarrassed I was by the things I said and did when I was younger, how hard it was to find a place to fit into the world (and sometimes still is), and how radically my job in human resources influenced my growth.

“I know,” she said. “You told me this, once. Years ago.”

Years?

It turns out I have a narrative about myself as someone only recently on the kinder side of things. I guess part of me still feels I’ve only just escaped my old thought patterns. Some part still thinks I have to apologize and preemptively warn people I might slip up and say something completely insensitive, and how hard I’m trying to overcome that.

That blog post I made two years ago discusses the the trials and glories of the INTJ personality type, but I’ve never really explained how I taught myself to evolve beyond the more negative aspects.

In the current political climate I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this: How does one move past judgmental, detached thinking into empathetic, compassionate thinking?

I want to use this blog post to explain how it happened for me, and condense the years of wisdom I’ve accumulated on these topics to hopefully help someone else who wants to change, but doesn’t know how.

But listen, another (terrified) part of me thinks you might read this and go, “Wow, what a freak. Was it really so difficult for you to like and get along with people like, you know, an ordinary human being?”

Have I not made that clear by now? Yes.

If making friends and just generally interacting with people was easy for you from the start, I’m very glad for you. It wasn’t like that for me. My introversion, my social anxiety, my neurotic logical floundering… I was just built and grew up in a way that made people-stuff hard. And because of that, I’ve had to study and practice and dig to get at the heart of what people-stuff is all about, and how I could bring myself more into the fold.

Here’s what I found:

Continue reading “On Being INTJ – And Growing”

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New Beginnings

So many exciting things are happening, or about to happen–I want to tell you about them all at once! However, this will probably make more sense with a narrative:

In November I was diagnosed with depression.

(Don’t worry, it gets better).

You may remember I mentioned feeling a few scary days of it in this post. Well, I’m sorry to say that the symptoms continued shortly thereafter, undulating in varying degrees through my life over the next few months.

I started seeing a counselor and confessed that I felt guilty to be grappling with this thing: guilty not to have it, but to have so little of it. I had the kind of depression that enabled me to get up in the morning, and be productive at work, and even write. I maintained my relationships, and showering, and I didn’t cry. So it felt weird to claim ownership over the term because while it did take a toll on my mental outlook, I was able to stay productive and reasonably healthy. It’s just that my heart was heavy and lacking in hope while I did it.

Nights were worse, because I wasn’t distracted with work. When it was bad I felt like something curled up in my chest and died. I got impulsive–I wanted to do almost anything to  ease this bad, sick feeling inside. I indulged in a lot of binge-eating and wine drinking. When my symptoms were light, it was a sort of vague, restless discontent. A sense of doom. A feeling of hopelessness. A veil of pessimism.

Definitely something separate from my mood–a physical feeling on top of my mood. At my counselor’s recommendation I got my vitamin levels checked, my iron levels, and my thyroid. All test results were normal, and there was very little to talk about in therapy, aside from some family drama that cycles in and out.

I was hoping that after finals ended in early December the cloud of depression would lift, but instead it got worse, indicating it wasn’t exactly stress-related. I was kind of hoping it was, because that would make sense, and be somewhat fixable–I work full time, go to school full time, write, take care of the house, cook to eat healthy, and try to exercise (though I’m not very good at that lately). I also have relationships to maintain, with my family, and Chris, and our dogs (yes, dogs plural! more on that later).

Wouldn’t it make sense if this was caused by stress? Wouldn’t it be better if it was caused by stress, because I could cut back on the number of classes and make other modifications to get back to normal?

But it wasn’t. As my therapist explained, this was just something my brain was doing right then. Which was disappointing and weird, because I’ve always been so naturally upbeat and positive. I felt like it was my fault, even though I was told it’s not.

She recommended I go on anti-depressants, and wrote me a recommendation to take to my family doctor. I’ve never been on anti-depressants before. That was a big step, to me, one I wasn’t sure I was ready to make, even though I longed for freedom from this alien negativity jockeying my brain. Chris recommended I see a psychiatrist, a doctor of brains, so I got an appointment, but it isn’t until early February. I resolved to hang on until then.

And the dark clouds kept rolling over. So there I was: carrying around an extra weight I felt guilty for having, and guilty that while having it, it wasn’t heavier. Depression — a journey of purpose and satisfaction! /sarcasm

During this time, my mantra, my prayer, became Light up my life, modified from a lyric in a Lana del Rey song. I sang and repeated it to myself, looking for something to get excited and passionate about.

Then, Chris and I adopted another dog.

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This isn’t a story about how a dog saved me from depression, because she didn’t. But Grace was a little more light shed on my life, and I’m grateful she gave me something to look forward to and be excited about. A distraction for those brutal, dark evenings.

I’m superstitious about pets–I want to look at a potential new pet and know it’s the one for me. I got that feeling when I saw Bella on Craigslist, and Mia the cat picked me as soon as I went out to go see her behind the break room at work. Chris had wanted another dog for a while, but I just didn’t get that feeling. Besides, I love my Bella-dog like crazy, and didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable or left out. Bella is so perfect, she’s basically a big cat, and new dogs might not fit in with our little lifestyle.  However, one night we were browsing pet finder and came across a picture of Grace.

Shit, I thought. I think that’s my dog.

We put in an application for her and out of many were the only family approved. Grace had what we were looking for–a medium-sized dog to be a playmate for Bella, white like I like, and a Pyrenees-lab mix like Chris wanted. He frequently bemoans that as a Samoyed Bella isn’t very family-minded, and she’s not a good cuddler. Grace is both.

Their first meeting went really well:

It just reaffirmed that she was the perfect dog for us… she and Bella became instant best friends and play all the time. What a joy for Bella, too, to have that in her life :-)

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But again, while that was a very lovely thing (and I’ve been spamming Instagram with pics of her and my other pets), it didn’t really fix my main depression problem. Then, a week ago today, a most amazing thing happened:

It went away.

I know, it sounds weird. Everyone I tell is like… yeah that’s not how depression works. You’re not supposed to feel it come and go. But guys, I’m telling you, I could feel it happen. I was up way too late, around 2am, and I finally made myself turn off my lamp and go to bed. As I lay there, brain too active, trying to find the rhythm to fall asleep, I felt the depression go. It fizzled away like steam into the air.

Yeah. Super weird.

I kept this development close to the chest for a few days, but it hasn’t come back. I feel normal again. I feel like myself again. And, it turns out, this period of depression was a blessing in disguise. Which leads me to the other super exciting thing I’m dying to talk about:

I recently had a Manifest 2017 session with Andrea Scher, and it totally changed my life. Andrea led me through an examination of 2016 and a goal/dream setting for 2017. It was so weird to look back at 2016–the depression gave me short-sighted vision, and I’d forgotten everything I accomplished:

  • Wrote Shotgun Girl after 2 years of dreaming about it
  • Made excellent progress on Nameless, especially in terms of story. I made so many brave choices this year with that book, including cutting 30k and letting one of the main characters take a totally unexpected and intimidating turn!
  • Traveled a ton! I went to NYC with my sister, Las Vegas with Chris, Georgia with Susan Dennard, St. Louis with Kat Zhang, and New Orleans with my sister again! Plus a couple trips up to Nashville for concerts, one of which I did all by myself!
  • Maintained relationships with the people most important to me. I developed my relationship with my littlest sister. Chris and I remained happy and in love. That was the wonderful thing about therapy, and my depression, and any issues I have really: my relationship with Chris is never the problem. He and I are always good.
  • Fully healed from a major psychic wound with the help of Susan
  • Implemented a ton of projects and changes at my day job. Was featured in a trade magazine as one of the ’30 Under 30′ in the nation.
  • Asked the writing club at my University if they would be interested in me coming to give a talk (despite the voice in the back of my head criticizing me, “Why would they want to hear from you? You’re not published”), and it went amazing!
  • Worked full time and took 10 classes over the year, and managed to do all the stuff above.

Wow! 2016 wasn’t so bad after all, right? Andrea surprised me when she called me a “creative powerhouse.” Until I step back and look at it all, I don’t realize how much I really work on and produce. It never feels like enough.

But the true takeaway was Andrea’s method for teasing out my hidden dreams and aspirations, and beginning to manifest them into reality by writing them down–and getting specific. Andrea was so great at this. From the tangled word vomit I threw at her, she was able to pull out my core desires and passions like simple, beautiful jewels. She even gently and wisely pointed out a few things to me that I’d been struggling with, but convinced myself to tolerate.

The greatest moment was when she had me write down the characteristics of two people I hugely admire. From there we identified my core goals/values for the upcoming year:

  • To be brave (and bravely make the hard decisions that are best for me)
  • To be uniquely myself (to make the art I want to, not to please others)
  • To be clear and discerning with writing and my career

And as for the issues I was struggling with, she asked me this: What would the people you most admire do in this situation?

You guys, my shoulders just fell. Because I know. I’ve known all along. They would do what’s best for them, and exit the situation. It’s funny how it takes another person to get you to see that. Andrea also made this mind-blowing suggestion that I should be grateful to my depression for knocking down some of my emotional defenses and bringing these issues to light.

Thank you, depression. You really did let something amazing come through.

So I’m making changes. An immediate one you might have noticed is I’ve re-branded my website. I’ve known for years I needed to do this, but I put it off because I adore the special banner picture I commissioned from Corona Zschüsschen. I paid for it, I love it, and it represents me and my work, so how could I get rid of it? But the dark colors, and being bound to such a large header image, were weighing on me. It was a chore to come here and update my website. I always felt icky doing it. As a compromise I will make a print of that banner and keep it in my office so I can smile fondly at it instead.

Another change is that I’ve decided to only take 2 classes this semester, instead of 4. This means I won’t graduate this December like I’d planned. But if I push it off, then I get to use these next 4 months to fit things in my life I really want to do. Why should I have to put my passions and interests on hold for 4 months, to constantly find myself thinking, ‘I’ll do that thing after next semester?’ Why should I risk the side effects that come from all that stress, possibly including returning to depression? Is pushing the graduation deadline really so terrible if it means avoiding all that?

Nope. Not so terrible at all.

This brings me to the third and biggest change: I have ended my professional relationship with my literary agent.

I am so grateful for the support Laura Bradford gave me over the years, and how she continued to stand by me across eight years and three projects with no sales (plus another couple manuscripts that never went on submissions, including Shotgun Girl and the rewrite of Nameless). Her endorsement of me as a writer gave me so much in my life, not the least of which is the experience with LTWF and my lasting friendships and readers from those years. Laura gives amazing editorial feedback that helped me grow significantly as a writer. If your tastes and hers align, I highly recommend her.

I signed with Laura when I was nineteen, and positioning myself as a women’s fiction writer. That is not the writer or person I turned out to be. While this was an incredibly hard decision to make, I feel it’s the right one for me, and I’m very excited to move forward.

The past few days have been unreal. I haven’t felt this good in so long. I feel like I completed a long, hard chapter in my life, and the new chapter is brimming with opportunities.

I am also really excited to entering the querying trenches as a writer informed about the industry and my creative self, so different than how I did it the first time. For years I gave advice to other writers on various blog platforms. We’ll see if I can’t put my money where my mouth is :-)

Talk to you soon,

<3, Savannah

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On the Subconscious

Anne Rie House selfie
Quick aside — me in front of Anne Rice’s house where she wrote The Witching Hour! October, 2016

Several months ago my mother and I were chatting about Anne Rice (whose series The Witching Hour we both adore), and she asked me this question: How, as a writer, do you possibly come up with such complicated worlds, characters, and plots?

I’m sure I gave some bland answer about working at it, or using character reference sheets, but I’ve been thinking more intensely lately about the creation process, especially as it comes to getting to know characters.

For context, at the time I started this blog post (the end of September) I was hard at work on Nameless drafting, after the last post’s announcement that I’d cut an unholy number of words from the manuscript. Many thousands of those words have made their way back in, so it’s not as drastic as I first thought, but the new chapters are filling me with all sorts of emotions. The over-arching one is wonder. I’m actually enjoying working on this book again, and creating new emotional plot beats that take this middle part to a new depth.

And yet I struggle. It’s an enjoyable struggle, and thus I’m fascinated by it. With each new chapter from the male character’s perspective, I end up outlining and ‘sketching’ about five different ways the scenes could go, trying to find the one plot line that feels the most exciting and true. I’ve found the abstract emotions; now I’m trying to translate them onto the page, and it’s just bloody difficult.

Why is that?

Why can one book, like The Cobworld, or Shotgun Girl, proceed at a lickety split pace, and if I need to tear it apart in edits afterward the pieces can mostly be reshuffled and re-stitched without significant damage to the overall emotional arc? But Nameless is definitely not a Team Shitty First Draft Novel. If I try to skip ahead, I lose the magic. Instead I have to build on what came before, molding emotions and editing scenes until they’re as right as I can make them for now. Then I can move on to the next thing.

It got me thinking about subconsciousness, and how it influences the building of a story.

We’ve all  heard some writers say they literally hear voices, or have a character show up and start speaking to them as if telepathically communicating. We all slip into this language, talking about our characters ‘complaining’ or saying how they want to go off in different directions than we planned.

How is this possible? How can what are entirely figments of our imagination get so far out of our control?

I think it comes down to this: Characters are a creation from our subconscious, but our conscious minds treat them like people we actually know. We know what they’d do or say about as well as we’d know the words or actions of a close friend or family member, in a given situation. You know what your best friend will find funny, what will make your significant other scrunch up their face, what gift will bring your parent the most joy. We don’t have telepathy, but we know them, by learning their patterns and habits over time. We can predict them.

Character creation works the same way. Our subconscious, trained to generate characters, plots, story emotions, etc., pushes forward someone for our conscious mind to meet. We get a sense of them, a vague sort of understanding of their energy, and we go from there. We pick names from baby books, we start fleshing out a family, and a mission, and a passion. We might try communing with our subconscious by filling out character interview questions. What’s your character’s favorite food? An automatic answer might pop up — blueberries!

Sometimes you can calculate a character, design them like building a house, and form them to the exact plot/theme you need. Perhaps some of the greats did that, but I don’t, and I think a lot of contemporary writers don’t either. We rely on our subconscious instead, teasing out details based on the mishmash stew of everything we’ve ever fed it, from real-life interactions, to the media we’ve consumed, to the thoughts we think.

When I struggle with a character’s actions, usually what I’m running up against is my conscious mind trying to make the character act in a way my subconscious says doesn’t ring true. This behavior doesn’t match the patterns I’ve been collecting and analyzing your whole life, is what my subconscious would say. So I’m gonna go ahead and make being creative really difficult for you until you figure out your mistake and listen to me.

So there you have it. Characters are amalgams of real people and their patterns of behavior, mixed up and repackaged. We both invented them and can increase our knowledge of them, conscious and subconscious minds passing information and instinct back and forth. Writers are both the creators and consumers of their media.

Now the only question remaining is where exactly ‘creativity’ comes from, but that’s a little out of my depth for now :-)

Since we last spoke I’ve switched back to working on Shotgun Girl, but it’s been slow going. I haven’t been feeling so great mentally here lately, probably due to the stress of working and going to school full time, plus writing, plus the other stresses and dramas of daily life. Today is the first day I feel like ‘myself’ in a few weeks, and I had a lovely session at the cafe this morning tearing apart and remaking the opening for Shotgun Girl. Wish me luck on continuing edits!

Here are some more pictures from when I took my sister to New Orleans at the end of October!

Miss Robicheaux's Academy where they filmed American Horror Story: Coven!
Miss Robicheaux’s Academy where they filmed American Horror Story: Coven!
Toms at Lafayette Cemetery. I highly recommend the Two Chicks Walking tour through the Garden District.
Toms at Lafayette Cemetery. I highly recommend the Two Chicks Walking tour through the Garden District.
Cemetery Wall
The inner wall of Lafayette Cemetery

PS: Got some cool media things happening in the next month or so that I can’t wait to share with you!

<3,

Savannah

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A Collection of the Best Tweets Related to Diversity in YA

As mentioned in my last post, there have been so many great discussions in the YA community lately concerning diversity. It’s a complicated topic, and this can lead to misunderstanding and fighting. The conversations necessarily have to include discussions of privilege, permission, cultural appropriation, giving criticism, receiving criticism, responding to criticism, how to be an ally, whether the term ‘ally’ should even be used, etc.

I haven’t been participating except to retweet occasionally, because I don’t feel qualified to enter the fray. I’m listening instead, trying to absorb as much as I can so I can bring accurate, well-done diversity to my own projects. These are the tweets I’ve collected that, for me, strike at the heart of the matter. I hope you find them as moving or educational as I did:

(the whole thread of the above tweet is super good, but this was my fave:)

In summary:

Diversity is not a trend, a fad, or something only the cool people are doing. Diversity is reality. We live in a diverse world. Representation is important. It is vital for us to change our issue with poor representation, on behalf of ourselves so that we can continue to dismantle our own internal prejudices, and on behalf of the people growing up behind us. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the work we do today can enable children who haven’t even been born yet to enter a world where they can see themselves as the main characters, the champions, the superheroes?

White writers are ‘allowed’ to write diverse characters. No one is telling you to only write characters just like you. In fact, we should include diverse characters, to reflect the natural diversity of the world around us! But if you engage in tokenism, stereotyping, or poorly recreate the experience of being a person different from yourself, expect to get called out on it. Receive that criticism with grace and apology. Vow to educate yourself, not place the burden of educating you on those calling you out. Then follow through. Get better.

Support diversity (This list is a good place to start). Vote with your dollars. If you are in the publishing industry itself, dismantle your own prejudices and make sure you’re giving diverse writers a seat at the table.

Treat each other with love. We’re all humans here. Listen to those who say they are hurting. Believe them. Figure out what you can do to make it hurt less.

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Nameless Check In

I have so many things to tell you after a blog silence of a few months (Las Vegas! Visiting Kat Zhang! Visiting Susan Dennard!) but today I want to talk about Nameless.

The last official update about Nameless was in January, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t end up working on it too long before switching over to Shotgun Girl. I finished the draft in June and completed my own edits in late July. I was supposed to turn my attention back to Nameless, but it was so hard.

I hated working on it. Like, hate-drove to the cafe, hate-set up my laptop, and hate-drafted for an hour each day. I assumed my problem was that I’d spent so long starting and stopping on this middle section that I was just bored of it. I decided to take up the rally cry of “Team Shitty First Draft!” once more and plow my way to the finish.

It did not go well.

You’re showing up, I told myself. You’ll start to feel better. Just finish the damn thing. And yeah, I was writing upwards of 1k per day, but the draft felt absolutely dead.

I was also re-reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC, and encountered the story where she talks about a project she’d put to the side turning up dead when she went to work on it again. Liz feels that if you don’t dedicate to an idea, it has the right to leave you and seek out someone else to help midwife it into the world. I don’t know about the rights of ideas, but suddenly I got The Fear:

What if I’d let Nameless sit for too long? What if I’d spent too many years pushing it to the side when something easier (and often more exciting) came along, and now it had finally left me for good?

I didn’t want to give Nameless up. I owe too much to myself, the readers, and the story itself. But it was agony to work on it, and I knew if I was having this much trouble, any future readers were definitely going to hate it. I even got to the point where I was considering drastic plot rehauls (yes, even now that the middle plot is the most condensed and action-y that it’s ever been), up to the point of discarding the whole Rebellion idea entirely and turning the book into a general sort of romance with no bigger societal conflict.

sav-and-susanThen I visited Susan.

Susan and I used to be in LTWF, and then Pub Crawl together, and I hadn’t seen her since Summer, 2011. She graciously invited me out to spend the night with her at a cabin in the woods of Georgia.

We hiked, visited the adorable local town, and ate some amazing food. And the whole time, we were talking. It was an amazing experience hanging out with her. Susan helped me heal from an old wound and exorcise some emotional demons I’d been carrying around.

I didn’t say much about it online, but the previous week I’d experienced something I can only describe as depression, and the experience was terrifying. Out of nowhere as I was driving home my mood tanked, like I could physically feel my hormone levels drop, and they didn’t come back for several days. I’ve never felt anything like it before. It felt like something curled up in my chest and died. Nothing was interesting, I didn’t want to do anything, not even something mindless like watching TV. Chris could convince me to go out, and I kept going to work, kept doing homework, but in the back of my mind my thoughts were always racing: what if this doesn’t go away?

bridgeI told Chris about it obviously, and my family, and my boss. If it continued or maintained I would have gone to a therapist for help. Thankfully it lifted on its own, and in hindsight might have been triggered by a stressful family situation, on top of working full time, on top of taking four classes this semester, on top of receiving a challenging edit letter from my agent concerning Shotgun Girl. I’m so relieved to return to my normal buoyant mood, but it really taught me something about the reality of folks fighting depression. I could easily see how a long-term existence like that could wring absolutely all enjoyment out of life. If you’re struggling with depression you have my every sympathy. Don’t be afraid to reach out — it’s really not your fault, and if all those traditional remedies like Eat Right! Exercise! Sleep! can’t help fight it off, please do go see a professional. *sympathy hug*

Anyway, thankfully this depressive episode lifted the day before I went to see Susan, but it was still good to talk it out with someone, and catch up on everything from the past few years. Our conversations were so healing I’m convinced they must have shaken loose a psychic cap on some part of my brain, because as soon as I got home some very interesting things started happening with Nameless.

soozPart of our conversations revolved around the latest discussions in the YA community (especially on Twitter) concerning diversity. I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that there have been many wonderful hashtags, groups, and blogs created to promote and support more diverse stories in publishing. This of course leads to discussions on privilege, tokenism, and inclusion. It’s been very educational, and it made me think more critically about how I’m representing people of different colors, races, sexualities, and physical abilities in my books.

Kat Zhang and I had had some similar discussions when I visited her in July (We went to the Zoo, took pictures in the botanical gardens, saw the new Ghostbusters which was hilarious, and spent several wonderful hours writing in cafes). One of the concerns I shared with Kat was my growing awareness that one of the minor characters in Nameless might unintentionally be seen as queerbaiting. Kat gave me the very wise advice that it’s still okay for the character to act the way he does as long as I include other queer characters, so we can see the diverse situations in which characters like this exist. Sorry about the vagueness, trying not to spoil too much!

kat-and-savKat was right–queer people exist in real life and I have ample opportunity in this story to represent this fact. In fact, I have the really cool opportunity to explore how the society in Nameless would see queer people, and how they would treat queer women different from queer men.

But after the supremely liberating conversations with Susan, I returned home and my characters started whispering. That’s a metaphor, of course–I don’t literally hear characters talking. But new ideas kept cropping up, new situations and new emotional reactions I’d never imagined before. I must admit at first I shied away from them–if this new scene I was picturing really went the way it was writing itself in my head, then it meant undoing so much of the book as it was already written.

Wouldn’t it be better, the lazy part of me asked, just to continue this hateful slog so at least the book is done? How many times have I ‘started over’ on this middle part? How many months have I been stuck on the same scenes, unable to move forward into the new territory I’m so excited and afraid to explore?

But I listened. It’s an experiment, I told myself. I can write this scene any way I feel, and no one says I have to include it in the book.

You can guess what happens next.

That scene plugged into an emotional resonance I hadn’t felt since the first part of the book (which is perfect and glorious and OMGGGG; it’s just the middle I can’t stand). Shit, I said to myself, realizing what I’d done when the scene was complete. I didn’t know they felt this way.

Once again, I’d been shoehorning these characters into the plot, a lesson I am ashamed to say I already learned three and a half years ago. Once again, my main male character has a mind of his own, and the emotional arc I thought he was on is not the one he really wants to be on.

So I cut 30,000 words.

They’re safe in a separate document, but that’s the total of what I extracted from the manuscript, backing it up to a point where the emotional resonance started to fade. This is probably the most extreme step I’ve ever taken with my writing, but I know in my bones it’s the right thing. I must admit I was also bolstered by the knowledge that my idol Maggie Stiefvater did something similar this past June:

The past few nights have been a mad dream of brainstorming, and I found myself praying out loud, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” yesterday as I sketched out a scene unlike anything that had ever existed in the draft. It allowed me to condense two chapters (always a good thing), explain more plot, and stay true to my character’s new emotional journey.

I’m still glad I wrote that 30k of crap because it did help me figure out the general order of events, and I can recycle some conversation rhythms or descriptions. There’s still tons more work to be done (and unfortunately I can’t put off homework any longer, or responsibly stay up far too late a third night in a row), but I don’t care. It’s coming fast and furious, and the best part of all…

Nameless is living again :-)

And so is my excitement for it.

And so is a new way of being more inclusive, and doing greater justice for these characters and their complicated relationship.

I had to be old enough, and educated on diversity enough to let myself go to that place. Once again I find myself so grateful Nameless isn’t under contract (and neither am I!) because I have the time and space to do it justice, even if my growth, and thus its own, has taken place over twelve years.

(Holy crap. I’ve been working on this book twelve years this month).

I’ve also fallen in love with a new band, Cigarettes After Sex, and actually listening to their songs while writing, which is something I absolutely do not normally do. Nameless is really difficult to find songs for, so this is thrilling news!

Thinking of you with love,

Savannah

PS: In regards to the two predictions the psychic made about my family in the last post — one came true! The other is supposed to happen this month. I’ll let you know!