Psst! I have a Society6 shop now!!
Today we’re looking at the creative process behind the “Depression” illustration I made last week. Here’s the final product:
And here’s how I did it!
Psst! I have a Society6 shop now!!
Today we’re looking at the creative process behind the “Depression” illustration I made last week. Here’s the final product:
And here’s how I did it!
This post is about how I realized a traumatic event had given me creativity-related impostor syndrome, and how I’m working to free myself from my own unrealistic standards.
This weekend I completed my first big Illustration project, and I’m so in love with how it turned out. I posted it EVERYWHERE of course, and was particularly touched by the reaction received on Reddit. I didn’t realize it would resonate so strongly with some people. That sense of recognition and resonance felt really good.
To quote my FB page:
This piece means a lot to me. Not just for the subject matter, which is obviously related to my mental health challenges over the past two years, but because I was able to make it at all. As my very dear friend helped me uncover last week, I think a core, subconscious cause of my depression has been denying myself the things I really want to do, in deference to unattainable standards and distant hypotheticals.
I’m not waiting anymore. Today is good enough. And I can’t say this realization has ‘fixed’ my depression, or if that’s even possible. Only time will tell. But I can’t over-emphasize how amazing it feels to have THIS day, when I can look at a finished piece of art I made, and be proud of it.
I’m a creator. And just look at what I’ve let myself create.
One of my internal struggles has been the idea that unless I come up with something completely autonomously, it’s not ‘real’ art.
I’m very sensitive to accusations of copying other artists, after a friendship ended over similar accusations. I could trace the inception of the particular ideas involved, and they did not originate with my friend, but for whatever reason (similar age, influences, etc.) the topics of our creative ideas were often similar. By ‘topics’ I mean stuff like ‘zombies’ or ‘fairytale retellings.’ Even though the execution and details of my version of those topics were uniquely my own, and I honestly don’t believe I was copying my friend either intentionally or subconsciously, the accusation gutted me.
My work is so intimately part of me. The accusation felt like an attack on my very soul. I wish it hadn’t, but this incident rocked my confidence in my ability to be creative. It’s given me a complex where I’m very aware of where my ideas come from, and I second-guess the authenticity of my ideas constantly.
I’m now realizing how damaging that was, because most of what we create IS inspired by other people. How could it not be? One of the main reasons I wanted to be a writer was to create the feelings in others that my favorite writers created in me. It’s the same with art. But because of my incredibly high standards for myself I devalued most of my ideas if they didn’t originate in a ‘void’.
The most confusing part of it all is this: I’m REALLY good at remixing. I’m really good at learning new styles by collecting and synthesizing the work of others. I collect and collect, constantly internally refining the vague vision inside me until I’ve fleshed out the details. It’s like… using the filter of others to find what was inside me all along. Or learning to name things in my heart by seeing them in other places. Then I take what I find and run with it.
That’s art. …Right?
But I wasn’t letting it be art. Not to me. And so even the stuff I created with the tools I learned from others, I didn’t accept as ‘real’ art. I devalued my creativity. I didn’t let myself be proud, or own what I made. I didn’t fully consider it mine.
Poor spirit. I see now how I was stifling my own growth.
Let me show you an example:
When I started learning Illustrator, I wanted to create some simple images to practice with. I saw this illustration of a bear on Pinterest and thought it was adorable:
Meanwhile, I’d been taking this tutorial on making animal icons and I felt ready to branch out on my own. So I made this:
As I learned more about Illustrator, the final version came out like this:
But I didn’t consider this 100% my own, original art, according to my unrealistic standards for my own art. The reasons are: I got the idea for a bear from someone else (including the background color inspiration and the ‘blush’ below the eyes), I learned how to do the eyes from that tutorial, and by examining various bear illustrations on Pinterest I learned that cartoon bears need that ‘muzzle’ to look properly bear-like.
Isn’t that so neurotic? Because I didn’t autonomously decide to do a bear — or figure out how to do cartoon eyes, or that I needed a muzzle, or that teal blue is a good color to represent the arctic — I didn’t consider this real art. This totally discounted everything I DID do: decide to make art, do it in this cartoon style, come up with a unique pose, come up with the structure for the paws (without referencing anything else, thankyouverymuch), and — oh, yeah — actually MAKE the thing. How unfair is that to myself?
The credit for coming to this realization goes to my BFF who came to visit a few weeks ago. She was seeing my house for the first time, and admiring the way I’d set up the living room (Chris and I recently sold all our other furniture and got new stuff). Here’s the before and after:
Before: Uncomfortable couches not really in our style
After! Lounging/cuddling space! Room for all the dogs and Chris and I! Updated style! Now there’s a big black ottoman there too to put feet and stuff on!
Reading nook! This space used to be taken up with a black daybed couch thing.
My BFF was complimenting what I’d done with the space, and called me out when I tried to downplay it.
“Yeah, but I spent HOURS on Pinterest and in furniture and decorating stores,” I said. She responded with something to the effect that she could have spent weeks on it and not been able to do this. “Yeah, but I did spend weeks on it. I didn’t just throw it all together.”
“…Is that what creativity means to you?” she asked.
I considered. “It’s just… I didn’t come up with this on my own, you know? I’m not an interior decorator, I didn’t just automatically know what pieces would look good and how to pull everything together.”
And then she said something to me I’ve been clutching to my heart ever since. “I don’t know anyone else who can so consistently decide, ‘Huh. I’m going to go do that thing now’ and then actually do it and have it look amazing.”
Her words were such a huge compliment, and also the first step in a conversation that helped me uncover this strange insecurity about the authenticity of my creativity. Thus began this journey toward dismantling the unrealistic pressures I place on myself, and giving myself the freedom to create in a more free way. And I’m so, so excited to see what I can do with this freedom.
Because I’m a nerd for ‘behind the scenes’ stuff, on the next post I’ll show you the creative process behind the skeleton illustration.
Talk to you soon!
“Emergence” was the theme word for my birthday. My best friend flew down to visit and we spent four amazing days together hanging out, catching up — and healing each other. She very patiently and lovingly helped me explore the glass walls of the maze depression built in my mind until I could jump out and walk free.
A few weeks prior to this I was in another bad depression spell. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was spiraling in a feedback-loop of dead-end thinking and avoidance. I prayed in my journal to stay focused on holding out my spiritual hand, waiting for the help I believed would surely arrive.
Within the space of a few days several dear friends serendipitously offered up the advice I was looking for, showing me I’d been tangled in my own head for far too long. I need time spent among people. I need movement. I need more time living in the body instead of the air above my head.
Now that I’ve broken free from the chains of my own making, I’ve realized how silly it was to be bound like that for so long. Hindsight is 20-20, right? Here’s what I discovered:
A lot of my unhappiness stemmed from the incredibly high standards I set for myself, and the crippling need to perfect details and planning before moving forward with the things most important to me. I have so much creativity I’ve bottled up inside, and so many projects I’ve put on indefinite hold because I wanted to ‘save’ them for when I had a book deal, so they could be used ‘appropriately’ in expanding my platform.
And everything I wanted to do ancillary to novel-writing, I was withholding because I view everything from a monetizing perspective. Why bother learning to crochet, or make jewelry, or carve wood, or do so many other things I want to do, unless I’m going to launch product lines and set up marketing plans and launch Etsy stores, and, and, and…
Such competitive, unrealistic thoughts, right? Art makes me happy. And I don’t need a business plan or financial reasons to make it. I don’t have to devote my entire life path toward a set of products. I can just… make stuff. For the joy of it. That’s a GOOD ENOUGH reason.
And as for writing… one of my most favorite things to do here lately is write little poems about my wonder for life, the universe, science, and God. In the back of my head I figured I’d write in secret for a couple years, and hopefully after I’ve had a few YA books come out I would have enough street cred to justify a small poetry chapbook, and THEN maybe I could start sharing them.
But in some ways that’s putting the cart before the horse. Art comes first, THEN platform. And my fears about ‘wasting’ the sharing of new work, or ruining my chances for copyright or traditional publishing just doesn’t really apply these days in this share-first monetize-later environment. I don’t need a contract to be a real creator, or to start sharing my work.
So, now I am.
I still feel very anxious about ‘muddying’ the waters of my online brand, but I’m trying not to care anymore. To that end I want to make this website more inclusive of EVERYTHING I’m doing, so I’m adding new sections and changing things around some more. I would really like to start updating this blog more frequently and have more conversations. Here are the other things I’m doing:
I started a secondary account for my poetry and poetry-related art. If you like my style, come follow!
I’m adding these poems and graphics on several mediums, most notably Pinterest if that’s more your thing.
I’m finally learning Illustrator! I’d love to make in-person art but I’m still too perfectionist, and computer programs allow me the unfettered ability to tinker. Check out this happy polar bear! I’m very proud of him because he’s the first original illustration I’ve made on my own, instead of copying other people’s art to practice Illustrator functions.
I also made the graphic at the top :-)
I’m back. I was gone for a long time because it was OVERWHELMING. But now I’ve unfollowed a lot of people, especially industry-people, so I don’t get that panicked “I’m falling behind and everyone is doing so much more than me!” feeling. Now my feed is a trickle instead of a river, and that’s way more enjoyable. Plus, several of you have been SO nice and welcoming. You’ve really made me feel wanted.
I’ve been stuck on Nameless for a while. Not because I don’t know what happens, but because of Unrealistically High Standards (TM). Done is better than perfect, right? I’m trying to let go of that itchy perfectionism and get through it (while still having FUN).
I’m feeling WAY better. This week. I hope it lasts, but the past nearly two years have taught me I just can’t know for sure when the depression will come back. I have a book ready to query (Shotgun Girl) but I don’t know if now is the right time. I’m in the last semester of college (graduating August!!!!) and sort of reclaiming my artistic self, so I’m unsure this is the best time to go down that road. I think by the end of the summer I’ll have a better handle on things.
Thank you, as ever, to everyone who has reached out with encouraging words. It still amazes me that we can communicate so lovingly across so many miles. The future is wonderful, isn’t it?
After a week of ice and snow (both wearying and exasperating in the winter-weather-adverse South) the temperature finally picked up and Saturday was in the 60’s. The dogs and I took advantage and ventured out into the country.
We had a lovely time, but Bella is getting older, and she can’t go as far as she used to. I dropped them back home, but I wasn’t done yet.
I have been reading so many fascinating things, about spirituality and brains and the universe. I craved to go out into nature and try to feel that right-lobe magic. To give myself the gift of movement and outside and quiet thinking. But because I am also a creature of narrative and connection, I documented the journey, telling myself the story of my walk and planning to recount it here for you.
I didn’t want to let the rest of the year slip by without an update, so here it is. As hoped for in my last post, things are good! Here’s what’s up:
I’ve felt mostly ‘normal’ since September, which is awesome. Unfortunately I’m not all the way ‘cured’ and I won’t be getting off anti-depressants anytime soon. I feel it there sometimes, seething below the surface. At this point I don’t actively experience the feelings of depression (despair, apathy, etc.) but it has made itself known in an unusual and difficult to describe way:
It’s really, really hard to talk about myself.
Just writing that sentence makes me cringe like fingernails on a chalkboard. But I suspect this total aversion isn’t ‘real’ and should be pushed through. Right? So here goes.
My brain thinks just fine. In fact, I’ve been enjoying a complex and growth-focused inner life, but communicating those thoughts and ideas is excruciating. I am fixated on the thought that everything I have to say is painfully boring to other people. I really can’t over-emphasize how much I am forcing myself to write this. It’s the emotional equivalent of sticking your hand into a bucket of wriggling eels and holding it there.
(Deep breaths. Practice ‘being with’ the discomfort. It’s only feelings. Let it go.)
I have a really hard time interacting with social media, especially Twitter. Going on there makes me feel so out of the loop, left out of the communities I once enjoyed, and ‘behind’ in the race of life. I know logically it will be easy to slip back in, but trying feels impossible right now. Couple this ‘left behind’ feeling with the difficulty of saying something I can convince myself others will find interesting, and I just can’t engage.
I want to reach out to my friends, but even composing messages to say hey makes me feel so worthless and trite. Isn’t that weird? I deeply desire to connect with people and hear about their lives and problems, but even saying, “Hey I can’t really talk about myself but I’d really like to hear from you” sounds so self-fixated, and just ugh. I think I also feel guilty about not being more of a presence in my friends’ lives, and now it feels ‘too late’ to reach out to people? It’s a mess.
But everything else is great! I myself am just hard to talk about :-) So do please say hi, because I love it.
Instagram is easiest to update, but I also feel guilty because I don’t interact with my feed. So I guess the guilt stems from wanting attention but being unable to give it. And it makes me feel so bad and selfish. I shouldn’t impose on others and ask for their time and energy, when it feels like I have so little to give.
It’s a perplexing state of mind, and I really hope it passes soon.
Whew, okay, done.
I’m working on Nameless again, and this time it has me super engaged and interested. The non-fiction I’ve studied this year has been SO helpful in showing me how societies, politics, religions, and technologies all interact with each other to create change. It’s made me realize that everything I studied in school was so myopic I didn’t really grasp the big picture of history. Now it’s fascinating to study political movements, and how societies change. I finally feel ‘grown up’ enough to finish Nameless out properly.
Injecting these new concepts into it has also helped me get over the stumbling block of the previously-planned plot. It’s hard to describe, but I’ve been working towards a particular plot line for several years, and now I realize it’s unrealistic both for the politics and the characters. Revamping the plot has allowed me to re-engage with the character emotional arcs in a more advanced way. I don’t feel bogged down by the weight of previous emotional plans, if that makes sense. Things are new, and consistent, and advanced. And awesome!!!
It’s also a wonderfully refreshing break from Shotgun Girl. I basically struggled with the same two chapters for six months. SIX. MONTHS. On TWO chapters. Miraculously I still love the story, and I don’t feel I was ‘hate writing’ (as I’ve done with Nameless in the past), but I just. couldn’t. get. the edits to connect. Finally I threw in the towel and passed the manuscript, schism and all, to a dear friend. Hopefully getting more brains involved with help me fix this plot snag.
I forget that lesson a lot: manuscripts need friends!! Everything is stronger with more minds and hearts aimed at it :) It’s just been hard with this self-isolation thing. If I hadn’t promised Shotgun Girl to this friend months ago I probably wouldn’t have been able to reach out and ask for help with it.
I’ve also finally set up a writing battle station in the new house, which is a huge mental relief. I hadn’t really settled on a location and it was definitely impacting my mental writing game. Trying to get work done in locations my brain associates with relaxation and entertainment is a surefire recipe to getting distracted, and more often than not taking a nap. BUT NOT HERE.
It’s been 6 years of Bella, and 1 year of Grace! I love these puppy dogs so, so, so much. They are hilarious and sweet and a constant joy.
I don’t usually talk about my work life on here, but I feel like I need to right now. While I’ve struggled with edits to Shotgun Girl over the past few months, I fed most of my creative energy to my day job. I made many beautiful plans, presentations, and projects. I am so proud of what I created, and it’s also so difficult to describe. For the first time I was able to create organization-level objectives and plans to execute them, then start putting my plans into action. Working on my degree has assisted with this type of thinking more than I ever thought it would.
I’m super pleased with my work-self, but it also made me feel guilty for not putting that same level of energy into my writing life. Thankfully, with the buck passed on Shotgun Girl and Nameless spinning itself up so pleasingly, I hope to assuage this guilt soon.
(Susan Dennard recently had a great article in her newsletter about the ‘cult of busy.’ I so agree, and I’m trying not to feel guilty. And to not feel guilty for feeling guilty. So much absurd guiltiness!)
I still love the house. I’m working on an art project for it I hope to be able to share soon. I am trying to create and live the life I want. This means more reading and less TV watching, more art and less passive consumption, eating for a healthy life, exercise through engaging with the natural world, and habits and cycles I’m proud of.
More and more I come back to what my goals were at the beginning of this year, especially the part about being my true self. In a way my disengagement from social media seems like it furthers that goal: living my life instead of documenting it. I am trying to be mindful of my actions and pursuits, and how they add to or detract from the person I want to be.
If you are interested in a Manifest session, Andrea is offering a self-guided course for only $20, though of course I also recommend her $100 over the phone consultation. She is a wonderful human being.
These are some of the non-fiction books I read this year that helped inform my view of history:
I love how this book demonstrates how governments, societies, and resources affected the development of technology, and in turn how those technologies affected society back. Super great overview of ancient technologies and how social systems used them.
I’m trying to get a better handle on UK history and politics, and I’ve always been fascinated with Elizabeth I. This book was great for describing the politics of the day and all the threats and opportunities for rulers.
Another amazing book summarizing the politics of the day. Survival is precarious, even for royalty.
This book takes an incredibly deep and academic approach to Rumi’s life and philosophies. Frankly it’s wonderful to read just before bed, but I’m also loving the insights that come with it. It’s got me interested in other religions in a way I’ve never been before. It’s also helped a ton with interpreting the meaning behind Rumi’s poems, as I make my way through the big red book over the course of several years.
I’m not done with this one yet, but what I’ve read is fascinating (and hard to take. Sometimes I have to take breaks). This book has a reputation for being super leftist, which you may love, hate, or feel ambivalent about, but whichever way you slice it, it’s a fascinating take on history. Again, I love the summaries and showing how social opinion evolves over the years.
If you know of any other great historical non-fiction I am allllllllll ears!
Recently my friend Kat Zhang gave me one of the biggest honors of my writing career by dedicating a whole book to me. I still melt when I think about it <3
This beautiful book is coming to you in May, 2018 :-)
Speaking of friends with books, I want to give a special shout out to Susan Dennard’s upcoming Sightwitch. As Susan struggles with some personal life stuff, her wonderfully creative project was itself dealt a critical blow. Let’s help get the word out that this multi-media, fun, special project is coming next spring, and we all can’t wait for it to arrive!
Until next time,
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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,
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!
Chris and I moved! Into what is basically a modern day fairytale castle.
Here’s what went down:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 ;-)
(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.
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.
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!
(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.”
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: