To Ask Or Not To Ask

Perusing through Twitter, I saw a post that something to the effect of, “What is the best way to write a novel?” At first, I thought to myself, Self…that’s an impossible question to answer. It asks for a normative response to a subjective question. I’d wanted to say as much, that each writer has their own “best way” to write a novel. Often times writers share traits and routines, but their method of writing isn’t any better than the method another group uses. Some people are outliners, who plot the entire book from scene to scene, beginning to end before a single word in the official story is written. Some people are discovery writers, surfing the waves of their story on an elevator pitch. Some people wake up before sunrise and have a couple thousand words written before other people awaken, but those people are also generally asleep before the other people have started their night.

Which way is the best? Well…that’s what you have to discover for yourself.

I’m a general outliner, which I think stems from my days as a D&D dungeon master. There’s a certain thrill in planning things out, especially when it’s a cunning trap or an especially devious plot twist. I like detailing the minutia for the world for my story—types of pants, religions, races, climate, etc.—which was how I outlined my first high fantasy novel. But that story is part of a series, which I feel necessitates outlining due to a need for continuity between books. For all my planning and time spent writing those outlines, the end result (after about eleventy billion edits) looks almost nothing like the original outline. It’s like coming back to your hometown after twenty years or going to your twenty-year class reunion. It’s the same…ish.

For my current work in progress, I decided to take more of a discovery approach. Instead of planning each and every bit of a scene (where the characters go, what they do, who they talk to and what they talk about, what they see, hear, feel, etc.), I create the potential for a great scene with barebones outlining. I limit my outlines to simple elevator pitches in blocks of three chapters, and I finish writing a rough draft of each block before outlining the next. So far, it’s been a fun ride, but I can already tell that I’m going to have to pay a lot more attention to chapter continuity.

It was while I was pondering that message that I had an epiphany—there is a lot more to those questions of “How do I ___?” or “What’s the best way to ____?” Those types of questions get people engaged. Normally, when we ask them we feel lost and a bit overwhelmed by our task at hand, and could use a bit of direction. The questions help writers engage and connect with their peers, and identify themselves as writers. They almost act as a sort of rite of passage, and their responses weed out those who fail to grasp their meaning—as with every skill, we learn and ameliorate through practice. We discover what works for us by trying it and seeing where it takes us. Asking questions like “What’s the best way to write a novel?” doesn’t have a normative answer; the answers open up new possibilities that the writer that they might not have thought about. I remember first learning about the 5:00 AM writers club. Yeah…it’s a thing. Writers actually wake up at 5:00, or even earlier so they can actually start writing at 5:00. I think that’s amazing! Not for me, but very awesome for them. How do I know this? I tried it 🙂 Set my alarm and gave it a whole lot of nope. But I truly admire those of you that do wake up to see those glorious sunrises and put thought to paper.

There really isn’t a best way to write a novel, comic, screenplay, etc. There might be a best way for you, but not a best way for everyone, and figuring that out is part of the fun of writing.

Writing With Mental Illness Part 3

So, what do we do? That’s the big question, I guess. How do we overcome things like Traumatic Brain Injury, remembering that you used to be able to do things easier, and better, but now…you just can’t? That’s different than depression. Do we just learn to deal with what we have, kind of settle for what we got? I don’t think there is any single answer to either of those questions.

Of course, we have to deal with what we got. To do otherwise is just ignoring the issue. But dealing with what we got doesn’t mean we are settling. Suffering from a mental illness is a fact of reality. Dealing with it simply means we understand that and learn to make it better. We all tackle the obstacles of life differently, and we are prone to tackle them with our passions. Those things we truly love to do. People who love horses ride horses, philosophers argue, painters paint, writers write.

What’s it like to write with mental illness? It’s a maelstrom of emotions. I love it, it’s cathartic, it challenges and strengthens my mind, is hard, it’s painful, it’s everything. I can feel my brain, struggling to recall simple words and phrases that should be so readily available. Depression can barrage my mind with all manner of thoughts, which can make it difficult to write. But, over the years I’ve learned how to deal with those moments. Maybe I take a break from writing and focus on other aspects of my life, like finishing the book I’ve been reading, work on neverending household chores, hop in the truck and go exploring never before seen parts of my state, grill.

I only recently ignited my confidence to put thought to page. I had lived with an unattended passion for most of my life. That part of my heart was fragile, and I was afraid of exposing it to the cruelties of life. I’d already experienced that in the 10th grade after I’d poured my passion into an essay about my favorite food, garnished with a sprinkle of creative license. I had thought it was a masterfully written piece on the wonders of coming home to a lobster dinner, oozing with yummy garlic butter. Apparently, the story had taken on a completely different meaning to the rest of the class. My honest, sincere, and creatively written story had caused the class to erupt with laughter. I laughed along at first. That empty, soulless laugh people do when they’re actually really hurt inside. How was I supposed to be a writer if I was too afraid to expose my writing?

It wasn’t until I left the military and started to rediscover who I was that I gained my confidence to write. Really, it was more of a, “I don’t really care what people think” that lead to an understanding about critique. I wanted to realize my dream, to become a published author. I also knew to do that, I had to learn/hone the skill. Critiquing helps that happen. From an RPG perspective, critiquing is an experience-gaining encounter. And if someone gives you a nasty critique, extend to them your favorite colorful expression and bid them a good day!

Writing helped me to rediscover who I was after a long period of jumbled up confusion and chaos. A lot of people expressed that I wasn’t the same person they’d watched grow. I knew I had changed, I’d lived through two years of front-line combat, how could that not change me? But I didn’t feel any different. So, what do you do when everyone tells you that you’re different? I took a deep hard look at myself. The honest type. The type you can only do in a mirror, looking into your own eyes. I had to do a lot of accepting and eating more than a few large portions of humble pie.

My use of writing isn’t novel. I think most writers, no matter their level find it to be their passion or at least one of their bigger passions. That’s why we’re writers!

Mental illness has only recently come out from under the umbrella of ‘weakness’. As society scrambles to learn how to approach this ‘new’ problem, those of us with mental illness must relearn how to live.

Writing With Mental Illness Part 2

I was fortunate and had an amazing childhood, raised by hippies. My growing happened when I thought I was ready to adult and took the plunge headfirst. My demons were birthed on the front lines of war.

My childhood was the stuff of legend. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Billy Coleman (Where the Red Fern Grows) all wrapped into one. I grew up in Napa, California, on the other side of the mountain that cups the valley. We didn’t have cable TV, only a couple radio stations reached us, and the closest store was a small convenience store called Lakeside Market which was about a 10 minute drive, almost as long as it took to get to Napa. My elementary school, Capell Valley, boasted an attendance of 32 students, grades 1–6, with one teacher (Mrs. Grey) and an aid (Mrs. Sammuel). My weekends were spent adventuring through the vast wilderness, trudging through woods, skirting the creek, mucking around the pond, grilling and swimming at the lake from lunch into the night. I caught snakes, lizards, turtles, bugs, frogs, and a cold or two. My dad worked at a shipyard, so he brought me all the plywood and 2×4’s I needed to built five forts, two in the trees. Twice a year my parents would take my sister and me to the redwoods to go camping in true hippy fashion, scoffing at the RV’s with their satellite TV’s, beds, showers, and kitchens. That wasn’t camping!

I loved my childhood.

Thinking about it, recalling the moments that filled my youth always makes me happy.

I think I know when I became depressed. At least, the onset. Maybe… A vivid and powerful moment stands out as a terrible turning point in my life. It was the day I’d gained a profound understanding of what death was on a metaphysical level.

I’d always had a philosophical mind—I contemplated the meaning of words in relation to the sounds we express to convey them while I was walking home from school in the 7thgrade. My realization of death came after my grandma’s passing. She was an amazing woman, always gifting me things for the holidays that would stimulate thought—subscriptions to Natural Geographic, complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica, reading lamp, book shelf for the books she was always giving me, cool science sets, etc.

I think I was 12… I can’t remember the year. It was late at night and the phone had woken me up. My dad answered and I felt the pain in his voice. He knocked on my door and told me grandma had passed. I didn’t know how to feel. I forced myself to cry because that’s what I thought I had to do. That’s what everyone else did. Grandma was dead. But what did that really mean?

Months later, I was headed to the dam to fish with my friend. His father was a jerk, super mean, and loved to drink. I’d bean thinking about death in the philosophical way that I’d thought about the meaning of words and the finality of it all devoured my poor little heart. Everyone would die—mom, dad, my pesky little sister, cousins…EVERYONE. Me. I would die. I was going to die!

I cried.

A lot.

I stayed in the car while my friend fished with his dad. My friend would come up and check on me, asking if I was okay, but I’d just blubber through my sobs about dying and he’d go back to fish.

Ever since that moment, I’ve donned a mantle of darkness. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a happy kid. My life didn’t really get hard until my parents had to leave Napa when I was 18 and I tried to adult. Spoiler alert—I failed. I was a happy kid, but my life had changed in that brief moment at the dam.

Everywhere I went, death followed. Not overtly. It was a subtle flavor in my life. A pinch of darkness in a life otherwise filled with vibrant happiness. I remember feeling sad for no reason and finding a strange sort of solace in solitude. I’d thought I was sad, but this felt different, somehow. Deeper. I didn’t want to cry. It felt as though my soul was heavy. Like it didn’t want to get out of bed. Like motivation was a foreign concept, an impossible task.

The worst part about it?

I felt I had no reason to feel that way. No one had hurt me, or yelled at me, or punished me. Sometimes it was raining, sometimes it was sunny. It didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason.

I hated it.

Did it start with my grandma’s death? I don’t know. Is it really important? Some people find release when they “come to terms” with the cause to their issue. It seems that, while the cause of depression may or may not be tied to an event, understanding that won’t absolve the pain. It might help me understand why I’m depressed, but it’s not like the depression is going to magically disappear the moment I understand the why of it any more than identifying the cause of a stomach ache makes the ache go away.

Here’s the thing about dealing with depression—we don’t NEED a reason to feel down in the dumps. We don’t need to make excuses for the way we feel. We just need to do our best to cope with the pain and work on discovering how to deal with those horrible feelings when they arise. I hate to get all Neitzche on you, but each of us is as unique as a snowflake and we need to discover what works for us. It’s an ongoing process, but there is hope. There is light outside of the darkness.

Writing With Mental Illness Part 1

What can I say? I suffer from depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from combat, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and probably a slew of other illnesses that haven’t been diagnosed. The illness I want to touch on is depression, and what it’s like to write on depression.

Most people are fortunate enough to not have to suffer from that insidious illness. They often relate depression to being sad, and I get that. Depression makes people sad, and when you don’t have any empirical knowledge about it, you relate it to what you know—being sad. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Sadness is a superficial emotion that can last from a minute to a few days. Most of the time it can be cured with a simple joke or change in perspective. When we lose a loved one, the sadness can take a bit longer than a few days, but it ebbs and fades over time until we can visit our memories of them with a smile in our heart.

Depression resides in the soul. It can no more be banished with a joke as hunger can with a picture. We can’t just “get over it”. Being depressed is an extreme inability to feel happy when there is nothing wrong. Being depressed can feel like drowning when there’s no water, bleeding out with no wound, feeling constricted when you’re as free as a kite, dying when you’re full of life. Depression doesn’t make any sense to the depressed, and that makes it worse.

“Why are you sad?”

It’s a common question I hear, and the answer is, “I don’t know!”

“Well, then you have nothing to be sad about.”

No shit! It’s called depression. I don’t have a reason, and I don’t need a reason, although I wish I had one. My favorite was when my ex used to tell me, “Oh geeze, would you stop already? You’re not in Iraq anymore. Get over it!”

People who suffer from depression KNOW there is no reason to be “sad”. We can’t help it! Some days I wake up, knowing the entire day is going to be a struggle to motivate for anything: Make coffee? But it’s way over there… Cook? That seems like a monumental job. I just want to sit on my couch and do NOTHING! Writing… Much easier to scroll my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Besides, they have funny videos of cats getting a brain freeze, and I could really do with a few laughs right about now.

Depression is an insidious, self-perpetuating disorder. I wish I knew how to cure it. I wish I knew if there was a cure. At first I thought depression could be cured with physical activity and a healthy diet, and I suppose that works for some people; however, in the most active and healthiest time of my life I was also the most depressed. I thought writing might do it, and it has to a certain extent, but the heavy cloak of depression still drapes over me. I tried pharmaceuticals, and that helped for a while…so long as I was willing to be an emotional zombie. But then I started to crave feelings, and the depression hit me again. Now I cope with cannabis, and it helps get me through the day.

Many people try and find the cause of their depression. The single act that triggered the disease. It’s basic human instinct. We break our arm, we know what did it, how it happened, what to do to fix it. We get sick from food, we know what food it was, and we avoid it. We feel sad, we can immediately identify the cause and work to fix it. Many people with depression seek to find the root cause with an idea that, if they know what caused it, they can take active measures to rid themselves of it. Like the flu, or an ear infection. Such is not the case.

I have a plethora of demons from my two years on the front lines of combat. They will haunt me till my dying day. Sure, they exacerbate the problem, but they aren’t anymore the cause of my depression than any other single event in my life. Those events are factors that can trigger my feelings of depression, but they aren’t the cause. I don’t know what the cause is. Maybe it’s something as simple as the hardwiring of my brain. Maybe it IS those events, although I really struggle to believe that due to the fact that I often feel depressed without any of my demons, rearing their ugly head.

I like to think of depression as an incurable ailment, like losing a limb, or that disease that turns your skin white (vitiligio). There is no “curing’ it, there’s only learning to live with it. Struggling to fix the unfixable is the ultimate lesson in futility. It’s demonstrative of our own pride as humans that we should be able to fix it. I mean, we can launch probes beyond our solar system, map DNA, CHANGE DNA, cure a number of diseases and ailments…why not depression? Well, for as much as we’ve advanced in technology, we still can’t fix everything. We can’t regrow an arm. We can’t travel back in time to fix our mistakes. We can’t do a LOT of things. But what we can do is learn to live with who we are.

Learning to live with depression is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Understanding that it’s not going anywhere has empowered me. Sure, I still feel depressed, and I still wake up not wanting to do anything, but I understand that now. I understand that I don’t NEED an explanation. I don’t NEED to find the cause. I don’t NEED to blame anyone. I just need to understand that this is who I am. When someone loses a limb, they have to relearn how to perform their daily tasks and change their entire lifestyle to accommodate their unfortunate accident. People who suffer from severe allergies have to carry an epi-pen wherever they go. They have to plan their events, avoid certain activities, etc. The modify their life in order to cope with their ailment.

No one wants depression. It’s overwhelming, and the world’s apathetic approach of “just get up and do something” only makes matters worse. No one wants to live with multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, or Huntington’s disease either. Learning to cope with any mental illness is a monumental challenge that can easily feel overwhelming.

But there is hope.

Not in a perfect life. But nothing is ever perfect (a philosophical topic I’ve delved into quite extensively), but especially not life. Our hope germinates in the form of coping, and I hate to get all Nietchze on you, but everyone kinda has to find their own way of coping. Most importantly, never give up. It’s a lot like becoming a published author. You can’t give up. You have to keep working at it. If your first novel isn’t finding any traction and your number of rejections starts to fill a calendar, start another novel. You are a writer, and writers aren’t finished after a single story. Put your finished manuscript, the one that just consumed years of your life. You quiver at the thought of revising it one…more…time.

But that single book isn’t the reason you are a writer. You are a writer because you love to write. So write! Set the finished manuscript down and start anew.

You can’t give up.

Not in writing.

Not in life.

Row Your Boat

My favorite piece of philosophy is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It’s deep. Please forgive the pun. Anywho, I feel the allegory encapsulates the learning process, coming into a greater and truer understanding of the universe, and how painful that process can be. However, I feel that it falls short on encapsulating Life itself.

Life, I feel, is more like a river. It continuously flows downstream, through meandering bends, long lulls, and turbulent rapids. We travel down the river on rowboats, unable to travel upstream no matter how hard we row, even in the calmest lull. There are always choices along the river. Once shore might look better than another. We can go to one shore or another, but never both, and once we get to one shore it may not be as great as it had seemed from the middle of the river, while the other shore may now seem better. We can get so caught up, working on the rowboat, making it as efficient and beautiful to behold as possible that the vistas pass by unnoticed.

Sometimes the river can get boring with lackluster shores, barren horizons, and naked sky. Sometimes the river is terrible with whitewater rapids, tossing your boat, smashing it against rocks, threatening to tip it over. Sometimes the river is pure joy with beautiful vistas, happy skies, and cool breezes. Every meander straightens, every lull quickens, every rapid eases, every vista fades.

Everything ends.


Everything also returns, for such is the nature of the river, the Cycle of Life. Meanders straighten to lulls, dumping into rapids that careen down a waterfall and into a lush, vibrantly beautiful pool. We’ll never get to the pool if we don’t endure the rapids, if we don’t trudge through the lulls and wind our way down the twists and turns. Things pop up along the way that try to sink our boat, and sometimes those things succeed. Sometimes we decide the lull is too boring, the rapids too painful, the twists too confusing, and we tip over our own boat, never getting to see the vibrant pool in all its wonder.

The river is as terrible as it is gracious and as ugly as it is beautiful. We take it all in kind because it is given all in kind. Don’t beat yourself up when you find yourself in a lull, find a way to power through it. Don’t give up if you find yourself lost in a delta, or mired in a swamp. Look back at how far you’ve traveled, the hardships you’ve already endured, the beauty you’ve witnessed. It’s truly a wondrous thing to behold.

Never stop rowing your boat.