Sometimes, the depression I have over the winter slowly fades away with each sunny day. Sometimes, it disappears suddenly and all of that energy I was lacking over the last two months appears. All at once. And I spend all of my free time over four days creating a large painting of flowers.
Sometimes, I really have a difficult time getting work done. I don’t think I have an attention deficiency. I think I’m easily distracted. Maybe, I would be more focused if I didn’t have internet access, but it’s not an experiment I’m willing to run.
I enjoy writing. In fact, when I leave the house, I tell my kids I’m going to work, but when I write, it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like play. Still, despite the enjoyment of it, when I sit down to do it, it takes me a while to get to the point where I’m actually productive. Why? Well, first, I probably need a fresh cup of coffee and then a snack, something sweet to munch on. I tell myself that I’ll use the sweet thing as my reward for hitting writing goals but that doesn’t happen. I don’t have self control. Then, I have to see what’s going on facebook and twitter. Once I pull myself out of that hole, then I usually find myself researching answers to questions I had thought of over the last few days.
- Can a person die of a sinus infection?
- What is the best way to poach an egg?
- How do I fight the spotted lantern fly invasion?
- How far can two average sized people ride on one horse?
- What kind of winter are we going to have this year?
From there, I might segue into some online window shopping, or I might indulge my voyeuristic side by looking at real estate listings. Sometimes, I end up on YouTube watching old SNL skits. The whole time this time suck is happening, I am yelling at myself: Stop doing what you’re doing and get to work!
That’s when I set a timer and start doing sprints. I work in loops of fifteen minute writing sessions interspersed with five minute breaks. Five minutes where I can waste time doing whatever I want as long as when the alarm goes off I jump right back into writing. I learned how to do this because it’s also how I approach exercise. When I exercise, no matter how tired I may be, I always can convince myself to go one more minute. I can really push myself because I know that it’s just a minute and you can survive a lot of things if it only lasts one minute. Incidentally, this was also my approach to childbirth. After all, contractions only last for one minute and surely you can survive that long. To be honest, that approach only worked for about the first ten hours of labor before I decided that no, I absolutely could not survive another minute of pain and begged for an epidural.
I also use timers when I do housework. If I look around my house and it’s trashed and I think there’s no way I can do anything about it, I set a timer for ten minutes and run around to see just how much I can accomplish in that time. Sometimes, my kids help, but their idea of helping is running around frantically trying to look busy while I put everything away.
With writing, it helps me stay focused. When I find myself drifting away to ask questions or look at house listings, I remember that at the end of fifteen minutes, I have five minutes to do that, but for now I’m going to work on this project.
I told my husband about it, feeling very clever about my time management.
“Oh,” he said. “Pomodoro timers.”
Yeah, apparently I’m not the first person who discovered what timers can do for getting things done. It’s been around since the 1980’s.
It’s been a while. I don’t really have an excuse except for this: Depression is a hell of a thing. Or what I mean is, depression is hell.
I went almost all summer without writing hardly anything. I didn’t do any painting either. No drawing. I didn’t bake. My garden was a mess, planted and then forgotten about until the tomatoes hung rotting on the plant. I slept late, pulling myself out of bed at the last minute. I kept my house clean-ish. I took showers and I kept my children alive. That was the high-functioning part of it but even that was drudgery, a slog. It was trying to get somewhere while always feeling like I was wading through chest-high water.
Eventually, the depression subsided.
I don’t mean that I waited around until I miraculously felt better. It required work. I went to therapy every week and saw a psychiatrist who changed my medication and this time I didn’t fight the concept of being medicated. I worked on being kind to myself, on not beating myself up for the loss of productivity. I read a lot of books, but only those that were funny or had happy endings. Everything else felt like a trigger. I worked through each day, one at a time
I’m grateful for the people that were there for me and supported me through this miserable time. Even more than that, I’m so glad that they didn’t give up on me. This might not be my last episode of depression but my hope is that each time I have them they become shorter and less severe.
Also, I want to remind anyone else who is reading this and is suffering through depression, you deserve happiness. You are worth whatever effort it takes to get through it.
I’m painting again and back to writing every day. I have exciting things to look forward to. What I mean is: I’m back.
I sang karaoke last week.
Okay, maybe sing isn’t quite the right word. I could look for a better verb but I think just knowing that the correct verb is not sing should give you a pretty good idea of how it all went down. This is not an activity I often do. In fact, it was only the second time in my life that I did it. The first time I was drunk, didn’t know the song and couldn’t even come close to keeping up with the words on the screen.
Over ten years has passed since that performance. In that space of time I have slowly changed from the sort of person that gets up on a stage in front of a group of people to the sort of person who is constantly analyzing everything I do and say to make perfectly sure I’m not being ridiculous or foolish.
See, I have this person inside of me. I call her my Gollum and she is a vicious, angry little thing who watches everything I do and passes judgment on each action. Sometimes, her judgment is instantaneous, a running commentary in the back of my head. She’s like those old men in the muppets, just a lot meaner and not very funny at all. Sometimes, she wakes me up in the middle of the night to go over a list of everything I said and did during the day. Maybe, you have a version of her. I hope she’s nicer to you.
Anyway, this time, when I got up to sing, I told her to take a few minutes off. That yes, I knew exactly how I was going to look and sound up there and I didn’t need her to remind me. She sulked, but she was blessedly quiet and for the space of a song I didn’t worry about how I was going to look or what I was doing.
It was scary and exciting and fun.
Here’s the important thing I learned: Most people don’t want to see you fail. They want to see you get up on stage and give it all you got. They want to see the triumphant smile. They want to clap at the end. If there happens to be a person or two rooting for your failure, you can immediately disregard their opinion because obviously they are monsters and you should never care what monsters think. If you’re like me, that also goes for the biggest monster of all, the one inside of you.
I’m not saying that you should do karaoke and if you don’t, you’re missing out on something. What I am saying is do the things you want to do without worrying about looking ridiculous or failing. Put yourself out there. Instead of being so sure what it is you can’t do, maybe see what you can do without that inner critic stopping you.
It’s going to be scary and exciting, but hopefully it’s going to be fun.
Later, when Gollum wanted to tell me just how bad I was, I just laughed at her, which seemed to shut her up for a little bit. I also asked my husband not to ever show me any photos or video he might have taken. Gollum doesn’t need that sort of ammunition.
For the second year in a row, I participated in Inktober. Last year, I had done a sort of half-marathon, only churning out about fifteen piece of work. This year I doubled that number. I tried to push myself to approach ink in a different way, despite wanting to just use an ink and a brush. Here are a few of the things that I tried.
Continuous line drawings
I liked just moving my pen along with what my eyes were seeing, without worrying too much about what my finished picture was going to look like.
Similar to the continuous line drawings, these were really just explorations of my subject matter, with once again not worrying about the end result. I think of it as working to connect my eyes to my brain to my hands and to be able to more correctly draw what is in front of me. Worrying less about what it’s supposed to look like and concerning myself more with shapes and shadows and lines. I also did a series of speed drawings, which are always a great way of loosening up when drawing.
Another fun way to loosen up was to use scribbles to put in values. I drew the woman on the left while waiting for my son to get out of dance class and I imagine people must have thought I was a crazy person scribbling furiously in my sketch book.
Because I’m so often drawn to drawing people, especially portraits, I tried to do a few landscapes. I like painting landscapes, but drawing them in black and white wasn’t really a lot of fun for me.
The best and most exciting part of Inktober this year was finding a new style of drawing, especially my preferred subject matter, faces. Using different line widths and using the spacing between those lines I was able to create different values in my work. I wouldn’t have discovered this new style if I hadn’t forced myself to continue to work with pens for the first half of the month. This has become one of my new favorite ways of drawing and also has led me to approach my painting in a different way as well.
Throughout the year, I don’t often get an opportunity to draw as much as I would like, as I use the bulk of my spare time for writing, but I’m always happy to participate in Inktober. It’s a great way of getting back in the habit of regularly making art and it also pushes me to discover new ways of creating.
Most of my free time is working on my writing, a process that becomes more and more agonizing the more I try to push myself to be better. There are days that the joy of creating the story is lost in the labor of perfecting the words.
That’s when I find myself reaching for some other creative outlet. Of course I like to draw and paint, but even then I can still feel myself become too attached to what I’m doing, worrying about if it’s going to look right and if I’m going to make a mistake.
So, this summer I rekindled my love for sidewalk chalk.
I’ve found there is something wonderful about a brand new container of chalk and my clean black driveway. Whether I make something beautiful or not, I don’t get to keep it. It’s gone with the next rainfall. If the kids want to come over and help me with what I’m doing, it’s fine. In fact, it’s encouraged. If they want to ride their scooters through it or shoot it with water guns. They can. The end result doesn’t matter, only the process of creating.
I’ve gone through buckets of chalk and I think the neighbors must think I’ve lost my mind.
I went through a Smiths phase when I was a teenager. Maybe a lot of people do? Most likely, I have my older sisters to thank for it. If I had been left to my own devices, I probably would have listened to garbage music. I can go a pretty long time without listening to the Smiths, but out of nowhere one of their songs will pop in my head.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of the song, “You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet Baby.”
It has become my “pick yourself up and dust yourself off” song. When I feel overwhelmed by editing. When I lose at something I wanted to win. When I want success now, not a year from now. I hear it.
Whatever it is that I may want, I haven’t earned it yet. I haven’t been writing that long, not seriously anyway. I haven’t even begun to suffer through rejection. I’ve managed criticism fairly well, but everyone who has given it has been supportive and constructive. There are trenches where writers spend years, working on their craft and toughening up. I’ve barely put my boots on.
I don’t know how long it will take me to get where I want to be. I don’t know what path will get me there. I’m trying to take every path and road I can without getting lost. The only way I know I won’t get there is if I never try or I just give up. Sometimes, the things we really want are costly. We pay with time and commitment and even disappointment, but I think we can earn it.
Great. That song is stuck in my head again.
When I was pregnant with my son, I wanted to know what childbirth was going to feel like. Giving birth was no longer some event in the future but was close enough that I had an idea of when it would happen. Not before my due date, my mother had warned. Boys don’t want to move out. She could tell me he would be late but she couldn’t articulate what it would feel like. She wasn’t the only one who couldn’t tell me. I was told story after story of how each baby was born, but whether it was a problem with memory or not having the words, no one could really describe the pain.
My mom told me how when it would start again, the contractions would begin, and it would all come flooding back to her. She would think, oh this. I remember this. Not this again. Why did I put myself through this again?
You forget after they place the baby in your arms. If you remembered clearly what it was like after it happened, maybe a lot of women would not have more than one child.
When my sister was preparing to have her first baby and asked me what childbirth would be like, I joined the army of women who could not describe it. When it comes to pain, I too have a faulty memory.
In November, I was hit with depression. It was a direct hit, a low I hadn’t felt in a long time. For four months, I struggled. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Every day felt like wading through waist high water. I couldn’t get anywhere. I didn’t enjoy doing anything. It effected the type of mother and wife I was. Finally, I went to a therapist. I considered anti-depressants. I didn’t need to be blissfully happy all of the time. I just wanted to feel something other than numb, heavy and slow. I needed a boost out of bed that could stay with me all day. I wondered at times if I would ever be okay again.
Then March came, bringing with it a few days of warmth and in the evening an extra hour of sunlight. The depression that had been a constant companion for winter began to slip away. And now, as I’m returned back to a closer version of myself, I find I am unable to articulate what I had been feeling. Did I actually have a hard time getting out of bed? Did I ache from it, as if sadness was in my bones and radiated pain outward from it? Did I really find no joy in what I used to love doing? Who was I? After I had my son, I wondered if contractions were that painful or was I simply unable to deal with any pain at all. Now that the depression is fading, I wonder, was this seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or was I merely, lazy, tired and a touch melodramatic. My therapist assures me this isn’t the case.
I’m not sorry my sadness has faded once more. Of course I’m not. I don’t like feeling so dependent on the season but my therapist has recommended being prepared for next winter, whether with lights or with medication so I don’t have to spend four months in misery.
If and when SAD strikes again, I imagine it will be like remembering labor. I will think, Ah yes, I remember this pain. Not this again. And I hope I remember to do what I can to not put myself through that again.
You know why I’m posting this today. I don’t have to say it. It’s not to disrespect the new president or his administration and it is not to enrage the people who voted for him. I don’t delude myself into thinking that the people who should look at this and think critically about it will actually do so. To those of you who do read this, all I’m asking is that you think about it and take a long look at the world around us.
Maybe in four years everything will be fine and this will seem like a silly thing that I posted. Maybe it won’t.
Umberto Eco, famed writer and philosopher grew up in Italy under a fascist regime. In an essay entitled, “Ur-Fascism,” he created a list of common features of fascism. He said that he thought it “is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
- The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
- The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
- The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
- Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
- Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
- Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
- The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
- The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
- Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
- Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
- Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
- Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
- Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
- Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
Eco finished his essay by warning that fascism was always around us and if it came back to power it would do so in disguise. He said that we should remember Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words.
“I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”
My first experience with critiques was when I was going to school for graphic design. They happened regularly and varied in terms of how painful they were. But, they were helpful. There wasn’t a single project that I created that wasn’t made better with the eyes of my classmates. Now that I’ve started working with critique partners on my writing, I’m feeling that familiar pain that comes from criticism. Here are a few things that I try to remember when getting feedback.
- Criticism is a gift
Remember that the person who is looking at your art, or listening to your music or reading your words and giving you feedback is spending their time and energy to do so. I’m sure there might be some people who like to criticize as a way of tearing people down, but I have found that for the most part people want to help you get better. Maybe they believe in what you are doing and they want to be part of making it the best that it can be. Even if they are doing it to be mean, if you are getting something useful out of what they’re saying it’s still helpful.
- Look past your own blind spots
It’s easy to get defensive. When someone doesn’t see something the way we see it, it’s easy to look at them as the problem. What do you mean you don’t understand the symbolism? What do you mean that this paragraph is redundant? What do you mean that the whole thing is too wordy? It’s a book, it’s supposed to be wordy. If your first response to feedback is to explain and argue, you might be letting your own blindness get in the way of improving your craft. That doesn’t mean that you have to take every little piece of advice that you are given, but don’t discount it either. Get another set of eyes. Get another opinion.
- It’s okay to feel bad/hurt after receiving criticism
It can be difficult to hear that something we have worked hard on and have poured our soul into is flawed. The more we love something, the more difficult it is to accept the imperfections. The most painful criticism I have received was when I thought what I was presenting was really good. Nearly perfect even. Every word that said otherwise was like a physical blow. I remember locking myself in a bathroom stall and trying to choke back tears. I hated feeling so emotional, but it was a natural response to a big disappointment. Give yourself permission to feel sad, or hurt, or even angry. But don’t lash out at the person who gave you the criticism. Giving out criticism can be difficult as well. Don’t take it personally.
- Find a way to deal with the criticism
Criticism can sting. What is the balm that you can put on it? I always joke about drinking whiskey after particularly painful feedback is given. Time and space work for me as well. Not too much of either. I may put it away for a few hours. Do something else. Give myself time to process it. I also like to research. I like to find other writers and artists who have been where I’m at and I like to read how they got past it. Find your own way but get to the place where you can most constructively use the feedback.
- Don’t give up
Don’t get discouraged. It wasn’t going to be easy. No one is going to be able to create perfection at the beginning. There are growing pains. But if you stop now, you will never get better than you are right now. What they said about you will always be true. You will never rise above it. You owe it to yourself and your craft to keep moving forward.