Five Ways Writers Can Deal with Depression

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

A little bit back, the brother of one of my old friends committed suicide. He’d been depressed for a while; I’m uncertain if he’d expressed any dramatic intentions about ending his life before his death. Not long after that, the brother of a woman who works with my girlfriend Alice killed himself. Again, a man who struggled with depression. Most recently, one of Alice’s friends, a woman who has suffered depression and other anxiety issues, was found dead, under puzzling circumstances that are yet to be explained.

That’s a lot of death, and a lot of suffering that preceded it. The people I mention above weren’t writers, but I want to turn the discussion to writers and depression, because it’s a subject that’s been explored by medical professionals and by other writers. There’s some contention with the notion that writers and artists in general are more sensitive to depression and associated conditions, but the list of well-known authorial depressives is broad: Sylvia Plath, Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.K. Rowling, Tennessee Williams, Stephen King, and my shining guide, Mark Twain—and lots more. The famous names suggest that there’s a wider carnival of sad writers, but their lack of fame hasn’t let us peer into their dank mental grottoes.

Writers have a peculiar set of traits that can lend themselves to dark thoughts. Stereotypes can often trip up facts, and exceptions are everywhere, but writers are often inward, reflective sorts. Many are introverted, and spend less time in jolly social engagement than other people. Many are frustrated and thwarted by the impossible demands of language—no piece of writing ever seems good enough. Many are frustrated by the demands and rejections—and right now, the everything-changes-everyday—of the publishing world.

Hey, Isn’t That My Face?
I have known a number of writers that had depressive tendencies, but the one I know best is me. My own mild (and less often, moderate) depression has followed me from adolescence into my adult life. Its face has morphed from “There is no meaning” to “I have no meaning” and back again, over and over. Sometimes the face is just an old photograph in one of my rooms, forgotten until I look, but sometimes it’s the only face I see in the mirror.

When you are depressed, the knowledge that “this will pass” means little. It’s like being softly smothered, or encased in a shell of dullness where sight, hearing and thinking are subdued. Contrarily for me, the state also carries a bit of a malevolent energy—I can feel it coming on, a tingle in the soul. And often it’s not precipitated by any event. However, when you’re in it, the key of “Hey, at a fundamental level, you are OK,” doesn’t fit into any slot of belief.

But I’m grateful that I don’t have full-blown depression, which renders some people near catatonic or incapable of action. I have dark thoughts indeed, and they go places they shouldn’t, but I’ve found that these foul possessions rarely last more than three or four days, a week at most, and then, blessedly, they lift.

There are so many people with tremendously more challenging lives than me, but the depressive state of mind remains a real and a serious thing. I’ve found a few helpful ways to fight it:

Five Anti-Depressants That Don’t Require a Doctor
1. Regular exercise. Even a half-hour walk a day is beneficial. The body moves, the blood circulates, the mind can look at the passing scenery and not fold in on itself.

2. Meditation: I’ve been meditating in the mornings, between 10-20 minutes, for more than a year now. It has been grounding for me; though my mediations can be fitful, because the brain is a spastic ping-pong ball, there is a calming solace in just sitting, breathing and watching the brain ponging.

3. St. John’s Wort: I don’t want to become another one of the pharmaceutical industry’s minions, so I’ve chosen an herbal supplement that many feel offers relief. And many people don’t. For severe depression, prescription anti-depressives can be life-saving, but that route doesn’t feel right to me. But placebo or not, I’ve taken St. John’s Wort on and off for years, and think there is a mild benefit: fewer episodes of depression and fewer episodes of longer-lasting depression. Your mileage may vary.

4. Writing: I often duck, sidestep or back away from my creative writing (hey, all you marketing-writing or editing clients: I always do the work, and with full attention, mopey or not) when I’m feeling low, and that seems to reinforce or exacerbate the soul-drain. Writing anything—essay, fiction, travel piece, haiku—gives the sad face more lift.

5. A person who believes in you: I’m grateful that Alice is around to tell me to stop moping. I don’t stop moping, but I appreciate her efforts. She has watched my struggles in these areas for years, and has stuck around to help. She is a dear creature, even if she has funny hair.

And one I didn’t list as my own, because I’ve yet to try it, but I’m considering it: a SAD therapy lamp. Winters do seem harder for me than other seasons.

And if none of those help, there’s always dropping a little acid. I saw that Tim Ferriss is underwriting (and crowdfunding) a Johns Hopkins study on the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression and PTSD. The initial research is very promising. And the mushrooms might be good in pasta.

Seriously though, the pain of the families that I mentioned above is unimaginable. If you are habitually down, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a way out, get help. There is a way out, and it’s not by taking your life. There’s a National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800 273-8255, and here’s their associated website.

Better days ahead.

A Writer’s Gratitude Tastes Like Pumpkin Pie

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

There’s a lot of good to say about gratitude. Even though gratitude can seem like an industry these days (books! blogs! speeches!), and that making a gratitude list at Thanksgiving time can seem as creative as Cool Whip, expressing gratitude is still one of those things that can lift your spirits.

Gratitude can let you realize that your lot in life is a lot, not a less. Gratitude can connect you to people and to yourself. It can even make you healthier. It’s great to be grateful.

This gratitude post has two voices: one is my writer’s voice, and one is my wise guy voice. They are both grateful, though their approaches are different. Not all of the items on my writer’s list are writerly, and not all of the items on my wise guy’s list are wise.

Writer:
I am deeply grateful that my mom has moved into assisted living and retained her warm spirit, and even increased her vitality since she had to leave my boyhood home. And grateful as well for the good health and spirit of my siblings and of my sweetheart, who are all doing pretty well.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that my mom never found out about all of the illegal, dangerous and downright stupid things I did as a kid. (Though she thinks she does know them all; mom, you would call the cops even now.)

Writer:
I’m grateful for my own health, which though it’s tilted at a few windmills this year, it’s righted itself without collapsing altogether.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that the antibiotics that recently saved me from the gut-clenching bacteria I brought back from Myanmar tasted like jellybeans. [Note: you can choose to believe wise guy remarks or not.]

Writer:
I’m grateful to have good old friends—some from more than 30 years back and even some more than 40 years back—whom I still see and talk to, though not often enough.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that most of my old friends make more money than me, because I can make a tidy list of the borrowing I’m going to do in my later years. And I’m grateful that my newer friends don’t know about all those things I did as a kid. [See above]

Writer:
I’m grateful that I finished two books this year, one a novel yet to be published and one a self-published nonfiction work.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that the writer guy above finished that novel too; it only took eight years.

Writer:
I’m grateful for books in general, and just for being able to read. Books have been the spur to my imagination for as long as I can remember.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that with today’s memory, I’ve forgotten pretty much all the bad books I’ve ever read. And that I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten some of the good ones as well.

Writer:
I’m grateful for life itself, which I too often forget is an impossible gift.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful I can find shoes for my large feet. In fact, I’m grateful to have feet.

Writer:
Thank god for mashed potatoes. And bourbon.

Wise guy:
I’m glad we can agree on something.

Gratitude does change my attitude.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you out there!

Lost Dogs, Lost Dads and the Unhesitating Heart

haggis

There’s Something About Harry

Before I had heard that this dog had been lost, before I’d heard that his owner was lost without him, I felt a pang myself. That’s the power of an image—or more accurately, the power of an emotion. My sister had sent me this photo, telling me that it was a picture of Harry, her friend’s dog that had gone missing that morning. But I didn’t even get to that point in Harry’s sad story before I felt my own loss.

What looking at the picture did was take me immediately to a memory, one I hadn’t thought of in years, of a German Shepherd that my family had brought home from the pound when I was eight or nine. I think my brother and I were supposed to share responsibility for the dog, but I do remember that I was in the lead in begging to have a dog. Our dog, Champ, was a beautiful shepherd like Harry, and he was friendly and fun, but he had a “flaw”: he could easily jump over the five-foot fence that bound our yard, and he did it regularly. We had to hunt him down, all in a frenzy, over and over.

I don’t recall how deep the discussion and if many other solutions were offered, but my dad decided, perhaps only after a month or so, to return Champ to the pound. I was crushed. I remember driving to the pound with the dog in the back of the station wagon, hating my dad at the wheel, my face burning. It’s strange to still have the salt active in a wound from so long ago, and stranger still the mix of emotions, because it makes me miss my dad, who died a couple of years back.

Emotions Jump Without a Net

But this post isn’t exactly about dogs, nor about losses, as an adult or a child. More so that some emotional grounds, though they might be covered, are never actually buried. People’s emotions can jump from their bodies without any chance for their cerebral side to intervene. And that’s where we as writers, whether of business or essay or tale, should open a gate. Not as manipulators of emotion, but encouragers of it. Post the pictures in readers’ minds of lost dogs, stern parents, the gleam of future dreams.

No matter if you are writing about email marketing programs or the electricity of your first kiss, try to open the gate so the emotion comes through. (Now you might grant me the kiss part, but email marketing? Believe it, there’s a charge and a current in everything—you just have to plug it in.) So yes, the Internet has changed the game—at least on this side of the digital divide—but before the first packet, before the first link, before the first tweet, there was the human heart. It leaps.

Oh, by the way: Harry? Harry made it home. Good dog!

Flesh and Blood Are We

I had a post at Firepole Marketing a short while back that runs its fingers through a few of the things discussed here. Check it out: Flesh and Blood, Meet Flesh and Blood.

Candles for the Broken-Hearted


Another angry young man with high-powered weapons, killing indiscriminately, this time little children. Yes, he was undoubtedly disturbed; there may have been signals of mayhem to come, and then the signals ebbed. People close to him may have hoped that whatever storms went on in his head may randomly clear. But they raged yesterday.

Now the arguments will come again: why are these semi-automatic weapons, designed for artful, effective killing—killing of people—so readily available? And those arguments countered by ones saying that the teachers should have been armed, we all should be armed, ready to take out those that threaten us. Our neighbors might snap at any time. Bang, bang.

More guns the answer, in our gun culture, so riddled with guns already? I have no argument with the sportsman, the collectors who appreciate the craftsmanship of weapons, those who truly feel that they need to protect themselves in their homes. But to not closely regulate the availability of these engines of death, not to keep them out of the hands of the damaged and the dangerous—it’s madness.

Five Candles of Caring

A candle for the children whose lives were snuffed in an instant, never again to run, jump and play, never to bring their kid-innocent dreams to life, never again to feel the touch of their parents’ love.

A candle for the parents whose children are forever lost to them, holes in their hearts that will never truly heal.

A candle for the parents whose children survived, knowing the fragility of life, the blindness of luck and loss, and an enduring fear.

A candle for the teachers and school workers, there to give guidance to the young, to shepherd them toward the good lives we all should be given a chance to have, their own lives cut needlessly short.

A candle for all of us, myself included, my own heart ringing with bitterness at the stupid, numbing, foul idiocy of this, the what-ifs, the whys, the will-it-ever-change.

A candle for everyone, even the lunatic killer. Maybe, just maybe, maybe this outrage will spur some common sense.

The Mother of All Storytelling (Well, Mine, at Least)

Thinking about my writing influences, I make a beeline for Mark Twain—why not set your standards high? But then I mosey about some, bumping into Kurt Vonnegut, who seemed to pick flowers from the same field as Mr. Clemens. But whether a writer’s echo can be heard in your work isn’t necessarily a mark of their sway over you. There are people whose writing I fiercely admire, like Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy or Annie Dillard, and the DNA of their superb stylings can’t be traced to my pratfalls on the page. (For that matter, I may have been influenced as much by Dr. Seuss, or maybe Steve Martin.)

But the original influence? That’s easy. That’s the woman up above, who is cracking up the nearby priest with some tale. That woman has been telling stories for a lot longer than me, and with more accomplishment. That woman is my mother. Before Sarge Bentley got his hands on her, she was Eileen O’Brien, and though Iowa cornfields were the setting for her growing up, I’m sure the storytellers of the Old Sod made their ancestral mark on her. And she on me.

From my earliest memories, I saw her absorbed in reading. Hey, books! They must be good. I want to do that too. She never pushed reading on me, but the obvious pleasure it afforded her was generously transferred to me. And because she could shape a story, could find the odd and often humorous angle on some episode of human folly, I was drawn to storytelling too.

Stories: 100% Nutritive, Taste Great Too
The absorbing thing is, my mom’s stories, like her life, have never been pocked with pettiness, or buzzing with the trivial, or interested in shoving someone aside so she could shine. As a writer, I tire myself with my own jealousies over other writers’ successes, with my own trivialities and peeves. My mother has never swum in that shallow end of the pool—she laughs at the human comedy, but there’s never been spite in her smiles.

So here’s to my mom, my biggest writing influence. The photo is from her 90th birthday party a couple of weeks ago, where she was surrounded by friends, young and old, who uniformly wished her well. She’s wearing those test-pilot’s welding glasses because she can barely see a damn thing anymore and light bothers her, but she still reads wielding a fat magnifier. Words—can’t get away from them. By her side is a priest from my old parish being entertained by her point of view (though the margarita he’s drinking may have helped).

Thanks Mom.

Bonus Prizes!
A couple of good things just happened to me between my sojourns from the Airstream office to my house. MediaBistro and GalleyCat have been hosting an online literary festival with live webinars sporting the likes of Susan Orlean, Rebecca Skloot and Elissa Schappell talking about aspects of writing. A pal told me that you could win free admission to the occasion by tweeting what you considered to be the best sentence you’ve ever written. Well, I thought “I will not take them soft or scrambled, despite an argument well-rambled” was pretty good, so I—no, I actually tweeted one of mine, and I won. The festival has been fantastic.

I also entered a contest to win a year’s admission and a bunch of other goodies in the Freelance Writer’s Den, just by writing a blog post. So I did, and was chosen as one of the co-winners. Lots of good writerly stuff there that I’m just digging into. I entered both of these on a whim, and whimsically enough, won. That does tell you to enter contests if you think you’ve got a shot—who knows what might happen?

Thanks again, Mom.

Writers Need to Have the Last Laugh

Sarge Bentley and his son at the pajama party

A common piece of advice for novel writers is to create character backgrounds for all of the main figures in the work, most often prior to beginning the writing. Those backgrounds could be considerable: you might detail not only the character’s general physical appearance and temperament, but things like what cereal he regularly eats (and if he slurps the bowl), her favorite kind of weekend dance music, which of their grandparents had thick hair, which the boldest gestures.

The concept behind this is that although—and even because—few of these minor details will ever be employed in the plot, you will have so saturated yourself in your characters’ consciousness that their actions as the story unfolds are direct reflections of the fullness (and often eccentricity) of their personalities.

The Sound of Memory
I was thinking of those things this Father’s Day, because I was trying to clearly remember my father’s laugh. That shouldn’t be too hard: my father lived 93 years, and he laughed easily, and enjoyed the laughter of others. Most of the photographs of my father show him with a broad smile, even after his Alzheimer’s robbed him of the clarity of his concerns. But I had some trouble this morning remembering the exact tone of my father’s laugh, its timbre, how it might build or fade.

That alarmed me, because my father has only been dead a few months, since New Year’s day. But my efforts were rewarded, because I was able to finally pull from memory the quality of his chuckle, how his face shaped his mirth and vice versa, and how the general atmosphere was lifted by the lilt of his laugh.

My struggles illustrate a useful writer’s lesson: pay attention to the details in your day-to-day—all of them. Fix them in your memory. It’s that airy wave of your first lover you don’t want to forget, because one of your characters might need that wave to fully become flesh in your reader’s imagination.

Regardless, you don’t ever want to forget your father’s laugh.

PS
If you were wondering, yes, my hair in that photo is made entirely of polystyrene, yet is completely edible.

How to Write an Object Poem (with Tears)

I belong to a fun writer’s site, The Write-Brained Network. There are all kinds of writers, all kinds of writing issues discussed, and occasional informal contests on the site. A recent one was to write an “object” poem, using this assignment: “Discuss how objects have lives and that they are often markers in our lives that help us recognize where we’ve been. They contain a special luminescence, connecting our past to our present.”

Though I enjoy reading some poetry (Rilke, astonishing; Billy Collins, charming), I know very little of its formal structures, and know less about writing it. That said, it’s a fun exercise to try writing out of your genre, so I thought I’d write an object poem about the humble sandwich. But instead, this came out, almost immediately after I started writing:

Sad Sandwich

Sad sandwich on the bedside tray
moved in haste, forgotten in the empty house
bedding thrown back in caught anxiety
the last sandwich

Thousands of sandwiches before
handled with his child hands
then later, workingman eager, lunchpail eager
laughing with full mouth, laughing with work friends
then later, cold sandwiches in the bomber,
cold over Berlin, cold over Korea

Then, long past being able to make his own sandwich
my father's hands, delicate, veiny, persistent
still enjoying his sandwiches
but now all slowed, a slow sandwich, eaten contemplative

Thousands of sandwiches, thousands now forgotten
the one appearing on the daybed tray forgotten in a minute, two
but still the slow pleasure of the chewing, the body's nod
yet, this last sandwich, a sad sandwich,
abandoned in the slant of afternoon light
my father, gone forever, this past New Year's Day
the plate now empty, the hunger unending

Writing That Surprises the Writer
This was one of those odd experiences as a writer, much as fiction writers say that their characters do things that surprise them as they’re written. Here, I’d intended to write a light poem, and instead, it morphed under my fingers to be a tribute to my father, who died a few months ago. Without my even intending it, the poem became “.. a special luminescence, connecting our past to our present.”

So, an object poem, written with surprise tears. It always amazes me, the weight of words.

How to Write an Obituary

Sgt. Bentley reenacting the good (and bad) old days

Writing specialties, where the writer addresses a narrow niche or fixed focus, are interesting in several ways. Some copywriters do a single thing: write white papers for the oil industry, or technical documentation for telephony applications, or sales letters for Fortune 500 clients. Early in my writing career, I was employed by Kennan Ward, a photographer for whom I wrote the backs of his nature-oriented postcards and notecards.

At first writing within the card’s restrictions seemed like a clumsy, scattered means of expressing information, but in time I developed a structure and flow for the short pieces that still afforded creativity, while delivering the mandated facts about the depicted scenes and animals. But the reason I’m writing about writing cubbyholes is because I wrote an obituary (with my sister Colleen’s help) yesterday for my father—and obituary writing is peculiar unto itself.

It’s very necessary to deliver dates and numbers in an obituary: marriages, births, number of children, date of death, and a passel of facts as well: interests, significant jobs, milestones, avocations. But mixed in the orderly stone columns of a life’s spreadsheet, you must attest to the blooming flowers in a tangled field, a comical toy under a towel, a mysterious box that makes you wonder what’s inside, a whisper of pain, pleasure—something of that indefinable stuff that separates us from the insects.

Wrestling with a Word Count
In writing my father’s obituary, I tried to put in the columns and the toys, because a person’s life is so much more than a numbered row of facts. But then my sister, long a reporter, reminded me that placing eulogies in various papers is damn pricey—Tom’s tendency to bound across word-fields needed a leash. The person who places the obits told my sister “Too bad you and your brother aren’t mathematicians instead of writers, because then you’d see how much it costs!”

Today I’m taking a shot at writing a eulogy as well, for the rosary service. That writing should be easier, in that no mathematicians will tamper with the word count; my father was an eccentric character, and when telling stories, you don’t want to clamp down hard on the words. I want to write the eulogy, and want to do it well for my father, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want this death-based writing to become my specialty—it takes a bite out of you.

Here’s what my sis and I came up with, after several rounds of hacking:

Robert K. Bentley, 1917-2011
Robert K. Bentley, beloved husband and cherished father, left this world for the next on New Year’s Day. Despite suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the past 10 years, “Sarge” Bentley remained a cheerful, steady presence in his family home, up to the end showing the warmth and humor that characterized his life. His “glad you got to see me” always drew quizzical looks and then laughs from people who met him for the first time.

Sarge was born on May 14, 1917, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Despite living more than 60 years in Southern California, he maintained that Colorado had it over any spot in the world. He brought back a large glass jar from one of our annual summer trips, full of clean Colorado air, and every so often he would take it off the fireplace mantel and grab a whiff of it, careful to leave enough to savor another day. Quarterback of his high-school football team, he never admitted that he managed to break his knee on purpose during a big game to win the affections of concerned cheerleaders.

Sarge was a waist gunner on B-17s in WWII, flying 35 missions primarily over Germany. He listed every mission in a small, 3x6 inch leather-bound notebook. After WWII, he was drafted out of the Army reserves and served in the Korean War, spending much time in Japan. He earned the stripes and the nickname that stayed with him until the end of his days from those years in the service of his country.

Sarge met his bride-to-be, Eileen O’Brien, while stationed in Long Beach, CA in 1945. She worked at the old Manning’s Restaurant on Pine Avenue, and when he came in to eat one day, she elbowed aside the other waitresses so she could carry the tray of that handsome man. They married on May 30, 1947.

Sarge worked at the Ford Motor plants in Long Beach and Pico Rivera City for 39 years—and in those years, the number of days he missed work could be counted on one hand. That kind of steady, old-fashioned perseverance was a mark of his character, a character defined by consistent warmth and fellowship. After his retirement, he became a congenial nuisance around the house, golfing occasionally, and traveling to Alaska, Ireland and Las Vegas, where he was a good friend of the casino craps tables, occasionally winning but sometimes not, so the drive back to Long Beach could seem awfully long. He was known in the neighborhood for his warm welcomes and his zany front-yard signs, boosting his Colorado sports teams, especially the Denver Broncos, and commenting on the times.

He is survived by his wife Eileen, his four children, Colleen Bentley, Kathleen Bentley, Rick Bentley and Tom Bentley, his grandson Zach King and several nieces and nephews and grandnieces and nephews. Despite him living a full, rich 93 years, they wish he could have lived forever.

Touching the Essence
I wanted it to say more. Not more words, but more essence—but that’s the challenge, always the crucible of trying to write. This obit is what we have, and this will do. Dad, I hope you like it.

A Last Salute to the Sergeant

Robert Bentley, surrounded by his family, 1958


Writing is connection, whether with words that precede, or words that follow; writing can be framed with themes and directions only hinted at, only suggested with faint trails. Sentences are families of words, sometimes taut ropes of enduring bond, other times rambling things, of loose alliance, dim fellowship or tangled expression.

I just returned from a holiday week with my family. An interesting time: my father, who has been deep in Alzheimer’s grip for many years, and essentially bed-bound for the last couple, was notably alert. Always a warm man, he was visibly pleased to be in the company of all his kids. He delighted in eating, still feeding himself from a bedside tray, shaky and slow with the spoon, but still managing. One time I brought him his food, and he looked up and said, “What do I owe you?” He was a man quick with a joke all his life, but it was still a surprise when he would surface from the glazed, almost frozen state that marked the bulk of his day and venture out with some words, a connection, before returning to the quietude of his condition.

But in that condition, there was still a man in there, still pushing time. He remembered my name a couple of times during this visit, and amazed me when he had been sitting in his wheelchair (helped in and out by caretakers, for short periods a few days a week) and had been staring silently into his stillness for a while, but turned to me reading on the couch and said, “Hey, what book are you reading?” I was taken aback—and delighted—by his abrupt spark, and related the book’s title and contents, and then he smiled and returned to his cloistered musings.

Yesterday, he fell ill, and was taken to the emergency room. His big heart, repeatedly remarked upon by his doctors for its steady strength in his advanced age, was fluttering and weak. He fought through the night, but left this plane for the next, a bit after 6am this morning. Sarge Bentley, a good man, my father, gone this New Year’s Day at 93. A life—how can you sum it up, count and consider its gestures, its feelings, its words, its connections?

I loved him, and will miss him, as will all my family. I’m grateful for this Christmas, and for the long years we had him. I’m grateful for being able to tell him I loved him when I said goodbye to return home a few days ago, and grateful for the integrity of his life.