Guest Blog: B.A. Williamson on Being a Bipolar Writer

On Being a Bipolar Writer

By B.A. Williamson

It’s pretty hard to write this right now. Each sentence is taking a conscious effort. Why? Well, I’m depressed. Unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances. Cancelling all my book launch events and conference panels didn’t help.

There’s not always a reason. Occasionally this just happens. But I can say this depression is “just a phase” without any hint of condescension, because for me, it’s true. I’m bipolar.

Sometimes I just want to lay on the couch and escape. Hours of video games are good for this, though not exactly healthy. I suffer from the emptiness and lethargy that is familiar to millions of sufferers of depression.

What’s less familiar is the other side of the coin—my manic episodes. I have unlimited energy and focus, and can dive into projects for hours on end, and the words just flow. Everything I write is the best thing anyone has ever written. (Impaired judgment is another symptom.)

Manic energy can be a superpower, if harnessed correctly. I can hit any deadline, tackle any obstacle, and breeze through it with the confidence of a narcissistic tiger owner. But as I said, it’s a double-edged sword. The crushing writer’s despair is even worse, and can wipe out all the progress I’ve made.

Writing helps. Getting things out on the page helps. During a depressive episode, it takes a monumental effort to sit down and get moving. But even as I type this, it has become easier. I do feel better. I’m not agonizing over every punctuation mark, and hey, I’ve produced about 250 words so far! Halfway there.

Routines help, too. And outlines. The less you have to think, the lower the energy it takes to get started. I don’t have to think, just check the outline, do what it says, and follow the routine. They also keep me moving at those times when I’m balanced, and don’t have that supply of manic energy to rely on.

Whenever I want to give up before I’ve even started, I tell myself to write three sentences. That’s the rule—three sentences, then you can quit. Anyone can write three sentences. My seven-year-old can write three sentences. And to this day, I’ve never stopped at three sentences. I may only get a few paragraphs, but that’s still overshooting my goal by quite a bit.

So when my precious (fictional) girl Gwendolyn Gray started showing the same symptoms, I was hardly surprised. In fact, it fit my story very well, and I had a compelling and unique character arc. I work with middle schoolers, and they suffer from depression and anxiety at alarming rates. Anyone shocked? Think back to middle school. It’s a terrifying, stressful, horrific experience for many of us. Now we have the awareness and language to properly describe the toll it takes on our kids. But conversations about mental health are all-too-often relegated to the land of Young Adult, while our adolescents are talked down to or treated as if their problems couldn’t possibly be all that bad.

I felt it was really important to show a story where a character grows up, and kids could see a reflection of their own struggles. As Gwendolyn struggles with larger-than-life monsters, readers can see a reflection of their own struggles that can feel so much bigger than themselves. And as her external struggles are a metaphorical mirror for their own, her internal struggles create a much more literal parallel. Her internal reactions give them something to relate to, and see themselves taken seriously. Continue reading “Guest Blog: B.A. Williamson on Being a Bipolar Writer”

Zen Yoga Writing practice?

A confession: I like to read at bedtime. In this company, that’s nothing unusual. All the sleep hygiene experts say not to, that beds should be used for sleeping and only one other activity. What do they know? I find something deeply comforting about curling up with a good–but not too exciting–book. Perhaps it evokes memories of my mother reading aloud to me, or it’s just “me time.”

Often I include in my nightly reading a page or two of something that stretches my mind. I don’t mean that in the intellectual sense, for I definitely want to be quieting my thoughts, not forcing myself to think critically. I try to choose books that get inside my brains and stretch them gently in unexpected directions, like mental yoga before settling into my comfort reading.

An example of this kind of reading is Natalie Goldberg’s LONG QUIET HIGHWAY. Goldberg is a writing teacher, essayist and novelist who is also a long-time student of Zen Buddhism. I was introduced to her work years ago with her WRITING DOWN THE BONES, and had always thought of her as a teacher in the style of Julia Cameron: “Morning pages,” keep the pen moving, let your thoughts flow, that sort of advice. LONG QUIET HIGHWAY is autobiographical rather than instructive. I was deeply moved by how she put together mundane, specific details in ways that brought tears to my eyes. More than that, she has gotten me thinking — or rather, feeling/sensing — more deeply about the role of writing in my own life. Yes, it’s a pleasure and an obsession; yes, it’s my occupation, how I earn my living.

  • Mountain Pose: Could it also be the lens through which I view the world? Sure, no problem; every new experience is grist for the mill. That’s the easy answer, just as the plot skeleton is the easy description of a story. As a writer, I know that storyness is much deeper than plot. Can I use that same insight to listen more deeply, look beyond appearances, appreciate the interwoven complexity of my community and environment?
  • Dancing Shiva Pose: How about writing as a spiritual practice? Um, isn’t that a bit pretentious…or is it? Is there something moving through me, speaking through me, when I write from my heart? Can I shove my ego as well as my intellect out of the way? Speaking of intellect, and ego, and mind…
  • Pigeon Pose: Could writing help me become better acquainted with my own mind? The way my thoughts sometimes behave like grasshoppers on steroids? The phrases and connections and story elements I use repeatedly, without intention? The cycles of feeling I’ve written something fine, only to plummet to the certainty it’s all drek, that I can never get anything right?
  • Corpse Pose: Is writing a way of stilling my thoughts and becoming fully present–through words, are you kidding? Ah, those moments when it feels like I’m not making up these words, they’re coming from somewhere else, I’m just a lens, a focal point through which light passes.

I have no easy answers, but I will be watching myself–my self–more closely as I write. And who knows, I might even achieve a new literary Downward-Facing Dog.