28 January 2012

More on creativity and mental illness: Parallel Motions

"The reason creativity and craziness go together is that if you're just plain crazy without being able to sing or dance or write good poems, no one is going to want to have babies with you." - (the admirably and authoritatively sane) Mark Vonnegut

Now that I've climbed up on this horse, why not ride a little farther, since I haven't yet talked myself out of this as a potentially fruitful area of inquiry? After having talked about the ways in which mental illness interferes with creative efforts, and made clear that I don't support the classic romantic connection between madness and creativity, I want to draw out some of the other, more tentative and fragile connections I find there. 

For as long as anyone can remember, I was a pretty weird but also smart- and creative-seeming kid, and this might have mitigated some of the surprise when it turned out I was also crazy. My mother began saying things like, "I guess that's the thing, when you're really creative . . . ," as if my illness were only further proof of my exceptionality. I squirmed under this proud pity, but when I was being lax with myself I could let it seem like a slightly less dark corner of that darkness.

Though all this was, of course, a major burden on my family, it might have also been something of a relief. Until 7th grade I'd been a star student, but once I got to middle school a combination of rebellious awakening (what, precisely, was the point of all this bureaucratic ritual around me?) and incipient depression sunk my grades to the point that I was at risk of being kicked out of my competitive-admission magnet school. (I am incredulous at and a little proud of my 12-year-old self to recall that during a parent-teacher conference it was revealed that I'd submitted zero of the five geography assignments given so far that quarter; the teacher, who seemed to hate me for other reasons than my lack of initiative, was later fired under circumstances surrounding his penchant for the blonder and bubblier of my cohort.) Mental illness might have provided something of an explanation, an excuse for the past few years of decline -- and a promise that, if treated, I'd return to my unproblematically exceptional previous performance.

It was probably a few years before I had enough distance to consider at length what my family was going through at this time. Lately I've wondered about another possible factor in their conceptualization of my illness. I have a girlfriend now, which my family did not know was within the realm of possibility for me until a couple of years ago. They've welcomed her with an effusiveness that suggests a little more may be at work than delight in Heather's highly family-pleasing character. The other week on the phone with my grandmother, after some polite chat about what Heather was up to, she broke out with: "I'm just so glad you're happy now."

Now? Now that I had come out and into my true self, I suppose she meant. I had never actually framed the matter as a "coming out," never indicated that this had been a matter of much inner struggle for me (it was and wasn't, but not due to any kind of self-repression). But this is one of the narratives at work around us, and it might well present itself as a comforting explanation for why one's granddaughter was so miserable for all those years.

Sadly for narrative convenience, my mental illness surely did not stem from my being creative or being queer (though the latter factor might well have added to the general feeling of pressure under which my first break occurred). But it has informed my art, not so much as cause or content but as process. The two things can move in similar ways.

Metaphor is itself a kind of paranoia; poetry, like psychosis, depends on seeing things as they are not. A piece of praise that sticks with me is a comment that I seemed to "see more than anyone else." (The capacity for paying attention makes up about 90% of my talent in any area, I suppose; it's not much, but it can do a little more than one might think.) In a paranoid state the mind runs its fingers more and more rapidly along threads of connection between all things (perhaps half-realizing that it is weaving these very threads with the other hand, and perhaps not at all), enwrapping the world in an ever wider and more elaborate net. Similarly, when things are going well as I write or compose in my head or plot out an essay it is among life's highest pleasures to feel the successive sparks of connection between ideas; I feel maximally powerful drawing so many things within my grasp, alive with the sense that I am doing the thing that I was designed to do – as a cheetah must feel when it runs, a hawk as it enters its swift controlled fall toward its prey.

Accordingly, the first stages of agitation can feel almost virtuous themselves in their similarity to this blessedly productive state. The hyperawareness of anxiety sometimes brings along a sense that the world is burgeoning with barely-contained meaning, and every so often it does produce some useful flash: an apt image, a slightly bitter bit of aphorism. Usually, however, this branching of thought turns in on itself before reaching the desired destination. Consciousness begins instead devouring data on the body and its accelerating heart rate, the twitch developing in one eyelid, the nausea puddling in the gut, and the fraught border where the self meets a judgmental world. Past this point, the best that can be hoped for is to eventually collapse into an exhausted calm; the promised breakthrough is lost for good.

Depression does something else, which it can do in tandem with these other forces or alone. It saps the will to such an extent that it can, in some middle state between normalcy and incapacitation, actually provide a sense of focus on those few things that seem marginally non-useless. When things are going easily in a superficial way, the sense of urgency needed to undertake creative projects fades. If one is happy cooking delicious meals, watching movies, having drinks with friends, why not bask in complacency for a while? In a steady mood I can go days or weeks without the question of what I am here to do posing more than a minor itch at the back of my skull.

In a depressed state, however, art becomes one of the few things of worth in the world and one of the only ladders up toward the light. When making art is a way to feel better (and not because it helps "work through" my feelings, but rather because it dissolves the self and feelings in its own process), one is compelled more strongly toward it.

If my work ethic were stronger to begin with, these prompts of illness would lose their authority, I think. As it is, I try to wring what I can from them without losing sight of the inevitable point where they stop being of assistance, without forgetting that they are not the only spurs that can induce me to work seriously, but only the most painful. Which is not the same thing at all, as it turns out. 

25 January 2012

Pedway ghost

The elevators at work sometimes make me feel like a ghost. They fail to recognize me fully or at all. I stick my arm into the closing maw of one, which shoves my elbow aside before reconsidering my claims to reality at the last instant. The pair of sales reps inside don't pause their conversation.

Other times I press the button for my floor and its little orange halo will not light, which I may not notice at first. Instead I whoosh through two dozen stories of atmosphere in my dim capsule until someone else summons the car, entirely at the mercy of anywhere anyone else wants to go.

There are of course some forces at work here, mechanical quirks and human errors (how many times have I blindly walked onto an up elevator intending to go down?), and sometimes I solve the mystery to some extent, realizing for instance that some Charon of the system requires that I scan my key card as his fare. Often, however, I don't sort it out in time to avoid an embarrassing trip in the wrong direction, wincing goodbye to the departing members of the car as I remain and wait to go back up.

In general as I move through the office and the pedway below I feel ghostly, flickering into and out of visibility at the most inopportune times and through no desire of my own. Here I am, hungry and attracting no attention at the sandwich counter. And here I manifest myself as someone I vaguely know walks by and either waves or does not wave, but certainly notices the panicked half-smile on my face when I try to figure out which it was and what I should do when I catch her eye accidentally and too late. And then, my god, there are the system of pedway doors that demarcate the boundaries of the skyscrapers perched above. At what distance must one hold open the door for someone approaching from behind? Should one hang back or speed up if someone else threatens to undertake such an act of chivalry? (In the elevators, some men silently insist that women get off first, though I -- in a shapeless, puddle-splashed jacket, clutching a bike helmet and dabbing at my cheeks to sop up or at least spread around the tears the wind has produced -- am clearly not the specimen of womanhood these rules were built for.) My own girlfriend has walked by me in the pedway before and I have not seen her, too intent on making it through this minefield to get my lunch.

Down here, among the busily chatting and expensively shod, I feel as I often have when wandering at dusk through well-off, gold-windowed neighborhoods: inherently suspect and with the feeling that I should want to steal something. But are the ghosts in stories ever thieves? They take maybe a token from the living, something of sentimental value, nothing more. What use would they have for anything else?

22 January 2012

On Not Writing about Madness

I have been thinking for a long time -- years and years, really, as I had considered myself a writer before I had any experience with mental illness -- about whether and how to write about mental illness. It presents a problem for fiction, I have long been told by writing mentors who know what they are talking about, since it seems to erase the comprehensible motives for action on which most fiction plots run. "She was crazy" is a dead end as explanations go.

So although mental illness is an actual and in fact a fairly sensational-sounding aspect of our world, our forms of narrative art have rather a dearth of ways to work with it. There are memoirs and biographies, of course, but typically the mental illness is presented as the thrillingly seamy flipside to a life (as an artist, a writer, a mathematician) whose on-record interest lies elsewhere. When it is used in literary fiction it is often afflicting a secondary character as a complication in the life of the non-mentally-ill protagonist (the first examples that, for some reason, come to mind, resting a little way apart on the spectrum of good taste: Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True, Eugenides's The Marriage Plot).

One genre that poses a major exception is the young adult or coming of age novel, in which I encountered mentally ill adolescents by the dozens as an adolescent myself. Most preteens are morbid and melodramatic by nature, easily cast under the spell of any subject with an element of gothic romance -- consider Lurlene McDaniel's absurdly prolific career of novels about terminally ill teenagers (some of her more than 70 titles: If I Should Die Before I Wake, Too Young to Die, Sixteen And Dying, A Time to Die, Please Don’t Die), consider the scores of '60s girl group songs about misunderstood boys committing suicide by motorbike, consider young Werther. And so it is with mental illness -- now, perhaps even more than when I was a kid rubbernecking at the misfortunes of my fictional peers, we have the anorexia novels, the self-injury novels, the addiction novels.

So this is another reason why I've hesitated to make any prolonged effort to write about mental illness: the taint of the adolescent, the overconfessional. And beyond even the feeling that it is unsuitable subject matter for adults is my discomfort with the element of romance at the heart of these books. I do not think their authors consciously intend to enhance the sexiness of this subject matter; they simply think they are representing the challenges faced by today's teens. But the romance is there; it is likely the main draw.

As the reader sinks into an ever deeper identification with the beautifully damaged or self-damaging protagonist, the affliction being chronicled appears as a painful but also fundamentally interesting way to live. Given a certain amount of inward affliction, the struggle of simply being oneself imposes a clear plot structure upon one's life. (This elemental plot also drives the coming-out novel, another rich young-adult subgenre I devoured even before suspecting that I myself was queer.) And although the reader, like the author, would not consciously frame it this way, such a readymade plot -- what Susan Sontag calls "the metaphor of the psychic voyage . . . an extension of the romantic idea of travel" -- can hold existential appeal to a reader aswim in the mundane formlessness of adolescence.

For most readers, of course, the romance ends there, and they return to their more or less healthy lives. The passionate pathology of the narrative casts its seeds onto the firm, dry soil of the soundly pragmatic mind, where they shrivel and blow away a little while after the last pages are read.

So I am certainly not saying that fiction made me mentally ill as a teenager; some combination of neurochemistry and life circumstances did that. But it was, I think, a force for rather than against my pathology once it began. It laid the groundwork for madness to flourish with the idea "that illness exacerbates consciousness" (Sontag), and for me to see it as a subject for study rather than an invasive species to uproot. My illness seized me unbidden, but after not much struggle I walked with it a while, prepared by fiction for it to take me somewhere interesting. It seemed to me at first that it might not only impose a new narrative on my life, but also benefit my writing. At the time I considered myself before anything a poet. In hallucinations and delusions were fresh images for my craft, inaccessible to anyone else around me.

The trouble was that they stayed inaccessible when I put them down in words. They were true nonsense. I wrote only a few poems using the content of my delusions (not mid-attack, but afterward; my psychosis was, on the spectrum of psychosis, mild, being episodic rather than all-pervasive, and I think I never wrote a word while within the grip of such an episode) before realizing that for any reader they would be nothing but little sealed rooms with a formless arrangement of inscrutable objects inside. No one saw them. I made a different attempt at at it a year or two later, deploying an elaborate chain of metaphors to depict the state of being mad (It's more like a jungle in the dark, intricate and awful . . .). I brought it to my writing mentors; they did not see much reality in it and asked questions trying to understand.

"Well, it's a metaphor," I said uselessly. A metaphor for a state with which no one could really identify. A sequence of images whose logic no one could follow, mapping to a state of mind signposted only by its own idiosyncratic pathology. It did not interest them; it was of no literary interest.

My salvation came partly when I became able to see madness as boring, when it became apparent that it was not only ruining my life but failing to add richness to my writing or the great narrative of my existence. (By salvation I only mean the power and will to work against my illness; there was no moment of conversion or cure, only the passing of time and the cultivation of a preventive vigilance within me.) I was already well into the demythologizing of my illness by the time I came across Illness as Metaphor, but I instantly grabbed onto Sontag's tough anti-romanticism. "The most truthful way of regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking," she writes.

Such has been one of the key tenets of the rabidly pro-sanity system of values I've built for myself. That system has saved me, but it's also meant that I don't know quite what to do with madness. I'd like to see nearly everything within the scope of my experience as a potential entry to creativity or exploration, but when I arrive at mental illness I usually turn back pretty quickly. Because it is disreputable, because it is in a certain literary sense uninteresting, because I find it irresponsible to participate in the tradition of romanticization but don't entirely trust myself not to do so. And, to a non-negligible extent, because it makes people uncomfortable. It remains a loose thread for me. I keep taking it out and winding it between my fingers because even now I feel that there must be something I can do with it. I just haven't figured out what yet.

(A brief note on terminology here: I've used "mental illness" and "madness" more or less synonymously, aware that this may be an outdated and problematic choice. But because I'm dealing here with the tension between clinical and romantic modes of viewing pathology and because I have laid claim to both characterizations at various points in the time period discussed, I've retained the somewhat sloppy intermingling of terms.)

18 January 2012

A Personal History of Beyonce

All the snow came down at once, ending the feeling of easy, undeserved freedom we'd enjoyed from fall through mid-January. And just a couple of days before this, we -- I mean now Heather and I, not the city at large -- got a dog, somewhat analogously. I walk her, though not as much as Heather, who wanted her most. The snow presents a new subject for her study, rewriting the city's book of smells in a fascinating foreign dialect. She dips her nose into it, pushes at it with a professorial paw. Snow catches in the loops of chain link fences, erecting a skin of delicate scales around some yards. It's beautiful, and puts me so on edge. Cementing me into a difficult season I'd been able to slip in and out of until now.

A few weeks ago I wrote about music that comforts by immersing the listener in a kind of iterative difficulty; today I'm looking at the value of escape instead. Today I'm looking at one of my personal saints of pop jubilance. What makes Beyonce work for me?

Some thoughts and experiences, in no particular order:

1. We were at Heather's mom's monthly family dinner and she was casting about for a performer to epitomize some form of . . . pop degeneracy in the kids these days, I suppose. I don't remember the exact context. What she came up with was "Bounce-ay" (emphasis on first syllable, at least). Bouncy -- a perfect spokeswoman for the aging suburbanite's vision of popular culture: bubbly, brainless, and patently absurd. Probably also a little dirty, if you thought about it. 

But how can you not know who Beyonce is well enough to know how to pronounce her name? She's everywhere.

2. I was in the car in the High Sierras where my friend Kari lives and something about Beyonce came up; possibly my surprised enjoyment of "Crazy in Love," or maybe something one of her younger cousins said.

"Man, fuckin' Beyonce," I said, shaking my head in admiration.

Kari laughed. "The old Daphne would never have said that."

I really was more committed to seriousness as a virtue at some point in my life, I guess. Probably that'll happen if you go to a Great Books school in the desert mountains (and if you're the kind of teenager who applies to only one college and that's the one). I think it was Andrew who told me once about a classmate or lecturer there who railed against hip-hop because its beat evoked "the rhythm of sexual intercourse." Even then of course I laughed, but -- what weird and austere worlds I've lived in from time to time.

3. Some Google search results:

"I love Beyonce": About 1,740,000 results
"I hate Beyonce": About 56,800 results

(Honestly I didn't intend to expand on this point, but paging through some of the results for the latter phrase is actually pretty fun:

"Sure I liked the song and music video, but then when I saw Beyonce, I just knew that I wouldn't like her. She had look all stucked up and stuff."

"Do You Hate Beyonce? Join friendly people sharing true stories in the I Hate Beyonce group. Find forums, advice and chat with groups who share this life.")

4. I think I can come off as a pretty solemn person, if not somber, and when I conceived this post I sort of thought, well, ha! If that's what you think, let me write a few hundred words about Beyonce, of all things.

Then I remembered that part of the reason I'm writing this is because I am a crier. Or used to be, or am in the sense that an alcoholic continues to claim the title after years of sobriety. Not especially when I'm sad (at least not sad about situations in my life, though put for instance a sick kid on my TV screen and I'm instantly immobilized by reservoirs of tears awaiting the slightest breath to spill forward), but certainly and infuriatingly when I'm angry I have to fight it back, and certainly when I am . . . I don't know, beauty-struck? But by a very particular kind of beauty, the kind that slices suddenly into the joy of being a living expressive being and instantly stings the eyes with the vapors it sends up.

Plenty of perfectly respectable art does this for me, sure -- Chagall's America Windows, sentences of Proust's or Nabokov's, scenes in Tati's Playtime. But a certain set of performers within pop culture also produces this effect: typically female, youthful, beautiful, smiling, and sending out outrageous quantities of charm. This can come across excellently on record -- most of the '60s girl group songs I love operate on this frequency, Leslie Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows" and The Toys' "A Lovers' Concerto" being prime examples -- but especially on video. Dolly Parton does this; so does Janelle Monae. I watch them sing and smile, my jaw drops, my eyes well. There's some kind of pure life force on display there that demands my gratitude and rapture.

"Countdown" -- the song and its video both -- seems to throw nearly everybody into paroxysms of delight, so it's no surprise that it turns on my personal waterworks. Throughout the video Beyonce gives an incredible impression of somebody trying to be glamorous, tough, and cool, but always failing at the last moment to suppress a gleeful, spine-melting grin that betrays exactly how giddy she is. Coming out of the intro and breaking into one of the fairly unconvincing interludes of clubspeak that dot the song, her lip curls into a snarl that's immediately pulled under by a more characteristic twinkle. One knows intellectually that this is surely as choreographed as everything else about Beyonce -- even her long eyelashes flutter to the beat in closeups -- but the smile zaps down any such distancing.

Most of her videos -- sure, most of her songs -- don't approach the artfulness and pleasure of "Countdown," but even in tacky crap like the video for "Run the World," she communicates a sense of play in the close-ups, like all the clouds of dust and wild animals and "edgy" stylization are just an elaborate game of dress-up. As, of course, they are -- making her also seem not only more playful but also more intelligent and grounded than any of her fellow pop queens.

One of the main things about Beyonce is her aura of total self-possession. "Countdown," like "Crazy in Love" (the track that initiated my gushy admiration), is a headlong rush into unquestioning adoration. But what comes across is how good it feels to be in love; she's exulting partly in her own state of soul. We don't see the dream boy in the video. When she sings "grind up on him," it's herself she's wrapping her arms around. Romping through candy-colored sets among marching band members, she effectively brings to life the way love has of sending an entire universe into bloom, whether the loved one is present or not.

Of course she has just had a baby and the internet is, has been, abuzz with the news. I and the world seem to think that Jay-Z is a pretty good match. I like his music, and he exudes the same steely professionalism that one knows must underlie as highly willed a career as Beyonce's. But when he comes in on "Crazy in Love," he simply sounds like some dope interrupting. I mean, who wouldn't?

5. Once I was home from college and went to the mall with my friend Claire so she could use some gift certificates, but also so she could show me the girl who worked at the smoothie shop counter who, Claire said, "looked just like Beyonce." Claire wasn't out yet, but who wouldn't be crushed out on someone who looked just like Beyonce in real life behind the juice counter? (She wasn't there that day, but I undoubtedly would have been instantly in love.) Beyonce is universal.

6. Despite my considerable streak of snobbishness, I'm pointlessly delighted when my tastes converge with the zeitgeist. I was thrilled when "Hey Ya" and "Bad Romance" and "Million Dollar Bill" were big, not only because it was occasionally possible to hear something that I enjoyed in the grocery store or the gay bar, but because I felt relieved, momentarily, from the imaginary pressure of defending my tastes to the masses. (Despite surely bringing down the pressure of defending my tastes to that mostly imaginary coterie from whom I'd just defected). Loving Beyonce is a kind of optimism about the world, a little bridge to the considerable part of it that can appreciate ebullience as much as I do. There, I can say. There's one thing that we are all about.