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.)

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