"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I’m exhausted and desperate. All the time. You might think it wouldn’t be possible to feel such intense emotional states all the time, but that’s where I am. Because if exhaustion and despair are the lack of energy and hope, I’m at a big zero.
Cary, I’m a young(ish) adult who is unemployed (partly by choice) and chronically depressed. Before you tell me to go get some damned medication, I have. And I take it. And it does help because it hurts less when I take it. But it doesn’t fix the existential problem, which is a fancy way of saying I just don’t want to exist.
It’s not always like this. A month or so I thought of some life options that could fill me with energy and hope. Just THINKING about them helped. But now I’m having trouble following through. I’m scared that I’m going to sabotage myself again like I’ve been doing all my life — turning away from things I really want because I’m afraid I won’t get them or, worse, just unwilling to do anything serious to make them happen.
I don’t believe this can all be chemical. There’s something bigger at work here. I want to have a life. I want to have a fabulous life full of friends and creativity and work that I love. At times in my life, I’ve even had that, and I want it back so badly.
Why can’t I do something more toward achieving that besides writing you a letter? Why can’t I wake up in the morning and fill out a hundred job applications and network and do paperwork and all that horrible, soul-destroying stuff that actually makes things happen?
I’m blinking back tears as I write this letter. I doubt this is publishable, but any response from you would be greatly appreciated. You described your writing once as lyrical, and it is. It’s also strangely reassuring. I could use just a little reassurance right now.
Thanks. No seriously, thanks
I’m writing back to you primarily because of one thing I found interesting and hopeful in your letter.
You see, I am interested, as an amateur, in the science of depression. As someone who just recently fell into a rather bleak and desperate spell of depression, and sought medical help for it, I have more than a personal interest in it.
I get excited whenever I see a glimmer of hope.
So when you say, “I thought of some life options that could fill me with energy and hope. Just THINKING about them helped,” I get excited. I also get excited when you describe the kind of life you want, and when you say that you have had this kind of life in the past.
So I’m going to suggest — and this may be way unscientific but I’m not claiming to be a scientist — that you repeat the action that made you feel better. In this case, it’s thinking about those life options. That made you feel better. Do more of that.
Plunge into that. Make that your lifeline for now. Do whatever it takes to magnify and enhance those thoughts. Draw them. Make cartoons of them. Write dialogue. Create characters who act out these life options. Make a collage. Find photos and artwork and articles that relate to these life options and tape them onto a big piece of paper. Visualize these life options. Just spend time thinking about them. Write about it. Talk about it. Make it real to yourself. Live there. Spend some time living in this new life. At least in your mind. It will cheer you up. You’ll enjoy it. There’s no law against it. It will help.
It might not cure your depression right away, but it will help. It will be a refuge.
Next: Definitely look into cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy is built on the very connection you discovered between thought and mood when you found that thinking certain things made you feel better.
You also discovered the converse of that — you saw how your negative thoughts can affect you.
It looks like what you did was move prematurely from the wonderful, life-affirming effect of thinking these thoughts to the deadening, discouraging effect of implementation failure. You devalued these thoughts by moving immediately to the implementation phase, where you could predictably fail.
So spend more time developing your vision of where you want to be. You don’t have to implement right away. Strengthen your vision. If it seems silly, think of it as preparation. Think of it as research and refinement. Acquire information. Become an expert. But don’t set yourself up for failure by going to the implementation phase too fast. Acquire tools and equipment. Fortify yourself. Do the actions that make you feel strong.
You also ask, “Why can’t I wake up in the morning and fill out a hundred job applications and network and do paperwork and all that horrible, soul-destroying stuff that actually makes things happen?” There is another body of psychological knowledge regarding motivation. I read a book about it once. That book was for writers. It was called, “Motivate Your Writing!: Using Motivational Psychology to Energize Your Writing Life,” by Stephen P. Kelner Jr.
Though it was for writers, the nugget of truth I took from it was that where we find the motivation to do things is in our emotional makeup, not necessarily in our aspirations. I took the little test that was in the book and actually got some surprises, so I’d recommend that book even to somebody who isn’t trying to write, but just trying to get motivated to do something.
Also, and perhaps more important, because what you really need to do is apply what you’ve noticed about the connection between your thoughts and your mood, get that book, “Feeling Good,” by Dr. David Burns. And get yourself some cognitive therapy. If the person who prescribed you the medication will help you find a cognitive therapist, or if that person practices cognitive therapy, that would be great.
You obviously have found the key. The key is to change your thinking so instead of driving you into depression your thinking is driving you into happiness, joy, optimism and energy.
I know it sounds maybe too stupid and simple to be true. But that’s the obvious truth of it. It is pretty simple. Scientists have discovered that the repetition of certain negative thoughts leads to depression, and by altering that practice, a person can emerge from depression.
One might wonder how thinking can change mood. My layman’s assumption would be that since mood can be changed electrochemically, and because thought is an electrochemical action, that it’s not so surprising that thinking could alter mood.
On the other hand — and here’s where I part with people who say that thinking can make money appear in your pocket! — the connection between visualizing something and making it actually materialize seems more remote. What is the medium of connection between my thought and a pile of money? Maybe there is some unseen connection, but I find it a lot easier to understand how thinking could affect our mood than how thinking could affect our bank account.
And, as I say, what was so interesting and cool was that you discovered it, experimentally, empirically, on your own. You just didn’t have a program to back it up. Cognitive therapy is that program.
So get with it. You don’t have to go down that road. You don’t have to be depressed. You can be cured.
A complete cure might not be immediate. You might have lapses. But give it a shot. You don’t have to be depressed.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)