Writing is a mental illness

Published May 29, 1996 12:54PM (EDT)

i was kind of a mess a few days ago; I've been trying to finish a novel, and had just discovered a few last-minute problems with the material. Like, for instance, I wasn't positive whether I'd remembered to include a plot or not. And I'm sad; I've been reduced to listening to Leonard Cohen to cheer myself up. I was walking my boy through the schoolyard feeling really nuts and sad-thinking about what my friend Nora said once when her heart was broken and she'd lost out on an audition -- she said, I think I'm going to kill myself, but I want to lose five pounds first.

And I was thinking about this, and about my book and how hopeless it all is and how we're all being ground down by slime and how the sun is burning out, and how much work there is to do; and who I might call and ask if they have an unused plot floating around the house, and maybe the merest hint of character development. And I was so lost in these thoughts that I tripped in the schoolyard. I actually started to fall over.

My first thought was that I had a tumor the size of a baseball mitt cradling the balance part of my brain. Of course, my son's friends were all there to see me trip, and from the look on Sam's face you would have thought I'd just started taking off both of my prosthetic limbs. Then I overheard him complaining to a friend, confidentially, "My mom writes chapter books." Like that explained it all.
Which maybe it does.

So I went home and pushed my sleeves back and tried to remind myself of something I heard someone in recovery say once, which is that I walk through open doors, and so I prayed for stamina, and clarity of vision. And I kept reminding myself that it's of no cosmic importance that I write another book; but it's what I do, and I need to give myself to that entirely or what's the point?

So I just sat there for awhile feeling sad and mentally ill, and then finally I figured out that I could approach the work as being like pick-up sticks, and first just pick up all the easy sticks that were lying on the periphery of the mass; and then I tiptoed into the edge of the mass, and found one little patch where I could jiggle the stack a bit and loosen up some more sticks -- maybe lose a turn but hey, what are you going to do? And all day I tried to stay militantly on my own side, because this is the most important thing I know about writing. And I got this huge amount of work done and my confidence was restored, and then I picked up my boy after school, and I was laughing and joking because my work had gone so well and I love him so much and I love Jesus so much and my life is so extraordinarily sweet; and he looked over at me with this totally patronizing expression and said, "Mom? No one thinks your jokes are funny."

And I just stared at him for a moment, until all the self-doubt and overwhelm began swirling through me again, like Chief Broom's fog machine; and after a while I said, "They don't?" That's how far gone I was: I'm asking someone who weighs 45 pounds whether people think I'm funny or not.

I'm a little better now. It helps beyond words to pray like a mofo, and it's great to be plugged into Jesus; kind of like being Bill Clinton's best friend, but without all the annoying parts -- like having to jog with him. And it helps to try and walk through open doors, and to start with the easy pick-up sticks. Because it's hard to write chapter books: It's not about something exalted and spiritual. I wish it were, but most days it's just patience and drudgery.

It's like a story I heard a preacher tell once, about a Sunday school teacher who asked her class one autumn, "What's gray and gathers acorns and has a long bushy tail?" And this little kid says, "I know the answer is probably Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me." Because I tell you, the ups and downs and the mental illness and sadness and self-absorbtion just sounds like being a writer to me, nothing more nothing less, and when all is said and done, of course, one hates to sound like a commercial for sneakers, but, finally, you just do it. And hey, P.S., I finished the last section of my book this afternoon. I worked on ten pages for three hours; and I got them right as fucking rain.

By Anne Lammott

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