Thursday, October 01, 2009

Caring for Your Writer Friend

The newspaper is trying to ruin my day again. The paper that was delivered this morning was missing the important part: the comics and crossword puzzles. You know, the part that's not so easy to replicate online (you can get the New York Times puzzle online, but it's usually a week behind, and doing a puzzle online is not the same as using a pencil on the paper itself). I called to report it and schedule a redelivery, and it's now nearly an hour past the time it was supposed to be delivered, so I called again, and they said it was past the time I could get a guaranteed redelivery, so they'd have to give me a credit. I pointed out that I had initially called well before the deadline, so they were the ones who'd failed to live up to what they guaranteed, and I NEEDED MY CROSSWORD PUZZLE. Ahem. Apparently, this was a problem throughout the system, that incomplete papers had gone out, but that doesn't mean they don't need to handle fixing that problem. You'd think that with newspaper subscriptions on the decline, they would be extra careful to take care of the long-term subscribers they do have and not do things to give them excuses to quit subscribing. This is a time to offer better service, not slack off. That is, if they want to stay in business. Incidentally, the other sections that were missing were the classified ads. Not that I care about those, but the classified sections are already bleeding. How can they keep people buying ads if they don't actually bother to deliver the ads to subscribers?

It doesn't help that I have a massive case of Book Brain, which makes me even more squirrely than normal. I had ample evidence yesterday that I was lost in the fog of imaginary people and places. You know you have Book Brain when you walk into a pillar you didn't realize was there in a grocery store you go to about once a week.

And then you apologize to the pillar for bumping into it.

It must be terribly frustrating or worrying to be friends with a writer in the throes of a book. One problem is that a really good creative phase actually has many of the symptoms of clinical depression. There's a change in sleeping patterns -- often not sleeping because the brain just won't shut up, or else oversleeping after a big burst of creativity, or sometimes spending a lot of time in bed daydreaming because that time when you're just awake enough to be conscious but not really totally awake is the best brainstorming time. There may be a change in eating patterns -- either forgetting to eat and losing interest in food while caught up in the story or munching mindlessly while writing and doing a lot of emotional eating.

There's a loss of interest in activities the person usually finds enjoyable -- because when the book is flowing really well, nothing else seems quite as interesting and you don't want to do anything but write. The writer in a good creative phase may withdraw from family and friends -- getting lost in the book during a time when the imaginary people and places are more vivid and insistent than real people or places. Going anywhere else, doing anything else or talking with anyone else might allow those ideas to vanish before they can be captured.

And yet, the people who care about the writers in their lives can't afford to entirely dismiss any of this behavior as just a good creative spurt because there is a very high correlation between writers (and other creative artists) and depression, mental illness and suicide, as well as substance abuse. I don't know (and I don't know if medical science knows) if it's a direct cause/effect relationship, but I suppose there is a fine line between genius and insanity. Creative people tend to be rather sensitive, which is how they can tap into emotions in order to express them, and that could leave them more vulnerable to the usual slings and arrows of life. Meanwhile, the business is enough to drive anyone mad, as you're taking your creations and putting them in the hands of people who treat them as commodities, so that the ultimate fate of your creations is entirely out of your control, and yet you, as the author, take the blame if they don't sell well. The cover may be awful, the packaging may go after the totally wrong audience, the books may be shelved in the wrong spot, the timing may be bad, or the train carrying the books to the distributor may derail so that the books never reach stores, but if the sales are low, that's attributed to the author's work. And then I think there may be some sense of peer pressure/expectation, like if you're a writer then you're supposed to drink to excess and be moody.

How do you tell if the writer in your life is depressed and needs help or just in a really creative phase and needs you to go away? I think a big sign is productivity. I've known writers who were struggling with clinical depression, and while they were depressed, they just couldn't write. The words wouldn't come, and they couldn't generate ideas. Someone in a good creative phase is going to be churning out words and ideas. When you talk to them, they may be vague and uncommunicative about the real world, but if you get them started talking about the book, they'll perk up and you may not be able to shut them up.

How do you support the writer in your life? Don't take it personally when the writer retreats into the cave. Keep extending invitations and reaching out, but don't worry if your writer friend starts declining them for a while and says she needs to work. When the book is done, she may be more than eager to head back into the world. Remember that it's not about you, and you're not being rejected personally. Communicating by e-mail may be the best bet because the writer can then respond and deal with it in her own time without interrupting the flow, and it's easier to translate from writing to communicating in writing. But don't get your feelings hurt if your writer friend doesn't reach out to you during a big creative phase. When a book is going well, the characters are move vivid than real people at times, and it just may not cross the writer's mind to communicate with anyone else. It's almost like a day full of social interaction, so communicating with more people after a day of writing is the last thing many writers will want to do. Remember that writing does count as a job, and it requires concentration, so don't assume that the writer doesn't have a "real job" and is therefore free to chat on the phone all day, go to lunch, go to movies, etc. Ask about your writer friend's working schedule to see if there are times of day when it's best to call or not call. I'm thinking of instituting "at home" hours (like in Regency novels), the times and days when I am open to being called upon, and the rest of the time I will not be "at home" for social interaction. Full-time writers have to deal with the "you don't have a real job" attitude when it comes to socializing or volunteer work, while part-time writers who still have a day job may have to deal with people who don't understand that their evenings and weekends are already spoken for.

If you're worried about whether your writer friend is depressed or creative, offer to serve as an accountability buddy or beta reader. If you get a daily word count total or pages to read, you'll know work is being produced and your friend is probably okay.

I do want to make clear that I'm not complaining about anything in particular that any of my friends or family are doing. I was just doing some medical writing, read something about depression and realized that the symptoms sounded familiar, and then started thinking about the way I've been suddenly declining invitations and thought I probably ought to discuss the topic.

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