GUEST POST: No One Can Tell You How to be a Writer, by Katherine Lampe

Somewhere out there in the world I’m running a wedding rehearsal right now.  Hopefully I’m doing it at least moderately competently.


Hi, there.

I’m Katherine Lampe. In the unlikely event that you’ve heard of me, you probably know me as the author of the Caitlin Ross Urban Fantasy series. Or as a loudmouth with no censor, who doesn’t balk at sharing her bathroom habits on social media. But you might not know I have Bipolar Disorder (Type II).

Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t balk at sharing the details of my mental health, either.

Bipolar II isn’t the “fun” kind of Bipolar, where you do things like blow your savings on fantastic money-making inventions or tell random strangers you’re a movie star incognito. That is, it isn’t characterized by extreme mania. When those of us with Bipolar II experience mania, it’s generally of a milder sort. The kind that lets you clean your entire house in a couple hours, which is useful, but not particularly exciting. The main feature of Bipolar II is debilitating depression, sometimes lasting years. The depression has its own rhythm. There are days or weeks when you can’t get out of bed. Then there are periods when you’re kind of functional. You can accomplish stuff that needs done, but all of it is drained of emotional content. Nothing’s particularly worrisome, but nothing is particularly enjoyable, either. Sometimes duty and expectation are the only things keeping you going, because you don’t want much. Nothing appeals and nothing matters. And when you accomplish something, you don’t feel any internal sense of reward.

About ten years ago, give or take, a bunch of stressors fell on my head all at once. I’ve been in a Bipolar depression ever since. And before you ask, yes, I’m in treatment. Without it, I wouldn’t be alive to write this. Medication alleviates some of the distress. It doesn’t make me normal, whatever that means. I have about as many good days as bad days now. Of course, on the bad days the good days seem nonexistent. And even on the good days, good feelings are distant. More an intellectual recognition of “Oh, I don’t want to die today,” than true wellbeing.

At the same time as I’ve been experiencing this extended depressive period, I’ve written seven novels, six of which I’ve published (the seventh is due out in August). I’ve also written and published a book of fairy tales and another of short stories, and I’m piddling around with a trio of related novellas. All without any motivation or feeling of gratification from the process.

Okay, there were those twelve weeks when I was manic and I completed two novels. That was pretty cool.

Until now, I’ve never really thought much about how I wrote seven novels in the state I’m in. The first one, I’d been plodding along at for some time. When the depression got bad, I abandoned it for years on end. Then a new medication started working, and one day I went back to it. Rewrote most of it. That’s when the manic period hit, and I wrote the next two books in the series. The mania left, and I didn’t write for another couple years. After that, I found reasons. Sometimes reasons within the series itself: an event that needed to happen, an issue that needed to be addressed. Sometimes it seemed like writing was the only thing I could do, the only thing I’m good at. When all else fails, I can still put words together, whether or not they matter to me. Maybe sometimes I was just telling myself stories as a kind of distraction from the dreariness of life. This last novel has been an absolute nightmare, by the way. It took me two years, and in the process I tried and abandoned half a dozen different plots and tossed tens of thousands of words.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter how I did it. I found a way that worked for me. If my way doesn’t look like anyone else’s, who cares?

Well, sometimes I care. I care when I see people post writing tips or blog about How to Do It. I have a bad habit of comparing my process to other people’s process, and when mine isn’t the same, I wonder if I’ve Done It Wrong. When a writer I follow on Instagram or Twitter mentions in May they’ve completed three manuscripts since January, I wonder what’s wrong with me. What essential quality am I lacking?

I know the answer. What’s “wrong” with me is, I have a mental illness. What I’m lacking is the normative distribution of chemicals in my brain.

Most of the lists of writing tips you see, most of the posts about “how to be a writer,” are written from a neurotypical perspective. An ableist perspective. (They’re often classist and sexist as well, and probably racist, but I’m white so I can’t speak to that.) When you’re struggling with a chronic illness, be it mental or physical, advice like “write every day” isn’t just worthless, it’s actively damaging. Well-meaning saws like “it’s not always going to be fun” or “don’t wait around for inspiration or the right moment” are meaningless when you never experience “fun” or “inspiration” and every moment is wrong. Saying “push through and get it done,” without considering whether your audience has the physical and mental stamina to push anything is insensitive at best. It really drags down those of us who write but are unable to follow the directive. It contributes to an already frustrating experience, and sometimes provokes us to overextend the few resources at our disposal. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a friend struggling with the balance of illness and writing say “I just have to knuckle down and do it,” knowing they can’t do any such thing, knowing they’re going to judge themselves later when they don’t “measure up.”

A lot of that advice comes from a capitalist standard where output at any cost is considered more inherently valuable than a person’s wellbeing, and where failure to make quota is taken as a sign of laziness or not trying hard enough. It relegates words to the category of product rather than art or expression, and it’s bullshit. If you perpetuate that standard (or suspect you do), I ask you, pleas, to check yourself and knock it the hell off. If you suffer from that standard, I’m here to tell you it’s okay to ignore it. The most anyone giving advice can do is tell you what works for them. Being a bestselling novelist does not make anyone an authority on you and your process. No one else can define “what works” for you. No one else can tell you how to do you, and you don’t have to feel guilty or beat yourself up for not listening.

Maybe you write every day for three months and then not at all for two years. Maybe you think for a week before every word. Maybe you don’t think about writing at all for weeks on end. It’s all fine. It’s fine if you finish things, and it’s fine if you don’t. It’s fine if you’re published and if you’re not, and it’s fine if you don’t care one way or the other. It’s fine if you want to write but health limitations mean you can’t right now, and it’s fine if you need to spend quality time with your cat. It’s fine if the stories go away. And you know what? If they never come back, that’s fine too. It’s a loss and a grief, maybe. Maybe it’s a relief. Whatever your feeling about it, it doesn’t make you, the essential you, worthless or invalid.

You have the moment in front of you. Nothing else. Do it your own way and screw the haters.

A curious psychological phenomenon

South Bend is celebrating its 150th anniversary this weekend.  They’ve been pulling out all the stops; there’s been a crazy amount of shit going on downtown all weekend and while at least a couple of things probably ought to have gotten somebody killed from what I’ve been hearing and seeing most everyone’s been having a good time.  My wife and I brought the boy downtown this afternoon for a bit, mostly intending to just walk around.  As expected, finding parking was a bit of a difficulty.

Now, you’re just going to have to trust me, because I didn’t get a good picture of this part, but a lot of the streets near the event downtown were filled with cars parked right next to “NO PARKING SATURDAY OR SUNDAY” signs.  Apparently what the signs mean is don’t park on top of the sign, because there were plenty of blocks that were completely full of cars except for the small amounts of space taken up by the actual no parking standees.  Again, I should have gotten a picture.

It’s been a long time since I lived in Chicago, but I was well trained during my time there.  If your ass sees a No Parking sign in Chicago, what that sign means is if you can see this sign with a telescope, you shouldn’t park here, because those motherfuckers will fine you if there is a sign underneath a car six blocks from where you’re parked.

Now, I watched a ton of cops stroll right by those cars without ticketing anybody, despite the potential bonanza in ticket fees.  Watched people pull out.  Drove right past some empty spots.  Did not park.  I’m a Chicagoan still.  I know better.

We finally found a spot.  A whole road, even.  This is the view behind my car:

IMG_2585Let me make sure y’all understand the logic here:

TONS OF “NO PARKING” SIGNS: park wherever the hell you want, nobody cares.
ABSOLUTELY NO SIGNAGE AT ALL: Do not park.

I swear, I was nervous leaving my car here.

There’s a word for this, I just don’t know what it is.

In which I am a ray of goddamn sunshine

UnknownAt the beginning of this school year, I made myself a promise: I was going to do my damnedest to keep from yelling at kids this year.  I knew from the beginning that this was not going to be a resolution that I was going to be able to keep for the entire school year; the relevant question was how long I’d go before I failed.  I am, as you may have guessed, somewhat of a volatile personality.  I’ve done better almost every year at keeping my cool in the face of nonsense.  Some years (last year) I’ve backslid; I guarantee I’ve raised my voice to kids less frequently this year than I did last year.  So, in that, I suppose it’s been a success.  That said, I’ve had a few embarrassing displays even just in the past few weeks, so I’m not there just yet.  Also, I keep losing sight of the fact that there’s still a full quarter of school left.  Positive Man recognizes that there is still time for things to go wrong.  🙂

Here’s where I’ve failed so far this year, and where I’m going to do my best to improve substantially in what’s left of the school year:  I have not been good enough in 1) emphasizing positivity in my classroom; 2) rewarding the kids who are not behavior issues; and 3) rewarding and/or simply acknowledging good choices in general.  It’s very easy as an educator to get too tied up in managing pathology in the various forms that it might show up in your classroom; there have been times in this year where I’ve simply felt buried in it.  Things have been getting better lately in my first/second hour block, which have been my problem children all year long– unfortunately, they’ve been slipping in my third and fourth hour block.  My honors kids continue to be the living personification of why I’m a teacher.

For the rest of the school year I need to work harder at being positive, both to set an example and to give some recognition to the kids who sorely deserve it.  Even when I’ve recognized positive behavior this year it’s generally been for kids where that positive behavior has been rare.  That’s a good thing, mind you, but it leaves out the kids who do what they’re supposed to do every day, or even do what they’re supposed to do four days out of every five or nine days out of every ten.

I gotta do better.   Time to start.

On Amiri Baraka and memory

amiri-barakaAmiri Baraka died yesterday, at the ripe old age of 79. Baraka is on a short list– a very short list– of men who I might refer to as One of my Favorite Poets.  (Sadly, they are all men; that’s another post– needless to say, I don’t read nearly enough poetry.)

I first encountered Baraka’s work in middle school, believe it or not, during a poetry unit in English class where I’m pretty sure our teacher just shoveled anything and everything she could find at us in a mad quixotic frenzy, trying to find anything she could that might get middle schoolers interested in poetry.  (I’ve tried this; it’s tricky as hell.)  Someone, who it was is lost to memory, discovered that Baraka had several very short poems that were catchy and interesting and could be committed to memory and recited very, very quickly– which probably accounted for a large part of his popularity among myself and several of my friends.(*)  To wit, his poem In the Funk World, which I’m ashamed to note that I’ve slightly misquoted on Twitter today:

If Elvis Presley/ is
King
Who is James Brown,
God?

Here’s the thing, though: this post isn’t actually about Baraka.  It’s about how freaking weird memory is.  There are two other poems that I’ve been quoting at people and attributing to Amiri Baraka, literally for years, and I can find no evidence whatsoever right now that a) he wrote the poems, or that b) the poems actually exist.  I have a book of his work– this one— and I spent an hour going through the thing trying to find either of them.  They weren’t there.  I was convinced that both were in that book.  Google has gotten me nowhere.  Here are the two poems; they probably both have titles, but I couldn’t tell you what they were:

Hold me
She told me
I did.

And

You cannot fight
Muhammad Ali
And live.

That last one even sounds like Baraka, right?  I was about to refer to a Black Nationalism “phase” in his career, but that minimizes his devotion to the movement a bit too much, I think; the guy who wrote Who blew up America? certainly never walked too far away from nationalism.

I cannot find any evidence that these poems are not something that either I or some other seventh grade dipshit in my class came up with, or that they’re not short poetry by someone else that I’ve just attributed to Baraka, or that they are actually his work and just don’t happen to be in the one book by him I have or be easily accessible on the Internet– in particular since they’re so short and there’s not exactly a lot of unique vocabulary in there to build a proper search query around, plus I’ve almost certainly slightly modified them in my head over the years.

Then again, I was mostly right about Funk World, so…

Yeah.  Memory’s a motherfucker, innit?

Feel free to let me know if you actually recognize either of those, by the way.  I’d like to know I’m not crazy.

(*) I should point out that I’m a fan of his stuff that’s longer than your average haiku, but I can’t pretend that the short poems aren’t the reason I discovered him in the first place.