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.

Infinitefreetime in The Writing Process Blog Tour

photoI have been nominated for a fair number of WordPress blog awards in the past year, and I’ve ignored almost all of them.  That’s not because I’m not grateful, because I am; it’s always awesome when people think of my blog in any remotely positive context, much less in a context involving a prize, but because I end up having to write the same post, more or less, over and over.  I need to start working on recognizing other blogs more often, and the awards help with that, but it’s not at the top of the priority list just yet.  (He said, smarmily.)

Anyway.  It stands to reason, then, that the one time I see a viral blog post happening that I want to post an entry for, no one nominates me.  🙂  So I’m pretending that Taylor Grace or Part Time Monster nominated me, and I’m going to re-tag Winter Bayne and Gene’O over at The Writing Catalog just to be a jerk.

On to the questions:

1. Why do I write what I do?

I write, loosely defined, speculative fiction— mostly of the science fiction and fantasy genres, with a smattering of heavily H.P. Lovecraft-influenced horror mixed in there as well.  Trouble is, for the most part I can’t keep my genres straight.  Those three were what I read most as a kid (and, truth be told, still do) so they’re what I associate “writing” with.  When I’m not writing fiction?  Well… look around.  My nonfictional/blog stuff is mostly about teaching, although I’ll write about anything that strikes me around here and my blog is frequently filled with nonsense.

2. How does my writing process work?

Blogging is first-draft, sit-down-and-go stuff, and once I can get started (which can take a while) if I’m writing nonfiction I write insanely quickly– I once pulled off a thirty-page paper in a few hours in grad school.  Got an A, too.  Fiction requires hours, days or weeks of “thinking” (read: procrastination) and is much, much slower, although one benefit of the advanced thinkytimes is that my first drafts tend to be pretty clean.

If I’m doing blog posts, nothing is required– I can bang out a blog post while watching my son and cooking dinner at the same time.  (And I’ve done that.)  Fiction requires solitude, music, the house to be reasonably clean, nothing else hanging over my head, and music.  I’m thinking of keeping a running soundtrack of my current novel, actually, which so far includes Murs, Mika, and Meg Myers, because apparently iTunes got stuck on M yesterday.

3. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Genre-bending and humor, although I think tonally my work sounds a lot like John Scalzi, if John Scalzi were about a third as good as he is, and that might be overstating my abilities.  But, yeah, the genre-bending.  My series The Benevolence Archives involves ogres and gnomes and dwarves who ride around in spaceships, so I clearly don’t know what the hell I’m doing in keeping genres together.  My first novel, Click, was originally going to be a Conan-type barbarian sword & sorcery thing and somehow ended up with the first major scene being set in an antique shop on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.  Hopefully this means fans of either genre will like me; the darker parts of my brain think it’s going to ghettoize me out of existence.

I suspect I was bad at coloring in the lines as a kid.

(You can buy The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 1 at Amazon right here, if you like.)

4. What am I working on at the moment?’

Two projects:  One, a Benevolence Archives novel (the piece linked above is a short story collection and is novella-length) and two, an entry for the Baen Books Fantasy Adventure Award that is– eek– due in just a couple of weeks.  The contest entry is kinda giving me fits, because of the genre-bending tendencies I discussed above:  it’s wanting to bend toward horror more than I think a “fantasy adventure” story ought to, and I either need to rein it in in a direction I don’t think the story wants to go or give up on submitting it and come up with something else.  Which… God, who knows how long that could take.

(Oh, and random advice: if you’re going to take a picture of your workstation for a blog post, make absolutely sure there isn’t a credit card sitting on your desk, face-up, right next to your keyboard!  That is an incredibly bad idea!)