There was a time when I didn’t feel too guilty for reading, because I told myself it would improve my writing, but I’ve begun to feel guilty even when I read.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg has something to say about this: “We’re always thinking we should be writing no matter what else we might be doing,” she says. “It’s not fun. The life of an artist isn’t easy. You’re never free unless you are doing your art.”
This is true. I always feel like I should be writing. Even when I’m writing I feel like I should be writing more or better. Do you know what I mean? But there are worse things to be doing. I could drink, which is a very bad idea for me, or I could stuff my face with sweets.
So even the worst part of this, feeling guilty for not writing, isn’t too bad.
But then there’s that last sentence: “You’re never free unless you are doing your art.” And then what seems like a pretty rough situation turns glorious, indescribably wonderful.
We’re never free unless doing our art. That is a powerful recognition. Think about what that means for a moment. Let the realization sink deep down inside until you become one with it.
Freedom doesn’t depend on externals, because you can write just about anywhere. That is truly amazing. Your inner freedom doesn’t depend on your circumstances. It depends on whether or not you are practicing your art.
This is good news for everyone, especially the institutionalized. There are artists in hospitals, detoxes, homeless shelters, rehabs, and prisons. We ourselves are often in prisons of our own making. But we have the power to escape simply by practicing our art. We are very lucky indeed, for some people never achieve freedom.
Do you feel free when you write?
I’d rather read than do most anything and I spend a large proportion of my awake time reading.
I guess you could call me a bibliophile.
Now, since I also write, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As Stephen King and countless others have observed, reading is crucial to writing. If you don’t have time to read, so the saying goes, then you have no business writing. According to this line of thinking, we learn to write by reading. And to some, maybe even to a large extent, this is true.
But there is another point, that I think is equally valid. This is that the best way to learn how to write is to write. Let me explain.
When I’m embarking on a new activity my first thought is to read about it.
In fact, for me, reading about it often takes precedence over doing it.
For example, if I become interested in gardening, my first task is to read about gardening, and I mean read A LOT about gardening. This reading takes the place of actually going into my backyard, examining the soil, playing with different ideas as to what types of plots might fit well given the space available, etc. Can anyone relate to this?
I’m not saying that reading about gardening is a bad thing. But, eventually, in order to learn how to garden I am going to have to, well, garden. Only then will I truly know what I am up against, what specific things I need to do with regard to my particular piece of land in order to grow the best basil or the prettiest roses. The same is true of learning how to play a musical instrument, going on a diet, running, etc.
And I would argue that this is true about reading and writing. That, yes, it is important to read in order to be able to write well, but perhaps the best way to learn how to write is by writing.
I am calling myself out here, because oftentimes I think I suffer from the illusion that if only I read just one more research book, or just one more book on writing, I can then craft the perfect scene. Reading, oftentimes about writing, takes the place of writing itself.
I was reminded of all this when I read the following passage from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: “[P]eople often begin writing from a poverty mentality. They are empty and they run to teachers and classes [and, we might add, books] to learn about writing. We learn writing by doing it. That simple. We don’t learn by going outside ourselves to authorities we think know about it.”
Wow, I thought, that’s pretty powerful stuff. It helps remind me that the best way to learn how to write is to write, and not to look outside myself for answers.
When I first started writing, I thought it was going to be easy. And I thought I’d be great at it right off the bat.
Some of you may be chuckling, because you can relate… or because you’ve read my writing 🙂
When I began trying to write fiction, about nine years ago, I set out to write The Great American Novel. No, actually, let me be totally honest. I set out to write The Great American Trilogy—because anybody could write one great novel.
Part of my hubris came from being an academic. You see, many academics suffer from a serious flaw that you won’t hear many of them admit to: often they think that whatever they are studying, writing, and teaching about is the most important thing on the planet. They lack perspective, for lack of a better word.
I, too, lacked perspective, among other things. I thought my ability to write academic papers would smoothly transfer to writing high-quality fiction.
Okay, now you really must be laughing.
The result, when I set out to write The Great American Novel/Trilogy, was nil: the empty set, for those you who are mathematically inclined.
Then, while rereading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg this morning, I came across this passage, and a moment of clarity ensued.
When you write, don’t say, “I’m going to write a poem.” That attitude will freeze you right away. Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, “I am free to write the worst junk in the world.” You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination. I’ve had students who said they were going to write the great American novel and haven’t written a line since. If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would also keep you from writing.
I still kept writing after I knew the The Great American Novel/Trilogy wasn’t forthcoming, which means one of two things: 1) I’m terribly persistent; or 2) I’m incredibly stupid. You take your pick.
But without giving myself permission to write, I never would have written anything worth salvaging. And it was only by lowering my expectations and giving myself permission to write junk that any of it became possible. Today, I set out to write a certain minimum number of words and it’s all right if they are not the stuff of which great novels are made, because I have come to realize a truth that appears to me self-evident: That writing something is a whole lot better than writing nothing.
Have you given yourself permission to write today?
I’m interested to hear the thoughts that go through your mind before you write, what you do to counteract the negative ones and capitalize on the positive ones.
Today I’d like to share from and add to what I posted on Laura Zera’s website earlier this week—namely, my thoughts and experiences concerning dual diagnosis. I offer the following insights and suggestions as someone who has dealt with and suffered the consequences of dual diagnosis for years, not from the perspective of a medical doctor, of which I am not.
What is dual diagnosis?
There are some variations in definitions of dual diagnosis, but the term generally describes a person who has a mood disorder and some form of chemical dependency. For example, I have depression (Major Depressive Disorder) and I’m an alcoholic.
Is it estimated that 6 out of 100 Americans suffer with a dual diagnosis. It is estimated that 29% of those who suffer emotional/mental disorders have abused substances and that 53% of substance abusers have had a psychiatric problem. Famous individuals among the dual diagnosed include Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, and Sigmund Freud.
Having a dual diagnosis differs, in terms of recovery, in that it is not just about refraining from alcohol, or taking anti-depressants. It is a synergistic condition where one illness exacerbates the other.
Major bouts of depression, for example, are often accompanied by the desire to self-medicate. It might sound counter-intuitive to want to drink alcohol, which is a depressant, when you are depressed, but the mind and brain chemistry of the alcoholic differ from that of the non-alcoholic. Drinking may actually alleviate depression in the short-term, lifting your spirits, so to speak, and quickly, too. That makes drinking very enticing to a person going through a depressive episode: the solution to feeling bad seems just an arm’s length away. Of course, what happens is that you might feel better after taking a few drinks, but when the effect wears off you are at a lower mood baseline than before you drank.
I drank regularly by the time I was thirteen. I sought help at a local substance abuse clinic when I was fifteen. Despite being dual diagnosed from an early age, the diagnosis didn’t stick. Over the years, as I made my way through countless detoxes and rehabs, and a few psychiatric wards, the standard course of treatment was to deal with one disorder without addressing the other, or the combined effect of both. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence.
Why is treating dual diagnosis so difficult?
Part of the reason is that the use of certain drugs can mimic psychological symptoms associated with some mental disorders. Alternately, people who suffer from psychiatric conditions often self-medicate to feel better. A professional treating someone with both disorders may tell a patient that he/she must first address one issue (e.g., stop drinking) before the other (e.g., depression) can be treated. Unfortunately, this leaves open the possibility that the underlying depression will never get treated because a person may be unable to stop drinking without dealing with the depression.
What can be done?
Again, I am not a medical doctor, and these are just my suggestions for ameliorating the difficulties of treating the dual diagnosed. In the presence of one of these conditions an aggressive effort should be made to determine if the other is present. Both alcoholism and mental disorders are genetically-based. So if a person presents symptoms for one, a professional should ascertain whether the other condition is exhibited in the patient’s family history. If both conditions are identified, an effort should be made to address them concurrently. In cases in which there is no family history of either mental illness or addiction, it should be ascertained whether the mental disorder preceded the addiction problem or whether both developed at the same time. If the former, then both conditions should be treated simultaneously. If the latter, then the addiction problem should be the initial focus of treatment to see if the mental symptoms subside with the cessation of the use of addictive substances. Of course, it is imperative that the patient be completely honest in reporting the use of addictive substances.
Is there hope?
Yes. The most effective treatment program I have found is the cognitive behavioral therapy approach used by places such as ASAP (Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. During my last hospitalization for depression and alcohol-related matters, my aftercare plan included attending ASAP. ASAP takes a comprehensive approach to substance abuse that involves education and group therapy as well as one-on-one sessions with therapists. Crucially, there is a strong psychiatric component built into the program because of the recognition that mental illness and substance abuse are often comorbid. I would encourage anyone who suffers from dual diagnosis, including the families of the dual diagnosed, to check out the treatment options available through places such as ASAP.
Fortunately, dual diagnosis has not gotten in the way of achieving my goals, though it did play a large part in how things have played out in my life. But right now I couldn’t be happier. Though I dropped out of high school, I went on to get my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. I taught college for a while, but now I write full-time and have a couple of books due out this year. The first, Conversations Among Ruins, is a literary novel with a main character that is dual-diagnosed. His struggles are similar to mine in a way, but different in other important respects. The book is forthcoming through All Things That Matter Press. The second, The Brothers’ Keepers, is a religious thriller in which the protagonist, a maverick Jesuit, is an alcoholic. That is scheduled for release through MuseItUp Publishing on August 1.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and especially any experiences you may have had with dual diagnosis-related issues.
 Information in this paragraph is taken from Dennis C. Ortman, The Dual Diagnosis Recovery Sourcebook: A Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Approach to Addiction with an Emotional Disorder (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2001).
I’ve never met a therapist who condemned writing, especially a journal of one’s thoughts and feelings. On the contrary, it has been encouraged by every therapist I have ever worked with.
Why is that the case?
I think I know part of the answer. Putting your feelings into words is an important thing to do. If you can name the fact that you feel angry or sad, you have gone a long way toward feeling better, because now you at least know what you are feeling.
Seeing your feelings in black and white can be a rather eye-opening experience. Naming your emotions often takes the power out of them, and allows you to view them more objectively than if the feelings/thoughts remained unexpressed. Seeing your feelings on paper lets you take more responsibility for them, for you see them as part of you.
Once you are able to express how you feel on paper (and of course this holds true for expressing your feelings with a trusted individual, like a therapist), you have unburdened yourself of some of the pain. And pain shared is pain lessened.
As a writer, the act of writing down my thoughts and feelings also helps in an incomparable way with regard to the attitude I bring to writing. Seeing writing as therapy helps me to realize that writing, for lack of a better term, is good. It is not something to be dreaded or gone about begrudgingly; it is to be cherished and seen as something to look forward to. This perspective helps in my writing novels—that is, even when the writing is not strictly about me.
Have you ever used writing as therapy? Has it worked for you? What are some of the benefits you’ve derived from it?
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“The comorbid existence of a mental illness and a substance abuse problem is called “dual diagnosis.” Until recently, I hadn’t read or heard too much about it, beyond its basic definition, but was interested to learn that the condition brings about its own set of treatment considerations. Today, Matthew Peters is here to share his personal experience and insights with regard to dual diagnosis. I’m grateful for both his courage and willingness, because sharing our stories is the fastest path to reducing stigma and shame. I hope you’ll join in the conversation by leaving a comment below.”
Please click here to read more and to join the conversation on dual diagnosis.
*Laura Zera is a freelance writer who has traveled to almost 60 countries and lived and worked in Cameroon, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States. She’s a contributor toGoodFood World and Cheapflights.ca and is currently working on her second book, a memoir about being raised by a mother with schizophrenia. Laura’s first book (written as Laura Enridge), 2004’s Tro-tros and Potholes, chronicles her solo adventures through five countries in West Africa. Her work can also be found in the anthology Write for the Fight: A Collection of Seasonal Essays, released in 2012 by Booktrope Publishing.
Originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, Laura now lives in Seattle, Washington. She is married to photographer Francis Zera.
I have been away from the blog for the past few days readying things for the publication of my new e-novel The Brothers’ Keepers. It will be released on August 1 through MuseItUp Publishing.
Here is the back cover:
Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus’ purported spouse, Mary Magdalene. But what about Jesus’ siblings? What role did they play in early Christianity?
Contemporary Jesuit and renowned religious historian Nicholas Branson is about to find out…and the answer will shake the foundations of the Judeo-Christian world.
It all starts with the murder of a United States Senator in a confessional, and the discovery of a strange religious document among his possessions. At the urging of his FBI friend, Branson joins the investigation. His effort to uncover the truth behind the murder draws him into the search for an eight-hundred-year-old treasure and into a web of ecclesiastical and political intrigue.
Accompanied by a beautiful, sharp-tongued research librarian, Jessica Jones, Branson follows a trail of clues, from the peaks of the awe inspiring French Pyrenees to the caves of war-torn Afghanistan. Along the way, shadowy powerful forces trail the pair, determined to keep safe a secret buried for centuries.
Here is an excerpt:
The man lit another cigar. “As hard as I try not to smoke these things, I just can’t seem to help myself. The treasure must have something to do with the Roman Catholic Church’s claim as God’s sole representative on earth. Nothing else makes sense. So, it has to be something that threatens their claim to such authority, and taking into account the involvement of secular powers, I think whatever it is threatens Judeo-Christian civilization as a whole.”
“How could anything bring down the dominant civilization?” Branson had thought of this often since his session with Rawlings.
“Among the world’s religions, Christianity is uniquely susceptible to having its underpinnings knocked out. Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism all developed slowly, along the lines of indigenous cultures. Without Mohammed, Islam would still live, as would Buddhism without Gautama. Christianity rests on one thing, the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, Christianity becomes a mere set of moral maxims, at best a good way to live one’s life, perhaps even a precursor to secular humanism. But if Jesus died and was raised from the dead, then Christianity has what other faiths only promise, the guarantee of eternal life in paradise.” Albert puffed on his cigar until it glowed fiercely. “And so, Doctor, another question. Is there proof of Jesus’ resurrection?”
Branson was on familiar ground now. “The Gospels give us eyewitness accounts. Mary Magdalene sees Jesus in the garden near his tomb. His disciples see him again in the Upper Room and elsewhere.”
Albert knocked his cigar ashes into the fireplace and smiled. “Let me ask you this: which Gospel is the oldest?”
“Mark, written around 70 AD. The next oldest is Matthew, followed by Luke, and finally John.”
“How does Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, end?”
“Tell me how Mark ends his story.”
Jessica joined in. “Three women go to Jesus’ tomb and find it empty. They meet a young man dressed in white who tells them that Jesus is risen. Then, not long after, he appears to the apostles.”
“Does she have it right, Dr. Branson?”
“Well, she’s pretty close. The three women go to the tomb, find it empty, and are told by the white-robed stranger that Jesus has risen. But…”
“Yes?” Albert pressed.
“The fact is the original version of Mark’s Gospel ends there. The material about Jesus appearing to the apostles, his ascent into heaven, was added later. But in the original, Mark makes no mention of any appearance of the resurrected Jesus.”
“Is an empty tomb proof of resurrection?” Albert asked. “Is hearing about the resurrection from a stranger proof? A rather shaky foundation to build a world religion on, n’est-ce pas? What about the testimony of the Roman guards? Of course they agreed with the resurrection story. If they’d admitted to falling asleep, or leaving their posts, or getting drunk, they would have lost more than their jobs. Just an empty tomb does not a resurrection make.”
“No, but that doesn’t mean the resurrection and appearance to the apostles didn’t happen.” Branson sounded more defensive than he’d intended. He didn’t feel himself to be in a strong position to serve as apologist for the Church, not here and now.
Jessica cleared her throat. “So, let’s ask a different question. What would constitute proof that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead?”
Branson let the objective scholar within take over from the Catholic believer. Under the circumstances, he was certainly glad he had the ability to do so. “Well, off the top of my head, I’d say finding his bones.”
“Very good,” Albert said, puffing away on his cigar. “But is that really the case? Old bones in some ossuary. How would you prove they’re the bones of Jesus Christ? Highly unlikely. So proving Jesus died is probably not the threat.”
“Isn’t there anything else that might challenge the foundation of Christianity?” Jessica asked.
Branson thought for a moment. “I suppose something that brought into doubt the virgin birth or the crucifixion.”
“Very good, Dr. Branson,” Albert said in between puffs of his cigar.
“Also very unlikely,” Branson admitted. “How can you prove the virgin birth? It’s not like Mary went around town saying, ‘Look at me, I’m the Virgin Mary.’ That title was bestowed upon her by the Church hundreds of years after her death. Unless you could find the equivalent of a two thousand year old birth certificate, or a paternity test from Joseph you’d be hard pressed to disprove it. And even if we allow for the fact that Jesus had siblings, as he clearly did from what the Gospels tell us, there is nothing to say that he wasn’t the eldest, and thus Mary could still have been a virgin at his birth, while the other children were conceived by Joseph.”
“What of the crucifixion?” Albert said.
“How can that be proved?”
“Well, I suppose you could find the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, or the nails used to affix him to the cross, or the crown of thorns he wore. However, proving any of that is next to impossible. The Romans crucified thousands and there is no way to tell from the remnants of wood who was crucified on a particular cross, the nails that were used, or the crown that was worn.” Branson thought for a moment. “So what do you think the Cathar treasure is, and where is it?”
Albert blew smoke rings into the cabin’s stale air. “Those are exactly the questions we hope you can help us answer, Dr. Branson. Will you join us in our efforts?”
Thanks to all who have made this possible!
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time keeping all the balls up in the air when I write: characterization, plot, pacing, etc. I know there are things I probably shouldn’t do and things I probably should.
The only problem is there are no hard and fast rules for writing fiction.
As Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Still, I love reading other writers’ thoughts on writing. Recently, I came across this by Brenda Ueland, in her book If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit:
“Yes, you must feel when you write, free. You must disentangle all oughts. You must disconnect all shackles, weights, obligations, all duties. You can write as badly as you want to…Just so that you write it with honesty and gusto, and do not try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are…As you write, never let a lot of ‘oughts’ block you: I ought to be more humorous, more Leftist, more like Ernest Hemingway, more bitingly satirical. Then it shows. That spoils it. It will not be alive, but dead.”
A caveat here: Ueland is referring to first drafts.
After reading this, I started to reflect on the benefits of writing the first draft without oughts. And this is what I came up with:
1. You quell the perfectionist inside—How many times has the perfectionist or internal editor kept you from writing? If you are anything like me, the answer is “a lot.” Writing free of oughts allows you to silence the critic inside. What this does is to help make the process of writing fun again, like it was when we first started. You “should feel free when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top,” Ueland reminds us, “but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”
2. You get words on the page—Writing free from oughts allows you to get words on the page. Rules often strangle creativity, and in the first draft, at least, it’s all about being creative. Having one page of written material is better than having a full novel completed in your head. With the former, you have something to work with; the latter only gives you a stuffed head.
3. You get honesty in your writing—Have you ever felt as if the PC police were looking over your shoulder when you write, or maybe your church? Check that stuff at the door if you want a free writing experience. Besides, the characters we create will often surprise us at how different they are from ourselves, and that is as it should be, for it takes all kinds to populate a story world.
4. You eventually develop your own style—Style is something that develops naturally over time, and should be a byproduct of a good deal of writing. Writing without oughts frees you up enough to develop your own style.
5. You let the work develop organically—The first draft is just that: the first draft. Treat it as such. This doesn’t mean it has to be awful or even pretty darn good. The only thing it really needs to do is to lay out the story. It helps me to think of writing as similar to painting. The first draft is like choosing a canvas on which to paint. You choose the perimeters and start playing around with colors and form. It is only over time that you add layers of greater complexity.
Do you write your first draft free from oughts? Are there any advantages to doing so that I haven’t listed? How about the flipside? Does it ever pay to abide by oughts in your first draft? I’m interested in hearing what you think.