First, a disclaimer. Sometimes I pretend I’m an MD who has specialized in whatever medical issue happens to be going on in my midst. Last week at church, for instance, when my friend mentioned that earlier that day, she had slipped on her stairs and bonked her head, I became a Head Injury Specialist. As such, I proceeded to scare the ya-yas out of her when I noticed one of her pupils was a little dilated. That’s when another friend stepped in—an actual nurse with actual training—and assessed that my head-injured friend was fine. Indeed she was. Mea culpa.
So, as I discuss my recent realizations on mental health, neuroscience and creativity, let’s remember I am a fiction writer. I make up stuff. Thus, take everything I say with a whole shaker of salt, perhaps even a salt lick.
All right. Let’s begin.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling bad or sad or mad, I like to shake my fist at my own mental health issue (chronic depression) because I really DO NOT LIKE having depression. While I do all the “right” things—see a Zen Buddhist mechanic (i.e. my therapist), take meds, meditate, exercise, eat mostly right, get almost enough sleep, blog about mental health in very public forums—the fact remains: my melon has fragile wiring.
But, as my mechanic reminded me just this past week, this irritating wedge of my DNA, this weak link that makes my melon more of a lemon, is probably the very trait that allows me to be a fiction writer.
I’m not saying that to be a writer, one has to have a diagnosed mental health issue. Or that creativity and mental health are always linked. Nor am I saying that any of you is as wackadoodle as I.
But let me don my PhD in Psychology hat and say this: I bet that you, writer friend, are a highly empathetic and compassionate person. I bet you feel the pain and joy of others right here (I’m touching my gut) and here (now I’m touching my heart). I bet you possess a super-heightened sensitivity to pretty much everything, certainly to the dips and shadings of human nature and the natural world. And, I bet you feel the Youness of You most intensely when you are doing something creative.
But do you ever find it difficult to be a creative type? To always feel so darn MUCH? To be so sensitive to the world and to our fellow human beings?
But would I trade it? No way, José.
Life would seem far less Technicolor without my lemon melon, as if my whole existence were muted, colored only with worn-out magic markers.
Yet I also know that my brain, all of our brains that contain fragile wiring, break down easily. And in the capricious and callous world that is Publishing, we need to take good care of our selves, especially the parts that allow us to be writers in the first place.
So how should you care for your writer brain? I’m not sure. I don’t have a PhD in You. I do know that for me, caring for myself starts with learning how my brain works . . . under which conditions it thrives, under which conditions it becomes depressed and overwhelmed by muck and swampishness.
I have learned, for example, that I take in big amounts of sensory and emotional stimuli all the time, as if my waking life can feel like a 16-hour game of Paint Ball, where all day long, I get hit with pellets of color and sound and the emotions of others. By bedtime, I can feel like a Jackson Pollock painting.
That’s because (note: in this paragraph I’m a neuroscientist) we sensitive types tend to have different filters than others. It’s like my brain got the colander-ish brain filter, whereas that fellow over there, Mr. PhD from MIT guy, got the coffee filter brain filter. My brain takes in everything. His brain takes in only the essentials. His brain is efficient and tidy with his brain books (alphabetized by author, of course) sitting on dust-free shelves. My brain looks like my son’s closet.
So how does this understanding help me care for myself?
First, I shouldn’t shake my fist at my depression because the way I am wired (with a colander filter) feels messy, sure, but it also allows me to feel the world deeply, to want to understand people, to want to connect with the pain and joy of others. And then to write about it. Writing is, most likely, my brain’s attempt to flush out some of the stimuli I absorb. To order and organize it in some way that feels tidier than my son’s closet.
I’ve also learned I can’t spend oodles of time with others. Sometimes I need to sit myself in a place where there’s very little stimulation so I can give myself time to digest whatever I’ve just swallowed. Otherwise, my brain becomes a saturated sponge. And I have never once seen an over-wet sponge win a Pen-Faulkner or a Pulitzer.
I share this because it’s essential for you to care for your Youness, too. As a writer (and a human), isn’t your Youness your greatest strength, quirks and kinks and all?
So how about this: in the early part of 2012, consider what you know about your unique brain. Consider your brain’s greatest strengths, also its weakest links. You may, as I have, realize that your weak link, while distressing or frustrating or embarrassing at holiday parties, is the very element that fuels your creativity.
Please, if you’re comfortable, share what you know about your brain. Is it quirky in ways that you, a writer, can appreciate, or do you find it challenging to embrace your lovely Youness? And, how do you care for your Writer Self so you can be as creatively energetic and emotionally peaceful as possible?
I’d love to hear about you and your noggin. Because let’s face it. In this profession where so much is out of our control, it’s important to nurture our brains, our greatest asset, those lumps of amazing gray matter that allow us to make art from only 26 letters, to build stories and worlds and people out of mere words, to create sense and substance from strings of sentences.
Photo courtesy of Flickr’s invisibleElement