On Writing and Mental Health

It’s been a few weeks since my last post because I needed some time to deal with some of the worst anxiety I have ever had. The timing was pretty terrible too since book marketing advice says the time right after a book launch is the most important, but I decided my well-being was more important than a book. Unfortunately the book was the cause of my anxiety, though in retrospect I now know that I have always been dealing with anxiety this was just the thing that brought it all to the forefront. Anyways following a severe panic attack a few days before Black Flowers released my wonderful and supportive wife made me promise to go to a doctor, which I did. I am now happy to say that I have medication for it and I’m doing much better now.

This whole experience got me thinking about how the act of writing affects writers’ mental states in both positive and negative ways.

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. This is just a layman’s point of view so take anything I say with a grain of salt.

I’m sure most people are aware of the examples of writers with severe depression that have committed suicide, such as Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and so on. There is also the stereotype of writers being alcoholics thanks to a few well-known ones, such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and so on. While I am aware other types of artists and creators have also dealt with depression and alcoholism, why are these so strongly linked to writers in the popular consciousness? Is there any real connection or is it just a popular misconception?

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I don’t intend on providing any definitive answers on this topic (since I don’t think I’m qualified to do that), but I do want to examine it and provide my own viewpoint as a writer. Does writing create depression and alcoholism or does it draw people that are already prone to these things?

I believe that writers tend to already have these problems and turn to writing as a way to deal with them. There are obvious exceptions but many writers are lonely introverts, many turn to writing for an escape similar to the reason many people abuse alcohol, many use writing as a way to conquer their fears and remove the filters for honesty, and to gain self-confidence and the courage to say the things that others won’t. I know from my own personal experience that I am much bolder in my writing than I typically am in everyday life. I feel like my writing represents the truest, most honest version of myself since I have had the time to consider all of my feelings and experiences before putting words to paper. I can be more thoughtful than the snap judgements people often make in daily conversations even when dealing with tough or sensitive topics that they haven’t had the time to fully think through yet.

In modern psychology there is a form of treatment called “writing therapy” or “journal therapy” where patients are asked to write about their emotions and past trauma they have experienced to gain mental and emotional clarity and come to a deeper understanding of oneself. This is another thing I can attest to as a writer, as an angsty teenager I often felt that the only way I could deal with my inner turmoil was by expressing it through poetry. Now as an adult I still often feel that my writing is a form of therapy for me to work through my feelings toward the conservative, religious upbringing that I had and now strongly disagree with. I also feel that writing gives me a safe form of escapism, gives my life purpose, and allows me to leave something behind as a sort of testament to my short time spent here on earth.

Now that I’ve listed many of the positives I think it’s time to cover the negatives of writing as a profession or at least in a public forum. The negatives come from societal pressures and the fear of public backlash. In this extremely sensitive age where every aspect of public figures’ online history is being dug up, scrutinized, and judged with the intention to “cancel” their career or publicly “drag” them on social media it can be a nerve-racking experience to put yourself out there. This is made even worse for someone that is already prone to having anxiety to start with. While I do think it is wonderful that the internet has allowed many voices that have long been dismissed and ignored finally be heard, I’m not going to pretend that there also isn’t a lot of groupthink and mob mentality occurring as well.

Many writers have a fear of being labeled “problematic” for dealing with sensitive or controversial topics, especially if they discuss issues still ongoing in society today. To bring things back to my own personal experiences much of my anxiety concerning Black Flowers had to do with the last story in the collection called “Coda.” This story deals with a teenager caught between the dangers of racial profiling by the police force in his city and his friend who has turned to drug-dealing to escape a life of poverty. I feel that this story is one of the most important and relevant things I’ve ever written, but it has also been a constant source of anxiety for me and the main contributor to the panic attacks I experienced recently.

I’ve also received some criticism from the more conservative, religious people in my life for some of the sexually explicit scenes I’ve written. Ironically, one of these stories’ themes is about overcoming religious guilt and shame to live a more fulfilling and authentic life, but that must’ve been lost on them. I don’t regret having written those scenes since I feel they were essential to the story and I’m not ashamed of writing about sex since I don’t think it is dirty or wrong.

Not to mention that the bible has some pretty explicit scenes as well despite what many uptight Christians would have you believe. “But she added to her promiscuities, bringing to mind her youthful days when she was a prostitute in the land of Egypt. She lusted after their male consorts, whose sexual organs were like those of donkeys, and whose ejaculation was like that of horses. She relived the wicked days of her youth, when the Egyptians touched and fondled her young and nubile breasts.” Ezekiel 23: 19-21. Or “Onan knew the children wouldn't be his so when he slept with his brother's wife, he wasted his semen on the ground, so he wouldn't give his brother children.” Genesis 38:9.

Now why didn’t my Sunday school teacher ever go over these verses, I wonder? If this level of detail is important to God then I think it should be important to me as well. And here is an excerpt from an article in Psychology Today titled “Overcoming Religious Sexual Shame” by clinical psychologist David J. Ley:

“Religious people are at heightened risk of developing sexual disorders, and feeling at a loss to deal with them or get help. Sadly, when people within religious communities seek help for their sexual concerns, they are most often told to suppress or ‘battle’ their sexuality, or sent to pseudotreatments such as sex or porn addiction programs, where their sexual desires are portrayed as a form of sickness. Shame creates a feedback loop of pain, fear, dysfunction and self-hatred, which is the true root of most sexual problems.”

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Now I know it may seem like I’m being a little harsh here but I grew up in the Bible Belt and went to summer camps as a child where I was lectured about the evils of masturbation and having lustful thoughts. So this is me taking back my piece of mind and letting everyone know that I will not be bullied or guilted into censoring my art for you. That’s precisely how writers get driven into alcoholism and depression to begin with. I want my writing to continue to be therapy for me and if I can make some money from my art then that would be great too, but the former is far more important to me and my mental health than making a living off of it will ever be.

What is southern weird?: Part II

Okay so in my last blog post I described and gave examples of the southern gothic genre, similarly in this one I will attempt to explain what the genre of weird fiction is in order to demystify what I mean when I describe my upcoming book Black Flowers as “southern weird.”

Firstly, let me begin with a quick description of weird fiction that I will later expand upon. Weird fiction is a somewhat slippery term used for strange, dark stories that blend horror, science fiction, and fantasy together often exploring the limits of humanity’s knowledge or individual encounters with the unknown.

When we left off I mentioned how HBO’s crime anthology series True Detective was a good example of the more grounded, realistic side of the southern gothic with only possible hints of the supernatural. In season one, those hints at the supernatural and occult were actually writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto’s nods to a somewhat obscure work of weird fiction. Fans of the show may remember the cryptic mentions of the “Yellow King” and “Carcosa,” which sent fans off theorizing in a million different directions similar to the show’s two lead detectives, Rust and Marty.

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True Detective ended up having its own explanations for these terms, but in real life these are references to Robert W. Chambers’ book of short stories, The King in Yellow, that was published in 1895. In The King in Yellow the titular character is an ominous, shadowy figure in a play that shares his name and he lives in the kingdom of Carcosa. The reader is only given brief, albeit disturbing, excerpts of the play throughout the book and it is rumored that anyone that reads the entire play will completely lose their mind . . . so pretty creepy if you ask me.

Anyway, The King in Yellow‘s importance to the genre of weird fiction has less to do with its own contents and more to do with who it later influenced, which was a writer by the name of H.P. Lovecraft. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, though not the earliest writer of weird fiction, is by far the most well-known and most closely associated writer with the genre. Lovecraft was one of the first writers to popularize the term “weird fiction” as well as one of the first to define it and explain what made it distinct from the gothic ghost stories of the old days.

The majority of Lovecraft’s stories were first published in the cheap, fiction magazines known as the “pulps,” referencing the poor quality of the paper. Pulp magazines reached their peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s with such titles as Unknown and Weird Tales.

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Weird Tales is the magazine that published the majority of Lovecraft’s fiction and seemed to be the one he connected with the most. Though I have not found this explicitly stated anywhere, I suspect the magazine’s title and content might have played a big part in why Lovecraft referred to his chosen genre as “weird” since it was in the very title of the magazine. In the time period when Weird Tales was first being circulated the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy weren’t clearly defined, distinct classifications as they are today. So in magazines like Weird Tales they were often lumped together and seen as a “lower” art form separate from the “higher,” more respectable art form known as “literary fiction.”

Lovecraft’s extremely influential contributions to weird fiction include a pantheon of ancient extraterrestrial gods known as the Cthulhu Mythos (the most famous being the octopus-faced god Cthulhu) and a pessimistic philosophy known as Cosmic Horror concluding that humanity’s existence and any of its actions are completely inconsequential in a vast and uncaring universe.

Recently many modern-day critics have stated that weird fiction was merely an insufficient placeholder term for the three, now, very different and distinct genres of sci fi, horror, and fantasy. Mostly due to the fact that the publishing industry has been using these terms for decades to classify and sell certain books. Others disagree though, some readers love the thrill of the unexpected and strangeness that comes along with reading a “weird” story and writers of the “weird” enjoy the freedom that comes along with being able to blend various ideas into new forms to create original concepts and stories.

In 2012, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer compiled a collection of 110 stories by various writers spanning over a century of time that was titled The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Many have seen this massive collection as the definitive book of so-called weird writing. On a side-note, some of you may recall the recent film starring Natalie Portman called Annihilation which was based on Jeff VanderMeer’s weird fiction novel of the same name.

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… So this ended up being a bit longer than I had originally planned so I’m glad I decided to split it up into two parts. I hope I did a good job of explaining what southern gothic and weird fiction are so that people can understand where I’m coming from with my own literary-hybrid of “southern weird.” In summary, I take the misfit characters and dark Southern settings of the southern gothic and combine them with all the scientific, fantastic, and horrific ideas of weird fiction.

Okay, so we’re clear as mud, right? Right! See ya next post.

What is southern weird?

All righty, here we go with my first blog post and I know the question everyone is just begging for the answer to is “What do you mean by ‘Welcome to the Weird South’?” and “What is southern weird?”.

…Okay so probably no one was actually asking themselves that question, but I like being nerdy and analytical so bear with me.

Southern weird is my own amalgamation of two previously existing fiction genres (southern gothic and weird fiction) that I feel best describes my book Black Flowers. First, I’m going to describe these two genres and provide some examples of their seminal works, some literary and some not, then tell you how I’ve worked to combine these two genres into something, hopefully, new and unique.

Southern gothic fiction is a subgenre of the larger category of gothic fiction, which I imagine most people are probably somewhat familiar with already. Gothic fiction is the literary genre that later evolved into horror, but was originally far more subtle and populated with mostly upper-class, Victorian folks. The timeless classics Frankenstein, Dracula, and the majority of things written by the goth-father himself Edgar Allan Poe are all good examples of your standard gothic fare.

Southern gothic is similar to those works in atmosphere and darkness of tone, but takes place specifically in the American South. The setting, instead of simply being a backdrop for the stories like in traditional gothic, is essential to the messages, characters, and values discussed in southern gothic works. It is thought that the reason Southern literature took this turn towards the “dark side” was due to its loss of the Civil War. The Civil War left the Southern economy in shambles, since it had formerly rested on the backs of the unpaid workforce of slaves, and many Southerners were dragged kicking and screaming into a new way of life, one where they were forced to face their sins of enslaving their fellow human beings when they should’ve treated them as equals, you know, as originally stated in the Constitution.

Anyways, this new moral territory for many Southerners eventually led to some classic works of literature, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily” and “Barn Burning,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Many southern gothic works dealt with the lingering racism in the South and typically had strange or unusual misfits as their main characters often used as a way to reevaluate what should or could be considered “good” or “normal.”

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Some more modern, non-literary examples of the southern gothic are HBO’s vampire drama True Blood or their crime anthology series True Detective, (especially season one and season three).

While True Blood is a good example of the supernatural side of the southern gothic genre True Detective, and no I don’t know why HBO is prone to naming their stuff True this or True that either, is a good example of the more grounded, realistic side of the genre, only hinting here and there at the possibility of something supernatural occurring.

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True Detective also serves as a good segue into the next part of this explanation of the southern weird, which I will continue in part two next week when I delve into weird fiction . . .