[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Zachary Jernigan on Why Defining Oneself as a Writer with Mental Illness is Difficult

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Zachary Jernigan! – Sarah Chorn


Zachary Jernigan is a 34-year-old, typically shaven-headed writer and narrator from Northern Arizona. He’s lived in AZ since 1990, with relatively short stints in Utah, Oregon, Maine, and Chile. His first novel, No Return, is a science fiction/fantasy tale filled with sex, violence, looming middle-age angst, and muscular people in weird skintight costumes (including one capricious god). It came out from Night Shade Books in March of 2013 in hardcover and July of 2014 in paperback. The still-in-progress sequel, Shower of Stones, is forthcoming in 2015, also from Night Shade Books. His short fiction runs the gamut of sf and fantasy and has appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, Escape Pod, as well as anthologies such as Manifesto UF and Daughters of Icarus . He’s been nominated for the Pushcart a couple times and shortlisted once for the Spectrum Award.
He recently released his first short story collection, The Bottom Of The Sea independently at the end of 2013. You can learn more about Zachary by visiting his website.

Narrow Margins: Why Defining Oneself as a Writer with Mental Illness is Difficult

by Zachary Jernigan

I’m really kind of a problematic sort. There are a lot of things that bother me. (I’ll give a pause here so that the folks who know me can roll their eyes and go, “Really, Zack? I never knew that!”) For all my interest in people and my enthusiasm for making friends, I’m functionally kind of a sociopath. Okay, not a sociopath, but often kind of a butt. I can get a bit ranty.

All that’s just my way of segueing into my actual opening, which is kind of negative (it uses the word hate, in fact!)…

I hate it when people assume that the process of writing — from the point when one decides to write, on up through “professional” levels of publishing — is universal, or even close to universal. The assumption that underpins this demonstrably false assertion is that all people who write are somehow similar beyond merely writing, driven to write by similar desires, and that has just always seemed nuts to me. Furthermore, it contributes to a state of entitlement, because once you fit the mold of A Writer, you are one and generally feel the need to assert constantly that you are one.

It’s masturbatory, self-aggrandizing, and I hate it. Yes, I hate it.

Okay, Zack. So you hate it. Why does this assumption of universality bother you so much? Why do you care?

Well, for one, as I mentioned, it is masturbatory and self-aggrandizing to self-label all the time simply because you feel included in the Writers Club. It reveals, more often than not, how uncomfortable you are with actually being a writer. And I get it. Writing is solitary. One’s family or friends or employers often find your goals to be crazy, and yet, reason says you should be able to stand a bit on your own, without recourse to confining stereotypes.

Two, what happens to those people who fall outside the narrow margins of defining The Process — those folks who want to speak about writing, but do it in a way that reveals how differently they view their own process to what others assume to be the norm? Well, they’ll very possibly end up feeling as if they aren’t real writers as the result of a never-ending barrage of passive-aggressive statements to the tune of, “Well, everyone does it differently, sure, but the way you do it is really wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t do this.” (Read: “Don’t offend my sensibilities by defining writing in a way that makes me unhappy or uncomfortable. I’m super sensitive about what I do, and what you’re saying is offensive to my sensibilities/assumptions.”)

And three, extending from point two and most relevantly to this post: defining the process of writing so narrowly glosses over many of the factors that make writing difficult for so many. When the person wanting to write is young or at the beginning stages of their efforts, suffering with, say, a history of mental illness, boxing them into such confining margins is…

Well, it’s shitty, is what it is. If a person wants to write, the last thing they need is a person standing there, telling them that they don’t fit the profile because their struggle falls outside some imagined writer profile.

Now, looking at my life, I am both an example of this situation and an outlier in a certain sense.

I’ve dealt with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and related depression issues since I was eleven years old. It has ranged from severe to moderate to almost (but never quite) nonexistent. It informs my thinking to a huge degree, in ways that are becoming increasingly apparent as I get older. It is, undoubtedly, one of the main factors contributing to my love of science fiction and my decision, around the age of twenty-seven, to become a writer. (I won’t go into my convoluted reasoning for saying this, however. This is already going to run overlong and angry without going into Mormonism, and depression, and obsessive guilt, and how all those factors relate to science fiction.)

By the time I started writing, I’d already — long before, in fact — come to the conclusion that my brain was different from the baseline, operating on a lower mood frequency and with a heavy heaping of needless repetition, and so I didn’t really expect my process to be all that similar to others. I didn’t expect it to be easy or enjoyable. I expected those same old severely restricting patterns of obsessive-compulsive thinking to inform my writing life.

And they do. Sometimes, I talk about these patterns. Disappointingly often, I encounter writers who minimize my experience with mental illness as it pertains to writing, trying to normalize what they hear.

Just one example among dozens: I remember, once, not long after finishing my first novel (this would be 2011), I sat with a very successful, hugely prolific writer friend, and told her how much I struggled to write because of the effects of OCD and depression.

Her response? She shrugged and said, “Well, we’re writers. We all deal with depression.”

I can’t tell you how greatly this disappointed me. Here I sat with this person I genuinely liked and respected, hearing her dismiss a thing she knew next to nothing about. I thought, at the time, and still do, Wow. What a great way to guarantee that I never try to talk again about my illness. I’m honestly not too comfortable using my OCD and depression as an explanation as to why writing is difficult, and as time has gone on it’s become even less likely that I’ll discuss it in those terms — yes, entirely because of this attempt to reduce a complex illness to something that can easily be understood.

For me, this is not a deal-breaker. While somewhat depressing when someone speaks from this perspective, I’m not going to throw my hands up in the air and quit simply because people like to think that writers are affected disproportionately by depression and other mental illness. (And maybe they are affected disproportionately, but it still doesn’t do to lump every experience of mental illness together.) I’ve long come to imperfect terms with my collection of brain irregularities. I cope with them, and how they influence my writing process.

I’m not tough, no, but I’m not about to be destroyed by someone else’s expectation of what a writer is.

But for the person who is vulnerable for whatever reason — because of their age, sensitivity, or simply the sudden onset of a mental illness? It can be devastating to hear that their experience falls outside the “norm” for a writer, either through outright rejection of their experience or the (often well-meaning) normalization of their experience. It can make them feel unwelcome, unfit. Certainly, it doesn’t contribute to their feeling understood. For a person struggling to define themselves and find a healthy way of expressing themselves as a writer, it’s fundamental to be able to communicate. When one party carries narrow assumptions about what it means to be a writer, that communication cannot occur.

Now, don’t get me wrong in all of this: I love talking writing now and then. At this point in my life, most of my friends are writers. I choose to spend my time with them, and I don’t use up that time resenting them.

But I do see patterns in regards to ostracizing those who struggle with mental illness. This occurs largely passively, without ill intent, but even that needs to stop. Especially for science fiction and fantasy writers, who deal with what lies outside the normal, it’s inexcusable to be so narrow-minded about what makes up a creative member of our community. The perspectives of people whose brains operate a bit sidewise to most others are good perspectives to have when talking about the alien, after all. I look forward to the day when writers who struggle with mental illness can view their perspective as unique within science fiction and fantasy literature.

A feature, rather than a bug. A virtue for the very fact of their illness.

13 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Zachary Jernigan on Why Defining Oneself as a Writer with Mental Illness is Difficult”

  1. As we discussed at 4th Street Fantasy, and more recently on twitter, the real stigma of depression and other mental issues makes it hard for people to talk about these things in an honest manner.

    …even to themselves.

    Thanks, Zachary

    1. Well, thank YOU, Paul! I agree completely. Talking about it in the open, revealing mental illness to be both normal and complicated, is a way to endure that more people can and will talk about their issues.

  2. Some of the most creative people ever have been depressed or melancholy. One of my favorite rock musicians and composers, Tony Banks of Genesis, has suffered it forever. I don’t think he would have been able to write such beautiful melodies and lush arrangements if not for the “ice” as he called it.

    I work in the media, specifically with audio production. I’ve suffered depression my whole life, only getting control of it over the last five years. I believe that a good chunk of my creativity developed as a coping mechanism to my depression. If my mind kept going, it wouldn’t have time to think about the darkness. Same with my OCD mannerisms. I suppose sitting around in a dark room listening to Bill Evans and contemplating death are worse than spending three days redoing all the ID3 tags of my music files. The secondary benefit is that my iPod is very neatly categorized.

    So thanks for this. It’s only beneficial to other sufferers to know they are not alone and that there can be something positive on the other side.

    1. First off, congratulations on gaining control over the depression! That is a huge thing, and it makes me happy to hear.

      You’re right about creativity — it does often seem to be inspired, broadened and bolstered, by mental states that are not so great. I know I’m a better person, more moral and compassionate, for having suffered with OCD and depression. This helps me write, I think, though writing is also a struggle sometimes because of it.

      This is AWESOME, by the way:

      “I suppose sitting around in a dark room listening to Bill Evans and contemplating death are worse than spending three days redoing all the ID3 tags of my music files. The secondary benefit is that my iPod is very neatly categorized.”

      And of course, lastly, you’re welcome! Thank you.

  3. There is also the issue of how different regions and cultures talk about depression. Sit next to some New Yorkers and Jersey Residents in a cafe, and one will hear an in-depth description of their therapy session. A Southerner would never break the facade and talk about such private things. The Stoic North Dakotans would have a different cultural method of dealing with such issues.(These three examples are straight from my own family, no less, where we all must make allowances for regional differences in our interactions!) Different cultural expectations shift the accepted dialog, and, as writers, we encounter readers across a wide spectrum of cultures, the widest possible. It confuses the issue and makes it even more difficult to speak openly. The responses are going to be as unreliable as our reviews.

    1. Really good point, Joe.

      And are your reviews unreliable? Really? Mine are always the best. Straight fives across the damn board!

      Wait. Oh. The other part of my brain just informed me that’s not even remotely true. Crap.

  4. Thank you for this. Since I was about 8 years old, I’ve had PTSD and Depression, and dealing with those illnesses has stalled and slowed and, for better or worse, simply informed my writing and life trajectories. The idea that “all writers deal with depression”, and the tortured artist trope, and the ever-present “you must write every day no matter what” thing are just a couple of the reasons I find it guilt-laden and very difficult to discuss my own mental health w/r/t my writing.

    1. Goodness, that’s well said, Gabby. I’d like to quote that whole thing! I like especially how you draw the link between pace (write write write write!!!!) and mental disorder, and the resultant difficulty to confront stereotype-based reactions to your own process.

      I remember, years ago, talking with a writer friend who said, “So, I guess your response to depression is NOT to write even more?”

      …and I was like, “THAT’S AN OPTION?” It blew my mind then that anyone would react to depression by being ultra productive. Depression is entirely counterproductive for me: I exist in a constant state of anxiousness that I’m not doing something worthwhile, and then continue to do nothing worthwhile. It highlights how varied mental illness is, even when it has the same label.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Zachary. As someone who struggles with anxiety disorder himself it was fascinating to read your perspective. Further, this piece crystallized some thoughts I’ve had about how the writing community treats differences in process. Very astute of you to observe that some people might become prickly about process issues because of their own sensitivities. How ironic that we go out of our way to find things like this to be anxious or quarrel about, when the truth is, all that matters to a reader is the final words on the page, not the journey an author took to conceive them.

    1. I love it when something I do is fascinating! Thanks right back, Will. I do think, yes, that people are *almost always* reacting to others in these situations because of their own sensitivities. It is a weird thing, being a writer, and it carries with it a load of preconceptions and needs to be validated.

      For me, I don’t think I go out of my way to find things to be anxious or quarrel about in regard to this topic (though I very often do so in other regards); I simply want to be able to communicate how I struggle with writing — because, hell, it helps to know you’re not alone in this enterprise. When, like Gabby pointed out, it butts up against common stereotypes, you can begin to feel very alone.

      But, anyway, that’s not me disagreeing with you. After all, you’re right: the most important thing is the final product.

      I just wish getting to that final product felt less like eating glass…

      1. Well, the reference to finding things to be anxious about was more directed to the community at large, or perhaps at myself; I know I’ve wasted time in the past worrying about how X or Y’s process was different from my own, e.g.:

        ” doesn’t outline, but pantsing isn’t working for me…should I keep trying it anyway?”

        ” says the act of writing always makes him feel great, but to me it often feels like a chore…is there something wrong with me?”

        Now, that’s not to say I’ve spent a *ton* of time thinking stuff like this, but really, isn’t any time too much, especially when I have enough anxious thoughts in my brain already? Maybe not everyone is like me, but I do think worrying is a trait commonly identified with writers (perhaps with good reason), so it might be good to more forcefully acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a “bad” process, as long as it helps us produce work we’re proud of.

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