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