In which I come out of the depression closet

First, if you have not read the brilliant Rob Roberge’s essay, Crazy, go do that. I’m going to keep promoting it until everyone does.

Last days of crowdfunding to cover the post-production costs: an extra day of shooting and those crew members, insurance, camera rental, editing, color correcting, titles, score, film festival entry fees, etc. You may have noticed I have fallen down on the job a bit. Robin WilliamsThings like getting rear-ended and having to deal with reams of paperwork took up way too much time. Gah! Back to my point…. The anniversary of Robin Williams’ suicide is coming up in a week. Last year, it changed my life. I have been in and out of therapy most of my life. Turns out I have dysthymia, also known as persistent depressive disorder. So you see THE GREEN BENCH isn’t just some bit a fiction I wrote. It isn’t only about other people. I have a stake in this. Given the statistics, we all do really. I’m writing a memoir about it, particularly about its origins, but more on that another time.

Heather Gordon Young has a good piece about Cecil the Lion and her brother Jimmy’s mental struggles and why not only do we need to reduce stigma, but why we need all of us, including those of us who struggle with mental illness and depression. We grow poorer when we lose people like Jimmy or Robin Williams to suicide. I will say this much now about my own depression: I used the same reasoning Robin Williams did – I would never do anything to harm myself once I had children. I have two. He had three. And it didn’t matter. That woke me up and I went to a psychiatrist for the first time. I’m a textbook case. I told her what was going on and she read it right back to me out of the DSM. 2 of the 6 need to be present for diagnosis:

  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
  • Feelings of hopelessness

I had all 6 including poor appetite, insomnia, and both poor concentration and difficulty making decisions. I thought that was me, but what a difference with an anti-depressant. Old obsessions melted away, I can sleep, I rarely skip meals any more, I don’t always feel hopeless and when it hits, I can fight it off and have healthy self-esteem for the first time.

If you want to celebrate my coming out of the mental illness closet, help us get to $12,000 by Thursday. Your donation is tax deductible. We have a ways to go, but I know there is a patron out there somewhere, an angel who will help this project get out to the festivals, then into the hands of the mental health community. Let’s stop the stigma.

when the demons win…

Robin WilliamsA lot has already been written about Robin Williams. His exuberant talent and kindness – our grief and shock. And about our misperceptions about depression and suicide.

When I was in grad school, Marcos McPeek Villatoro gave an amazing lecture on mental illness and creativity that I wish had been recorded. He’s talked about his own diagnosis on NPR. The room filled and soon overflowed and that was the moment I discovered that most of the people around me either had a mental illness or a family member with it. Quiet, hard-working creative people coping with various storms in their brains or those of a parent, sibling, child, or partner. My mother suffered from depression and, while I was a teenager, Valium addiction. I grew up with her threats of suicide, was the one who attended the family support group at the “pain center” (back then, a euphemism for rehab) that my father would not. When my then-boyfriend’s mother asked how she was, he later chastised my honesty in answering her, for drifting away from euphemisms and mentioning Valium addiction. Shame is the real killer. My grad school mentor, Rob Roberge, has written a brilliant essay on that subject.

We owe much of the arts and sciences to the mentally ill. Sir Isaac Newton was bipolar and one of the most influential scientists ever in the fields of physics, math and philosophy and yet said of himself: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

It’s not news that people write stupid things in social media. “How could Robin Williams be sad with all that money and fame?” We need to be better than that. “I can’t imagine the pain…” Well, lucky you, but you have no excuse. William Styron and others have written about it. And please stop with the gloved blame – would you blame someone who had a stroke or heart attack? Just as either of those are not entirely a matter of diet and exercise (see Jim Fixx), Williams’ (apparent) suicide was not entirely an act of will – this was a storm of brain chemistry. This was not sadness, but an abyss. Williams stated repeatedly that he battled his demons in large part for the sake of his children. He fought for decades while maintaining a career in the public eye AND being uncommonly kind. He left us some 35 years of performances of astonishing range and did it with grace, courtesy, and humility. He treated people very well, no matter who they were. That is a rare and beautiful thing. He encouraged actors, comedians and improvisers – including friends of mine. He showed up at hospitals to visit patients without publicity. He entertained the troops in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. And he could have said the very same words as Newton, that he was just playing at the shore, but we know they both plumbed the depths in their own very different ways. Very different!

as Dr. Sean Maguire

Creativity is often accompanied by some form of mental illness. There are valiant battles waged daily that we never hear about. Robin Williams’ ultimate gift, the reason he was so loved, is that he was willing to share the struggle, his vulnerability, his humanity. Watch Good Will Hunting again and look in his eyes – that’s not only the pain of a character who’s lost his wife. He let his own pain shine through and touch us.

If you struggle with depression, with a mental illness, with an addiction, please seek help. Know you are not alone. Know also that we value you and your creativity. We know it comes at a cost. And let’s do better by those who wander our streets – that should not be part of a compassionate society. There is enough challenge in treating and living with these illnesses without fighting shame as well. Fighting demons is hard enough. And sometimes, God help us all, they win.

I like this clip because it not only shows his talent, but his regard for the troops and at the very end, his kindness


Character and Movement, part two

kooza_resizedstill2The few things I’ve learned so far from the Alexander Technique at Body Chance are that your head is always in motion, your head and neck are attached behind your nose (focus on that while writing or walking and see what happens), your arm is a larger-than-imagined hinge and the glide hinges are at the center of your breastbone, and to relax (as before auditions) let your jaw go. The jaw is a two-part hinge – you only need the first gliding part and if you relax into that first movement of the hinge, breathing and general body relaxation follow. I am beginning to see how Benedikt Negro stays present and appears lighter than air in his performances.

benedikt in character

Studying clowning, movement, improv – any one of these is another way into creating characters for writing or acting. Benedikt taught us that the foundation for clowning is entering a scene with one energy and exiting with another. It reminds me of one of the things Rob Roberge teaches about dialog in a scene: it’s about characters saying “no” to each other until the final “no.”  There is one energy in hoping for Yes and another once No is received. Or vice versa. Something in a scene must shift for an audience to remain engaged. And stillness to notice the shift. The master of using the stillness – silence itself – to change energy and supply emotional information is Samuel Beckett.

kooza_resizedstill3We are constantly in movement, even while appearing still. The world is constantly in movement, even in the most serene still life. The globe turns. Emotions swirl within us. Think about your character’s body (or your own!) spring-loaded in gravity and see where it takes you.


Other Voices Writing Conference

OtherVoices_FlyerNeed to get away, refresh and write? Consider signing up for Other Voices Querétaro

What you get?

  • 10 days of structured activities with your fellow writers
  • 7 days of workshops, 3 hours per day
  • All “Wine and Publishing” Talks
  • Mid-morning pastries and coffee on all workshop days
  • Welcome dinner at Fin de Siglo
  • Walking orientation tour of historic QRO
  • Closing celebration festivities
  • Visit to an artist’s studio in San Miguel de Allende
  • Transportation to the ruins on final day of the program, including “tequila parties” in the vans!

My connection is that Rob Roberge is one of my mentors and one of the very best writing instructors out there. Do yourself a favor. Sign up. Have fun. Wish I could join you!

And pre-order Rob’s next book!


OMGWHATHAVEIDONE! Okay, I really do have some trepidation, mostly because I really don’t have an idea for the next novel, but idea or no, I begin tomorrow! Eeek! I figured it was a good way to start and to ratchet up the commitment, I’m raising money besides! (Note: my mentor,  Rob Roberge, would never support the number of exclamation points included in this post…!) Anyway, to donate, please go here: It all goes to The Office of Letters and Light. From their website:

The Office of Letters and Light organizes events where children and adults find the inspiration, encouragement, and structure they need to achieve their creative potential. Our programs are web-enabled challenges with vibrant real-world components, designed to foster self-expression while building community on local and global levels.

If you want to donate to me personally to support this blog or my writing time, go to the Donate button at the Feed The Author notice on the right side —-> It is greatly appreciated!

Who Needs A Mentor?

I’ve been very blessed with great mentors. Rob Roberge and Gayle Brandeis in particular helped shape my work. Cheryl Strayed totally saved me in workshop – saved Growing Chocolate – with her suggestion to flip the last two chapters. I did have to go back and clean some things up, but that change kept the tone consistent all the way to the end and preserved my original intent. That’s the great thing about a talented mentor – they will not rewrite your work or suggest changes according to their vision or how they would write, but try to help you find your own way in your own voice. Also, for me, kind encouragement goes a long way and all three of these people are extraordinarily kind. That doesn’t mean they aren’t rigorous because they are. I never felt like I could slide or get away with anything. Plus they’re so fiercely smart, it would have been foolish to try. But as far as mentoring styles, I cannot hear ridicule. I shut down. Mean mentors don’t work for me. Criticism as bloodsport? No thanks. The world is cruel enough. We don’t need to help things along in that department.

Rob got me started on the path to better writing. He’s one of the best teachers out there. He asked a lot of questions and clarified the difference between mystery and murky and so many other issues. Mystery is fine, withholding certain bits of information is fine, but you don’t want murky. Readers want to know what’s going on in any given scene, so tell them. Lucky for all of us, he’s working on a craft book.

Gayle has many gifts including relating writing to the body. Plus she gets more done than practically anyone I know; we, her mentees, were suspicious that she does not need sleep, but she says she does so we will take her at her word. She must bend time somehow. 🙂 Anyway, as writers we tend to live in our heads and Gayle always reminds me that there’s much more to it.

In addition to the mentorship on any particular book, there is the mentorship of career, which is now more or less where I am with these three wonderful people. At a certain point, you make the shift from writing to your writing career. These three writers and others I had the privilege to work with at Antioch and elsewhere, have all taught me the value of continuing to move forward, of hard work, of taking chances. They are all productive and pretty darned cheerful in the process. Cheryl has been unfailingly gracious as she steps into the dream so many writers wish for. Rob and Gayle are generous with their time even with the demands of their own writing, teaching, readings, and so on.

Did I mention they all write beautifully? They do.

Who are your mentors? If you don’t have one, find one at a conference, a master’s program, workshops, even conventions such as Book Expo or AWP. It will save your sanity, help your writing, and, if you’re fortunate, enrich your life.

P.S. If you need a pep talk, here you go.

and then we came to the end


…but not of the blog! No, the end of your novel. How do you know when you’re finished? Last night, I had dinner with a group of writers and one reminded me I’d said I knew I’d finished my novel when I was so sick of the thing, I couldn’t go over it one more time. Well, there is that. But there’s also experience and feedback from your readers.

If you’ve gone over your manuscript 10-20 times, corrected the grammar, polished on multiple levels (sentences, paragraphs, chapters, sections, plus imagery and sensory details) checked for your personal writing tics (phrases, adverbs or adjectives that you lean on too heavily – do a word check for “just,” “really,” “suddenly” and so on; as my friend said, those are the “ums” of the literary world) and read the entire manuscript out loud, you might be finished or close to it. If your readers light up, saying you have something, that you’re close, and you trust them to tell you the truth and not what you want to hear, you can send excerpts to literary journals and see what kind of response you get. If you can afford it, hire a professional editor, preferably someone who’s taught literature and composition. Do your best to assemble a team who will inspire you to bring your A game, who will push you to do better and do it with kindness and generosity. Do the same for them if you’re exchanging writing/reading favors.

The final test comes from Rob Roberge – does your story reach a point where it could open up in a new way? That is where you want to stop. That will protect you from the “tie it all up with a bow” pat ending. You certainly don’t want a sentence – much less a paragraph – that sums up the book or the plot or the theme. Trust your reader.

By the way, the novel, And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is a fun read.

iceberg, dead ahead!

No, your story’s not the Titanic (though there will be days you fear it is). This picture is what your story looks like.

The top? The words on the page. Then there’s what is under the surface. For one thing, you can see that the reader is going to not only bring their own stuff to your story (the nerve!), but also their imagination is your biggest asset. You don’t have to write out every little thing, but you do have to know every little thing about your fictional world because once you do, it will appear ‘under’ your writing. It’s part of why – and granted, this depends a lot on the tone and subject matter – but generally speaking, you can write less for a sex scene and get a greater impact. The same can hold true for horror, violence, even swearing. Yes, swearing. Hemingway taught me that you don’t have to use the words themselves (again, it’s a matter of preference and what works best for the story). You can indicate that the character can’t believe what’s coming out of their mouth or you can, in all of the cases above, describe the effect on others. There are a myriad of ways to explore these kinds of limitations, if only as an exercise to force yourself to go (you know I’m going to say it) deeper.

And this isn’t to be fussy – I think the language Junot Diaz used in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao worked seamlessly with the story. When I think back, I don’t remember the f-bombs, I think about the story and that’s really the point here. Your approach should serve the story rather than call attention to itself. You are the one who is going to have to determine if you are being lazy with language and not explore options or if the explicit is better for the story you’re telling. Most writers err on the side of laziness. Don’t be that writer.

But back to our iceberg…

In Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life, Rob Roberge writes two sentences on the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt: “The cops took the slug out of the wall and I ended up wiping down the wall of blood and brain and bone and patching the hole. The carpet was replaced.”

See what I mean? There’s an entire world resting below those 31 words.


My friend and mentor, Rob Roberge has a new piece up at THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN on the ups and downs of publishing, including his experience with having his book cancelled. And yet there’s reason for hope. Go read it, especially for the reality check on how long it takes to get a book out.

Also, please check out the latest at ANNOTATION NATION.

p.s. the image will make sense if you read about Rob’s upcoming book (though it’s not their logo)


My artist and writer friends inspire me because they’ve developed the habit of art. That has me thinking about the question a non-fiction writer posed recently: how do you write (or start) a novel? It’s easy to throw out silly phrases: one page a time or the Nike approach (just do it), but that’s annoying. I don’t outline (not ahead of time – it can be helpful after the first draft), so how do I start and keep at it? Most of the time, I have a vague idea and then something will happen – a snatch of conversation overheard and I imagine the circumstances around it or a tangential detail in a news story will spark something…. Sometimes a theme won’t leave me alone. If I go for long walks and allow myself time to ruminate, characters tend to show up. I imagine little scenes, start writing some of them down and a story emerges. I tend to think most novelists have to find their own way. I have met few who write a novel the same way twice, much less feel they have a handle on the process no matter how many they write.

Aaron Gansky has more on observation and what Flannery O’Connor referred to as the habit of art.

Great (and concise!) advice from Rob Roberge on metaphors and similes.

Write a message to your future self and see what happens in a few years. Great thing to do right before college or grad school to have emailed after graduation.

Over the next few weeks or months, decide which five activities are essential to your life as a writer.

What are mine, you ask?

Every day I read

Every day I write

Every day I imagine

Every day I reflect

Every day I ask for direction

There is no secret. It is daily work. You don’t have to sit and write for 8 or 10 hours a day. Some people might, but for me that’s a chore and counter-productive. The amount of time is secondary to daily activity and that’s what keeps me both productive and joyful.