Being A Writer with a Mental Illness

About a week ago I got a surprise email from Lisa asking me to participate in a blog meme. I love Lisa’s blog, and I love Lisa. We met in June 2010 at both our first VONAs, and have remained friends since. I love her art and her writing and her sewing and and. Lisa is talented in a way that sometimes makes me jealous. Only sometimes ;). Anyway, check out her blog and let her know what you think.

The “My Writing Process” meme consists of four ostensibly simple questions:

  1. What are you working on?
  2. How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
  3. Why do you write what you do?
  4. How does your writing process work?

What are you working on?

Hearing this question right now makes me feel really guilty because I’ve been stuck in spin cycle for almost two months. I used to be one of those people who would Never make an excuse for anything no matter how true the excuse was, but I have mellowed since. In 2007 I was diagnosed with mental illness which manifests in severe manic states three months of the year and severe depressive states about 5 months of the year, leaving me with 4 sane interspersed with rapid cycling/mixed state months. The former has days when the voices in my head are so loud that my heart beats so fast my hands quiver and nothing gets done. It also has days when I can take out all my savings  and go buy a new car (even though I have a hefty car loan already) because after all what’s that money lying around for?  The latter has days when no matter how bright the sun, I need a bulldozer to drag me out of bed at 3pm. And days when I sit with my car in drive at the edge of the lake, just willing my foot to let go off the brake. There is a slight balancing that has happened as I have discovered drugs that work, but the reality is this: I live with a disease that affects my life in sometimes very significant ways.

So I have mellowed because I have come to realize that I am the only one who knows my reality best (we are each the only ones able to know our reality the best). So now, I do not see them as excuses, I see them as telling my truth. SO my truth for the past 6 weeks is (my brain is saying excuse) I’ve been living in a severe mixed state for the last 6 weeks coming off of a really great, but balanced high after visiting my sister. Cycling from using light-canceling blinds to blowing entire paychecks on food that rots in my fridge because when I am manic, I don’t need food.

Why do I begin this question by telling you all this? Because this is my truth and my truth affects my work and production of work (and I think Lisa promised emotional honesty) :-).

I will share what has been in the washer during this time:

In the spin cycle the past 6 weeks I’ve been thinking of children of Black diaspora U.S immigrants and how they are raised similarly or disparately from the children born to generations of African Americans in the U.S. I’ve been spinning the idea of whether doing as one preached meant giving up one’s heartfelt pleasures (more on this later). I’ve also been spinning (for much longer) the idea of appropriation and who determines what is/not appropriated and by whom and for what purpose. And in the laundry basket on top of the washer, I have re-launching my catering business, my existing and somewhat neglected blog, and a chapbook about my most recent love and loss. So after writing all this, I see that I shouldn’t be feeling too guilty. Just because I am not producing anything actively doesn’t mean I’ve shut down shop.

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I think my work differs from others in the genre because I occupy a myriad of social locations that is shared by few. Writer, Dancer, Culinary Artist, Queer, Female, Black, Ghanaian-American/African, Academic, Feminist, Single, Activist, Mentally differently-abled (I think I got most of them). Without these lenses, my memoir, non-fic, and essays would be just like any others in those genres. My lenses change the way my work hits the page and how the world receives it. I was often told to explore others in my field and to read them to see what they did right, but sometimes I think, no one is doing what I am doing. And maybe that is an illusion or maybe it’s the truth.  I’m following my own advice and “doing me” the only way I know how.

Why do you write what you do?

Because no one else will.  Four years ago after my first VONA, I wrote an essay about why I write My story. I write what I write because if I don’t, it will eat at me until I do. This spin cycle is fun for a while but eventually I have to put something out on the line to dry.

How does your writing process work?

This depends mostly on where I am in my mind states. I can sometimes churn out pages in my mixed states. Sometimes when I am depressed, I read old journals and that inspires me to write. In manic states, all bets are off. I am very confident in my writer-self. I live in a perpetual field of potentialities. I will be discovered tomorrow and everything I write will be viral. I will have Oprah sign off on my stuff. Illusions of grandeur sometimes means I don’t feel like   writing because after all, I will be discovered tomorrow. On the flip side, sometimes no sleep and no food makes for one productive Kuukua. In depressed states, I sometimes write a lot because I might be dead tomorrow and I must leave proof in case my family does decide to publish my journals.

I love to write long-hand. There’s nothing like the feel of paper gently rubbing the first third of my pinkie as it does a waltz across the page. I have grown more accustomed to writing on the computer because it’s easier to edit especially if it’s for the blog or for a submission. I do still carry my journal around. So often, and more so lately, I have told myself that the only reason Taiye Selassie and Chimamanda have published is because they are more disciplined and that perhaps because I am less so, I won’t ever see the limelight. I sometimes tell myself that I can’t expect much if I’m so lazy. So as you can see the writing process is fraught with a lot of negativity but when I do breakthrough, I can usually put out something sensible and well articulated (for a Black girl ;-)), but the challenge is sitting still long enough to put it all down. One would think I would get frustrated with the spin process, but my stamina is quite outstanding though sometimes detrimental. Eventually though, if I want to continue calling myself a writer I must put some of the spin cycle on the line to dry. You can read more about my process in an interview I gave.

I have asked my friend Celestine Nudana whom I met in Ghana while I was living there from 2011-2013. Celestine is witty and funny and has done quite an extensive bit of reading and writing about what she’s reading. She also writes poetry. Watch for her to post her writing process meme.

As always, thanks for reading. And thanks Lisa for inviting me!

 

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9 comments

  1. I love this, my dear. You totally delivered on the emotional honesty… and inspiration! 🙂 Thank you for sharing yourself and your process so openly — and I’m glad you’re trusting your truth and trying not to feel too bad about the times when things don’t look as productive. ❤

  2. You stated the truth in a beautiful way, KK. You always have my admiration because I think you are a great woman!

    I sent you mail about the meme. Hope you got it. But I thank you so much for thinking of me. It’s an honour dear friend and you words about me made my day!. Thank you.

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