Earlier this summer, the Clockhouse Writers Conference (CWC) at Goddard College hosted a keynote session on balance and writing. S&R is pleased to pass along, over the next three days, essays by the keynote panelists.
by Jennifer McConnell
“If I can’t have too much, I don’t want any.” — quoted in “Lit” by Mary Karr
No truer words from an addict were ever spoken.
If I knew anything about balance, I probably wouldn’t be a writer.
My two years at Goddard were a perfect example. I was living in San Francisco and working part-time. I had the luxury of entire days to devote to writing–often ten hours at a stretch. I wouldn’t shower or leave the house all day, completely immersing myself in writing and editing and worrying over my short stories and novel chapters.
After graduating from Goddard, I was able to maintain this intensity for another year, until reality came back and I had to get a real job. Soon after, I moved across the country and started a family. I was able to come to CWC each summer, which seemed to partly quench my thirst for writing time.
But how I yearned for those days of nothing but writing. I mourned that way of life for a number of years, unable to write during the thirty minutes here or one hour there I could get.
So I struggled on for a few years, trying to find this elusive balance between working full-time, having a family, and writing. I felt like I wasn’t doing any of them very well.
My husband tried to be helpful, suggesting that we set up a schedule so that a few nights a week I could write without family obligations. While this sounded nice, scheduling writing time, to me, sounded like scheduling sex – another chore to pencil into my calendar rather than spontaneous passion. But more importantly, nothing chases away my muse like telling it to appear at a specific day and time.
In addition to being overwhelmed with full-time work, money woes, and guilt over not writing, I continued to struggle with crippling depression. I was much like a functioning alcoholic. Most people wouldn’t—and in fact, didn’t—know that I’ve suffered from severe depression most of my life. I understand most of the causes and have had counseling in the past but nothing really helped.
About every six weeks I would have an incapacitating episode that lasted a week or more— unable to stop crying, unable to get out of bed, just the darkest, bleakest thoughts, including suicide, even if there was nothing really “wrong” with my life. Being told it was just “snap at of it” only made things worse.
The weird part, though, is that because I could feel such depths of pain—and the corresponding mountains of joy—I was able to write so passionately. Paul Selig called my writing “wonderfully dark” and I felt that the way I was made—the sadness and darkness and hopelessness—helped me write about the angst so authentically.
In 2004, with much urging from my husband, I sought professional help. The psychiatrist suggested medication for depression—the first doctor ever to do so. I was hesitant. I dreaded the episodes and hated them but I also feared the ‘leveling out’ that medication would bring.
Without the highs and lows of my moods, what would I write about? What if I didn’t feel anything?
I dreaded this kind of “balance.”
Finally though, I decided to go on the medication and when it kicked in, wow, I was happy. Not just emotionally but physically happy. I remember clearly sitting on the couch next to my husband and just staring at him telling him how much I love him. I was downright goofy.
However, I was only on the medication for about six weeks when we found out I was pregnant and I stopped taking them. Funny thing though—the hormones from pregnancy made me as happy and mild-tempered as the drugs had.
I might be the only woman in history who DIDN’T have pregnancy mood swings. For that brief time, I wished I could be pregnant forever. I felt like an actual, normal person for nine months, and it was glorious.
Then I gave birth and the awfulness of post-partum depression hit. Holy shit. Talk about being at the bottom of a well and having it filled in with concrete over my head. There was no balance. And no way out, I felt, except suicide. But how could I do that to my family?
Feeling completely trapped only made me feel more useless and pathetic.
In additional to the pre-existing depression, many circumstances converged to make this time even worse. When my daughter was six months old, my husband and doctor finally convinced me it was okay to stop breast feeding and go back on anti-depressants.
I did try to write a bit during those first six month, but I didn’t keep what I wrote. It was too dark and horrifying even for me.
But hallelujah, the drugs brought me back to “normal” but again, I’ve never wanted to be normal—I wanted to be a writer.
My whole life I’ve been an all or nothing girl. Long before I became a writer. Alcohol. Sex. Eating. I eat too much, I used to drink too much, had too much sex. Even relationships—after the first date, I was planning the wedding.
All the women’s magazines I read implore me to do things in moderation. Have just one bite of cake, they urge, not the whole thing.
But that isn’t me, I can’t eat just one bite of cake. If I can’t have too much, I don’t want any.
Same with writing. I feel I must be saturated with it to get anything out of it. No half measures for me.
This quest for balance—moderation—is just not natural to me, though I do admit, there are some areas of my life where I’ve been forced to moderate myself.
Since having a child, I don’t usually have more than one glass of wine at a time, though it still pains me to recork a bottle of good wine rather than finish it and see what the night brings. As for relationships and sex, this time, fingers crossed, is the keeper.
Being on anti-depressants has literally been a life saver. Last summer, I decided to stop taking them—I was feeling so good that I thought maybe I didn’t need them anymore; I was getting worried that I’d be dependent on them the rest of my life; and I felt they were prohibiting me from losing the baby weight (never mind my all or nothing eating).
Not a good idea to stop taking the pills cold turkey and without telling my doctor. I went back to hell in the express hand basket.
The only thing that stopped me from killing myself while driving home one night was a police officer. Long story but rather than “suicide by cop,” the police offer pulled me over for speeding, let me have a good cry and sent me off with a warning. That night I told Dan that I needed to go back on the medicine.
Being “normal” has been a little boring—and not really helped now that we have a house in the Cleveland suburbs with a backyard and children and a dog. I miss my wild days and nights in San Francisco, angst and all, but I try not to dwell on them.
The balance I’ve found in my writing is this—I will go for days, weeks, months without physically writing anything (though I will be thinking about it), and then, with my husband’s help, I’ll get a day or long weekend to myself to not shower, not go outside, just write all day and night, sometimes even with two glasses of wine…
And now, thank the powers that be, I’m back here at CWC where unbalanced people ARE the norm.
Jen McConnell is a communication consultant and fiction writer who lives near Cleveland. She blogs at Breathing Words.