Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Mind - Au Naturale

For decades, psychiatrists, surgeons, family physicians, and quacks have resorted to a myriad of methods to still the sadness and quell the voices echoing in our heads. Lobotomies, insulin treatment, electroconvulsive (shock) therapy were once standards of care for mental illness, along with all sorts of medicaments and solutions. Now, we're more humane – we manage most of our mental ailments by ingesting pills. And what a variety: olanzapine, lamotrigine, sertraline, paroxetine, quetiapine, aripiprazole, ziprasidone, duloxetine, venlafaxine. The syllables drip off my tongue, almost a lilting poem.

But folks who have the blues or other mental and emotional maladies are starting to tell their prescribing psychiatrists and family docs: no thanks. Why? The growing evidence that some medications are as effective as placebo, their prohibitive expense and increasing hassles imposed by insurers, and side effects that sometimes seem worse than the disease: weight gain, diabetes, lack of libido, and changes in cognitive and emotional capacities. And, of course, some people just don’t want anything screwing with their head.

Which I find fascinating. Why wouldn’t someone in the throes of severe emotional distress not gobble a small, white sphere to feel better? to become functional? To return to ‘normal’?

This dilemma underlies both my research and my fiction. During the day, I ponder how to improve patient ‘adherence’ to antidepressants and antipsychotics. My hypothesis: take your meds, and you'll experience improved clinical outcomes and save money. Crass, perhaps, but these are endpoints I can measure by crunching very large datasets comprised of millions of medical and pharmacy claims using fancy statistics and large hard-drives.

But the numbers only go so far: Why don’t people take their meds? Why do they resist medically-accepted treatments? Why aren’t people adherent to experts' proscriptions?

A pivotal section of BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT finds Ben, my protagonist, wallowing in a mixed manic-depressive state and grappling with the decision of whether to take an antipsychotic. After days of fear and indecision, he succumbs and experiences a miracle - the reinstatement of his mind…

I waken and hear the whir of highway traffic and, more distant, the lonesome wail of a train. The night workers rustle, talk softly, prepare for the next group of caretakers. Someone moans from another room. These are the only sounds; my mind is quiet; there is no noise, no morbid, florid thoughts, no whooshing or thrumming or humming, no lingering nightmares or images or memories. Normal? Is this what normal feels like? I don’t remember.

There are many ways to attain and maintain mental health. Whatever it takes - pills, gamma rays, sun, running, talk therapy, magnets applied to your temples, Emotional Freedom Techniques, or hey, dirt - stay healthy and happy. Peace, Linda

For an excellent article on the pitfalls and pros of medications – and their 'natural' alternatives - turn to The Unmedicated Mind

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Trusting the Process

The final chunk. Almost seventy pages. I stare at the freshly printed hard-copy before me, feeling like a miniature meat-processing plant: feed, grow, produce, harvest, slice, dice, package, market. From cow to Oscar Mayer weenies. Is a book really any different?

Coffee in my left hand, blue gel fine point in my right, I start at the top. In an hour, I read through the entire shebang. Cobalt ink underlines every other word, notes scrawl in the margins: awk*, XX**, awf***, chu****. My mood matches the color of my manuscript.

Panic blooms, granules of yeast in warm, sugary water. My pulse pounds – boom, boom, boom – my internal grandfather clock reminding me of my self-imposed deadline. A month. Just a month. I can’t do it, can’t finish, there’s too much to explicate and extricate and excise and revise and devise… the voices are wrong, the rhetoric weak, the writing... well, the writing’s the least of my worries.

I rise from the kitchen table, nuke my now tepid coffee, and shove four caramel Hershey kisses into my mouth without tasting them. The micro bleats once, then twice, and I tear myself from the bowl of chocolates. Deep breath. My laptop mocks me, but I pull up the document, begin to edit. My brain seizes. A voice whispers in my ear. “This story sucks. You suck.” The little demon who sits on my right shoulder leers at me, then laughs an eerie cackle

And I believe him (of course it’s a him).

So I walk away and walk around in a murky funk. I snap at my children, my husband, the stupid drivers, the stupider pedestrians. I am despicable. I am the Ugly Writer. But after almost 48 hours of doing nothing but wandering in a sleepless, irritable haze, my mood begins to lift.

I return to the merciless document, and begin. The writing flows. To my surprise, my insomniacal angst has miraculously spawned new scenes, better-behaved characters, pithy and compelling dialogue, even decent prose. Optimism stirs. I plow through the first chapter. The fiend stretches, yawns. “Yeah, yeah, you can do it.” I can do it. And I have done it before. Three weeks ago. Duh. Deja vu. Maybe I should trust my mind? Myself?

*awk = Awkward
**XX = Add something, anything – this hole’s as wide as the damn Mississippi
***awf = Awful. AWFUL!!!!!
****Chu = Chuck. As in chuck it in the can, the toilet, the ocean, the gas grill

This just in from Neuroscience: Dirt is better than Prozac. Yep. Ingestion of Mycobacterium vaccae, which exists naturally in soil, produces serotonin - and bliss - in mice.

Guess I’ll go snort some dirt... Peace, Linda

Mouse Brain on Dirt

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's Just Words, or The End of the Beginning - Round 6

Late last night I pushed the 'upload files' button and the penultimate section of BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT whizzed through cyberspace to my on-line writing group, the NUDGE-NUDGE COLLECTIVE. Three chapters away from 'The End'. In my mind, those two words taste like 70% cacao extra fine dark chocolate, the sweetness melts on my tongue, replaced by a faint, smoky bitterness.

The End. But is it ever really over? Does a story ever really end? I have typed 'The End' five times and sometime in the next month or so I will key those words in for the sixth time. Mark Spencer, my writing instructor in Advanced Novel Writing (WOW Online) tries to console me: "Do you know how many times Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to A FAREWELL TO ARMS? I think the number was 19." Arghhh.

This particular round was different from the first five. In this revision, I dumped the Swiss Army knife and picked up a chainsaw. This time, I didn't simply excise adverbs, elevate prose, futz with dialogue tags. Uh-uh... round six was major cosmetic surgery: liposuction to the tune of 40,000 words, scenes implanted to flesh out the voice of my second protagonist, tummy-tuck a dreary and overlong section where the first protag wallows in a psychiatric hospital. It was bloody.

I'm not sure where this courage came from, but I remember one morning late Spring, after tossing all night worrying about people and events who only exist in my imagination, I woke up and my first thought was: "It's just words."

How liberating.

Years ago, when my preferred creative medium was clay, my frustration with working with the soft and temperamental porcelain began to exceed my joy. A clay friend and mentor uttered a similar sentiment when I sobbed as we unloaded a kiln and discovered every single vessel fractured with large cracks: "It's only clay."

Now I view my editing as I do my clay work: tucking and nipping and smoothing and dabbing. Building and shaping the armature. Sometimes huge chunks require excision. Other times, handles and feet and other parts need adding. But in the end, I sculpt my story in the shape and form I choose.

Three chapters left. Then back to Chapter One...

My mind tugs me back to the cool, morning haze. Legs pump hard, push through a sea of lanky, shin-guarded limbs. Someone kicks, the ball rolls out from our tangle of boy bodies. My feet follow, bound down the still dewy field smelling of sweet hay and mud. Whistles pierce the murmuring tide of excited yelling...

Yes, back to the starting line... I can barely wait. Peace, Linda

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Dabbling in Haiku... Sole


frigid, in its frost
impervious, the earth’s scab
resists assured change

gleams, feeble muted,
stroke the forgiving surface
to summon rebirth

puny, shoots of hope
gallant, thrust and strive through ash,
frozen clink, clay, leaves

unfurled, leaves emerge
tenuous, exultant in
brilliant joyous dance

Linda Simoni-Wastila

My first love is prose, not poetry, but I enjoy the play of words on paper, the shadows and rifts that interrupt the vast white. Haiku is one form, so simple in appearance, yet so difficult in practice. Sole, Italian for sun, is inspired by the cold, white bleakness of winter that fades into promise of life. It follows the 'traditional' 5/7/5 meter, a bone of contention argued by many haiku purists (visit Poeticasides for more on haiku and other poetry styles).

Myself, I like the constraint imposed by haiku, the challenge of writing within parameters rather than having my thoughts catapault in free verse across the white page. But in the end, do rules matter? The faint trace of an image imprinted on the mind is what a poem hopefully leaves...

To capture the spirit of the ku... most elusive.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

It Takes A Village...

Writing is a lonely business, especially at 5 in the morning when the rest of the world (sanely) sleeps. But writing is a process, and to do it well, you often have to dig deep, fall into dark spaces that are too small for another voice to enter. Sometimes that chasm holds my psyche close, too close, and the residue of funked-up isolation and darkness follows me into my 'daily' life. Other times I get frustrated, hit a wall and the story shrivels up like a slug on salt. More often, I read my story and wonder why the hell I'm wasting my time writing such drivel.

It's at these moments when I'm grateful for my friends who write. They UNDERSTAND. They GET IT. We talk each other out of despair and feelings of inadequacy. But we share much more than red pens held to each others' manuscripts. We share a camraderie, an understanding that writing is HARD, that getting the words down is a damn difficult business, full of sweat and tears and exhaustion. There are many in the business - writers, agents, publishers - who state that writing with peer groups is dangerous to novice writers (i.e., those yet unpublished) than writing alone because it's difficult for novices to weed out sound, constructive advice from that provided out of ignorance, sloppiness, and insecurity. In my not-so-humble opinion, I believe receiving criticism and feedback from peers - and providing the same - is immensely valuable, a necessary part of the writing learning curve. It is the practice of discernment that makes for better writing.

My stories and poems are better for the careful reviews of fellow writers. I have friends and family (my dear hubby, Jeanne, Mark P, Lynne) to thank, as well as my on-line forumistas at Writers Digest. Instructors and classmates in my writing classes also have helped me become a stronger writer.

But I am most grateful for the talented writers in the Nudge-Nudge Collective, my on-line writing group. The NNC is comprised of Steve from Beantown (PRODIGAL SON), Margeurite from Joisey (FALSE ALIBI), Kim from the Alaskan Kenai Peninsula (TAKING ON WATER), and Deborah from the soft foothills of North Carolina (PAINTED BLACK). These thriller/mystery writers are more than just writers - they are friends. Together, we've shared our stories, those for publication and those private, sad, and joyous ones that will never see black ink.

My other source of writing inspiration is Chrys, my friend from Orcas Island. She's penning her memoir (MOONCHILD), a fabulous read about her first year away from a chaotic yet over-protected home as a young albino rocker-chick stuck in the Eastern Maryland shore. Chrys and I have a challenge: mail the penultimate drafts of our manuscripts to each other on September 15. We've been with each for the first draft and parts of the second. Wish us luck.

I am blessed to live in such a supportive, visionary village. Thank you, fellow travellers. Without you, the journey would not be as productive - or fun. Peace. Linda

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Midnight Disease

Enough on mental illness, drug abuse, and all that jazz… I got a new disease to ponder - hypergraphia. The Midnight Disease. The primary symptom of this condition is an overwhelming urge to write. A compulsion to write. Although hypergraphia is not actually a disorder, it is associated with temporal lobe changes seen in epilepsy and manic episodes.

Hypergraphia often strikes without warning. On January 1, 2006, I contemplated my modest goals for the upcoming year (which did not include writing a novel). The next day, a mysterious impulse entered my then-tranquil mind and screamed, “WRITE!’ I obeyed. For three months, I catharsed. Nights, after work, dinner, and kiddy time, I’d sit at the kitchen table, oblivious to the blare of the television, to the crick in my back, the gurgling of my stomach, the late hour, and write. Words streamed from my fingertips, effortless, and onto the computer screen. 183,000 of them. It was exhilarating. Thrilling. A rollercoaster of immense emotion. I wrote with fury, afraid the ideas and images and words and conversations would disappear, without warning, as suddenly as they arrived. I rode my story with a manic rush to the end.

A year and one-half later, I'm still riding. And writing.

(I wonder: Is it any coincidence that Ben, my protagonist, is bipolar?)

This was the genesis of my novel BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT. The need to write continues. And so I do. I’m on my sixth and, I hope, penultimate revision. Two more novels sit in the recesses of my brain, waiting impatiently for their turn. But instead of being exhausted, my hypergraphic nature fuels me: I walk with a perpetual zing in my step, a new lightness and clarity to my life. And every day I pray this funny ailment remains my constant affliction, niggling always at my mind, stretching me, transporting me to places I never dreamed possible…

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The mind I love most...

"The mind I love most must have wild places, a tangled orchard where dark damsons drop in the heavy grass, an overgrown little wood, the chance of a snake or two, a pool that nobody's fathomed the deph of, and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind." --Katherine Mansfield

ahhhhhhh.... wish I had written this.