On Writing Mental Illness in Speculative Fiction

I’m not sure if write what you know is the most common piece of writing advice out there, but it’s got to be in the top three. And taking that advice, one of the themes I usually include in my work is mental illness and wellness. I struggle with it. I have an anxiety disorder, and I am no stranger to depression either. And a lot of people in my life deal with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and a smattering of other more arcane diagnoses.

So you’d think mental illness and wellness would be a natural pairing with my interest in creative writing. Especially since writing is one of my favorite coping mechanisms. And yet, I have found it to be an incredibly difficult theme to handle. It takes a deft touch to handle a suicidal or deeply anxious major character without the reader losing interest, or disliking that character.

I think that’s the nature of mental illness. It’s a stopping force, and a story (and the characters in it) need to go go go. Especially in speculative fiction. Maybe Holden Caulfield can mope around in his depression for a hundred pages, but Harry Potter sure can’t. Which is probably why Potter doesn’t seem to have PTSD despite nine years of abuse and neglect at the hands of the Dursleys.

That said, mental illness is something I’m going to keep including in my stories. I want to write about it, and I need to write about it. The trick I’m working on now is keeping a plot moving even when my depressed or anxious characters would rather just hide in their rooms all day. Through trial and error, it seems like the key is to not let a character’s state be static. If a character is struggling with mental illness, they need to be either getting better, or getting worse.

Which isn’t how mental illness works in real life. It’s a never-ending slog of medication, therapy, and maintaining healthy habits (like exercise, writing, and knitting) while avoiding unhealthy behaviors (like overwhelming myself with my own expectations). “Better” or “worse” is something that can happen quickly, but more it can take months. Or years. So it becomes a balance of mentioning the slog, but keeping it “off page”, and then forcing the depressed or anxious character into action through events out of their control.

The young necromancer spent years repressing his unsettling, unwanted powers. But outlaws just kidnapped his little sister. So who cares about upsetting people any more? It’s zombie time! He’ll just have to deal with his issues later, once things settle down and several months fly by in a brief passage.


It’s not easy to get that to work over the course of a novel. But I like how it’s turned out in a couple of short stories I’ve written (links below). Check them out if you’re interested in finished examples of my writing theories in action, or if you just enjoy short speculative fiction and have a few minutes.

“Saint Peter” — an artificial intelligence reaches out to a suicidal young man in an attempt to save his life. I posted this one not too long ago, but here it is again anyway.

“She Swallowed a God” — a family’s dysfunction and mental illness reframed as a fairy tale. This one is a flash fiction contest entry that didn’t win, but I really like how it turned out anyway. So there.

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You’re Not Yuccie, You’re an Artist

I came across this article this morning on my Facebook feed.

TL;DR*?  That’s okay, I’ll summarize.

In “The hipster is dead, and you might not like who comes next”, David Infante coins a new word to describe himself and people like him; Millennials living in urban areas who are willing to take uncertain, poorly paid positions so long as they allow for some form of creative expression/fulfillment/validation.  These folk want to start their own artisanal businesses, and hopefully get rich quick off their creative talents.

And despite their financial struggles, these folk are ultimately privileged.  They trust the system (and their families) to carry them through hard times.  They’ve never been screwed over enough to give up their dreams and take a sensible job.

Infante calls himself, and those like him, Young Urban Creatives, or “yuccies”.  (Like “yucky”, get it?!)  More sensible than the hipster, poorer than the yuppie, but full of “creative entitlement”.

This is myopic, self-hating nonsense, and I’m tired of it.

The problem is not the “yuccies” themselves, but a dwindling supply of good, stable jobs on “traditional career paths” coupled with a complete lack of respect for creative types.  I’ve experienced this lack of respect first hand, and it nearly destroyed me.

I can’t just watch this crap go viral without responding, so here’s my story.

At fourteen, I discovered my deep love for creative writing, specifically long, speculative fiction.  I had always been good at writing, I loved to read, and I had a penchant for literary analysis — maybe I should have figured out who I was sooner, but I managed it at fourteen.

I started telling people.

My high school was entirely unprepared to help me achieve this kind of goal, and actively worked to quash it.  A surprising number of people thought it was supportive to talk to me about “day jobs” and “alternate careers”, and to remind me that the odds would not be in my favor.  It’s no wonder I wound up clinically depressed and burdened by generalized anxiety by the time I was fifteen.

I spent the next decade “finding myself” — that is, turning into a failure.

I dropped out of my prestigious university.  I moved back into my parents’ home, jobless and unable to function.  I took random classes at a community college, hoping that bit of structure and the achievement of completed classes would galvanize me into… something.  I floated, cushioned from real hardship by the incredible luck of having a generous and loving family, but bleak and barren inside.

And my psychiatric medication killed my creativity, the very thing that would eventually help me pull myself back together.

From my perspective, Infante’s “yuccies” are functioning much better than I did.  Privileged or not, they’re making pragmatic choices.  They’re walking a thin line between self-expression and “making it”, and managing it as creative work is increasingly outsourced overseas, underpaid, or divorced from any kind of stability.

Infante decries his own choices and the choices of other young, creative types — but that’s just whining, wishing he could have his stable job cake and decorate it too.

He decries the privilege of “yuccies”, but just how useful is all that child-of-middle-class guilt?  It isn’t going to break down income inequality, raise minimum wage, strengthen our social safety nets, get us universal health care, bring paid vacations, sick leave, and family leave to American workers, end racism, classism, or sexism, or even feed, clothe, or house the needy.  Know you’re privileged, be grateful for it, be generous to those you meet who aren’t, and vote socialist so we can share the privilege around.

He decries his need for constant validation — well, that’s almost a good point.  “Yuccies” may be needy, but that’s a perversion of their natural creative drive.  We’re told we need to make something of ourselves — and make money — and are given few opportunities to do it without killing our souls.  Public funding for the arts is pathetic.  Try to talk STEAM instead of STEM, and everyone but Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks you’re coddling drug-addled theater majors.

It isn’t easy to be an artsy, creative person.  If you can be something else, that might be in your best interest.  But if you can’t, if your soul will sicken without self expression, take your genius by the horns.  Every career path is uncertain now, so get that artsy degree.  Turn down that boring job.  Don’t worry so much about the opportunities you’re missing, focus on the ones you have.

You’re not “yuccie”, you’re an Artist.  And don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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*for those who aren’t hep to internet acronyms, this one means “Too Long; Didn’t Read”