Due to the sensitive nature of this courageous interview, this writer will remain anonymous. However, it does not diminish her talent, both as a novelist and an illustrator. RB studied Economics and Creative Writing an Ivy League university before getting her MFA in the Creative Writing. She is currently working on her debut novel with her agent.
Most of the interviews I’ve conducted so far are with scriptwriters, but you’re a novelist. How might your process be different, do you think?
I’ve only written one novel so it’s hard to say what I usually do. There are workshops, but I feel they tend to work better for short stories. You can talk about the whole thing. With a novel, people are more like, “I don’t know how this is going to work out.” It’s hard to talk about it unless people read the entire novel, which is much more of a commitment. So while I workshopped the first chapter a couple of years ago, it’s mostly been close friends reading it and giving me their thoughts. It’s scary because if you send someone a short story, they might still get busy and not read 20 pages.
What do you feel is the most stressful part of writing?
I don’t actually think it’s the writing. I think it’s having made the decision to spend your time doing it. When you’re a kid doing anything, you’re pretty much measuring against yourself. “Oh, I did better than last year, that’s awesome!” No child who wants to be a scientist is like, “Oh no, I’m not as good as Tesla!” You’re a child!
I think it’s the same when you’re a writer. Of course my writing isn’t hot shit, I’m a child. And then you get older and there comes a point where you go, “If I’m going to be a writer, then I have to be good.” Not just good in comparison to yourself, but in comparison to the world. You have to be within the giant circle of good, otherwise what are you doing? Having that pressure on you is probably the hardest part.
When did that switch happen for you?
When I got my Master’s. Up until then I double-majored in economics and creative writing. My creative writing classes were a joy but I was also doing this other thing that was practical. Then I went into my master’s program and officially stepped off that path. You’ve committed yourself to doing this thing that is kind of crazy and takes an insane degree of arrogance, I think.
Was that the most difficult time for you as an artist?
First, I was doing my Master’s, so I had teachers and courses and small goals. There was this structure. As I approached graduation, I was like, “What the fuck am I going to do?” How am I going to feed myself and also make time to write? So probably now is the most stressful time. [Laughs]
I find that funny because you’ve recently had good things happen to you.
I got an agent recently and that was definitely a big relief. It took me just over a year. I heard really mixed things from people about the process. I really psyched myself out. “Your first short story is terrible because your first anything is terrible. So your first novel is probably also terrible. That’s fine, that’s how that works. You just have to start again.” I had actually made that decision when I heard back from [my agent].
What I realized with the perspective of having an agent was that I only sent out to people who were very solidly in their industry. I didn’t send out to any new or smaller agents. Grand total I probably sent out to nine people. So maybe some of [my worries] were a little bit false but I couldn’t see that until I had an agent.
So you’re saying getting an agent didn’t necessarily take away your stress?
This is worth hearing because people often say, “I’ll be happy when this happens.” Did new stress factors emerge?
Yes but some of those were outside of the direct roles of writing. I’m moving and I’m really anxious about that move. But with the book, the stress definitely did not go away. I think there are two types of stress. There’s the stress you feel when you’ve done everything you can do, and it’s not working. That is a terrible, evil stress and that’s really where I was. The oh-my-God-I-have-a-hundred-things-to-do stress is a slightly better stress, I think. [My agent’s] giving me a bunch of edits and we’re preparing to send the book out. The stress before was really bad because I was waiting to hear back from people.
How do you manage the stress?
The most helpful thing is when I can do something that makes me feel like I’m solving the problem. When I avoid the problem it starts looming. But taking breaks is important. Drawing is a really important part of my creative practice. Although I have done some illustrations professionally, I do think of it as a bit separate.
So is doing illustrations and drawing more relaxing?
I do find it relaxing. I’m pretty sure if I made it my main thing it would cease to be relaxing. And it’s not like watching Netflix or something, which I do as well. But sometimes I find doing that actually stresses me out more. “What have I done with my day? I haven’t done anything good!” I’m a very anxious person in case you can’t tell. [Laughs]
And then the obvious stuff. Calling my friends, going outside, all the general self-care stuff we all need to do.
Have you always been anxious or did it become acute at some point?
For a long time I was very depressed, but I wasn’t particularly anxious. When you’re as depressed as I was, my main thought was, “Well, I’m not dead. If things get really bad, I’ll kill myself.” That actually defined my life so I was a weirdly relaxed though very unhappy person. The things I was unhappy about were, like, the impossibility of human beings to communicate with one another. Which sounds deeply arrogant but at the time, they were such broad things that I felt there was nothing I can do. “This is what it is to be alive.”
At some point I started getting more mentally healthy. I started having ambitions and wanting to be alive. The problem is, when you start wanting things, you might not get those things. So I feel that my anxiety has grown as my depression has reduced.
I don’t think that’s uncommon. I’ve heard other people describe this.
Related to that, reading and writing used to be my main way of relieving anxiety and depression. But as that became my career, that became less possible. Rather than being separate from my life, it became the life I was living. So it’s become harder and harder to escape into. It’s very strange.
Outside of you helping yourself, what’s been the most helpful from others?
I don’t find it helpful when people tell me not to worry about what I’m doing, or that my anxiety isn’t real. That makes me very anxious. [Laughs] Recently, my friend proofread my novel twice and found all the commas. It fills me with a deep sense of gratitude and makes me feel supported in a way that someone saying I support you can’t make me feel.
It’s like the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy often makes you feel more separate, whereas empathy is someone being there with you.
I think really small things can be really great.
In February I was going through a really hard time. I couldn’t even explain, but I just felt really lost. Even though I try to be very open about my mental health, but I’m also like, “These are my feelings and thoughts. I don’t expect you to deal with them.” On one level I think it’s good because you don’t want to throw your issues on other people, but sometimes you need it.
I called a friend who’s been a friend for many years, and I just cried. I said, “This is going against my instincts to call you. I think I should not be calling you. I think I should just be quiet in my apartment, but I’ve been trying that and I just don’t know what to do.” This friend has seen me move through a lot of emotional ups and downs and he said to me, “I want you to send me one thing to read every week. Do it.” And he read them for a month, a month and a half. It gave me this structure and this time where I was just spiraling. For me that was much more helpful than if he’d just been sympathetic.
I think that can only come from someone who’s known you for a while.
That’s the tricky part of getting professional help. As someone who has experienced (although everyone thinks about death) suicidal ideation, what’s your opinion on those who are not sympathetic to those who struggle with it?
The same friend who I just mentioned said to me a couple of years ago, “If you ever try to kill yourself again, I’m not going to speak to you ever again.” I was horrified. I felt betrayed. He was fine with me being depressed, fine with me talking about suicidal ideation, but he said, “If you actually try, I will never speak to you again. You will have left me, and there’s no excuse that would not make it true that you left me if you succeed. If you try to leave me, I won’t be able to give you that power again.”
If all my friends said that to me, it would’ve been really awful. But at the same time, it was the first moment that I really understood the people who were less sympathetic. They feel so hurt by someone they love leaving them, and I understand that. I have friends who have left me for any number of reasons. When you’re depressed, you end up hurting people because you can only cope with your own emotions. You cancel plans because you can’t get out of the house. I’m not saying you should force yourself to not cancel, but the person you canceled plans on is still a person and maybe they were really looking forward to it. It’s not a place where you can say one of those two people’s pains is wrong.
If someone’s tried to kill themselves, they’re probably in a significant amount of pain such that that was the only way they could see out. So I don’t think you should blame [them], but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand why some of the other people are angry. And maybe the other thing is repression. We all have emotions we don’t want to look at or think about, so when you see somebody else expressing them in the loudest possible way, that can cause an emotional shirking from that.
I understand what you mean because I’ve vacillated between anger at those who have attempted suicide and those who blame and shy away from them. It’s a really difficult thing to wrap your mind around. Where do you draw the line to be there for someone?
Even my mom, who would be there for me, got really angry the second time I tried to kill myself. Not just at me, but she said, “This increases the likelihood your brother will try to kill himself by 50%. You’re not just doing this to me and your father. We created you, so we might deserve whatever it is that we’re getting from this, but your brother does not. So think about that.”
That was a really harsh thing to say to your daughter while she was in the hospital, but she was right. She was quoting real statistics. I probably did hurt him when I did that. [Pause] It’s hard to say your actions don’t count when you’re depressed, but if that’s all a person could do, that’s all they could do.
I train myself now to always articulate the things I’m thinking about if it’s bothering me, in a healthy manner. Which is not easy. [Laughs] What advice would you give to your younger self?
The reason I found the will to live, which lamely sounds like a college essay, was mainly when I decided I wanted to be a writer. It made my life make sense. So if I could have shoved that idea in earlier, I would. The ability I didn’t have that I have a bit more now is to just wait 24 hours. Yes, this may be terrible and I may feel terrible, but just wait 24 hours. The ability to wait for something to pass and do something small and proactive is something I have now.
What would you say to someone who was in the midst of some of the things we’ve talked about?
I wish I knew. [Pause] The problem is that it depends on what your triggers are. People tend to separate mental illness and life. There’s your mental illness and then there’s your real life, and those are two separate things.
I try to listen to what people are asking for because it depends so much on who you are and what’s causing your problems. I wish I had a solution, but…
It’s important to understand the individual.
And I think showing people you’re not going to go away just because they’re not being super charming in that moment. I’m not saying stay in abusive relationships, but when I’m incredibly depressed the less I am able to be a contributing friend. So when I’m more mentally healthy and happy and my friend is depressed, I want to be the one who says, “It’s okay, stressing about keeping me as a friend is not a problem you have to worry about.”
Anything else you want to add?
Loving other people (and I don’t just mean that romantically) and being loved is really important. Sometimes people go through phases where they just don’t feel like there is anyone who loves them. But just wait. You will find people who love you. You will find people you can love. It’s not that there’s something wrong with you or that the people around you are evil. You just need to be around different people.