I first met Sam (who’s chosen to remain anonymous) through a screenwriting workshop. Little did I know we shared so much in common, including our lineage through classical piano. Sam is an incredibly insightful, well-read, and strong human being.
Have you always been interested in literature and writing? What were your interests growing up?
I thought I was going to be a classical pianist until I went to a fancy music camp. I realized I wasn’t obsessed with which Chopin Scherzo was the most overplayed, and would rather go read John Updike.
I played the b-flat minor [Scherzo]. I went to Oberlin [briefly] for classical piano.
I didn’t know that! That’s awesome!
Which music camp?
Tanglewood [Music Festival].
I went to the Aspen Music Festival in high school. So you play classical piano.
For 10 years, yeah.
Me too! Do you still play?
I don’t have a piano in my apartment. The goal is one day I have a big enough apartment for a couch and a piano. I haven’t played in eight years.
How is playing the piano different from writing? Did you start writing after you stopped playing piano?
I think I became more serious about writing after piano because I wanted to make art. I just didn’t know what medium. In high school, I took a lot of art classes in painting and drawing. I also had encouragement from a summer writing program for fiction. Then I read [Samuel] Beckett and “Arcadia” and was like, “Wow, you tell your story through speech which cloaks the thought.” I thought that was such a cool way to tell a story and I never stopped after I tried it.
What’s the hardest part of self-care to you?
I can only speak for myself or the lives of writers I’ve read about, but depression is just something you encounter at some point in life. [Writing] is almost like an examination of your identity and thoughts, so you deal with a lot of self-doubt. “Do I have the right to do this? Am I crazy?” Pursuing the arts takes this belief in the unknown. That can be very paralyzing if you don’t find a way to move past it. I think toiling with that is where art can get to me.
When did that sense of doubt first hit for you?
I had that lot with piano, but when you actually start playing you can forget about whether or not you are good. You just do it. It’s the same with writing, but it’s harder because everything is still verbal. If you can’t silence your mind from the noise, it’s very hard to sit down and write. A lot of writers have rituals for that.
So what do you do to get in the zone and prepare yourself?
It’s best for me to do it in the morning. I drink coffee and let my mind drift almost like in a dream state, and I start writing.
Interesting. Are you pretty disciplined with this routine?
A lot of it depends on my day job and mood, but I write every weekend. Sometimes I write in the evenings, but it really depends on when I get out of work.
I know for me, piano taught me a lot of discipline, so was it something you acquired at a young age? Did it take some trial and error to find the right environment for you?
I do have discipline from playing piano. You are learning to read a score and it’s very gratifying to get a phrasing right or when you’ve committed it to memory. With writing, you don’t actually know if you’ve got it right. You just keep writing and editing and going at it. I think that’s the biggest thing about writing—the jumping in and trusting your instincts. You are leading the blind and the blind is your idea. Sometimes you give your writing to someone and they might not know how to absorb it yet, so you keep working on the shape.
Ultimately, you’re the only one who knows how to tell this story. There is no right or wrong; it just connects with the audience or it doesn’t. When I was 16 I wrote a letter to John Updike. Two months later, I get a letter from him and he said, “Ultimately, all that matters is you connect to the audience.” He also said you don’t need to get a Ph.D to be in literature. I took those things to heart.
What did you ask him in your letter?
I asked him what his favorite novel was (“Bleak House”) and what advice he had for a young writer.
Growing up, was self-care something you were raised with, or did you learn along the way?
It’s taken me a long time to learn and it’s not natural for me. My parents joke that I’m the absentminded professor. When I’m working or stressed, I forget to eat. I really have to mentally tell myself to go out and eat food.
What helped you get out of a particularly low point in your life?
[Pause] I learned that it was a cycle and to take the time for myself when I needed it. I would give myself a few things to complete every week to keep moving forward. It’s okay if you’re moving slowly. In my normal state, I move through things very quickly and judge myself if I’m not moving as fast as I know I can. So it’s [about] slowing down, breathing and appreciating everything around you. Finding a way to be grateful for the small things—which you really forget when you’re down—really helps you get up in the morning.
So when you say you move through things quickly, do you mean getting things done as rapidly as possible?
I mean filling [up] my schedule with things to do.
So you can spread yourself too thin.
Yeah. I’ve had to learn that getting really down or being affected by bad news is a wave. It will die down. I’m someone with a history of severe depression, so it’s just something I have to [manage]. It comes, I can see when it might get worse and I know how to take better care of myself when it happens.
How did you arrive at being able to see and anticipate downturns like that?
I have some close friends who let me know when I’ve been triggered. I’m not always aware of it, but they know how to catch it.
When did depression first become a reality for you?
I didn’t have depression as a kid. I think it happened in college. I got very depressed because of the environment and I lost a sense of purpose. I took time off because I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle another quarter. I wanted to do something more artistic, so I moved to New York and worked as a personal assistant for an off-Broadway composer. Then I went to London to study Shakespeare. They all helped [me] and I went back to school and had my best year.
I took a semester off in undergrad as well. So doing creative things helped you through your depressive episodes?
The depression was something I struggled with in grad school, and particularly the two years after, to the point where I only took part-time jobs. A five-day schedule became too draining for me.
Finding and structuring the right environment for you can be really tough. Did you struggle with depression all through grad school?
It went in and out both years of grad school. But a friend said that I was still very productive even though I was that depressed.
Are you really good at masking it?
I don’t think so because the intensity of the emotion is so strong, but I’ve learned not to let that be an excuse to not do anything. It’s very rare for me to do absolutely nothing when I’m incredibly depressed, but it’s happened.
But your first instinct is to do things.
Do things in smaller bites. It takes longer than my broad state, but you do it inch by inch, basically.
How do depression and art influence each other for you?
I think they’re two separate things. Getting to the moment of writing can be hard, but when you’re there it feels like a release from your own mind. I think my writing has humor in it but that has nothing to do with my depression, which makes me a very unfunny person. [Laughs]
What are the most common misconceptions about severe depression?
When I was first diagnosed, my brother thought I was just being very lazy. That’s kind of what it looks like on the outside. You’re just being an asshole and not really trying or keeping your appointments. Internally, what I’ve experienced is a loss of sense of self, of living. It’s a loss of interest in everything you’ve been passionate about. Those are very hard struggles to have.
There are those sayings like, “We are defined by what we love and what we do.” When you can’t do anything, the question becomes, “Who are you?” It becomes this existential thing that many French novelists have written about. I feel like depression was this atomic bomb that went off in the 20th century and our sense of terror just increased exponentially.
In another interview, my friend spoke about this other kind of depression that she feels a lot of artists have, which is a depression about the world.
I think that’s very much how I live.
You’re just overwhelmed by the state of things.
And questioning humanity. When you’re writing about people, you have some kind of faith, theory or morality about us. I think it’s very hard when something really disgusts, shocks or angers you. You want to go back and see all the perspectives of the world when you’re disappointed by it.
I’m asking because you’ll be anonymous, but do you take medication?
What’s been your experience with healthcare and prescriptions?
I think medication is really hard. I have writer friends who took medicine for a short term and have never needed it since. I spent five years trying different anti-depressants and they all had bizarre side effects. There was one that worked for a year, but then it caused a manic episode. Then I looked it up and it said sometimes taking it long term can give you the side effect of manic episodes. So that was really embarrassing. [Laughs] I got off of it obviously. Then I tried something else that I’ve been on for two years, and so far it’s been fine.
I’ve read a lot about antidepressants and I know that some can encourage suicidal thoughts or weight gain. Some antidepressants don’t even work and it’s just an industry pharmaceuticals have created. But I’ve experienced enough that I know I am prone to severe depression and I need to take medicine to lessen it. Medical studies have said that severe depression is one of the few things antidepressants can actually work on, and I agree with that.
When I first started taking medicine I was afraid it would affect my creativity, because there’s a period where you are in a very blank state of mind. You don’t have your synapses fired up the way they usually are, and gradually your brain adjusts.
What are some things you want to improve as far as self-care?
I want to work on handling negative stress better. Even when I’m in an upsetting state, I want to remember the positive.
I was listening to an interview with a sports psychologist and she mentioned, “You can be mad and you can still take positive action.” It seems impossible, but it’s something you can train yourself to do.
I think it’s something to be trained. It’s a moment to not let your negative reaction to overwhelm the next thing you do. I think that’s really important.
What is the most important quality for the people in your support system?
I don’t know if it’s something I look for; I think they’re just people I feel naturally comfortable around. They’re very kind; they tend to have a great sense of humor. They tend to be very reasonable people. They tend to love the arts even if they’re not artists.
So they’re just people you feel comfortable around.
[Laughs] I’m an odd person, so if they’re fine on their first impression of me, they’re very open people.
The reason I ask is because people often bring up loyalty, because people go through things, and a person either can or can’t handle it.
People are built differently and you can’t expect everyone to understand or be there for you when you’re going through a hard time. But compassion and care are built over time. You learn when you’re too much for someone. You learn when you need to be by yourself. These are all trial and error.
What else helps you with self-care?
I believe patience is a virtue. In theater, they say there is no small part for an actor. I think it’s a cool thing to say. It’s very useful as a practice in humility in anything. When you’re searching for the right day job, it may be a boring day job, but why look down on it if it pays the bills and doesn’t take away enough mental energy so you can go home and be creative. There is no such thing as a small job. Everything is what you make of it.
I once heard Jessica Chastain speak and she said, “Keep doing good work so when people take notice, you’re ready.” A lot of writers toil over manuscripts for two to five years, and they send it out and there’s no response. But you just keep writing the next thing and maybe one day someone want to do your play, and you’ll be ready to handle the pressure.
You’ve already practiced at being good, essentially.
And also just do it for the joy of it. Don’t judge the things you have to take to do what you love.
What would you say to others who struggle with severe depression?
Write down three lovely or interesting things you encounter every day for a month and you’ll be impressed at how much better you feel at the end of the month.