B.J. Keeton is a freelance web developer and writer who lives in Florence, Alabama. After a decade of teaching college English, he decided to write and code full time. He is also a huge fitness geek, losing 150 pounds and becoming a dedicated runner.
When did you first encounter the desire to be a writer?
It was something I could remember doing even before I could write. I remember lying on the floor of the living room with the journal my dad had given me. I remember making squiggly lines on the page like something you would see in the cartoons, hold it up to my parents and say, “I wrote a Spider-Man story.” Then I would read them the Spider-Man story. That was the earliest I could remember wanting to be a writer, which was before I could write [the alphabet].
What kind of writing were you into as a kid?
I was the kid who read every book in my elementary school library. I had to go to the bookstore to keep up with the accelerated reader program. I would pretty much read anything you put in front of me.
I can relate to that as well. I think I was shy as a kid.
I was painfully shy growing up. I would rather just read a book than be in front of people. I was a cliché, the kid walking down the hall holding up a book, my eyes looking down.
When did you realize that writing could be a profession and indeed, make money?
The making money part didn’t come until much later in life. I went to college and fell into being an English major because it was so much easier than anything else. As I say to kids I teach now, I’m an example of what not to do in college. I picked my major because I didn’t have to try at all. I figured I would be an English teacher.
Do you remember something from the late-2000’s called penny mills? [They were] websites that literally paid pennies for your writing. It was one of the only ways you could write online at the time. I wrote an article about World of Warcraft and I won an award of $500. I thought, oh, maybe I can do this.
You are also diagnosed with bipolar II disorder.
Apparently [bipolar II] is a rare diagnosis because when people are in the manic stages of it, they think they are being really productive. They don’t recognize juggling all these projects and being hypomanic is a negative thing, so they only really report the depressive phases. They assume the hypomanic phases are normal because they can be extended periods of time. For me, it could be a four-month swing in either direction. As I talked with my counselor, I could lay out when and how these phases came every year. I was very aware of how I felt and acted, so that helped the diagnosis.
When were you diagnosed?
About six months ago. It was a very recent thing for me to realize there was something physiological going on and not just being about moods. For years, I just thought I was this angry, moody guy. It’s part of my personality, but it’s much less so now that I know there’s an explanation besides just being a negative person.
While you were white-knuckling through this condition, your creativity and productivity must have been helpful in some ways.
Yes, and that’s why I never realized anything was wrong. When I was on, I would juggle five or six projects. I would have so much energy and feel good about things. I could sit down and write a novel in a month. Now I realize those were the hypomanic phases and normal people don’t juggle six part-time jobs over a summer. [Laughs] It’s been a lot to learn how to work without it prodding me and giving me that confidence and energy boost.
I’ve spoken with other people with bipolar II, and I think people can be jealous of the productivity aspect of it. However, they don’t experience the other symptoms that also come with bipolar II.
I cannot tell you how many people have said to me, “You have so much energy and you’re always happy and smiling. Do you ever get sad?” You have no idea darlin’. From the outside, it does sound like something that other people would be envious of.
What’s the hardest part about writing? What’s your favorite thing about writing?
The hardest part for me is picking the particular idea I want to run with and plan it out. One of the hardest things [bipolar II] has caused me is the inability to focus on anything. There’s always a new shiny [idea], and having the discipline to stick to a single project is probably the hardest thing for me.
What’s the biggest challenge as far as your self-care now?
Being mindful is the biggest thing I’m doing. I make sure I sit in silence a lot. I take time to do one thing at a time. I fail at this a great deal, so I try to keep as much quiet as I can. My wife and I try to have thirty minutes to an hour of quiet time before we go to bed. Sometimes that means talking, or doing yoga, or meditating. We have a really good system of figuring out how to take care of ourselves. Running, and being active in general, helps a great deal for me.
Productivity is one thing our culture respects the most. What are you getting with mindfulness or doing one thing at a time in exchange of being hypomanic with your level of production?
[I’m] feeling a lot more contentment and satisfaction. I’m still working on the habit of constantly chasing happiness. A lot of that has to do with productivity. By focusing on one thing, I can look around and see the good I do have in my life. I’ve never had that sense of satisfaction before.
We became acquainted before your weight loss. As far as health and well-being, what was life like before your lifestyle transformation, and what prompted it?
I’d been fat my entire life. I didn’t know any different and I was not unhappy about it. I went to Florida for a work conference and got to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We got to go during its soft opening and it was magical for us to be there. I got on the rollercoaster and they couldn’t fit the harness on me.
This is probably straight, white, male privilege, but nothing bad had really happened to me up to that point. That was the first time I’d experienced something preventing me from doing what I really wanted to do. It was a moment of, oh, you’re not special. I’d been living my life and thinking about myself completely wrong. I started losing weight after that, and then my Dad died two years later. He’d been having 12 years of constant heart issues. I thought, I can’t put my family through that. I dropped another 90 pounds after that.
Any exercise tips? From my experience, shame and body image issues are intimately connected to weight loss.
I still see myself in many ways as the 310-pound fat dude. When I’d gain a bit of weight due to injuries, I had to move through all the anxiety and depression. For me, I make sure that it’s a lifestyle change. It can’t be temporary. If you’ve eaten cupcakes your entire life, you can’t suddenly decide to eat kale and think that life is going to better. You have to be able to find things to do consistently and happily for the rest of your life instead of doing things temporarily.
You’re an author who self-publishes. What’s a healthy way to approach that, and how should one decide between that and the traditional publishing route?
I’ve done both, so I can’t really knock on the traditional route. With self-publishing, I always tell people not to expect to make money from it. I am really lucky and I am not one of the major success stories. I went with self-publishing because I’m a genre writer. I did a lot of research about the average science fiction and fantasy book advances for a debut novel, and I felt I could earn that quicker [through self-publishing]. Luckily, I did. It was encouraging enough for me to keep going, but it was nothing to quit your day job over.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Back in the day it was Roald Dahl, like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” “The BFG,” “Matilda,” and “The Witches.” I fell in love with Stephen King when my friend handed me “The Gunslinger” in college. These days, I’ve been into Brandon Sanderson and Brent Leeks. I’ve been reading more non-fiction lately that has to do with mindfulness.
In the long run, would is your definition of success?
The best success I can think of is being able to write whatever I want when I want. To wake up in the morning and think, this is what I’m going work on today, and put out something great that would help people.
If someone else struggled with challenges you related to, what would you say or do?
I am really bad about giving advice to people. If I see someone struggling with something I have worked on, I want to be able to help them. I would let them know there are other human beings who recognize their struggle. That they’re not struggling in vain or in solitude. Around here, everybody asks, “How you doing?” If someone tells you they’re not doing well, stand and listen to that person. You may be the only person they get to talk to that day.