Memoir

Give It a Name: Mental Health and the Writing Life (2020 AWP Panel)

I’ll be presenting at two panels at the 2020 AWP Conference in San Antonio, both of which I conceived and put together. Both cover topics that are important to me, and they’re the first AWP panels that I’ll be a part of, which ticks off an item on my bucket list.

The first is scheduled for Thursday, March 5 at 12:10 PM in Room 006C, River Level at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and it’s the subject of this post.

Give It a Name: Mental Health and the Writing Life

The writing life is one of solitude and struggle, and for some writers who deal with mental illness it can seem insurmountable. Panelists will discuss how identifying and naming their mental health concerns informs their work and opens avenues to successfully navigating the challenging paths towards publication and participating in literary culture. From cultivating a consistent writing practice through marketing and publicity, panelists will share their experiences with coping while working.

I’ll be joined by Bruce Owens Grimm and Sarah Fawn Montgomery. Below are the initial remarks that I’ve included in the event outline:

Managing my depression, anxiety, and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) while pursuing publishing success as a writer requires vigilance, informed life decisions and practices, and balance through outside interests. The first step towards management was to give my particular struggles their proper names. Once I was able to identify them, I was able, through certain interventions, to find balance. Writing is difficult for all writers and often lonely; writing while trying to manage mental health sometimes seems impossible. What strategies work best for handling the solitude that writing requires, the constant rejection, the pressures of networking and fitting in, etc. are as unique as our individual writing voices, but general practices through therapies such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) have proven helpful, and I’m here to witness this. I’ve also found that avoiding loading so much of my identity into my writing has helped with perspective and coping. Alongside writing, I’ve found that fitness, bibliotherapy, music, and working with my hands have provided a crucial foundation from which I send my work out to be picked apart, rejected, and sometimes accepted.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

12715259_10156546282140704_8263145793734691207_n

This event is also important for me because it’ll be the first time I’ll publicly speak about my mental health, and I recognize that it’s a crucial first step if I’m going to pursue memoir/essay writing that explores my personal history.

I want to be open to all possibilities, and I want to open myself to others so that I might be able to offer help or an empathetic ear. I’ve also been planning on pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, and I’d like to explore my own experiences as a means with which to prepare. Ultimately, I’d like to serve under-served clients with personality disorder diagnoses, if possible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The panel comes first, and so if you or someone you know is attending the conference and may be interested in our topic, please consider coming or encourage that someone to attend. At last year’s conference in Portland, I noticed that mental health is under-represented itself on the list of panels. There were a few about trauma and writing, and writing about trauma, and they’re definitely necessary, but there’s so much more that needs the space for discussion. (To be fair, mental health topics are much better represented at this year’s conference, so cheers to the selection committee. This is a great step forward!) I also believe that there’s a need and room for an AWP mental health caucus, but that’s a topic for another day.

On Memoir and Philip Roth’s Patrimony

I’m relatively new to creative non-fiction/essay/memoir writing, and I’d like to blog some short review-ish pieces about what I’m reading as a way to stoke closer reading. My current craft guide is Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and I’ve gathered some of her recommended readings for study. Not only was I reminded that I already own Roth’s memoir, but also that I’ve read it before, years ago. (More on that later.)

I’m still writing and submitting fiction, and in fact, I have a novel that I’m trying to place at this time. I also have another novel (my second) that’s about halfway complete, so I don’t intend on abandoning the genre any time soon. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about my life and my progress in dealing with my mental health, and with the encouragement of my partner (a licensed psychologist), I’ve begun to explore the possibilities of essay/memoir. So far, I’ve completed a short essay and lots of notes, and I’ve realized how difficult it is to write factually and to deal with all the related worries that it brings. I’ve had moments where I thought it might be better not to write CNF and avoid all the hassles, guilt, etc., but I’m committed now to carrying on.

That said, and with more to come in the future, let me get to Roth’s memoir.

________

220px-Patrimony

Patrimony: A True Story, Philip Roth (Simon & Schuster, 1991)

One of the biggest struggles many memoir writers deal with is writing honestly and deeply about family. No matter how small the detail, unless it paints a perfectly nice and normal picture, there’s a chance that someone you love will take issue with it and with you. To be honest, one of my small concerns is just this, and it rubs right against my desire and determination to write my truths. Some of my various starter pieces clearly demonstrate this struggle, and so reading Roth’s deeply personal exploration of his father’s decline and death, preceded by his long life as an insurance man, husband, father, etc., was an excellent primer.

Patrimony begins with a frightening sudden change in Roth’s father’s health. It turns out to be a rare type of brain tumor, and the news sets off associations with Roth’s mother’s recent death, the author’s loneliness, and as we discover as the narrative evolves, his father’s almost constant recitation of events and recollection of individuals from his, his neighborhood’s, and his fellow Jews’ past as a coping mechanism. Herman Roth manages to pull himself out of his darkest moments only through these stories and also his near constant criticisms of his partner, Lil, whom he meets not long after his wife passes away, and who can never measure up in Herman’s estimations. It’s so consistent that I can’t help but read Herman’s fears here, as if he feels he’ll wither and disappear if he wasn’t trying to improve someone’s life with his, to his mind, sound advice.

Meanwhile, Philip is trying to deal and stay afloat with his sudden shift in familial responsibility. A common story: the child becomes the parent. Herman, even if he hates it, has inevitably become dependent on his sons (mostly Philip, it seems), and his dwelling on his past glories is another method of dealing and self-soothing. As a result, Philip understands a portion of his own self, a part of him that, as a young man, he might’ve denied or repressed. It occurs to him that, as a college student, he thought of his degree as enlightening both him and his father, as if he had done Herman a favor of sorts by pursuing an education in his stead. As his father’s health deteriorates and he shares his stories about a neighborhood now almost unrecognizable, Herman has become the educator, the one conferring his crucial knowledge to the son. Philip has begun to understand his true patrimony.

The narrative is straightforward, and the only difficulty may be witnessing a frank and unflinching depiction of a human being’s decline and demise. The structure moves from the present of his tumor diagnosis and his final months into the past, from the struggles of Herman dealing with his wife’s death into the old neighborhood in Newark, Herman’s career, and so on. The structure is familiar, often used in memoir, but it works. The tension is appropriately maintained throughout, and I often felt as if I was sitting in those waiting rooms myself.