It had been a while since I had considered the impossible.
My bipolar medication had made sure of that. It tugged down my mood and put a ceiling on my imagination. It chained me to the earth. It drained me of my innermost self. But one winter day, I managed to ask myself an absurd question. And for a glorious moment, the impossible seemed real.
I had been Christmas shopping that day. The act had not seemed festive; quite the opposite, in fact. I felt tired in a way that went soul-deep. It was not the trite sentiment that Christmas was too commercial; I liked exchanging gifts. It was that the kinds of gifts you could buy for people and wrap were boring: gadgets, electric razors, or novelties that would amuse but soon be forgotten. They created an upsurge of hope that fizzled after the New Year.
I wondered, what if you could give people gifts that mattered? Wizard of Oz type gifts like courage or a brain? Or, in real life, freedom from poorly paying dead-end jobs, more time to develop talents, or permanent relief from chronic pain? The kinds of gifts that would strike at the central problems of life?
I had a central problem of my own, but I did not think of that. Not at the time.
Any of you who have read A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom know what that problem was but I will recap it briefly here. Shortly after I published my first novel Thief of Hades I had a severe manic episode. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given medication to bring down my spiraling mood.
My medication bought me a hellish sanity. It cured my mania but made my thoughts sluggish. I was severely depressed and blocked. I tried to quit my medication but without it I was unable to sleep. When I tried to write, everything came out dull.
I could not reconnect with the novel I had begun. I thought writing was over for me. My efforts to write were so tortured, I avoided them for a long time and played video games instead. They were one thing I could still enjoy.
Maybe, I thought, it was enough just to be alive. As long as I could enjoy chocolate, cats, and video games, why did I need writing? Most of the world got along fine without it. But any peace I gained from this thought shattered whenever someone reminded me of my writing. My dad would sometimes hand me old essays I had been proud of. “Look at this,” he said. “Look at what you used to write. Read this” He shook his head. “You are being wasted.”
His remarks echoed my own fears. My life was passing quickly. What was I doing with it? Writing might have been painful, but not writing was painful too. At least writing was a choice about what kind of pain I would feel. I decided to write no matter what, whether it was good or bad. I would write if it plunged my mood into an abyss. I would write if it felt like putting my hand on a hot stove for an hour a day.
My creativity remained perched on a branch too high to reach, taunting me. No matter how often, or for how long, I sat down to write, I could not enjoy what I was doing. I hated everything I wrote, and each day I hated it more than the last. Text limped out, pages increased, but for all my efforts, there was no reward. Writing caused my already faltering moods to tip over, setting a gloomy tone for the rest of my day.
In fact, as I wrote I imagined a circle of critics standing behind me and looking over my shoulder. “Trite,” one said. “Sentimental,” said another. Other adjectives came out: “Boring,” “self-indulgent.” In desperation, I went to my doctor and asked him if I could double my antidepressant dosage. He agreed.
My mood improved a little, but writing still hurt. One day it was all too much. It was all pain and no reward. Should I continue to torture myself every day for nothing, or just accept, forever, my loss of a big part of who I was? I closed my computer and tried to remember what I had ever enjoyed about writing. I had loved it once, especially during my childhood. What had been different then?
A lot. As a child I had written for fun. I had written what I liked. There had been no idea too absurd to consider. That is, I wrote about my dog and his adventures, vampires, buried treasure, and what it felt like to be a flea.
Most kids are creative when they first begin school, and for some, silliness is drilled out of them as soon as they learn to write. For me, it took longer. I had spent my childhood roaming the wilderness of my imagination, resisting all attempts to strait-jacket my thinking. Back then, I would not have given a damn what an imaginary critic said. I had not been concerned about following rules. I had owned my writing and, because I loved it, it would never have occurred to me to force myself to do it.
Sometimes I wish I had studied harder during those years, but I think my stubbornness gave my creativity a longer life span than if I had. The tragedy had been that, as soon as I hit adolescence, I became “sensible.”
Self-consciousness had subdued me. At my strict Christian school, I would sit at my desk with my legs primly crossed, keeping most of my thoughts to myself. I learned how to memorize rote facts so that I would not embarrass myself with bad grades. I learned that honest self-expression was risky. I learned to smile shyly and to be polite, so few people would mind having me around.
Meanwhile, I had stopped drawing and singing, which I had once loved. I would probably have stopped writing if school had not required it. I learned that the way “serious” writers wrote was to “discipline” themselves, which I associated with whips, chains, and religious piety. Only “amateurs” wrote for fun.
As a child I had known better, and ideas had flowed. I had been creative. I had written freely. I had had fun. But somehow the fun of writing had been stolen from me. Or had I lost it? Either way, how could I get it back?
An idea stirred inside me, and I remembered the question I had asked myself around the holidays. What if you could give people things that would help them solve the central problems of their lives? Mine was that I was blocked from doing something I had once loved. Could someone give that to me?
Could I give it to myself?
I had to see. I found a sheet of paper and wrote: The freedom to write without fear of criticism; the freedom to make mistakes; the freedom to explore. I put it in a box, wrapped it in bright red Christmas paper, and stared at it.
It looked as enticing as fine chocolate wrapped in gold foil; or the Howdy Doody ventriloquist doll I had desperately wanted and gotten for Christmas one year. I was 6 years old again, staring at something I had desperately longed for that had appeared suddenly and magically within my reach. The box was not really magic of course, but it represented a shift in how I viewed my problem.
I had built an icon of creative freedom I could touch and hold. But was it not selfish of me to go around giving myself gifts? Who cared, I decided. I had never turned down a gift, no matter who it was from, and I was not about to start.
It was permission write for myself the way I did as a kid. I would ignore the rules. I would be trite and self-indulgent if I pleased, blatantly sentimental, unapologetically and recklessly silly if I wanted to be.
For weeks I kept my “gift” beside me as I wrote. I kept my goals modest. There were days in which I limited myself to a few sentences, and when they ended, I was left wonderfully unfulfilled. I could not wait until the next day so I could write more.
The state of flow I remembered reappeared. I became immersed in imagery, entranced with the textures and rhythms of words, and swept up in story possibilities. Sometimes I would write longer than a few sentences but, as long as I wrote at least a sentence a day, I refused to feel guilty. For the first time in many years, I was enjoying writing.
I finished my second novel, The Ghosts of Chimera, and I wrote A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom about my experience of recovering from block, partly because I wanted to remember every detail of how I had done it, in case I ever lost my way again.
Sometimes I find myself veering. I become obsessed with page views and “likes” of my blog, for example. I worry about offending or what people will think of my writing. But I know better, so I am always pulling myself back to what really matters: the fun of the writing itself.
Sometimes I re-wrap the gift to make it seem new. The version I have now features a teddy bear book mark. It is a silly yet powerful reminder to write for myself.
It also reminds me of how, in my depression, I had considered something I thought was impossible.” I had asked, what if you could wrap abstract but life-changing things like time, freedom from dead-end jobs, or courage? It had turned out that sometimes you could.
Considering “the impossible” had dislodged my old way of solving my problem, to make way for the new, yielding the even more rewarding discovery that sometimes what appears impossible is possible after all.