Of Despair, Hope, and Climbing Paths- A Blast from the Past from September 2014

Of Despair, Hope, and Climbing Paths- A Blast from the Past from September 2014


It’s not a secret to anyone that I’m of a depressive turn of mind. This does not mean I’m depressed – at least not right now – but that when faced with a stress, my mind tends to head down towards depression. When faced with a question of guilt, I tend to blame myself.

Now I hear you clucking and saying something about medicines for that. Of course there are.

But here is something our overly therapeutic age misses: guilt and fear of being terrible have a purpose.

I’m not going to link the book, because I think it would bring on us the mother of all trollings, but those of you who are on Sarah’s Diner on Facebook know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.

There is a man who wrote a book that he claims he’s been writing both since 75 and for twenty years. (We didn’t ask what year it is in his world, so it’s our fault.) He painted the cover himself, and the drawing isn’t bad for a 12 year old or so.

Anyway, he thinks the book is the best thing since sliced bread. You see, it’s not about one of them troubled teenagers. It’s about a good girl who does everything right. He thinks this puts it on a par with several greats of literature (though how he got there, since the greats of literature all write characters with flaws and the ones he mentioned surely didn’t write about good girls, is beyond me.) His book is so much better than all that trash featuring vampires and werewolves, because those are unimaginative. His is the first time that story got told. And it should be assigned to every high school student.

If you’re already seeing the several threads of delusion there, it gets worse. Though a lot of the comments made about his grammar do not in fact make any sense (and enlightened for me why so many people think that all indie books are full of grammar errors. It’s because they learned grammar on Mars or something) some are spot on. He certainly has typos. But beyond all that, his stuff is stilted and weird, impossible to follow and there’s no narrative line to attach to.

And then he put his magnum opus out. And waited for praise, accolades the Novel [sic] prize and the Oscar [?] to just roll in.

What he got instead was a whole bunch of people pointing and laughing. And he can’t understand it, because after all, his book is the most original, most uplifting, most everything EVAH. So these people must be jealous of his brilliance.

Some of the Huns had great fun baiting him in the comments, but here’s the thing: I could grin at their comments (and his behavior is horrible enough to make one want to hit him) but I also felt that little cringe one feels when one sees a bit of oneself in a crazy person.

Because I started out like that. Oh, not under the impression what I was writing was so original or that everyone who writes vampires and werewolves is “unimaginative.” I’d read way too much for that. (Which I think Mr. Original hasn’t.)

But I started out writing things that had no discernible plot, characters only I could love, and ham-fisted prose. [Okay, the last one was not so much “started out” as “last week”.]

I got rejected.

And then because I don’t have a healthy self-esteem (or much self-esteem at all, really, though the audience is helping me) I bought a bunch of books on how to do it, and I started analyzing it.

So, I couldn’t just self publish them, and yeah, that’s a difference. BUT I suspect if I had self-published and no one bought, and I’d got awful comments (except given what I was writing at the time it would probably sell on kink. Aliens. No I’m not telling.) the process would have been the same.

Because my idea of myself is not diamond-hardened and fire proof, I’d have gone “Oh.” And I’d have considered the idea that maybe my stuff really did suck and I only didn’t see it because it was mine. And then I’d have got the books/followed the same road.

So, to an extent, this depressive turn of mind, and this self doubt serve a purpose. The reason I run so hard is that me is following me, and I know the b*tch. If she catches up to me with all her doubts and insecurities, I’m going down for the count.

But sometimes she does catch me. And that’s an issue too.

My books take an average of two weeks to actually write – active writing time. In between there is a needed silence of two weeks to a month. The “battery recharging/ideation” time.

So how come I average two books a year (and some years I write six?) Well that’s the silences that aren’t necessary.

This is going to sound completely crazy considering I make a living at this, but I go through entire months of being convinced everything I ever write is drek. And then I can’t write at all. Extracting words from my mind becomes sort of like passing a novel out through a narrow crack in a wall, in papers the size of fortune cookie fortunes.

I could do without those silences. I could do without the fears so bottomless that I will accept any suggestion/criticism, no matter how ridiculous. I’ve learned over the years to do nothing to past works when I’m in this mood, and certainly not to read reviews/comments. Because if I read them at that time and then go and change my work, I will kill it. At best, I make it into soup without direction as I try to be all things to all people. At worst… You don’t want to know.

Now imagine someone with this turn of mind and the years of apprenticeship required to write something halfway decent. (I think I achieved that last week!)

Don’t nobody call no ambulance (yes, the grammar is intentional. Yes, I know. Nails on chalkboard) because it’s been years since this happened – but sometimes I felt I was spiraling down, with each level of shame/guilt worse, and constant memories of every humiliating/stupid mistake I’d made, to the point where often the only thing keeping me from committing suicide was knowing I had kids, and a duty to them.

It occurs to me that most of you are more of my stamp than of Mr. Greatest Thing Ever Written and You’re All Envious Hacks. And also that even for those who aren’t writers, these are tough times.

Not only are many of us struggling to make ends meet in Summer of (no) Recovery Six, but technological change is doing to the texture of our everyday life what hormones do to a pre-teen boy just before the jump.

You know the change is needed and largely beneficial, but we’re not a teen boy, and we don’t know where it leads. Everything is changing, and we’re caught in the middle of it. Unlike our “elites” we aren’t trying to take the world back (way back. Into feudalism) to where we feel more comfortable. But we do get scared and confused and wonder if what we’re doing is really for the best, like a beginner writer caught between two ways of writing and not sure which one is best (since it’s not just what he likes.)

In both cases: be good to yourself. Do the best you can. Few things in life are permanent. If what you are trying proves wrong, try something else.

And yeah, most of us have been tightening and tightening and tightening and cutting out all entertainment. And no, it’s not by choice.

But here is a suggestion: let that belt out a little bit. Shop advisedly. Buy bang for the buck. Amazon Prime furnishes us with a never-end of free movies and tv series, for instance. They’re a little old, but hey, we don’t have cable (expensive) so they’re new to us. And I’ve just joined Kindle Unlimited Lending Library. Now I know they pay a little less to writers, unless the story is 2.99 or under but here’s the thing: with it I read more than I could otherwise. So I don’t feel too bad for my fellow writers. $2 or so is better than what I would pay them otherwise (nothing, pretty much) and it allows me to read back up to the levels I like.

We also got a zoo membership and a membership to a couple of museums. These are expensive, relatively, but they give us a chance to run away every time things get to be too much. Weirdly, my family (each working three jobs or so) hits that wall at the same time. Most weekends we’ll all be working, catching up on things, maybe stopping for a movie in the evening (though not often.) And then one Sunday, usually dark and dreary with snow on the ground, we all go “this just isn’t working. I’m not getting anything done. Let’s go to—” And at that time it’s good to think “sure” and not “Do we have the money.” (Besides, when you have four people, one entry to a museum for all of us is half a year’s membership.)

That usually keeps the worst of depression away, while you’re working and don’t see an end in sight, and aren’t sure you are any good or will ever get anywhere.

When it doesn’t…

We humans are tormented/followed by the idea that our life must have a purpose. What I mean is, even the most irreligious of humans feels that he must be here for some reason.

Last week I posted the free book by James Owen, which I really do think is a wonderful pick me up if you’re trolling the depths. A couple of hours later, I had a thank you in my email. One of you – not a commenter, but a reader here – thanked me, because he’d been spiraling down the pit of hopelessness and trying not to think of doing away with himself. The book came just at the right time, and it stopped the spiral.

And suddenly I thought “Wow. What if my entire life, everything I’ve done, everything I am, was just for that purpose? To give a man a rope as he was slipping down the slope?”

Then I remembered an Agatha Christie story (in her bio) which I now don’t remember if it was a family thing or something that was told to her (I know she used it in a short story, later on) of someone who goes out to a cliff intending to throw himself down. Only there’s a woman there, sitting and looking out at the sea. And he can’t kill himself in front of someone. So he doesn’t. He goes back to life and it gets better.

I don’t remember how she explained it, but the thing is that the woman was also there, contemplating ending it all, and then (she somehow finds out what happened) she realizes if she’d killed herself before he arrived, he’d have been lost.

What I’m trying to say is even if your purpose in life is to just sit there at the right time and the right place (or if you don’t believe in purpose, your usefulness) there is something only you can do. It might be what you intend to do or it might be an entire accident (Glenn Reynolds, asked how he became instapundit “Like most things in my life, it happened by accident.”) But just by being here, you can become a lifesaver, and the life you save might change the world for the better.

In the same way, just by trying the best you can – at writing or life or whatever – you can sometimes become extraordinary. Perhaps most times. Yes, there is survivor bias in stories of “I tried, and I succeeded” but perhaps the arrow goes the other way. Perhaps if you really try, and are willing to admit you’re not perfect and to see clearly, you mostly succeed.

It’s just most people don’t. Because either absolute self confidence or its lack (yes, even that) are in a way far more comfortable.

But if you neither leap into the abyss, nor stand there frozen at its edge, telling yourself there is no abyss, if you learn the paths down and up the cliff, and if you lend a hand to those on the same road… perhaps, just perhaps that black cliff can become an enchanted cove where many find solace and life.

It’s worth a try.

61 thoughts on “Of Despair, Hope, and Climbing Paths- A Blast from the Past from September 2014

  1. Oh. Hi, me.

    I’m going to have to talk to my husband about memberships. We never really do have a good go-to action when we both hit the wall.

    (I’m in oneof those rare points where I’m enjoying everything I’m putting out, and trying to cram as many comics, lyrics and greeting cards into it I can. I should
    try to remember that the Everything I Do Is Terrible stints are just as transient.)

        1. The problem I have with thumb drives is I have a row of them across the top of the keyboard, and I have no idea which has what on it, other then sticking each of them in a port and waiting for the machine to recognize it…

          1. One way of handling this type of problem is purchasing a selection of cheap charms (of the type adorning charm bracelets of seven-year-old girls) and attaching them to your thumb drives as aides–mémoire aids. This way, instead of forgetting what is on which thumb drive you can forget the mnemonic association of each charm.

            1. I wear two encrypted USBs around my neck on a home-made lanyard. Thinking of updating it to a ball chain rig, but haven’t decided on the attachment method. The current method – using a loop of nylon twine – is crude, but simple and secure.

            2. Drop box is only useful if you have internet at your house. (We don’t. Need a 50ft antenna before we can try to get it again. Satellite won’t cut it for what we need.)

    1. We used to really STRAIN for that — at the time — $50 zoo membership and equal or thereabouts museum membership.
      But I remember a very bad day when I was looking at the screen and just thinking “I. Suck. So. Badly” and Dan said “Hey, art museum now.” which was insane, as it was an hour and a half away and it was snowing. BUT we went, ended up taking a bunch of goofy pictures with the kids, talked a bunch, and came home, and I could write the next day. So…

      1. I once had a terrible, terrible day and when my husband got home he sat me in front of a beautiful movie (The Secret of Kells) and that did the trick. You really need those sorts of breaks.

      2. I wonder if there might be something in that for my family as well. It’s not that we don’t go to the zoo or the museum, but it’s always a planned expedition where we decide a week or two ahead of time that we’re going to go in the morning and spend the day. I wonder if we’d be better off, instead of doing that, just spontaneously heading off on those days where both of us are in front of the computer doing nothing of value, and if a membership might help.

        1. yeah. If you have the membership it’s easier. Particularly if you’re the Hoyts and “like to get your money’s worth.”
          Actually we’ve been trying to do Friday night dates, but not the last month and a half, which means I’m cranky and out of sorts. An evening of just doing whatever, going for a walk in the park, or hitting up Pete’s kitchen or a museum lecture sets me up for the rest of the week.

  2. The reason I run so hard is that me is following me, and I know the b*tch. If she catches up to me with all her doubts and insecurities, I’m going down for the count.

    This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, a certain soon to be ex-president has never apparently been troubled by such self-doubt and look at how well it has served him. Even Christ on His cross suffered a diminution of Faith, after all.

      1. So does that make me evil if I think to myself:
        “Gee, perhaps that’s the reason he’s gone grey and acquired wrinkles.”

        (he says this, knowing full well that being POTUS is enough to age any mortal – especially in the more dangerous periods of history)

  3. My own writing confidence has increased lately. Last month I wrote a short story in two weeks — which for me is amazingly fast — and submitted it. Even if it’s rejected, at least I know I can make the words happen when I need to.

    1. You know what this means, don’t you?

      Somewhere, somebody is going to read that, or the next one, or the next… And then you’re stuck. They’ll be expecting you to *finish the story.* And the next one, and the next…

      Apropos of a post past, you become a drug dealer. Folks wanting their fix will be knocking down your digital door, saying MOAR STOREEEE! Characters will start demanding plot arcs. Or mysteriously shut up until you coax them out with whatever it bloody was they wanted but wouldn’t tell you they wanted anyway. The plot bunnies will slowly start sniffing around. Eventually they will swarm you under… and you’ll have a new story to start…

      Seriously, though, good on ya. We’ll be looking forward to seeing your title page on the sunday roundup someday!

  4. … spiraling down the pit of hopelessness and trying not to think of doing away with himself.

    The thing to remember about that pit is that it is truly bottomless* and therefore your only option is to relax and enjoy the fall. The trick is not to stop being depressive (I am of Slavic descent — depressive is in my DNA) but to recognize and accept** it for what it is.

    *I was forever cured of suicidal tendencies by a Gahan Wilson cartoon of a man sitting in a chair, gun in hand, saying, “On the other hand, what if I’ve already pulled the trigger?” and the realization that, if suicides are doomed to Hell what worst fate could you experience than continuation of that existence that drove you to suicide.

    *Yes, I have accepted and am at peace with my depression. How depressing is that?

  5. So isn’t it nice to know that part of this spiral of depression was medical issues that are now being taken care of?

    (Anyone experiencing depression should get their doctors to check their levels of various things such as vitamin A and thyroid just as a matter of course. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with brain chemistry, but the ones with deficiency causes are more easily fixed.)

    1. if the crippling depression I had when I was younger came back, I doubt I would try to get medical help for it.

      Back then there was nothing a doctor could have done, but as least he was working for *me*, and I had expectation of patient confidentiality by custom and by law.

      Nowadays… doctors are expected to rat you out to whatever mental health or police organizations in their area demand to be informed of that sort of thing. Even if I pay cash, the diagnosis and report will probably still find its way to an insurance company, and depending on what state they’re registered in, they can sell bits of that information off to marketers. [“anonymized”, my ass…] Security for lab work is a crap shoot. And HIPAA… I actually *read* that, when it went into effect back when I did IT security at a major hospital, and it doesn’t say quite what most people think it does. And once any of that data escapes, it’s forever… whether it’s true or not.

      And that’s not even considering how many jurisdictions love using “mental health” justifications for wholesale violation of various civil rights.

      Yeah, there might be simple cure for suicidal depression out there… but in the long term, the cure might be worse than the disease.

      1. Yes. Read the “black labels” carefully. Also, how soon before being on an antidepressant or anxiety medication is used as justification for removing certain inalienable rights?

        1. Already happening in some blue states especially. Note that it doesn’t matter why you were prescribed anything “psychoactive”; once it’s in the state Obamacare records, you’re done whenever they want to bother.

          1. Eh, the gap between that and whatever the equivalent of “sluggish schizophrenia” will be is not going to be a long period.

  6. > But I started out writing things that had no discernible plot, characters only I could love, and ham-fisted prose. [Okay, the last one was not so much “started out” as “last week”.]

    I got rejected.
    The glaring failure of tradpub is that I’ve read far too many such stories by authors who *didn’t* get rejected.

    Some of them were “best sellers” by Famous Authors. Who probably got paid Big Money for them.

    However bad that guy’s story is, I bet I’ve seen worse that made it into the bookstore.

    The essential randomness of the publishing system is what keeps tradpub going. “*That guy* sold a book, and mine is better than his [and, in truth, it’s quite likely] so if I feed the slot machine again, maybe this time it’ll pay off with a contract.”

    I’ve known compulsive gamblers. There’s a lot of similarity between them and writers.

  7. > And then because I don’t have a healthy self-esteem

    There’s the opposite problem of too MUCH self-esteem. The people whose own valuation of their skills is far beyond reality. And with their evident self-confidence, manage to become employed at jobs where they leave a trail of wreckage behind like Mr. Magoo. They either don’t perceive their own failures or blame them on others.

  8. Interesting about the Agatha Christie story. A variant on it made it into one of her novels, “Towards Zero”: a man tries to throw himself off a cliff but gets caught on a branch and rescued; a year later, he revisits the cliff and stops a woman from throwing herself over. As a character says of the incident, “God might need you…just by being in a certain place, you might do something dreadfully important, perhaps without even realizing what it is.”

  9. Right. What if I do away with myself, and there is an afterlife where I’m just as miserable except that I’ve already thrown away my best hope that things might get better? Even if it does sometimes feel like I’m doing time.

    1. To paraphrase Douglas Adams:
      “There’s another theory that says this has already happened”.

    1. I like Al Swearengen’s infamous pep talk.

      The world ends when you’re dead. Until then you’ve got more punishment in store.

  10. “And suddenly I thought “Wow. What if my entire life, everything I’ve done, everything I am, was just for that purpose? To give a man a rope as he was slipping down the slope?”

    Sarah, I think you’ve helped a LOT more people than you know. You give encouragement and guidance, and the occasional well-deserved kick to the ass. You’re really something, and I’m glad to know you.

      1. If I ever make it in this business, a large chunk is due to Sarah. Just by being here. (Actually, there – I stumbled in here through PJM on a frustrating night of no progress on the then current bit of code.)

    1. You’re really something, and I’m glad to know you.

      I think a) we are all largely in agreement on that and b) specific debates over the precise meaning of what that “something” might be are best eschewed.

    2. *nod* I don’t see myself on the page often. But between seeing Communist underpinnings in everything, things like this post, and Athena’s rant to Kit right before he proposed where she had become certain of the blatantly absurd due to everything… it’s been restful, to feel known. Thank you.

  11. I’ve had problems with that same sort of negative emotional tendency since high school, but like you say here, what’s helped me the most in dealing with it was finding out that it runs in the family. So I was taught the ways down the cliff by my dad, and then I was around to help my little brother the same way when he started getting hit by it last year. (Either it missed my older brother completely, or he’s just REALLY good at hiding it)

    The idea that a small thing you may do may help someone who has no other recourse or hope is all that gets me up in the morning and into the school to teach some days.

  12. When my Beta readers say that this book I just wrote is better than the last one, I believe that I am improving and it gives me a burst of happiness. 🙂 I wish I was GREAT… but the reality is that it takes a long time of effort to get there.

  13. I’ve already gotten the nicest fan letter I’m ever going to get, which is the guy who wrote to me years after “Isabelle and the Siren” was published — and told me how much it meant to him, because the heroine was depressed, and whenever he found it hard to go on, he reminded himself that it wasn’t so bad as what Isabelle faced.

  14. Two weeks, huh? Impressive. I think the most I’ve ever been able to put on a page in a day is about 4000 words.

    I’m in a frustrating place right now. Out of work, looking for work for the second time in a year. Got teased with good, solid opportunities right at the start that all vanished literally overnight. And now I can’t even get a response to my applications. I get the usual “it’ll get better” comments from people I know. But as I’ve quipped to others in the past, telling someone that there’s a (non-oncoming train) light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t do much good when you don’t know how much further you’ll have to go to even be able to see that light. Telling someone that things will get better in two years is frustrating when you need help in two months.

    As a bit of black humor, with my current frustrated and upset situation, a number of my regular prayers have ended with the plea asking what I need to do to be employed again. So far, if there’s an answer, I’ve yet to recognize it. As a result, it has occasionally occurred to me that there’s a way that might allow one to get a slightly more understandable response from divine beings. However, that tends to be a one-way trip, so the answer in that case would be, “No one now.”

    1. My advice. Value = Cup of coffee in a greasy spoon, not Dunkin Donuts. This is the time for you to start writing more and pushing it.

      I’d be a lot further along (or so I fondly believe) if I hadn’t waited for the “real job” to come around.

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