Jun 222012

“Good morning, bipolar. Are you going to behave yourself today?”

Creation is usually a lonely business, best done when no one is around to bug you while you’re working. By it’s very nature it’s easy to go into isolation when you’re in full creative flight.

This isn’t such a good thing if you are prone to any of a variety of mental illnesses floating around. Depression, bipolar, all that stuff seems to grip a person by the throat when he’s by himself and the doors are locked.

I recently read a short piece by Julie Fast, a writer/coach who knows a little something about bipolar disorder. She lives it, she fights every day to even get to where she can function, and she’s in-your-face honest about it. She knows what she can and can’t do with her illness, and she works within her limitations. One of her books, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, occupies a place of honor on my desktop bookshelf by the dictionary, thesaurus, Writer’s Market, and Stephen King’s On Writing. Its pages are well-thumbed, high-lighted, annotated and coffee-stained.

What is it about these creatives?

A thing about artists and mental illness: I’m not sure why the two seem to go together. Maybe the same gene produces both. Maybe artists are just naturally more sensitive to problems of the brain and spirit. Maybe it’s a byproduct of living a life that’s just out of the mainstream. And maybe artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs are just more self-absorbed than the average person. This is all conjecture, and I’m not qualified to do more than voice my opinion. All I know is that I wake up every morning and say: “Good morning, bipolar. Are you going to behave yourself today?”

Julie knows she can’t function worth a flip when she’s isolated. So she does much of her writing in public. Drops in at a coffee shop or library, even in a noisy karaoke club, and does her work. “I outline in noise and write in quiet,” she recently said in her blog in response to a reader who wrote about self-isolation. “I’m writing this in Starbucks.”

I know this goes against the grain. We artists like to do at least the first stages of our work in privacy. It’s what Stephen King calls writing with the door closed, and writing with the door open. First drafts are done solo. Later, you’re feeling more social and will welcome comments, ideas, suggestions.

Most creatives are funny about working in public. I never like to show anyone my works in progress. Most people may not even know I have works in progress ’cause I’m sure not going to tell them. But I have to kick that door open sometime, if for no other reason than my own sanity. Yeah, that could be important.

My own practice

A couple of years ago I started writing for a few Web sites, and put out a lot of work. Most of it was hack work; nothing I’d want to show in a portfolio and all of it was under another name. But I made the mistake of doing the whole thing at home. I had a broadband Internet connection, I had a coffee maker in my office and a bowl of snacks nearby. I could work long stretches, only getting up to visit the bathroom or raid the fridge.

A funny thing happened.

I started another one of those nifty death spirals. Eat only when I think about it, which wasn’t often. Take a shower whenever … well, whenever I can’t stand myself any more. Shave when I itch and not before. My friends helped me shortstop this spiral, though. A couple of times a week I’d go out and hike about six miles with a buddy. I’d get text messages — Eric, is everything OK? You’re not living in your head again, are you?

That’s the kind of friend everyone needs, artist or not. But especially if you are.

Today, my practice is a little different. I got rid of the broadband connection. If I need the Internet so bad at home, I can always go online using my Android phone. But I do my closed-door writing in the morning. That’s when I generate blog posts, work on some articles, brainstorm things out, and pick away at this novel I’m playing with. All done standing up; that helps me focus. And unlike the stereotyped freelancer who works in striped pajamas and bunny slippers, I’m fully dressed for work. Even the shoes.

But at the most my closed-door session runs three hours. That’s all the isolation I can handle. After that it’s road time. Get on the bike. Ride to the college library or Starbucks. Do my online stuff. The library is more private because I work in one of the carrells, so I can get a lot done but it’s still isolating. Starbucks is better because I’m out among ’em, I can make phone calls from where I sit, and I like their dark roast. It tastes like someone dropped a cigar butt in the pot, but that’s just the way I like my coffee.

But you get the idea. I’m out there, in public, hammering away at the keyboard, slugging down strong coffee, saying hello to people, seeing something of the world.

Counter-productive? In some ways, yes. But I’ll take that trade-off, and I’m learning to do my work under less than ideal conditions — which they all are.


Late add: Here’s another story on the subject, through Mediabistro. I’m actually surprised I shared it now; the temptation was to sit on it and use it as fodder for more posts. I might still do so, but I’m into sharing today.