Last week, I had the opportunity to be a guest-blogger for LAFPI (the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative.) And I wrote about the reason I never got around to doing a February recap post. 🙂 Many thanks to Jennie Webb and the LAFPI for asking me to contribute, and in general for all the great advocacy they’re doing.
[Cross-posted from the LAFPI]
On Writing and Sadness Bouts, Part I
Hello, LAFPI readers! I hope you all had a lovely weekend.
For my first post this week, I wanted to talk about writers and depression (isn’t that an auspicious beginning.) Mostly because I had read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s amazing op-ed in The Guardian about her journey with depression, and it’s been rattling around in my head for several weeks now.
So I had no idea about the kerfuffle that ensued after I had read that piece – apparently it was published without Adichie’s permission
, which is just awful on so many levels, and was retracted from the website. However, she did then give this wonderful interview
to the blog Olisa.tv, about the article and its ramifications, and I would highly recommend reading it.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Source: Olisa.tv
The thing that I’ve been trying to figure out about her article was actually my own reaction to it. It was the question that popped up – why is she depressed? To put it far more crudely – what does she have to be depressed about? Adichie is one of our greatest living writers, beloved around the world, achieving incredible success in a field that’s notoriously hard to break into, especially for women of color.
I also had a similar reaction when I read this piece in the New Yorker
a few years ago – about therapy for working (and often consistently working, i.e. successful) screenwriters. What do they have to complain about?
It’s a terrible attitude, and one that I turn on myself too. I thankfully do not suffer from clinical depression or similar chronic health conditions, but I do get sad sometimes. When I am sad, I feel absolutely powerless. The same question surfaces – what do you have to complain about? – but even as I intellectually understand what it means, engaging with the question does nothing to affect my mood. If anything, it makes me feel worse. Most of the time these bouts last for a few days at most, and then I’m fine. But last month, my ‘bout’ lasted three weeks, and it was awful. It also came at a time when I was on vacation, in my parents’ home in India, with all my needs taken care of and all my wants attended to by my loving family. The incongruity of my feelings with my actual situation was almost too much to bear.
I’m back in a good place now, but what those weeks gave me was (hopefully) a permanent shifting of my perspective, a good dose of empathy. Being sad is scary. It’s lonely. Most of the time, it’s beyond our control. The absolute wrong thing to do is to question the validity of someone’s experiences because you think they shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. How ridiculous!
Upon looking back, I have found that my sadness bouts are usually intimately tied to my writing process, and to the struggles of crafting a career as a playwright. I think a lot of readers of this blog may feel or have felt the same way. For my next post, I’ll be writing more about the unique challenges of controlling our emotions, when paradoxically, our lives as playwrights require us to be open, receptive and porous to the world and everything that it throws at us.
In the meantime, be sure to read the Adichie interview
! She’s amazing. And I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments – it’s a tricky subject and I’m always open to learning more and understanding these issues in a better way.
On Writing and Sadness Bouts, Part II
I have a theory about this – I don’t necessarily think we’re all predisposed. But I think the actual, repeated practice of creating and sharing our art can make our emotions go haywire.
In two ways –
- The Process: The same instinct that makes us good writers – the ability to self-edit, to sift, to weed out the bad ideas from the good, in short, to critique – is what can also make writing so painful. Because as we write, our inner editor is chomping on the bit to tell us how this draft is terrible, how this idea is pointless, how no one will ever want to do this, how it’s a waste of our time and (let’s take this to the logical end) how we’re a fraud and will never write anything good ever again. We all hear this nasty voice in our head from time to time – the trick of course, is to rein it in, to allow just the right amount of self-critique into our process, perfectly calibrated to the needs of that particular draft.But wow, that’s a really hard thing to ask of ourselves, isn’t it? And in addition, the madness inside our heads isn’t caused by anything we could call “real”. We’re miserable because we can’t figure out the solutions to problems that we made up for characters and situations that don’t exist. It’s hella weird.
- The Production: So as playwrights, we deeply care about our audiences. We write a play as a gift to be shared – not just with our collaborators, but with living, breathing human beings who gather in a room together, who’ve plonked down money and found babysitters and driven out and given up their evening to spend with our stories. So we really care about them.In speaking just for myself, the audience is always top of my mind, from the first draft through to opening night. Yes, it’s important that I’m happy, that my artistic team is happy, but by god, I really want the audience to be happy. I want them to have such a good time in the theatre. The fact that I care so much is one of my strengths, and it shows in my writing.
But once the production is up and running, I can’t turn this off. So when the reviews are out, I’m setting myself up to be a complete emotional mess. Sarah Ruhl recently said, so easily, that she doesn’t read anything written about herself. Lauren Gunderson has said she only reads the good reviews. I wish I could pick either lane. But no – I can’t turn off that instinct to care about what people think, even at the stage where I have no power to change anything, even if I wanted to. That’s not healthy.
So basically, my theory is that both the inside of playwriting (the process), and the outside of it (collaboration and reception) are fraught with triggers. And ironically, the further I progress in my career, the more frequently I face these triggers, and with higher stakes each time.
- The more I learn about playwriting, the more plays I write and see, the harsher my inner-critic gets, because now I know better, and I know what I’m up against.
- Commissions are the best, but they bring out my inner-critic in full force, because now there’s that additional, awful fear of letting someone down.
- The more production opportunities I get, the more reviews I’ll get, and the more people will have things to say about my work. Google will be my nemesis forever.
I know that I should hopefully arrive at a sort of equilibrium at some point. As I mature as a writer, I’ll be able to tamper that inner voice. The more I recognize my process, my patterns, the less I’ll freak out when I think something isn’t going well. And maybe one day I’ll achieve Sarah Ruhl levels of poise where I exist in a transcendent bubble of perfection (I love Sarah Ruhl, this is me being totally straight with you. Also, she’s never gonna read this.)
But until then, I would love to hear from LAFPI readers on how you manage these issues, and what tricks you have to get around these emotional speed bumps, these exhausting obstacles as we all try to navigate a happy, balanced, and productive life in the theatre.