September 09, 2006

How I write...

It used to take stiff sloshes of coffee and a cigarette even to think about writing. Then I'd have to read someone I admired in order to stimulate my brain, the flint of their words sparking off ideas. That was back in the days before my "awakening" on the atypical antipsychotics.

Now it takes considerably less effort, thanks, I believe, to the boost of Abilify, under the influence of which I find I write reams with little effort, at least in the sense that there is no hump of inertia to surmount before I can put words one by one on the page. But what precisely to write about? How do I find my subject, ask some who are at a loss at this stage of the process. They want to write, and are full of corruscating words and scintillating phrases and metaphors, but they can't decide what to write about.

I spend a lot of time involuntarily doing nothing. Of course, I don't truly do nothing; I'm distracted, from reading usually, and find myself thinking about something else, sometimes as hours pass without my noticing. Often these thoughts are dark, even frightening and become mixed with symptoms such that I call them "day-mares." Others present themselves to me as possible situations that pose problems I need to solve, sometimes ridiculous, others serious, but all frustrating or otherwise difficult: these are "scenarios."

Day-mares I tend to leave alone, as I don't want to continue down the road of thinking about them longer than I need to. But scenarios, those can sometimes turn into an essay or short story. So treasure your daydreams, your distracted thoughts, your abstractions and benign delusions -- there, underneath the dust and detritus, hidden by dried dead leaves and underbrush, may lie your subject matter. Anything can be written about, even, yes, saddle leather (who suggested that? I'm gonna have to write about it some day...just to prove the point). The writer's job is to find the story and make the subject shine.

So, say I have my topic. What now? Well, I just start writing. I seem to have no trouble beginning anywhere, and have a knack for finding the way in, though I often do have to rearrange and find the proper entry point later. But there's no problem starting, nor in continuing, though I find that coming to an end, and finding a proper conclusion is a little more tricky for me. I write until I'm exhausted and then haven't the energy to do more than tack on a quickie conclusion, or none at all. (That is, if I am writing in my blog. For more formal pieces, I go to bed and write the conclusion when I am fresh.)

But for novice writers this presents more of a difficulty. I think what you need to do is to look at your subject matter as if seeing it with the eyes of a Martian who has never seen the like before. Look as it with new eyes and enter the story there, with the most salient detail, whatever that may be. If you are writing about the newly designed firetrucks your municipality just bought, you might think that their color would be the detail that first strikes the eye, but looking at the trucks with eyes brand new and freshly open, you see that they actually look a bit like giant crickets...and you start your story about them with that observation, and maybe even mention the Martian seeing them and thinking this! The point is, you need to find something about your subject that is different and unspoiled by overuse, that no one else has observed or written about before, and start there. Hook your readers and draw them in with it, it's the most important sentence of your essay: the first line, which will either captivate or disappoint readers, leading them to continue reading or quit your essay or story and flip to something else.

While I am writing, I do nothing else. I quit smoking 18 months ago, cold turkey, so I don't even do that. I don't eat, might drink water, but forget to do that most of the time -- there! just had a few big gulps -- and I rarely get up from my chair to take a break. I simply write and write and write. I doubt most people, especially novice writers, could take this sort of pressure, and I do not recommend it. I recommend breaks, as needed, and every two hours, a half hour walk outside to clear one's head and get the blood moving (advice I really should take myself). I recommend high protein snacks as well as raw veggies at hand as long as you don't get any food in your computer! And a bottle of water always available, three 16oz bottles a day at least.

The Abilify makes me almost unable to stop writing, thought...and I'm wondering if it isn't unhealthy to be doing so much of it. Blog, emails, my notebook, pages and pages a day, whenever Joe doesn't need me, and he is doing fine these days. But I enjoy it all, and feel wonderful that the words just pour out of me. The problem is that when I am written out, when I have no more to say on any given day, and I've written in my blog and in my notebook all I can think of, I'll start repeating myself, saying the same things over and over in different ways, simply in order to keep writing...Can writing become pathological? Oh, well. THAT I refuse to worry about as it is too much damned fun at the moment! I never dreamed the day would come when writing would be effortless, no longer a chore but nearly a compulsion...In fact I treasure this new-found facility and wouldn't trade it for all the tea in Darjeeling.

It is usually near midnight before I stop for the day. Frequently I will write for eight or nine hours over the course of 24, and sometimes much longer if I am alone and not interrupted. I love both the starting and the doing as well as the editing of my writing. Every step is a pleasure. The hardest thing is knowing when to stop. But at midnight, I take my first dose of Xyrem, my other miracle drug, set the alarm for 4:00am for the second dose, and am asleep by quarter of one. The day and my day's writing has come to an end.

Posted by pamwagg at September 9, 2006 02:55 PM


Dear Pammy,
It appears to me that your dilemma stems from the old "either feast or famine" syndrome. Clearly,Abilify is a very important factor here. While you revel in the joy of writing so effortlessly, the question is whether or not this is a new phase in your evolution as a writer, or is it the direct result of the medication which, if discontinued, would also result in the end of your compulsion to write, write, and write yet more. Now let's focus on the essence of the issue. Do you want the creative energy you are experiencing to be coming from within you or to be the result of the medication you are taking? I do not know the answer to this question. Only you can decide what you want. You could keep the status quo, lower the med to see if there is a difference in your behavior, or bring the topic to Dr. O's attention and ask her opinion. I am not suggesting that there is a right or wrong answer, or even that a given decision or question is something you should contemplate. Ultimately, my only concern is that you feel comfortable with your present situation. As I have said before, you are the captain of your ship, and only you can direct its course.
Your first mate, Paula

Posted by: Paula Kirkpatrick at September 10, 2006 03:09 PM

Hi pam, these past few days of blogs about writing have been wonderfully helpful to me. I'm not sure if i told you that i'm an elem reading/writing teacher. anyway this past week i have been helping teachers to help their students begin a writer's notebook. I am familiar with many of the tips that you have mentioned in your blog, but you just said it so much clearer than anyone else that now i feel like i understand the process of writing SOOOOOO much better. I have been to many writing conferences and read many books about writing, but somehow i feel like i have a better understanding after reading these past few days of blogs. i had never heard about the "ing" tip. thanks so much for sharing your expertise, sue marasciulo

Posted by: suw marasciulo at September 9, 2006 11:23 PM

Yes; writing can be pathological. Compulsive writing is called hypergraphia and is often a symptom of mania. If you find it enjoyable, it seems to be no problem (and certainly better than writer's block), but I would suggest keeping an eye out for other manic symptoms, just in case.

Posted by: Samantha at September 9, 2006 10:10 PM

Hi Pam,

I have been reading your blog since the end of April, when I heard your speech in Hartford. My 19-year old daughter (diagnosed when she was 18 with sz) has been on Abilify for eight months and spent a great deal of time writing, even though she had to withdraw from college classes because she could not read well enough. Writing seems to involve a different process in the brain. Left brain/right brain, perhaps?

She also felt almost compelled to write, because the Abilfy gave her an inner restless feeling - akathesia? - and the writing was a way to somehow harness that inner energy. Recently, because her symptoms have improved, the doctor has lowered the Abilify (from 15 to 10 to 7.5mg). She is not as interested in writing, though she did complete a very promising draft of a young adult novel this summer, and she has won a number of online poetry contests with cash prizes.

She is more interested in being able to read again, though, so she can continue with school, and has asked to be switched to Zyprexa. (I noticed that you are a fan of Zypexa for that very reason)She just can't stand the akathesia that comes with the Abilify, even on a 7.5 mg dose. She was on 10-15mgs when she wrote the novel. She could not even sit still to watch TV for an hour, but she could sit at the computer and write. (The Abilify also killed her appetite by the way.)

I don't know how to answer your question as to whether so much writing is "healthy." It did seem to make her a bit manic. As an artist, I often paint 6 or more hours a day, losing track of time because I get in the "zone." What you are writing is so lucid, so interesting, that I would just say, "keep going but try to take more breaks!!!" How about a kitchen timer that goes off every hour?

I loved your essay on writing. I periodically teach creative writing for children's books at a University in Virginia, and tell my students many of the same things. Every beginning writer falls into using the "ing" verbs and it is a revelation to them to change to past tense.

I also want to say how relieved I was when you "came back" after going missing for a month. When you had written that your book tour was ending, I was worried. The stress of holding yourself together for all that public speaking...I was holding my breath for you. And every day I checked to see if you were back.... What a journey you have had.

Pam, you have been an inspiration and source of information for me, a 54 year-old woman who now has a daughter with this difficult and scary illness. It is the beginning of the journey for us.

Write on,


Posted by: ruth at September 9, 2006 10:03 PM

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