This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is Evan Roskos, debut author of Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets and one of my Anticipated Debuts for March 2013, sharing his turning point…
Guest post by Evan Roskos
“Are you afraid that if you begin to manage your depression that you won’t be able to write?” my therapist asked.
Ugh. This question.
This electrocuting, dreadful, foggy, plasma-textured question was a variation of one I’d been asking myself obsessively for years before finally finally finally getting into therapy.
If I go into treatment, my college self worried, I will be put on medication.
If I get put on medication, my teenage self fretted, I will become a different person.
If I’m a different person, what will I do? My post-college but dangerously depressed self wondered.
Was writing my therapy? What a terrible truth to fathom. Sometimes it felt like therapy. Sometimes it felt like having to think about breathing. Sometimes it was the thing I wanted to do but couldn’t because of fatigue, depression, lack of confidence, or wealth of self-loathing. Lots of times writing was the most fun in the world.
Here it was again, this question, from Susan, a fifty-ish woman with two dogs and short hair and glasses and the perfect, blunt, caring manner that I needed in someone helping to save my life.
I had just self-published a short story collection (for free, since I worked for a company that helped people self-publish). Susan read it. She asked to read it. She warned me she wasn’t going to read it as a fan of short story collections. Her interest was professional. I was okay with this, but then she told me she’d read the book and asked me this pesky question.
I hesitated to answer because my gut response, like all gut responses, was defensive. Am I afraid I won’t be able to write? Of course not! I am a wordsmith, armed with creative ideas bestowed upon me by divine magic! You insult me! Prepare yourself for combat! But I needed the guts to shut the hell up and let my brain, malfunctioning or different-functioning organ that it was, come to a conclusion.
The phrasing she used―that I won’t be able to write―suggested that the writing was a natural extension of my mental health. That, with treatment, I’d still want to write but be incapable of doing so. Susan didn’t ask “Are you afraid your writing will change?” or “Are you afraid your writing will be happier?”
Really, I heard this: “With treatment, with depression management, you might suddenly have nothing to write about.”
Shutting my gut up to let my brain consider Susan’s question was integral but potentially a dead end. She’d diagnosed me with clinical depression and social anxiety disorder (perhaps they need to be capitalized, but fuck the authority of capital letters). To the point: if you tell a brain it’s got health issues and ask it to make an assertion about itself and its future, can you really expect it to make a healthy assertion?
As I sat there, my brain went back through my writing and tried to find evidence of joy, evidence that depression was not in the mashed pulp of the paper on which I wrote.
I’d spent years filling notebooks with emotionally pungent poetry and fiction. The poetry was all about death, the desire to feel positive emotions, the kind of simmering devilishness a long life of listening to heavy metal music and moody rock n roll would inspire. I started writing fiction during college and was validated in my attempts by winning prizes as a junior and senior. One story involved a kid using his parents’ credit card to buy the gun he used to kill himself. Another story was told by a depressed guy who hates all the people living in his apartment complex and then realizes that the one he really hates is―well, you get it. Not much joy. No love stories, romantic or familial. Little hope.
There’s a picture of me amongst the other literary prize winners in the school newspaper just before I’m going to graduate. I look blank. No hair. Round glasses. Black turtleneck. I won first place for my poetry and fiction that year. I had no friends at the award ceremony. My prize was a hundred dollars and feeling stupid and lonely.
There in Susan’s office, my brain suggested, gloomily, that my writing lacked joy.
Before she asked me if I feared losing the ability to write, though, she said, carefully, “This is good. You are a very good writer. I enjoyed this collection. But I didn’t read it as a reader, I read it as your therapist. You need to realize these stories are clearly written by a person suffering from depression.”
I nodded. I may have said, “I understand.” I should have said, “No shit,” but our sessions barred that kind of dismissiveness.
I probably laughed a bit, nervously.
Then: “Are you afraid that if you begin to manage your depression that you won’t be able to write anymore?”
Even though my brain seemed to find only gloom and doom and depression, some other part of my brain, the hopeful, honest, authentic part made me say something like this: “No. I don’t fear that I’ll lose my ability to write. I write for more than therapy. It’s therapeutic, I guess, but I don’t need to be depressed to write. Writing feels like the thing that I want to do and the thing I need to do. Writing energizes me. It shakes off depression sometimes. I smile when I write. I get filled with a vibrating warmth when a sentence falls into place. But, to be honest, if I have to choose between writing and being suicidal, anxious, avoiding people, avoiding relationships, and all that, then I’ll let go of the writing. Because the writing won’t reach anyone if I don’t find a way to manage my depression anyway, and then what’s the fucking point?”
Even if that’s not exactly what I said, that’s the gist. It was a good answer, regardless of how poetic it truly was. I’m still not sure whether Susan wanted one answer more than another. I think she wanted me to answer, so she would know how my therapy would progress.
I did not lose anything important because of therapy.
I did not lose anything because of the treatment that was right for me.
I finally admitted I needed help and how it helped me confirm what I wanted and knew to be true: the writing and I would both survive.
I gave her my answer. Then, four years later I earned a Master’s in Literature and started teaching college students about the beauty of language and fiction. Three years after that I earned an MFA in fiction. Four years after that I’ve published my debut novel, about a kid named James who talks to an imaginary pigeon and recites Walt Whitman poetry in order to treat his depression. I handled it all differently than James, of course, but that’s the beauty and fun of fiction.
Evan’s debut novel, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, was just published this month by Houghton Mifflin!
- Buy Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets at your local independent bookstore
- Add Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets to your shelf on Goodreads
Evan Roskos lives in New Jersey, a state often maligned for its air and politics but rightly praised for its produce. One of Narrative’s Best New Writers, Roskos’s short fiction has appeared in Granta’s New Voices online feature, as well as in journals such as Story Quarterly, The Hummingbird Review, and BestFiction.org. His debut novel Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) released March 5, 2013.
Visit him at evanroskos.com to find out more.
Follow @evanjamesroskos on Twitter and like him on Facebook.