George Orwell, as usual, was there first and said it best:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.”
I read this long ago, but I used to think he was exaggerating. Now I see that he was understating the matter. And he left out something important: it’s like having, not just an illness, but a mental illness. With no disrespect intended, but instead deepest fellow-feeling, I think I finally understand what being bipolar must be like.
It’s like this. Some days, I think my novel is amazing. Truly amazing. Luminous! Original! I would not change a word. It’s like it came fully formed and perfect into the world, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. I can’t wait for the entire world to read it, love it, make it into a miniseries. I’ll write a sequel! Hell, I’ll write a series! And it’s not just that; it gets worse. I am amazing, too, because I wrote it. I might look like an ordinary person, just another puffy-coat-wearing denizen of Brooklyn, riding the subway, walking my dog around the neighborhood, but I have a secret: I wrote a work of staggering genius! The happiness burns within me like the tiny blue flame of a pilot light and I walk around with a mysterious smile. If I am working on it before bed, I can’t sleep because my mind is racing in all directions.
Then there are other days. These are harder to describe. But when I am down, I am down. The novel is not only worthless, but also embarrassing, like a bad-smelling something stuck to the bottom of your shoe that you do not want to examine too closely. It lacks all merit, and even the honest vigor of a trashy novel. It is the work of a pathetic, self-deluded little person. I can’t look in the mirror, because then I will see that person, lacking not only talent but the self-awareness to recognize the lack of talent, a person who has, against all odds and in defiance of a complete lack of encouragement and ability, persisted in forcing into being a wordy, lifeless and self-centered so-called work of fiction. It’s hard to get out of bed or to find a reason to go through the day, because the animating purpose of my life has been revealed as an illusion. I am expelled from the Eden of imagining that I am special.
When I set out to write a novel, my chief goal was to finish it. My feeling then was that even a really bad novel, if complete and moderately coherent, was a kind of triumph: you had made something that wasn’t there before, you had done something that not everyone had the patience or determination to do. In theory, I still think this is true. And yet. And yet.
When I set out to write a novel, I put to rest the question of whether it was any “good” or what exactly, it was, genre-wise. This was absolutely necessary; I would never have finished otherwise. But the problem with putting such questions to rest is that eventually they return. And not like they were before, but changed: sinister and ferocious, like you put them to rest in a pet cemetery.
4 thoughts on “Bipolar Me”
“Project” is clever and well-written, starring characters I care about.
Thank you so much! I hope this didn’t read too much as a cry for help. I do know that neither of the feelings I describe in this post have any connection to objective reality.
Not at all. Just don’t fill your overcoat pockets with stones and head for the East River.
Your novel is wonderful.