Most days I found myself twitching with chronic back and hip pain—sensations that radiated outward when I tried to write, and which led me to sip tiny bits of whiskey all day long in hopes of remaining at my desk. The back: once a botched spinal tap. The hip: The place I’d had a sheath, the metal tunnel that held open my femoral artery while the cardiac surgeon went upriver in an attempt to remove hardware from my heart. Yoga helped the pain, but only briefly. I napped more than seemed reasonable, felt bleary and nauseated. Something internally had begun to wobble.
Sometimes I gave up and read, often in the bathtub, and it was on this kind of day that I inhaled Terese Marie Mailhot’s new book Heart Berries: the kind of book it was dangerous to read straight through, for by the time I stepped out of the tub, I could feel my very brain tipping.
In Heart Berries, Mailhot inhabits states we rarely see written well: the moments someone desires to kill themself, or the force of their fist on another’s face. Mailhot wrote not just about being abused, but being the abuser; she wrote the moments she could not be trusted with herself. And she did it in such a way that it felt understandable and horrible and beautiful at once, such that I threw the book across the room and lay there, wet from the bath, marveling at it.
My own story included such erraticness. I hadn’t understood until that moment just how much my difficulty writing had to do with the pain of building myself as a character on the page. I was a person who screamed at billing agents, spat insults at doctors, and nearly jumped off a bridge in Red Wing, Minnesota, because I couldn’t bear the constant threat of death or how fighting the medical system had stripped meaning from my life. To write these scenes, I would have to face the part of myself I was used to dismissing as “crazy,” which Mailhot called “part monster.” And, as a matter of craft, I would have to tell those stories as sharply as she had.
In the end it took six more months—and a significant amount more trauma therapy and bodywork—but I wrote the impossible scenes. And on the other side of it, I designed a class based off the work of Mailhot and other amazing writers, like Kiese Laymon, Marya Hornbacher, Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Sara Hubbs, and Esme Weijun Wang, who’ve bravely and beautifully captured their own wobbliness, escalation, violence and shutdown.
Here’s what I learned about writing “crazy”:
Employ language in a way that brings us into the body’s experience. Sharp syntax is the holy grail of writing altered states. Whether we are swinging into mania, dampening into depression, or escalating into a screech, the inside of the body feels different when we are “crazy,” and a good writer helps readers feel the same kind of crazy they do. Inside their syntax, we skid and richochet, we blur and gnaw. Pay attention to the effect of short rapid-fire sentences, the potential of long punctuation-less sentences, the collapse of close-together comma splices, in order to understand the power you have to speed up or slow down your readers’ brain. Consider building an image that contains one part horror and one part beauty, jamming together the abnormal and the normal. Share with us logically what is not at all logical.
Build readers’ trust. If we are only rolling around in our narrator’s brain at high speeds, a reader might become confused or overwhelmed and quit. One of the challenges of writing “craziness” is to become a narrator the reader wants to trust. Some writers do this by moving deftly between their moments of unhinging, and a more grounded narrative voice that employs pop culture criticism or research. Others establish a narrative distance from the time period they are writing about, so that the older, wiser self is our guide to the younger self who did unspeakable things or struggled in a particular way. And still other writers command a particular confidence, using a direct address to the reader, perhaps demonstrating self-awareness in the midst of the storm, so that we end up trusting the voice even if it is unreliable in certain ways.
Use other characters as mirrors. Even when the personal voice is erratic or untrustworthy, seeing the reactions of other characters (who are often not altered in the same way) can help readers understand where to place their attention or what to believe. How did our loved ones look at us? What did the ambulance driver comment on? What actions are occurring around the narrator, not subject to the same mental whims?
Own the full story. It’s easy to want to protect yourself when you’re writing stories about experiences society labels “crazy”—especially if you hurt other people in the process. But the surprising truth is: The weirdest details are the way. We are all secretly hungry to hear how things have happened for others. And we trust a writer less if they seem to be airbrushed versions of themselves. Building the self as a complex character might be difficult (it might, erm, even require some therapy) but it pays off, offering nuanced stories about these conditions and experiences that we very much need in the world.
Your own level of healing is relevant. I wasn’t kidding about therapy. All of us tell particular stories about our lives to survive. Many of these stories are half-truths, and healing includes the difficult process of seeing what we missed—how we played a role in making things worse, the way something enriched us that we couldn’t admit. Not everyone faces their life through therapy—sometimes trying to write the essay and getting called out on your blind spots in workshop is how people stumble toward self-awareness. But therapy is efficient because it amounts to an exercise in telling and revising your story, with a facilitator who gently prods you along.
That said, when “craziness” intersects trauma, the work we can do cognitively is limited. Storytelling occurs in our neocortex—the newest, most human part of our brain—while trauma is stored in our brainstem, our oldest and most reptilian part. This is pre-language: signals about survival dictated through fight, flight, or freeze, the body making decisions faster than we can see or think about them. Symptoms like overwhelm, procrastination, pain, or numbing behaviors signal we need to attend to our bodies first, to process what we’ve lived through trauma-specific therapies like Somatic Experiencing or alternative modalities like acupuncture, reiki, or bodywork. As a writer and a writing teacher, I’m past pooh-poohing therapeutic work as a part of the writing process. Anything that cages our power is a craft issue.
Katherine E. Standefer’s work appeared in The Best American Essays 2016. Her first book, Lightning Flowers, will be out in September 2020 from Little, Brown Spark and was shortlisted for the 2018 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Prize from Columbia School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. She teaches for Ashland University's Low Residency MFA.
Her class “Part Monsters: Writing ‘Craziness’” will run August 10-11 at Seattle's Hugo House.
Her class “Writing the Trauma Essay” will run September 7-8 at Catapult in New York, NY.
And she’s teaching “Crafting the Illness Narrative” online through Creative Nonfiction beginning September 9. Come join her!