Talkin’ Crazy

The Republican Party’s current presidential nominee has given us a number of unique gifts, but as a lifelong sufferer of mental illness (depression, anxiety), I’m especially drawn to the discourse he’s generated around mental illness.  Not a day—or even an hour—passes that some clever wag on Twitter or in the mainstream media questions the nominee’s mental health. Various diagnoses fly. I imagine people hunched over desks, flipping rapidly through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (edition 5, I hope; we need to stay current), searching through lists of symptoms, trying to nail down his specific malady.

But most folks are pretty imprecise. They fall back on the usual generic terms: “unhinged,” “insane,” or, my favorite, “crazy.” And because, as a mentally ill person, I have something of a rooting interest in this discussion, I’ve tried to identify the various meanings of “crazy” that people to exploit (almost always implicitly) as they go about their denigration of mental illness.

The list that follows is not, of course, comprehensive:

Crazy means abnormal.

Crazy means unqualified.

Crazy means entertaining—from a comfortable distance.

Crazy means beneath us.

Crazy means unable to function.

Crazy means you can dismissable because the mentally ill are unmoored from the truth.

Crazy means “liar,” which means we can ignore their claims of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, though also, ironically,

Crazy means “victim.”

Crazy means untrustworthy.

Crazy means unreliable.

Crazy means, at best, someone should be put away because she’s helpless and can’t protect herself.

Crazy means, at worst, someone should be put away because he’s dangerous and we have to protect ourselves.

Crazy lets up pretend that mental illness is always—and only—an internal “problem,” a flaw in the wiring of a given individual, never a sign of our social dysfunction.

Crazy lets us ignore that our culture daily visits mental and emotional trauma on millions of people: the trauma of poverty on individuals, families, especially children; the trauma of sexism and sexual violence on women (straight, lesbian, bisexual, trans, white, and of color), on gay and trans men (white and of color); the trauma of racism on people of color, male and female; the trauma of toxic masculinity; the trauma of ableism.

Crazy excuses Old Aunt Harriet for using the N-word at Christmas get-togethers, even though we all know she’s been talking that way all of her adult life.

Crazy means we don’t have to do anything.

Crazy means we never have to alter our own perspective, our comfort with the world.

Crazy means broken.

Crazy means useless.

Crazy sometimes means uniquely gifted, but with the gift paid for in the form of some sad, irreparable damage. (See the detective series Monk, or numerous depictions of artists.)

Crazy means erratic, unpredictable.

Crazy means sociopathic, psychopathic, psychotic, and therefore evil.

Crazy means immoral.

Crazy means undisciplined.

Crazy means less than human.

Crazy means physically superhuman and therefore frightening.

Crazy means deeply, fundamentally, irredeemably wrong.


Given this list above, let me suggest something.

Let me ask you to imagine an average, ordinary person with mental illness, someone who is a parent, partner, citizen, taxpayer, professional or worker in the trades. Imagine such a person who labors each day to balance all of these elements with medication and/or therapy. Or imagine such a person who struggles alone with mental illness, afraid to reveal himself to family, friends, employer, even life partner as “crazy.”

Imagine the impact on such people when their condition, their mental illness, gets treated as a punchline, a joke, an insult to be hurled at bigots and the morally reprehensible, randomly associated with criminals.

Imagine moving through the world, working as hard as you can to be the best person you can, to function as well as you can, and having your face rubbed in the stigma you know people have toward people like yourself.

Imagine the fear of being known as someone who is “crazy.” Imagine the burden of living with the definitions above.

In short, I’m asking you to engage in a simple experiment of empathy. Not that I’d know anything about that personally, of course. After all, I’m crazy.

Burning Crosses on My Consciousness

“My nigga’”

“You’re such a slut.”

“He’s white trash.”

“What a retard.”

In a key part of Blackboard Jungle—a film that retains much of its power 60 years after its release—the white teacher at a working class, inner city, “technical” high school urges caution to his multi-ethnic class about directing ethnic slurs at one another, even in jest. What begins in good-natured joking among friends can easily escalate, he tells them, into hostility and even violence.

I mention this to explain why my central takeaway from more than 20 years in academia comes down to a single word: context.

From the meta level (for example, a nonsense word in English is thick with meaning in French) to the most intimate (“Fross,” my brothers’ nickname for me, conflated a TV character’s name with the surname of my 7th grade best friend), words draw their significance from the context in which they’re used.

Quite literally, words never speak for themselves. Their meaning depends on the audience’s and the speaker’s relation to one another, and on the cultural situation in which they interact.

In fact, context seems most irrelevant only when it operates most successfully—that is, when writer/speaker and audience share the same contextual assumptions.

So people who claim that their words can’t be oppressive (because they lacked oppressive intent) reveal not only an ignorance about the nature of racism (prejudice plus power), but about the nature of language.

The meaning of language never belongs only to the speaker.

If no audience finds a word meaningful, that word ceases to be language in any socially functional sense.

And again, the meaning an audience draws always involves the immediate and wider context in which the speaker/writer and audience live.

By any objective measure, race exists as a key context in American culture. Even accounting for other social factors, race clearly influences health, income, education, home ownership, mental health, even sleep.

In the context of racism’s fundamental presence in our culture, what can seem to the speaker like innocuous comments can constitute micro-aggressions, racism by a thousand cuts. See this excellent piece by Andrea Plaid for a list of examples of the many forms micro-aggressions can take.

As in so many cases, the cover-up can exacerbate—or even exceed—the original crime. For examples of that, see the comments accompanying the article mentioned above.

It occurred to me this morning to think of each micro-aggression as a kind of mini cross burning on my daily consciousness.

Of course, I realize that the term “cross burning” itself is inflammatory (pun intended; I’m all for bringing at least gallows humor to the discussion), so let me clarify that I don’t mean the 25-foot cross with the folks in white sheets gathered around. Just a small, marshmallow-roasting size cross. Individually they don’t amount to much. But you might be surprised how, over a lifetime as a person of color (or woman, LGBTQ person, disabled person), the accumulation of thousands of these small fires can generate an enormous amount of spiritual and emotional heat.

Because ultimately micro-aggressions function to minimize the full humanity of the person subject to them. Here are some examples of what they, and the denial of micro-aggressions themselves, communicate:

  • I get to decide what’s harmful to you and what’s not.
  • I get to decide what should and shouldn’t offend you.
  • I get to denigrate and dismiss your feelings when you share with me how my words have affected you.
  • I get to question your honesty, your sincerity, your motives, even your sanity just because what you tell me about your feelings makes me uncomfortable.
  • I get the luxury of pretending that hundreds of years of racism and cultural oppression have had no impact on me, that I am immune to their effects.
  • (This is analogous to the drunk driver pulled over by the highway patrol who insists a few drinks haven’t impaired his driving, forgetting that the first thing alcohol affects is his perception and judgment.)
  • I get to dismiss them from history because they don’t harm me, or my children, or my loved ones (unless, of course, you insist on beating that old, dead oppression horse over and over and over again).

I carry that heat around with me more and more each day. You might think that after 54 years it would have diminished, but you would be wrong. And I think about the energy of that heat when I hear criticisms of the aggressive tactics of Black Lives Matters protesters, the inconveniences they cause, the lack of “politeness.”

I think about how those criticisms echo attacks on ACT UP during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic; I recall how the same was said about feminist protests and the migrant farm workers movements of the 60s and 70s, and the antiwar movements. And always the same question: “What are they so angry about?”

The answer is simple: We’re angry about what you can’t see, what you refuse to see. All the little crosses burning in our consciousness. The small crosses you lit and continue lighting. Burning.

White Liberalism and the Myth of the Reliable Narrator

A novel doesn’t belong to the writer; a novel belongs to the narrator, whatever point of view the narration employs (single first person, multiple first person, second person, third person limited, third person omniscient). Those who don’t know the difference between the writer and the narrator are often the same people who hunt through a novel in search of the writer’s “meaning.”

When my writing works best, it isn’t because I’ve landed on a meaning. It works because I’ve found a narrator worth listening to, and I gather together what s/he says. I revise to make the narrator’s utterances into as compelling an experience as I can.

As far as plot, the protagonist is the hero of the novel. But as far as the reader’s experience, the narrator is the hero. We only find Gatsby compelling (if we do) because of what and how Nick tells us about him; we can only want to be the Sherlock Holmes that Watson has presented to us. Every part of the world of a novel that works does so because of what the narrator gives us.

There is no such thing as a reliable narrator. There is only that narrator which a particular reader finds trustworthy.

At best, the narrator is only as reliable to me as her world view (which is one reason that, artistically and experientially, I cannot abide Ayn Rand’s narrators). At worst, the narrator is only as reliable to me as his motivations—conscious or unconscious. Again, this applies no matter the point of view.

Reliability, then, is never intrinsic to the work. It is a trick the narrator attempts to play on the reader. Some narrators play this trick badly. The narrator in Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” is one example; so is the narrator of the novel Flowers for Algernon. Most are much more polished in their attempts. But mainly the reliability of the narrator comes down to a judgment on my part as a reader: To what extent do I choose to trust this narrator? And why?

Fortunately, I don’t have to trust the narrator to be engaged by the novel or story. In Poe’s story, I begin to suspect early on that this narrator is unhinged; in Flowers for Algernon, I know that Charley’s limited intellect keeps him from fully understanding the world around him.

I was put in mind of this while considering our country’s current racial strife. The tensions often pivot on the differences between reliability and trust in the judgments we make. It appears to me that many whites—including many white liberals—conflate the terms: They “put their trust” in those they consider “reliable.” These are often those in authority, those who establish and maintain order.

But for many blacks, it can be the very “reliability” of authority figures that renders them untrustworthy. Because that reliability, that consistency, has produced unjust outcomes. Reliable standardized test scores consistently tell us that black intellectual achievement trails that of whites. But those results only hold if I trust certain definitions of learning and certain ways of measuring it, if I trust that the whole range of intellectual ability is being considered, if I trust that the factors that might limit black students’ expression of their ability are being addressed, if I trust that schools are appropriately structured, if I trust that the system is not founded on inequality.

Similarly, my trust in market capitalism, the criminal justice system, the chance for economic mobility, presentations of American history, the government, and various political candidates determines my sense of how reliable they are. Not the other way around. Thus I may find my local police more or less generally reliable, but trust the word of an individual citizen or even a criminal over that of a police officer.

Many whites still believe that we should assume trust in people and structures they consider inherently reliable. But like many blacks, I have come to realize that reliability can be manufactured through the same narrative manipulation that we find in novels and other works of art. We can be induced to find consistency and equity where none exists.

But for us, no more. From now on, my trust will have to be earned.


I write about a person who enters a hotel room or a bar or an office or a church. Maybe it’s an abattoir, or maybe it just looks and feels like one. Maybe it’s a dark space, or eggshell blue. She wants something—that’s constant. She gets it, or she doesn’t. Or she doesn’t and tells herself she did.

Could she be me? I don’t know; anything’s possible. And I’m not being coy; I really don’t know. In some aspects she resembles me, and in other ways we have nothing in common. Now, to me, it doesn’t matter. I’m only concerned that she is herself, whether she knows it or not. And if it matters to The Reader, then leave it for The Reader to figure out for himself.

But that’s it: a person in a place where something does or does not happen. It could happen (or not) with other people present, or he could be alone. But he is in that time, in that place, and then the moment ends. The curtain closes.

When it opens again, I reveal another person in another moment. It could be the same person; it could be the same place. The moment will be different. Even if everything is in exactly the same place as the earlier moment, this one will feel different. Because I’ve already revealed it before. So the recurrence alone changes everything.

The reader will see it again and feel bored. Or the reader will see it again and become concerned (Is it a mistake in the printing?). Or the reader will receive a Message from this recurrence. I don’t know what the message is since I didn’t write it; I only wrote and revealed one moment, and then I wrote and revealed another.

I’m weary of stories. All around me they chatter for my allegiance. The competing stories of various political parties. The contending stories of psychological theories or religious groups or philosophical attitudes. All weaving moments into strings and strings into cords, and tightening the cords with knots at regular intervals. We wrap these knotted cords about ourselves, our loved ones. We fashion them into loops and lariats for roping around others. We tie them to posts and turn them into fences for delineating “we” and “they.” And simultaneously bound together and pulled apart, we squeeze our bodies with each movement—tighter at the loins, across the diaphragm, around our throats—until we can barely breathe or speak except as the cords, as the stories, allow.

We say, correctly, that stories have power. We say that stories give us voices with which to speak. But do I tell the story, or does the story tell me? And how do I account for all that I must excise to make the story “work”? What do I do with the moments that end up on the cutting room floor, the moments that, had they remained, would have destroyed the narrative’s continuity? What happens to the inconvenient reality that we splice out in the service of coherence?

I have no answer—as a writer, as a human—for these questions; I have no alternative narrative to offer. I only feel that I’ve grown eager for the texture of an irresistible moment. And then for another moment that takes me further in that direction, or that obliterates the first, or that deposits me light years away in a completely different landscape.

Maybe I’ve reached the point where I would trade all of your stories and mine for the absolute presentation of this moment, for just being able to dwell in that. Maybe I want words precise and honest enough not to descend into a narrative. Maybe.


When I write, I try to distill some order—drip by drip—from the chaos that is me. It means first unmasking that façade of certainty that so many of us weave about ourselves. And by “unmask,” I mean in the manner an EF 5 tornado swoops down and noisily, elegantly rewrites our possessions into two categories: large, widely-strewn piles of the inessential, and trembling, almost invisible wisps of the essential; the way it edits with unassailable punctuation, the long, meandering sentences we have labored over in our years of daily semi-sleep.

I do not say this to myself when I sit down to write. Not, anyway, if I hope to get anything done. No, instead I say, “What if I looked at this like that?” or “What might happen to a person who was both x and y?” Or (and this is the best way for me) I gather a group of words whom I have never seen together before under quite that set of circumstances. And if they almost get along but also happen to rub each other the wrong way, I ask them to tell me more. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they tell me to fuck off. When it really goes well, they tell me fuck off and I ignore them and keep listening; and they forget that I’m there (or pretend they have) and keep talking and talking and talking.

Usually when it goes wrong—which happens during at least part of every day—I have come to the page (screen, whatever) with a Capital Idea. Foolproof. Guaranteed to generate at least a couple thousand words in no time. I know because I thought it up and I told myself so, and I would never, ever lie to myself, right?

Everything I do when my process is working is just a trick to get me to arrive at the page empty. With nothing. All the reading and notes and thinking and talking are only exercises to get it all out so that I sit down to write without any foolishness that I know what to say or do.

And the emptier I can make myself, the more the language rushes in to fill the void in ways I could not have imagined. Of course, then it only takes the next couple of weeks/months/years to do the editing. Or I can insist on bending the writing to my will from the beginning, in which case it’s pretty much permanently unusable. I think I prefer empty.

Building the Village

Truman Capote had Harper Lee. Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse had one another. Hemingway had Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald had Hemingway—to a point. Both had the tremendous good fortune to have Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons , who also shepherded the work of Thomas Wolfe (of Look Homeward Angel, not to be confused with Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Jones, and Alan Paton. And, of course, all those great Paris-based writers of the 1920s had Gertrude Stein.

I’m talking here about community, partners, peers, supporters. It’s a subject I’ve broached here before, often with lamentation and sorrow, and personally with a measure of ambivalence. As long as I’ve been writing—and that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of four decades now, on and off—I’ve dreamed of others with whom I could share the glories and struggles of the craft. But I’ve recently had the opportunity to test the waters once again, and I’ve learned some things I think everyone who wants to develop as writer should consider.

These discussions of writing communities are made more difficult by two factors. The first is the pervasive and pernicious myth of the solidary creative life—at least as it involves writing—the image of the writer alone in her garret while the oblivious (if not hostile) world attempts to crush her artistic soul. The second obstacle is the fiction that great writers create with ease and certainty, that they have utter confidence in their gifts and their eventual success.

I don’t mean to dispute that in our culture often only tolerates creativity if it translates into “success,” particularly money but at least fame. But no story of the writers we revere would be complete without an understanding of the role that friends, family, agents, editors, copyeditors, publishers, and patrons have played.

In part this gap in knowledge exists because so many members of the public (and even would-be writers) remains ignorant of how texts from newspaper articles to bestselling novels move from idea to draft to polished publication. Friends and colleagues have acted as sounding boards, financiers, refiners, hand-holders, boosters, advocates, defenders, and physical, emotional, and spiritual support for the writers they care for.

During the past two weeks, I participated in an online workshop put on my writer Marcy McKay. Though I graduated from a creative writing program in 1990 in which I interacted with some supportive writers (many were not), including this dear long distance friend of mine with whom I recently reconnected, and though I have made other individual writing friends along the way, Marcy’s workshop was my most intensive communal experience. It awakened in me, to a degree I had not expected, the recollection of what community can do for a writer.

Knowing that I would be in conversation with other writers every day helped get me to my desk in the early morning hours when I do the bulk of my drafting. Even though they read not a line, not a word of my work, the presence of their comments in the chatroom changed how I saw myself. I recognized again that not only do I have work to do, but I have something to contribute to other writers, wherever they may be in their journey.

About 30 years ago, when I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, I had the great fortune to develop a friendship with a writer, David Guy, who lived in nearby Durham. We met after a lecture on writing that he gave at a small workshop, and I had the nerve to go up to him afterward. After that we met periodically and he read some of my writing. But most importantly, he took my desire to write seriously and encouraged me to believe that I have the ability to do so if I took it seriously as well. David was the first real writer I knew, and though I lost touch with him a long time ago, his generosity was invaluable to me and still is.

Every list of advice that some successful writer gives to would-be writers includes the injunction to read as much as possible. I’ve finally decided that this involves not only reading famous and long dead writers; it doesn’t mean just reading respected contemporary writers; it’s not just about reading successful writers; it’s not even limited to reading published writers. No, I’ve developed the conviction that it also includes unknown, struggling writers, those who may right now be producing mediocre work. Those who feel uncertain of their abilities.

Writers need, as much as skill and patience and determination and discipline, that alchemical mixture of generosity and honesty, of encouragement and skepticism, and most of all expressions of faith in their efforts, however great the distance we have yet to travel to become the writers we might yet be. We need communities. And what communities we cannot find, we need to muster the courage to build. It is often, though not always, the case that writers write alone, but it is not—or should not, the present opportunities for self-publication notwithstanding—be the case that writers develop and polish and publish their writing alone.

That’s what communities are for. And that’s what I’m intent on experiencing more of.


“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
Chesley Sullenberger

Imagine that you decide to redo your kitchen. A contractor bidding for the job stops by, and when you ask how he’ll proceed, he replies that he’s not sure; he tends to show up with his tools when the mood strikes him and figure it out at he goes along.

Or suppose you go to the doctor with knee pain, and rather than examine you, she says, “You know I don’t always do examinations. Let me think a while about what you’ve told me and when I’m ready, I’ll call you in for some treatment.”

Or you board an airplane, and as you pass the open door of the flight deck, you hear the pilot tell the co-pilot, “You know, forget about the pre-flight checklist. I have a good vibe that this jet is ready for takeoff. Let’s wing it.” (Hint: The pilot is not Sullenburger.)

I suspect (and hope) you would find someone else to help you. That’s because you expect a competent practitioner to have a process for approaching the task.

Yet when it comes to writing, I have known so many writers and would-be writers who fear talking about process. I have also seen many writers and would-be writers struggle to understand why they procrastinate, encounter writing blocks, and feel dissatisfied at the difference between their aspirations and their performance. Some of them contend that since writing is an art, it can’t be planned for. It has to be spontaneous and inspired. Preparation—and any talk about preparation—only kills the creative impulse.

I’ve written about process before, as it’s something of an obsession of mine (which has been stirred up again by this blog post, which I enjoyed). Obviously any writer producing work that satisfies her desires needs no changes in how they do what they, whether or not they have an explicit process. But in decades of teaching, I’ve seen talented, intelligent students struggle to create good writing because they refused to reconsider how they went about writing. They insisted on waiting until the last minute, drafting without any plan or intention, refusing to revise, working in the midst of distractions, and yet were continually frustrated by the results the choices produced.

A process isn’t an answer. It’s a plan for how I’m going to look for the answer.

Writers vary, and each writer’s process should be tailored to that person. Some people work better at night, others early in the morning. Some prefer to plan extensively ahead of time; some do better writing quickly and then revising extensively. Some cannot create without pencil and paper, others need a computer, and still others swear by the clatter of a typewriter. Some need the noise of a restaurant or café to write; some require music; some demand silence. But whatever the individual writer’s particular approach looks like, some reliable way to deal with the challenges that writing poses can be invaluable.

Sullenberger landed an airline—with both engines out, full of 150 people—safely on a river because he was ready to do exactly that, even though he could never have anticipated that situation. And I think it was his process—the way he learned and trained and practiced and prepared each time he flew—that made him ready.

My process serves the same purpose for me. I don’t know what turn a story or character or argument or idea will take until I’m putting the words on the page. But if I have a good process, I’m ready to respond to that turn, that surprising direction or insight. Because I’ve read and learned and practiced and done what I can to make myself comfortable and confident in front of the blank page.

Each enacting of my process is a deposit in the bank, waiting for me to withdraw it when I write. It helps ensure that I don’t arrive at the page empty handed and that I don’t leave the page empty.