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.

Why Good Writing Begins and Ends in Poetry

About 15 years ago, as I worked on the final stages of my dissertation, I often got stuck (as people working on dissertations tend to). Sometimes days would pass without my producing anything. But eventually, I would remember my foolproof method for getting unstuck: reading and writing poetry.

Let me note for clarification that poetry had nothing to do with my dissertation subject. I wrote a very social-sciency study of students in a freshman composition class. From a semester of observing, reading papers, and interviewing students, I crafted a set of case studies trying to explain why some of the students gained more than others. My final product reads way more like anthropology than it does like Nikki Giovanni.

Nevertheless, I turned to poetry while I wrote, as I have turned to it many times before and since. And wherever I see brilliance in writing, I find elements of the poetic. From the Preamble to the Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, from Dashiell Hammett to Lorraine Hansberry, from Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting to a Chris Rock monologue, where language engages and moves, entertains and enlightens, poetry is at work.

These days, we ghettoize poetry as the realm of emotional expression; poets, according to that thinking, are rarified “artists” who create through inspiration or some inscrutable gift. Poetry is a dense and tangled garden in which the creative hide “themes” and “symbols.” Or we denigrate poetry as “flowery,” forgetting that without flowering plants, much of the food we eat would not exist.

But ultimately poetry turns on precise language. And using language precisely means employing all of the facets of words, not only their literal or denotative meaning but also a word’s history, its connotations, its sound, and all the other associations it evokes. Whenever a writer concerns herself with how the reader will respond to the words themselves—that is, with aesthetics—she has entered the realm of the poetic.

For much of history and around the world, poetry served as the dominant genre, and not just in texts we would now call “literary.” Historians, politicians, educators, theologians, and cultural critics of every stripe and in every culture have used poems to argue, to advocate, to persuade, to philosophize, to rouse people to action. Even today, much of the multi-billion dollar industry of advertising used poetic strategies and techniques, if not outright poetic forms.

In fact, I believe that the false (and common) separation of the practical and the aesthetic (rhetoric from poetry, art from science, art from technology) constitutes one of the greatest disasters in human history. It has meant that we devise “things” (a machine, a policy, a law, a building, a system) to do something without considering how we (people, living things, our environment) will experience what’s being created or devised.

This was, ultimately, the brilliance of someone like Steve Jobs—like him or not. He relentlessly, obsessively considered how the users of his technological products would experience them, not just in terms of ease but in terms of engagement. He didn’t simply ask, “Does it work?” He also asked, “What kind of relationship with the user will it foster?” He thought poetically. The writing that I admire most does the same thing. It creates an engaging experience with the reader. It creates a relationship between the reader and the text that generates attention and trust.

For that reason, to this day, when my writing well runs dry, I turn to poetry. As in the days of my dissertation, I find that when I struggle to bring a stubborn concept to the surface, casting it in poetry and letting in sound and rhythm helps me clarify what I really mean. Or I open a book by one of my favorite poets (Dickinson, Shakespeare, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, C.P. Kavafy) and remember that language is much more flexible and expansive than I’m allowing myself to be.

I’m not trying to create great poems; I’m simply returning to the poetic heart of all good writing.

Found in Translation

How do I know what I think till I see what I say?
E.M. Forster

On discussion boards, I occasionally see writers present their process as something akin to transcription. They plan every detail of a scene before drafting, and then execute that plan virtually without deviation. These writers focus on efficiency. Who needs writing as discovery? Why meander when you can take the most direct path possible? It presents the essence of writing as an act of will and control.

Of course, I plan my writing too—if not before I draft, then certainly during and after. But I write on more shifting ground. I invariably say something I did not know I was going to say. My characters end up in unanticipated places; the essay subject shifts, altering the trajectory of the piece; the voice of a poem takes a turn that colors the experience of reading it. I have celebrated when this metamorphosis easily improved the writing, and I have despaired when it meant extensive revision. But as I’ve learned more about writing, I’ve come to believe this happens because of the mediating nature of language itself.

So often we speak of mediating in terms of position. A mediator stands between entities—people, experiences, world views—translating each to the other. Writing mediates between writer and readers. We complain when a medium (or the media) doesn’t translate verbatim. “They’re leaving out what he really said,” we say. “That isn’t what really happened.”

This comes from our mania for the “real”: reality television, films “based on real events,” and memoirs that will reveal, at last, the real story behind so-and-so’s life. The more neutral the mediator, the better, and what could be more neutral than “indisputable video evidence”? In sports, we want to see the replay before we believe that the winning basket left the player’s hand in time, or that the soccer ball fully entered the goal. We’ve become addicted to video clips that, unlike written representations, present what happened “unfiltered.” Or so we think.

But I’ve stopped thinking of mediating as neutral. Language has a long history all its own. Each word comes into being at a particular time for particular reasons, and as time has passes, so do the echoes and nuances of that word. In addition, each person’s encounter with a word differs from everyone else’s. Because of this, every reading of a text leaves some elements untranslated. The shift from one way of making meaning to another is always incomplete. To write and to read are like trying to reach through an opaque curtain to grasp an object I can’t see, that I can’t be sure even exists.

I can lament this as language’s failing or celebrate it as language’s power to redirect what it touches. The reader and I meet at the dual surfaces of the text: the side that I experience as its creator and the side that the reader experiences as co-creator. The reader doesn’t receive my writing; s/he creates it with me, in response to what I’ve written. The written text hovers between us, drawing us into collaboration.

The electric circuit between reader and writer that flows through words, syntax, content, and structure gives writing its power over us. It provides the energy that can make reading a book one of the most significant—even transformative—events in a human being’s life. Words have altered my values, my perspective, my actions, and even my identity. Sometimes I’ve encountered those words in the works of great writers; sometimes I’ve found them in the works of writers unknown or forgotten; I’ve even encountered and been surprised by them in my own prose and poetry. That is what keeps me reading and writing.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: About Drafting

I would enter the doors of the newsroom greeted by the jangle or bleat of telephones, the click of typewriter (eventually computer) keys, the voices of reporters talking to sources on the phones or gossiping with one another or trading insults, the shouts of editors checking on the status of stories in progress. Through the noise, I would make my way to my desk, turn on my typewriter or log into my computer, place my notes in front of me, and begin drafting my story.

That moment invariably excited and terrified me the most because it involved the most mystery, even more than the unknown of gathering information. By the time I began to draft, I knew I had something. I also knew, though, that I would only discover its true outlines in these moments. A story I thought was great might crumble in the writing of it; a mediocre story might suddenly take on new life; I might find that I’d done too much reporting, or far too little. All of this the words and sentences would tell me as they emerged from the blank surface of the page or screen, when the draft takes it first physical form, moving from the conceptual to the concrete.

It may sound obvious that you can’t write well without actually, well, writing, but like many of my students, I have at times worked hard to avoid drafting. Sometimes I’ve outlined and planned ad nauseum; sometimes I’ve obsessively gathered information; sometimes for days, weeks, even months, I’ve gone over in my head what I thought a piece should look like and sound like and say; other times I’ve just daydreamed about who I’d like to cast for the film version of my novel, or I’d concoct imaginary interview responses for my imaginary book tour. Anything to keep from simply putting my rear in a chair and letting the words and sentences out.

Like so many students and would-be writers, I’ve sometimes thought of drafting as a chore to get through. But my writing works best when I treat drafting as its own event in the process of creating a text. It’s not the recording of ideas or the tedious playing out of a predetermined plan. Without sounding too mystical—oh what the hell, I’ll sound mystical—during drafting, language steps forward and asserts itself. Echoes and allusions and rhythms fall onto the page; some of them work and some don’t, but in what appears I get my first sense of what might be possible.

In the ruthlessness of its deadlines, newspaper writing forced me into that realization on a daily basis. I couldn’t avoid it; I couldn’t hide. And the exercise of turning language loose on subject after subject made me a more trusting, more confident, and better writer. Who needs a daily word count target when you have a city editor breathing down your neck at 5 o’clock every weekday evening?

In a telling scene in the film All the President’s Men, the late, great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (played by the late, great actor Jason Robards) reads through an early Watergate story as Woodward and Bernstein anxiously look on. To their dismay, he takes out a red pen and begins crossing out large chunks of their story’s main assertions. He responds to their objections by saying simply, “You haven’t got it. You haven’t got the story.” And though they are disappointed, they recognize that he is right. They aren’t yet ready to write the story they would like to write, to say what they think they want to say.

For me, that scene represents the hard truth of drafting and of what the draft tells me. The words and sentences on the page—not the concepts in my head—determine whether a piece of writing works, whether it creates the experience for the reader that I want it to create. The drafting is where I find the text.

Where I’m writing to

I have no idea. No, that isn’t quite right: I have no consistent idea. Sometimes I think I’m writing to my wife or to my children, either now or in the future. Or to my parents or siblings or ancestors in the past. Sometimes I entertain myself with thinking of writing to a massive audience of readers, either now or in the future—preferably while I’m still alive. Sometimes I think I’m writing to one of the many versions of myself, but they disagree so that no matter which version I make happy I leave at least a half dozen others frustrated or angry or heartbroken.

Mostly, though, when it works, I think I write to a sensation. It feels like my legs at the end of a speedwork session on a track or a treadmill, when I’ve run hard, then rested a bit, then run hard, then rested a bit, on and on like that for four or six or eight repetitions. And each time the rest part ends and the hard bit is about to begin again, a twinge of fear grips me about whether I’ll be able to stand the hard bit, but I start running hard anyway. Each time the twinge and then the pushing through it. And when I finish the last one, my legs weak and my lungs struggling for breath again and my skin looking like I’ve stepped from a shower and the lenses of my glasses flecked with sweat and dried sweat, and I want to leap in fatigued satisfaction.

When the writing works, the words hit the page or I tweak them this way or that, and seeing them in the daylight I almost gasp in a fear that says, “Shit, did you really just do that?” and then I know that I had to put it exactly that way and that it never would have occurred to me before I put it that way that that was exactly how it should be said.

I’m writing to the payoff of uncertainty. Writing for a payoff isn’t hard; I spend most of my time trying to get the payoff (or possible payoff) out of my head. Writing to uncertainty is hard, but most of the time I don’t have any choice because certainty isn’t really what I’m after; most of the time, I reside in uncertainty uncomfortably but by choice. And most of the time, uncertainty doesn’t pay off, or it does but I don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like what I wanted.

Every once in a while, though, uncertainty does pay off in a way so visceral and explosive and absolutely true that even I can’t miss it. And a good bit of the payoff comes from the surprise, the discovery of something that I didn’t realize I possessed—and that perhaps I don’t possess but that language, or the circuit between language and me, does. You see? That’s what I mean: the payoff of uncertainty. I never knew that phrase until now, but it’s been waiting for me in that place. The place I’m writing to.

Plow

A line of cursive S’s creeps across
the brown face of a grocery bag
before the day of paper or plastic.
The line drips ink from the tip of a ballpoint pen, in a kitchen under the rhythm rain of gray day clouds tapping on the roof, on a table strewn with groceries from the commissary at cut rates that still barely make the way for a family always in a frenzy of feeding, a family with five boys pummeling each other on schedule like the trains that travel over the tracks that the family seems to be on, the train going in the same direction. Nothing stopping, no new passengers, no new stations, just the same small milk run each day week month year. What was he wearing at the kitchen table the small brown boy not yet school age, not yet knowing what letters mean but mimicking the shape and slope of them drawn in a line on the brown face of the brown bag by the brown hand?

But that story’s been told. Ever notice how the same story comes up over and over again from the same brain of the insane. Nothing but the same story and the same meaning. Nothing but the brown hand and the brown bag’s face and nothing new on the words that get said, like a prayer or a magic incantation. Like that’s supposed to bring something to life that died a long time ago. Like the boy. He doesn’t exist anymore. He had a nice run and now it’s over. Now he has a son taller than he is and he has no stories to tell anymore. Nothing that anyone wants to hear. Well, aren’t we feeling sorry for ourselves this evening. Poor us with no one to listen because we don’t have anything to say.
Sorry. A word.

This bores even me. Well, what wouldn’t? What about words still makes you feel excited?
A clock ticks. It measures what could become music. Sick. Sounds. Muses. Muse. A sympathy in the soul that tells something. The click of these keys that sounds like a dance, Gregory Hines or Savion Glover. Click, tick. Music. A muse. Amusing. Losing snoozing, choosing. Something in the choosing that we don’t do but that gets done to us.
Ok. Here’s how it works. You begin with a word. Any word. “Plow” let’s say, and you follow the furrow that it leaves in it’s wake. It leads you somewhere. To a farm, to the black-brown earth of the prairie days on the Kansas plains, where the sky does all the telling about what kind of day it will be. Not the mountains, not the sea, not the motions in the trees. All the telling gets done by the sky, through it’s messenger, the wind. The wind sends along everything that’s going to be needed during the day. Everything you need to know, the wind will be telling you, but you better listen, because if you don’t, then the world around you will suddenly have a different color and you didn’t see it coming. Gray to lime green. Or blue to black. Or light blue white to red and orange. Fire hanging from the clouds as though the sky were raging at day’s end.
A wheat field at the end of the street, where the concrete dead-ends and rows of earth clumped into clods have scattered themselves after the plow’s passage, after the field has been disced and the ground has dried and the dirt clumps have the consistency of rock, can burst open a lip or the side of a head. On the prairie, the wind tells all the stories, in whispers or shrieks or slow songs. The plow lines even as though they will run to the end of the earth. Tree lines in their feeble stands supposed to keep the wind from carrying away the soil skinned by the plow.
He passed years under the tyranny of the wind and learned to hear warnings in some of its songs. Southwest winds with their black floating anvils swelling in afternoon heat.

This evening the words have come slowly to me hee hee the wee mind of the man thinking about what words will come next. They really don’t like to be told what to do. So the fingers slip and click along the path furrowed by the plow that his words have made, the cutting edge of where the the swearing of the new life of the new knife the knew knife the knife that knew where it would cut before the man who wielded it could place it on the skin of the earth and divine where it could should leave it’s mark. And that’s where I find myself trying to fathom the depth of the mark I should make and not to know where the cuts will fall or where they will leap up into the air. Not knowing what direction they will go because they tell you nothing these words. And you’re expected to trust them. They meet you in the alley with the raincoat buttoned up tight and the rain is falling in a wet drizzle so you can’t see anything because you have to keep wiping your glasses. You weren’t made for weather like this if you have to wear glasses. And the words call you into the alley, not even out of the rain and promise you something shiny if you’re willing to pony up a small amount just for a little look-see. So being the rube you are you say yes and empty your pocket and it says, “Sorry, not enough.” So you go to the money machine and take out some more and when you get back to the corner no one is there, which means you’ve lost the initial investment. But each time you come back to the street, you see the word waiting for you.

No it’s nothing like that. Because you do get to see the thing you’ve paid the money for if you keep coming back. But you better not have any expectation because if you do, you won’t see anything. The page turns blank with your expectations and only fills with you willingness to swing low over the pulp and things rise up behind you, like a wave that follows, like the wake that marks the path of the plow after it’s passed, and that’s how you know it’s been there. The riches it turns up in the mark that it makes, the deepness of the color, the darkness and the glimmer of richness against the dark where minerals are feeding the soil. But you have to turn it over, you have to dig it up, which means you have to love the dirt, because if you’re looking for diamonds, then you won’t see that you’ve got rich bottomland that can keep you fed for years, for eons, if you’re willing to plow the same field, keep turning the earth and mining the dark depth of it. The worms keep it alive. They’re way more valuable that diamonds. All the things you can’t see that break down all the things you can, that crawl with the patience of all the offal you throw on a pile and mix with straw and water and time so that you can grow whatever you want.
You pile the words and feed them and spread them on the plowed earth. Compost. Words are like compost and like soil and like nothing you expect and like nothing so much as time that won’t let you do anything until it’s ready.

All writing is waiting.

Waiting for the time to come to say it. To say whatever’s been waiting for you to get patient enough to say without thinking you came up with it and you’re some kind of genius or know something. It was lying fallow in the words all those years, waiting for you to turn them in your ordinary, plowing-the-field, preparing-the-soil way. The only way you ever get to find out anything that’s worth saying. Like it’s yours. Like it came from you. Like you know shit in the first place that you ever could get to language to do something rather than let it be willing to tell you what it wants to say. Like the language was ever anything but what needed to be said waiting for it’s time to speak.

Writing is waiting. Saying nothing and you say something, then saying something until you say something worth saying because you’ve finally been smart enough to know that anything ever said has said itself. For god’s sake, learn to close your mouth. Shut up and plow.