a torn map, a candle stub: writing mental illness
WILD AWAKE is coming out in five days. I've been hiding from the internet, but Techie Boyfriend informs me that there are already more words written about WILD AWAKE (in reviews, comments, note-comparing, and general chitter-chatter) than the 75,000 in the novel itself. I know this is just what happens with books in the internet age, but the speed and intensity still feels like one of those elevator rides where the ground rushes toward you in a stomach-dropping whoosh while you're still saying not ready! not ready!
I realize I've been rather secretive about basic WILD AWAKE questions like "What is it about?"—less from actual secrecy than from the bewilderment that comes when you get so used to waiting for your novel to come out that when it finally does, it catches you off-guard.
Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, I'd like to belatedly and somewhat redundantly tell you that WILD AWAKE is a story about a teen musician who has a summer of chaos, first love, mystery and adventure while her parents are away on vacation. It's a story about family; a story about grief; and yes, a story about mental illness, although you won't find that term in the book.
Many people experience some kind of mental Thing (to use Kiri's word) at some point in their lives, whether they self-identify with a word like "bipolar" or "schizophrenic" or not. As most of you already know, I am one of them. Mental illness can make you feel alone and terrified, especially as a young adult—like you're on a distant planet where nobody can reach you. Novels like Janet Frame's The Edge of the Alphabet saved me from that terror by giving voice to the strangeness, horror, and profound beauty of that place.
When people find out that I've written about mental illness, they often tell me about their friends and loved ones who didn't make it. They always use that expression—"didn't make it"—which I've always found interesting for its connotations of journeys and quests. Not everyone who gets called to the underworld makes it back alive. Not everyone who wrestles with the Minotaur wins.
The better I get to know my own underworld, the more I believe that the stories we tell ourselves about mental illness are a crucial factor in determining how many people do make it. Our songs, poems, and metaphors—the language available to us for talking about experiences which are more complex than almost anyone is willing to acknowledge—these things matter both for our survival as a society and as individuals.
I used to think that mental illness had clear answers, that you could take it apart like an IKEA desk and spread the pieces out neatly on the floor. Now, I'm not so sure. What I do know is that stories are powerful, and the right one can make the difference between coming back from the underworld and getting consumed by it. The right story can act like a torn map or a candlestub: imperfect, but maybe just enough to light the way.