How We Talk About Writing Matters

Nothing—and I mean nothing—flips my switch like people posting misinformation, bad advice, and intellectual fallacies under the hashtag #writetip.

If you follow me, you probably already get that I am not fond of rules. When it comes to writing, I’m a stickler for grammar and beautiful use of language, but when it comes to style, I can enjoy a lot as long as you pay attention to the first two. And that’s why most lists of “Rules of Writing” drive me nuts. They address—or hope to address—issues of style, not technique. And they seem to promote the idea that there’s some secret formula, some Über-style that will make agents and editors alike gasp in admiration and admit the writer to the hallowed halls of publication.

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Another thing that puts my knickers in a twist is people parroting back these lists of rules who demonstrate no comprehension of what they actually mean or where they might have come from. When I see lists making sweeping generalizations about what you should and should not include in your manuscript, my immediate reaction is to ask, “Who made you the authority?” Because I notice these tweets seldom come from successful authors I respect, or for that matter have even heard of.

 Yesterday this popped up in my Twitter feed:

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Of course, it got me going right from the start. I take exception to anyone telling me point blank what to delete from my manuscript. Some of those words and expressions may be overused by some writers. But there is no word or expression that is by nature “wrong,” or “bad” or “unnecessary.”

 Usually I ignore this stuff, because it just raises my blood pressure. Yesterday, I chose to address the person posting. I asked, “So, you don’t see any distinction between an action that is ongoing and one that has just begun?”

 Her response: “Well, sure, in the right context. But as a general rule it’s passive voice.”

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After I retrieved my jaw from my lap, I gently informed the poster that none of those items constituted passive voice and explained what passive voice actually means.  Her response: “I was speaking voice, not grammar. It’s static passive voice, but still, a majority of times, it needs to go.” I told her passive voice is a grammatical concern, not a stylistic one. Her response: “I think most people knew what I meant though. While technically, you’re correct, most people use the other term.”

Here I refrained from screaming, “THEN MOST PEOPLE ARE WRONG!!!”

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Later this happened:

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Do you see what’s going on here? I mean, aside from the backpedaling and justification. Really, people, how hard is it to admit you made a mistake and correct yourself? If you’re fighting about this, how do you take critique of your work? How are you ever going to cope with that hoped-for editor???

But that’s not my point. My point is the original poster did not have the language to talk about writing, and instead of acquiring it fell back on “I like to think most people know what I mean.”

What kind of attitude is that for a person who claims the use of words and language as her BUSINESS?

We are writers. Words are our medium. How we talk about what we do MAKES A DIFFERENCE. We need to pay attention, not only to the language in our stories, but the Meta-Language of writing, i.e., the words and terms we use to talk about what we do. There is absolutely no point in sharing rules about how to write if you don’t have any clarity of terms. These terms not only give us a common ground to discuss what we do, but also create an intelligible platform for sharing our work and ideas about our work with others. Without a common meta-language, we cannot even know what we value and what we don’t. We cannot talk about style versus technique. And we certainly cannot expect anyone to intuit what we mean. I don’t care if you felt limited by Twitter’s 140 character restriction. If you can’t express yourself clearly, you have no business trying to tell others how to express themselves.

You know, I get that language changes. Things are acceptable in writing now that were not acceptable when I was a kid in middle school. You can split infinitives. You can use “alright” instead of “all right,” something I was taught is never correct. You can say “Everyone has their hat” instead of “everyone has his hat.” Lots of these things still drive me batshit and I avoid them like the plague, but that’s just me. As I said earlier, I’m a stickler for grammar and technique. And the waters get muddy where technique and style collide.

But the evolution of language in popular culture is not the point here. Yes, colloquialisms may change, but the professional language of writers talking about writing does not. When I talk with a professor or an editor about “passive voice” it means the grammatical construct whereby the subject of the sentence receives the action. It is distinct and separate from a static stylistic choice and we all know that because the meta-language is consistent.

Our words are our tools. A builder might own both a brick hammer and a framing hammer, but he wouldn’t use the brick hammer to frame a house. We have lots of words in our toolbag, and we need to use the words that say what we mean. If you don’t know them, learn them. Refusing to do so makes all writers look bad.

And if you don’t care about that, think about this: it makes you look like a moron.

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5 Things I Hate About Having a Mental Illness

I have a mental illness and I hate it.

Actually, to be perfectly clear, I have several mental illnesses at once. I have Bipolar Disorder. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have Chronic Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I may have more, or fewer, depending on who’s diagnosing. But those are the major ones that come up over and over again.

I don’t know if these illnesses are mostly the result of nature or mostly the result of nurture. I think to be classified as illnesses these days, there has to be some chemical or brain-centered component. At least a predisposition to view things a certain way. This is the old break between neurosis and psychosis: one was at least assumed to have a basis in brain chemistry while the other was not. But science knows so little about the brain and how it works, I’m not sure anyone can really make the determination what’s inborn an what’s learned, or even what the difference is.

Anyway, I’ve had most of this stuff going on, to a greater or lesser degree, as far back as I can remember.

This is another strange way my brain works: That last sentence made me laugh, because I thought of the intro to the “Goodfeathers” segment of The Animaniacs.

I have a mental illness and I hate it. I don’t know if other people actively hate their mental illnesses. It’s funny. I’ve spent time as a patient in various locked psychiatric wards, and the topic has never come up. I never thought of it myself until just the other day, or at least never put it into specific words. I thought of my mental illness as frustrating, or difficult, or hard work, or something to overcome. I’ve asked the gods, the Universe, whatever powers you like, “Why is this my fate? Why is this my burden?” But I never before said the words: “I hate this illness and what it has done to me.”

I think it’s important to say these words, because my experience is that some people, people who have not had to cope with a mental illness or with loving a person coping with a mental illness, people who have not walked this road, assume there is something to like about it. Some benefit to it. I believe this comes from the psychological hypothesis that we do not practice behaviors unless we get some benefit from those behaviors, which is often used to rationalize bizarre and toxic shit away as “non-beneficial coping mechanisms.” And there is some truth to it. I can, myself, recognize that things I once did to protect myself may no longer be viable options. However, it gives the false idea that all mental illness is a choice. That we could choose not to have it, if only we understood how it hurts us. This attitude is really prevalent in the United States (and, I guess, Britain), where we want so much to believe that everything is a matter of will and effort and nothing is out of our control. But believe me, it’s not true. Most of us who suffer mental illnesses do understand how much is wrong. It doesn’t make any difference. As Mark Vonnegut said in The Eden Express, “Knowing I was crazy didn’t make the crazy stuff stop happening.”

And that’s The First Thing I Hate: I know. I am self-aware. I can see how I think and compare it with how a normal person thinks. I can see how I react in a situation and compare it to a normal person’s reaction. And I cannot make it stop. Pretending I’m normal does not make me normal. Practicing positive thinking or substituting other social behaviors does nothing at all for my overall mental health. They never become natural. They are always practiced, something acted, a role I play. My underlying feelings and experience do not change. There is no “faking it” ’til I “make it.” There is just faking it over and over and over until I can’t do it anymore. Until I realize my mental illness gets to say a lot more about my reality than my desires and my ego do, and I stop trying to fight it. Until next time.

The Second Thing I Hate: There is always a next time. Try as I might, I cannot accept this. I detest the idea that this illness limits me and defines me. I detest the idea that there are things I cannot do. I understand that everyone is different and comparisons are odious. Yet, I see things that other people my age have accomplished and I get so angry. So I push against my limits, which inevitably results in my falling into the kaleidoscope of delusional thought, where I have no idea what is real and what I have made up for some possible arcane reason of my own. And the only way out is to stop pushing, which in my mind equates to letting the mental illness win.

The Third Thing I Hate: People judge me. Mental illness is, for the most part, invisible. I don’t look like anyone’s stereotype of a person with a mental illness. I’ve got news for you: Almost no one does. But—this is hard to say, because it seems in my head to dismiss others, or at least I think that’s what people will think of me—I have it harder than some, because I’m smart and articulate. I had the advantage of a good education. I have incredible insight. Yet I cannot succeed at anything that can be measured by any normal social yardstick. I spent virtually the first fifty years of my life using every spare speck of energy fighting my mental illness. I have no kids, no career, no savings account. I have nothing to show for my efforts but the fact that I survived. Very few people give you credit for this, and no one pays for it.

The Fourth Thing I Hate: I hate stereotypes and the fact that I don’t fit any of them. Even the mental health professional who work and have worked with me do not understand my reality, and even they subscribe to stereotypes. I spent my adolescence being told I had “nothing wrong with me,” despite my personal experience to the contrary. Because at that point definitions of mental illness had not caught up to the fact that even white girls from middle class families can suffer suicidal ideation and “something wrong” does not necessarily mean babbling and drooling and not knowing who’s President. Even now, when I go to my regular evaluation and my case worker asks me if I’ve experienced any hallucinations, I do not know how to answer. No, I do not experience visual and aural hallucinations as a rule. But I experience emotional hallucinations. I know in my soul that I am in trouble, that people are going to find me out and come to punish me, that I am bad and wrong by nature. This knowledge is as real to me as the sky being blue. In times of extreme stress, I experience confusion and delusional thinking, but it’s not like believing I’m Napoleon or anything like that. It’s spinning wheels, not being able to make the pieces fit together in a way that satisfies me and so I keep pulling them apart and rearranging them and every single way I put them together has truth and fits and I can’t know what’s real. What’s true.

The Fifth Thing I Hate: There are lots of things I could put here. I hate not being able to contribute to my family’s well-being the way I would like, because a lot of normal activities, like participating in a job on any kind of regular basis, drive me to the place where I honestly think dying would be a better option than having to do it anymore. I hate looking at people twenty years younger than me achieving things I would dearly love to achieve and knowing that, despite my talents and education, so much is out of my grasp. I hate the fact that I lose a grip on what is going on in my life sometimes, because my brain normalizes abusive situations and so I let things I should avoid go on too long. Or I avoid things I should participate in because I know my brain normalizes abusive situations and I don’t trust myself to know what’s actually happening. Everything’s a huge crap shoot to me. Things randomly occurring while my brain goes through contortions to put them in context and make patterns. Things others might find moderately stressful send me into the thought spiral of doom.

But I think, really, the fifth thing I hate is being so tired all the time. Of fighting and never winning. Of being on this roller coaster for life, with yeah, maybe some improvements—after all, they did eventually invent a medication that works for me and it only took thirty years—but never actually being able to escape the cycle of good days and bad days. Knowing there will always be days when all I can do is remind myself to keep breathing until tomorrow. I don’t get that happy ending, that one wonderful reward for all my hard work in living. There is no uplifting lesson, no moral. There’s just this: my life.

And yeah, I’m writing this on a fairly bad day. I took on something that’s proving too much for me (I think) and it’s pushing all my buttons about myself and mental illness and life. It’s the worst thought spiral I’ve been in since the last time I was in the hospital. Which is to say, I’m in an incredibly unpleasant place right now.

But that doesn’t change the fact.

I have a mental illness, and I hate it.

Good Pain/Bad Pain

My celebrity crush released a fitness book about a month ago.

Oh, all right. My celebrity crush is Joe Manganiello. But, I mean!!! Can you blame me? Look at that smile!

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Just LOOK at it!

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Not to mention the rest of him…

wet2joe-manganiello-coachella-2012-04222012-13-435x580 Anyway. My point. About a month ago, Joe released a fitness book, which has been doing quite well, with reason. I own two copies. I’ve read it twice. And not only does he give some straightforward, no-holds-barred on fitness and body-building, he also talks a lot about overcoming barriers to motivation and other things that are useful on many levels, not just in the fitness world.

As you might expect, there have been a lot of people tweeting #Evolution since the book hit the shelves. Mr. Manganiello retweets a fair number of these posts, and he seems to take particular delight in sharing the ones where people are talking about how the workouts in the book have changed their lives. A large number of these mention being in a huge amount of pain from people pushing themselves to go beyond what they’d accomplished before.

Yesterday I tweeted a comment on this phenomenon, because I find all these retweets amusing on a perverse level. And I added, “I get it, though. Pain means you’re doing the work.”

After I pressed “send,” though, I wondered if I truly believed that. And it got me thinking about pain and the different things it means. See, I’ve spent a large portion of my life dealing with pain that hasn’t meant anything of the kind. Emotional pain from trauma and chronic depression. Physical pain from migraines. Neither of those kinds of pain indicate that I’m doing any kind of work at all. They just exist. They’re like alien invaders to my body and psyche, things I just have to wait out, breathe through, and hope they go away.

There’s the pain of rejection and the pain of injuries. There’s the pain that comes from a friend’s betrayal, from when something just isn’t right in a relationship. There’s the pain you cope with after a major surgery, and the pain of fighting a debilitating disease. I’ve read before that pain is a sign of something wrong and you shouldn’t ignore it, and I believe that. Pain means something needs to change, and sometimes you have the power to change it and sometimes you don’t.

But change itself is painful, almost always. Ending a bad relationship and moving on. Conquering a fear, conquering an addiction.  Deciding to distance yourself from an abusive family or friend when everyone around you preaches compassion and forgiveness. Having a cancerous organ removed. Working to change your body and/or adopt a healthier lifestyle. All of these actions can be seen as positive (I say “can be” because there are people who will undoubtedly argue the last point). Yet they still hurt. And my experience is, there isn’t even much qualitative difference in the WAY they hurt. On some level, pain is pain.

So how do you know when it’s good pain and when it’s bad pain? And more important, how do you keep from dismissing someone’s bad pain with sententious garbage like positive thinking mantras and similar bullshit? Society has it in for pain. It makes people uncomfortable. They don’t want to be around it. They want it to go away. They want to say things like, “Pain means you’re doing the work” whether or not it’s true.

Sometimes it’s easy to know the difference. When I sat down to clean the bathroom cabinets the other day and rammed my back into the toilet with the force of a rock hurled from a trebuchet, that was bad pain. I didn’t need the subsequent inability to walk straight to tell me I had injured myself (It’s getting better, slowly).

Sometimes it’s not so easy to know  Personal example: I’m working hard on coming out from under my rock and being more social, more open. I’m trying to make contact with other people in writing and people in publishing, trying to gain more acceptance as a writer. This is one of the hardest things I have ever done. It goes against my grain and against my conditioning to think of myself as wrong and inadequate, to stay out of the light and keep my mouth shut. It’s painful, and all my instincts are screaming at me to back away and stop doing this insane thing. Yet I’m fairly sure I’m working toward a positive change.

When you take up a new activity, your body hurts. When I was in college, every time I went back into the dance studio after a semester break I hurt all over for about a week. Sometimes I had to go down stairs backwards because my calves were in so much pain from doing plié/relevé sequences. I’ll spare you the details about how muscle-building works and just say that’s normal. I kept at it and got over it.

But then, I had teachers who were invested in dancing in ways that don’t damage the body. In the dance world, not all are. Some schools promote pain for pain’s sake, because the human body really isn’t meant to do the things those schools want their dancers to do. I know ballerinas who are in pain all the time, who take bleeding feet as a matter of course. Myself, I’d say that’s bad pain, something you need to find a way to stop, particularly if you don’t want to be crippled by the time you’re thirty.

I see the same thing in the diet/fitness industry. Despite claims to the contrary, I honestly do not believe everyone can achieve the same kind of body, the same kind of muscularity, the same muscle-to-fat ratio.  We’re just not all designed the same, nor do we all have the same desires for our bodies, and that’s fine. Lots of prominent people in the fitness world would agree with me, I think. At least, in the January 2014 issue of Muscle and Fitness, editor Shawn Perrine talks about learning he didn’t have the right body type to build like Schwarzenegger, and adapting to his training to suit his more gymnast-like physique. But we still hear that we can all achieve that perfect body if we just work hard enough. And I have to wonder, how many people are working to the point of bad pain in the hopes of achieving an impossible goal?

Honestly, I have no answers to any of these questions. It’s just, my post the other day got me thinking and asking the questions, the way I do.

How do you tell the difference between good pain and bad pain? I’d love to hear from you.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading this mystery series about a samurai detective in feudal Japan. I like it a lot. It’s well-written and engaging, and the author has really done her research into the details of Bushido and life in Japan in the 17th century.

But she has one habit that bothers me quite a bit. On almost every page, she uses an intransitive verb for a transitive verb. Things like “Thunder rumbled the sky,” and “Tension tingled the air.” It makes me cringe. Every. Time.

I can understand why she might have done this. As writers, we’re encouraged to “use active language” to engage readers and keep the story moving. The problem is, not all “active” verbs are equal. You simply cannot substitute any old verb for any other verb you like better, because it has a more “active” sound.

Transitive and intransitive, people. Both can be “active.” But they do different things.

Transitive verbs take objects. “The boy threw the ball.” “I broke my coffee mug.” The verb indicates that a change in state has occurred. Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, do not take objects. “I walked down the street.” “She appeared in the doorway.” They are often followed by prepositional phrases, and they have less to do with a change in state than with describing an ongoing process. Both transitive and intransitive verbs can be either active or passive in voice, and both can tell the reader that something is happening. But a transitive verb tells you about something happening to something else. An intransitive verb just tells you what took place.

The author of those mysteries could have corrected the sentences in the two examples I gave simply by adding a few words. She could have said, “Thunder rumbled through the sky” and “Tension tingled in the air.” Yeah, okay–that last one is a bit of a stretch. I personally would turn it around to say, “The air tingled with tension.” My point is, both tingling and rumbling are ongoing states of being. They don’t depict a change.

The thing is, there are so many transitive verbs the author could have used. She could have said, “Thunder shattered the sky.” Perfectly good transitive verb chock full of imagery. Or, “Tension electrified the air.” I can’t imagine why she would have made the choices she made unless she didn’t know the difference. She may not; I’m not sure she’s a native English speaker. But I would have hoped an editor would catch that kind of thing before the books went to print.

This subject carries over into another pet peeve of mine: Please, people, learn the difference between “lie” and “lay.” When I hear educated people saying things like “I’m going to go lay down,” it hurts my brain.”Lay/Laid/Laid” is a transitive verb. As I made clear above, transitive verbs take objects. “The chicken lays an egg. She laid one yesterday, and she had laid one the day before that.” “Lie/Lay/Lain” is the intransitive verb. “I lie down in the grass, I lay there yesterday and I had lain there for years.” I do understand the confusion that comes from common misuse combined with the fact that the present tense of the transitive verb is the same as the past tense of the intransitive. But I do expect people who love words and writing to get it right.

Just to reiterate: Transitive verbs take objects. Intransitive verbs don’t, and, more importantly, can’t. It’s that simple.

Another Word for Depression, Redux

This morning I read a blog post on maintaining creativity through depression. I wanted to like more than I did. I appreciated the candor with which the author shared her experience, and I completely agreed with her when she said that writers tend to get isolated and lonely and down in the dumps and need support from each other.

So what’s the problem? I took exception to her use of the word “depression.” Now, obviously I have NO CLUE of her personal experience. I don’t know this person at all, had never heard of her before. I only know what I read. But what I read made me sigh. It did indeed sound like she’d had some horrible, stressful stuff going on. But the way she recommended dealing was a lot of the same old stuff. “Force yourself to write.” “Get some exercise.” And all like that. Which made me think, “If you’re able to say that, you don’t actually know depression.”

I get super particular about the way people casually bandy around terms for mental illnesses to describe temporary states of consciousness, as represented here:

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Because, I’ve got news for you:

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When you say shit like that it sounds to a real person with one of those real illnesses like you are dismissing their real, possibly life-threatening, medical condition. It sounds like, “Yesterday I was feeling really diabetic!”  And it makes us think:

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Anyway, in light of all that, I thought I’d re-publish a blog from about a year ago that talks about the reality of depression. Here it is.

This Tumblr post has been making the rounds. I first saw it last night. Because it speaks to something meaningful and incredibly relevant to me, I shared it. Since then, I have seen it everywhere. More people in my friends list have shared it in the last eighteen hours than anything else I’ve ever posted, ever.

In case you don’t feel like clicking the link and reading it for yourself, the post talks about what it’s like to suffer from severe, ongoing depression. It starts out “Depression is humiliating. It turns intelligent, kind people into zombies who can’t wash a dish or change their socks.” It goes on from there.

From my perspective, the post paints a poignant and accurate picture of what it’s like living with this illness. And it begs people who have had the good fortune never to experience it to stop judging, to listen, pay attention, and show compassion. From my perspective, this latter is what people suffering from depression want and need, and it’s a thing they don’t often get.

Why does my perspective matter? Those of you who know me will already know. For those of you who don’t know me: I have struggled with chronic severe depression my entire life. I live with it every day. I don’t really want to go into the details here. I don’t think I should have to do that for my point to be valid.

I’ve noticed an interesting thing with this post: people who understand it, whether they’ve suffered from depression themselves or seen a loved on go through it, share it. And people who don’t, or don’t seem to, understand it comment on it. Obviously I’m a single person and cannot have complete knowledge of how this post is making the rounds of the internet. And I have seen a few comments from people who do seem to understand what it’s talking about. But overall, my experience is as I have stated above.

You might ask how I can make the determination that the people commenting do not understand the experience. It’s because of what they have said. Things like, “this post is making something seem insurmountable when it’s not,” and “If you feel so bad you should get help” and “anti-depressants aren’t the answer; you need to learn to manage your thinking better.” Things that obviously come from the poster’s own bias and agenda. Things that tell me the posters have not done the thing the original Tumblr post begs them to do: Stop judging and listen.

I don’t like the word “defensive.” In my experience, it’s one of those psycho-babble terms that has come into common use without people knowing what it means, and it often gets used as a substitute for “you’ve said something that makes me uncomfortable and I don’t want to think about it, so I’m going to accuse you of speaking from your bias in order to invalidate you.” This happens a lot on the internet, where you have only print on a screen to tell you what might be on a person’s mind, and you lack the intonation and body language and all the subtle little signals that give a statement depth. From words alone, you cannot possibly tell whether a person is being defensive or not–unless, of course, s/he launches off into some completely unrelated or self-justifying tangent, or starts with the name-calling (also not uncommon on the internet). But honestly, the word gets a bad rap. What in the world is wrong with standing up for yourself or other people you care about? Isn’t that what defending something means?

Anyway, I tend to be defensive of my experience and other people who have had similar experiences. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. I do not like it when people tell me, or another person in pain, to “just get over it,” or “pull up the big girl panties,” or “you have no reason to feel that,” or when they suggest I try prayer or meditation or this or that new therapy. I do not like it when people assume that in forty years of being cognizant of my own mental health issues I have not tried every damn thing on the face of the earth to have a normal life. That I am not still trying. Every day.

See, the number one thing that sucks about depression is the way people who have never experienced it cling to this belief that they have any idea at all what it’s like. Even if a person has experienced it, s/he cannot know what it’s like for another person experiencing it. Because it’s a mental process, and that makes it subjective by definition. We can guess. We can extrapolate. We can compare. But we can’t know.

And a sad truth is, many people–even many people who are supposed to have some understanding, like professionals, and many people who are supposed to be your support system, like friends and family–do not want to know. Which is understandable. There is enough pain in life; why go reaching for someone else’s pain? There is enough horror; why put yourself in someone else’s nightmare? Human beings–hell, probably all creatures–want to feel good, and we want those around us to feel good. Because we’re a social species, we feel guilty when those around us don’t feel good. We think we’ve done something. We think it’s our fault. It’s uncomfortable, and we want to make it better. And when we can’t, or the people we are trying to comfort don’t respond in the way we want them to, we get mad. At them. And we stop listening.

This is not helpful.

It’s also not helpful to keep assuming you know know what you’re talking about. I think probably a lot of people will find this a harsh statement; after all, we like to think we know what we know. I’d like to point out, though, that quite a few spiritual systems hold that the first step to wisdom is acknowledging your own ignorance. Keeping an  open and receptive mind. Practicing non-judgment.

When people assume they understand what a person suffering from depression is going through, it allows them to perpetuate a whole lot of unhelpful behaviors that only add to the problem. Because they have no measuring stick other than their own experience, they can honestly believe and purport that the pain of a person who wakes up every morning wondering if s/he’s going to survive the day is on the same level as their own that week after the bad break-up with the boyfriend or girlfriend. And this is a bad example, because for a person with chronic depression that bad break-up could be the thing that initiates the spiral. For people without chronic depression, however, it’s a glitch. It’s something you get over and move on. And please forgive me if I seem to be invalidating your grief, here. But it’s true.

The thing is, people with severe chronic depression cannot move on. They cannot choose to. It’s beyond our control. It’s like being on a ride at Disneyland: once you get in the little car, you’re stuck going wherever that car takes you until it stops. Except we did not choose to be on this ride. Most of us were born here.

This is why people’s suggestions about how to relate to depression often strike those of us who suffer it as sententious bullshit. Praying is not going to get me off this ride. Neither is meditation, or drinking wheat grass juice. I cannot change my mind in the middle of the roller coaster track, before the plunge. No one will let me off. Praying, meditation, diet, exercise, therapy, all your suggestions may be useful tools. They may help a person keep breathing until the ride is over, for the time. But they do not eradicate the brain chemistry that makes one prone to depression in the first place.

It’s not a funk. It’s not a phase. It’s not something a person chooses or can control. It isn’t. As long as a person continues to believe that, s/he is perpetuating the difficulty of living with the nightmare.

This is why I believe we need another word. A person who wakes up feeling a bit off and says to him- or herself, “I’m a little depressed today” is reinforcing the notion that depression is a singular thing, and that they know it. And that allows them to continue devaluing the experience of those for whom it isn’t just today, or a little bit, but is a constant struggle. It allows them to continue not to listen.

And to continue to miss the point that the original post was trying to make in the first place.

If you want to read more about the experience of clinical depression, you could do worse than to go here and here.

The Passive Voice: A Brief Tutorial

A few years ago, I participated in an on-line writing group. I’m not generally a joiner, but I thought I’d give it a go. And I did get some advice from various members that helped me hone my writing, so that’s a good thing.

Anyway, the first time I submitted a chapter to the group, one of the other members sent it back with all instances of the word “was” highlighted. She told me, “You should eliminate the passive from your work.” I started looking at what she had marked, and I noticed that I did, indeed, use the word “was” a lot, and that it seemed to slow down the flow of the narrative. I also noticed that very few instances of that word represented true usage of the passive voice.

 Five years later, I still mark instances of “was” (along with “that” and “just” and “really”) in my first drafts. And they’re still very rarely the passive voice. But the antipathy toward passive voice lives on. I’ve seen a number of internet discussions on it. The thing is, very few people seem to know what the passive voice is. I think this may be because “the rules” cause them to avoid it, and you can’t understand something you’re avoiding. Unfortunately, if you don’t understand something, you can’t properly avoid it, either. So here is my brief tutorial on the Passive Voice.

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Passive Voice means the subject of your sentence receives the action. It puts the agency outside your character (or whatever you happen to be talking about). Recently one acquaintance remarked that she uses Bart Simpson saying “mistakes were made” as an example, because it shows him not claiming responsibility. Well, that is the Passive Voice, but ownership or lack of it isn’t the reason. The reason it’s passive is that the subject of the sentence (mistakes) had something done to them (were made). Bart could have owned the action by saying “Mistakes were made by me,” and the construction would still be passive.

 The mere existence of the simple past tense of the verb “to be” is not necessarily indicative of the Passive Voice. You need to take the agency away as well. It’s true, you may want to look at an overabundance of that particular verb form, because “was” is static. It’s experiential, and while a character’s experiences are an important part of writing, they don’t always move the story. Replacing them can lead to more picturesque writing. Compare, “the tree was in the meadow” with “the tree towered over the grasses and wildflowers in the meadow.” With the second, you’ve placed the tree in the same place, but you’ve made it do something other than just stand there. You’ve also given yourself the opportunity to paint a better picture of the setting (adding the grasses and the wildflowers in contrast to the tree).

 Here’s where some confusion comes in. In that example, the second sentence is indeed more “active.” However, it was never “passive” in terms of voice. Nothing happened to the tree. If I had said, “the tree was struck by lightning,” then the tree would have received the action, and the construction would be passive.

 I like to make a distinction between “passive” and “static.” Lots of things are static that are not passive. Descriptive language like similes and metaphors is most often static. “The moon was like a big cheese on the horizon,” or “The cat was a monster.” Sometimes you can eliminate the static language and sometimes you can’t. It’s up to you whether you want to.

Personally, I don’t have it in for the Passive Voice. There are times you might want to use it. If your protagonist gets swept away by a flood, she might very well be feeling a lack of agency which you want to promote. Or, you could turn it around and say, “The flood swept her away.” It just depends on what you want to convey. Just remember, if your characters continually lack agency, they might not be very interesting.

 The End.

Shame is Shame

In the week since The Militant Baker announced Smash the Scale, I’ve seen a lot of reaction to it here and there around the web. Most has been positive, but a noticeable amount has been negative. Most of the negative is about what you’d expect: some variation on “look at these fat, lazy bitches trying to make their lack of dedication to my concept of beauty into something powerful, instead of feeling properly ashamed of themselves.” Or “Fat is NEVER healthy, because I know better than your doctor and I have totally bought into the diet industry.”

But one particular negative reaction has really stuck with me, through meditation and acupuncture sessions and, well, other important things like sleep. I got angry when I read it, and despite attempts to say “Yo, Haters gonna Hate,” I can’t seem to let go of it. I have to respond.

See, this negative reaction said this:

“…all these women still have privilege, whether it be white privilege, education privilege, or the privilege to be able to choose what they eat, much less eat at all. First world privilege. Is there a way to feel good about yourself without being a self-important victim? Yes. It’s like they pick the one thing they can rightly feel bad about and make their entire life revolve around it. It’s kind of pathetic because it’s all for attention, and to salve the self esteem of women who think boldly going against some grain makes them mavericks and martyrs.
Self esteem is a private and inside job. Publicly smashing scales as some type of ceremonial is certainly cool, but is worthless in the long run.”

This annoys me on SO MANY levels.

First off, okay, let’s talk about privilege. Privilege seems to be a new buzz word for people who want to continue being angry at anyone they disagree with. And okay, you know, I get that. I get being angry. I get wanting people to recognize their privilege and own their advantages in life. But there’s a fallacy at work in the mindset of those who go around pointing out privilege, and that is this: One kind of privilege DOES NOT cancel out subjective experience of pain in another area.

Back in the eighties, I had some friends who were born in Communist Czechoslovakia, a brother and a sister. Their father was a scientist, and the government wouldn’t let the family leave. Eventually, they came into contact with someone who smuggled the family out of the country in disguise and separated. The brother, at six, was disguised as a girl. The sister, at two, was smuggled out in a suitcase. The brother remembered having to go past the armed guards at the border and being frightened his disguise would fail and he’d be killed.

I consider that a pretty damn traumatic experience. But neither of them ever thought it gave them leave to tell other people they had no right to be dissatisfied with life and the way the world works. And it would never occur to me to dismiss their experience because they happened to be white and educated.

I can give myself as another example. Here’s a brief list of my personal privilege: I’m white. I have a roof over my head. I’m educated (BA in Dance Therapy, in case you care). I have a high IQ. I read. Actually, I LIKE to read might be more accurate. I have mad math skills. I’m cisgendered and heterosexual. I’m married. Married to an educated, fairly enlightened man, in fact. I have numerous talents, which include cooking and sewing. I have understanding in-laws. I live in a country that operates on fairly Democratic principles. I don’t have to worry about secret police dragging me from my bed because of something I said to someone (at least as far as I know). I have access to the internet. I have clothes and shoes to wear, and some of them aren’t even purely serviceable. I am physically able: not in a wheelchair or on crutches.

I think I could go on, but you get the picture.

Here’s a list of the way I am not privileged. I’m a woman. I’m fat. (Oh, but I’m pear-shaped fat, not apple-shaped fat, so even within this grade of non-privilege, I have privilege.) I have three mental illnesses (or four, depending who’s doing the diagnosing): I’m bipolar, I have PTSD, I have chronic depressive disorder, and I have general anxiety disorder. I suffer from migraines, which are a real, neurological disorder, in case you didn’t know. And all those disorders are invisible illnesses, which means I often get dissed by strangers who have no idea. I am financially poor, and I mean POOR; my husband and I, despite education and other kinds of privilege, subsist on a poverty-level income.

Again, I could probably go on if I felt like stretching my brain. But I don’t.

The thing is, everyone has privilege and everyone lacks it. Yes, even those despicable one-percenters lack some kinds of privilege. There is absolutely NO call to dismiss another person’s personal struggle on the grounds of privilege. You know, I read a lot of articles written by people of color that talk about having large, supportive families who push them. I didn’t have that, but it would NEVER occur to me to tell someone that their experience of racism didn’t count because they had “Large Family Privilege.” It’s simply daft. AND, it’s another kind of shaming. I’m not a big fan of shame, which is essentially telling anybody they should feel bad about something because you don’t agree with them. Yeah, there may be some rich white bastards out there who need to get a clue. That’s no excuse to use the privilege line as another reason to put shame on people whose activism you don’t like.

And in case you don’t see how pointing out privilege in this case is just more shaming, re-read that quote. Especially this line: “It’s kind of pathetic because it’s all for attention, and to salve the self esteem of women who think boldly going against some grain makes them mavericks and martyrs.” Just let that roll around in your mind for a minute. And then tell me it isn’t making a judgment against people the author does not know, whose experiences she has not experienced. Why in the world does she think she has ANY idea of these women’s reasons for doing what they’re doing?

And another thing: Can I tell you how very much I HATE the whole, “just doing it for attention” dogma?? Please explain to me in what reality asking for attention is a bad thing, because I don’t want to live there. Also, please reference any kind of activism that isn’t about drawing attention to something? If we’re going to dismiss the smashing of scales as a statement that is “worthless in the long run,” how do we reconcile that with other demonstrations, like women in the Temperance movement smashing liquor bottles, or strikers picketing for fair labor conditions, or human rights activists sitting in restricted areas of restaurants and busses? Or anything? I think probably this question is going to let me in for a lot of censure, but I would really like to know.

This is my take-away from the comment I have referenced:

“I’m uncomfortable with what you’re doing! Shut up and stop making me uncomfortable! And if you won’t, I’m going to do my best to make you feel bad about what you’re doing!”

Which makes me think THIS:

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Activism is speaking out. Activism is doing things that may not make immediate sense to the people not participating. That may make the people not participating uncomfortable, so that they try to dismiss the activism in any way they can. By that standard, I think Smash the Scale is working.

But I wish, someday, for a world where people can support others’ activism instead of myriad little interest groups all looking for ways to dismiss causes they’ve judged trivial as “Not Good Enough.”