ANGER

From Angle of Reflection:

“Ben wanted to see Michel’s organic vineyards and chemical neighbors again. It wasn’t far. He couldn’t look at these two plots of land without believing the absence of intrusive chemicals just had to be better for everyone, for the entire ecosystem of the vineyard, including the people and animals who worked there. So why was he introducing foreign substances into his own body to alter the natural balance? Anti-depressant medications were unnatural and they worked in subtle and insidious ways: reinforcing harmful behavior by making you comfortable with it, reinforcing passivity by making it seem acceptable behavior. Depression is difficult, but rounding off the edges doesn’t help. It just makes it worse. He had made his decision.”

Ben decided to change because he didn’t like the way he felt, or didn’t feel, and because he had come to believe in the need for man to live with, and work from what nature gives.

Now I’ve begun to look into the research on anti-depressant medication – something I should have done long ago – and what I’m reading is making me angry. Whether I would have had this reaction while still taking the meds is an open question, but I feel healthier just being able to feel the anger.

The first stop was the first of a series of NY Times opinion articles by a writer named Diana Spechler called “Breaking Up With My Meds.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/breaking-up-with-my-meds/?_r=0

Her condition would seem to be more severe than mine, but her description of some of the side-effects of the medication was similar.

Here’s the paragraph that hit home:

My thinking is slowed, my creativity stymied. When I work, I feel as though boulders are strapped to my brain. I’m constantly thirsty. I’ve lost my taste for exercise, a mood-enhancer I’ve long relied on, and become more sedentary than I’ve ever been. Perhaps most disruptive of all, depression still lies, dead weight, on top of me — a few hours here, a few hours there — and medicated, I feel less motivation to wriggle out from under it.

Embedded in the article was a link to a piece from 2011 in The New York Review of Books titled: “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” By Marcia Angell, Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine 
at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. She discusses three books on psychiatry and the use of anti-depressant drugs

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/

Here are the three books she discusses:

The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth by Irving Kirsch

Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker

Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry—A Doctor’s Revelations About a Profession in Crisis  by Daniel Carlat

I don’t intend to summarize or criticize any of these works, read Angell’s article, but as always with this blog I want to explore my personal reactions to what is significant in my world and, specifically, how it affects creativity.

I feel so strongly that trashing the meds has enabled me to reach an emotional awareness that has, in turn, allowed me to write with a greater precision, clarity, and depth than ever before. That’s only my belief, but at this stage, it’s the only one that counts.

Kirsch has two major theses, both strongly supported by the data he presents. One: anti-depressant medications are no more effective than the placebos used to control clinical trials, and this fact is well known to the pharmaceutical companies, the FDA, and doctors who have taken the time to read the literature. It is easy to understand why nothing is done about it: the drug companies make a lot of money selling these meds, the FDA receives half its funding from the drug companies, and the doctors don’t have anything else to offer their patients.

Two: The marketing and prescribing of these meds is based on the theory that depression is caused by a chemical balance resulting in a deficiency of neurotransmitters in the brain. There is no evidence that this is true. None.

The meds are designed to increase the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain, thereby acting on a condition that is not proven to exist.

Here, from Angell’s work is the nut of the problem:

“…because certain antidepressants increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, it was postulated that depression is caused by too little serotonin. (These antidepressants, like Prozac or Celexa, are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) because they prevent the reabsorption of serotonin by the neurons that release it, so that more remains in the synapses to activate other neurons.) Thus, instead of developing a drug to treat an abnormality, an abnormality was postulated to fit a drug.

That was a great leap in logic, as all three authors point out. It was entirely possible that drugs that affected neurotransmitter levels could relieve symptoms even if neurotransmitters had nothing to do with the illness in the first place (and even possible that they relieved symptoms through some other mode of action entirely). As Carlat puts it, “By this same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain conditions is a deficiency of opiates, since narcotic pain medications activate opiate receptors in the brain.” Or similarly, one could argue that fevers are caused by too little aspirin.

That’s interesting and amusing, but here’s the real problem for me: once a person is put on a psychiatric medication, which, in one manner or another, throws a wrench into the usual mechanics of a neuronal pathway, his or her brain begins to function…abnormally.

So here’s the deal: these drugs (SSRIs) increase the level of serotonin in the brain, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence that my depression or anyone else’s resulted from a deficiency of serotonin. In my case, the result was an enormous dulling of emotions, loss of mental acuity and creativity, and an increase in passivity that kept me from trying to overcome the effects of depression. I believe it worsened over time but can’t say for sure; it may be that changed circumstances finally forced me to recognize what was happening all along.

For me, the only way past this was to quit taking the meds. I feel very strongly that this has resulted in reversing these debilitating conditions and that has, in turn, freed me to write the insight and clarity I was seeking. We’ll see.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Reading Aloud

The hardest part of the transition from photographer to writer is mastering the difference in the creative process.

In many types of photography the creative act is instantaneous. To reduce it to its most basic Cartier-Bresson decisive moment: see it, shoot it. Of course, there’s a lot that must happen before that moment in order to be in position to capture it, but the act of creativity really does take place in an instant. This is true of almost any journalistic type of photography but also holds for portraiture, fashion, even landscapes; any time the subject is alive, or changing light is an element.

Even when there’s a great deal of pre-production preparation and post-production processing and elements of creativity are spread throughout the process, even then, the critical creative act is the instant of releasing the shutter.

Only still life photography is exempt from this and only when the lighting is fully controlled. Maybe that’s why the French call it nature morte.

The act of writing a novel is a very different process.

Larry Walker sent me a quote from William Faulkner on the subject:

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

That was certainly true of my first novel – but then the work began and hasn’t yet been completed. The creative process evolves from writing to editing and the number of revisions mounts at an alarming rate. It amazed me how often I could revise the same text and still find absolute clunkers that had to go. I would repeat the process until I hated every word then take a break and ask a friend to read it, after which I could admit that not every word was worthless and revise yet again.

Now, I’ve revised my revision process. I found that when I had trouble with a passage, reading it aloud would often point to the problem. When I stumbled over the reading, it was because either the thought or the language was unclear. In dialogue, it showed mostly in the placement of the “he said, she said” attributions. But in expository passages, reading aloud revealed awkward structures or fuzzy thinking. Enough time and consideration would eventually lead me to an improvement, often after several iterations, and I learned that when the words flowed easily from my mouth they were just better written.

I mentioned this to my friend Jess, who said she’d love to hear my reading, so I recorded the first chapter and sent it to her. In doing so, I discovered a new process: record, then listen while reading the text, stop to revise where needed and record again. Repeat until the words sound right.

Not exactly ready for “This American Life,” but Jess now has a podcast for one, and I’ve discovered an editing tool that works well for me.

I don’t know if other writers work this way. I’d love to hear from anyone who does.

Charting Progress

It’s been a month without medication. I’ve been keeping a journal, a daily emotional temperature chart, and a few trends have emerged.

One: I’ve been able to stabilize sleep patterns and that’s a big relief. I sleep through the night now and wake feeling rested, most of the time. Occasional glitches, but that’s always been true.

Two: the Hallmark emotional moments continue, but there was also genuine bad news this week and my response was real, nakedly emotional, and appropriate. My emotional range has expanded and I’m grateful for that. The medication was designed to flatten the roller coaster, but I don’t think I need that anymore. I need to feel it all.

Three: My internal censors are breaking down. I’m much more inclined to say what I’m feeling and I tend to think that for the most part, this is a positive thing, as long as it doesn’t become a burden to others, and as long as I don’t use it in a constant search for positive reinforcement.

It is definitely a good thing for the development of Angle of Reflection, allowing the exploration of Ben’s character to deepen and to provide the opportunity for change and growth. In early chapters, while searching for intimacy, Ben tends to deflect challenges to his defenses with humor.

“So making the photo becomes a way of making the connection?” Emma asked.

“It does, usually the object is nothing more than a good portrait, one that reveals some truth about the subject. By the way, I’ve always wondered about the method, I mean seeking to make a connection with a camera hiding your face? Anyway, it worked for us and the connection was profound, and I have the pho­to too. Someday that might be all I have.”

“Do you worry about that?”

“I think about it. I try not to. I try to just enjoy what is happening now, but some­times I can’t help it.”

“You need a bit of the yogi in you. Live in the moment.”

“The only Yogi I know used to be a catcher for the Yankees.”

 

This will change.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Ben and Sarah Talk About Medication

“Ben, you need the meds. They help you function. They’ll help you make sense of things.”

“No, they make it worse. I can function. I’m not even sure I could write a novel if I were taking them. I mean. I’ve never written one before, never tried while I was on the drugs.”

“Ben, listen to me. I’ve known you and loved you for a long time. You have depression. You can’t change that. It’s some kind of chemical imbalance and the meds get you part of the way back. Going off the medication only makes it worse.”

“I don’t think it does. I think I’m pretty stable. I just wish I slept better. But there’s something that keeps me from making a real connection to others, to someone I really need, like Emma. And I think it’s the meds.”

“Think, Ben, maybe it’s not you or the meds, maybe it’s her. It’s not hard to imagine that your relationship just isn’t right for her.”

Ben fell silent for a moment, just long enough to consider that and reject it. “But what if that’s true because she hasn’t been able to get close enough, because I won’t let her, even if I think I am?”

“Ben, what separates you from connection, from emotion, is not the meds; it’s the depression. Think back to before you were on the drugs. Remember your family, how you always felt disconnected. That’s who you are. It’s not what the drugs do to you. You know this. I’ve heard you say it yourself. Please trust me.”

“Sarah, I know you mean well; I’m just not sure you’re right. You’ve been on these meds as long, maybe longer than me. Maybe this creates a challenge to you. Maybe I’m leaving your sphere of influence and that threatens you. It shouldn’t. It has nothing to do with you. This is about me, only me. I really want to write this novel and I think I have to get as close to the bone as possible to do it. I can’t be removed and dispassionate and still convey passion.”

“That’s nonsense Ben and you know it. You’re confusing your book and your life and making about as much sense as a Raymond Chandler plot. You don’t have to experience something to be able to write about it; did you have to drive into that cliff so you could write about it, or did we have that accident because your mind was elsewhere?”

“God damn it, Sarah. It’s my fucking life. Stop trying to produce it.” His anger was so rare, it startled both of them. Sarah was reeling. This just wasn’t Ben. “You’re wrong, Sarah, this is me. Me without the drugs. Me being honest. Not afraid of the anger. I need to feel this.”

“Ben, I don’t know what to say. You have reasons to be angry with me but this isn’t one of them. I’m trying to help.”

Angle of Reflection 

©2015 Ron Scherl

 

 

Chapter Two

Here’s a bit of text from Raffi Khatchadourian’s article in this week’s New Yorker on the development of emotion recognition software. He’s writing about a scientist named Rosalind Picard who did much of the early work in this field that has now been hijacked by ad agencies and phone companies.

“She became convinced that reasoning and emotion were inseparable; just as too much emotion could cause irrational thinking, so could too little. Brain injuries specific to emotional processing robbed people of their capacity to make decisions, see the bigger picture, exercise common sense…”

I don’t mean to suggest that I have some kind of brain injury, I don’t, but symptoms described here very closely mirror some of the trouble I’ve had using anti-depressant medications, which makes me wonder if the effects of the medications might not be compared to brain injury.

I’d expect the medical and pharmaceutical industries to argue that it’s not the drugs, it’s the depression, but I’d counter with the idea that the meds exacerbate the problems by making the patient comfortable with his condition. By rounding off the rough edges, dulling emotions, and allowing one to function, the drugs extend the damage caused by the depression.

If I can’t feel the anger, how can I summon the will to fight it?

I’m not suggesting that everyone quit the meds and sue the drug companies; I’m only talking about my reactions and desire for change.

Almost two years ago, when I first began writing the semi-autobiographical novel now called Angle of Reflection, I made my first attempt to quit the meds. Early effects including disturbed sleep patterns and overreaction to sentimentality were the same then as now, but then things got a little out of control. Just beginning to write fiction, I became a bit confused about reality, and a phone call from a friend who is the model for a pivotal character drove me over the edge and back to the meds. Looking back at that now, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I tend to think I got caught up in my own fantasy, resulting in an extremely exaggerated reaction. Whatever it was, it’s different now, well some things are. I’m still working on the book, but I’ve learned a lot about the process of writing fiction and a few things about myself.

And now that I’m learning about withdrawal from the medication there are several scenes that will need to be rewritten – again.

By the way, the New Yorker piece is terrifying to those of us who still think we have some privacy. It’s in the current issue.

 

 

Depression

I decided to stop taking anti-depressant medication and thought I should tell my friends so they could keep an eye out for erratic behavior. Then I decided to write a journal in order to monitor my feelings; finally I thought I’d publish the journal on the blog. The reasons for that are a bit more complicated but I’ll explain.

One of the symptoms of my depression is isolation: the feeling that I can’t really connect with anyone on an honestly emotional level. When the depression is at its worst, I compound the effect by physically isolating myself from everyone. So, in an attempt to counter these tendencies, I decided to violate my own predilection for privacy by publishing my thoughts and reactions on this issue. That may not be as radical as it seems because the audience for this blog would fit nicely in my living room, probably has.

Saturday, 10 January is Day 6 of this experiment and I’ve been beset by a cold throughout, so it’s difficult to gauge the effects so far. Let’s start with a bit of history and the events that led me to try to quit the medication. A diagnosis of major depression has been consistent through several shrinks for most of my adult life although I really think it goes back to my childhood. I’ve been on a several different medications for 15-20 years, not sure exactly when it started. With the occasional help of therapy, I’ve been able to function throughout, making a living and sustaining, to a point, loving, romantic relationships.

But writing a semi-autobiographical novel spurred profound changes: everything in my life was subjected to critical self-analysis and I began to look at many events and relationships as failures. Naturally, I wondered about the role of depression in everything I had experienced. Thinking and writing about my parents, I saw my mother as someone who had encased herself in a protective shell. Nothing could touch her, therefore nothing could hurt her again. Merde, I thought, that’s exactly what I had done. My mother had very good reasons to seek emotional protection, but I could not recall anything to justify my response.

For me, the instinct to guard my emotions led beyond isolation to timorousness; when I tried to breach the isolation, I did so with a guarded reticence that was no more effective than staying home. I thought to adopt Stuart Brand’s advice to “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” and maybe that helped me begin a novel but couldn’t help beyond that. Writing is, after all, a solitary pursuit, so it wasn’t too hard to work it into my comfort zone. Elsewhere, I was timid, apprehensive, unable to break through the shell even when the stakes were high and, I was sure the goal was worthy.

Given all this, why quit taking the medication? If behavioral patterns extend back before the meds, what can be gained by stopping? Just this: I’ve come to suspect that while the drugs have a moderating effect that keeps me on an even keel and allows me to function, it is precisely that effect that hardens the shell around me. In other words, getting by isn’t good enough and I think I’ve learned enough to be able to cope with whatever comes along. If a deeper emotional response fractures the shell just a little bit, that’s a positive result worth pursuing, before it’s too late.

One other thing: in a successful autobiographical novel the reader makes an emotional connection to the protagonist. In reading my work I saw that I wasn’t getting deep enough, revealing enough to allow this to happen. Self-censorship undermines emotion in fiction and in life. I’m hoping that losing the medication will allow me to pierce the protective skin.

This blog will use the journal of reactions to explore some of the issues raised in the novel and, maybe, create a blueprint for better fiction. If I’m able to maintain the blog as planned, you’ll be able to follow along on this adventure and, I hope, contribute some feedback.

Working With an Editor

Not long ago I submitted my first novel to an agent. She responded with several compliments and suggestions for changes and said that if I agreed with her changes and were willing to rewrite, she’d be happy to read it again. I agreed with one of her ideas and rewrote the book with it in mind. Her response was to praise my efforts in rewriting but, sadly, she still felt it was not a good fit for her agency. She said this was a personal opinion and others might disagree and encouraged me to continue submitting to other agents. I was, of course, disappointed but not discouraged; not many players hit a grand slam in their first major league at bat.

I continued to work on it while researching other agents until I decided to start querying again. The next agent to respond asked to see the first chapter only. Of course I wanted everyone to read the whole book before passing judgment but that’s not the way the industry works, so I sent her the first chapter. She too responded with both compliments and criticisms, some of which were similar to those of the first agent. Now I needed to re-read and reconsider what I was submitting.

The first thing that struck me was the need to totally rewrite the first chapter because a lot of the things I felt were interesting and necessary to understanding the story were really backstory rather than the dramatic hook necessary to catch the reader’s attention.

The second thing was that I knew I needed help. Until that point I had resisted the idea of hiring an editor, feeling that my process of constant revision would get me there, eventually. But I had reached a point where I no longer knew what to revise or where to take it. And this is where non-professional friends who were my first readers were unable to help. The time had come.

I’m lucky to have very good friends and one of them recommended an editor he knew and liked. We talked, I liked her too, and hired her. Good move, Scherl. Her work was smart, perceptive, professional and on time. Her method was to simply assume the role of any reader and comment on what she liked, didn’t like, or didn’t understand. Then she wrote a detailed report explaining her comments and connecting them to the whole. She pointed out several characters who, while interesting, really had no effect on the plot. She was particularly acute in recognizing autobiographical details that might be interesting to me, but had nothing to do with the story and, therefore, meant nothing to the reader. There were many other ideas relating to character development and treatment of the plot that led me to realize that the real process of writing this novel began with autobiographical details but developed by moving away from reality into the imagination, while retaining the truth of what I have to say.

She strongly encouraged me to stop submitting to agents before I had made substantial changes because there was potential in this book and I shouldn’t sell it short.

So I’m back at it. I’ve put a hold on Book 2 because what I learn in another revision of Book 1 can only help. A good editor is an enormous help and now, the next time I get on a plane to New York, I can tell my neighbor to please remove his elbow from my ribs and, by the way, I’m going to NY to have lunch with my editor. I always wanted to say that.

The Rhythm of Writing

After many years as a photographer, adapting to the process of writing novels is very much about adjusting the pace of creativity. Photographs record moments, miniscule fragments of time measured in fractions of a second. The creative process may be much longer and may involve such things as travel, research, rearranging the furniture, image processing, editing, sequencing, and printing. But the critical act of framing the subject and releasing the shutter is brief and fleeting. The expression of a portrait subject or the light on a landscape is a momentary thing and capturing that moment is the essence of photographic creativity.

The final product may take months or even years to complete, but that process is usually just a matter of repeating the critical moments of creativity in different circumstances.

Writing fiction is a whole different ballgame, one that involves retraining the brain to accommodate a much longer creative process. Think about stretching that fraction of a second out to the time it takes to write a three hundred page novel; it takes endurance, dedication, and discipline in the face of great odds against success, whether critical or commercial.

I write every day because that’s what it takes for me to maintain the creative process long enough to finish a book. Sure, there are days I accomplish little. I’ve learned to accept them and try to use those days for reading related to my current project. And I adjust my work schedule to accommodate other interests, especially when the Giants are playing.

I try to keep in mind that I may be an accomplished photographer but I’m a novice writer. I’m working on my second novel, while continuing to revise and rewrite the first. These incremental changes take time: some changes necessitate others, and flaws missed on the fifth draft may not be obvious until the tenth. The process makes me feel like a manuscript is never finished. It is, I guess, like a photographer’s portfolio: it may never be perfect, but at some point you have to go out and show it to the people you want to work for. Where I once called on magazine picture editors, now I’m searching for a literary agent. Every industry has its gatekeepers.

I like the task of learning something new, but I’m surprised that I seem to have lost interest in photography so quickly. Earlier this year I was in Paris, a city that has never failed to engage my eye, until now. I passed days at a time without shooting anything, although I did keep a journal. Last week I went to Lake Tahoe with my friend, Tom. It was beautiful. I shot little, more with an iPhone than a Nikon.

In this era of instant and constant communication, of disruption and sharing, I have taken up a practice that is slow, solitary, traditional, and personal. I like it.

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Outside

©2012 Ron Scherl

I’ve been thinking lately about the role of the outsider, since I’ve chosen to put myself in that position. It’s not the first time. Through the accident of birth and well meaning parents and educators, I found myself at the age of sixteen in a small liberal arts college in the heart of Maine. I did choose the college and I can’t give you a reason other than it looked perfect, exactly as my sixteen-year-old brain thought a college should look. What no one considered, or didn’t discuss with me, was that at sixteen I’d be two years younger than everyone else and while I might be academically capable, I’d be socially inept. Eighteen-year-old girls were very much older than me.

And New York Jews were a tiny minority indeed. I went looking for kinship in the “Jewish fraternity” only to discover the inanity of fraternity life, which sent me back on my own. I drove to San Francisco with two high school friends and decided to stay as they went on. I found a job and an apartment but made no friends. I loved the city, I walked, observed, kept a journal probably much like this one. I went back to college and lived alone, grew a beard, wore black turtlenecks, smoked unfiltered cigarettes. I had friends, but I also had a part to play.

I became a photographer. I was more comfortable with a camera between the world and me. I often photographed performance, documenting the creative efforts of others, but the best jobs came when I was not working alone, when I was part of a creative team, either in the theatre or on a documentary assignment. I loved those jobs but they were rare, there might have been ten in a forty-year career. A photographer is an observer, or to use Geoff Dyer’s word a “noticer.” You look at your subject, you look at the light, you try to make the two work together. If they don’t, you look at something else. It’s necessary to separate in order to observe, get too close and vision blurs.

And now, at a difficult time, I’ve chosen to come to a small village in France to write (a solitary pursuit) about myself and other outsiders (those who came here to make wine). I am of course an outsider here, separated by language, culture and tradition and I often feel lonely. People of the town are very friendly and polite, always saying hello, asking if things are going well (Ça va?), but they very rarely invite you to their homes. I have some friends among the expats, but they’re all much younger than me and their lives are centered on their families. I put myself in a somewhat uncomfortable place because I thought it was necessary to enable me to write this book, or because I wasn’t sure where else to go, but it turns out I’m really in the same place I’ve always been and perhaps I’ll soon learn whether what preceded was preparation or what continues is merely habit.

 

I’ll leave you with a link to an article entitled: “France, the World’s Most Depressed Nation?”