Isn’t that a great title? I’d pick that book up regardless of its bipolar content.
I felt as if death wouldn’t be a shock because I had already died and was only shambling through the motions of living and relating to others, as if I were a robot or a zombie. (Stephanie Schroeder)
This is not your conventional bipolar memoir; if you want a book with solid linear progression, featuring bipolar every step of the way. If you want to get to know an interesting woman who can make you laugh and who doesn’t blame it all on the bipolar, read this one. And halle-freaking-lujah it’s written by somebody I can relate to in more depth than previous memoirs, a lesbian. (okay, there’s ‘Marbles’, but there’s not a lot of actual reading in that.) There aren’t many places you’ll find the words bipolar and butch cock together and believe me, that fact made me grin. The author’s creative writing career began with erotica and her skill and ease with the genre shows in this book. Having said that, if you’re expecting something lasciviously detailed to jerk off to, this isn’t it. Unless you’re maybe, you know, the speedster type.
It’s a damn fine read and it was the tone and quality of the writing that hooked me – my only niggles are some shifts in tense that threw me a bit, but then, I’m an editor and therefore nitpicky as hell. The presence of domestic violence (by the loathsome Lauren) may upset some, but it’s expressed fairly briefly and in a matter of fact style. In fact, the entire book is matter of fact – even the parts that will make my heterofriends’ eyes bulge a bit, avoid cheap sensationalism (but don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty hot). Her voice is strong throughout and hindsight has clearly taught more than its fair share of lessons. Suicide is (obviously) one of the book’s major themes and the journeys to and away from her attempts are well illustrated by journal entries from the time – and her suicide notes.
If any of you read it, please get your asses back here afterwards so we can talk about it some more. In the meantime, there’s an extract here, and have a look at the Q&A with author Stephanie Schroeder below.
Who are you and why do you write?
I’m a writer though I work as a freelance publicist to support myself. I began as a staff journalist working on magazines and then started writing my own stuff, a first person essay and some erotica was the first work I had published. I work only in non-fiction and favor personal and political essay, longform journalism and memoir.
I write because I want to tell stories, both mine and others. Stories about particular events or people, but that are universally appealing. As a journalist, I tell stories about other people, usually about someone or something very specific, but which can be universally useful and inspiring. In my own writing, especially my memoir, in which so many people have seen themselves and related that to me, I knew my experience was unique, but not so utterly removed that readers could not relate.
Had you read many memoirs about bipolar and suicidality before writing yours?
Well, there weren’t (and still aren’t, as you have pointed out many times) m/any queer memoirs in the bipolar realm. I did read Dylan Scholinski’s “The Last Time I Wore A Dress”, Kate Bornstein’s “Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws” and “Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction”, edited by Sabrina Chapadjiev. They all are queer or have a queer element.
Other than those, there’s nothing queer about any of the others works I read. I had read Kay Redfeld Jamieson’s and Patty Duke’s memoirs early on, before I was diagnosed, but knowing something was up and looking for answers, plus I love reading memoir. I did read the usual suspects: Andy Behrman’s “Electroboy”, Lizzie Simon’s “Detour”, Terri Cheney’s bipolar memoir and Marya Hornbacher’s memoirs, the latter of which I know so many people love, but I didn’t. Talking again about being relatable, I just couldn’t get with the heteronomative and money-privileged aspect of her story. Of course it’s not easy to live with bipolar no matter who you are, but having money to access all types of care and services, and not to have to work when you’re feeling down – or up – as the case may be, sure makes it a whole lot better. Any stories of any sort (about mental illness or not) where the female protagonist has a male wage-earner partner who can or does support her don’t much interest me. I want to know what it’s like for women who take care of themselves, by choice, or even by circumstance. I also want to hear queer voices. I’m really not interested in straight men’s stories, which have defined literature forever. Not that I never read heterosexual male authors, but I want a revolution in reading and writing that includes all voices and experiences!
Which of them do you rate/not rate?
Kay Redfeld Jamison’s memoir and her book on bipolar and creativity were really influential. I have a special interest in the connection (or lack thereof) between creativity and mental illness. I read a lot about it and study it. It’s fascinating to me. “Live Through This” is very painful, but also very informative about the creative process, and all from a female-identified POV.
In terms of fiction and non fiction in the mental health field, do you have any favourite authors?
Honestly, no, there’s not a lot out there and what is doesn’t move me.
Can you recommend any other queer and mental illness related art/lit/film/anything?
Two works I really like are King’s Park: Stories from an American Mental Institution, a documentary by my friend Lucy Winer is excellent. It’s made by a lesbian about her experience – the narrative is not queer-specific, though a queer throughline is definitely visible. I also recommend Kate Bornstein on anything, she’s fantastic, and really into the fringe culture of queers (that she terms “freaks”), which I love more than ever in this age of assimilation by mainstream lesbians and gays.
Sexuality isn’t always relevant, did you find yours a help, hindrance or neutral in getting your book out there?
It was definitely a hindrance because most publishing folks are very traditional and think heterosexual experience is normative and why in the hell would anyone want to read about any lesbian in any situation, but especially a really crazy lesbian?
Did it affect any other part of your process and experience as an author?
I’m not a commercial writer and I knew that the added “burden” of having my lesbianism full frontal so to speak would be a real problem for most folks in the publishing world. But, I counted on readers being more open and more intelligent. And I was right! I get notes all the time from people who have found my book and appreciate not only the lesbian aspect, but also the grittiness of my writing.
How did you juggle writing and bipolar? Do you agree with that thing they say – write when manic, edit when depressed?
I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote through it all, including a major suicide attempt. It was during a time I was in writing workshop working on the memoir that I was in a locked ward and actually worrying about the fact that I didn’t have access to a computer so I couldn’t upload the next week’s writing “assignment” to the group… I just kept going, though it took a lot of revision after the fact because I started it while I was still living it. I think you have to be somewhat removed to really get a perspective and be able to reflect on your experience.
As for that adage, it didn’t apply to me. In fact, I kept journals only when I was in a terrible headspace and wrote and edited more prolifically when I was/am stable than manic or depressive. It’ so horrible to be either depressed or manic and very difficult for me to write in either state. Thank goodness I’m baseline hypomanic and have been the past 10 years. It’s perfect for writing!
What advice would you give other autobiographers?
My advice is pretty crude, just “vomit” onto the page and clean it up later. Too many people worry about everything needing to be perfect on the first go-round. That’s bullshit! That’s what editors are for, and if you self-edit to the point of not being able to write honestly, of being paralyzed, that’s not helpful. That’s really what writer’s block is, I think, the paralyzing force that keeps one from writing because of the concern that it won’t be “perfect”.
Also, be honest, about yourself – just as honest as you are about others. It’s no fun to read a long “rant” (which is what someone wrote about my memoir) about someone else when you are not being honest with or about yourself. That makes you an unreliable narrator. I think I portrayed myself as someone very vain, clingy, dishonest, desperately needing other people’s approval and such at different points in my narrative. I’m not like that at all now, but I was in the past I and I put that in my book because it was part of the story, and part of my personal evolution. I wasn’t always an attractive character, and that, I think makes my book so much more attractive to readers. I’m not, and never was, perfect.
The first sex scene in your book made me do a metaphorical air punch, I loved seeing the honesty and rightness of it being where it belonged. Was it a conscious choice to include it?
Yes and no. I just wrote the story how it unfolded, which included sex. I really didn’t think the sex scenes were a big deal until readers started commenting on them – mostly positive, but also a little negatively. I had written erotica (which is it’s own unique niche) and was good as describing sex, and I didn’t know then that lesbian sex was something you were not supposed to describe in a mass market book. It’s as if lesbians are supposed to be neuters to the world-at-large and it’s somehow shocking that sex is a normal part of most of our lives.
If you had to write a personal ad or dating profile for yourself, what would it look like? (If it’s not something you’d ever do, please imagine that the lives of countless alpacas are at stake unless you do it now.)
I’m in a monogamous relationship with a woman I actually met on an online dating site! But, if I were single, here’s what I’d write:
Fiercely independent androgynous middle-aged lesbian writer seeks other age-appropriate independent creative types for coffee dates, dinner, sex, and/or other (mis)adventures. I love to travel internationally and soak up other cultures, meet new and different people, and explore new places. I’m a morning person who relishes my quiet, meditative morning coffee-drinking and jazz-listening routine, but you don’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. just because I do;-) I’m also an anti-assimilationist dyke who swears like a pirate, has very strong political opinions, and needs alone time to rejuvenate and private time to write.
What are you busy with these days?
I’m editing an anthology about queers and mental illness. It’s entitled “HEADCASE: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Writers and Artists on Mental Illness.” It’s a fully curated collection of 25 works that are all mind-blowingly excellent. My co-editor and I are currently seeking a publisher.
Anything else to declare?
Ha! Too much to write here;) But, please take a look at my very eclectic writing portfolio if you want to see more of my writing and check out my blog, which is pretty dormant currently, for my writing specifically related to bipolar.
Tell us where to buy your book.
Have your local independent bookstore order it for you, or purchase it from the evil Amazon empire here.