This past weekend I finally got around to watching Where’d You Go Bernadette?, a movie about a formerly-famous architect who’s having a bit of a meltdown because her life is changing and she can’t deal with it. I read the book many moons ago, but missed the movie until now. I don’t expect light movies like this to deliver life altering impacts, but this one shocked me.
While most of the movie was, indeed, brain fluff, what struck me and forced me to pause the show while I had an epiphany was this: Bernadette is a bit of a mental health mess and menace to society. Or at least the society of friends, associates, and family that surrounds her. She alienates most people with her reclusive behavior, sharp tongue, prescription addiction, and casual cruelty. Her family even goes so far as to stage an intervention to save her (and them).
At one point she meets with her old mentor (played by Laurence Fishburne) and, unprovoked, dumps all of her baggage on him. After listening to all of her problems and processing the damage she’s inflicted on those around her, he looks at her and says something like (paraphrasing because I’m too lazy to actually go back and get the exact quote from Hulu), “Bernadette, you have to create or else you become a menace to society.”
When I heard this, I stopped the movie and stared at the wall, then began pacing while the message settled into my brain. Never once, not in therapy or among friends, have I seen some of my problems summed up so neatly and in such an actionable way.
Bernadette gave up arcitechture because she was bullied and belittled by a fellow architect. The bad experience drove her, basically, into hiding. But without architecture and creativity to keep her grounded, she channelled all of that energy into booze and bad behavior, to disastrous results. She tried to fill the void with other things like raising her daughter, but it wasn’t enough to keep her sane. Once she started working again, her behavior leveled out and she became, if not a wonderful person, at least functional.
I’m no different. (Well, I don’t suffer from addiction, but the rest of it isn’t far off.) When I’m not writing, I become a menace to society and myself. My anxiety soars, my depression grows deeper, and my behavior can get a bit ugly. I may not go completely off the rails and pick fights with the neighbors, but I definitely become more irritable and moody. When I’m not creating, I’m no fun to be around.
Of course the problem is that it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Go long enough without writing and the mood disorders make it that much harder to restart. Depression makes it harder to write, not writing makes the depression worse… Rinse and repeat until you fall into an endless spiral that claims not only a writing career, but your mental health, as well. Like Bernadette, denying your creativity will eventually turn you into a person no one wants to be around.
I’ve learned that the trick is to never stop writing. Easier said than done, of course. There are many things that can interrupt even the most productive writer. Lately it seems that almost everything is designed to derail productivity. (Covid, I’m looking at you.) Even seemingly small things like criticism can push you off the creative path. I’ve learned, though that I have to think like a shark and just keep swimming. If I stop, I die. (Metaphorically, not literally.)
If you also become a menace when you’re not creating, here are some tips to keep you going when “going” seems impossible.
Work on anything. Anything at all. You don’t have to work on a big project. Think small, or even create in a different medium altogether. The important thing is to keep the creativity flowing so you remain stable.
Do it for yourself. Don’t worry about marketability, usefulness, or whether or not the work is objectively good. Just create for the pleasure of it and worry about the details later.
Reward yourself. When you create on those days when you really didn’t want to, give yourself a little reward. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. A chocolate bar, a take out dinner, rent a movie… Just do something to honor the achievement and make you more likely to continue tomorrow.
Get help. It’s okay to ask for help. That may mean professional mental health help, or maybe a writer’s group that you respect. A good group can keep you going when you want to turtle under the bed.
Don’t fuel your work with alcohol/drugs. It may be tempting to turn to substances to keep you going, but that can quickly spiral into addiction. Find other ways to keep working.
Leave breadcrumbs in each day’s work. It’s much easier to begin the next day’s writing if you have something to build on from the prior session. Leave yourself some loose ends each day so that it’s easier to pick up the next day. This also builds anticipation for each day’s work.
Track your streaks. Streaks keep you going because you don’t want to break them. Take advantage of this psychological quirk and track how many days in a row you write. When the line gets long enough, you won’t want to miss a day.
At the end of the movie, Bernadette is creating again and she’s slowly finding her way out of the hole she created for herself. That’s the uplifting final message. If you do what you’re meant to do, your life won’t be perfect, but it’ll be a hell of a lot better than when you’re actively denying your true self.
(Image by Ian Lindsay)