My thesis advisor, ML, recommended that I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It was similar to my thesis in many ways; both were large complex stories, both involved magic, the fantastical, and both were going to take ten years to write.
From the look on ML’s face when she recommended it to me, I knew there was something else contained within the story that I would understand once I read it.
I was unable to physically read the book at that time, so I bought the audio book hoping that this would help matters. It was still no use. Try as I may, I could not get past chapter three.
That was a year and a half ago.
At the beginning of spring, I made a list of things I wanted to do before the summer ended. It wasn’t until last week that I looked at this list: cleaning and painting closets, trimming over 15 bushes in the yard, painting the basement, cleaning the attic and garage, etcetera. The audio book for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was 32 hours.
Perfect. Nothing could make bleaching the backyard patio more fun than a novel read to me in an English accent.
ML continually impressed the importance of the story upon me during thesis. I wanted to cram everything into my novel that I possibly could, but the ever patient ML would return draft after draft with the same comment: the story must come first. Themes, ideas, and social commentary should be subtle, and if possible, written almost subconsciously.
I didn’t understand the depth and weight of ML’s advice until I listened to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. On one hand, there is a perfectly good story about two magicians and their pursuit of magic. On the other hand, there is a tale of the creative process, the toll it has on relationships, what one pays in pursuit of their art, and a dance on the line between sanity and insanity.
Perhaps the reader wonders why it was that I was unable to physically read or listen to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell the first time around. It wasn’t the footnotes, the old timey language, or the fact that it was seven hundred and eighty-two pages. In the middle of thesis, I had suffered from a severe manic episode that landed me in the hospital for ten days with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
In the weeks that followed, I could not read. I could not write. I could not think. The deep, dark depression that preceded the mania was nothing compared to the trials and errors of finding a treatment plan that worked for me.
Husband sat with me. Every. Day. When I least wanted him there, he made me get out of bed and find the path back to myself.
In the midst of the darkest of dark times, I learned what love really meant.
If this news makes one flinch and feel all sorts of uncomfortable, then I feel sorry for them. Depression is a silent killer amongst artists. When one tries to suppress or hide their irregularities out of fear of what others will think or say, they do a disservice to those who lost their lives. I thought hard about sharing this experience. The last thing I wanted to do was sound melodramatic or solicit sympathy.
There is no reason to be ashamed of mental illness. The same way one’s hair is brown, or eyes are green, is the same way other people’s brains misfire.
When I found out that I had bipolar disorder, I immediately told my friends and family. No one made fun of me, at least not to my face. Some people did talk to me in the same tone one uses with a puppy, but that wore off eventually. Dozens and dozens of people told me that they too suffered from depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. They told me they saw therapists and were on medication. Others told me that their best friends, sisters, brothers, and parents suffered from mental disorders, substance abuse, or both.
If this is the case, why is humanity so afraid and ashamed of mental illness? Why was it that less then one hundred years ago women were locked away in rooms in the attic for such displays? Why is judgment cast upon those who are different? Can one help the color of their eyes? Can one change the circumstances into which they were born?
I dance this line daily, like some of the characters in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and many of the magicians that have come before me. There are days when I cannot turn off the disparity produced by the negativity I see around me. But there are also days when I cannot help but surrender to the blue of the sky and the endless vibrations of love that I feel coming from so many around me. I suspect this has more to do with the creative process and less to do with mental disorders.
I want to thank ML for not only recommending this book, but for knowing me so well. And I would like to
thank Susanna Clarke for writing it. She’ll never see this post, but at least that gratitude is out there in the universe.
I would gladly toil for ten years in the pursuit of one novel that remembers the story and shows us love when all we see is darkness. Love isn’t going to be some huge thing that knocks us over when we enter a room.
Love is going to be subtle. It will creep in when you are pulling the weeds, painting the closets, and reading your books. It will happen when someone cuts the crusts off your raisin bread because you are busy writing a blog post.
Those who do not recognize it are the insane ones.