The Funk of Writing
On the One
Well . . . it's been a while.
For a long time--pretty much since my last blog post--I've been struggling. Between anxiety over my future employment to Covid lockdown 2.0 here in Vietnam, I veered a couple of times towards thoughts that lead to bad places. I got nihilistic and that's never a happy place. But thanks to a few changes in my situation and a patient e-psychiatrist I think I've managed to come out of my funk.
Funk, perhaps I used it wrong. According to Rickey Vincent, author of Funk: a history,
The Ki - Kongo word is closer to the jazz word “ funky ” in form and meaning , as both jazzmen and Bakongo use “ funky ” and lu - fuki to praise persons for the integrity of their art , for having “ worked out ” to achieve their aims . In Kongo today it is possible to hear an elder lauded in this way : “ Like , there is a really funky person — my soul advances toward him to receive his blessing ” ( yati , nkwa lu - fuki ! Ve miela miami ikwenda baki ) . …
Funk, then, is a positive thing, an attaining of sweat from hard work, the smell of a man who has toiled long and hard to obtain his position and his knowledge. It is not a place where dark things happen or where negative events occur, but a positive achievement. I am funky if I have struggled and grown and learned and become. I am funky if I have reached the heights of skill and learning. I am funky if I can produce something worthwhile and praiseworthy.
So not a funk, then, but a low, a trough, a furrow. The bottom of a sine wave, the part below the X-axis. This is where I spent several months, toying with thoughts that would lead to my demise, avoiding tall buildings lest I venture too close to the edge and think how nice it would be to not have anything to worry about anymore, asking after straight razors at the pharmacy just in case I got down, wondering if I could come by painkillers enough to end it all.
A space from which I seem to have emerged triumphant, a funky achievement of the soul. I am a reborn being and a happy man. The thing of it is, while my p-doc helped, it was the act in which I possess the greatest funk that I believe has helped cure me most: writing.
While I struggled in this darkest night I avoided the blank page, not because I feared having nothing to say, but because I was down, depressed, broken. I lost sight of the thing that brought me joy and did not practice the thing which could lift me up. It was the days, far and few between, when I actually wrote that I felt the best and the ones where I struggled to get out of bed and accomplish anything where I felt the worst.
My happiness, it would appear, is integrally linked to the practice of the thing that defines me. I am a lawyer, yes, but that does not determine my worth and it never has. I am a homosexual, yes, but I have done little to link myself to that community and do not see it as the end-all of my existence. I am neurodiverse, yes, and while that has done much to conquer my spirit and lead me to despair, it is not the thing for which I wish to be remembered. The thing which defines me most is my writing. I am a writer, and though I have not published traditionally, yet, it is the thing by which I light the candle in my soul.
In fact, the darkest day, the day I sat in my office chair thinking about whether to go to the pharmacy to buy enough painkillers to overdose or to make an appointment with the psychiatrist was the day in which the nihilism applied itself to my writing. What was it worth my time, I thought, to write if humanity is going to destroy the earth in a generation? Why create something lasting if there is not going to be anyone to notice? Why struggle at all to build if it will all be torn down in a matter of a hundred years?
Is it any wonder, then, that I thought long and hard about ending my life? The one thing that had sustained me through all of my mental health struggles was my writing, more than the love of family and friends, more than the idea of disappointing those who cared for me, the writing, the fact that I still had stories to tell, is what brought me the hope of continuing. If that was lost then all was lost and there was no point. But by then I had already stopped writing and had been without its loving embrace for weeks. I had finished two projects simultaneously and been left without direction. I had been lost and it wasn't until I returned to a place of peace with the aid of pharmacology that I could begin to consider the thing which would take me the rest of the way.
I began to write again. I began to fill in the hole that had etched itself in my soul and to shovel the blessed sustenance of hope into that gaping maw. Am I perfect in this endeavor? No. And do I regret each day I do not write? Yes. But as I wrote today I am blessed. As I wrote last week and as I will write the rest of this week and into next week and next month and next year I am blessed. Blessed not by some invisible power beyond, but by the comforting companionship of a life skill that I have worked my whole life to develop.
Traditional publication would be nice, I would dearly love to be able to focus entirely on my writing, but it is not necessary. What is necessary is for me to write, to put words on paper, or press the keys and see the letters light up on the screen. This is what enervates me, what brings me joy. To be able to bring to life characters and scenarios, to dramatize the thoughts I have of worlds and histories, that is what I live for. That is the thing that keeps me going. Take that away and all is lost. So, I suppose, I best keep at it until I die a natural death and in so doing, create the allowance for just such a death to occur rather than one from my own hand. It is the funk to which I have attained, the skill I have built, the sweat I have poured.
Writing is my funk.
To paraphrase Patrick Henry: Let me write or give me death.
Play the Back Beat
There's a second part to this, a part that comes after abiding by the advice frequently given for depressants to continue doing the things you once enjoyed for they will eventually bring you joy again. This, I have learned, is sometimes true but filled with the possibility of error.
Take, for instance, myself. When I was a child I did childish things, I wrote a thriller in high school and two in college and read every thriller I could get my hands on. For years more I would read thrillers, James Patterson, Stuart Woods, Patricia Cornwell, et al... But in college, I learned the attraction of a well-written historical narrative. I read Jonathan Spence, Bernard Bailyn, Edmund Morgan, and others who brought the past to life in ways that exceeded the best fictional forms. I also learned how to research to write my own historical narratives, though my bent towards fiction lent itself towards the telling of fictional histories.
Starting in law school I began my first historical fiction novel. I have since written six others. Of the total of sixteen novels I've written to date, that's nearly half, and with the remaining half split between thrillers and crime and psychological drama, the plurality of my writing is in historical fiction. To attain that counting I have had to read a large number of histories. In fact, for much of the last few years, the bulk of my reading has comprised histories.
So why do I keep trying to resuscitate my joy of reading by trying to read thrillers when the thing I enjoy most is history? Why do I think that thrillers will bring me happiness and comfort when I long ago abandoned them. Just because I used to find joy in them does not mean I still do. And to kickstart a positive mood by digging so far into the past is a mistake for my tastes and enjoyment have changed over time.
Thus, I have determined that rather than continuing my efforts to return to a reading habit that I have abandoned, I will make an effort to read history. I have read more than enough novels for the time being and I will occasionally read more, but my focus will be on history.
And this realization has a corollary.
I have been struggling to get back into a writing project, a thriller that I can write here and there but I have yet to be able to return to consistent writing of it. I believe, now, that the reason I have had such trouble is that I no longer enjoy thrillers. And to write a thriller beyond the one I am pitching at a conference in March is to commit myself to a lifetime of writing thrillers when the thing I really want to do is to write historical fiction.
While I appreciate that my family has encouraged me to write the thing that sells, writing the thing that sells doesn't make me happy. I would rather find my own way to eventual publication amidst a sustainable art than force myself to do something I don't want to do, especially as I've already done that for too many years.
Thus, I began editing a first draft that has been sitting idle for some time, the story of a bluesman in the Mississippi Delta and his travails. It is the first in a series and I can already see myself pursuing this much more rigorously and consistently than I have with my thriller.
Writing is part of me, it is the thing that lifts my mood, but if I turn writing into drudgery by forcing myself to write things that don't interest me, then it becomes something I no longer look forward to and that fails to bring me the satisfaction and joy that it can. If that means bucking the encouragement of my family then so be it. I would rather be in a good mood and unpublished than in a lousy mood and published.
So more than let me write or give me death, let me write historical fiction or live in a world of despair.
The choice seems obvious to me.