Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Craig Lancaster talks about unraveling, writing, and Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure

I've known Craig Lancaster for about a year now. Introduced by way of Jonathan Evison, I've come to really appreciate Craig's take on writing (as well as his writing, itself!) I'm so happy to have him here on my blog, again. He's really brave, and that makes for a great writer. Thanks, Craig!

By Craig Lancaster

In late October 2010, I was in Missoula for the Montana Festival of the Book, and it should have been one of the great moments of my life. My debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, had just won the High Plains Book Award for best first book—this on the heels of being named a Montana Honor Book earlier in the year. All in all, it was a remarkable showing for a little book that I’d written in twenty-four feverish days two years earlier, one put out by a little publishing house in Montana. I was in the company of writers I deeply admire, I had a chance to read from my novel, and I was looking ahead to the January 2011 release of my follow-up, The Summer Son.
But I also knew what was going on back home in Billings.
My wife and her mother and father were packing up her things and moving them to a small house about a mile away, a house she had rented in the throes of her despair at no longer being able to tolerate my moods, my silence, my disregard for her and our marriage. When I came home, it was to an empty condominium, with only a couch for me to sleep upon. I’d grown used to it; it had been months since we had shared a bed.
At a joint session the following week, I told Joe, our counselor, that coming home to an empty house drove home for me just how much damage I’d done. He looked at me, incredulous. “So you were just oblivious for all these months?” He knew I was full of shit. I knew I needed help.
I scheduled a talk with the pastor who’d married us. We didn’t say a word about God. Jim, a clinical psychologist in a previous professional incarnation, asked me questions—deep questions about where my moods go, when they show up, my seeming inability to derail them. I described the experience as something akin to throwing rocks at a freight train. He seemed uncannily clued in to the nuances of my mental state, and finally he said, “I’ve known you a long time, and I’ve seen it. I think you’re bipolar II, and I think you need to get a diagnosis so you’re sure.” I’d never heard of it. When I got home, I started reading up, and the illness described—hypomania marked by an almost rhythmic series of depressions—sounded like a perfect fit with what had dogged me for most of my life. I scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist.
At this point, I’m going to cut through a lot of the medical mumbo-jumbo, except to say this: Jim’s suspicions were largely correct. My relief at having a diagnosis was offset by the knowledge that, while my moods obviously could be destructive, the alternating periods of hypomania were large factors in my ability to create the work that is so central to my life. I absolutely wanted and needed a way to “lift the floor and lower the ceiling,” so to speak. But, like a true crazy person, I gave my illness a lot of the credit for my ability to do the things I do well. I didn’t want to lose that. And by clinging to something that was corroding me from the inside, it was a few more months before I got serious about getting better.
Something wondrous happened when I finally did. I began writing short stories, tales that hewed closely to the things I was thinking about: personal relationships, the loss of control, separation, the struggle to find our way back to the people we love. By day, I was trying to make amends: to my wife, to her family who had taken me in and loved me, to mutual friends who had seen the destruction I had wrought. By night, in the darkness of a house where I now live alone, I tried to find peace with my torment by writing stories. I want to be clear about this: I was (and am) mentally ill, but in no way do I blame that for what I did. I made the choices, I hurt my wife and others, and to whatever degree my bipolarity was a contributing factor, I own that, too. I waited until I was forty years old to do anything about it. That’s on me and no one else.
Now, as I write this, those stories are out in book called Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, a perplexing title on the surface but one that makes perfect sense when the book is read. All of my work is personal on some level, but nothing I’ve written is quite so in my deepest brain as this book. For the first time in three years, I’m not actively working on a new book, and I’m OK with that. In the past year, my wife and I have tried to find our way back to each other in fits and starts. We’ve discovered that there’s still a lot of love between us and that what made us best friends in the first place carries on despite everything. The anguish of what happened a year ago isn’t far from the surface, though, and we try to deal with those things quickly when they flare up. We have committed to working as hard as we can to rebuild our life together, and we’re both optimistic and terribly scared. I’m the one who allowed the fear to come in. I’m the one who’ll have to do the heavy lifting of making it go away.
It’s the most important work I’ll ever do. No book could possibly compare.


LaBarbara said...

Positively impressed. It sure does take courage to write like this for all the world to see. Good luck to you and your wife. We will all look forward the the happy ending.

Katharine Weber said...

Thank you for being so open and clear about this very difficult situation. I think lots of people experience this kind of destruction in a marriage, when one spouse is bipolar II and goes unregulated, and what has gone on privately is rarely something other people see or know about.

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