mensah demary’s piece, “Depressive Episodes”, was featured in Hippocampus in July. I liked it when I read it because I, too, have suffered depressive episodes (though it’s never occurred to me to call them that or even think of them that way). But, I wanted to know: what the heck? mensah was kind enough to agree to an email interview with me.
V.E.: Inspiration for nonfiction writers isn’t exactly the same as for fiction writers. What was the “inciting incident”, if you will, for writing “Depressive Episodes”?
mensah: Well I wouldn’t say there was an “inciting incident.” My first major depressive episode occurred in the summer of 2006; since then, I tried to translate the experience into my writing, whether through fiction, nonfiction, journal entries, blogs, etc. I suppose I wanted–needed, maybe–to find the right “language” which captured the destabilizing effects of depression. Not just the disease in of itself, but the shock of feeling “in control”–or rather, believing I was in control–to having no agency over my thoughts and emotions.
Anyway, I first wrote “Depressive Episodes” in 2010. It was considerably longer and it had a different title, but the general format remained from one iteration to the next. There’s some who believe that depression may have some effects on memory, though there’s no solid proof one way or another. Personally, I find it difficult to remember all that occurred during my major episode. With every writing attempt, I struggled to fill the gaps in my memory and use that info for reference, or as a emotional compass, for my work. “Depressive Episodes” came about out of a moment of frustration, to say, “Fine. If I can’t remember, I’ll focus on the gaps–or more to the point, the way I actually remember the events: as blips, as flashes of memory that occurred out of chronological order.”
V.E.: Talk to me about the numbering scheme.
mensah: It’s a little complicated, though I’d be lying if I said there was some hidden meaning behind the numbers. When I wrote the first and longer iteration of “Depressive Episodes,” I wrote each part separately and without knowledge of whether I’d use the parts or not. Three or four “episodes” were lopped from the final draft submitted to Hippocampus–deleted scenes, so to speak. Anyway, once I wrote and revised the individual episodes, I spent considerable time moving and shifting the arrangement of the episodes, or removing episodes altogether.
The first iteration failed, in my opinion, because I wasn’t disciplined. Because each episode could be a self-contained story or “flash nonfiction” piece, I arranged their order without consideration of the end product. I say “discipline” because I still had to tell a story; I still had to create an overall narrative. While I’m not sure if I achieved the goal, it did force me to make deliberate choices which, if anything, created a publishable work.
All of that is to say…the numbers are to be viewed literally. It’s my way of saying to myself, “No more arranging, no more playing around with it. This is the lineup, the order, take it or leave it.”
V.E.: This story is almost like a long prose poem. Who’s speaking in the sections with brackets and italics?
mensah: In Episode 3, the following section appears:
[The anticipation arose as time froze, I stared off the stage with my eyes closed, and dove into the deep cosmos.]
As noted in the end credits, this is a verse from the song “Act Too: Love of my Life” by The Roots. The album from which it appeared, Things Fall Apart, was in constant rotation at a certain point in my life. Specifically, when I last saw my best friend John Giunta–in 1999 at the end of our high school graduation. He passed away six months later. In Episode 3, the narrative switches back and forth, from a session with my therapist in 2006 to a moment back in 2000, a few days after John died, when I sat parked in my car in a lot across from the greenhouse a few miles from my childhood home.
I sat in the car, in the dark, smoking cigarettes and listening to Things Fall Apart. I don’t remember listening to “Act Too” at that specific time, but I felt comfortable lifting the bracketed verse and placing it into the narrative. Diving into the cosmos is, by and large, a fairly accurate description of what I did that night in my car. I was so burdened by grief, by shock, it felt like I was on another planet, or in another dimension altogether.
In the final episode, I quoted Nikki Giovanni. I read the collection Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day before, but as I revised the final episode–which featured a moment in 2001 when I sold said collection to a pretty, though sheepish, little girl right before closing time–I flipped through my wife’s copy and found the quote which, to me, is a perfect rendering of mental illness and its meaning to the inflicted, though I’m unsure if that was Giovanni’s intent.
Each bracketed, italicized section is similar in nature: pieces of my favorite music or literature selected not only for affect, but also because each piece helped me, in its own way and at different times, cope with loss and depression. Nabokov and Bill Withers were as cathartic for me as cognitive-behavioral therapy; they belonged in the story if I truly wanted to tell it accurately. I hope I’m making sense.
V.E.: What’s with the cast list? Was there anyone you left off?
mensah: I guess I’m playing with form here. Admittedly, and to double back very briefly, the bracketed sections, as well as the episodes themselves and their arrangement, was my experimentation with collage. That is, if the art of collage translated to literature; if I could take unlike moments, or pieces of music and literature, and create a larger, cohesive whole; if I could find a common thread and link together each moment. With the cast list, again I experimented with form; this time, the cast list as seen at the end of a movie, as well as liner notes found within album artwork. Throughout “Depressive Episodes,” I either changed names or omitted them altogether. The cast list is an index of sorts, a nod and wink at the end to say, “Yes, these characters are very much real.”
Did I leave anyone off? Well, yeah I suppose I did if I take the “deleted scenes” into account–my father, for example, or my high school sweetheart. That aside, everyone who appeared in “Depressive Episodes,” even those I blended together–an ex-girlfriend and an ex-wife combined to create “Amber”–are noted in the cast list.
…if I’m talking about form and collage, then I should mention my playing around with time. Everything in “Depressive Episodes” is out of chronological order; not just from episode to episode but, in some cases, sentence to sentence. Hell, if memoirists are accused of lying through their teeth these days, then this work is my response and the offering of a possible solution–taking actual events, without any embellishment, and jumbling them together to create a story–a new story which tries to shed light on a very old tale for me (depression).
V.E.: How can you tell, when you’re writing, that you’re “on a roll” or “in the zone”?
mensah: I don’t know if I’ve ever entered a “zone,” but I do know when I’m “onto something.” Like a hunter tracking its prey, maybe (or perhaps the other way around…which is to say, I know when I’m being hunted by an idea). It’s all mental. When I can see plot holes or, in the case of nonfiction, inauthenticity…meaning, I know when I write about a person or moment out of earnestness or out of spite/dramatic effect. Calling myself out on my own B.S., I suppose. When I do that, I know I’m on the right path.
Writing the first draft is a crapshoot: either it flies out of my brain or it sticks to the my skull’s lining. I try not to worry about the first draft; I focus on getting to the finish line. It’s during revision when I know I’m “onto something” or not; it’s at this time when I figure out if the first draft is worth saving (as in salvation) or not (as in deletion or banishment to my folder of craptastic fodder).
V.E.: How much does depression inform your writing?
mensah: More than I prefer, to be honest. My diagnosis (from independent therapists and a medical doctor) is dysthymia. For those readers who may not know, dysthymia is a low-level, persistent, and chemically-induced form of depression. From what I learned in therapy, I’ve been dysthymic for at least ten years, which would pre-date my first major episode by five years.
In other words, I was mentally ill for a third of my life. I knew something was wrong; I always knew I had a predilection for long, unexplained periods of sadness, of morbidity. But I’m a writer, an introvert, a shy guy–I figured sadness came with the territory. And I also figured I was normal–well, I hoped for it, anyway; I thought everyone wanted to cry without reason, wanted to shoot themselves in the head or drive into a wall or lie down and fall asleep for twenty years. It sounds funny–and pitiful, maybe–but it makes total sense. I thought something was wrong, but I never knew I was sick. Depression was never in my vocabulary, not until 2006 when I finally broke, when I finally had to face the abnormality of my mind, the reality of my malady.
Indeed, depression informed all of my writing, even when I knew nothing of my illness. How can it not? Dysthymia has had a profound effect on my life; thinking back, the illness shades my entire perspective on myself, my friends and family, my past lovers, the world in general. A few sentences ago, I referred to myself as an introvert, as shy–but is that really true? Who am I when I’m not depressed, when dysthymia is in check? I’m living that answer now as I’m finding success with an antidepressant.
The better, and maybe more hopeful, question is “How will the absence of depression inform your writing?”
…your guess is as good as mine.