Holding onto Her Hat: Marya Hornbacher

November 05, 2010


"Dealing with a wayward mind can be so tricky; creative work or even a creative way of looking at the world can give you a means of holding onto your hat in a way that does not require an adherence to a “normal” or “average” way of thinking or living."

Sometimes I wonder if my interest in art and literature is selfish.  I wonder how valuable my contribution really is, and to whom.  Who really cares what I do, and why should they?  Of course, if I'm the only one who cares--if I do it for myself--back comes the selfishness.  This thought process pulls me into the heart of Aberration Nation, the part about how much life can suck.  All the responsibilities, the cultural expectations, and the cost of it all weighs me down. 

All I can really do is somehow hang onto my hat, focusing on what makes it all feel worthwhile. I recently read about Maya Angelo saying if she couldn't see the world through the lens of writing, she just wouldn't make it; she wouldn't see a purpose in it.  The parts of life that excite me keep me going.  Despite how small and insignificant they may seem to others, they bring me purpose. 

I've been asked, "Why do you need a purpose?" 

I don't know the answer to that question.

There are lots of folks who don't seem to focus on having an ultimate reason for being here.  They just do what they have to do, moving through life at a steady pace.  Sometimes I think they're the lucky ones; the unselfish ones.  On the other hand, I'm constantly nitpicking over who I am, what I should be, why I'm here, what I'm supposed to be doing with what's in my head, etc.  I'm overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people in existence, and I can't bear to be an ant in a pile of something that looks a lot like crap.  It makes me sound like a self-centered narcissist, but I'm not. 

My mind is like a train station.  Numerous trains of thought, pieces of who I am, crisscross through at any given time.  I can focus in on one train, or I can step back and view the bigger picture.  I know them all so well, moving back and forth across the terrain of my soul.  I know where each one came from, but I don't always know where they're headed.  What is their objective and when do they rest?  When I'm writing and painting, they somehow come together.  They miraculously begin to move in the same direction.  I see the beauty of their connection and alignment. I begin to see something that makes sense emerge from the hodgepodge of my life.    

My guest today, NY Times bestselling author Marya Hornbacher knows what it's like to struggle with mental demons; however different they may be from my own.  She's knows how never ending cycles of crazy thinking can drive a person to the edge.  I absolutely love her writing!  I respect her ability to navigate through the complex emotional maze that is her life while delivering phenomenal creative work.

Among other things she says here, I love her comment about creativity providing an avenue for hat holdingI get it.  No matter what I'm actually here for, I know that without my hat, I'm doomed.  So I keep holding on, and by doing so, I move forward while the trains in my head zip endlessly along the circuitous routes they travel.   


The path to publication seems to be a little different for each writer. How did it come about for you? Are you surprised by your success?

The path to publication for was, for me, a little odd. Like many writers, I started out in journalism, which was both something I loved (still do) and something I needed to pay my bills while I wrote and published poetry. Publishing in journalism and literary magazines was quite traditional. Things took a sharp left turn with the publication of an article I wrote on eating disorders. The article won an award, and the judge called me—if I recall correctly, I was wearing my pajamas and puttering around the house—and asked if he could be of any help in my career. I was twenty. I was a little startled. I had no idea how he might help me. The long and short of it was that he passed my work along to an agent, the agent signed me, and suddenly I found myself writing Wasted. I absolutely never intended to write a memoir. I certainly didn’t intend to do so at 21. So, departing from my grand plans to be a poet, I found myself in a totally different world.

The word “success” gives me the willies. I don’t really understand what it means. I suppose that technically I have had some. But frankly, I feel most of the successes in my life are personal, not professional. And those successes mean more to me, too. So, yes, I’d have to say I’m surprised by the very concept as applied to me.

How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be a writer? Can you tell us about any specific role models or mentors who inspired and/or encouraged you?

I was four. I had been given a blank book as a present. I remember the blank pages made me very nervous, so I decided I would write a novel so they would not be blank. I wrote a terribly derivative thing, based entirely on a play I had seen. Shortly after that, I wrote a short story called “Clouds,” having discovered the copier in my mother’s office, and promptly made 500 copies of “Clouds,” because that was pretty nifty. My first poem was called “Yellow,” and began, “I like yellow.” For this poem, I received an F; it did not rhyme. I was pissed; I didn’t think poems had to rhyme.

Mentors: at first, my parents, who were voracious readers, had a spectacular library, and read to me constantly. Years later, when I was a student at an arts high school, I was blindsided by all the possibilities writing contained when I studied with novelist and poet Jack Driscoll, screenwriter Terry Caszatt, and my lit professor, Nick Bozanic. These men introduced me to such a range of writing I’d never encountered that it made my head spin; they also made me work so hard I thought I’d positively explode. It was heavenly. In my early adulthood, I was mentored by poet and journalist Paul Trachtman, with whom I continue a thrilling discussion of poetry to this day. My dear mentor and friend Brian Anderson, journalist, recently passed away, and it broke my heart. These people have been astonishing gifts to me, and have taught me, pretty much, everything I know—which is that I know not very much.

You've written both memoir and fiction. Do you have a favorite, and if so, what drives that choice? Can you share your thoughts on how and why you're able to express yourself through both genres?

I vastly prefer writing fiction, though it is excruciatingly difficult for me, and takes me ages. I don’t much care for writing memoir; both my memoirs were written because I believed there was a hole in the literature that my perspective might be able to begin to fill. Perhaps I should provide a caveat; I do not like writing memoirs about things so difficult as mental illness and addiction. I enjoy the personal essay form just fine, and much of my journalism is written in the first person; but the two memoirs I’ve written have been very painful. My first novel, The Center of Winter, is my personal favorite of my books, possibly because it took me an absurd amount of time and I know it so well; the book I’m working on now, a second novel, is much broader in scope, and I feel like I have far more control over it than I did the first one. Which makes some sense, I suppose; writing a first novel, one is sort of flying by the seat of one’s pants, which isn’t so fun. This one is more fun.

A note on the phrase “express [oneself]” with regard to artistic work of any kind: I’m not sure that’s really what one is doing. My sense is that one is more connecting with a reader (or listener, or viewer), not as much expressing the self per se.

In your memoirs, Wasted and Madness, you describe your struggle with mental illness. How has being highly creative has helped you deal with those aberrations over the years?

I think more than anything, a creative streak has given me a sense of humor. Without that, I’m not sure how I would handle mental illness, or how I would interpret or experience it in a way that was tolerable (let alone readable). Beyond that, I think I’ve always been able to hold onto the knowledge that my creativity was one of my strong points, one of the only things I really believed in about myself, and having that gave me a kind of ballast through the various storms. Dealing with a wayward mind can be so tricky; creative work or even a creative way of looking at the world can give you a means of holding onto your hat in a way that does not require an adherence to a “normal” or “average” way of thinking or living.

I grew up believing that there was a strong link between creativity and mental illness. It was a belief that kept me from fully exploring my own creativity. I know now that mental illness can strike all types of people, and that all types of people can be highly creative. Given that you are a highly creative person who has struggled with mental illness, do you believe the link is a damaging stereotype in our society? What are your thoughts on this?

There’s definitely a genetic tendency in people who are predisposed to mental illness to also be creative; but, as you say, mental illness is not necessarily a determinate factor in creative people. There are many, many people who are highly creative who do not deal with mental illness. So I think the perception that one must be “mad” or a “mad genius” is, frankly, absurd, though it has roots in ancient cultures that believed people with mental illness to be accessing the voices of the gods. So that’s probably an idea old enough to discard, yes?

       The other problematic factor in the mad-genius theory is that it creates a resistance to treatment in people with mental illness who worry that their creative abilities or creative tendencies will be lost if they take medication, stabilize their moods, or in any way take care of their mental disorder. The fact is, while those things (medication, mental stability, lack of mania) change the way in which one creates—for example, I no longer write maniacally all night long for weeks on end—stability does not in any way spell the end of creativity. It spells the consistency of creative production. Those manic weeks of nonstop work, which I didn’t want to lose, turn out in retrospect to have been mostly productive of inconsistent, not very high-quality work after all. The work I am able to do now—sitting down at my desk every day at 8 and working till 5—is vastly more consistent in quality, quantity, and voice. The mind, when out of control, cannot produce consistent creative work; it can soar and crash, but not steadily produce. So I stick with my meds

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I was lucky enough to be born into a highly creative family—mostly artists, writers, and teachers—and so my creativity was really sort of taken as a given, as was my general eccentricity. My drive to do creative work was—I am very thankful for this—encouraged at all times, except when work in general overtook my health, which is ultimately counterproductive anyway and obviously damaging to the mind. Certainly I’ve run into people who thought I was (to quote Shakespeare) “passing strange,” and have had relationships of one kind or another with them that felt awful and constraining; it was difficult to explain my need to work on writing when others thought I might need to work on, for example, laundry or dinner parties. The funniest thing my husband ever said to me was, after I’d been locked in my office for two months writing a poem, emerging mostly to eat and sleep—anyway, we were fighting about the fact that I was totally undomesticated and no help whatsoever around the house, and I yelled, “I’ve been working nonstop!” and he narrowed his eyes and said, “What exactly do you do?” Which of course made me want to hit him with a pan. But over time he’s gotten pretty used to my oddities, and realized that mostly I’m going to write, and that’s that. So in truth, I’ve been lucky—and at the times when I’ve encountered people who didn’t get it, I just threw up my hands and let those people think whatever they were going to think.

When the sh-t hits the fan, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty, and undeserving of happiness. We forget that there is always someone out there who has it worse than us. How were you able to avoid letting those powerful emotions sabotage your happiness and success?

I struggle with that stuff as much as anyone else, I suppose—the feeling of being undeserving, unsuccessful, yada yada yada, obsessing about imperfections, and so forth. What I do is mostly ignore myself and proceed with the work. A great line by Mary Karr, when discussing her need to work: “It was time to apply my ass to a desk chair and just get it done.” I am totally misquoting, but the point stands. When I do start to feel that I have it worse than anyone else (cue tiny violins), I volunteer and do work for people who IN FACT have it a hell of a lot worse than me and struggle constantly with things I tend to take for granted. I spend a good deal of time doing pro bono and volunteer work, and honestly that work is far more important to me than anything else that I do. It keeps me sane, honest, and in my place.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

My writing process involves a great deal of neurosis which, as I said above, requires concentrated ignoring. Mostly what I find effective is the ass-applied-to-desk-chair approach. The best line I’ve ever heard on this was from Nabokov, maybe? or possibly someone else? Anyway, this person was giving a lecture, and a young audience member asked him, “Do you write only when you’re inspired?” and he replied, “Yes, and I’m inspired every morning at precisely 8 a.m.” I have that posted above my desk. Sometimes the writing (or whatever creative endeavor is yours) is there and flows naturally; sometimes it’s like pulling out your own teeth. Either way works, but you have to make the effort. When it comes to feeling like I have “writer’s block,” I just start writing whatever—lists, nonsense, general ideas—and wait for the real writing to come, and whether that takes an hour or a week, it always does come. When I hate what I’m writing, I write something else. When I don’t want to write, I read something better than I can write myself and at least try to learn something. But in any case, discipline and organization are deeply deeply deeply important for me, and I hear for a lot of other artists as well.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I realized the other day that the book I was writing was actually two books. This is not the first time this has happened. So I had to put half the book in a drawer—the half I had written—and start the second half—the half I had NOT written, and had merely sketched out. In short, I had to start from scratch, because that was the book I really wanted to write right then, so that was the book I figured I’d better write. I find conversations with myself and with other people extremely helpful in spinning out my thoughts on what I’m writing and finding out what I mean by saying it out loud; equally helpful is hearing other people talk about their work and their ah-ha moments, because it reminds me that the process of creative production is mostly random and exploratory rather than logical and orderly (this is why the imposition of organization and discipline is necessary).

Another ah-ha moment of late is realizing the writing (creative work of any kind) is more like an archaeological dig than it is like a race—the work is all in there, just waiting to be discovered, and it requires patience and little brushes and spades and a huge amount of effort, but you can’t expect it to just appear fully formed on the page. It won’t do that. It has to be found.

     What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

“Of those to whom much has been given, much shall be required.” It keeps me mindful of just how damn lucky I am in countless ways, and that therefore I have the responsibility to give back, all the time, in any way I can. This is the work of a life, not just the work of a creative life. And it seems to me that while my creative life can in some cases be a way of giving back, there’s more I need to do, so I try to do it.

What's next for Marya Hornbacher?

I’m at work on a novel and a collection of poetry. I’m teaching, which is more inspirational than anything I know besides reading voraciously, and in the next few years I’ll be going back to school to do a PhD in literature. The next few books will be novels, then the poetry, and then I’ll get back to nonfiction.

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