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6527212 April 27, 2011

Obsessively Successful: Julianna Baggott

"Writing is part of the disease, but because it allows me to escape into another existence, it's part of the cure."

When I was in college, I was obsessed with writing schedules of what classes I would take each semester during each year of my education.  I can't explain it, but it gave me bizarre pleasure and satisfaction to write it down over and over and over again.  I couldn't stop.  It was a harmless obsession and compulsion.

Others weren't so harmless. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions).

It took quite a few years, but I finally accepted that I'm likely borderline obsessive compulsive. Now I know when it's happening and when it's getting out of control; I monitor myself and channel my obsessive nature in positive directions.  Doing so has enabled me to flip a weakness into a strength.  It's driven me to accomplish quite a bit.

My guest today, critically acclaimed, bestselling author Julianna Baggott, has published 16 books over the last ten years.  She writes under the pen names Bridget Asher and N. E. Bode. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) runs in Julianna's family.  She views writing as part of both the disease and the cure. 

I can relate. 

Over the years, I've learned that I must have something to obsess about.  It can change day to day, hour to hour, but I need a vice to grip. It's sort of an underlying thought process that provides a baseline on which to support the rest of my mental world.  It may seem odd, but if I don't have something specific to feed my obsessive nature, my mind finds something.  If the thing it happens to settle on is negative, my world starts to implode.  Everything falls out of balance. 

The primary thing that seems to keep my racing brain occupied enough to keep me out of trouble is art, whether it's writing or painting.  Creativity never ends.  It never stops feeding my ravenous, racing mind that craves baseline occupation.

Maybe I shouldn't admit to this issue; but it is what it is.  I've come to embrace the way I am because I know that it's enabled me to achieve many of my creative and professional goals.  I don't know what full fledged OCD sufferers feel like or how close or far I am from their world.  Unlike Julianna, I will stand by an idling vehicle.  In fact, I've come dangerously close to being hit by cars.

I'm lucky I have observant folks in my family who watch out for me.  They know that my issue is one of being too much inside my head to remember to put kitchen utensils away in their proper places, wipe door handles, or pay attention to how much money I'm spending on any given day.  I have more important things to think about ...  I forget to eat.  I tend to be messy.  Just last week, I got caught in slamming subway doors because I wasn't listening to the loud voice that was saying, "The doors are now closing!"  Being me can be quite the challenge. 

With all that said, I no longer care.  Of course, I don't want to get slammed in doors or hit by cars.  I work on that.  I try to pay attention to the little things.  However, I've come to terms with who I am and how my mind works.  I wouldn't want to be any other way, thank you very much.  I'll find my own cure: I no longer need the one I thought I needed once upon a time.

Like Julianna, many creative folks are lucky in that we have the ability to mine our disease and discover a cure within.  This blogger, author, artist, professional, mother, wife, nutcase, etc. is finding a way to make it work.  It's not always easy, but it's worth the effort.

Many creative folks struggle for years to achieve some sort of success.  Your work was first published when you were relatively young.  How did that mold your writing goals?

I published my first short story at twenty-two and sold my first novel before I turned thirty. Still, young for this game. What I love about writing is that you get better as a function of living, surviving. Of course, there is also dedication to craft. You have to be devout to get better. I knew I wanted to be a writer young and was deeply invested at an early age. I had some talent, lots of hours, but it took a while before I could actually have things to say. Hopefully my work is more insightful now.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

My parents dragged me to countless plays as a kid. By ten, I'd seen more plays than movies. Just the way it was for me. And that had a huge impact on my writing life, early on.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED is filled with events that happened to my own family. It starts where we now live in Florida. The narrator, Heidi takes her 8-year-old son and 16-year-old niece to the family's home in Provence, to renovate it after a fire. We lived in Provence as a family--with our four kids and my niece in tow--for a month. The injured swallow, the robbery, the warthogs, snails, vineyards, archaeological dig, the paper lanterns on Bastille Day--all of it came from our own experiences.

With regard to your new novel, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

There were so many. I knew the first half of the novel and where they were headed--the small village of Puyloubier--but I had no idea what was going to happen there. One of the characters had a huge secret--so secret that I didn't even know about it. When that was revealed, it fit. It was an ah-ha moment--in that sometimes you must follow your characters and truly let them live their lives beyond you, as creator. An important lesson to relearn and relearn.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder runs in my family, on my mother's side. We don't bare-hand doorknobs, eat sushi, stand near idling cars, etc.  The strange brain patterns of obsessions and compulsions play into my work.  I'm also compulsive about writing, which means I spend a lot of time at the page. Writing is part of the disease, but because it allows me to escape into another existence, it's part of the cure. The 8-year-old in THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED has a mild case of OCD. My first time writing about an OCD character. He gets better.

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?

Mostly there's an upside. I get away with a messy house, making comments that are non sequiturs, dressing mismatched, not brushing my hair, etc.  Sometimes people regard me as a giraffe--like the normal rules just don't apply. Kinda sad, but, "What can you do? She's so creative!"

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 the discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

I believe, deeply, in really seeing the world around you, seeing people as real people with as many needs, wants, desires as I have. This way, if you don't see people as cliches, you won't write them as cliches. Also, practice plotting, muse when you're going through your daily life. I call this "writing while not writing." It's crucial.

You've written under different names, and have also written various types of fiction. Why did you chose not to use your real name, and what are your favorite types of writing projects?

To be allowed to be prolific, contractually.

To build audiences for certain kinds of work.

I often think about the difference between writers who seem to attack it from a business perspective (i.e., James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, etc.), versus those who seem to be simply driven from a deep need to write regardless of business concerns (i.e., J.D. Salinger, Pat Conroy, etc.). How would you describe the differences between these types of writers? Where do you fit in?

I see myself as an artist with some projects and an entertainer with others. But only I can see the difference. When writing art, entertainment happens, and vice versa. This is my job, too. It's an industry. I believe it's my job to try to understand it.

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

I try to be kind--honest and kind. I believe in empathy. I think these things should be important to everyone.

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6527212 January 11, 2011

Incendiary: Chris Cleave

" ... literature is my tool of persuasion."

The term incendiary has a lot to do with bombs, as does Chris Cleave's latest novel, INCENDIARY (launched today by Simon & Schuster).  Incendiary also means "tending to inflame the senses," and "a person who stirs up strife, sedition, etc.; an agitator." 

I spent last year writing a novel which I dedicated to my mother.  After reading several pages, she shut it down.  She refuses to read it. It agitated her, stirred up strife, and inflamed her senses in such a way that she couldn't bear to continue ... not even for her daughter.  

A big part of my wanting to write the novel (DUST) was to persuade my mother to open up and finally see my perspective regarding who I am, who we are together, and what we are missing.  In the best way I know how, I committed myself to expressing my opinions about the deepest and most serious issues in our adult relationship.  I knew that those opinions and emotions reflect various universal truths that go beyond one mother and her daughter, thus providing the basis for a great novel.

It wasn't an easy story to write.

Yes, a part of me is devastated that she won't read the book.  That pain has already been neatly packaged and tucked away by all those efficient coping mechanisms I worked so hard to create and perfect beginning the day I emerged into my mother's stressful life.  Meanwhile, the manuscript sits in my computer now, a lonely file, waiting to be discovered by someone who will not only read it, but who will also appreciate its intrinsic literary and entertainment value.

Hearing this strife-filled, family drama, sob story, you might ask, "Did you say entertainment?" 

Absolutely!  Like all my novels, DUST not only serves as an enlightening, persuasive work of art, it also aims to absorb, enthrall, engross, captivate, and even provide a little comic relief.  In the end, I seek to entertain.  In the words of my guest today, author Chris Cleave, "Although my work has a strong persuasive element, I aim to write novels that are joyful and interesting things, rather than political tracts." 

After all, isn't that what truth in literature is all about?  Regardless of our views, ideologies, religions, politics, etc, our shared humanity is what enables us to understand and ultimately navigate through the perplexing landscape surrounding us ... wherever that may be.  Each of us is absorbing, enthralling, captivating, and even comical.  We are all part of a universal story.

My 22-year-old daughter pointed out, "If your mother was actually capable of reading and understanding the book, you'd never have written it." 

As a creative individual, I've come to terms with who I am.  I'm a person who can write a book like DUST, a book I believe in despite my own mother wanting to bomb it.  It relays something important to the world; it contains truth.  In a weird sort of way, my amazing mother gave me that gift.

I'll not stop hoping that someday she'll read and understand my words.  Until then, I'll continue to accept the support and peace of mind I gain from the wonderful guests on Aberration Nation.  When I read the inspiring words of folks like Chris Cleave, Marya Hornbacher, Antwone Fisher, Darin Strauss, Tom Grimes and all the others, I am renewed.  I carry on, believing that someday I will also be heard.

What's your writing story? Tell us how LITTLE BEE became such a success. Beyond being a fantastic novel, were there any specific pivotal events or situations that helped fuel its success?

I started writing when I was a kid – I drew satirical cartoons about our schoolteachers to make my friends laugh. I wrote a few novels that weren’t much good, and then in 2003 I quit my job, just before our first child was born, so that I could try to write full-time. I’ve had two novels published since then – INCENDIARY in 2005 and LITTLE BEE in 2008 – but I’ve written two or three more that were a bit too weird to publish. INCENDIARY has just been re-released by my publishers, which I’m delighted about because I think it’s my best work and I think people will enjoy it. I’m currently nearly finished on what I’m sure will be my third published novel.

Beyond the work itself, there are several factors that made LITTLE BEE a success.
  • First, I think the American reading public should take a lot of credit for taking the book to their hearts – it is after all quite a political and a challenging novel at times - not what one might typically expect to be a bestseller. So, more power to them.
  • Second, booksellers were very important in launching the book. We didn’t have much of an advertising campaign, so it was the kind support of the independent booksellers and the public librarians that brought the book to people’s attention.
  • Third, I was lucky to get a lot of support from Borders, who put the book front-of-house pretty early on.
  • Fourth, I worked my ass off touring the book and trying to give an interview to everyone who wanted one, big or small.
  • Fifth, I worked hard online to tell people about the book.
Also, and most importantly, I had an incredible agent, a terrific editor, and a courageous publisher. That’s not always the case when a book is published, and that’s why there were better books than mine published this year that didn’t do as well as mine.

You have said, "I see my job as providing new information in an entertaining way." That vision is certainly apparent in LITTLE BEE. I've always wanted to write novels that not only entertain but also bring something new to the table for the reader, whether emotionally or intellectually. For me, entertainment alone just isn't enough when I consider how to spend my time, and how to explore, dissect, and/or share my world. Why is it important for you to write novels that surpass being merely entertaining?

I’m from London and I like the UK, but I think it’s fair to say that we don’t have much of a democracy. We have two houses of parliament: the smaller (the Commons) is elected by the public from a set of candidates appointed by the established political parties, and the other - the larger in terms of the number of members - is simply filled with political appointees and hereditary law-makers (the Lords). There are no primaries, no fixed term limits, and no written constitution to protect the political process from the rapacious interests of media and banking tycoons. The main parties are centrist, establishmentarian and weak, and the civil service runs rings around them.

Since I believe in the potential of the political process to make life better for people, but faced with the reality that one’s vote counts for very little in the UK, I’ve decided that the best way for me to be politically active is to work on changing public opinion about political issues such as terrorism and immigration, using persuasion rather than violence. Literature is my tool of persuasion, and happily I enjoy the work too. I aim to make books that are joyful and interesting things, rather than political tracts.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

Yes, my incredible mother.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

I don’t know. I’m sorry. I just sit quietly and think about things, and ideas come into my mind. I know that’s an unsatisfactory answer and I’m sorry – but I just don’t know how my head works.

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

I’m working on a book about athletes at the moment, and the relationship society has with them. The big moment for me was when I was starting the research, and I went to watch some high-level cycle racing. I saw a huge crash, in a criterium race in the rain, and I watched all these young men picking themselves up, bleeding profusely, and getting back on their bikes if they could. And it was freezing, and no one was getting paid much, and people were riding with broken bones. I finally understood the everyday suffering these people go through just so that one or two of them can prevail and the rest of us can get a nice patriotic feeling once every four years when we watch them race in the Olympics. It made me feel a bit sick.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

The work I do is creative, in the sense that I’m producing something out of nothing, and when that is channeled into a project that is going well, I get on a terrific high because it feels like magic. That in itself is a problem, because it means that I neglect everything else. And when the work is going badly, or I can’t get other people to like my work and I end up in a vortex of re-writing, I have this quite terrifying abandonment of everything else in my life as I struggle to make the work right, because I do believe in my stories and I am fiercely determined to make them work.

I love being a writer but I don’t find it an easy job. You’re working with strong forces, and strong people, and you can’t always be the master of them. That’s true in a lot of jobs, but few of those jobs are so solitary. I think that’s the crux of it – there’s no one to quietly tell you: enough.

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 have some wonderful people in my life – my wife and children, my family and friends. People are very kind to me on the whole, and I think they make allowances for the fact that I am sometimes preoccupied or reclusive. I just try to do my best, and I think people appreciate that’s all I can do. And most days, I think I’m pretty entertaining company. I hardly ever have problems with people.

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 default setting is to work all the time, so really my biggest creative challenge is not discipline or organization, but finding a way to switch off sometimes. That’s easier said than done.
  • First because (as in any worthwhile job) it’s exciting and it keeps you awake.
  • Second because you can’t really plan your time.
You might deliver a book after a year of very intense work, and be planning a month off to recuperate, but the publisher doesn’t love the book and you need to get back to work immediately, and on an even tighter deadline this time. Combine that with newspaper deadlines and family commitments, and you can see that the greatest challenge to your creativity is the very real prospect of burning out. I’m sure the creative challenge is the same for all writers – you need to find a way to sit down at your keyboard remembering that it is fun to be there.

What's next for Chris Cleave?

Deliver the new novel. Take a month off. Do things real men do, like shop for power tools and sledge across Alaska, eating the huskies if necessary.

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

What a great question. I toyed with some glorious mottos that made me sound tenacious, brave and dashing, but in truth I suppose my motto is the same as any parent’s: “Try not to die or go mad until after your kids have left home and settled down.” I would rather my wonderful children remembered me as a good parent than a good writer, so my aim in life is to provide for them and have fun with them. Actually that’s a pretty good rule to live by, because it puts everything else in perspective.

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6527212 September 15, 2010

Beating Back Grief: Darin Strauss

 "... grief, (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability) if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back."

Last week I had a challenging conversation with my chronically troubled mother. After she lectured me on how to vanquish the grief of my disturbing childhood by finally apologizing to her for my failures as a daughter, I explained that my grief can never be completely vanquished, only beaten back and put in its proper place.

She didn't get it.

Maybe you can understand.  I'm quite certain that my guest today, Darin Strauss, will get it.  In fact, I wish I'd had his interview answers in mind during that frustrating conversation with my mother.

I would have explained to her that during my childhood, she and I were headed in opposite directions. As I innocently drove toward some kind of magical future, she swerved time and time again, trying to escape the present. She crossed established boundaries, crashing into me. Each time I saw it coming, I desperately tried to miss her--to save her--but it was impossible. I did the best I humanly could to end her unhappiness and pain, the repetitive death of her spirit.

I do not owe her an apology.

Instead, I explained that because I was so young, because my body and soul were evolving at a cellular level, those experiences contributed to the core of who I am, bit by bit.  To reach into myself and yank all that out now would cripple me. I'm stronger with them than without them.

To quote Darin, "... of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat--in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it--I wouldn't."

As Darin and I both know, some folks have it much worse than the two of us.  Everyone has their own aberrations and crosses to bear.  On Aberration Nation we've read about a woman who lost her entire family to war, a man who was stabbed 39 times as a child, people who were physically abused, etc.  Realistically, we'll never know who feels pain the deepest, who cries the most tears, or who has the most regret.  We all live in our own self-contained emotional jungles. Even when we're blessed to have visitors who share our internal world, they must still see it through their own eyes.

I suspect my mother's view has always been distorted by all that constant swerving and crashing.  When I was a child, she used to inform me with a harsh tone, "This is not your life, Penelope."  That always bothered me, as if she were belittling my very existence, turning me into some sort of ghost revolving around her.  I remember standing there, thinking, but I'm here, aren't I? I'm living. I desperately wanted to be in my own life; I wanted to be the hero of the story.

Darin has gifted me with the notion that perhaps in a way, my mother was right.  As he so simply phrases it below, "It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living."

What's your story as a writer, and how does your new memoir HALF A LIFE factor in?

I always loved books, and first attempted a novel as a 4th grader (Army of Frankensteins, a young American general, shockingly bad writing). But I didn't think of becoming a writer professionally until college. I didn't know anyone who'd tried it. But PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT changed my life. I thought: I can write about this?

HALF A LIFE is a big part of my story.  I was a normal high school kid who had a car accident. A girl cut across two lanes of a busy highway and crashed right into my car. She died. I was changed by this in ways I only fully understood 20 years later. The book is an attempt not just to tell the story and make sense of it, but to also show that grief (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability), if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back.

With regard to HALF A LIFE, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My new book is all about ah-ha moments. I thought I would never write about this. (I published three novels before this book, and assumed I'd just go on writing fiction.) I found myself feeling better about the accident than I ever had before. I didn't know why, but dealing with it as a writing project--something you tinker with, shape, and turn off at night--helped. I felt some guilt about that--the fact that it was getting easier.

Then I learned that the way psychologists now deal with Complicated Grief Disorder (a disease of people much more floored even than I was) is that they have sufferers speak into a tape recorder about what is the most painful thing for them. And then the patients have to play that tape for themselves every night. This sounds like mental torture. But the transformation of personal grief into an object that can be turned off is the best path to healing. And I stumbled into it.

But when you write a memoir (something as a fiction writer I was sure, again, that I'd never do) you learn things all the time. If you're doing your job, anyway. Oh, yeah--I forgot that this happened. That was a notion I had daily.

Aberration Nation currently focuses on creativity, but it's also about how life's aberrations (whether physical, emotional, or situational) can become the kernel of our strength. In Half a Life, you write about a tragic event that shaped your life. No one wants to believe that someone's

This is kind of the nexus of the book's questions. Someone died. So of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat -- in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it -- I wouldn't.

That's something I never would have believed in the years and years I was agonizing. But it made me who I am. The accident happened when I was 18. It wasn't my fault that she died; she swerved in front of me, and I tried my best to avoid her. Going over that one-tenth of a second for decades was an act of futility. I tried my human best to miss her, and I didn't miss her, but that was all I could do. And so I realized it wasn't even a story about me. It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living.

But yes, it made me stronger, I hope. And I also hope more thoughtful (in every sense).

When tragedy strikes, 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 emotions sabotage your happiness and success?

I was both wallowing (I felt terrible guilt).  I was also deeply, heart-hurtingly aware that people had it worse than I did (the girl who died's parents).  After they told me they knew for sure that it wasn't my fault--and that they expected me to live twice as successfully and well now, because I was living for two people--and then followed that up by suing me for millions of dollars, I was very wallow-y. That was heavy for an 18-year-old. (If the court case went terribly wrong for me, I could have had my wages garnished forever.) Plus I kept wondering if I could have swerved differently, or done something. So those thoughts did diminish my happiness. Which seemed fitting; again, even though it wasn't my fault, a girl died because my car hit her. That will change you. The key was not letting it define who I was.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I think my career has caused aberrations for my wife. As a writer you're never 100 percent off-duty. So sometimes I'm not as present with her as I should be; I'm thinking of a character, a plot turn, a metaphor. But that sounds pretentious. I think it's also been great. And as Philip Roth wrote -- a character who was a writer was at his brother's funeral, and deciding how he would stage the scene in a novel -- this job even fucks up grief. (But that's probably to the good.)

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I think writing is all expression. Expressing a detail, an idea, a half-formed idea. But expression is creation, right? I mean, for a writer -- expression equals creation.

In general, is writing therapeutic for you? How was writing HALF A LIFE therapeutic?

I used to subscribe to something that the writer William Gass said. (And I'm going to misquote it, probably.) "If writing is cathartic, you're not doing it right, because it's so hard--getting the prose and the form right--you can't have time to think about yourself."

But that is what makes it cathartic, I now realize. Losing yourself in the "craft" aspects of it, finding the write punctuation mark, deciding if this paragraph should follow that one, this is the kind of thing that takes you out of your grief.

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 had girlfriends who didn't get it. I once told a woman that I'd had a hard day, and she laughed. "How hard can it be? You're just making stuff up." That kind of thing.

My wife is very understanding. But it bothers her, even now, how much I work. I wrote for a few hours yesterday (Labor Day), and that drove her nuts. It's something we always have to deal with--manging each other's expectations.     

Was there ever a time when you just felt like giving up? On yourself? On writing? If so, how were you able to cross that bridge?

Sure. You feel that all the time. To quote Roth again, "The difference between an Olympic swimmer and a professional writer is that the swimmer doesn't feel like she's drowning every time she goes in."  So we all feel it--even the Philip Roths of the world.  But the key is: keep getting in the pool.

If you could tell the world one thing about overcoming tragedy, what would that be?

Too hard to answer. I guess, try to face it. Do the Complicated Grief Disorder therapy that I mentioned above. When you're ready--and only then--force yourself to play the tape over and again.

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6527212 April 28, 2010

True Creative Blood: Charlaine Harris

"... by reminding myself that I can’t do a lot of things that other people manage with ease, I maintain an even keel most days."

This week The New Yorker said, "Przekop clearly has a gift for language." Awesome! (Never mind that I'm still looking for a new publisher.) On most days, I have to remind myself of comments like this one to boost my confidence. Being able to write (and paint) gives me hope that I just may be good at something after all.

Why is that so important? Well, because there are so many things I suck at. To name a few: I can't cook; I think too much for my own good; I'm terrible with managing money; my head is too often in the clouds; sometimes I'm a poor listener; I'm messy, forgetful, impulsive, obsessive, impatient; sometimes my motives are misunderstood due to my approach; and the list goes on.

I think there's something bad in my blood.

My guest today, author Charlaine Harris, is having phenomenal success. She knows a thing or two about blood types. I was interested to read that she also thinks about all the things she's not good at. Perhaps once you've reached a certain level of creative success, those things keep you grounded?

Okay, I'll shoot for that.

Meanwhile, I'm in New York City today writing this at a place called Earth Matters. It's a bit of a dream come true--venturing into the big apple on my own, hanging out in a hip joint surrounded by folks who are writing, reading, and surfing the Web. Later, I'm headed to The Pearl Lounge to meet artists, photographers, gallery owners, and all kinds of creative, interesting folks (more on the Pearl in an upcoming post).

During my hour-long train ride from Philly, I thought of all the girls I've wanted to be at one time or another, and how I either failed, was rejected, or missed the boat. To continue last post's Wicked theme, there were so many times I could have sang, I'm not that girl. But today as I watched Hamilton, Newark and Secaucus rush by, I was happy that I sucked at, got bored with, or fell just short of all the girls I could have been, despite any pain I've suffered.

I could have taken a hundred other paths but the life I have today has emerged as the best possible scenario. I could have married my high school sweetheart, the one who shattered my heart in college, or the one who gave me a child and then ran away. I could have become a teacher or a physician. I could have progressed as a corporate executive with little time for anything else.

Screw all that. I'm too busy attempting to defy gravity. So what if I'm not that girl. I'm on top of the world, swinging on the star I gazed at as a lonely, confused 15-year-old determined to find happiness.

If folks talented enough to work at The New Yorker believe I have something to offer, I'll not waste that gift--that chance. So what if I can't cook? So what if balancing a checkbook or keeping track of my spending feels like having my skin peeled. Other people can do that stuff.

Thank God for them. Amen.

Similar to Charlaine, I'm not surprised about where I've landed, but I am surprised that I'm sitting in the Lower East Side on a Wednesday afternoon. It thrills me to consider where I'll be next year, or in five years. Life is a wild ride, and I intend to stay on it. I know now that I can survive multiple falls and still keep moving forward. Like Charlaine's mother observed, "Women do whatever they have to do."

So what if I'm not that girl. I'm the best kind of girl.

What's your story (in a nutshell)? Are you surprised by your success, or did you always believe it would happen?

I decided to switch my career after I’d been a mystery writer for many years. I decided to write a book with a touch of everything in it. It took my agent two years to find a place for the first Sookie novel; a lot of editors hated it. Finally, he found an editor (John Morgan) at Ace who would take the book. I’m not surprised I’m successful, but I am very surprised by HOW successful I am.

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

I’ve had a lot of “ah-ha” moments when I was working on the Sookie books. Since I’m not a great planner, almost every month I have an “ah-ha!” There was the day I realized Sookie had fairy blood, the day I realized why Bill had come to Bon Temps, and the day I realized that Elvis was a vampire.

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer?

I think more about creation. I love making my own world come alive. I love being the queen of that world with the power of life and death.

Do you believe that a highly creative person can give more than one art form 100% of their ability/soul (i.e., writing and painting, music and art, etc)? Can a person succeed at more than more, or does trying to do so dilute what they have to offer?

I’ve never thought about this before. The only comparison I can draw is with athletes, who eventually must commit to one sport. If a gifted athlete keeps trying to play several sports, eventually she’ll exhaust herself or incur an injury that will put her on the bench for the whole season.

If I follow that analogy, I think it’s best to select a main focus and only “play” the other ones as entertainment; holidays, if you will.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I’ve certainly had some terrible and destructive things happen to me in my life that I managed to spin into gold. I think the creative force uses what raw materials it has to hand, be they wonderful or awful experiences, and transmits those events into something useful to the writer --- either emotionally or artistically.

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?

Of course I’ve had to deal with people who don’t understand why or how I do what I do. It’s like being a perpetual teenager, some days; perpetually misunderstood and disgruntled about it. However, by reminding myself that I can’t do a lot of things that other people manage with ease, I maintain an even keel most days.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Do you have any advice for those still struggling to make their creative mark? Is there ever a time when it's best to "give up" and find a new focus?

I’m sure there is a time to give up, but I’m never going to tell a struggling artist that he/she should abandon his art. That’s an individual decision, one that has to be based on many factors.

Do you ever wonder if what you're creating or expressing is as meaningful to others as it is to you? How important is that to you with regard to your overall goals?

I don’t care if people get my message or not. I’ve made it, it’s out there to accept or reject or ignore as the reader chooses.

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

Yes. There are lots of ways to be creative in your everyday life, but not all of these are driven by a specific talent. They’re just imaginative ways to make your life and the lives of those around you more interesting.

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

“Women can do whatever they have to do.”

That’s what my mom always told me, and I think she’s right. She’s always felt that women are incredibly strong and resilient (on the whole), because they have to be to get through life – keeping a home running, raising children, and (now) working outside the home, too. My mom was raised in a different, but equally tough, time. I see the truth in that simple statement, and it’s kept me going when I felt like crumpling.

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6527212 March 17, 2010

Disciplined Dreamer: Melissa Walker

"It's discipline--not the muse--that gets the work done."

I strive to be stay focused and exercise discipline. I make lists and enjoy crossing off the items as they're accomplished. When I worked full time in the pharmaceutical industry, my daily list was usually two pages long. There was so much to do! If I stopped for even a moment, I'd fail. I couldn't "do it tomorrow" because I knew morning would bring a brand new list my way.

I got a heck of a lot done! I also watched a lot of life pass me by. I lacked the time and energy needed to reach out and grab it.

Now that I'm writing and painting full time, my basic to-do list has shriveled.

It's more like:

1) Email
2) Write blog entry and post
3) Paint
5) Write novel
4) Fold and put away laundry

I often break a few of these down into much more detailed lists, but overall, it's still shorter than it was when I was: working as global director at Johnson & Johnson; raising a teenager and a toddler; working on a Master's Degree; writing a novel on the side; finding time for my husband, etc. That took tenacity, gumption, dedication, organization, and discipline!

So now that I have more time, I often feel like I'm in slow motion. It's a strange phenomenon. Sometimes having all the time in the world isn't quite the great medicine you thought it would be. The feeling of "I can do it tomorrow" sucks the life right out of you--if you lack discipline. And as my guest today, author and journalist Melissa Walker, points out, discipline is needed to bring creativity to life.

Leaving the corporate world was a huge adjustment for me, especially in terms of the writing. For nearly twenty years, I dreamed of being at home writing. Forced to carve out time, I wrote at lunch and pediatric waiting rooms. I wrote at 1:00 in the morning and while waiting in line to pick up my cheerleading daughter.

I got used to it; I adapted. Now that I'm sitting at home with nothing to do but write, it's somehow more difficult to get started. I won't say that I have writer's block, yet something is holding me back. I've written about 10,000 words on my new novel when I should have written 20,000 (according to my list).

Melissa has kindly reminded me that no matter what your situation may be, discipline remains key to seeing the work move out of your head and into your hands.

I'm giving myself a sharp slap on the wrist. Once this is posted, I'm working on that novel!

Thanks Melissa!

I often wonder if most highly creative people are born knowing what they want to do. Have you always wanted to be a writer, or was it a specific creative interest that evolved over time?

I always wanted to write. I banged out my first story, "The Very Vain Cloud," on my parents' typewriter at age six or so.

Do you have other creative interests, and if so, what are they?

I enjoy visual arts also--I love contemplating cover designs of books and thinking about colors, fonts, shapes, etc. But the truth is, that's just for fun. I don't think I have talent in that area. Writing is my real focus.

There is a stereotype that creative people are "different," which can be a positive or a negative at times. What are your thoughts on this?

I think creative people dream more, and that's a good thing!

Do you believe being creative has caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I believe being creative has both caused some aberrations (just the fact that I don't have a traditional paycheck, for one) and helped me deal with some too. The idea of working in an office all day is an aberration to me--I knew that from the first year after I graduated from college and I set about trying to be sure I could find a career that wouldn't insist upon that. Writing pointed me in the right direction and showed me a job I could do on my own time, in my own way.

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

I haven't, really. I've been lucky. My parents were always very encouraging of my dream of becoming a writer, and I think that's why I'm sitting in my pink flowered writing chair today.

I often wonder, "Am I truly creative or do I just think I am?" Have you ever wondered about this? In a world filled with creative people and people who think they're creative, how have you been able to distinguish yourself and your talent, despite any doubts along the way?

Oh yes! I can't distinguish any talent. I just wing it and hope against hope that I've put up enough smoke and mirrors to make someone think I can do this writing work. I think all writers are insecure that way. At least, that's what I hear.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. How did (or do) you cope with disappointments? What motivated you to keep going, to not give up?

I struggle with this regularly. I think everyone has ups and downs, but rolling with them instead of fighting them is important. Also: Do what you love. Then even if success feels far away, you're enjoying the journey.

I often wonder about the similarities and differences creative people have in terms of thought processes. How would you describe your creative process? How does your mind work?

I outline. I put on music. I watch TV. I take walks. My mind circles the whole time and then I sit down to work. It's really the sitting down to work that does it. It's discipline--not the muse--that gets the work done.

What are the top three characteristics of a highly creative person, in your opinion?

I don't know about everyone but I feel that my creativity comes from:

1. Being a big dreamer

2. Watching the world around me closely

3. Reading anything and everything I can get my hands on.

Many creative people have tons of ideas but never follow through. I'm not sure if it's because they lack drive, organization, or focus. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

I think fear of failure gets in our way a lot. If something's unfinished, you don't have to show it to anyone and you don't have to risk rejection. But getting something done? That's a step toward the scary process of giving it to the world. It's terrifying!___________________________________________

Next Week: Kevin O'Hanlan, Photographer/Filmmaker and New York Gallery Owner

Also watch for NEW questions on creativity in upcoming interviews.

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6527212 January 26, 2010

Bellies, Imagination, and Books: DeAnna Cameron

"No one seems to understand why I want to spend so many hours in a room by myself ..."

I've decided to keep a running list of the characteristics of highly creative individuals from the view point of their peers.

So far, the list includes:

1) Obsessive
2) Driven
3) Willing to sacrifice
4) A free mind (and soul)
5) Talent to create
6) Social skills (knowing how to communicate)

My guest today, author DeAnna Cameron adds,

7) Imagination
8) Persistence
9) Financial independence (She's half joking with this one.)

Like quite a few writers, DeAnna began her career in journalism.

In a way, I did as well. I was the newspaper reporter for my junior high class. Okay, maybe that doesn't count but I did spend a few childhood years dreaming about being an adventurous investigative reporter. Like DeAnna, I had the idea that I could write and make a paycheck. But just about the time the 'ole hormones kicked in, my interest in solving mysteries and my desire for adventure shifted to boys.

Oh boy!

My writing efforts suddenly seethed with emotion that seemed to explode out of my own insecurities and need to feel loved. In the midst of all this, my train toward journalism somehow got derailed.

So while I was off trying to feel loved, DeAnna was building a career in journalism and satisfying her taste for adventure through belly dancing. She found success in both endeavors, yet she wasn't quite satisfied. Perhaps she just had too much imagination. She finally took a bold leap into the world of fiction, and her first novel, The Belly Dancer, soon emerged on bookstore shelves.

As for me, once I finally figured out that the most important love to have is love of self, my writing began to evolve into something cohesive. Did I waste a lot of time? Did DeAnna make wiser choices? Perhaps but life can sometimes be a hazy maze. We're forced to do the best we can, feeling our way toward the positive outcome we imagine. That's where persistence comes in.

Now all I need to do is become financially independent.

I often wonder if most highly creative people are born knowing what they want to do. Have you always wanted to be a writer or was it a specific creative interest that evolved over time?

I’d have to say that for me it’s something that has evolved – and mostly because I spent so many years talking myself out of being a writer. I’ve always tried to be practical, and frankly no one can argue that writing is practical. So, I tried to do other things and to steer my life in other directions. But no matter what I did, I always found myself coming back to writing. I thought I had found the perfect compromise when I discovered journalism. It was writing, but there was a steady paycheck! I spent a dozen years in various reporting and editing positions at newspapers and magazines, but that need to write my own stories never went away.

Do you have other creative interests, and if so, what are they?

Belly dancing! Which I’m sure comes as no surprise since the premise of my debut novel is the introduction of belly dancing to America at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. I also love to cook, and I think that can be a creative outlet as well. What I really enjoy about cooking and belly dancing is how they get me out of my head. Cooking is about doing things with your hands and dancing is about moving your whole body and getting lost in the music. I find them both to be tremendous therapy after spending hours at a computer keyboard.

There is a stereotype that creative people are "different," which can be a positive or a negative at times. What are your thoughts on this?

I believe what makes creative people seem different is that they don’t feel locked in to doing things or approaching things in the usual, expected ways.

Do you believe being creative has caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I believe creativity can be a wonderful coping mechanism. I don’t think my creativity has caused aberrations, but I definitely believe it has helped me manage or work through things. When I really get into the flow of writing, when it feels like I’m not in control anymore but something else is guiding the story, I sometimes find myself writing about things that surprise me. I might discover how I really feel about something, or I might find myself writing a scene that parallels something going on in my own life. It can be very cathartic.

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

I’ve been very lucky. I’m blessed to have a supportive family, and my husband is a musician, so he particularly understands the nature of a creative drive. What does tend to puzzle people is my need to be alone to write. No one seems to understand why I want to spend so many hours in a room by myself writing because they don’t understand that to me, I’m not alone. I’m immersed in the world of the story I’m creating.

I often wonder, "Am I truly creative or do I just think I am?" Have you ever wondered about this? In a world filled with creative people and people who think they're creative, how were you able to distinguish yourself and your talent despite any doubts along the way?

I think creative people are always questioning whether they have authentic talent or if they merely think or hope they do. Isn’t that what keeps us motivated to do better, to continue to improve? Really, I try not to think about it too much. No one can really judge the worth of their own work. That sort of thing is better left to others. All you can do is focus on the work and do it to the best of your ability.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. How have you coped with disappointments?

Start with very low expectations. Seriously. Then you are happy with whatever success comes your way.

I often wonder about the similarities and differences creative people have in terms of thought processes. How would you describe your creative process? How does your mind work?

I tend to start with a sliver of idea, just the barest hint of a story. Usually it’s a premise. Then characters present themselves. Then subplots, motifs, settings, etc. I think of a new story idea like a skeleton. Then slowly I add in the layers that flesh it out.

What are the top three characteristics of a highly creative person, in your opinion?

1. imagination

2. persistence

3. financial independence (I’m only half-kidding about this one).

Many creative people have tons of ideas but never follow through. I'm not sure if it's because they lack drive, organization, or focus. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

You can be creative all day long but there really has to be some commitment to it, some level of persistence, for anything to come of it.

The following video was created by DeAnna prior to the release of The Belly Dancer:

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6527212 May 29, 2009

Two Dad Deal: An Aberration Story

Moral hypocrisy also plays a heavy part in this particular dilemma.

One of the key goals of Aberration Nation is to evoke plain ole' thinking. It turns out that thinking is a much harder and scarier activity than I ever imagined. It must be because a disturbing amount of people form opinions based on what someone else told them to think once upon a time. Perhaps it was their parents, teachers, friends, or the broader culture squeezing in around them. Busting out of preconceived notions and small ideas can be overwhelming. For some, living like a programmed robot turns out to be a much more convenient option.

This inability to think for oneself has become a major thorn in my creative and intellectual side. I grew up being told exactly how to think and what opinions were the right ones to have. The consequences of questioning those directives created a dense barbed wire fence caked in misconception, guilt, and grief that I eventually had to fight my way through step by step. Now that I'm safe on the other side, I feel compelled to think through issues on an individual level, and I hope you will as well.

Going against the grain isn't easy, particularly in cultures where thinking in and of itself seems to be a crime. I still struggle to muster the courage after all these years. In fact, a sign in my laundry room has the word Courage written across it. Each day I take a moment to read it and remember why I hung it on the wall. There are many issues that I'll be contemplating for a long time; my decisions don't come quickly or easily.

What better topic to evoke down and dirty, gut-wrenching (and downright sinful by some standards) thinking than gay civil rights? My guess is that reader opinions are mixed on the issue. Today's post is about a gay rights topic that pulls at my heartstrings: adoption. You see, once upon a time, I got myself into a jam. Miss foot-loose-fancy-free-deep-thinking-Louisiana-college-senior found herself with a huge pregnant belly and the heart-wrenching option of giving up a child for adoption. Smart, determined, and full of spunk, I knew I could make it work. So I decided to parent the kid myself rather than risk handing it over to parents who might somehow love it less, mistreat it, or abuse it. I gladly sacrificed what I had left of my own youthful independence and late-sleeping M.O. to prevent that scenario.

Even then I knew that all parents are not equal. I came to the conclusion that one good parent is better than two bad ones, and that no matter what anyone (in my 1980's southern Bible-belt Junior League culture) thought or said about me and my situation, we would survive. I married my husband a few years later, and over the years, have come to realize that absolutely nothing but love truly makes a family.

If heterosexual parents are not equally capable of great parenting, why can't there be some good gay and lesbian ones out there? If I'd been forced to give up my child for some reason, I would have preferred that someone like my guest today, author David H. Burton, and his partner raise her rather than some of the heterosexual parents I've come across through the years. The bottom line is that every child deserves to be truly and honestly loved, protected, and cared for.

Perhaps reading about David and his partner's love for their three adopted sons will perpetuate additional thought on this critical cultural topic. I haven't stopped thinking about it since I read his touching responses to my interview questions. Does this thoughtful, creative man and the one person he loves most in the world deserve to be fathers? The Children's Aid Society and the Canadian government think so.

Forget what anyone has ever told you. Make your own decision and let us know your thoughts (leave a comment).

You are one of two fathers for three adopted sons. Why did you and your partner decide to adopt? Do you believe the motivation differed from traditional adoptive parents?

My partner and I have been together for 12 years. In the very early stages of our relationship we both knew that we wanted children and talked about it openly. After we had bought a house and settled into a quiet, suburban neighborhood (where there seemed to be a rather abnormally large percentage of gay/lesbian couples) we decided to begin the journey, as it were. We attended a course called Daddies and Poppas that explored the various options for gay men that want to adopt. Of the options that were available (i.e., surrogacy, co-parenting, international adoption, private adoption, adoption through the Children's Aid Society, etc) we decided to go the adoption route through The Children's Aid Society (CAS). As for the motivation, I think it differs for a lot of people. We both grew up with siblings and knew that we wanted children and I don't think it was any more complex than that, really. I know that factors like sterility/infertility are often a factor for heterosexual couples that adopt, but that obviously wasn't the case for us. :)

What was the process like? Did you and your partner encounter any barriers? If so, how did you handle them?

We live in Canada, so the actual process for adoption with CAS is the same as any married or common-law couple. I should mention, though, that as a result of being a same-sex couple we were barred from international adoption since only Canada and the U.S. allow same-sex couples to adopt. That limited our options obviously, but I'm glad that we went through CAS. There are a lot of children that need love and a good home, especially older children. I wrote about this particular topic on my blog. There's a special place in my heart for older child adoption. :) Back to the point. The process is lengthy, as once you submit your application to CAS you wait until they slot you into their orientation course. The wait can be upwards of 1.5 years. The course is about 9-10 weeks of classes and a simultaneous home study with an adoption worker. You basically have to divulge your entire life (relationships with family members, your spouse, financial status, etc.) as part of the home study. You have to be honest about everything, because it's not just about being upfront about your lifestyle, but also about what you are willing to accept in an adopted child. You have to be brutally honest since CAS's focus is to find the right home for each child. As for barriers other than international adoption, there are none in this country that I can think of when it comes to adoption for same-sex couples. I suppose that same-sex couples might be concerned around adoption where a birth mother gives up her child and wants to choose the adoptive couple. In this case, I'm sure there are worries that they might not be chosen, but quite honestly we know a same-sex couple that the birth mother chose over other couples. She wanted her child growing up in a progressive home!

Can you describe your family for us? What make it the same and what makes it different from traditional families?

Our family is as follows: we have 3 boys and they are birth siblings. They were between the ages of 6-9 when we adopted them. My partner and I are both in our 30's and we have a Basset Hound that the boys adore. Really, the only significant things that differentiates us from other families is that there are two dads. In the beginning, the boys called us by our first names, but after a couple of months they were quite ready to call us something more appropriate. Considering their ages, we let them decide and they came up with Dad and Daddy. The boys do tend to get a few questions around having two dads, but they are quite proud of the fact now. The other day, our middle son had a friend over at the house and he turned to his friend and said, "See, I have two dads!", as if the friend hadn’t believed him. The other parents and the school have been nothing but supportive, offering books and other resources to help if we needed it. We do have to correct some people when they mention having a mother, but we take it all in stride. People make a lot of heterosexist assumptions in general and you learn to correct people politely. I make a specific point of doing it in front of the boys since I want them to be proud of their dads and not to feel ashamed of it. I refuse to be ashamed of who I am. And they think it's great! I think the best statement they came up with was "I have two dads because they chose me." Enough said, I guess!

Can you describe a typical day?

Chaos! LOL! Just kidding. Although I do have to say that the change from just the two of us to house full of boys was significant. The biggest thing is routine. It starts with making lunches, breakfast, feeding the dog, getting ready for school, etc. We both work and I get home early to pick up the boys. From there, it’s homework, dinner, etc. We try to have dinner as a family and sit together and talk about the day. We also like to spend time with each of them at bedtime, reading to them, etc. We're big on having family time and individual time and the boys thrive on it. I think it helps to develop a stronger and faster bond with them. And laughter is huge in our house. A lot of it! We also try to set up routines on the weekend with special treats that the boys look forward to. We love our weekends!

Do your sons understand the nature of the love between their two fathers? How do you explain to this to them in a way that they can understand at an early age?

I think in the beginning it was a little foreign to them, but they adjusted very quickly. They completely understand that we are a couple and we emphasized that from the get-go. What's interesting is that it has re-shaped their own conceptions about having a partner. Our middle guy wants to marry Mario at the moment! (from the Mario & Luigi video games)

Have your children experienced any social issues due to having two fathers? If so, how have you helped them cope?

Not at this point other than questions around having two dads. We've prepped them ahead of time by having very straight-forward dialogue about the potential for issues to arise (i.e., name-calling, etc). We used a number of books that show diversity in families to show that there are all kinds of families and that having two dads is simply one variation. From what we have seen so far, they seem quite well grounded on this matter.

We all have concerns for our children as they grow up. What are your main concerns? What are the top three messages you hope to instill in them on their way to manhood?

We're really big on respect for women and ensuring that they see women as equals. We hope that our boys will grow up treating all people with respect, and not just tolerating difference, but celebrating it. We've also tried to teach them about non-violence and finding mutually acceptable means to settle differences rather than resorting to violence. We don't want them growing up glorifying guns. I think with some of these qualities instilled in them, they will grow to become wonderful partners and well-respected men in society.

There are always folks ready and willing to tell us how to live our lives—how did you find the courage to move beyond those barriers and create a rewarding life for yourself?

I grew up as the son of a Jehovah Witness, and then, when my father was ex-communicated, a born-again Christian. The church I attended was non-denominational, but filled with hypocrisy and judgment. I never felt right there and the messages of intolerance I received as a child and a teenager were anathema to me. At around the age of 16 I stopped going to church and never returned. My father continues to be a born-again Christian and has had to, himself, deal with the fact that I'm gay. He's actually been extremely supportive of me and my partner over the years, but I think it has been difficult for him. As for my own growth, I came out at the age of 20 while away at university. I've never looked back.

What do you feel are the most damaging misconceptions about same-sex adoption? Has this improved over the last five or ten years?

The biggest misconception about same-sex adoption is around the "influence" that we, as same-sex parents, might have over our children. I've never bought into it. My parents are straight, yet I turned out gay. That said, I've heard that children of same-sex parents grow up to be more accepting of differences in people, which is always good. As for improving over the last decade, I think that society's views, in general, have become more tolerant towards LGBT people, in addition to same-sex adoption, but I think there is still some ways to go.

Love is love is love. I get so frustrated by some of the push-back same sex couples get about adoption when I know how many crappy parents there are out there, and how many children just need someone to love them. Why is it that people fail to support providing that love to these children?

Fear - plain and simple. We fear the unknown. And what we fear we try to control. Moral hypocrisy also plays a heavy part in this particular dilemma. People pick and choose from their religion to try to force others to live their lives a certain way. And that goes for a number of issues throughout history - slavery, the subjugation of women, etc. There is a really good article posted by Libba Bray over at livejournal. Her father was gay. And as she says, "They are scared. And fear breeds mistrust and intolerance. Often, when people feel that the times are uncertain and they are uncertain of their place in that shaky world, when they feel powerless over the economy or random violence or gender roles or their children, their spouses, etc.—what I call the Talking Heads moment: “And you may say to yourself, Where is that beautiful house? And you may say to yourself, My God, what have I done?”—they feel genuinely threatened in the way that a child who feels threatened will dig in his/her heels and refuse to cede ground because it feels, in that moment, like ceding the self. It is their fear of themselves, really, of their tenuous grasp on an unpredictable world, that is writ large in such legislation. “Well,” they might argue. “At least I can control this.” They need an enemy to fight. A dragon to slay so that the world will be put right again. A sacrifice to offer the gods that they might be spared."

For those of us who may have same sex couples or families living in our communities, what’s the best way to explain what can be quite confusing to our kids? I have my own methods but would love to hear your thought on this?

Explain that there are different kinds of families. Right from the start. There are children that are raised by: one mom and one dad, a single parent, a grandmother or grandfather, two grandparents, two moms, two dads, an uncle or an aunt, etc. Get books from the library on different families and on ones that show gay and lesbian parents. One of my favorites is AND TANGO MAKES THREE by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. It's the true story about two male penguins that raised a chick in New York's Central Park Zoo. For a lot of kids, if an animal can have two dads, then it's okay. And if you hear your children using terms like gay or fag, correct them. It's no different than using a racial slur.

If you could say anything to the world about your family and the love you have for your children, what would that be?

Wow. Well, nothing can take the place of the love I have for my children or for my partner. As each day goes by I love them more. Their antics make me smile, their jokes make me laugh, when they say "I love you, Dad" it brings joy to my heart, when they come home from school and see me at the door and yell out, "DAD!" my heart leaps, when they ask me to keep reading to them at bedtime I love to indulge them, and when they give me a hug and kiss goodnight my day is complete. I live for my family. They are my life. What else is there, really?

What do you think?

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6527212 March 02, 2009

Leave Me Alone: An Aberration Story

... if someone is perfectly content living in a way that doesn't harm anyone--that's beautiful.

As a teenager and young adult, one of the ways I described myself was, "I don't run in herds of girls." With that in mind, let's kick this off with a vocabulary review. The term loner is defined as a person who is or prefers to be alone, esp. one who avoids the company of others.

That's it. Period. Over. Done.

It doesn't mean strange, weird, deviant, lacking in social skills, or susceptible to a life of crime. Now, the majority of loners are introverted folks.
The term and the state of being introverted happen to be highly misunderstood. Introverted means to turn or direct inward. Again none of that life-of-crime-weird-neighbor-stay-away-from-them-killer stuff. So if loners are minding their own business, enjoying their own company in their own little neck of the woods, content as snugly little bumps on logs, why does the rest of the world insist that they somehow painfully scrape themselves off the log, run outside, give a shout out to the world, and join the party? Is that fair?

One of my favorite reads of 2008 was Anneli Rufus' book, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto. It now has a permanent home on my short list of all-time favorite books. According to Anneli's research, famous loners span every era and realm. To name a few: Albert Einstein, Anne Rice, Michelangelo, Barry Bonds, Isaac Newton, Franz Kafka, Stanley Kubrick, Janet Reno, John Lennon, James Michener, Emily Dickinson, Alexander Pope, Hermann Hesse, Paul Westerberg, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kurt Cobain, Haruki Murakami, Gustav Klimt, Charles Schulz, Dan Clowes, Piet Mondrian, Saint Anthony, H.P. Lovecraft, Beatrix Potter and Joe DiMaggio. As a journalist and the author of several critically acclaimed books, and a lifelong loner, Anneli wrote Party of One as a way to expose mainstream culture’s anti-loner prejudice. But she also wrote it to show the ways in which loners have not just survived. They have actually changed our world. They have not just saved civilization; they had a heck of a lot to do with creating it.

With that said, being a loner is an aberration that can cause suffering and hardship. The ongoing societal pressure to somehow magically detach from that comfortable log can be unbearable. Many loners go through life feeling as if they're considered second rate citizens, corporate leaders, mothers, teachers, etc. because although they strive to do their very best at what's thrown their way, they continue to lack what society insists they give: extroversion, togetherness, comradeship, life-of-the-party behavior, and plain ole' conversation.

What Anneli illuminates in Party of One so emulates the concept behind Aberration Nation that I just had to invite her to join. I was thrilled when she said, "Sign me up!" Anneli is pleased to share some of the key points of her book, as well as insight into her own experience being a loner. You can read more online content from Anneli on her Psychology Today blog, Stuck.

We've all known or heard of shifty folks referred to as loners. You're a self-proclaimed loner. Can you define for us what that really means, and shed light on why it can be perceived as an aberration.

A loner is someone who genuinely enjoys being alone. It's as simple as that. He or she savors his or her solitude. The "shifty folks" situation is usually the result of misdiagnosis: Criminals and/or the mentally ill are seen to spend a lot of time alone, and are thus (wrongly) dubbed "loners." I draw a distinction: Those people are not alone because they WANT to be. Most of those serial killers described in the papers as "loners" want very much NOT to be alone, yet are patently avoided by others because they are so difficult to be around. Being alone a lot against their will makes these individuals even more miserable, angry and/or dysfunctional. But such people aren't true loners, despite how eager the media is to slap that name on them. True loners are not sad or sick or lonely or misanthropic. We just don't feel the need to be around others all day. Preferring to be alone is generally perceived as an aberration because we live in a very crowded, social world. Loners comprise a small minority. Everything in society is geared around togetherness.

Society seems to reward the outgoing and extroverted among us. Have you always been comfortable with your loner status? Have you ever tried to not be a loner, and if so, how did that go?

No, I wasn't always comfortable with it. In this culture, it takes real courage to "be yourself" as a loner and feel great about it. Like many loners, I spent many years feeling like a freak. People were always accusing me of being weird, selfish, hateful, whatever--and some well-meaning soul or other was always trying to bring me "out of my shell." That's just a form of intolerance.
In high school and college, it's especially hard to live easily as a loner. One is thrust into group situations constantly--in school itself, in classes and in the clubs that one joins in order to have a more impressive resume. Social pressures are constant, as folks of that age so frequently hang out in groups and one is cast as a gross loser if one does not participate. It's hard to put up with that and maintain any self-esteem at all. At that age, being more vulnerable to criticism and teasing, I went out and did the group thing--and thus constantly felt drained and fake and ridiculous.

Why is being a loner consistently perceived as a negative? It seems like a case of group think. Do you believe loners have advantages that go unappreciated by our society? Why can't people seem to focus on the positive aspects of being a loner?

It is perceived as negative because it is unusual, and because society is by definition social. Compared to really sociable types, loners have certain abilities--the ability to tolerate silence, and a certain self-reliance and creativity that come from always entertaining ourselves rather than passively relying on other people to entertain us.

How did you learn to cope with the desire to spend more time alone than with others?

I learned to cope by graduating from college and moving into my own apartment--thus no longer being constantly surrounded by others who expected me to talk with them and do things with them.

At the core, I'm also a loner. Although I've learned to cope, it seems that the world is filled with extroverted people who fly through situations that make me cringe. They shine in high school and corporate America, sometimes despite their less than stellar intellect. This can be extremely frustrating to an intelligent loner at times. Have you observed this phenomenon?

Being sociable does make up for other weaknesses someone might have. Being able to engage others in friendly small talk greases the wheels sometimes. It's frustrating but it's true.

A passage in your book, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto, has become one of my favorites: Artists hear what no one else hears. They see what no one else sees. They say what no one else says. They must. And to do this, they traffic in the slippery yield of their own souls. They bring to earth the wrack and lode of depths that only they can reach and still come back alive. Do you believe that true loners generally have a greater capacity to tap into that inner sanctum where art is created? What can you tell us about this based on your own experience and your research?

Readers have emailed me that I focused too much in the book on artists and the artistic temperament. But yes, creative loners have more access to that inner sanctum -- by sheer virtue of the fact that loners have less distractions in their lives than sociable types do. Loners don't have their hours filled up with talk. While researching the book and investigating the lives of famous creative loners such as John Lennon and Franz Kafka, I saw again and again how their craving for long spans spent alone was a crucial part of their artistic process.

As a loner you may have found yourself in some awkward situations--that may or may not have also been painful. Despite it all, have you come to see beauty in being a loner? From a personal perspective, what are the positives you've come to appreciate?

It's often awkward, as in most aspects of life one is expected to socialize. It's beautiful, as you put it, in the sense that being a loner is just another way of being human. Mainstream society fears and loathes loners, pities loners, and misunderstands loners. But if someone is perfectly content living in a way that doesn't harm anyone--that's beautiful.

What would you say to parents who recognize that their child is a true loner? How can they best support and foster their child, helping them to live up to their own personal potential unfettered by societal directives?

Just don't pressure him or her to be more sociable than he or she can bear to be. Sure, a few basic social skills are pretty much mandatory in this world. We all have to get by, so we all need to know how to conduct a standard conversation and be polite. But parents often make the mistake of thinking a child's solitary nature is a sign of maladjustment, or something that needs to be cured. Therapists too often think this as well, so shuttling a solitary child off to therapy is not always a great idea.

If you could tell the world anything about being a loner, what would that be?

It's not freakish. Loners aren't bothering anyone. They ask only to be pretty much left alone. Why must society be so scared and intolerant?

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6527212 January 30, 2009

Child of War: An Aberration Story

"We must not lose sight of the fact that we have options."

So times are sucky. People are losing jobs, stores are closing left and right, and the good ole' American staple, peanut butter, is being recalled everywhere. Or maybe you have a job but simply can't stand it half the time. Is your boss a jerk? Maybe your family is driving you batty. They just don't appreciate you, do they? Perhaps you're miserable because you can't seem to shed the twenty pounds you've been carrying around for years. And furthermore, when the hell is someone, anyone, really going to love you for who you are? Maybe you're lonely. While all of these predicaments are important, before you get too downtrodden and break out the ice cream, a board to beat your head upon, or full scale ammunition, consider this--things could be worse.

Evelyne Tannehill was born in January of 1936 in the German province of East Prussia. Unfortunately, this was not a lucky place to be born in the mid-1930s or early 40s. By the time she was nine years old, families were forced apart, people were killed, and hunger was rampant. Freedom lost its meaning, and suffering became the norm. There were no pounds to lose, or peanut butter to lick off a spoon. Love was ripped away, and jobs were like diamonds. Life--and all its beautiful predicaments--was extinguished as if it had absolutely no meaning. This was Evelyne's childhood and adolescence, which she has eloquently recounted in her book, Abandoned and Forgotten: An Orphan Girl’s Tale of Survival during World War II.

Each life is filled with unique aberrations that hold equally profound significance to its owner. Let's face it, life can suck! But could it be that human suffering exists on a bell-shaped curve? If so, I would put the suffering of children at the most extreme negative end of that arc. Childhood tragedy has a knack for tangling its way completely around who we are and who we become. It takes profound determination and courage to overcome such misfortune. Evelyne has done just that, and I'm so honored to include her in the Aberration Nation.

So do me a huge favor. Next time you're down in the dumps, take Evelyne's advice and, "Get over it." Hold your head up and away from that banging board of frustration. Put down the ice cream scooper and do something about it. You always have options. If you don't think you do, perhaps you're just not looking hard enough.

So many of us choose to focus on the negatives in our lives although there are positives all around us. As a child, you were stripped of the freedom, love, and security many of us take for granted. Can you give us an idea of what your childhood was like, and why it was unique?

My childhood ended when within a period of six months I lost all that constituted my secure world. I lost my father, mother, sister, two bothers, two dear aunts, my physical home, my cat, my dog, and my precious doll which I had just received for my 9th birthday. This occurred the beginning of 1945 when Germany was losing WWII and the Russian Red Army was fighting its way toward victory in Berlin.

Even growing up as a young girl during war time in Germany (while my family was still intact), my childhood certainly wasn't normal as compared to growing up in the US, for example. But it appeared normal to me. Watching the fathers, older brothers, and uncles of all my friends being put into uniform and sent off to the various fronts seemed normal. Even their not returning, or returning with an arm, a leg, or an eye missing, seemed normal at the time. What bothered me most was that my father, the foreigner, (as our neighbors referred to him) was an aberration. (He was a naturalized American citizen.) Upon reflection, I realize that as children we very much wanted to belong, even in the negative sense.

Very young children can’t discern what is good or bad in the world around them, certainly not within the larger picture. For instance, our parents sent out mixed signals. They taught us not to lie or cheat, yet during a time of severe rationing and shortages my mother made me go into a store for a light bulb a second time and made me say that I had not been there before--when in fact I had. I was so frightened that I thought both mother and I would end up being punished in some way. It was an extremely confusing world for a child. So I was already confused when everything suddenly collapsed around me and I found myself without the loving protection parents and a family provide.

No child should have to endure the terrors of war. How did you cope day to day? What kept you going?

Once everything that I held dear and made up my small world had been ripped away from me I escaped into a world of fantasy and fairy tales. I made up all types of pleasant scenarios in my head, scenes of rescue and liberation from my state of enslavement in a very abusive environment. For instance, I imagined the sudden reappearance of my father in the form of a brave knight in shining armor on a white horse who would appear one day, sweep me up and kiss all my fear and hurt away, or, the reappearance of my dead mother who would take me with her into her grave and hold me in her loving arms to keep me safe--sometimes it would simply be a kind stranger. My grandmother had introduced me to the world of fairy tales at a very young age. When things got too difficult to bear, I buried myself in a world of make believe to the point where life became a blur of reality and nightmare and I had trouble distinguishing between the two.

Physical pain and misfortune are terrible to bear, but pain and torture of the soul can be even longer lasting, especially when inflicted during childhood. How did having those experiences, and overcoming them, impact your adult life? Although I know it must have been difficult, were you able to find positives in your story of survival?

I had very low self esteem, was extremely shy, and trusted no one. If some one singled me out in a group of people and talked to me, I blushed and actually stuttered my answer. I eventually realized that I had to take charge of my life. The first thing I learned to do was not to take anything personal. I had lived in an angry environment where everyone was hurting, had an axe to grind, and was angry about the injustice that had been done to them. (I'm referring to our experience with the Russians and the Poles in my book.) My harsh experiences taught me a lot about human nature. I learned not to judge people but instead to wonder what has happened in their lives that made them into what they have become.

Many of us struggle as adults to forgive and forget any ills imposed upon us as children. As your life progressed into adulthood, how were you able to find a place in your heart and soul for the pain of your childhood?

I did not have much of a support system in my later teens and early twenties. I barely finished high school and had to go out into the world to work and support myself. I had no time for self pity. On the contrary, I considered myself very lucky to have survived my troubled past and I focused on self improvement, especially learning the English language so I would never find myself in dire straights and in need of help from anyone.

What are your thoughts on folks today who see themselves as victims during everyday American life simple because things aren't going their way?

Get over it. Take charge of your life and get on with it. Wallowing in the negative and the cruel fate you may feel you have been dealt is very destructive and it does not matter against whom you make your charges or accusations, even is God seems far away during those dark times, only you can find your way back. Learn from your mistakes. Make friends, and above all, learn to be a friend.

Sometimes when struck with tragedy, we realize that we can choose to either sink or swim. Sinking gets us nowhere but swimming can take us somewhere else--and so we make that choice. Do you believe that the push tragedy gives us to swim in a particular direction can ultimately lead us to a better place?

Without a doubt. Over a life time tragedy occurs in almost everyone’s life in one form or another. The quicker you find or recognize the lesson to be learned from it the sooner you will find happiness, or at least peace. We must not lose sight of the fact that we have options. So often when one door closes another one opens. The philosopher Kant put it very wisely by saying, “Adversity makes you strong.” People with a strong belief system fare better than those who do not have one. But either way, ultimately only you can pull yourself up and stay up. Family and friends can help, but you have to do the work.

As you've made your way through life here in America, how have you been able to incorporate the experiences of your childhood into our materialistic culture of instant gratification? Has it been challenging to connect with others who perhaps don't have the depth of experience that you brought with you?

When I first came to the US, I felt very disconnected from my peers because I had no shared cultural experiences. I came from opposite ends of the growing up experience. In Germany my living space was very small. School was extremely strict. We did not play the same games--even sports. We did not have the same toys (better said--no toys) and we were held responsible for our actions. The one thing that bothers and surprises me even today in this country, is the fact that no one takes responsibility for foolish actions or anything negative that happens to them. It is always somebody else’s fault.

What has your life taught you about the human spirit?

With the right positive attitude you can overcome anything.

If you could say one thing to folks who may be feeling as if there is no hope for a better tomorrow, what would that be?

Look around you--there is beauty everywhere. Learn to distinguish the difference between your desires/wants and your actual needs and then focus on what your real needs are.

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6527212 January 16, 2009

Hunger: An Aberration Story

"... this circuitous path I've walked has brought me to a wonderful place."

The verb hunger means to have a strong desire. Lust, crave, itch, thirst. Those are its synonyms. We all hunger for basic emotional needs such as love, acceptance, control, and freedom. And the reality is that some of us focus on these necessities much more than others due to genetics, stress, and personal history.

If only we could place our hands around those wonderful intangibles and shove them into the few open orifices we have. If there were only a safe, fantastical pill that could carry all that we crave deep into the bowels of who we are. Could we finally be satisfied? Could we be content with the face in our mirror--warts, curves, and all?

If there were such a pill, it just might work. But there is no magic panacea, and there never will be. If there was, Marya Hornbacher would surely have found it. In her critically acclaimed memoir, Wasted, Marya shares her courageous battle with anorexia and bulimia. Both conditions continue to be perpetuated by our size zero, competitive society. If our strengths can also be our weaknesses, it may also be true for culture. The American dream, the self-made man, and the ability to have it all has a darker side in more ways than one. Our cultural legacy to control our own destiny, and captain our own courageous ship, has a sharp edge that just may kill you on the way to your dream.

Marya has joined the Aberration Nation. Her reflective answers about her journey as well as how our culture continues to undermine those susceptible to all types of eating disorders is fascinating, well-said, honest, and inspiring. No doubt, the same aspects that made her memoir a Pulitzer Prize nominee.

You've been diagnosed with and have overcome anorexia and bulimia. While many of us are now generally familiar with anorexia and bulimia, can you tell us in plain terms what they're really all about? I suspect that some of us still don't get it.

Eating disorders are complicated, and touch all areas of a person's life--his or her body, mind, and spirit are all affected, and all are involved in the development of the disorders as well. The usual answer given to the question of "what are eating disorders about?" is "control"--and that's not wrong. People with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and the variations on these themes, tend to struggle with a sense that they are out of control of their lives and their worlds; the desire for control is then projected onto the body, as a kind of "object" that can be controlled, or so we are told and often believe. In my own experience, eating disorders are very much about fear; the fear that one is too much, not enough, not right, all wrong, and on and on, in a kind of endless refrain of inadequacy and excess, as well as a fear about one's ability to navigate the challenging waters of life and the world. They are also a manifestation of this culture's obsession with food, body, and weight, and a literalization of the rather deathly images of beauty that are plastered on the walls of our Western world. I am always surprised that people can possibly wonder why some of us get eating disorders, when they are in fact encouraged and rewarded in so many ways. The hell of it is, you often set out with the belief that "losing a few pounds" will make you happier in some vague way, and find that, because of your personal makeup and set of issues, you are caught up in an often-fatal addiction.

Your struggle with eating disorders began at very young age. Can you tell us about that, and explain how young children can also be susceptible to eating disorders?

I developed bulimia when I was nine. It was less common back then for someone to develop an eating disorder so young, but it's terrifyingly frequent now. Children are exposed to the same cultural messages as the rest of us, but they have even fewer filters to help them understand what they're being told; children who are predisposed, through personality, chemistry, and/or family, to develop addictive or otherwise unhealthy behaviors, may develop eating disorders very early on. Children, both boys and girls, are aware of the pressure to have some mythical "perfect" body, translated usually as a thin body, and they may take that pressure very seriously and try to respond. Some kids grow up in families that are actively body- and food-obsessed, so they are aware of the pressures at home as well. In my case, there was a combination of family pressure and obsession with food and weight, plus my own excessive awareness of the larger cultural pressure, plus the various personality traits that contribute to eating disorder development (such as perfectionism, competitiveness, and self-dislike), as well as an underlying mental illness (in my case, bipolar disorder); this combination is not terribly uncommon.

How did you come to be diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia? How did you initially cope? What were some of the greatest challenges to overcoming these aberrations?

I was diagnosed at the age of 16, when the medical toll of the disorders was great enough that I couldn't hide them anymore, and I was hospitalized. My hope is that families, friends, teachers, and counselors are more aware of eating disorders these days and can identify the signs sooner. As is usually the case, I was deeply disinterested in recovery at first, and seriously in denial about the severity of the problem; I didn't want help, and refused to cooperate in my own care. It wasn't until several years and many hospitalizations later that I made the choice to recover. At that time, I clung hard to the people I loved, who were extremely supportive, and I worked my butt off in therapy to get at the root of my troubles. But the simple process of re-learning how to take care of my body, and to trust it, was the most immediately necessary step toward recovering. You can wonder about your issues all you want, but if you don't take active steps to change your behavior, you won't get far. The greatest challenge was my own fear of recovery--I had had an eating disorder for so long that I couldn't discern where I ended and the eating disorder began, so recovering seemed very threatening. A second challenge was tuning out all of those cultural messages that encourage obsession and self-damaging behaviors. That's hard to do, and very necessary. You have to become stronger than the messages you hear, and define for yourself who you want to be, defining that person not by how you look or how much you do, but by who you are and what you believe.

Was there a turning point in your recovery? If so, what made the difference in your life? Was it ultimately something that someone else did for you or said, or was it an internal change or resolve that saved you?

There were people all along the way whose words helped me, even though they didn't magically make things better. I drew on those words of support and encouragement and challenge, and I still do. There is unfortunately no magic moment when one turns the corner; it's a combination of other people's assistance and your own internal determination to live a better life unrestricted by obsession. At a certain point in early recovery, though, I did make the decision to stop the behaviors (binging, purging, starving, over-exercising) absolutely, no matter what; that was a tough decision to make and stick with, but it can be done. I told myself that I was giving health six months--if I hated living without my eating disorder, I could always go back. And while it was hard to live without it, it was so much better in every way to live in freedom that I stuck it out. Gradually, living healthy got easier, and then it became natural, and now it's just the way I live. Getting through those first difficult stages is the hardest part; then the rewards of health come fast and furious, and you begin to see how much you were missing while you were sick.

Can one fully recover from anorexia and/or bulimia, or do they pose a lifelong struggle similar to alcoholism? How have you managed to remain healthy?

One can fully recover. It isn't easy, and unfortunately there is the belief that it can't be done; this belief encourages people to think it isn't worth trying. But it is worth it. The comparison with alcoholism isn't entirely off, though; I am a recovering alcoholic, and I don't think of it as something I "struggle" with, or will struggle with all my life. It isn't a struggle to stay off the sauce; it's a choice, and the real work is the personal growth one needs to continue doing over the years. I also know that I am at a higher risk of winding up drunk than is the average person, so I have to make sure I'm doing the personal work I need to in order to stay away from that first drink. Similarly, I'm at a higher risk for relapsing into eating disordered behavior than your average person is; I need to keep doing the personal work to stay away from that, too. But the idea of these things as "struggle" gives them a negative connotation that they don't have to have; they are choices one maintains with consistent effort. That's a good thing, not a bad thing.

You have gone on to become an accomplished writer and advocate. What has been the biggest struggle in achieving your goals and how have you managed?

The biggest obstacle to meeting my goals has always been my fear. I think that stops more people from realizing their personal dreams than anything else. Fear is my biggest challenge, and I meet it by doing the things I want to do whether they scare me or not. As Georgia O'Keeffe said, "I'm afraid all the time. But I never, never let it stop me." I wouldn't say I'm afraid all the time. But when I am, I don't let it stop me.

Anorexia and bulimia can be killers. While there seemed to be a considerable amount of attention given them in the late 80's and 90's, they seem to have slowly dropped on the radar since the year 2000. In the meantime, while the media and social pressures to be thin may have shifted a little, a large number of girls and women still idolize size zero, and obesity remains a national issue. Do you feel that enough has been done to educate people about eating disorders?

No. But I also feel that people are very resistant to seeing the way in which they are engaged in their own degree of obsession and body-hatred, and this is a big part of what perpetuates eating disorders. We have normalized a hatred of the body and an obsession with food to the point where we expect people to behave and feel in ways that are actually not normal at all; this is what I mean when I say that our culture is eating disordered. Not many people know what it would mean to truly take care of and respect their bodies, and that's what's strange. The fact that some percentage of the population develops full-blown eating disorders isn't odd at all; it's just an extreme form of what we have come to see as normal self-dislike and lack of self-care. I'm not saying it's acceptable, just that it isn't surprising. I believe the most effective education about eating disorders would be to ask people to look at how they, too, obsess and engage in unhealthy behaviors; what do they believe about healthy, beauty, food, their bodies? The most important tool in changing society is the individual act. Until each of us, as individuals, make the decision to stop playing this game, there will be a problem in the cultural as a whole.

We would all love to have the easy route to happiness but it doesn't always happen that way. In what ways have the negative, powerful forces in your life enabled you to emerge as the courageous, positive person you are today? When you look back on your life, do you believe that the path it took led you to a great place?

I do. I am a very, very happy person, very grateful for the people in my life, and very blessed. Experience is a great teacher. I would prefer it if it hadn't taken me so long to learn what I have; no person's troubles are theirs alone, and the people I love have suffered through a lot with me. I wish that were not the case. But yes, I believe that this circuitous path I've walked has brought me to a wonderful place.

What are the top three things that friends and family can do for someone dealing with eating disorders?

1. Be honest. Don't ignore the problem. Tell them what you see, and be honest about how that makes you feel.
2. Help them find help. Don't try to take care of them, cure them, or fix them; know that these are complicated disorders that require the help of professionals wherever possible.
3. Once they have that help, don't coddle them. Love them, but be firm in your insistence that they keep working toward recovery.

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6527212 January 05, 2009

Manic: An Aberration Story

"Everything I feel, I feel intensely--whether it's joy or pain, love or desperation.

There's an aberration that charms the most brilliant of us into believing we're invincible, capable of impossible dreams, beautiful, godlike, high on ourselves--just before crushing us into a million tiny pieces of nothing. Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, is a mental illness characterized by extreme changes in mood (poles)--from mania to depression--that can be serious and disabling.

Terri Cheney knows firsthand how the whirlwind of emotion caused by bipolar disorder can twist reality, turning every day life events into dramatic, painful escapades of secrecy and survival. Her memoir, Manic (HarperCollins) will be released in paperback on February 3rd. Per HarperCollins, this harrowing yet hopeful book is more than just a searing insider's account of what it's really like to live with bipolar disorder. It is a testament to the sharp beauty of a life lived in extremes.

Having specialized in intellectual property and entertainment law at several prominent Los Angeles firms, Terri now devotes her talents to the cause of mental illness. She was named a member of the board of the California Bipolar Foundation and the Community Advisory Board of the UCLA Mood Disorders Research Program. She is also the founder of a weekly support group at UCLA’s Semel Institute.

Terri was fascinated by Aberration Nation, and quite eager to join the ranks. Being a fellow writer and having my own set of aberrations, I'm in awe of her accomplishments. Reading her story helps me feel understood--not based on a diagnosis but rather on our shared humanity. After all, isn't that much bigger than any common aberration? We're all human; that's what Aberration Nation is all about.

You have been diagnosed with manic depression. Can you tell us in plain terms what it's like to struggle with manic depression, particularly alone, as you did for so many years?

It wasn't until the past few years, when I've been relatively stable, that I've been able to look back on my life and realize how incredibly hard it has been. It's amazing, after so many suicide attempts, that I am here today to respond to this question. Everything I feel, I feel intensely--whether it's joy or pain, love or desperation. I'm slowly beginning to realize that much of the world doesn't respond this way. My survival is a source of great amazement to me.
For most of my childhood and early adulthood, I was consumed by guilt. I was sure that whatever was wrong with me was purely my fault--that it was volitional, and if I just worked hard enough at being normal, I could. That guilt eased somewhat when I was diagnosed in 1987, when I was 27 years old. It was the wrong diagnosis--the doctor assumed I was "just" depressed--but still, it helped. Then when I was finally diagnosed in 1994 with manic depression, I felt an enormous sense of relief. My chaotic life actually made sense to me, for the first time. It wasn't all my fault. It was a chemical disorder for which there was help, and hope, and treatment.

Was there anything that seemed to trigger your illness as a teenager? As a child, was there any indication that your path would take the direction that it did?

I'm writing a second book now, a childhood memoir. It's been surprising to discover how much of my bipolar disorder had its seeds in my childhood and adolescence. I was a very intense overachiever, extremely sensitive to criticism or the threat of rejection or failure. I was suicidal at age seven, which should have clued me in to the fact that I was ill, but it didn't. I just learned very early on to hide my illness behind my achievements, a pattern that continues to this very day.

Once you were diagnosed, did the burden ease significantly or do you still struggle day to day? How have you learned to cope and keep the swaying tides of manic depression at a level that you can feel happy and fulfilled?

I still struggle--I'm just coming out of a bout of depression as I write this. But I'm so much saner than I've ever been, because over the course of the past eight years, I've harvested so many recovery tools. I go to therapy every week, I have a good relationship with my psychopharmacologist, and I'm very medication-compliant. I run a weekly support group at UCLA for people with a dual diagnosis--mental illness combined with substance abuse. (I've been sober for nine years, which still amazes me.) And my writing has been immensely cathartic. I'm in two writing groups, which give me support and structure and discipline. I also had to make the tough decision to give up the practice of law, because it was too stressful for me. But I've always wanted to write, so doing what I love best in the world is a tremendous gift. I miss the money, but I'm so much more personally fulfilled now.

Obviously, like many aberrations, manic depression isn't fun nor is it to be celebrated. It stinks! However, through your diagnosis, recovery, and ongoing challenges, what positives have you found? In what ways has this negative, powerful force in your life enabled you to become the courageous, positive person you are today?

I think it's obvious to everyone by now that there is a definite link between manic depression and creativity. Were it not for my bipolar disorder, I doubt that I would be a writer. My illness has kept me on the outside, watching; it makes me feel things very deeply; and I think I see the world at a slightly different angle from most people--all of which are two-edged swords, of course, but great for writing. Also, as a result of my own suffering, I am very attuned to others' feelings. My empathy helps me put my own struggles into perspective.

What are the top three things that friends and family can do for someone dealing with manic depression?

First, don't try to argue or reason with depression. Just ask where it hurts. Your empathy will mean more to the person than all your cheery, well-meaning attempts to make it better.

Second, educate yourself about the disease. Know the signs and symptoms of the different mood states. If you can speak the vocabulary of the illness, you will be able to help your loved ones articulate what is going on with them--which is invaluable, not just for their own need to be understood, but for their communication with their doctors.

Third, do whatever you can to help your loved ones get sober. Many people with bipolar disorder self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. But the medications simply don't work when someone is abusing substances. Find out about twelve-step meetings in your area (google "Dual Recovery Anonymous") and offer to go along. Sobriety is a critical step to bipolar recovery, which is all too often ignored.

If you could tell the world anything about manic depression, what would that be?

I would tell the world that it's not just a mental illness. It's physical, incredibly physical. I'm amazed, every time I slip into depression, how true this is. My entire body is affected, not just my mind. Manic depression is a chemical disorder of the brain. It's as real and physical as diabetes or cancer. I think if more people understood this, stigma would lessen and true compassion would emerge.

To learn more about bipolar disorder, go here and here.
To learn more about Terri, go here.

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6527212 December 08, 2008

Raped: An Aberration Story

"I feel incredibly lucky to have made it out of the house alive. We do what we must to survive."

Have you ever wallowed in self-pity, playing the victim? I've certainly been guilty of it. I still need to remind myself every now and then that I'm the master of my own fate, and that much of it has to do with attitude.

My guest today, Teresa Lauer, was victimized in a way that exposes our day-to-day victim playing as ridiculous self-pity. She was brutally raped. Teresa has graciously agreed to share her experience with us, and how she overcame this aberration. Helping others understand and succeed in rape recovery isn't new to her. She's now a psychotherapist, and a recognized expert in rape recovery and its aftereffects on relationships and sexuality. Teresa has authored several books on the topic including The Truth about Rape and Hours of Torture, Years of Silence. To learn more about Teresa and her practice, visit her here and here.

1) Sometimes our aberrations result from situations beyond our control. Sometimes we see it coming and sometimes we don't. You were a victim of a crime that changed your life. Can you tell us what happened?

Yes, I was kidnapped and held in a house in San Francisco for 14 hours; I was raped a number of times and suffered some very serious injuries. Perhaps my most frightening moment, the one that causes me shivers still as I sit here writing these words many years later, is when the rapist held a gun to my head. I heard a click that sounded like a cannon resonating in my head and squeezed my eyes tighter than you can imagine ... it didn't go off and I give thanks every single day for being here ...

My nightmare continued when I returned to my home and received a phone call informing me that my dad had been killed in a plane crash during an airshow. This seriously disrupted any recovery that might have begun early on following the rape.

The reason I mention my dad's death is to underscore the fact that rape takes place while we're living life, while we're wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, employees, students ... the list goes on of course. Now, this makes recovery more difficult but even more critical. A return to normal ... and whatever that means to the victim ... is the goal and it's one that can absolutely be met. I know from experience, both personally and through my clients, that recovery is achievable; yes, it takes patience, and yes, it's long and tedious. It's one step forward and two steps back, but it's worth it.

2) I suspect that people cope with being victimized in numerous ways. How did you cope, and what was the process like?

The process of recovery takes a great deal of time, something I've learned both personally and through many women I've provided therapy to over the years. And, looking back, I did things that helped my recovery tremendously ... and things that didn't help, frankly. I do know however, that the earlier one starts the recovery process, even in the most casual way like reading books, the better.

We tend to cope with being victims as we cope in normal life. If we tend to deny problems exist, we'll do the same regarding being a victim. If we're the type who faces problems head on ... well, we'll approach recovery the same way. This has much to do with left brain/right brain thinking. For example, "a left brain thinker" during the assault might be recording information and looking ahead. A "right brain thinker" on the other hand, reacts with shock and numbness and being frozen. She's not able to fully experience in terms of "seeing" what's going on. There is no right or wrong way, although as you can imagine, the "right brain thinker" tends to blame herself afterward with questions like, "Why didn't I fight back?" and "How come I can't remember the details?" Both are coping mechanisms, and both are necessary to get through an extremely stressful situation.

I feel incredibly lucky to have made it out of the house alive. We do what we must to survive.

3) Looking back, how did the event shape the life you now lead? Have you ultimately found positives in the path your life has taken? Has enough time passed? Although it was certainly a tragic experience, have you come to see any value in it?

Following my own recovery through therapy I felt so light, so wonderfully free that I obtained a Masters degree from the University of San Francisco and become a therapist myself. I wrote several books, videos, etc. and have provided therapy to hundreds of women. I'm always looking to provide information of value to my readers and listeners and bring them the latest technology; for instance, I'm in the process of offering my videos online in the $1.99 range so that they're available to even more women.

In terms of value ... I suppose I'd say the greatest value that I could place on it is what I did following my recovery, and am continuing to do which is to provide comfort, compassion, and empathy of other rape victims. My life is not defined by the rape however it's been affected by it. It's an honor and a privilege to help the women I have.

4) What do you focus on now, and how do those things differ from the past?

As a therapist, I focus my efforts on couples and helping them build intimacy and enhance their sexuality. For most of my couples, this doesn't mean that they've experienced a sexual assault, but for those who have I reintroduce them to touch and ways in which they can communicate, both verbally and non-verbally to enhance their relationship. I was fortunate beyond belief to find a partner who loves me without question and I am particularly interested in helping men participate in the recovery.

I also concentrate on other issues of particular difficulty to couples such as finance and career transitions.

5) Has your experience caused you to think differently about people who "play the victim?" We all know folks who consistently feel that they are victimized by everyone. Having truly been a victim, what is your perspective on this type of thinking in others?

I think if someone has a tendency to be a victim, to indulge in victim thinking, if you will, they perceive themselves as victims in every circumstance (in their own mind) that happens to them. I feel that it's important to face our responsibility for every situation in which we find ourselves; for instance, if a woman came to me and she related that she found herself in the same situation multiple times due to perhaps drinking or drug use (and thus a victim of that, that led to the ultimate victimization), I'd encourage her to look at what lead her to becoming a victim. The reason of course is not to judge what ultimately happened to her because no one asks to be raped, however, the reason is to help her to not continue to place herself in situations where she will become a victim. Victim thinking has its roots in other personality disorders and that really has to be addressed at some point in the therapy.

6) What are the top three things we can do for someone who has suffered rape or a similar violent crime? What are the challenges?

Great question. I'd say my top three things are:

1. Help her get support as soon as possible. Go with her to the police station so that she's not alone; listen to what the professionals are saying during the process of the investigation and rape kit. Be there for to take notes and act as an advocate. Try to get the services of a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) who will do a thorough exam and act as a witness should she decide to press charges. A SANE is a member of a SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) who are
especially trained to make it a less stressful process to go through, for instance, one interview is performed instead of multiple. Be her advocate.

2. Listen when she wants to talk; don't judge ... don't comment, simply be there to listen. Allow her the time to process what's happened to her.

3. Help her to find the right support for what she's going through. For instance, books are available on all phases of recovery, support groups and individual therapy might be helpful if she's inclined. Go the extra mile to make the appointment for her and go to provide emotional support. There are times when she will need special assistance, for example, I have a number of clients who are uncomfortable with touch, so I keep a referral network of massage therapists who are specially trained in introducing touch to sexual assault victims. Go the extra mile for her.

7) If you could say anything to the world regarding this situation, what would that be?

Perhaps if I could tell the world something about the situation, it would be this: rape continues. Every single day in every single corner of the world. I wrote The Truth About Rape and my others books to tell the truth about it ... to take my reader with my on my journey through therapy and beyond. It was a real process of self-exploration in deciding whether I would tell the details of my rape however I felt it important in the long run to hold nothing back. I wanted that woman out there who couldn't utter what had happened to be able to turn to her partner and say, "this is what happened to me." And through that, find understand, compassion, and empathy.

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