canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of six previous books: the novels Catalogue Raisonnť and The Syllabus, the short fiction collections Aquarium -- winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award -- and Contrary Angel, and the poetry collections Calm Jazz Sea and a thaw foretold. 

His most recent book is The Lily Pond (Biblioasis, 2008), a memoir that explores the author's thirty-plus years of living with bipolar disorder. It chronicles unflinchingly the destructiveness of an illness that infiltrates thinking, feeling and acting in ways that change the very fabric of identity, of the life story one is telling oneself; but it is equally searching in its exploration of the psyche's resources in healing and reknitting that story. 

Born in Minnesota, a joint U.S.-Canadian citizen, Mike lives and writes in Toronto.

[January 2009]


When did you begin outlining The Lily Pond?

...I plunged into writing it, without an outline, in November 2005. I describe the initial impulse in the third section of the book, "Leavetaking." The first words of the first section, "Two Rooms," came into my head, then joined to other sentences. The writing came steadily and quickly...but calmly, too. That last part surprised me, given the often-harrowing nature of what I was describing. I was already well into the writing when I saw how the different sections might fit together. 

In some ways, it seemed to come pre-formatted...which might mean it had been taking shape in my mind a long time before I was aware of it. I think that's often true of art. What you see clearly at any point tends to be what's in front of you on the work bench...but all around the shop are pieces at various stages, from half-finished to mere raw materials...and you sometimes see bits of these, in glances.

When did you first notice a cohesive (if that was the case) example of your mood swings?

...It was only about 5 years ago (Iím 53 now) that I fully accepted the diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder, or manic-depression, in the old terminology. And that's after psychiatric treatment starting at age 17, eighteen months in hospital at age 22, multiple "breaks" and breakdowns...throughout all this turbulence, I still resisted a label, fearing it was somehow destructive, reductive. 

Iím still wary of it; I think of it mainly as a working hypothesis. But finally it seemed even more destructive to keep turning over rocks in my own life, looking for "exogenous" factors, problems in my life or relationships...when it was obvious, and had been for a long time, that I roared up, or crashed down, independent of what was happening in my life. 

When did it start? By my late teens I knew that something was awry internally. I had no language to use about it then, so I just thought of it as something "off," "wrong," "alien." at that stage, the worst periods were notably seasonal: speed-ups in early fall and spring, followed by depressive crashes. But the pattern still wasn't clear to me, I think partly because my states are so often what they call "mixed," e.g. high, driven energy combined with very black mood. Is that high? Low? Itís elements of both. Thatís why "mood" is such a crude term. 

Energy, both psychic and physical, and in terms of both quantity and quality, would be more accurate. And although Iím wary of the current eagerness to identify "the bipolar child," I certainly see premonitions, possibly the beginnings, of my own swings early in my life. I talk about that in the book's second section, "Hunters in the Snow." But it takesĖor it took me at leastĖa long time to see any coherent pattern in something that seems so chaotic. 

For instance, it's clear to me now that the main reason I kept bombing out of school --it took me 11 years to complete my BA --was the neatly horrible overlap between my worst times and the crunch-times of the university year: late fall, spring. My mind would be failing on meĖthe words I was reading going dead and senselessĖand I kept assuming that I simply had no interest in what I was studying...and then quitting, or just scraping by on past performance. 

Yet the words I couldn't understand in late November were the same words I was excited by, charged up by, in September. This is something Iíve learned to accept, but with difficulty: going through "spells" of six weeks or more where not only do I have no desire to read my favourite books, but on the most basic level, I can't even understand them. Canít track a sentence to its end and know what it said. With all the multiple strategies Iíve learned to throw at my condition, all the awareness Iíve developed...Iíve been able to manage these periods better, perhaps level them off slightly...but not change them fundamentally. 

Could there be a better proof of a biochemical disorder than that? Unfortunately, in some ways the cycles are becoming more random and faster, something Iím told is typical over time. Iím sorry, I thought this was going to be a very short answer. Itís complicated. Itís taken decades to sort out even these basics.

Did you ever feel while writing this that the simple bare bones "non-fiction" element was too close to home? Did you fear it would trigger a negative outcome?

...Actually, it felt more like relief to concentrate on just my own story, understanding and telling it as well as I could, without the need to create characters and invent things for them to say and do. 

At the same time, it felt, if anything, more deeply imagined (as opposed to invented) than fiction: there was a need to find the underlying patterns and structures that could link true events. But I guess you're asking more about personal risk. that was something I was not so aware of at the timeĖwhen I felt mostly exhilarated to be recovering the pastĖbut have become very aware of since. More aware every day. 

I think there have been, and will be, many negative outcomes for me from writing this book. Theyíre hard to name and harder to quantify, but I feel them, certainly. Writing names things, which can sound like taming them; but in another sense it gives them new substance and power: it bodies them forth. Itís daunting as well as strengthening to take the true dimensions of an enemy you've been battling...especially when there's no sign of an end to the battle. 

At one point, when we were discussing the manuscript, my psychiatrist advised me to be cautious in dealing with what I had recalled. I quoted her (as best I remembered) for apiece I wrote about dealing with what I had written: "What you wrote may have unearthed a box. It may have been sealed for a reason...so you could keep functioning. Now it may be time to open it, or at least peek into it. Cautiously." This is the first time for me as a writer that the period after writing has proved far more difficult than the writing itself.

How did your wife's diagnosis effect you?

...Well, the long answer to that is the fourth and final section of the book: "The Lily Pond," which became the title for the whole. The Lily Pond manuscript was originally just the first three sections. But after Heather got sick, was diagnosed...and came through a very rough time...sometime later, we agreed that I should try to write about that. Heather encouraged me to do so. 

In fact, earlier she had said she felt there was "something missing...another piece" from the story. That may have been partly her own premonition of illness. Which usually gives an advance aura of itself, and seldom, if ever, comes truly out of the blue. The short answer is that I was affected much as I imagine anyone else would be. I felt sadness, worry, fear, and exhaustion. Bewilderment. Helplessness. My own long history of mental illness gave me a general purchase on what was happening, but still...it takes different forms, poses new perils, in each person...even someone you know very well. 

No amount of preparation can make it predictable or fully understandable. You can't tame it. You can learn a bit to manage the terror and bafflement, but you can't erase them.

Was writing this book cathartic?

...I don't know. I started writing The Lily Pond three years ago, and it was published three months ago, yet I still feel Iím coming to grips with it. I think that might be true for a long time to come. Publishing froze the text at a certain point, but the processes it describes are still unfolding. One thing Iíve noticed, a mixed blessing: writing down the past gave more of it back to me, recalling things Iíd thought were lost, making connections I hadn't seen before...but that strengthened past now seems to crowd into the present more, bullying it at times. There have been moments of catharsis. It still feels like early days.

What is your advice to writers with bi-polar disorder?

...I don't know that I have any general advice that would be helpful. Every writer is up against the same challenge, whether the writer is bipolar or not (though the challenge and the solution may be more extreme in the bipolar writer): how to find the rhythms and processes that work for you as a writer. Weíre handed so many fantasy templates of what it means to be an artistĖand we hand ourselves so manyĖthat it's an arduous task to keep re-calibrating back to the basics: yes, but what works for me? What tools and procedures actuate my talent, my vision? Experiments can be useful. 

I talk about one in "Leavetaking." my psychiatrist noted that over the years Iíd drifted into an acceptance of my own productivity being geared to the cycles of illness: sleepless non-stop writing in the energized phases, wordless inactivity in the lows. And she encouraged me to question both assumptions: that quality work only came from the highs, and that nothing worthwhile could be accomplished in the lows. And numerically, empirically, she (and I) proved that the poles weren't so clear-cut...that there was middle ground where much could be done...and done more surely, clear-headedly, than during a lurching, veering high. 

Still...Iíve had to learn to accept that I can't be a steady, year-round producer. Mild depression is a workable state for a writerĖeven a favorable one for some parts of the writing processĖbut serious depression, which still lays claim to me regularly, is a destructive state to attempt work in. Depletion becomes worse, falls to even lower ebb, if it's not acknowledged. Itís a time to minimize, conserve...convalesces. In a fight where you're being pummeled, there's a time for the defensive crouch, to protect the vitals.

Was there anything you couldn't put in the book that you wanted to for various reasons?

...No, I can't think of anything. I felt free to say what I had to say.

You wrote: "this is the first time for me as a writer that the period after writing has proved far more difficult than the writing itself." So right now, having just released The Lily Pond, you are finding this period especially difficult. "More difficult than the writing itself" can you expand on this?

...Full expansion might need a therapist and plenty of time, but here are a couple of ways Iíve found it difficult. Unlike other books, which have receded from me after Iíve written them, this one has remained "right here." Because Iím "still living it," as Iíve been reminded. But also, I think on some level (not conscious), I expected some resolutionĖmaybe the catharsis you spoke ofĖfrom writing. Yet mentally Iíve taken some frightening tumbles this fall...episodes that have made me feel, though I know otherwise, that no time has passed and Iím right back where I began. All that Iíve learnedĖstrategies, tools, and self-awarenessĖgive me more means to manage psychological upheaval, but they don't prevent it. Thatís sobering to realize. 

"Thereís no cure" is an easy thing to say, to understand intellectually...but harder to come to grips with as a lived reality. And there's another difficulty. Giving talks this fall, reading from The Lily Pond...and just reflecting on it...I realize, as never before, how much of my life has been spent on the rat's wheel of mental illness. As well as a strengthening sense of my own resilience, for hitting bottom so often and reinventing myself...there's a corresponding sense of waste, of sheer destruction. 

Iím confronted with how much time and energyĖamong other thingsĖhave been chewed up by that wheel. Time and energy that might have gone toward other things. These are autumnal thoughts, wintry thoughts. But it snowed last night, and it's near the end of the year.

How do the poles affect productivity? You said they are not always so clear-cut.

The simple fact Iím finally getting straight is that the mood in which you write something is no accurate measure of its quality. Euphoria colours things brightly; depression colours them darkly. But some of the glittering things lose their luster if you wait a while, and some of the drab things gain. 

Of course, waiting doesn't come easily if you're on fire...and if you're ashes, there's nothing but waiting. Realizing there's more middle ground than you thought is not the same as knowing how to reach it and utilize it. Rather than the two poles, here, very crudely, is the 5-zone range that I think I operate in: low...heading down/up...baseline...heading up/down...high. Good work is done in the stable middle and the transitional zones on either side. 

At the extreme of high, vast quantities are produced, little of it worthwhile; at the extreme of low, nothing can occur; it's a dead zone. It helps to have things lying around at different stages of development, since the different zones have their characteristic energies. For example, the energized loose associations of the upper end are ideal for generating ideas and possibilities...but not so good for evaluating them. Mild depression, as I said before, may be sluggish at generating new stuff, but good at evaluating and revising. A degree of disillusionment and irritability could amount to sober second thought. 

Of course, there's a world of subtlety and discrimination in that "degree." Thatís what makes this a living issue, which is to say endless, and not a science project. (Though rational experiment has its place. I describe one on pages 105-107 of the book. In a manic burst beginning January 16, 2004, Iíd written several dozen poems in several weeks. When that sputtered down, my psychiatrist suggested I try writing some more. I didn't see any point to it, but as an experiment, I complied. And did manage to write some more poems, though they seemed rather dull, workmanlike. Yet when it came time to finalize the contents of my poetry collection A Thaw Foretold, the editor and I picked 6 from the frenzied burst and 5 from the assigned work. 

Considering the size of the starting pools, "a better hit rate" from "mild depression" than from "wild euphoria." The conclusion of that lab report for me is that my perception of my ability seems to swing more wildly than my actual ability. Thereís a real oscillation of faculties, to be sure, but the pendulum swing of self-assessment is even wider and more erratic.)

 
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