Fiction and Mental Health

A couple of years ago, Jason Lee Norman was instrumental in getting a Short Edition Story Dispenser into the Edmonton International Airport. Short Edition has story dispensers world-wide, so this was a big deal.
At the time, Jason accepted a story from me, “Superhero of the Supermarket,” which went into the dispenser at the YEG airport. Subsequently, Short Edition let me know they wanted to make the story available world-wide. You can read the story here.
Mental health issues find their way into my fiction all the time. If you know my stories, you can often find a character suffering depression, or some other disorder, diagnosed or otherwise. One of my stories that deals with depression in a more extreme form is “Suicide Blues.” This story is about depression, but it’s also about the inability to cope. Superhero isn’t specifically about depression, but it is about a character living in a world he finds both threatening and unforgiving. Giving such characters a voice is my way of acknowledging those people I know and have encountered who suffer because of mental health issues, and who often never get the help they need.

Those Summer Renos

Summer is often a time for fixing up the house and yard. For me, such projects temporarily change the landscape of my life, while people fix and hammer and do those jobs that I can never manage on my own.
But renovating your home can cause stress, arguments, and endless conflict. Just check out this piece in the business Insider.
Here’s a piece I wrote after I had the main floor of my house repainted. It wasn’t a major renovation, but it left me feeling displaced and took away the main floor of my house for two weeks. Enjoy!

The Painters

They come every day, clanking through my front door and up the stairs. I retreat from room to room, from upstairs to down, staying just ahead of them as they sand and scrape, fill cracks and holes with glutinous muck, then sand again.
Carpets and floors are skinned in plastic; doorways are draped. A persistence of dust fills the air. It finds its way into corners. It powders flat surfaces, coating the few nick-knacks I cling to fiercely and sentimentally, and it exhales from the blankets rumpling my bed. It coats my tongue as I try to swallow.
If I could become something else, something small, something furtive, I could crawl into the space where the baseboard once met the floor, hiding from the dust and the noise and the endless tramping upon plastic spread over carpet; escaping the painters, who look with narrowed eyes at surfaces, at corners, at doorways, and without mercy on anything not a wall.

From the Blog Archive, Visiting the Rock

I was in a coffee shop on Vancouver Island in April. I was wearing a t-shirt I bought at Cape Spear. Two women came up to me and asked if I was from Newfoundland. I’m not, but they were, and they very quickly started telling me about their home on Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula. These women spoke of their home with a warmth I don’t often hear.
One of the most memorable trips I took last year was to Newfoundland with my friend Tom Wharton. We flew to Halifax, then took the ferry from Sydney, Cape Breton, over to Newfoundland. You can read the post here. Then there was the North Atlantic off Cape Spear—something I won’t soon forget. I’m looking forward to a return visit to the Rock. If you want a book that captures this part of the world, check out Sweetland by Michael Crummey. It’s an awesome read.

Running Blind, New Memoir this Month

A thank you this week to Adam Farrer and the people at The Real Story, a journal published out of Manchester, for publishing “Running Blind.” The Real Story is a journal dedicated to promoting the nonfiction form in the UK. You can read the piece here.
“Running Blind is memoir, and one of several pieces I’ve had published in the last couple of years. When I write memoir, I don’t think about why I’m writing it or where it will go. However, if I have a piece accepted, I immediately begin to have doubts. Why did I write it? What was I trying to say? And who do I think is going to benefit by reading something that has meaning only for me?
Part of me thinks that writing memoir is a selfish activity. On the other hand, I put the same amount of care and craft into producing a piece of memoir as I do a short story. And memoir is, after all, story. But whatever I think, once a piece is published, then it’s out there in the world, and I no longer have any control over it.
For me, at the heart of writing memoir lies the same impulse that makes me write fiction, or anything else, for that matter: the need to give something a voice that it wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s about finding a voice for those experiences, impressions, sensations, and other sundry scraps and floating fragments of myself that never found an expression elsewhere. I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way. I meet people everywhere who feel the need to give their experience a voice—in writing, or just in conversation. I also meet people who don’t have the need for that kind of expression. They let their experience stand for itself, and they will share that experience, if you’re willing to listen. Oddly enough, I meet such people most often on the street—these people are sometimes homeless, grateful for any spare change, and always willing to share something of themselves.
So, writing memoir necessarily seems to come with a certain privilege. The means and the opportunity to give voice relies on having the lifestyle to support it. I always try to keep this in mind. But more important, if reading memoir, mine or anyone else’s, inspires someone to finally listen to that voice that lies forgotten in the vaults of memory and let it into the world, then everyone is the better for it.

Mr. Fox and the Geese, A Story for Autumn

Author’s note: this story is a retelling of the Grimms’ tale, “The Fox and the Geese.” It first appeared in OfOtherWorlds in 2015, and was subsequently published in Fractured and Other Fairy Tales, 2015.

Mr. Fox liked to walk along the edge of the old city. One spring evening, he was strolling along, and he happened upon a field where a flock of geese were gathered, gabbling away and walking through the stubble.
“What do we have here?” he said, eyeing the fat geese, as he leaned on his walking cane. “Looks like dinner.”
The geese were terrified, and they honked and cried for mercy.
“Mercy,” laughed Mr. Fox. “You will find no mercy here. I’m interested in some dinner. Now you just line yourselves up in a row, and I will wring your pretty necks one by one, and then I’ll take your carcasses back to my house in the city.”
But there was one old goose who was at least as cunning as Mr. Fox. She was a grandam of the flock, and she peered up at Mr. Fox.
“Mr. Fox,” she said, bobbing her head, “since you are going to eat us anyway, I don’t suppose you would mind if I told my children and grandchildren one more story?”
Now, if Mr. Fox had a weakness, besides a greedy desire for fresh goose, it was for a good story. “Oh, very well,” he said, petulantly. “Tell your story. But when you are done, I expect you to line up like good little geese so I can pick out the fattest for my table.”
The old goose began her story. She gabbled and honked, telling of faraway places, of all the things she had seen on her travels, of the lives of people and animals, of strange and secret things only seen by moonlight and starlight. And before she was finished, she was joined by one of her children, and together, they gabbled and grumbled and honked of the places they had seen together. They were joined by the others, one by one, until soon the whole flock was gabbling the story of their travels, from the hot countries of the south to the wide spaces of the north.
The sun slowly set, and Mr. Fox listened, forgetting about everything else as he was swept away to places he had never known.
Did Mr. Fox ever get his dinner? Who can say?—for the geese are still telling their story to this day. And if you stop to listen, in the spring and the fall, you can hear it too—the gabbling of travelers’ tales upon the air.

The Struggle in Writing Memoir

For me, writing memoir is both reflection and exploration. I usually have some event in mind when I begin a piece, but writing about my own experiences can take me in awkward and often painful directions. The question I avoid when writing memoir is why I do it in the first place.
Writing memoir explores personal experiences, which you intend to put on display for other people. If you didn’t intend other people to read it, then you’d be writing a journal. Setting aside this element of public display, the question remains: what in your experience has in it something valuable for other people? This is where I often bog down.
As I struggle through a piece of memoir, I sometimes hear myself ask, why would anyone care? Such a question only results in paralysis. So I avoid it—for the most part. I do think, however, that the sharing of experience is not only a fundamental human quality, it’s a psychological necessity.
Have you ever heard the story of the man who never shared? He collected experiences, one after another, gobbling them down like cake and never sharing them with anyone. Well, he grew so full of his own experiences that one day he simply burst—popped like a balloon. His neighbours found tatty bits of his experiences lying all over, but they were so shredded and jumbled that no one could ever make any sense of them. So they swept up the bits and just forgot about him and went on with their lives.
That’s not really a story, but it does illustrate my point. To be human is to share one’s life. The risk lies in the sharing and how the sharing will be received.
Earlier this year, I had a piece accepted by Ponder Review, which appeared in Volume 2, Issue 1 of the magazine. The piece is called “My Father Walking,” a short memoir I wrote about my dad, who died in 2005. I’ve written several pieces on my dad, the first of which, “On Smoking,” appeared in Hippocampus Magazine in August, 2017. Here’s an excerpt from “My Father Walking.” I hope you find in it something that resonates with your own life.

“My Father Walking”
William Thompson, 2018

My father is the only moving thing on the street. It’s a day in early fall—the grass a faded green, the maples a golden yellow and already dropping leaves on this October afternoon. My father walks with a determined stride, as though he is unconsciously wanting to get away from something, or needing to get somewhere. I want to hold him there in that push-me-pull-me present, the world rolling beneath his feet as he walks.
It’s the jacket—the forest-green jacket he wears that fixes him in both my child’s eye and mind’s eye. I’m standing in front of the house and watching him walk. He is carrying a case of beer in his left hand. The weight of the case throws off his gait, just enough to emphasize that determined stride. He seems painfully visible to the world, but I’m the only one who watches.
It’s either an early Friday evening or late Saturday afternoon. Remembering it, I can’t be sure either way. But my father only went to the liquor store on those days—usually on Fridays, the end of his workweek, the beginning of the two days of the week he was free of his job, with just his wife and kids to populate and trouble his landscape with arguments, chores, and noise—always noise.