My Education as a Writer with Mental Illness

 

I readily admit to being eccentric.  I was such even as a child.  In my more active years, I used to pace in the back yard for hours on end regardless of the weather just making up stories in my head.  I’m sure this concerned my family some (and made me a butt of jokes among the school yard bullies), but I had an overactive imagination as a child.  I was too scared to actually put any of this into writing.  I guess I was paranoid even as a child.  I used to make up all sorts of stories and characters.  I kind of kick myself now for not making notes on some of those stories as I think some of them might have made decent science fiction or fantasy stories.  But I never considered a career as a writer because I had heard so many horror stories about English and humanities students condemned to working minimum wage jobs after college.  As it is now, the middle class is all but gone.  I may have been happier as a double major in English and History rather than trying to be a medical scientist.

I guess now that I know myself much better at age 38 than I did at age 18, I know now that I am really a writer/story teller who is interested in science, rather than a scientist interested in writing.  And I certainly am not the economist or sales man I studied to be when I studied business after it became clear my mental illness wouldn’t allow to go to medical school.

Since I’m starting to read much more again, I’m beginning to get the urge to try my hand at traditional writing again.  I absolutely love blogging and I used poetry in my twenties to learn how to write and tell stories.  But perhaps it is time to venture into new possibilities with my writings.  I’ve had some of my poems published in small literary journals in the past. I did write the rough drafts of two novels when I was in my twenties.  I made outlines for science fiction novels but never wrote anything serious.  Once I even tried my hand at writing crime drama, and my only experience with crime was when I helped my boss catch a couple shoplifters during my first day on the job when I was in college.  I wish I had kept my rough drafts of my old novels.

I became interested in writing as a means of story telling during my freshman year in college when I qualified for a place in an advanced English course.  I find out I loved writing stories and essays in that class.  I made some pretty good friends in that class too.  One of those friends became a blogger too.  I regret that I lost contact with her and everyone else in that class over the years.  Even though I didn’t dive head first into writing after that class ended, I did become interested in literature.  I must have spent as much time reading in the college library as I did studying for my business and economics classes during the last three years of college.  I became so dedicated to pursuing this course of self study that I let much of my old college life go.  I left my fraternity even though I had lots of friends in that group.  I stopped dating to pursue knowledge.  I guess I knew even early on that learning and story telling were the true loves of my life.  Besides, fighting a mental illness I would have probably made a lousy husband and father.

I more or less lived in the library the last three years of college.  But one of the purposes of formal education should be to at least give kids the tools to learn new things should they wish to once they leave school.  I felt my formal education, first at a rural public school and then at a private college in York, Nebraska, did just that for me.  And I am grateful every day that I wake up for being able to make it through college without any student debt.  With as expensive as college is getting now, and how wages simply aren’t keeping up, I whole heartedly recommend against going to a four year college unless you are going for a STEM degree or can be guaranteed to get out debt free.  I’ve seen too many friends crushed by student loan debts, robbed of their peace of mind, and working jobs they can’t stand just because of said debts.  And much of what I learned in college can just as easily be learned with a few years of hard self study via the public library system, ebooks, and youtube videos.  I dare say that I learned more in five years of hard self studying via the public library and youtube videos than I did in my formal education.  But it was the formal education that planted that desire and need for knowledge and wisdom to begin with.  These are some of my thoughts on my education and path to enlightenment as the school year starts again.

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A Schizophrenic Country Boy’s Journey to Enlightenment

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Starting to read more traditional books again.  For a couple years I had been lazy, by my standards, about reading.  For most of my life I always had a book I was reading on or re-reading.  I had gotten out of that habit for a little over two years as most of my reading was being done online.  I did listen to a few sci-fi audiobooks on youtube.  My favorites were Foundation by Issac Asimov and a few of Cory Doctrow’s short stories.

But I have recently rediscovered how much I love laying in bed with a book under my nose.  When I was in college, my friends thought I was odd in that I would do most of my homework in bed.  In addition to my homework, I was also reading some of the classics of Western literature from the college library.  Levitt Library was such a second home for me during my college years that I took a job as a tutor there my senior year.  I didn’t really need the money as I lived at home during the summers while working 40 to 50 hours a week and saving my summer money for the school year.

During my ‘self directed study’ program, I sampled philosophy from ancient Greece and Rome, read epic poetry by the ancient masters like Homer and Virgil, read lots of history, sampled some of the philosophy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, read some of the major works of Shakespeare, as well as much of the classic poetry of Europe and 19th and early 20th century America.  The works of Emerson and Nietchze resonated with me.  I still have some of their works on my book shelf.  My favorite classical novelist is probably Alexandre Dumas, I especially loved ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’  One summer I read ‘War and Peace’, and it took the entire summer to read it.  The summer after I graduated from college, I managed to slog through ‘The Wealth of Nations’, which is essentially the Bible of free market capitalism.

But my tastes have changed over time, when I was in my late twenties I read all the works of Ayn Rand as well as a lot of military history, namely John Keegan, Victor Davis Hanson, and Barbara Tuchman. In my early thirties, I read many economics and business books.  I enjoyed the works of Napoleon Hill, Dave Ramsey, Zig Ziglar, and Robert Kiyosaki the most. In my mid thirties, I became interested in all things science and future tech.  To that end, I read some of the works of Michio Kaku, Ray Kurzweil, Eric Drexler, Ronald Bailey, Kevin Kelly, and Peter Diamandis.

After a couple years of letting all this reading ferment, I am ready to dive back into serious reading again.  Even though I have spent a great deal of my life reading those famous books everyone has heard of but never actually read, there are still some books I haven’t gotten to yet that are still on my bucket list.  There are still major philosophers I haven’t gotten into much yet, namely Marx, Kant, Locke, as well as Lao Tzu and Confucious.

Before the prevalence of the internet, some of the entries on my bucket list were to visit the Library of Congress as well as all of the libraries of Harvard University.  But, as it stands now, I can get many of those rare and hard to find works online.  I have hundreds of e-books about philosophy and history that I may never get to read.  But I have them on my computer and iPod.  Kind of mind blowing to think that I have access to the treasure trove of the collected knowledge of civilization available in a manner that would have been impossible even in my childhood and for the price of only one dollar a day in wireless internet connection.  I have access to information that scholars were too often tortured, imprisoned, and killed for seeking in past eras and I don’t even have to leave my living room to acquire it.  I have access to the wisdom of civilization yet I’ll likely never have the money to buy my own house.  Only in the early 21st Century.

Yet, I enjoy living the life of a self  taught scholar.  I made myself into one primarily because school by itself didn’t completely satisfy my love for reading and learning.  Tragically, for some people, their school years stifled their creativity and killed their love of reading and learning.  Even though I make poverty level wages, I can get by with my books and writings.  I can do this because I have zero debts.  I will never go into debt again, not even to learn.  I can learn almost anything online anymore.

If there is any one thing I can take away from my years of self study, it is that the path to enlightenment is a never ending one.  I don’t want to stop learning, ever.  If I make it to my nineties and have to live in a retirement home and not be able to bathe myself, I hope at least I can still read books or online articles.  Maybe, by the time I’m ninety anyone will be able to create entire fantasy worlds on hyper powerful computers and share those with other people via powerful virtual reality.  I would love to be able to recreate some of the worlds I read about in books.  But that is still a long way down the road.  Until then, I can visit such worlds by my reading.

Experiences With Mental Illness Blogging

I’ve been doing this blog for over three years.  And I absolutely enjoy every minute I spend blogging.  I enjoy it more than any traditional job I ever had.  I enjoy it even more than the classes I took in college.  I don’t have to be forced to write about mental illness.  I would do this for free.  I am doing it for free unless I get any kind of advertising revenue or sponsors.  I wouldn’t refuse any money that comes my way even though I am not delusional enough to think I can get off disability pension from blogging.  I have been doing this blog for three years and not made a cent off it.  In my twelve years of overall writing I have probably broke even between selling print on demand books and what I spent advertising my blog through Facebook.  I don’t suppose many people can claim they have a passionate hobby that almost pays for itself.

After spending several years with selling only a few dozen books of mental illness essays and poetry I really had no expectations with this blog.  I didn’t know what kind of a following I would have or even if I would have a following outside my mother and a few friends.  So I set up shop with a free blog site and started writing blogs about what it is like to have schizophrenia to people who can’t imagine it.  This isn’t the first blog I ever did.  A friend and I did a blog several years ago.  It never gained more than a couple hundred views because we were unfocused and not posting regularly.  I did a blog about my poetry for awhile before I found out I wasn’t much of a poet and there really isn’t a great demand for average poetry.

After examining what I liked to read, what I was good at writing, and what I gained good audiences from, I decided three years ago to focus on writing about my experiences with mental illness.  That’s when I gained more than a few readers.  After years of experimenting with styles and genres, I came to the conclusion I do best writing nonfiction essays from the first person point of view.  I had written rough drafts for two coming of age type novels both from first person view.  They didn’t really hold together and I later found out for fiction novels that first person is tougher than third person point of view.

Once I found my niche and style I had a few visitors coming in with every blog post.  After it became a weekly posting I had a few more visitors.  The thing that helped me gain more visitors was posting often.  A blogger simply can’t build any kind of audience by posting only once or twice a month or only when the creative muse moves them.  Most of my favorite individual youtube content creators post several times a week and have for several years.  I’m not at that kind of proficiency, but perhaps I could be if I keep posting material.  I think it helps to get a body of work of several dozen postings at minimum so that search engines can find your work easier.  As of now I have had close to two hundred postings over the last three years and a little over 9,500 visitors from 90 different nations.  There are bloggers (and youtube stars) who get that even on bad days, but I’ve been working at this for only a few years and haven’t done as much advertising as some people.  Being on a limited budget with a disability pension I have to be choosy about what kind of advertising I do as it still costs money to get truly noticed.

Early on in the first several months I got some audience from following other bloggers and leaving positive comments on their articles.  I left nothing but positive comments.  If I didn’t agree with a particular post I just didn’t comment.  I didn’t want to gain the reputation of a troll or troublemaker.  Having a good reputation on the internet is more valuable than gold.  I got some following from following other bloggers and I tried to direct some of my readers to bloggers who helped me out.  But leaving positive comments on other blogs, following other blogs, and trying to refer traffic to other blogs helped me out in the early months.

Even though I have a few years of blogging experience and some following I don’t consider myself established by any means.  I don’t think there can be anything really established as far as the internet and the current information revolution goes.  I was learning as I went when I wrote my first words twelve years ago and I’m still learning new things even today. I was a bit frustrated in the early years when I would get rejection notices in the mail several times a week.  I was also frustrated in the early postings when I wasn’t getting more than a few visitors per post.  But looking back on it, I see how rough and raw most of those writings were.  I’m glad they didn’t get published.  And I’m sure in several more years I’ll look at some of the things I’m writing now as rough and unpolished.  It’s a continuous process that never ends.  I hope to always keep improving as a writer so I can better explain to people what living with a mental illness is really like.

 

 

A Few Poems

 

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I have for a long time thought that writing was a form of therapy for myself.  One of the forms of writing I engage in is poetry.  Here I am posting three poems I have recently written.  Hope you enjoy them.

 

Chisel Away

By Zach Foster

 

Chisel away all that is not the sculpture

From the stone of your life.

Find the beautiful creature

You were meant to be

Hiding within the rock.

Polish away the rough edges

And the tough smudges

From the stone of your life.  

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

 

 

Guises and Gall

By Zach Foster

 

Where do we go from here

Under our guises and gall

Breaking ourselves inwardly

To make ourselves look outwardly

Proud and Strong?

I just want to cry

For what I have lost

Giving up my heart

Giving up my love

Just to look cool.

Where is the payoff

We were so promised

Following this path

Of selling ourselves out

High and Dry?

 

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

 

The Journey

By Zach Foster

 

Were are we going from here

On this mad, obscene journey of our lives?

Will fame and fortune be in the cards?

Or will we struggle to pay rent?

Will we allow ourselves to be weighed down

By the mundane worries of our days,

Buried in silent obscurity?

Will we instead cast aside the chains

That hold us in place

And soar with eagles

Over the vistas and skylines of the world?

Of the journey there are many routes,

True beauty lies not in the goals,

But within the journey itself.

 

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

Speaking at The Regional Mental Health Center

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It’s been quite some time since I last wrote on this blog.  Too long, in fact.  I think that an update is in order.  Since I last wrote, I was able to do a presentation of my poetry and speak about the therapeutic value of writing to an audience at my home state’s regional mental health center.  It was a fun, exhilarating experience.  I was able to share my work not only with some of the patients, but also with the administration of the hospital.  This experience has made me more thankful for my ability to write and more thankful that I’m doing as well as I am.

I wasn’t very nervous about the talk I gave at all.  It was the first real presentation of any kind I gave since I was in college.  But I received several compliments and was asked many questions.  I suppose that not only did I give encouragement to the patients, but I also shed light on what it was like to be mentally ill from the mentally ill person’s perspective.  It was a trip that was well worthwhile.

I often get down on myself for not having a job and for the bad days that I have.  But this trip to the state hospital put it right in my face that I could be doing much worse.  It has also led me to being more resolved to act as an advocate for others with mental health issues that aren’t able to write or speak for themselves.  I am going to keep writing and addressing for others.  In fact, it may be my main passion in life.

I never knew I had any kind of writing talent until after I became mentally ill.  I had to find out the hard way that writing is my outlet for my frustrations.  I always made up stories on my own as a kid, but never put them on paper.  I may have to try to do that one of these days.  The first two drafts of novels I wrote were not very good.  Yet I found out what I had to work on and what I could do better.  I probably should try to write some of my stories I made up in childhood.  

In closing I’m sharing with you two of the poems I shared with the audience.  I hope it sheds some light on what it’s like to be mentally ill.

 

The Burdens of Mental Illness

By Zach Foster

 

My mental illness is a burden to be born

Around my neck it is sadly worn.

Some days are sunshine without pain

While others are darkness and rain.

My pain is not such the world can see

As it’s just the depressed delusions and me.

My anger, searing white hot, comes and goes

Without any warning or notice to be shown.

The echoing voices rattling in my weary head

Fills my heart with panic and soul with dread.

My mental illness is a burden to be born

It dogs me every night and every morn.

 

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

 

Weariness

By Zach Foster

 

Weariness pulls at my weakened bones,

Fresh tears pour from my haggard eyes

Lazy, lethargic, and wanting to give in.

Where are my boosters and rocket fuel

To fly with the eagles

Instead of scratching with chickens,

Not caring they are cackling fools

Drunk from ignorance thicker than rum?

I desire a blast from my more energetic past

To bring me free of this weariness,

To put to end all that is pulling down on me. 

 

Ó Copyright 2014 by Zach Foster

 

How I Became A Writer

There have always been people who write that have written stories and poetry since they were children.  These types where those who always knew they would want to have writing and creativity be a part of their lives.  I was not among those types who just knew from an early age.  I didn’t stumble on the therapeutic value of writing until I was a senior in college.  By then I was only a year away from graduating with a business degree that deep down I knew I would never use in a career.  I never considered majoring in english and history, two of my three favorite subjects in high school (chemistry was my third favorite) because I believed the whole ‘you can’t find a job with a liberal arts or humanities degree’ nonsense when I was younger.  I didn’t take into consideration that a) my mental illness would probably prevent me from holding much for employment and b) most college graduates don’t end up with a job in their major.  

Yet as it turned out I did have some writing talent.  I was signed up for an honors english class my freshman year simply due to my entrance exam scores.  I certainly would have never volunteered for such a class on my own.  On the first day of class, we were asked what our writing experiences were.  There were a few who kept extensive journals, others who wrote poetry, a ministry student who wrote his own sermons, and then at the end of the line there was me.  I meekly admitted that I wrote only when I had to.  I didn’t have to write extensively in high school as I just took general english classes.  I was about to drop the class after the first day simply because I knew there was no way I would do well in there. To make a long story short, I didn’t drop the class and I found out that I was good at writing.  As it was early in the course of my mental illness still, I also found it to be cheap therapy.  Yet I didn’t seriously start writing even as a hobby until my last year of college.

I’ve now been seriously writing for ten years now.  I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of my writing as therapy.  I’ve also self-published a couple poetry books as well as a non-fiction book that’s part memoir and part advice book for mental health patients and their loved ones.  Heck, I’ve even managed to sell a few copies of those books here and there.  Even though I’m far from being a master of the craft of writing, I’ve had an enjoyable ten years teaching myself the ins and outs of story telling and even learned a little trying to get published.  Without the prompt from a wise academic advisor who saw potential that I couldn’t see, I never would have found out I could write.  And I certainly would have never had the courage to start a blog.