Mental Health and Care

An arresting and moving piece in the New York Times about mental illness and treatment in America. Jeneen Interlandi talks about her own family’s experiences with this issue, as her father has bipolar disorder. Anyone who’s been a caretaker for someone with mental health problems can relate to the stress and confusion felt by Interlandi and her family. Laws vary from state to state, and there are so few options available for mental health care, especially for those who haven’t displayed extreme violence. Interlandi writes:

“But extreme violence is not the only thing families like mine worry about. We worry that our loved ones will themselves fall victim to violent crimes, or accidental disasters, if they are left out in the streets while they are sick and delusional. We also worry that without involuntary treatment, they might not recover.”

It’s sad that so many people who could use serious mental health help aren’t getting the kind of resources they need, and are left vulnerable to the kind of threats Interlandi describes. I’m sure that part of the problem is that mental health issues and treatments can vary so much from person to person. It’s a problem that requires so much more support than it’s getting now.

Part of Queen of the Air deals with mental illness in the family and how hard it is to talk about that issue. I hope that more people get to talking about it and learning about it so we can demand more resources for those struggling with mental health problems and the people who care for them.

Make sure to read the whole article; it’s on the long side, but it’s really worth it.

Storytelling and Reporting

Gene Weingarten is one of my favorite feature writers ever. He knows how to craft a story and isn’t afraid to look at complicated characters. A couple of pieces he’s written are “The Peekaboo Paradox,” about children’s performer the Great Zucchini, and “Fatal Distraction,” about parents who accidentally leave their children behind in a car on a hot summer day. Both are heartbreaking and wonderfully written, and I highly recommend checking them out.

Writer’s Digest has an interview with Weingarten about the writing process. About storytelling and reporting:

One of the things I admire about your work is that you consistently prove that great writing begins with great reporting. Talk about the importance of reporting.
Well, let’s start with the maxim that the best writing is understated, meaning it’s not full of flourishes and semaphores and tap dancing and vocabulary dumps that get in the way of the story you are telling. Once you accept that, what are you left with? You are left with the story you are telling.

The story you are telling is only as good as the information in it: things you elicit, or things you observe, that make a narrative come alive; things that support your point not just through assertion, but through example; quotes that don’t just convey information, but also personality. That’s all reporting.

What distinguishes a well-told story from a poorly told one?
All of the above. Good reporting, though, requires a lot of thinking; I always counsel writers working on features to keep in mind that they are going to have to deliver a cinematic feel to their anecdotes. When you are interviewing someone, don’t just write down what he says. Ask yourself: Does this guy remind you of someone? What does the room feel like? Notice smells, voice inflection, neighborhoods you pass through. Be a cinematographer.

Very much like Weingarten’s focus on the story itself, not extraneous flourishes, and creating a cinematic feel in a piece. Even though this is about nonfiction, I think both of these tips are extremely useful to fiction writers as well.