It’s my birthday and I’ll rant if I want to

This is really very simple and it won’t take long and I just have to say it. So excuse my self indulgence.

There’s a letter to Cary Tennis from a person who is coping with serious depression. In response to Cary’s advice there are 185 messages. A good number of these messages address the issue of medication, and a lot of that discussion is negative.

Don’t go the pharmacology route. Stay away from meds, change your diet, your exercise, your sleeping habits and forget the pills.

Not all the responses are like this, but enough.  Now, I’ve written about depression more than once here. About my own history with it, about family history and tragedies narrowly avoided. I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about all this, in addition to my personal experiences.  So I’m not going to repeat all of that — the links are in the near right hand column if you are really interested — but I am going to say this.

Unless you yourself have been diagnosed as clinically depressed, or have had a close family member who has had such a diagnosis, your opinion about medication counts for jackshit.  If you have been diagnosed and you had a bad experience with one or more medications, keep that to yourself when you are talking to people who need help. Just shut up. This is not the time to raise the issue of the questionable practices of pharmaceutical companies. If you know someone in a bad place, this is the time to listen. If you are asked for advice, provide names and numbers of medical professionals, but do not, do not, tell the person in question how to feel about medication before they ever walk into the doctor’s office.

Imagine a neighbor’s kid is diagnosed with diabetes of a particularly difficult and dangerous kind. Would you go over there and start up a discussion about the profit margins on insulin? Would you suggest that the kid try to do without? talk about the healing power of cranberry juice or ritual cleansing or  morning hikes? Would you ask if your neighbor had considered the fact that his kid will be dependent on insulin for the rest of his or her life, and if that’s a good thing? If you are such a person, my guess is that you’d get punched in the face, and deservedly so.

Depression has to do, at least in part — and maybe in large part — with genetics and brain chemistry.  They haven’t figured out the details, but there is a lot of data and some pretty solid conclusions to be drawn from that. But here’s all you need to know: depression is serious business that often requires medication.  It’s not a fad diet to be discussed over coffee, it’s a disabling condition, one of the invisible disabilities that can make an individual want to die. Any many do.

So when people raise the topic of medication for depression, when you’re asked for your opinion, here’s what you say: I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s too important and too complex a subject for casual tossing about of opinions.

And leave it at that.

writing workshops

Bunny woke me up at two-thirty in the morning because he was in need of a belly rub and, no connection whatsoever, a stroll around the garden to make sure there were no lurking beasts from which he had to protect us. That is the nature of our relationship: the dogs provide me with unconditional love, and I rub their bellies. Sometimes at an ungodly hour. Seems like I’ve got the better end of the deal.

Sometimes though I find it hard to get back to sleep, so I read or I go wandering around the internet. I just got back from that little jaunt around the webby world, and here’s what I stumbled across, an interesting opportunity.

Once in a while I have posted about Cary Tennis’s work. He’s an advice columnist at who has been answering questions from the public for years now. If I remember correctly, he’s a writer, and not a psychologist or psychiatrist or therapist of any school. He’s just a writer with a gentle approach that appeals to a lot of people.

He has written columns that I loved, and some that I really, really disliked. I often disagree with him completely on how to approach a problem, but then that’s okay; he doesn’t need my approval and nobody asked my opinion, anyway. And there are dozens — if not hundreds — of regular Salon readers who are quick to comment on his columns. A few of them are sure to make the points I would have made, and many are not afraid to tell him that he’s got the wrong end of the stick. So really, it’s not about an advice column so much as it is a discussion set off by his answer to a letter from a stranger.

At any rate, Cary has a website, a collection of his columns in a new book, and also if you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you could take a writing class from him. In his home. His description:

If you write, if you want to write, if you dream of writing, this workshop can help you discover ideas, dreams, emotions, images and stories of profound significance, and recall them in tranquility, in their original voice, with all their original brilliance and luminosity. And it can give you the structure and support you need to make those stories, poems and memories as good and true as they can be.

I invite you to join us. The workshop will take place at my house in San Francisco on Tuesday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. The price is $380 for 10 weeks. Enrollment is limited to 12 writers. E-mail me at,

I suggest that you read about his approach and philosophy of writing, and then if you live in his area, have the time, interest and money, you go on ahead and take his course. And then let us know how it went, okay? Because I’m dead curious.

Writers are always looking for ways to make a living that cuts out the publisher. A great many serious writers end up teaching — not because they like it, or are good at it — but because it’s one way to pay the rent that doesn’t involve contracts and marketing and all that other awful business that goes along with publishing a book. My guess is that if you polled everybody who writes seriously and who also teaches writing, you’d find that the vast majority would give up teaching immediately — if such a thing were financially feasible. This doesn’t mean the individual is a bad teacher. There are some excellent teachers out there who would simply rather be doing something else with their time.

I have to assume that Cary Tennis likes teaching and wants to do more of it, because there he is offering the opportunity to work with him, in his home, on your writing. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. If my arithmetic is right (and that’s an iffy proposition right there), you’d bring in an annual salary of about 20k if you ran these workshops back to back for fifty-two weeks, and had an average of ten people in each class. Certainly taking a class at a college would cost you more.

So there you are: somebody who is teaching writing because he wants to.


I had a friend once who insisted she knew exactly what MFA stood for — and it wasn’t Master of Fine Arts.

The back and forth about what it means to be a writer, how to become a writer, and whether writing can be taught will never be settled, because it’s a matter of personal preference almost as prickly as religion. The MFA crowd — those who have them, those who pursue them — clearly believe that the couple of years and tons of money spent in pursuit of that degree is worthwhile. And of course, many of the very finest writers have no MFA, and some of them never went to college.

Cary Tennis (the advice columnist at Salon who I think is really good at what he does) had a letter from a young woman who desired a particular MFA above all other things and has come to doubt her goals, her priorities, and her choices. Radiant Robyn Bender sent me the link, but beware, I don’t know how long it will be available to non-subscribers.

So I was reading over his response, which encapsulates a lot of his own experiences as a writing in training, and I got irritated. Very, very irritated. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what button it was that got pushed, but I believe that it has something to do with his tone, which was understanding and kindly and empathetic.

What I wanted to do was smack the kid.

His final word of advice to the reluctant student:

So finish your degree and take care of your writing as you would take care of an animal or a child. Do not send it out into the world to do an adult’s job. Just take care of it and, in its own way, it will take care of you.

This feels so wrong to me, I don’t even know where to start. Too twee, too zen, too something. Practical problems call for practical decisions, seems to me.

I’m still thinking a smack would do her more good. You know the movie Moonstruck, when Nicolas Cage is making moon eyes at Cher? And she’s had enough, so she smacks him and shouts: Snap outta it!


Garrison's button

Obviously, somebody or something pushed it. Garrison Keillor’s latest essay at Salon is titled: Writers, stop whining.

Not that I disagree with his general premise. We are a whiny lot. For my part, I try not to, but sometimes it squeaks out of me anyway.

A good bit from a very grouchy essay:

The biggest whiners are the writers who get prizes and fellowships for writing stuff that’s painful to read, and so they accumulate long résumés and few readers and wind up teaching in universities where they inflict their gloomy pretensions on the young. Writers who write for a living don’t complain about the difficulty of it. It does nothing for the reader to know you went through 14 drafts of a book, so why mention it?

The truth, young people, is that writing is no more difficult than building a house, and the only good reason to complain is to discourage younger and more talented writers from climbing on the gravy train and pushing you off.

Why does this make me feel guilty? Have I shoved somebody off a train lately? Maybe this is that well known cop-in-the-rearview-mirror syndrome. No matter how well you’ve been driving, a flush of panic. You are sure you’ve done something awful and just put it out of your head, but the cop will now wave the evidence in your face. Until she passes you and zips off into the sunset to scare the bejesus out of somebody else.

Garrison Keillor is in my rearview mirror just at this moment, and my palms are sweaty.