you poured one more highball then I had to go before my heart overflowed — on depression and making things

I went to XOXOfest again this year. Like last year, I didn’t go to the conference portion, just the festival part, but I still have some things to say about it. All the other pieces you’ll read about XOXO will mostly be about the conference talks, and you’re probably wondering, how can she write anything about a conference she didn’t attend?

Because that conference/festival is stacked full of smart people doing wonderful creative things for a living that they love, and I talked with a lot of them.

I talked with them while wearing clothing and accessories I made for myself, clothing and accessories I’ve spent years learning how to make. At this point I’m good enough at sewing that I never make anything from a sewing pattern I haven’t self-drafted or altered to fit me. I can look at a sewing pattern and see exactly where it won’t do what I want, or exactly where it won’t fit properly on my body, and if I can’t find the right sewing pattern to buy I will just make one myself. And of course I’ve been making jewelry professionally and personally for ten years.

Someone told me that in her XOXO talk this year, Erin McKean said that it’s really important for her to do something creative that she never has to show anyone. Most XOXO attendees know McKean from Wordnik, but I know her from her sewing blog, A Dress A Day, which I’ve been reading almost since its inception. She was, of course, referring to her sewing as the creative thing she doesn’t have to show anyone. She can throw out a dress muslin that doesn’t work, or she can take apart a piece she doesn’t like and correct her mistakes, or make it into something else entirely.

This is part of what sewing and jewelry-making represent for me as well. My fabric scraps bin is full of clothing parts that weren’t successful, my bulletin board is tangled with jewelry prototypes I’m not satisfied with, and I even have a little drawer labeled “failed experiments.” I didn’t start doing any crafts at all until 2004, but now I don’t know how I ever lived without them as part of my identity.

peoplegettinghi“Why haven’t you finished that book you were writing about your road trip?” a friend asked me at XOXOfest. We were sitting on the patio at another friend’s AirB&B, and I had just come down from climbing a huge ladder in the yard because I could (more on that later).

“Do you really want to know? I have a serious answer,” I said.


“Because living with depression and anxiety means that I can’t be a person who examines my life in that kind of detail. That road trip was a very emotional time for me, and it’s hard for me to function if I look at it too closely.”

You want to know how I function? I keep the TV on in the background. I make things out of fabric and metal. I read crafting blogs and good novels (but not too good or they’ll make me sad) and overly-deep online think pieces about TV. I avoid certain types of music. While I make things I keep episodes of “Bob’s Burgers” or “The X-Files” on a loop.

I exercise. Hard.

I sleep a lot.

I stay in the shallow end.

This routine is what makes me okay. This routine forms the covering on my nerves that keeps them from getting too raw.

At XOXOFest John Roderick and Sean Nelson did a show where they played a lot of their old Long Winters material. The Long Winters is/was one of my favorite bands, and I’ve always been disappointed that they haven’t put out an album in so long. I arrived at the show 20 minutes early to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

They opened with Carparts, and I cried. It wasn’t a balls-out sobbing, ugly kind of crying, but it was there. I hadn’t listened to that song in years, because it makes me think of one day of my road trip, of driving alone through falling snow from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore the day before Easter, and thinking about someone specific. Roderick and Nelson do such beautiful harmonies, and that plus seeing live music for the first time in forever plus being smacked in the face with that memory, and I was a goner.

They closed with a cover of “The Only Living Boy In New York,” and I cried again. Then I cried the day after I got home from XOXO. Then I cried again yesterday. My sleeping and exercise and carefully crafted non-thinking were not in place in Portland, and my nerves went raw.

I don’t really make things to show other people anymore, at least not on the internet. I make things to sell people, and I make gifts, and “hey, check out this dress I’m wearing! I made it!” is technically showing other people, I guess, but that’s not what I mean.

What I mean is that I used to make things for people to read, but I don’t know how to keep doing that without destroying myself.

Like I said, at XOXOfest I was surrounded by people who make things for other people, and it made me wish I still did. It made me miss that feeling of having said something out loud that I think is true, and hoping that someone else will think it’s true too.

I’ve said before that I feel like not writing in public is like lying to myself in some way, and I still think that’s true too.

Yesterday someone I don’t know said something on Twitter like, I don’t know why @bluishorange isn’t crushing it in a master’s creative writing program right now (I am paraphrasing because it was a nice thing to say and I don’t want anyone to go looking for the specific Tweet; if you find it please don’t say anything to them). My Twitter account is private, so I never get mentioned by people I don’t know. I had Twitter open in a tab, so the @bluishorange mention popped up right there in the window, and seeing it felt like my heart had dropped out of my body.

Why aren’t I out there crushing it in a master’s creative writing program right now? Why aren’t I making stuff for other people to see like my friends at XOXO?

I have had other people say things to me similar to that tweet. The best one was, “You don’t have any reason to have as much self-doubt as you do.” The second-worst one was, “Man, when I first read your blog I thought you were going to be a super famous writer.” The worst one of all was when someone came up to me in a coffeehouse in Austin and said, “Hey, didn’t you used to be bluishorange?”

I’ll admit that some of my sadness with regards to not crushing it in a master’s creative writing program or being a super famous writer or being bluishorange anymore has to do with missed opportunity. This site used to be awfully popular, and it isn’t anymore. The landscape of the web has changed, and so have I, and most of that isn’t my fault. But I don’t always remember that. What if staying in the shallow end means I’ve missed my chance to say things to a larger audience?

I’m told that a lot of the XOXO conference talks were about making things through bouts of depression, anxiety and uncertainty. I suppose maybe watching those talks online will help me some, but mostly I just want to ask those people, “Yeah, but how do you DO that?”

I’ve been wondering how I can combine my crafting skills with my desire to make things for other people and have those things say something I think is true, but I don’t know if that idea exists.

Over the past several months I’ve been taking trapeze lessons and doing circuit training, and I’m fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been in my life. I climbed the ladder in that yard because it was fun, and also because I knew it was something I would do that nobody else would. If I can’t be a strong person who writes, at least I can be a strong person who climbs things and does flips.

11 thoughts on “you poured one more highball then I had to go before my heart overflowed — on depression and making things

  1. Beautifully written, as always. I’ve been thinking about similar things recently, like why I don’t keep up a personal site any more, and how my relationship to the ways I express myself on and offline has changed over the years.

    I’ve realized that the act of creation is taking a piece of yourself and putting it into the fire. For some people, that piece of themselves grows back in time, maybe even better than before (cf. Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit), but for others, that piece of themselves is no longer a part of them. It’s out in the world.

    I’m always thankful when you give a part of yourself. I think I understand a little now how hard that can be.

  2. Yeah, I’m with Neil. Work and family and Twitter have changed the dynamics of what I make and what I share of myself, and I don’t like where it’s left me. I’m going to reread The Creative Habit, which is around here somewhere.

    I enjoyed reading this, Alison. I say make it a habit. Don’t break the chain.

  3. I think it’s wonderful that you are hearing praise from friends about your writing skills (you have a lot). I think it’s good that you’re thinking about how writing fits into your life. But I also think it’s awesome that you’ve made yourself a life that works really well for you -exercise, making jewelry & clothes, TV. There’s a lot of people who don’t know how to make peace & happiness for themselves. Its a huge achievement that you do.

  4. It seems like a lot of us are feeling this way–I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to have written a novel by now? but it’s so easy to let things pile up between ourselves and art, because it’s hard, and difficult, because it feels like if we go out (or in) as far as is necessary to create something good we could lose the accommodations we’ve made with the world somewhere on the way. Real creation requires de(con)struction first, and that can involve dismantling the iways of thinking we use to survive as our imperfect selves in an imperfect world, which seems dangerous without the prospect of something new to take their place. Ultimately, though, the personal creative process is about building those new ways of thinking. It is the clearing away of the rubble of all those shaky, patched constructs of child- and early adulthood, and the laying of firmer foundations on which to do and to become better. This is not always a safe process, but if done carefully, and slowly, I think it is more distressing than actually dangerous.

  5. I agree about the way the internet has changed, and I miss it. I discovered your blog in 2000/2001-ish (whenever sixfoot6’s systematic destruction of a Dodge Omni was featured on and I miss the sort of internet where that was possible. The only time I really experience it now is when I fall down what I call “the Wiki hole” where you can start reading one article and then, Kevin Bacon-like, find yourself on a topic that’s light years away within just a few clicks.

    I backed off of blogging awhile ago not because I felt depleted when I wrote, but because I realized I didn’t have anything original to say, or even an original way of saying unoriginal things. Those are definitely not problems of yours, and I still get jazzed when I see you’ve updated. You don’t have to give anything of yourself that you don’t want to give- what you do give is so wonderful, it would be greedy to demand more.

    I do miss being able to buy your jewelry though- hopefully soon?

  6. So much of that spoke to me—that was a great read.

    And I loved your serious answer to that question. There are some things in my life that have fallen to the back burner, and that answer puts into words a similar feeling that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for a while now.

    I’m rooting for you, Alison—you got this!

  7. That was wonderfully expressed, Allison. Very honest and very brave, which you have always been as a writer. Very unapologetic, as I’ve always known you to be as a person and a friend (and which, of course, you are entitled to be.) I love the idea that our work and our life and our abilities are ours, and we each use them as we see fit. I think you’re great, and that you’ll always be bluishorange.

  8. I’ve been following your writing and much of your posted life from Bluishorange pretty much since the beginning of Bluishorange. While surfing the web I tripped over one of your stories and I’ve been coming back ever since, sometimes patiently waiting for months for a new post. There are maybe three sites that I consistently visit looking for updates because I truly enjoy them and I’ve been visiting yours the longest. I’m not a writer or a blogger, I’m more of a musician. I wish that I had half of the talent that you have to articulate my feelings and surroundings. I’ve never posted a comment to you before and I’ve never sent you email. I just wanted you to know that I appreciate whatever you share and I will continue to patiently wait for the next post. ~E

  9. “You don’t have any reason to have as much self-doubt as you do.”—This is true, but it’s worth noting that self-doubt is not a reasoned thing, and it is highly resistant to reasoning.

    As for this: “What I mean is that I used to make things for people to read, but I don’t know how to keep doing that without destroying myself.”—I think the best, but unhelpful, answer is that you make a little something, like this very post, and discover that you haven’t destroyed yourself, you’re still here. And then when you feel up to it, you write something else, and then discover you’re still here. But that’s easily said.

    Regardless, you’re doing okay with finding things to do, ways to be, that work for where you’re at right now. And you don’t owe anyone but yourself to be whatever you feel you can be. If writing fits in again at some point, we’ll be happy to read more of it; if it doesn’t, we’ll still be happy that you’re here being yourself. bluishorange abides.

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