Tag Archive | Milwaukee Journal

When you’re feeling creative, how crazy is too crazy?

Bud Powell at Birdland

Since early adolescence, I’ve been fascinated by the fine line between creativity and madness, and the life stories of artists and writers who suffered from mental illness. At 13, when I took up painting and jazz piano, I was intrigued to learn the great bebop pianist Bud Powell was schizophrenic. I barely knew what the word meant, but it sounded romantic, and I thought his illness contributed to the brilliance of his intense, driven style in compositions like “Un Poco Loco.”

When it comes to artistic creativity, is being “a little crazy” an asset or a liability? The question has been the subject of endless speculation. Would Van Gogh have been as great if he’d been totally sane? What about Robert Schumann or Virginia Woolf? I’m not sure, but in my own case, being a bit over the top has probably helped. At any rate, my experiences with bipolar disorder inspired my first novel, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.

I came by the diagnosis atypically late, in my early 50’s. I was running ElderSource, Inc., a Licensed Home Care Services Agency, and the work was unbelievably stressful. A shrink prescribed Zoloft, and the effect was amazing. Within a couple of weeks, I felt better than I had in years, ready to take on the world. A few more weeks, and I totally flipped.

Virginia Woolf

It began harmlessly enough. I spent more and more time in my office behind closed doors, writing on my computer. My mind was flooded with inspirations I simply had to get down on paper before they escaped. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, if you’re a writer – but I was supposed to be running an agency. My memos got longer and longer, then turned into voluminous essays, including one about my father’s brilliance as Managing Editor of the Milwaukee Journal during the McCarthy era. Staff in the office were worried, but I blew them off – I’d never felt better, and I knew what I was writing was of supreme importance.

In early December, I devised a plan to revitalize the economy of the Hudson Valley through a multimedia art show which I would carry out with the assistance of the President of Bard College, Robert Rauschenberg (my favorite artist), and various other luminaries. Soon I was on the phone to Bard, trying to schedule an appointment. I locked myself into my office long past midnight, called the New York Times, and tried to convince some lone reporter on the night shift that they should run a front-page story about my plans, my father and his achievements. A sympathetic listener, he diplomatically suggested that my story might be better suited to the Milwaukee Journal. When I called the police rather than let my husband into the office, things were way over the top.

I narrowly escaped hospitalization. Somehow my husband got me to the shrink, who prescribed heavy medications to tamp down what I came to understand was an acute manic episode. I spent a week at home, prone on the sofa catching up on sleep and watching endless videos, waiting for the lithium to kick in. (I remember especially loving a documentary on Sting,  U-2’s “Rattle and Hum” concert, and Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin.) Within two weeks, I was back running ElderSource, but on a new medication regimen and with a newly heightened awareness of just how fragile mental health can be.

Was I manic depressive all along? I don’t know, but I’ve now got an official diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder I, and I’ll probably be on medications for the rest of my life, although the dosage is minimal now. Fortunately, being bipolar seems to be trendy. When I talk about my mystery novel Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders at panels and signings, people from the audience invariably approach me to confide that they or close friends or family members are bipolar. But too often they tell me they’ve kept the information secret for fear of repercussions from the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.  

So is being “un poco loco” good for creativity? Maybe, when it’s under control. These days, that control is possible through advances in psychopharmacology. Hypomania – the state of mind that falls just short of full-blown mania – can be a wonderfully productive state for writers. But if you find yourself locking out your husband and calling the police, it might be time to call a shrink instead, and see about getting onto some new meds.

 *This post originally appeared on Helen Ginger’s wonderful blog, Straight from Hel, on Friday the 13th, November 2009, as part of my first Blog Book Tour.

**This beautiful photo of Bud Powell rehearsing at Birdland in 1958 was taken by Francis Wolff. I heard and met Bud on just one occasion, when we were introduced by Max Roach, around this same period. Sadly, his mind and his playing had deteriorated by this point. His only coherent statement was a plea to my mother – “Buy me a Ballantine’s.”

Editing Excellence – Remembering My Father

Forest stream photo“As a journalist in a newsroom, I never worried about how to write. I just did it. I put words on my computer screen to meet a deadline.”

These words from Alexis Grant jumped out at me this morning. I’d left her blog up on my screen when I turned off the monitor late last night, intending to write her a comment, but today the words triggered a whole new chain of thought – about blogging and about my father, Wallace Lomoe, who was Managing Editor and later Executive Editor of The Milwaukee Journal. He inspired my love of writing, but more importantly perhaps, he passed on the perfectionistic standards that make me a ruthless editor of my own work. It’s appropriate to pay tribute to him on Father’s Day.

But first, about the blogging. Alexis was writing about the differences between journalistic writing and tackling an entire book, but “I put words on my computer screen to meet a deadline” is an apt description of my approach to blogging till now. A phrase or a few scattered ideas begin percolating in my mind. Sometimes I jot down some notes in my little blue blog book, but more often I sit down at the computer and lo and behold, the words begin to flow onto the screen. Basically, it’s the same way I go about writing a novel, except that with the novel, there’s an overall story arc that keeps me pointed in a more or less coherent direction. In blogging, I’ve been disregarding the bigger picture, and I’ve decided that has to change. But more on that in tomorrow’s post – today’s is about my father.

Wallace Lomoe was born in northern Wisconsin in 1898. In his youth, he

Library of Congress photo

Library of Congress photo

dreamed of writing The Great American Novel. In search of background and inspiration, he spent most of the1920’s living the archetypal hobo’s life, riding the rails and doing odd jobs throughout the country. By 1928, he was back home, working as a reporter at The Superior Telegram, where two significant events occurred. He met my mother, Viola Wick, also a cub reporter at the Telegram. They married soon after, and as was all too typical back then, she abandoned her career to become a wife and mother. And Calvin Coolidge spent a summer fishing in northern Wisconsin. The Telegram assigned my father to cover the President’s vacation, both because of his writing skills and because he was an ace fisherman and northwoods guide. His stories got picked up by the Associated Press, and The Milwaukee Journal offered him a job.

In the years that followed, he rose through the ranks from City Editor and Managing Editor to Executive Editor. Known as “the bear,” he inspired respect and fear in his underlings. Once a reporter who had just won a Pulitzer Prize came to him for a raise, and he refused, saying, “The Pulitzer has nothing to do with your salary.” Along the way, he abandoned his dream of writing The Great American Novel and ultimately destroyed a lengthy manuscript that would at the very least have made a marvellous memoir. Evidently the book didn’t live up to his own exacting standards.

My father’s memory lives on in the annals of journalism. Googling his name this morning, I found 273 hits, including one in a book I hadn’t known existed: Joe McCarthy and the Press by Edwin R. Bayley. My father was a staunch enemy of the witch-hunting senator, as evidenced in the following quote:

“We think McCarthy is a sideshow barker in dealing with the press,” said Wallace Lomoe, managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal. “First he drops a hint. Then he gives out a name. Third, he gives his version of what the name said or did. And the press carries all three.”

I’ve never seen this quote before, but discovering it delights me this morning, when I devoured our local Sunday paper in under an hour while bemoaning its pitiful contents. My father died in 1975, but if by some miracle he were reincarnated, what would he think of the state of journalism these days? He’d probably be shaking off the gloom and doom and focusing on mastering the internet, just as I am today.

The Milwaukee Journal merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1995. The Journal was an afternoon paper, fiercely independent, whereas the Sentinel was a morning paper, part of the Hearst empire. In our family, “Hearst” was almost as dirty a word as “McCarthy.” The Journal Sentinel now publishes mornings, and the Journal’s glory days are long gone.