Mark Vonnegut is a memoirist and a pediatrician. He is the author of The Eden Express, which was published in 1975. It chronicles the time in his life after graduating from Swarthmore, when he moved to British Columbia with his friends to set up a commune, and his initial experiences with mental illness. His most recent memoir, Just Like Someone with Mental Illness, Only More So, was published in 2010. It contains a painfully honest description of Vonnegut’s subsequent experience with bipolar disorder, and the sharp contrast he has experienced between bouts of illness and periods of “normalcy.” Vonnegut studied medicine at Harvard Medical School, and currently works as a pediatrician in Massachusetts, where he was named “No. 1 Pediatrician” by Boston Magazine.
He was interviewed by Corey Ginsberg for Sliver of Stone Magazine.
CG: One of the most compelling aspects of Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness, Only More So is your discussion of the importance of art and creativity in your own life, as well as in the lives of those in your family. In the first chapter, you say, “Without art you’re stuck with yourself as you are and life as you think life is.” Later, you mention, “All the arts are a way to start a dialogue with yourself about what you’ve done, what you could have done differently, and whether or not you might try again.” Can you speak a bit about what forms this dialogue takes in your life, and how writing has informed your thinking?
MV: I’ve spent a lot of time stuck where nothing matters and there’s no way to get away. If you can make yourself try to paint a bird or rewrite something that’s not quite right, whether it’s a novel or letter to a friend, you then get to reflect on yourself as someone who can or can’t get that job done, and it can be like throwing sand under your tires to get traction. In and of themselves, the painting or the letter don’t matter as much as the process and what you have to say about it to yourself. I frequently tell kids with headaches or belly aches without a clear organic cause to keep a diary of their symptoms, what they were doing, and what made the symptoms better or worse, and the symptoms often go away.
CG: Along these lines, you write: “An artist is someone who isn’t put off by how terrible his first tries are, who finds himself talking back and notices that he changes and grows when he makes art.” What was the first draft of this book like, and how do you approach the revision process?
MV: My writing is often brilliant as I do it, but is utter crap a few hours later. Then I spend a month or so trying to get back to being half as good as I thought it was at first. With both books I was surprised that publishers and editors couldn’t see where I was going and how easily I could make it publishable.
CG: In chapter five, you say: “Writing is very hard mostly because until you try to write something down, it’s easy to fool yourself into believing you understand things. Writing is terrible for vanity and self-delusion. It wasn’t therapy as much as trying to tell a story that took me by surprise. . .” How does your writing process help to make sense of your life? Do you find ever that you understand things differently once you write about them?
MV: It’s not fair for me to call something ineffable until I’ve tried to ef it. All the time I figure new things out. The biggie in my last book was figuring out that creativity was a positive part of surviving mental illness, not just an odd side effect. Why do crazy people write and paint? I’ve been wrestling with that for forty-plus years.
CG: You mention on page 65 that one of the rejections you received for your first memoir, The Eden Express, said, “This book is good but with your last name it would have to be better.” You also write, “Having a famous parent is a leg up to nowhere.” How do you think being the son of Kurt Vonnegut affects how people see you as a writer?
MV: Mostly people don’t think of “son of” as a positive. How cute and pathetic that he should try. Even as a pediatrician there’s a sense that “son of” is what I really am, and that I sort of write and sort of take care of sick kids, too.
CG: One of my favorite lines in Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness is, “The reason creativity and craziness go together is that if you’re just plain crazy without being able to sing or dance or write good poems, no one is going to have babies with you. Your genes will fall by the wayside. Who but a brazen crazy person would go on-on-one with a blank paper or canvas armed with nothing but ideas?” This is a fascinating idea. Can you speak a bit about how art can be both a lifeline and a form of insanity?
MV: I don’t have an answer that adds much to your question. Yes. Art is a lifeline and a form of insanity.
CG: In The Eden Express, there is a great line: “I think most of us were fed to the teeth with the brand of rationality that had made up so much of our education . . . We wanted to be free from our rational brain space to make room for other ways of being.” Is this still a concept that holds true for you, or do you think that the direction your life has gone in has changed how you feel about “rationality”?
MV: I still think reaching beyond what you know is absolutely necessary. And what you usually find is that you’re better and stronger than you thought you were, and that some of the things you thought were true were silly.
CG: Being both a doctor and a writer strikes me as two seemingly unrelated endeavors. Do you find that they complement one another, or require different types of energy and focus?
MV: A doctor is always trying to create a narrative about how the present came to be and facilitate a resolution. The problem is how little time you have to do it. The nice thing about going to work is that I don’t have to make stuff up or worry about getting a publisher.