Spencer Ritchi is the author of “A Bad Day For Jess,” Scribendi’s Staff Choice Award winner for the literature category. With a fresh take on the often-romanticized depression, his raw, realistic portrayal of Jess’s insecurities and fears provide a depth of feeling that captures the complexity of loving someone affected with mental illness.
Spencer took some time out of his busy college schedule to answer some questions about “A Bad Day for Jess” and his creative process.
Q: “A Bad Day for Jess” focuses on Jess’s mental health issues and how they affect not just her, but her boyfriend as well. What inspired you to write about a subject as stigma-filled as mental illness?
A: Here’s a lot of truth: Jess was half an ex-girlfriend of mine (who, when I wrote and submitted this, was just a girlfriend), and half a conglomerate of stories my roommates told me about their various relationships. Anxiety, depression, they’re all prevalent things for young people, and they’re not obvious or in your face. Subconsciously, young people romanticize depression because they want to be intellectual and probe into the cosmos and whatnot, but coming face-to-face with anxiety/depression of any acute kind can be the most frustrating thing in the world. I won’t say the protagonist is me, per se, but like all things I touch, there’s certainly a bit of myself in there. He struggles to comprehend what Jess is going through in the same ways that I struggled with my girlfriend. He wants to understand and be sympathetic, but he’s too big of a jerk to lay down all precognitions, all frustrations, and just embody that love that he’s always wanted with Jess. He understands that the illness is not Jess, and that Jess is not the illness, but there’s the age old question (explicitly stated within the piece, I’m fairly certain) of: “What happens when I get off my medication?” Meds for depression/anxiety dull you like nothing else. They’re infinitely soul-sucking. But is Jess “herself” when she’s on meds? Or is she “herself” when she’s experiencing depression/anxiety? The answer is: probably neither, or both, or nothing, and as soon as you start over-ruminating on these things it puts you into a trapped in hopeless place. Will anxiety/depression ever allow someone to experience the world on his/her own terms? This piece does not so much grapple that question directly on a grand scale, but instead focuses on this couple who is very much grappling with the question. If they come up with a solid answer, let me know.
Q: Did you have knowledge of the various mental illnesses you portray Jess as having before you began the piece, or did you do extensive research before beginning to write?
A: All personal experience. I have friends, an ex-girlfriend (see above question), and I myself ruminate on and endure these sorts of things. This wasn’t so much about my own depression, but the inability to connect with others. I didn’t want WebMD symptoms of mental illness–I just wanted two people to debate and fight over things until something happened.
Q: The cat is a pretty big part of the story. Did it start out that way, or was there originally another event in its place?
A: The cat was the starting image, and unlike in most things I write, it stayed that way through numerous revisions. I wanted blood, I wanted the travesty of something cute and beautiful, I wanted some sense of immediacy, and I wanted it from the start. I don’t normally work with outlines until after the first draft–that way, the piece expands naturally, and I can worry about the plot as I do major revisions. So, originally, the cat was the center of it and I wrote blindly from there. I wanted a hurricane and I wanted a nearly-dead cat, so I wrote those things. The cat is a painfully obvious metaphor, but it was such a great image in my head that I couldn’t help but exploit it for all its worth.
Q: What was the hardest part of writing this piece?
A: I didn’t want this to be a diary entry. I didn’t want any one person I knew to read this and say, “What the hell, is that me?” When you’re a boisterous genius like Joyce, you can afford to do that, but I didn’t want this to be about me. Also, oversentimentality. For serious undergraduate writers, it’s a problem, and it’s always been a problem for me.
Q: Do you have a specific writing process, or is it just ‘whenever inspiration hits’?
A: If ever I want to write, I begin by reading–something good and something I trust. Usually something Kerouac. Good writing always inspires me to write well. I probably steal lines WAY too much from great writers, but I’m still learning the craft. In fact, I can pinpoint a line or two in “Bad Day” where I must have been reading Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” because I subconsciously made references to “Cordelia Street” and “the immensity of things” and decided to keep them there in later drafts. The only way to learn how to write is by reading great writers, I believe, because no self-help craft book will ever accurately lay out the nuances and art of writing like a good Hemingway or Chekhov story will. The world surrounding my generation tries too hard to define and delineate the intangibles of creative writing, and I think it will be our downfall. Just read, then write. One well-written novel (maybe two or three?) is all the inspiration I need.
Q: When you’re not writing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
A: Read comic books, work much too hard to please others, and trick people into liking me. All three have been working out… fairly well?
Q: Why did you submit to Scribendi, as opposed to another publication?
A: Scribendi is an outstanding opportunity for undergraduates. That’s probably the hardest part of writing–submitting and knowing that failure is imminent 99% of the time. Some say the hardest part of writing is the blinking cursor on the blank page, but at least you can screw that up and no one will know. We’ll just say that I was absolutely honored and terrified when I received the e-mail from Scribendi saying that I would be published.