Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Greetings from the Looney Bin!

One of the small-but-oh-so-interesting details that has emerged from my research on mental asylums has been my discovery of asylum postcards and the people who collect them. Back in the golden age of asylums, the general public viewed mental asylums as manifestations of magnificient architecture. Institutionalization was common and visible. Towns took pride in the asylums their outskirts hosted, and postcards were printed by the hundreds.

The postcard pictures above are from Christopher Payne's wonderful book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. The ones below are the start of my own collection of these unique postcards. Chris found these two at a local antique store. They were sent to Mrs K. D. Barnes from her daughter in 1917.




Vasiliisa asked me recently what I am doing with all of this research. I wish I knew! It almost seems like it is spiralling out of control. I started looking into asylums because I had an idea for a fiction piece that would take place in and around one. I found a voice for a character or two, but I felt I wasn't able to write much because I just didn't know what I was writing about. (Did asylums have electricity in 1880s? How many people were there on one ward? What type of food did they eat? Did patients socialise amongst themselves?) I have done a ton of research, and I have more or less fallen in love with one of the characters, who has just developed on her own, inside my head. Even so, I haven't written a single word in months. I feel like I am more and more drawn to the non-fiction side of things the further my research goes, although I don't know whether it is just because that is what I "do best". Let me explain.

I loved writing stories when I was little. When we had assignments at school, other kids asked the teacher how many pages they had to write. I would ask "how many notebooks". My teachers loved my stories, and as we eventually began to write essays and short-story analyses instead of stories, it turned out I was pretty good at those too. I kept writing stories at home though. I gathered my courage when I was 17, and wrote two short-stories and gave them to my teacher of Finnish language and literature. Eventually she came back to me, horrified, and told me that I absolutely must stick to what I did best, which was non-fiction. She told me to never attempt fiction writing, because "no one wants to read this kind of disturbing stuff. Why on earth would you want to write something like this?" (One of the short-stories was about a young man, sitting at the death bed of his mother, which I guess was too morbid of a topic for her, I don't know.) I stopped writing fiction after that. I was embarrased, and didn't tell anyone about the short-stories, or the critique my teacher gave me.

I haven't even attempted to write fiction since, apart from this current project, which I am probably just too scared of to continue. I have grown to appreciate and enjoy non-fiction writing, but the process of doing reserch is more appealing to me than the actual process of writing. I wonder if I can ever love writing again, the way I did when I was a child. Who knows. I guess it would be an awful shame to let one old teacher dictate what I can or cannot write today.

9 comments:

Charlotte said...

It certainly would. Sounds as if you're doing the "head-work" of your fictional piece now. Soon, the "heart-work" will come. If you hear the voice, that's the first important step. You're on your way.

Anonymous said...

It was just the opposite for me. When I was 17, my teacher made me promise that I would apply to university. Language and writing, maybe even taeching. However, gently but firmly she gave me this advice: try make your sentences shorter, stories more compact. Try controlling your emotions... But still I think she realized that I was young, impatient and emotional and it was my youth and "gloomy" way of seeing things that made me want to write in the first place. I cried like "Niagara falls" when I read something that moved me. Books and my native language were my first love, they shook me profoundly and they still do.
For a long time I was afraid that I would see my teacherh somewhere, and had to tell her that I've given up writing and never tried again to apply to university...
When I was 25, one of my social studies teachers told me I was too "academic" for the field of social work, and asked me wheather I've ever considered writing and literature studies..
So I've been given all the encouragement and support for my writing, but still didn't go for it. Not yet at least...;). I consider the need to write a form of self-expression, way of understanding the world and yourself. And also, it is a form of art. And these kind of things shouldn't be forced, wheather you were a professional writer or not. Also I think there is a lot of writers who succesfully combine fiction and non-fiction in their writing, for example Siri Hustvedt. So keep doing your research, write when you feel like writing, maybe it's all just growing inside you. Don't think about the result, just enjoy the process, where ever it may take you...
Sis

Sheila said...

Oh no! What a horribly insensitive and discouraging thing for your teacher to say! And you haven't written since? That's terrible.

I hope you will put down your character in writing, and soon! Don't regret that you didn't bring her to life, please. Write for yourself, not for an audience, and write until you are happy with it.

I grew up writing poetry and short stories - I won contests, got published and did a couple of years of a Creative Writing major at university. I can't imagine if someone so thoughtless had squashed that part of me.

Please...write!

Velma Vex said...

I think that teacher should make an appearance as a villain in your next story . . .

La Historiadora de Moda said...

I hope you do write fiction again. If that character is developing so fully in your head, she deserves to have a presence in print, too.

Northmoon said...

I completely agree with the other posters. Do not let the opinion of one person out of the millions of people on the planet stop you from writing!

You've got a character in your head and you've done the research for the locale, I think you should put it on paper, just for you. Don't even consider what other people might think.

personally I love a story where the details are based on reality and you asylum research sounds fascinating.

Eyeliah said...

“ I wish I knew” lol ;-) I like these posts, glad you are researching.

Teenysparkles said...

You can do this! You ARE talented at writing. Deep down you know you can too; it is astounding the effect those adult voices from childhood can have on our own adult potential. I have never forgotten one such incident; I wrote a story as a kid about a girl called "Merry" (because she was merry), my teacher made me correct the name as "Mary" regardless of my reasoning behind the incorrect spelling. I pretty much wrote her off as an ignorant b*tch after that. I was 8. (Gee, think I'm bitter?)

Vasiliisa said...

Like all the others, I, too, would encourage you to write. You just have to get working on an actual text to know which way you want to take it. Writing itself is a way of processing things. At this point you don't even have to decide if it should be fact or fiction. Also remember it doesn't have to be that great all the time; if it's mediocre it's still way better than not writing at all.

I have never written anything that didn't become a lot better after I got some feedback - so when you start writing consider giving the text for someone to read.