Arkansas Literary Festival: Esmé Wang
The sixteenth annual Arkansas Literary Festival will take place April 25-28, 2019.
Esmé Wang: Luminous Writing Through Limitations
Creativity, resilience, and legacy. These are three words at the forefront of Esmé Wang’s mind. Her life story certainly testifies to all three: creativity as a critically-acclaimed author, resilience as a woman living with chronic illness, and legacy as she reaches out to others to encourage them in their own life journeys.
Wang has been showered with awards for her writing, including her 2016 novel The Border of Paradise. 2019 marks the release of her new essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, from Gray Wolf Press.
The title of the collection is no metaphor. In the essays, Wang details the many arduous phases of her journey through mental illness, hospitalization, and her slow journey to a diagnosis. At last, she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
The debilitating effects of severe mental illness might tempt some writers to give up on their dreams and settle for a smaller life. But Wang was not willing to give up her plans. Instead, she learned how to do creative work by finding a process and a lifestyle that is still possible for her.
Writing about a personal journey through mental illness
Esmé Wang’s life and her work are inspirational for all readers, but especially for the countless numbers whose lives are touched by mental illness. To read Wang’s essays will be cathartic for many who have been through similar trials, but remained silent due to the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.
Some of the essays in The Collected Schizophrenias were more difficult to write than others, Wang says. “Writing can be a cathartic experience but can also be retraumatizing. Some of the pieces in The Collected Schizophrenias were therapeutic to write. Others were not.”
She mentions the essay called “Perdition Days” as a therapeutic writing process, because at that time, she was affected by the Cotard delusion (the irrational belief that she was dead). “I sometimes felt very alone then,” Wang explains. “But writing about it, self-portraiture, and photography all helped.”
By contrast, the essay titled “John Doe, Psychosis” was a piece that was much harder to write. “It was retraumatizing as I was working on it,” Wang said. “Often, I had to take breaks, and it would affect me physically and make me ill. As I was working, I consulted friends who wrote memoir, to get their insight on the process. That essay did not feel cathartic, but was more of a chore.”
A piece so difficult and intimate can remain sensitive for an author even after it is finished, Wang said. “Even as the book was approaching release, and a couple of media outlets wanted to publish that essay, I had to talk to my agent because I did not feel good about publishing it online, separately from the print book.”
Readers touched by her work
Hearing about the ambivalence that comes with such personal revelation underscores the courage that it took for Wang to tell her story. The author explained that her readers are often touched, and want to share their own stories with her, and while she feels honored by that impulse, it can also place her in a delicate position.
“I’ve never been schooled as a counselor, never studied as a clinical Ph.D. or anything like that,” Wang said. “But people have told me their stories, whether when I was working in a psych lab, doing clinical intake, or because of what I write about. People share their experiences with me, and it’s a very privileged position, but I don’t always know what to do with the stories. And I don’t necessarily know how to help them in that moment, because I can’t really give a diagnosis or suggest medications.”
But Wang has found a way that she feels she can reach out in a safe and encouraging environment. “What I can do is create resources that have helped me, with some techniques I discovered,” Wang said. “I can share them online through my website.”
A place of solace and encouragement
Wang’s website feels like a haven of calm for visitors. Filled with meditative words, helpful thoughts, and lovely photos, the site shows how the author discovered a path through some of her own trials. One of the techniques she models is how to journal through difficult times.
“Journaling was an incredible resource for me when therapy was not available,” Wang said. “But even when you have access to therapy, it’s only one hour a week, or maybe two. And you still have the rest of that wide-open week to get through. Journaling is much more accessible than therapy.”
Journaling is much more accessible than therapy . . .
Wang brings additional tools to help others from her own experience. “For years, I have been using skills like writing different endings to my own stories or using different language to express my emotions,” Wang said. “I started teaching these skills through live courses that are now evergreen courses, that people can get at any time online. And I’ve been creating resources ever since.”
“I try to make available things that I would want for myself,” Wang said. “These are the resources that I would like to have had three to four years ago, for the Esme of that time.”
Wang is creating a valuable collection of therapeutic tools that can help many writers, no matter what specific limitations may apply. And in this way, she shows her concern for others and emphasizes her vision of how each of us will leave a legacy.
Legacy can be the smile you leave on a cashier’s face . . .
“Whether you think much about legacy or not, you are building your legacy every single day,” Wang said. “Legacy can be the smile you leave on the cashier’s face when you purchase a tube of hand cream; legacy can also be the published book of your collected works.”
Esmé Wang will appear at the 2019 Arkansas Literary Festival.
See her online resources for creative people at her blog, “The Unexpected Shape,” at esmewang.com
Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2019) and the novel, The Border of Paradise (Unnamed Press, 2016). She received a 2018 Whiting Award, was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017, and is the recipient of the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, she lives in San Francisco, and can be found at esmewang.com and on Twitter @esmewang.