Keynote: Mental Health as a Writer
Listen to Phil Stamper below!
Laurie Bayramian: Welcome. You’re listening to a 2020 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Laurie Bayramian from the WriteOnCon team. I’m thrilled to chat today with young adult author Phil Stamper about mental health for writers. Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Phil Stamper.
Phil Stamper: Thanks for having me. This is awesome.
Laurie Bayramian: For those of you who may not know, Phil Stamper works in publishing development for a New York publisher and has a background in public relations. His debut novel is The Gravity of Us, a young adult romance that received a starred review on Booklist and was described as, “a sweet-spirited romance that will capture readers’ hearts and imaginations.”
Phil, can you tell us a little about your de-debut YA and what inspired you to write it?
Phil Stamper: Sure. The Gravity of Us is a—I like to pitch it as a contemporary reimagining of the 60’s space race. Where two sons of astronauts fall in love while their parents are fighting for the same spot on a human mission to Mars. And the inspiration behind it, as you can probably tell even from that pitch – I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of the 60’s space race. I-I’ve read almost every astronaut memoir that’s out there. I’ve [chuckles] watched all the documentaries. Listened to the podcasts. Pretty much if there’s content out there about the Gemini, Apollo and Mercury missions, I’ve-I’ve consumed it in some way.
And I-I really struggled with how to kind of bring that passion into a story, because I’m not a sci-fi author, and I never have really written—I’ve never written sci-fi. I’ve barely written fantasy. I’m very much a contemporary person. And then I realized, that, like, what was exciting about space flight and, you know, that whole era was not necessarily the space flight part of it. But that I actually really connected with what was going on, you know, on the ground.
Where these astronaut wives and their children were kind of uprooted and brought to Texas to live in this random town while their husbands and fathers were brought to the space center to become astronauts. And they didn’t know, honestly, that—if their parent—if their dad was going to come home alive that day, and I felt that there was so much tension in all of that and then coupled with the fact that-the fact that it kind of became this reality show in the 60’s and that there were always media vans there and you were always on TV. Always on camera. And you had to show that you were the perfect wife or the perfect son, all while you were really worried about your family life.
So, I thought if I could kind of contemporize that. Make that a YA contemporary where it’s a fictional mission to Mars. Bring in a more diverse cast of astronauts [chuckles] and write in a queer love story in that-in that tension. And I was-was really happy with how it turned out ‘cause it-it really just became kind of my space nerd dream that I got to build in there.
Laurie Bayramian: That’s fantastic, and it’s-it’s important to pick topics that you’re passionate about and it sounds like you’re really passionate that.
Phil Stamper: Yup, exactly.
Laurie Bayramian: So that’s awesome.
Phil Stamper: Yeah.
Laurie Bayramian: Yeah. So, we’re here today to talk about mental health for writers, and I wanted to ask what drew you to that topic? Why are you passionate about that topic?
Phil Stamper: Yeah, I—it’s something that’s—that I’ve really been learning over the last few years and it’s something that I’ve, you know, I’ve struggled with. I’ve had my good days and my bad, but it’s—I’ve really feel like it’s something that’s changed every year of this journey. And I’ve been writing since I think 2012, which, you know, in the grand scheme of things isn’t a super long time, but the whole process of-of querying—of writing even. Of going on submission to editors, and-and then having the looming book debut in a couple months.
All of that is really—it was really hard for me to handle, I think. And, you know, so I struggle with anxiety and ADD and I-I-I was just like—it-it—with the anxiety it’s-it’s really hard to wait. And that’s always been hard for me-I think it’s hard for everyone, but there was a while where I realized that, like, this is something that is affecting me – a lot. Every day I am kind of dreading these responses from agents, or later these responses from editors and I really need to figure out, kind of, how I can get in control of these emotions now because it’s—I know it’s only going to get worse in this process when, you know, reviews come out and God forbid someone says something negative about your book and you’re worrying about all of that.
So, I started seeing a therapist a few years ago, kind of while I was on submission, I think. And just started taking steps to figure out my own mental health experience and I just feel like we don’t always talk about it as much as we should. There has been discussion about it on Twitter – and I-I love when there is, and I don’t think everyone should be upfront with their-their experiences with mental health if they’re not comfortable with it, of course. But I think those of us who are happy to talk about it, I think it-it will be really helpful for people who think they’re kind of alone, and struggling, like I did for-for many years of this process.
Laurie Bayramian: Yeah. So, what was your first clue that you needed help? Like…
Phil Stamper: [takes a big breath] Uhm,I-I—so I always—I mean I’ve gone back and forth with it, really since-since college, of whether it’s—whether my anxiety is something that’s actually holding me back, affecting my life, something I need to actually, like, pursue therapy, or medication or help in any way for—and I think it was while I was on submission that I realized that, like, I was-was balancing a full-time job, kind of checking my email constantly because you never know when you’re going to get a rejection, or you know, a request, or something exciting.
So, I just realized that it was taking up so much of my life, just worrying about what could happen, or what would be happening that day, and it’s just not something that I knew I could keep up. Like, I-I-I had three books on submission. It took me two years to get a book deal on submission between two different agents and three books. So, I-I spent a lot of time – and there are plenty of people who’ve spent more time, so I’m not going to pretend mine’s the worst experience ever, but it did feel like the worst experience ever. And I just knew it wasn’t sustainable. So, I-I knew that you know maybe I could go another few months and I’d be okay, but I was really starting to feel like I-I wasn’t being productive in my full-time job and in my writing career.
Like I said, it was very hard for me to write when you’re worried about getting that email or that call. And then worrying later that that call will never come. So, I-I’m glad I took steps to actually figure out what was best for me before I even got that call because it does—as I-as I assumed, it doesn’t get easier after you get off submission. ‘Cause eventually you’ll be through that process again and you have a whole new hur—set of hurdles to jump.
Laurie Bayramian: Right, yeah. That’s-that’s true and that’s good that you recognized that you needed to do something to keep yourself going.
Phil Stamper: Yeah, and I think you-you deal with something for so long it doesn’t feel like—it feels like it always has, which is maybe not great, but you’ve—you’re like, “Well, I’ve gotten through it so far, like, you know, who knows, maybe it’s right around the corner.” And then, like I was finally in a more stable ex—kind of a more stable environment. Like, I had-I had moved to New York, I was settled here a couple years, and I-and I realized that like, okay, a lot of pieces of my life are like falling into place, or settling and I need to be okay with the fact that maybe this book part is not going to happen soon, or ever, and I can’t ruin my life for that.
So, yeah, I mean it’s-it’s—I’m glad that I did it when I did because it’s also a very hard process to figure out what works for you, and [inaudible] the intersection between therapy and going to a psychiatrist, and dealing with insurance. It’s-it’s, so it’s not an easy process so I’m glad I started it when I did because I finally feel like I’m in a place where-where things are not perfect of course, but I at least feel like I’m in the right direction.
Laurie Bayramian: And nothing is ever going to be perfect, right?
Phil Stamper: Exactly.
Phil Stamper: And accepting that is part of it.
Laurie Bayramian: Exactly, yeah. So, you touched a little bit about some of the things that you were anxious about, and I think this is true of a lot of us. We’re anxious about submitting. We’re anxious about getting feedback. We’re anxious about “the call”. What are some ways of kind of dealing with that, you think that would help someone who’s anxious about those things?
Phil Stamper: Really, I think that the-the most important thing, or the, like, the most successful thing that I’ve done is-is setting kind of clear boundaries for yourself and-and I’m not great at that, but it’s something that when I do it right, it does – it does work very well. And so, what I mean by that is, you know, maybe you don’t check your email constantly. Maybe you take it off your phone if that’s a really big distractor. Let’s say you’re querying. Nobody’s gonna—like, it’s-it’s a slow process. Nobody is going to be like, “Oh, they didn’t get back to me in three hours, I—they’re off the list.” Like, if an agent is interested in your work, they’re gonna—they can wait until you’re at a time when you can send them your manuscript.
So, if you are struggling through the workday of like, can—you can’t concentrate on you know, your daily tasks. You are really hoping for that call for an—from an agent, just kind of set the boundaries for yourself. Of okay, when I go to work, or when I go work out in the morning, or whatever it might be. That three hours I’m not checking email. Take it off my phone. Whatever I need to do. Blocking it. Using a browser. And just see how that feels. And maybe you can’t do it. Maybe it’s, like, maybe it’s worse not knowing than it is, you know, you-you won’t know until you try it, I guess.
And another way I, you know I-I—to set boundaries on social media as well, because it really does… It can kind of be a time suck, so, like, if you’re-if you’re struggling with writing because you’re so fixated on [loud noise] what’s going on in social media. You know, what’s the newest thing that’s happening on Twitter, or you know, maybe you need to participate in a group chat constantly, or something like that. Those are all things, that like, feel like they should be fun things and often they are, but also, they can be really big stressors. Especially group chats or anything where you’re going to be comparing yourself to other people, or you’re going to need to help others along, while you’re trying to help yourself.
And there’s nothing wrong with those experiences and, like, obviously there are plenty of good things that come from those, but also you just kind of need to protect yourself. And so, I think refocusing on yourself and-and kind of reducing distractions is at least a good place to start.
Laurie Bayramian: Uhm-hmmm. Yeah, I agree. I think in some ways it’s more complicated because we have the access to Facebook and Twitter and all these other platforms, and I wonder if writers feel pressure to belong to everything, and do everything, and maybe overstretch a little bit. Do you feel that’s true, too?
Phil Stamper: Oh, absolutely. And so, in my, in my day job even, I work with authors and one of the things I advise the most is not to be on every platform. To do what works for you. And I have not followed that advice before. So, I know-I know—I get the urge, I really do. But you-you can try everything. By all means, like, start that Tumblr. See what—see if it’s working for you, or whatever it might be, but you’ve got to cut it off at some point.
Because I-I don’t think anyone would expect you to be writing 24-7, but if you kind of take up all that time with – you have to post on TikTok, and you have to have a Tumblr page, and you have to update your website. And you have two newsletters coming out. And you are doing critiques for a pitch competition. And you’re doing all these other things. You have to, like, you have to cut it off at some point because you’re just kind of hurting yourself in the long run, because I get that you want to do everything. [rustling noise] I also want to do everything. Believe me. But it’s not always feasible. And it’s also not—often it’s not productive.
You know, I could have spent the last seven years on Pinterest, but I wouldn’t have gained [chuckles] a following because I’m not good at it. I didn’t like it. So, like, and then maybe it’s huge for you and you love it so, like, do that. But I don’t think you should feel pressured to be on everything. I-I think in the YA space it’s really important to be on Twitter and it’s good to be on Instagram. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a super active participant even if you do have these. It doesn’t mean you have to tweet every day or post on Instagram.
[siren growing louder in the background]
Use all the right hashtags. Really, like wear yourself out with this. So, I would, I would say do what comes naturally to you and then push yourself of course, but don’t spread yourself too thin.
Laurie Bayramian: Right. I agree. Sounds like you have an emergency in the background there.
Phil Stamper: Yeah, well, I live in New York so there’s always-always [Laurie Bayramian laughs] an emergency somewhere, so…
Laurie Bayramian: Okay, so you talked about anxiety. I know there’s other forms [rustling noise] of mental health besides anxiety that people are struggling with. And everybody has—let’s talk about triggers. You know, not everybody is anxious, or you know, stressed about, you know, every aspect of the publishing industry. I guess, maybe specifically, what is—what’s a trigger for you, you know, and how did you recognize that?
Phil Stamper: Hmmm, I-I think that’s – I feel like that’s changed a lot throughout the process because I think there are certain triggers that I think affect mostly everyone, which are rejections. [laughs] Obviously, getting rejection is gonna, like that would ruin my entire day. That would make me very stressed out and worried that—you know worried about my future. Worried about the book I was working on. You know, there are a hundred things that happen after you get a rejection and none of them are good. So, I think that’s something that you kind of have to—you definitely have to work through and you have to understand it, but that’s also where those boundaries come in because if you decide, “Okay, I’m checking my mail at 4 PM. There might be some rejections, but I’m going to you know, build up my—steel my defenses and we’re just gonna do it.” Versus you’re in the middle of a meeting at 1 PM and then you check your phone and it’s like, “Oh, here’s a rejection, now my day is ruined. I wasn’t ready for that.” So that’s—I mean obviously that was a huge trigger through the whole process especially on submissions when it feels like you’re like, just right there. Which you are technically, but [chuckles] you could be right there for a very long time.
And now I think my triggers are more based on pro—I mean, probably social media is the biggest one. And it’s not even [big sigh] it-it could just be everyday things. Like, I mean there’s a lot of negativity on social media. And I think there-that makes sense as there’s a lot of bad things happening in the world and it’s really hard for me to, I think, go-go on my merry way while you know, you pass a hundred tweets where, you know, things are-bad things are happening and things are always in the news and like, there’s always something that’s making you question, like what you’re doing and why you feel like you have to self-promote during the latest disaster that’s happened.
And I think that one thing I’ve learned is, like, to understand how my—how those kind of triggers affect me and kind of where I’m at at a certain point. And-and by that, I mean I check in with myself more often which is kind of the only thing you can do to make sure you’re not being, kind of pushed too far. And like one technique my therapist has been helping me with is, you know, there are times when I’m on social media and I’ve been so, kind of upset and angry and kind of done with the world that I like decide to log off, change my password, hide it in a folder and then I go away for a week. And you know, it’s not the – I mean if that makes you happy, do it because it’s super helpful when you take hiatuses. But I’ve always found that hiatuses don’t really help me very much in the long run. It just kind of – it helps me recharge so that when I do get back I do feel better, but then I start kind of shaming myself once I got back of like, “Oh, you’ve made it a week without Twitter, why are you back on here again? Like-like, what’s the point? It’s only going to make you upset again.”
So, I think what I’ve been doing is checking in with myself of, “Okay, let’s say that last experience was a ten. I’m feeling about a six right now.” That—I should probably step away, and that’s when the boundaries come in. Where it’s like, “Okay, I’ve hit a six again. I can tell I’m getting irritated.” Or you know in those petty moments where one of your friends announces news and you’re-you can’t be happy for them because you’re feeling so jealous or you’re feeling irritated and it’s like—you feel—and then you shame yourself for feeling that way, ‘cause even if it is a normal emotion, jealousy does feel crappy, especially when you are genuinely happy for them.
So, like, when I see myself doing those things, then I know, you know, I need to—I need to—you know, I have a website blocker where I can turn on and, like, it turns off Goodreads and Twitter and, you know, whatever it is. And I can step away. And I can step away for a few hours or I can step away for the rest of the evening, and-and really not miss much. Like, you’re not going to miss mu—I mean you may miss eighteen news cycles, but, like, you’re not going to miss much as far-as far your career goes if you’re away for a few hours. So, if I block it for a few hours, or maybe I’ll just block it for the day. Come back the next day, feel a little bit more recharged, it’s easier to bounce back from a six than it is a ten. In my experience at least.
Laurie Bayramian: Uhm-hmm.
Phil Stamper: And also speaking to triggers, ‘cause I mentioned Goodreads. That’s also a huge one for authors once you get to the point of having your book out there in the world. So, I would always suggest blocking that when you can. I mean – I-I-I check my reviews. I-but I make sure I’m in the right place for it, and I don’t check every one if I don’t feel like I need to. But I do think there’s a lot of good that comes from discussion and seeing how your book’s being taken. So I don’t—while I don’t want to comment on reviews or you really, like, cross boundaries, I do want to know what’s going on out there, and I just need to kind of do it under terms that don’t affect me.
Laurie Bayramian: So, you’re coming from a place of someone who’s going to be published soon, and—but you’re also in the other position of, you know, stressing out, you know, just trying to get someone to publish your book so it seems like you’re kind of going through different—experiencing different stresses as you’ve moved along in your publishing journey.
Phil Stamper: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it felt very, I mean, like, I just remembering querying being the end all, be all. Like that was just—consumed my life for so long. ‘Cause I was a good queryier, and I really put myself into it, but then it was after querying you do feel. I mean, like, one of the—actually one of the things that has helped me is to make sure I celebrate every milestone because as you do go along, those milestones are kind of the only things that like keep you together because otherwise it’s just a lot of waiting. And a lot of stress. So, like, if you can take a break to be, like, “Wow! This is great. I just got my first full request.” Like, that is super valid and, like, enjoy that. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t, but like, you’ve at least hit a milestone. It’s something you can, like, step back and enjoy before you have to go [chuckles] get upset again.
Laurie Bayramian: Right, I agree. Celebrate, like you said, milestones. That’s an excellent way of being grateful and—
Phil Stamper: Puts it into perspective, I think. Because there’s so much negativity in this process that it can really consume you and drown you. And you don’t need to do that. Like, there—you need to celebrate. Because not many people get as far as you already have. Even just writing a book. Or even writing a few chapters [laughs], like –
Laurie Bayramian: Absolutely.
Phil Stamper: Most people don’t get there.
Laurie Bayramian: Yes.
Phil Stamper: So, celebrate that.
Laurie Bayramian: Huge accomplishments. And what about-what about exercise, or yoga, or any sort of physical ways of calming yourselves.
Phil Stamper: Yeah, so [chuckles]. I don’t work out as much as I should, but I do, I did find—and so I row. I do a lot of row workouts with a class, ‘cause that’s just something that I kind of enjoy. It’s something that I can work out a lot of different muscle groups and I feel proud after I’m done with the class. [background noise] I like doing that and that also—that also gets a lot of, like, that anxious energy out, so, like, I would definitely suggest doing whatever you enjoy doing. Again, don’t force yourself to do things you don’t like ‘cause then it’s just going to make you more angry and not at all happy.
As far as meditation and yoga, I-I don’t do yoga, but I know that a lot of people that—they love it. Like, it’s the only way they get through the day is by [laughs] starting with yoga and mindfulness and meditation. I usually focus on the mindfulness bit, and that’s because it’s according to my psychiatrist and my therapist, it’s, like, a very big part of having ADD is having that—it practicing mindfulness so that you can really be in the moment and present. And I think that I do experience a lot of [background noise], you know I have so many negative experiences with-with querying and with submissions, that it’s, like, I kind of wanted to dissociate and get to the next day and then get to—just, like, basically fast forward and just, like, not pay attention. But there is a lot of—and that, like, that’s where the celebration actually kind of comes in as well.
It’s, like, there’s a lot of positivity of calm-calming yourself. Being in the moment. Getting through whatever negative thing just happened, but also celebrating all the positive things that happened, ‘cause you can’t really just kind of blow through everything ‘cause then you’ll be—you won’t—like, there’s no point in trying on something if you’re not going to be happy about it in the end.
Laurie Bayramian: Uhm-hmm, uhm-hmm. So, is there something – a conversation that you’d like to see in publishing regarding mental health?
Phil Stamper: Uhmmm. I mean, yes and no. So, I like that the conversation is happening, and I think that a lot of the best conversations are happening within-within the books themselves, which I really like. And I-I think that, you know, there’s such a huge trend in adult non-fiction publishing for self-care and mindfulness and all these other techniques that are really helpful in a time like this, especially as an author. So, I-I like that we are putting that information out there. I
think that sometimes it’s hard to practice what you preach because we are like, you know, my entire publishing team – my agent, everyone that I—you know, my critique partners, whatever it might be, like we all have stuff going on. We all have our own lives to kind of deal with, that it-it is-it is always hard not to drop the ball, and I think that you-you can be very – I think it kind of works both ways where you have to be cognizant that there are also humans on the other end of this that are going through the same things you are, so you want them to be respectful of you know, your experience with mental health, but then you also have to be—that you have to return the favor in some ways, where you have to be understanding about deadlines passing, or you know, miscommunications, that kind of stuff. Because it’s just as hard on both sides of it.
So, I-I think we’re starting to be a little bit more open regarding mental health, which is great. I think we could be more open with a-a lot of our experiences, but I mean conversations like this really help, and I think you know there are plenty of great blog posts I turn to in times of need and will continue.
Laurie Bayramian: So, you have – you have a favorite resource that you-that you’ve used sometimes?
Phil Stamper: There is one—there’s one I’ve gone back to—I forget the name of it. So, I don’t know if I’ll be able to find it this quickly.
Laurie Bayramian: That’s okay.
Phil Stamper: There are – I mean just to say generally, publishing blogs when you search for any of – any, sorry – you search for any help about querying or dealing with the submissions process — I remember who it was. I’ll get back to that — but there are going to be a ton of resources out there because we’re all dealing with the same stuff. And so that is actually great that the conversation is happening, but the one thing that I constantly go back to ‘cause it applies throughout the entire process is this blog post called [horn beeps in background] You Are Not Desperate.
So, let me see if I can pull it up just to find the name. But essentially it becomes a mantra that you – that you repeat to yourself. That you are not desperate to sign with the wrong agent just because they’re the only ones who are interested. You’re not desperate to sell the book to the publisher that isn’t a good fit for you. And you, like, that’s just something I’ve kind of repeated on and on, where it feels like you are desperate in the time and I-I—again two years querying, two years on submission, I have been—I have felt desperate many, many times. And I’ve always tried to keep my long-term goals intact, which they are, and-and it’s worked out for me, though I know it could’ve very easily not in many ways. But I think-I think—search for that You are Not Desperate. Sorry I can’t find who wrote it, but I will tweet about it later.
But I think that’s just one of the, like – one of the best ways to put your experience into perspective. Because it is your career. It’s your life. And it’s something that you are—especially if you’re experiencing mental illness, you are potentially struggling with, so you don’t want to let that take over. So, just remember you’re not desperate.
Laurie Bayramian: That’s right. You’re not desperate and you’re not alone. There are many other people who are going through the same thing you are. And I also wanted to mention that I saw on your website that World Mental Health Day is October 10th.
Phil Stamper: Yes.
Laurie Bayramian: Is that right?
Phil Stamper: Yes. I was in conversation with Maulik Pancholy, from Thirty Rock. He had a middle grade novel come out. And his is also a queer novel with—that touches on mental illness. His is more OCD, and mine was anxiety, but we got to talk about how we put it into our books, which was great.
Laurie Bayramian: Uhm, hmm. Yeah. That’s fantastic. And I want to thank you so much for joining me with this talk. Unfortunately, we are out of time, but where can listeners find you online?
Phil Stamper: PhilStamper.com is my website. It has all my information on there and it—you can find me on Twitter. Phil Stamper. Just search. It’s a different @, but that’s my name and I’m the one who’s not a pro wrestler, so if you take him out, then I’m-I’m the only other Phil Stamper that’s there, so…
Laurie Bayramian: Okay, so you don’t wrestle—
Phil Stamper: I don’t.
Laurie Bayramian: But you do write.
Phil Stamper: I don’t, but he-he—the other Phil Stamper is cool, too. So, you might as well follow all of them that show up.
Laurie Bayramian: Okay, that’s awesome. Well thank you again Phil Stamper, this has been wonderful.
Phil Stamper: Thank you.
Laurie Bayramian: And I’ve learned a lot of neat things from you and I’m sure our listeners have, too. And I want to thank all of our listeners. Thank you for showing up to the WriteOnCon2020. And if you’d like to take part in the discussion, we’d love for you to do so in the comments of this podcast page. Please enjoy the rest of the conference and happy writing.
Phil Stamper grew up in a rural village near Dayton, Ohio. He has a B.A. in Music and an M.A. in Publishing with Creative Writing. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of student debt. He works for a major book publisher in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their dog. THE GRAVITY OF US is his first novel, but he’s no stranger to writing. His self-insert Legend of Zelda fanfiction came with a disclaimer from the 14-year old author: “Please if you write a review don’t criticize my work.” He has since become more open to critique… sort of.