Mental illness can be a hindrance to living a comfortable and productive life, but there are some illnesses that can also spark creativity at the same time. Artists from Kurt Cobain to Vincent van Gogh were subject to manic episodes that led to periods of intense artistic creation.
Former journalist and Milwaukee public relations executive Bill Zaferos has dealt with similar issues. While his mental health is in a better place now, his formerly untreated bipolar disorder contributed to the creation of his first novel, Poison Pen, which comes out next week.
The story follows a game show host on a journey to find deeper meaning for his life and is narrated by an unnamed poison-pen-letter writer, who constantly critiques the host. Zaferos crafted the absurdist narrative over the course of a quick three months and says the narrator is partly a voice for his own personal commentary on society.
“At the time, I was undiagnosed and unmedicated for bipolar disorder, and ideas would click into my head. Sometimes I pursued them … [This book] just flowed for some reason,” Zaferos explains. "I became a man on a mission."
Nearly 16 years later and after sharing the book with friends and family members, Zaferos worked to get Poison Pen published. He recalls how surprising it was to read the book years after he went on medication for his bipolar disorder:
“As I read the book during editing, I would ask myself, ‘Where did you come up with this?’ In some cases I had no remembrance of coming up with this or that plot twist … It was kind of the product of a manic high,” says Zaferos.
It had always been a life goal of his to write a book, and looking back he's pretty impressed with what he came up with while experiencing what he calls, "the highs and lows bipolars are famous for."
"In some ways, I think channeling mental illness into creativity helped me do this," he notes.
There will be a book launch Wednesday, May 15, at the Marcus Center that will double as a fundraiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Milwaukee.