Author David Blistein, left, with his longtime friend, filmmaker Ken Burns, who wrote the introduction to David’s Inferno.
Next Stage Arts is at 15 Kimball Hill in Putney and www.nextstagearts.org.
Originally published in The Commons issue #193 (Wednesday, March 6, 2013).
DUMMERSTON—Facing depression doesn’t have to be depressing.
That’s what David Blistein reports in his newly published book, David’s Inferno: My Journey Through the Dark Wood of Depression (Hatherleigh Press). With wit and sensitivity, he describes his nervous breakdown and his two-year struggle with major depression.
The book’s foreword is by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Blistein will read from and discuss his book on Friday, March 22, from 7:30 to 9 p.m, at Next Stage Arts Project in Putney.
The reading is followed by refreshments and a book signing, and is part of Next Stage’s Community Artists Performance Series. A suggested donation of $10 is welcomed, with proceeds benefitting Next Stage Arts.
In David’s Inferno, Blistein (www.davidblistein.com) has written a literary memoir that he believes offers important insights for those suffering with depression and those who care about them.
But the book is much more than a memoir: It’s also an engrossing, deeply researched, and compelling account of how major depression manifests, is diagnosed, and is treated.
Despite the subject matter, or perhaps because of it, Blistein wants to point out that David’s Inferno is a very funny book. He contends that gentleness and wry humor have helped him show that “there is a way through the minefield, and real light at the end of the tunnel.”
Blistein writes on his website about all his works, but it is especially resonant for the book that “my mission is to give voice to new ways of looking at history, psychology, spirituality, and nature. I try to offer relatively profound new ideas in a disarmingly lighthearted way. I have no intention of challenging anyone’s existing beliefs. Rather, I’m interested in questioning traditional assumptions in order to reveal refreshingly different perspectives.”
Although Blistein published later in life than some, he says he had always wanted to be a writer. When he attended Amherst College, he spent most of his final two years writing fiction “and drinking whiskey” under the tutelage of celebrated novelist Robert Stone, he says.
After college, he worked four years as a publisher’s representative for Avon Books. In the early 1980s, he began a career as a freelance copywriter, and eventually owned a regional advertising agency. In 2001, approaching 50, he sold the agency so that he could find the time to focus on his own writing.
In addition to David’s Inferno, Blistein is, with longtime friend and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, co-author of Waking the Dead in Real Time (2011).
That book features several of Blistein’s ”interviews” with historical characters as they appear to him in his everyday life, and reflects on their pasts and how they see the world today.
He said he finds himself brimming with plans for additional literary projects.
Initially, Blistein had no intention of writing a book about depression, which is an illness he knows all too intimately.
“Since I have ‘come out’ as having this disease, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who tell me that they — or someone very close — also suffer from depression,” he said.
However, in 2009, partly as therapy and partly just to make sense of a traumatic event that he had gone through, Blistein began blogging about living with major depression.
“Blogs have very few readers,” he said, “and this one had 25 followers, maybe 50 at the most.”
Nonetheless, Jeff Potter, editor of The Commons and architect of its award-winning Voices section, came across Blistein’s blog while searching for interesting local material to feature. Potter asked Blistein if the paper might publish material from the blog.
Blistein hesitated. “I didn’t want to became a poster boy for depression,” he says.
He suggested that The Commons run the piece but leave out his name. Potter suggested that the whole point of demystifying mental illness was to resist anonymity. Blistein and his wife, Wendy O’Connell, discussed it, and the feature, with byline, was published in 2011.
When the article hit print, many readers were struck by Blistein’s insightful analysis. One was literary agent and publicist Dede Cummings, who believed Blistein had a book in his hands.
Cummings asked Blistein to gather material from his blog so she could take a manuscript to Hatherleigh Press, which focuses on healthy living and is distributed by Random House. Editors there were pleased with what they saw and offered Blistein a contract.
Blistein had one year to get the book in shape. But blog writings are not a book, and he poured himself into the task. It was more work than he expected, he said.
The result, David’s Inferno: My Journey Through the Dark Wood of Depression, is composed of memoir, research, reflection, and framing chapters that speak to Dante’s Inferno, the first section of the 14th century Italian poet’s “Divine Comedy.”
“The opening lines of Inferno are the most famous lines in all literature about depression: ‘In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost,’” he explains.
But to tell the full story of his depression, which includes how he slowly recovered from the illness, he also found inspiration in the other two sections of “Divine Comedy,” Purgatorio and Paradiso.
“My complete story is a journey from Hell to Heaven,” he said.
With its reflections on Dante’s own journey through the Dark Wood, David’s Inferno explores depression’s ability to transform our relationships, our creativity, and our very selves.
As Burns wrote in the book’s foreword, Blistein “has given us all a map and some basic instructions for doing the hard work we may need to summon when the inevitable vicissitudes of life threaten even the most controlled and controlling among us.”
On his website, Blistein explains that he grew up and learned to write in Providence, R.I.
“My father was a professor of English and my mother was a trustee emerita at Brown University. Our home was a place where words mattered and comedy was king. If you couldn’t say something well, you probably shouldn’t say it at all,” he writes.
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