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Monday, November 5, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Nicole & Co.
Ellen Forney: 'Just let the tears run down your face'

By Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times staff columnist

You don't really talk with Ellen Forney so much as listen. And you should; she has learned some hard lessons about life, love, family, art and living with mental illness.

Forney, 44, an accomplished graphic artist, has just published a graphic novel called "Marbles," about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder a decade ago.

She will discuss the book at Seattle Public Library's Central Library at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10.

"For a long time, I didn't talk about it, which was about feeling vulnerable," she said the other day.

But once she started writing the book and telling people what it was about, that vulnerability fell away.

"Just the fact that I am putting this book out there would get people opening up to me," Forney said. "It would very quickly not become a discussion about the book, but about their brother or how they have bipolar [disorder] and what meds are you on and do you miss your mania?

"I think we all know at this point that there is a lot more mental illness than we talk about," she said. "I am learning how prevalent it is and how many people hold these stories inside. There aren't a lot of venues, chances to talk about it."

In that sense, "Marbles" is a breath of fresh air; a very uncomfortable journey through a very confusing time, but presented in a comfortable and easy-to-read medium — the graphic novel.

Forney — best known for her distinct and wry comics in The Stranger, her work for Fantagraphics Books and a teaching gig at Cornish College of the Arts — didn't know any other way.

"The way I process things, they way I express myself, is in comics, just as poets process things that they are trying to understand," she said. "I worked harder on this than anything I've worked on in my life."

For years, Forney has suffered manic episodes of intense creativity and boundless energy, launching into projects and social situations without hesitation. She threw big parties, kissed strangers, took on projects and fitness goals, which were all followed by long periods of depression, sleep and darkness.

Forney saw a therapist, was diagnosed, did exhaustive research and worried that if she stabilized herself with medication, she might lose her creative edge.

That dilemma is the core of "Marbles," which Forney didn't want to be all about her. So she noted that her manic behavior and depression was shared by other creative types. Artists like Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo. Writers like Charles Baudelaire, Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).

Some of them were hospitalized. Some attempted suicide, and some committed it.

Forney didn't want to reach that point.

She started taking a series of mood stabilizers, and then settled on lithium, which moderated her moods — and helped her get her creative work done. That's when she decided to write "Marbles."

She first settled in at Seattle's Richard Hugo House, a writing nonprofit that felt like a safe place to pull her thoughts together and start working on a proposal. That process took two years.

"I didn't realize how much was going to come up," she said, comparing it to pulling out a splinter. You have to endure pain in order to heal.

"I sat at Remedy Teas a lot of time, just brainstorming. It sounds melodramatic, but I would just cry and cry and cry."

Even that has a bright spot, though. Forney is considering a one-page graphic comic on "How to Cry in Public." ("Just let the tears run down your face. Don't wipe your eyes, don't slouch down, just sit there like normal and let the tears run down your face while you're walking down the street, or in yoga class. That's it! That's how to cry in public.")

The early response has been good, which is a comfort to her as she prepares to promote the book.

She lives on Capitol Hill with artist and software programmer Jacob Fennell, who helped her through the creation of "Marbles."

"I don't know what the process would have been like without him," she said. "Editing and technical things. Just making sure that I ate hot food. I relied on him a lot and he really stepped up. I love him dearly."

In the end, she said, "I was satisfied that it said what I wanted it to say." That you can be medicated (and do yoga, and journal, and exercise, and do breathing exercises) and still tap into your creativity.

Not to be a spoiler, but the book ends with a simple panel of Forney looking in the mirror and the words "I'm OK!"

Forney remembers writing that, and thinking: Could that be it?

"I wanted to end it that way, but it seemed like such a soft landing," she said. "But I realized from the very start, when I felt so thrown around, that that's what I wanted.

"I just wanted to be OK."

Nicole & Co. appears Sundays in NW Arts & Life. Reach her at 206-464-2334; nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @nicolebrodeur. Subscribe on Facebook: facebook.com/STNicoleBrodeur

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