Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land

This is the hardest blog I’ve ever attempted to write.

For the better part of eight months, I have been struggling under the thumb of a rather intense depression. This is a monster I’ve battled many times in my life; it is not new. Yet, this has been a particularly brutal one, and I’m not out of the woods yet.

As a writer, I try to write about everything. But it’s hard to write about depression. For one, there’s the fear that the minute you say, “I’m suffering from depression,” people will look at you funny. That they will nod at you with wincing, constipated face, place a hand on your arm and say, with all good intent, “How are you?” And your pain will war with your desire to be “normal” and not looked at funny by sympathetic people at parties. So you will answer, “Fine, thanks” while you’ll think of all the things you could say: “Partly cloudy with a strong chance of rain later?” “Mostly okay except for that silent sobbing I did on the F train this afternoon which frightened the school children.” “Well, I’m okay now but around 10 PM I could be drinking from a seemingly bottomless cup of self-loathing, so stick around if you’re into that sort of thing.” You do not want to be labeled “That Depressed Person,” which was not a show on ABC. 

Depression is hard to understand, because it is not a consistent state. Depression is rather like a virus, but like a virus, it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups. You can be in a depression and still laugh at a friend’s joke or have a good night at dinner or manage low-level functioning. You grocery shop and stop to pet a puppy on the corner, talk to friends in a café, maybe write something you don’t hate. When this happens, you might examine your day for clues like reading tea leaves in a cup: Was it the egg for breakfast that made the difference? The three-mile run? You think, well, maybe this thing has moved on now. And you make no sudden moves for fear of attracting its abusive attention again. 

But other times…

 Other times, it’s as if a hole is opening inside you, wider and wider, pressing against your lungs, pushing your internal organs into unnatural places, and you cannot draw a true breath. You are breaking inside, slowly, and everything that keeps you tethered to your life, all of your normal responses, is being sucked through the hole like an airlock emptying into space. These are the times Holly Golightly called the Mean Reds.

I call it White Knuckling it.

When it’s White Knuckle Time, you will have to remind yourself to stand in the middle of the subway platform, well away from the edge.

You may find yourself on the floor of your shower, your face turned toward the wall while the water courses over your shoulders, your mouth opened in a howl that will not come.

You may find yourself on the treadmill at 5:30 a.m. running, running, running, as if you could outpace the emotional mugger at your back.

You might sit at a dinner party making small talk, hoping that you pass for normal, because you suddenly feel as if you are not in touch with the usual social paradigms.

You will not sleep. Insomnia becomes your permanent house guest, and you will wake, blinking up at the weak moonlight splayed across your ceiling like a crime scene, the very stillness of the house seemingly complicit in your guilt.

Ordinary tasks become extraordinary challenges: The laundry. Phone calls. Emails. Making food. Making decisions. Engaging in conversation. Concentration proves impossible—you stare at your computer screen and all your words feel as if they are trapped behind a curtain far too heavy to lift. Deadlines are missed. These everyday failures compound adding an element of panic to the already untenable situation.

 There is an undertow to depression. It doesn’t take you all at once. It leaves you with some false sense that you are coping. That you are in control. That you have the shore still well in sight, until, at some point, you raise your head to find yourself all alone, battered by rough seas with absolutely no idea which way you should swim.

If depression were as physically evident as, say, a broken limb or cancer, it would be easier to talk about. The pain could be marked, quantified, obvious to the observer. You would feel justified in saying, “I’m sorry that I haven’t returned your email but you can see the huge hole in the center of me, and I’m afraid it has made such dialogue impossible.” But the stigma of depression is that it comes with the sense that you shouldn’t have it to begin with. That it is self-indulgence or emotional incompetence rather than actual illness. This brings on attendant feelings of shame and self-loathing, which only exacerbate the pain, isolation, and hopelessness of the condition. “I cannot share this,” the depressed person thinks. “It is too embarrassing, too shameful.” And so, you swallow it down, until it feels that your heart is a trapped bird beating frantic wings against the pain you’ve shoved up against it.  Depression isn’t like being sad or blue or wistful. It is crippling. It is a constant whine in your head, making it hard to hear yourself think.

The other trouble is that it is often incredibly difficult to articulate the pain you feel. Words prove inadequate, and the distance they must travel from this deep well of grief and loneliness up to your mouth seems impossible to traverse. It is miles and miles of no-man’s land. How can you communicate something so without form? Depression is a vengeful ghost you see from the corner of your eye always but you know that no one else can see it. So how do you alert anyone to its presence in the room?

Sometimes, people can’t take it anymore. Whenever a suicide happens, whenever I hear of these losses—Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray, Ned Vizzini—a certain terror takes hold. They didn’t beat it, I think; they didn’t win. Perhaps it is unbeatable, after all. Resistance is futile.

 I have heard people speak of the selfishness of suicide: “How could s/he leave behind a spouse or, worse, children?” It’s hard to imagine someone committing such a terrible act, one that permanently damages those left behind. I have heard well-meaning therapists explain that this is an act of rage turned inward. I’ve spent many years in psychoanalysis. I get it. And certainly, the fact that I have a child keeps me fighting during the bad times.

But I don’t think it’s all that simple.

To these cries, to these explanations, I can only say that you cannot know unless you’ve been there. Believe me, these people do not want to die. They only want the pain to end. The pain is all-consuming. It is a pit-bull whose jaws will not let you go, and the more you struggle against it, the tighter the bite gets, the greater the pain becomes. 

Imagine that you sit, shivering and blue, in a tub of freezing water. If you were not depressed, you’d get out of the tub. But now imagine that you cannot get yourself out of the tub. Your body is weighted to the bottom with invisible stones. The sides of the tub are too high—you can’t imagine that on the other side of the tub is a floor that leads to a warm towel and an exit. You can only see the walls of the tub, closing you in. You can only feel the relentless, needle-prick torment of the icy water. You can only watch, helpless, as your fingers prune and bruise with cold, a strange mix of acute pain and numbness. And you are aware of isolation so complete that it feels as if you are an astronaut whose line has come untethered in space.  As if you have swallowed loneliness and are drowning in it, unable to cough it up and breathe again.

In this state, you can only think of how desperately you want this agony to end. You can only think of doing something, anything to stop the feeling, to keep it from overwhelming you with shame, loneliness, guilt, and bleak-gray hopelessness. This is what it is to experience depression. It is the absence of hope.

I do not want to romanticize depression. The flip side of the stigma accompanying depression is a tendency to turn it into The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect, to borrow from Todd Rundgren. There is an idea that “artists” are such special snowflakes that the very air they breath injures them. This is bullshit. Again, depression is an illness, not a fashion statement. Certainly, there appears to be a large correlation between artists and depression. But I would argue that artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it.  I see writing as an act of resistance against an occupying enemy who means to kill me. It’s why I’m writing this now. Silence = Death, as ACT UP used to say. 

This is why there is such comfort in books and movies and music and art. Why it often saves. I have taken comfort from depressed characters like Holden Caulfield, Esther Greenwood, Jimmy from “Quadrophenia,” Harold from “Harold and Maude,” Franny Glass, and too many others to name. I have found my emotional DNA in theirs and continue to draw solace from knowing that I am not alone in these murky, hard-to-articulate feelings.

We are not alone. That’s key. 

Time and again, I am humbled by the beautiful vulnerability and resilience of human beings trying to stay on the bendable side of that all-too-human fragility. Everyone, it seems, fights a personal battle every day, one that, hopefully, leads to a greater well of compassion, empathy, and enlightenment. Once, I thought this path was about an idea I had of “self-actualization.” I imagined that this was an accomplishable goal and that it would look like a smooth, shiny fortress, something unassailable. But more and more, I’m coming to see the fallacy of that. That’s a hologram of happiness. That’s a defense against the pain of being human. It’s not about self-actualization; it’s about impermeability. To live in a keep is to retreat from the world. No. I’ve come to think that perhaps it is about the messiness of mistakes, of falling, of the bravery of unvarnished honesty, of forgiveness and love—the forgiveness and love we offer others, yes, but also the forgiveness and love we must extend to ourselves. There is no such thing as reaching the end goal of humanity. There is only the continued, imperfect striving. We are satellites sending radio signals to Earth, waiting for contact: “I hear you. Do you hear me? Over.” 

If you are, yourself, depressed right now, send a signal to someone, anyone you trust. Say the words out loud. Words have power. You are not a freak. You are not icky. You are, simply, human and in great pain. You do not “deserve” that pain. You are not less than for feeling it, and you DO deserve love and care and relief from that pain.   

If you know someone who is depressed, one of the greatest gifts you can give is to listen without judgment and to let the person know that s/he is loved simply for being.

This is not a pep talk to myself or anyone else. This is not a fucking happy face bandage on the very real torment of depression. This is the resistance fighter in me moving in the city shadows at midnight, posting notes to myself and anyone else who happens to need them to keep fighting, to strike back against the enemy. 

This is all I know to do.

This is all I know to do.

This is all I know to do.

 And if you take comfort from my words, if it helps you to feel understood in your pain, if it helps you to know you can and will get out of the tub, then I am glad.

 As for me, today, I take comfort from the last line of one of my favorite short stories, J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” a story I discovered during a low period in high school. If you haven’t ever read this story, well, I highly recommend it. It’s about an encounter between two lonely people in an English tearoom, an American soldier shipping off to WWII and a precocious, thirteen-year-old girl putting up a brave front after losing both parents. I won’t spoil it with further banal explanation. You really should read it for yourselves. But suffice to say that the war doesn’t go well for the soldier, who returns, broken, until he receives a letter from the now-grown Esme, which comforts him such that he is finally able to put aside the horrors of war and sleep:

“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

 I hope your faculties remain intact.

 As for me, I will do what I must to make my way through the miles of No-Man’s Land. And if I haven’t returned your email, I ask your forgiveness. It may be a while.

 

 

 

 

 

The story reveals itself

I’m taking a break from furious keyboard wrangling to update with progress about LAIR OF DREAMS.

My first thought is, can I still call it progress? Doesn’t feel like progress. Feels like I am eating an enormous word salad. And sometimes I say, “Yep, that avocado is good in here,” and “In retrospect, baked salmon and Reese’s peanut-butter cups have no place together in this salad. Also, I might need to vomit now.”  

As you may know from previous blogs, this book has been a bitch-and-a-half to write. I have never struggled so much or despaired so greatly. This is how it is sometimes. Typical conversations with writer friends tend to go like this:

Friend: So that tunnel thing sounds really scary.

Me: Yeah? Thanks!

Friend: So, I have to know: What’s in the tunnel?

Me: No idea.

Friend: …er, but it’s a central part of your plot.

Me: *smiling unsteadily * Uh-huh. I know.

Friend: But you don’t know what it is?

Me: Nope. Not yet. *guzzles Maalox straight from the bottle *

And so on. 

A friend of mine, a singer, always says that the voice “reveals itself.” And that is how I feel about writing novels: The story reveals itself over time. Now, it doesn’t do this magically. It does so in fits and starts, in frustratingly small increments and, occasionally, in “A-ha!” thunderclap moments. And it only does this after you’ve put in the exhausting labor, after days upon days spent sitting at your laptop or notebook, moving one sentence from page 12 to page 14 and back again, deleting whole scenes and writing new segments that finally seem to bridge the disparate ideas zipping around in your head like futuristic cars. (BTW, where are those cars we were promised? Could somebody get on that? Thanks.)

And as you write, these are always the questions: How can I make this better? How can I sew that seam tighter? How can I connect this part to that part more cohesively? How can I take this seemingly small scene between two characters and sink it more deeply into the larger thematic fabric of the novel? Am I really getting down to the grit and humanity of these characters?  Am I questioning enough, or am I still skating across the surface? How do I deal with this novel’s particular “Big Bad” storyline while also building in the architecture for various character threads and the overall story arc?

And: Am I having fun? (Honestly, that’s super important.)  

So, as I struggle to answer all of those questions, to build the architecture for books #3 and #4 while trying to maintain the integrity of book #2, I’m trying to find the patience to let the story reveal itself. And to hope that I am paying attention when it does.  

 

Give to the Living (World AIDS Day)

December 1, 2010 by libbabray

On World AIDS Day, I usually repost this blog I wrote in 2010 about losing both my father and my good friend, Norbert, to AIDS. This year, I’d also suggest that you read David Levithan’s beautiful TWO BOYS KISSING and watch the excellent documentary, HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. And, as always, I urge you to keep fighting for equal rights for all human beings. 

One of the earliest memories I have of my dad is of him in his sober ministerial robes on Sunday mornings at Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. I wasn’t real keen on attending services as a kid. It seemed like a lot of fuss about some boring abstract idea as well as an interminable amount of time spent sitting on a hard pew while wearing scratchy dresses and pinching Mary Janes. My usually jovial father was so serious up at the pulpit that he seemed like a completely different person. So doubtful was I about this Sunday split personality that I even asked my mother, “Is Daddy always God or just on Sundays?”

As soon as the benediction had been pronounced, I would dash down the aisle and make a beeline for my dad who was positioned at the front door to greet parishioners on their way out. I’d dive under his robes and hide there, refusing to greet people, insisting that I was a ghost and, therefore, could not be seen or spoken to by anyone. (You can feel sympathy for my parents; the task of civilizing me was an enormous one that stretched over many years. There are some who would say this task was never quite accomplished.) I think that I needed to make sure that my father was in there somewhere in the folds of that “preacher costume.” I needed the comfort of him near.

He was a comforting presence. I often said that when he hugged you, you stayed hugged. Quick with a joke or a witty remark, he was outgoing and outspoken while also courtly and very much the southern gentleman. He was a staunch feminist who nevertheless insisted on walking on the outside on the street “to protect the ladies from the horses.” Sometimes he was absent-minded and excruciatingly rambly and vague, and my brother and I would roll our eyes and shout, “A verb, Senator! We need a verb,” because we were horrible children. He loved animals and could not resist the foster care urgings of his friend, Fern, whom he called, “The Puppy Pusher.” He was also a complex, secretive man who lived a double life. There was always the sense that he was holding back something in order to protect the lie he felt forced to maintain. Don’t ask, don’t tell could have been his motto.

It was on a cold morning in January, when I was fourteen, that my father, weary of at least part of the pantomime play, finally told his family the truth: He was a gay man and he and my mother had agreed to divorce. He was out to us, but he had to remain closeted in the outside world due in large part to his position within the church as editor of The Presbyterian newspaper for the Synod of the Southwest. We were entrusted with keeping his secret. From that moment on, I understood what it meant to live a double life. I understood the toll that secrecy, silence, and self-loathing can take. In this way, it’s ironic that my father’s job was in the field of journalism when he constantly buried the lede. I think he unconsciously trained me to be a writer, to feel compelled to dig up those buried truths, to bring them kicking and screaming into the light.

The first time I really remember registering AIDS was when Rock Hudson died. This was huge news then, in 1985. I worried about my dad. “You’re being careful, right?” I didn’t ask it expecting to get a response. That was too scary. It was a declarative—“Be careful”—wrapped in a rhetorical question. My dad was lovely, but he wasn’t great at taking care of himself. He had a self-destructive streak twined, I believe, to his self-loathing about being gay. Today, there are celebrity campaigns for AIDS awareness, merchandise to support the cause, splashy photo spreads. But back then, it was a very different story. It’s hard to explain the level of fear those four letters elicited. The initial federal response to AIDS was lackluster and reflected a bias. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, as it was being called, was a “gay cancer,” and the societal response seemed to be, “Serves ‘em right.” It was not a pretty moment in America.

For a time in Austin, after college graduation when I hadn’t quite figured out what I was doing with my life, I lived with one of my best friends, Ed, and his partner, Norbert. We did theatre together, forming an arts collective called SOMA, Self-Ordained Ministers of Art. It was the eighties; what can I say? Ed directed all of my plays; Norbert did the graphic design for the posters. On Sunday nights, we ate pot roast and watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” They were Lakers fans and indoctrinated me in the ways of NBA playoffs. In the fall, we hosted the Third Annual Hat Party. It was always the “third annual” and you had to wear the most ridiculous hat you could find or make. We had a Barbie Doll shrine to Nancy Sinatra. On Saturday mornings, we put on Diana Ross & the Supremes and cleaned the house according to our assigned tasks. We ate cheap Tex Mex and sat in the backyard under the carport to drink sweet tea and catch a breeze. Whenever the landlord dropped by, we had to pretend that I was Ed’s girlfriend. Yes, that old charade. I remember it, actually, as one of the happiest summers of my life.

The spring before I left for New York City, Norbert came down with what everyone thought was mono. “I don’t feel well,” he said. “Well, you have mono,” I said. “No,” he said a little anxiously. “I don’t feel…right.” Denial is an amazing coping mechanism, because of course the word AIDS crow-barred its way into my subconscious like a burglar intent on robbing my peace of mind. But I bought a new lock and went about my business. Ed and I started work on my new play, an AIDS piece, presciently, called, “Requiem A-Go-Go,” and we waited for Norbert to get better. He did not. By August, when my bags were packed for New York, Ed told me they’d gotten the diagnosis: AIDS.

This was terrifying. In 1990, AIDS was always a death sentence. Ed would send me notes from Austin, terrible notes, about Norbert’s rollercoaster deterioration. The last time I saw him, he was lying on the couch under an afghan, pale and tired and scared. “Pray for me,” he said. I said I would. I flew back to New York. By October 1992, he was gone. That summer, I took the train to Baltimore to see my father and we went to view the NAMES project AIDS quilt. In the shadow of an old church not too dissimilar to the church where I played hide-and-seek in my father’s ministerial robes, we walked around huge swaths of colorful cloth, squares bearing the names and dates of people who had died, some of them unbearably young like Norbert. “So unfair,” my father said. I didn’t realize the full weight of his statement then.

My father often sent me clippings—articles I might find interesting, Shoe cartoons, coupons to ease my way up there in the frozen north of NYC, ribald jokes. Usually, these were accompanied by the briefest of notes. So when I opened that multi-page letter in February 1995, the one that began, “Sweetheart…” I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, some premonition that all was not well. Part of me wanted to seal the letter back up. He admitted that he was HIV positive. That was a lie. He had been HIV positive for six years and kept it secret. Keeping things secret, of course, was one of his talents, a skill foisted upon him by a judging world.

What he had was full-blown AIDS, a fact I would discover in September of that year when I received a call from my brother, Stuart, out in Colorado where my father had gone to spend his retirement so he could be closer to his grandchildren. “Daddy’s in the hospital. They don’t think he’ll make it through the weekend. You need to get on a plane.” Reeling, I made the flight from New York to Denver. On the drive to Ft. Collins, my brother and I talked about music and Cowboys football, how different Colorado was from Texas, my niece and nephew. Denial is a family trait. Finally, he said, “You need to be prepared. He looks bad. Not like you remember him.” That was an understatement. My dad had Cryptosporidium, what was called “the wasting disease.” My formerly robust father had withered down to about ninety-seven pounds. I didn’t recognize him at first, and I had to stifle a gasp. When I hugged him, I could feel the bones of his spine like rosary beads. My father rebounded after his potassium came back up, something we soon discovered was part of the cruel course of the disease, the up-and-down nature of it all. For nearly three months, I stayed in Colorado, taking a leave of absence from my job to be with him.

There were things my brother and I learned: how to put together an IV of Sandostatin. What to do if he couldn’t hold down the Ensure drinks we made for him. What to put in the red plastic biohazard containers that dotted the house like some kind of dystopian home decor. When to call the doctor. We met with his hospice worker, Dorothy (oh, the irony!), who was lovely and informative and a godsend. For a week, we went about our business, and this became the new normal. I began to think we would beat this thing.

One night, we even had hamburgers at my brother’s house. It was good to watch my father, who had been a third-helpings man, eat half a burger. We were encouraged. Hopeful. On the drive back to his apartment, my father began to feel ill. Suddenly, he was vomiting violently as he tried to keep the swerving car on the road. In a panic, I tried to take the wheel. “Don’t!” My father shouted. “Don’t touch it!” And it hit me: The vomit. I had no gloves. He was afraid for me. We were on a dark road facing oncoming traffic, snow lightly falling, turning the pavement slick, and my father was at the wheel and sick. The most natural thing in the world was for me to take over. And I couldn’t. We managed to steer the car onto the shoulder and get him outside. The air was cold. My breath made small bursts of fog as I said, over and over, “It’s okay; it’s okay,” unsure of who, exactly, I was comforting. Later, when I’d helped to clean him up and put him to bed, I pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, grabbed a bucket of bleach water, a rag, paper towels and a trash bag and went out to the parking lot to clean my dad’s Toyota. The early October snow was still falling. It looked pretty in the lights from the apartment complex. I sobbed angrily while I scrubbed the mats and upholstery with bleach and dumped everything into the trash bag. I started to put the bag in the dumpster, then thought better of it. Unsure about what to do with it, I stood in the parking lot, my arms out like some misplaced, directionless scarecrow, then double-bagged it and tossed it in.

After another hospital stay, we had to move my father into the nursing home later that week. It was a cheerless place, and I fought it by decorating his room for each holiday, until finally I brought in a small tree—a real Charlie Brown mess of a thing—and put up a few ornaments and Christmas cards. On December 10th, just as a I was attending a gay men’s chorale concert in honor of him, my father, who had been in and out of consciousness for two days, turned to my brother who had just arrived, gave a small smile, said one last word, “Goodbye,” and died. The next year, they came out with the retrovirals that changed the game.

Before my father died, he stage-directed his memorial service. Really, you had to know how into organizational systems my dad was to appreciate this. This was a man who kept his take-out menus in a folder in his file cabinet under M for menus. The menus were in alphabetical order. When my brother and I had the task of taking his house apart, we found that folder and laughed till we cried. “Don’t mess them up—he’ll come back to haunt us!” Trust me, you need a laugh at such times. The funny thing was, for all his attention to detail, the man was never on time. The only time I ever missed a plane was a time I forgot to lie to my dad about the departure time.

Anyway, Dad was insistent on three things for his service: 1) He picked the music (We are real music dictators in my family) 2) It should be a celebration, not a funeral, and 3) No flowers. “What the hell would I do with a bunch of flowers? I’ll be dead. Give to the living.”

Give to the living. It’s a good mantra. I’m not big on memorializing as a general rule. What I prefer, the way in which I choose to honor both my father and my friend Norbert on World AIDS day and throughout the y ear, is by continuing to speak about and advocate for equal rights for ALL Americans. This has been a tough year to be gay in a lot of ways. The teen bullying crisis has been particularly hard to watch. I know if my dad were alive, he would be writing editorials about it. I know how both he and Norbert had to hide, and that isn’t good for anybody. That doesn’t make society stronger; it only makes it sicker, and I’ve had enough sickness to last me a lifetime, frankly.

I keep thinking back to that line I loved so much in “Milk,” where Harvey Milk says to a gay teen in crisis, “There is nothing wrong with you.” There’s nothing wrong with you. Remember that.

So today, I raise my glass and say, hey Norbert—I’ve got Diana Ross on the iPod. (I’ll explain iPods later, Norb.) Dad, wish you were here; you’d really get a kick out of my kid. And to everyone else out there, especially if you are a gay teen trying to find your way in an often hostile world, you are all right. In fact, you are fucking fabulous. There is nothing wrong with you. Silence = death, as ACT UP used to say. Make some noise. Put on the biggest hat you can find, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not welcome at the party.

On this day, let’s remember to keep fighting and to honor the dead who can no longer raise their voices by refusing to silence our own.

Haunted at 17

Yours Truly at 17 in the library

Yours Truly at 17 in the library

 

As I try to wrestle my revision of LAIR OF DREAMS to the dirt (where, inevitably, it will throw me onto my back, twist my arm and elicit a desperate “Uncle!” from my constricted lungs), I’ve been unable to do much blogging. That’s too bad as often, when I’m stuck, blogging helps me come “unstuck.” I’m going to try to do a bit more of that in the coming months to see if it’s like kicking the Coke machine to make it work–the “Coke machine” being my misfiring brain in that scenario.

You know who has a kick-ass blog? Nova Ren Suma. Her Distraction 99 is filled with wisdom, support, and some nifty guest posts. She gets you thinking.

This was a post I wrote for her back in March when her new book, the amazing 17 & GONE, had just come out. The suggestion was that we write about what haunted us at the age of 17. As it’s the month for all things haunt-y, I asked Nova if I could reprint the post here and she, being nice, said sure.

http://distraction99.com/2013/03/18/libba-bray-haunted-at-17/

There are some really terrific posts in that series from everyone from Adele Griffin and Gayle Forman to Bennet Madison, Nina LaCour and more. Why not procrastinate and read them all?

Today’s writing prompt: What haunts you?

How Not to Write a Screenplay

fire typewriter

My interpretation of the screenplay I’m now writing:

 

CHARACTER ONE: Here is that information you seek. Let me summarize it for you. It’ll only take, oh, a four complete pages. “Blah-de-blah-de-blah. Long history of cult. Drugs. Murder. XL Creepy. Blah-de-blah.”

CHARACTER TWO: Non-sequitur comedy line. (beat) That was a lot of portentous maiming. We needed funny.

CHARACTER ONE:  Hold on, there, Sparky: Here’s some more shit you didn’t know about that cult. Blah-de-blah-de-blah, offerings, rituals, telemarketing for the Anti-Christ, Cher songs.

HOT CHARACTER: Wait! Not the cult that did X during the time period Y? The one that swore VENGEANCE UPON OUR SOULS!!!!!

CHARACTER ONE: The same. Would you like to hear more? Okay, here goes…

HOT CHARACTER: I believe it is time to take my shirt off now.

CHARACTER TWO: Excuse me! Question: I am noticing something that I’d like you also to notice. Should I say, “Angle on” or “Reveal”? Also, can you tell that my humor is a mask for my sad because of the way that I constantly bite my lip and laugh but then stop suddenly, my eyes brimming with the moist?

HOT CHARACTER: My shirt is off. Just saying.

CHARACTER ONE: Oh, also, I forgot to tell you these other things about the cult: Blah-de-blah-blah, pentacles, pendants, soul-containing, ShamWow, haunted Tostitos, blah, blah, blah.

HOT CHARACTER: No, really. I can do this thing with my pecs. Watch.

CHARACTER TWO: So is that “Angle on” pecs or…OMG. You are so shirtless.

CHARACTER ONE: They didn’t say “OMG” in the 1920s.

CHARACTER TWO: Fine. “1920s OMG!” Angle on: Your hotness.

CHARACTER ONE: Wait…did we ever tell the people who Diviners are?

CHARACTER TWO: Not caring. Do that thing again, where you make them jump.

HOT CHARACTER: Do you think it’s appropriate for me to be shirtless for the rest of the movie?

CHARACTER TWO: I’m sure it’s fine. They did that a lot in the Jazz Age. It was a nipple-rich decade.

CHARACTER ONE: I’m staring at a thing. It’s important. That’s why I’m staring. Do you notice that I’m staring at it? Do you see it? The thing that’s important? Because my eyes hurt. From the staring. At the thing. Which is important.

CHARACTER TWO: Oh, applesauce. When do we drink?

CHARACTER ONE: (losing hope) All the time.

CHARACTER TWO: Now I finally know why.

HOT CHARACTER: Ha! Did you see that? Made the other one jump! I never get tired of that.

FIN.

 

 

 

On Writing Despair (Juicebox Mix)

Hi, kids. Y’all gather ‘round. Mama wants to talk to you about writing despair today.

Everybody got a juice box, a snack, and a lovey to hold on to? Everybody found a comfy chair? Got your laminated list of “Inspirational quotes from writers!” which you culled from the Internet?

Well, Look. At. You.

Okay, let’s get started.

First topic: NONE OF THAT IS GOING TO HELP YOU, SUCKERS! YOU ARE LIVING IN A FOOL’S PARADISE! WE ARE DOOMED! DOOOOMED!!!!

Sorry. Mama’s a little hair-trigger today, kids. Sip your juice box. Doom goes better with juice.

Oh, lambs. I try to laugh at life. I do. When the cat pooped all over the white bedspread, did I fall apart or make a cat-fur purse as a warning to the other one? No. I did not. I said, “Hahaha! How very Geoffrey Rush in ‘Quills’ of you, Little Squeak. Your protest is noted.” And then I burned the bedding. When the basement flooded and the ShopVac became my best friend, did I curse the rainy skies and crumbling New York City infrastructure? Well, yes. Yes, I did. But I did it with a laugh and a twinkle and online shopping. Because I’m a survivor.

But sometimes, kids? (Sigh.) Sometimes, a girl just needs to eat buttercream frosting right out the can on her front stoop wearing the same pajamas she’s had on for three days straight while shouting, “Whaddayoo looking at? You never seen a serious writer at work before? I’M ON A DEADLINE HERE! MOVE IT ALONG, SPARKY! And your little dog, too.”

The writer’s life is so misunderstood.

But let’s talk for a moment about despair. That’s what you came for, right? (Unless it’s the cursing, in which case, stick around.)

For the past several months, I’ve been hard at work on DIVINERS #2. Every morning, I wake up and say, “Today, it will start to make sense. Today, I will make the story bend to my will.” And then I dance to “Cool” from West Side Story. As one does.

But you know what, my little doves? Sometimes the writing does not want to play your little reindeer games. Sometimes, the writing is for shit. And no matter what you do, no matter how hard you go at it, no matter how many different times you rewrite or wholesale reimagine scenes, you just can’t crack the code of your book. It’s like trying to predict what toddlers will do. Still, you keep trying, because this is the gig. As I always say, if you’re swimming and you get tired, nobody says, “Well, just stop swimming then.” That would be bad advice.

When Them Old, I-Can’t-Write-This-Novel Blues have their claws in me, I tend to think it’s because I haven’t learned the magic writing solution yet. If only I could change my process, I think, this madness would all go away and I could watch something cheesy on Netflix, like “Satan’s Reform Driving School” or the Paducah Dinner Theatre’s musical production of Beckett’s “Happy Days” using finger puppets.

I can sense some of you out there nodding along, giving up the chuckles: “Riiiight. The ‘Just Change Your Process, Luke’ Solution. We’ve all been there. I give you five minutes before you cry and try to alphabetize your spice cabinet.” *

Talk to five different writers and you’ll probably get five different answers about how the writing process goes down for them. There are “pantsers” and “plotters” and everything in between.

Me? My brain seems to work in a chaotic, symphonic fashion. I swear to you that I am incapable of linear thought. This is the bane of my existence, y’all—like I’m an IKEA chair missing the little L wrench that puts it all together. I just know that I don’t instinctively say, “Hat goes on last.” No. Left to my own devices I say, “I’m supposed to remember something about hats here. Hats remind me of Victorian gentlemen, which makes me think about the struggles between the English and the Welsh, which makes me think about that amazing John Cale song, Buffalo Ballet, which makes me think about the American West and America as a concept and also trains and smoke and the insubstantiality of both smoke and the American Dream and dammit, I’m not wearing any pants, am I?”

While it may be interesting to think about all of those things, it’s not particularly helpful if what you want to do is write a fairly coherent book and deliver it on time. Or leave the house wearing pants.

{Pour Mama some of that apple juice, will ya? And hand over that Hostess Sno*Ball so nobody gets hurt.}

For me, writing a book is ugly-messy, with lots of off-road driving, dead ends, false plot lines, crazy ideas that go nowhere, and many scenes that just have to be thrown away as I revise. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a generous amount of self-loathing attached to my method that no self-help book seems to address. Like my process is the filthy, shit-covered kid holding road kill by the tail while everyone else is clean and pressed and lined up neatly for the class photo. My method is an ass, frankly, and I’m thinking of not inviting it to Thanksgiving dinner this year.

I know what you’re thinking: Why don’t you just outline?

Oh, you. You are a clever one. Come on over here and let me SLAP THAT CLEVER RIGHT OUT OF YOU!

Why don’t I “just” outline? Because I can’t.

Oh, believe me, I’ve tried.

Many, many, many times.

No. Zip it. Put your hand down. Put. Your. Hand. Down.

Don’t make me turn this blog around because I will.

You want to hear about outlining? People, let me tell you a never-give-up story as meaningful as Jesus turning water into wine even though not one of those sorry-assed Cana wedding feasters put a little something-something in the Lord’s tip jar…

Despite knowing that I DO NOT HAVE the outlining gene, that I am a hands-on, dive-deep, I-will-find-the-story-as-I-go writer, I still foolishly think an outline will solve all of my problems just the way I thought if my mom let me buy Love’s Baby Soft cologne from the drugstore back in eighth grade, it would take care of my dateless problem.** When I hear other writers I admire talk about their outlining, I sit slack-jawed as if they are demi-gods bringing fire back from the mountain. I want to be them. Desperately. I want to sit at that hip table in the cafeteria and soak up their organizational, linear cool. I want to believe that I am a writer different from the writer I actually am. Like I want to believe that I can wear skinny jeans. And so I make the attempt with every single book I write.

{Who’s got a hanky? Mama needs a hanky. This part’s sad, kids. For Chrissakes, look away. Give a woman her dignity.}

Here’s the ugly truth, y’all: For DIVINERS #2, I have ten different outlines dated at points throughout the last year. There is one called “Microplot” done at Holly Black’s house in July 2012. There’s one called “Big Bad” which is, predictably, the scary supernatural storyline. It’s mostly a series of questions like an elaborate game of Who Knew?: “Can the ghost cross water?” “Is there more than one spirit?” “What happens if X meets Y?” “What are the rules of this supernatural world?” “What’s something that’s as creepy as dolls? Answer: Nothing. Well, maybe Ted Cruz.” There’s an outline called “Character Threads” and one called “Alternate Threads” and one called “Backstories” and one called “Series overview.” There’s an outline called “New Outline” and one called “Yet Another Outline” and one called “Help Me, Baby Jesus” that makes it all the way to Chapter 29 before it devolves into scribbles down the page—thoughts and snatches of random dialogue and notes like, “Need to make up some cool ghost hunting equipment here.”

All of the outlines end this way, abandoned in some terrifying, Guillermo Del Toro-style orphanage of incomplete organizational tools where bad things will come out of the closet to gobble them up. War is hell; so is outlining.

I cannot outline because at some point, my mind rebels. It smokes a cigarette and looks all Bruce Willis and says, “You know what, Sport-o? This whole thing will work better if you just let me play it my way. Don’t make me paint the lines on the road. Let me find the road, ya dig? Let me decide if this is really the road I’m driving or not. Yippee-Ki-Yi-Yay, Mofos.” And then my mind puts on a leather jacket and fist pumps the sky in a vaguely 80’s-era Judd Nelson gesture. My mind’s got some issues.

{More juice! Gimme the whole box, kid, and stop your sniveling. There’s no sniveling in writing. We go straight to existential dread and body-wracking sobs. Go big or go home.}

So, after six novels, five plays, and many short stories, I know this about myself. And yet, I can’t accept it.

Inherently, I feel that I must be dumb and wrong. That if I were just better at this writing thing, it would be easier. It is my fault. I am a fraud. Real writers don’t struggle this much and they don’t blow through deadlines. This is the bad song playing in my head. Thom Yorke sings it with XL falsetto pain.

So I try again. Because I’m a goddamned optimist, kids. And don’t you forget it.

I write the same scene ten different ways, trying to find the way that works best. Often, I go back and rewrite an existing scene because I’ve come at it from the wrong emotional angle or because I’ve come to know more about the characters and the choices they would make or the words they would speak or the feelings they would have. Sometimes I find what I’m after. Sometimes I don’t and that scene is thrown out like acid-washed jeans after a ‘90s theme party.

To date, I’ve thrown out thirty-nine scenes in DIVINERS #2. THIRTY-NINE SCENES! People, I can’t even count that high! Somebody had to count it for me!

Some of those scenes are only a few paragraphs long, sketches begun that I realized weren’t quite right: “Huh. Now that I’ve got the supernatural llamas on the ship, I’m not quite sure what to do with them after the demonic limbo contest.” But quite a few are many, many pages long. They’re complete scenes crafted with blood, sweat, and tears over time. Precious, precious time. But still, they are wrong, and they must die. Like my dreams.

{Here, squirt the cheese right into my mouth, like this. Listen, kid, you just worry about the cheese. I’ll worry about my cholesterol. Yeah, I know I smell like your grandpa smelled when the catheter broke. Can we not mention that?}

Can I tell you a story? A sad one? Okay. Snuggle up. About two months ago, I realized that maybe I was maybe a little too close to the novel to see it clearly. Sometimes I tell myself little fibs to get by: “You deserve a Frappuccino.” “Fox is bringing back ‘Firefly.’” “They never made ‘Jaws 3.’” “Maybe the novel doesn’t suck; maybe you’re just too close to it.”

It passes the time between leg waxes.

So I asked two of my good writer buddies, writers I trust implicitly, to read the first three hundred pages. As delicately, but honestly, as possible, they confirmed what I felt in my gut: The novel was a stone-cold mess. Kids, I don’t think there’s anything more disheartening than working your everloving ass off on a book that you just know in your gut isn’t working. It’s like trying to find a taffeta bridesmaid’s dress you can wear again.

I thanked them, then I went for a walk, blasting Green Day on my iPod. I hit the drums very, very hard. It’s possible I might have drawn a mustache on a few of my author photos. But then—then I sat down and started in again. Because you can’t stop swimming, right? Right.

{I love it when you agree with me. You know, you really are very nice people. I feel like I could talk to you about anything. Here, have some squeezy cheese. Open wide—Mama’s sharing mood may not last.}

My Spidey senses began a-tinglin’ like that time I accidentally sat on the electric blanket with the short in it at my Aunt Esther’s house. Maybe I’d finally found my answer! I pursued this new idea, crafting a brand-new opening, threading it through additional scenes. Then I watched in soul-sucking horror as that fell apart, too.

This happened six more times.

I don’t like to tell you bad stories like this. But pain is how we learn.

In the solitude of my writer’s cave, which has all the charm of an Eastern Bloc apartment building circa 1971, I sat with my laptop, some index cards, two blank sheets of paper, and a water bottle. {Hydration: It’s important.}

I tried organizing scenes on notecards.

I wrote out emotional arcs on paper.

I tried writing scenes that come later in the book, hoping that the deeper emotional wounds of those scenes would lead me in a circuitous route back to what was wrong with the first three hundred pages.

When that didn’t work, I went back to the beginning and wrote my sixth new opening chapter, carefully crafting it to set up the reworked plot so that it could segue seamlessly into the new, restructured second chapter, which had previously been the tenth chapter. (I have shuffled chapters like someone running a shell game on 42nd Street.) I snapped the new chapter in place, read it over and felt my stomach knot up as I realized it simply wasn’t going to work. I tried shifting Chapter Two into Chapter One’s position. I tried rethinking the rules of my world in such a way that it would allow me to try yet a third way to open the book. I rewrote the old Chapter Two (now Chapter One) without its related follow-up scene to see if splitting the action made more sense. It didn’t. In fact, I’m not even sure this paragraph makes sense. It makes my head ache, that’s for sure. You know what? I’m going to look at videos of Stevie Nicks to make myself feel better.

{Stevie doesn’t care if I finish this book or how hard it is. She wrote “Landslide” which is awesome. She can coast and do the witch dance forever. I wish I were Stevie. “Oh mirror in the sky…what is love…can the child within my heart be sacrificed to the goat gods in exchange for a working plot…”}

Despite all that effort, my book was still nowhere. I was stuck. Hopelessly stuck. Forlornly, impossibly, despairingly stuck. Trying-to-explain-evolution-at-the-Creationist Museum stuck. I could feel that awful ballooning in my throat that signals the onset of an ugly cry, and as I have some modicum of public restraint (shocking though that may be to some of you…), I decided to bid goodbye to the writing cave and head home.

So that’s where I am—lost, frustrated, terrified, and still facing a countdown clock whose every tick-tock reverberates inside my head like the drums coming for The Master.

One of the wonderful parts of writing a series is that you really get to immerse yourself in the world you’re creating. You get to spend a great deal of time digging into your characters, getting to know their wounds and strengths, reaching greater understanding over time. As someone who really enjoys the serial as a form, this is terribly exciting and addictive.

The negative aspect is that series, by their very nature, require stringent scheduling. Anyone who has ever waited five years for the next installment of a beloved series can understand how that feels. We want it NOW.  (I know I do.) But sometimes, the novel isn’t cooperative with your time frame. And then the panic starts.

To date, I have blown through two deadlines. This does not make me feel good. I am a punctual person, and the thought that I am holding up other people makes me feel really awful. And when your reason is that you simply can’t seem to “fix” your story, somehow, that feels doubly awful. Because then the bad thoughts creep in: What if I can’t write it? What if I’m just not good enough/smart enough/fast enough/clever enough? Dumb. Messy. Wrong. Slow. Fraud. Hack.  

The bad thoughts are paralyzing. They lock up your thinking. And so much of writing is thinking. Thinking takes TIME. Thinking forces you to question everything you take for granted, to get past what feels too easy, too pat in order to get down to what feels real and right and true for your story. They don’t tell you this on the Internet, and I think that is just mean. {You’re mean, Internet! Go away until I need to Google weird shit again.}

They don’t tell you just how much time you’ll spend with your palms pressed against your head screwing up a perfectly good hair day as you mentally spin out a series of chess moves. They don’t tell you that you’ll be sitting in a restaurant smiling politely at your dinner companions nodding along as you pretend to listen while secretly asking yourself, “Does that thing I’m doing with the dog in Chapter Three really work?”

I don’t know, kids. I don’t know.

Well, peeps. Sun’s getting low in the sky. Or else that glaucoma’s come for me at last. This has been real. I’m so glad we had this time together to talk despair. Thanks for the juice and the cheese. And, uh, yeah. Novel writing is hard. Deadlines suck but are necessary. Tip your waitress. Stay in school….stop looking at me with those big, baby animal eyes. What else ya want from me?

Oh. Right.

I think this is the part where I’m supposed to buck up and tell you something inspiring, like, “Hey, at least I’m not digging ditches,” or, “Somehow it’ll work out. It always does.” And it’s true: I’m not digging ditches. And it probably will work out. Or I’ll ask Barry Lyga to bring me the cyanide caplet as part of that blood pact we swore to each other during the dark days writing our last books.

But I can’t tell you how or when this will happen. I can’t tell you why I can’t seem to break through to the other side of this story, why it’s so elusive right now. I can only try to be patient with myself, to remember how much I love writing and all the reasons why this particular series is so meaningful to me and to remind myself that I am working on something that’s really challenging me and forcing me to push into unfamiliar territory as a writer, to adapt and grow and learn new skills. And that it feels really scary because it IS scary.

I only know not to stop swimming.

Now, pick up your damn juice boxes and get back to work. Mama’s got an idea for that demonic llama cruise ship…

* This actually happened during a bad writing spell. But at least afterwards, I knew where to find the cinnamon. Next to the cardamom but before the cumin.

** It didn’t. Not even a little bit.

The No Good Horrible Very Bad Writing Day

Image

“*cough, cough* Spock! Must…make…word count! Save! Your! Self! *groan*”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about process lately.

On THE DIVINERS tour (the subject of a future blog), I was asked often about how to write—what my process was like, if there were any rituals or shortcuts to know, whether I outlined or plunged ahead, and how you know if you’re doing it right. And time and again, I’d stand there, blowing out a gust of breath that ruffled my bangs and then I’d squint as if this might connote “serious thinking” of the sort that presages a very wise, succinct answer instead of the rambling meditation on “Oh, beats the hell out of me; I usually have a snack” that would follow.

This morning, I turned off the Internet and tried to dive back into DIVINERS #2. It’s been two months since I’ve had concentrated writing time and so this felt very much like an awkward first date between two estranged but hopeful lovers:

Person #1: “Ah. Yes. I remember that little opening scene in Chinatown. That was…fun.”

(awkward pause)

Person #2: “There’s a lot of blank space. And I don’t know what the dog means.”

Person #1: “True, true. (beat) But the description of the sky is sort of nice.”

(awkward pause #2)

Person #2: “Mostly. I guess. If you like that sort of thing.” (beat) “They’ve put the cookies out now.”

 

You get the idea.

I vowed that I wouldn’t stop myself. I’d write unfettered and worry about fixing it later as countless writing advice columns advise. Or I’d write the story arc of one character only, following his or her story through to the end, then I’d do the same for the others. I’d write a big, thrilling scene filled with scary scares. Or no, a heartfelt romantic moment which would thaw me out and get the writerly blood moving through my veins. I’d write a kiss. One kiss scene. How hard could that be? It involves lips. I have lips. I know how they work. It doesn’t even involve research.

As I watched the minutes ticking off into bigger chunks of time with nothing but the removal of two lines (one of which I put back in, then took out again), I began to dissolve into a puddle of panicky doubt and self-flagellation. (Self-flagellation: Now puddle-shaped!) That’s when the awful questions started: “What if I can’t do this? What if this time, I’ve truly bitten off more than I can chew?” “What if I’ve used up my supply of useful words over the last six books and now I’m only left with the word equivalent of stale Ramen noodles and wilted lettuce with which to craft my story?” “Perhaps I should outline? I should outline. Smart writers outline.”

I’d start to outline, then feel stymied because—and here’s the important thing—I don’t write this way.  It is as unnatural to me as a salmon-and-peanut butter sandwich. I am not built this way. I, who am too chicken to ride a roller coaster or leave my house without food in my bag (Hello, Donner Party!), have only one extreme sport in me and it’s writing. I plunge into the unknown morass of my novels armed with some weird ideas, a handful of nascent characters, vague connections, a tingling in my Spidey senses, and the hope that it all comes to something. I trust. I have faith in the story.  

Reminded of this, I’d tell my binders-and-color-coded-index-cards-and-post-it-notes self, “Yeah! I’m a free spirit, maaaan!” Whereupon I would rip off my hairnet, let my pixie tresses go free and sing a French chanson about liberation and the inevitability of death. (This all happens inside my head. Just in case you’re playing the home game. For the record, I am in a café surrounded by other writers on deadlines who don’t give a fig about my inner turmoil or the French as far as I know.)

And so I was forced to sit with my shitty, uncooperative novel just…thinking. Wondering. Connecting. A host of “What if…?” scenarios played around with like Scrabble tiles, trying to build a word pyramid with what I got. “What does this all mean?” I ask myself. “How do these seemingly disparate ideas and events come together in a meaningful, satisfying way?” “Who are these people? What matters to them? And why does this story mean so much to me?” What’s it all about, Alfie?

These are, of course, essential questions and a necessary part of the writing process. But in the midst of it? It doesn’t feel so great. Those “lack of an appreciable word count” writing sessions feel like failure days. It’s interesting that I associate “quantity” with success. I get grumpy about the frustrations of the writing process and impatient with myself and the story. “Why don’t I just KNOW these things already???”

Because I don’t. Because the act of writing is the act of discovery. Because shedding our armor in order to become vulnerable enough to wade around in the uncomfortable, the unsettling, the painful or the revelatory is done bit by slow bit. Because some things really are a little beyond our reach and the eventual grasp of those things is what makes the writing so satisfying on some other future day.For now, I’m going to write on something a little less frustrating just to remind myself that, hey, it’s also fun.

And since they’ve put the cookies out, I’m going to have one. It seems rude not to.