We Are the Dreamers of Dreams

The first time I said “I want to be a writer,” I was seven years old. I’d just finished reading Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Reading that book was a rite of passage for me. It was the first real novel I ever read. I read a copy that belonged to my mother. I still remember its plain, dark blue cover, its slightly yellowed pages and its musty smell. I remember sitting near the window of the house we lived in, on Mayflower Street in Plymouth, with the sun splashed across me and the book, crying bitter angry tears when Beth died. I identified so strongly with Jo that it was like I’d lost my own little sister – and I have two of them, so putting myself in her grieving shoes was easy. Even as I cried, I felt a sort of wonder that I could be weeping over the death of someone I didn’t know. A book had never done that to me before.

As much as I loved the rest of the book, the ending – when Professor Bhaer comes to deliver Jo’s manuscript to her – was a revelation to me. Even though I knew Jo was a writer, I hadn’t made the connection between Jo and Louisa May Alcott. Too inexperienced a reader, I suppose, even though I was a voracious one. I can still feel the thrill that swept through my body as I looked at the book in my hands and thought, “THIS is the book she wrote!” The next thought came just as quickly: I want to be a writer. Then I did something that I’ve done over and over again, when I’ve finished reading a book that gets under my skin in some way. I clutched the book to my chest. I still do it – not with every book, but when it’s one I’ve loved, one that cuts me to the quick? I do it.

In the years following that first reading of “Little Women,” I wrote a lot. I wrote poems, short stories, plays. Writing a novel still seemed too intimidating to me. But gradually, my writing slowed. I kept a journal sporadically, and I always loved writing, but I wrote less. I realize now that my journal-keeping has been, in the past, strongly linked to how I felt about my life in general. I could write about painful things, but if they got too painful or if I didn’t want to examine them too closely, I stopped writing.

The second time I said, “I want to be a writer” I was in my late twenties. I had just started a new job, and my co-worker Susanne was a writer. She wrote short stories and had a novel in progress, I think. She talked about it a lot, and her passion for it made me remember how much I loved writing. I pulled out an old copy of Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” (to this day, still my favorite book about writing EVER) and read it. I started doing daily writing exercises. I did journal entries and free writes. I wrote terrible short stories. Then I started writing better short stories. My friend Julie started a magazine and I wrote film and book reviews for her, and a piece about 9/11. I lost my job and picked up a couple of freelance writing gigs for local non-profit groups. I started a novel.

I met Tony in June of 2003. He had just written his first screenplay and was getting started on his second. At the beginning, he helped clarify that voice inside of me. He had the same passion for writing that I had. We moved to San Diego. When we wrote our first screenplay together we drafted it in shifts, each of us sitting at the computer for thirty minutes and seeing how far we could get. There were particular characters I remember being able to hear very clearly. We developed a writing process that worked for us as a team.

When Tony quit his job to write full time, it seemed like the right thing for both of us. Even though his paranoia was not yet at the terrifying level that it would later reach, he still had a hard time interacting with people. I pushed to the back of my mind any idea that I was giving up my dream of writing by letting him pursue his. As much as I wanted to write, his self-esteem was tied to being able to do enough to let us both make it as screenwriters. I wrote less and less. I still did the overwhelming majority of the outlining and character development, and I turned into a ruthlessly efficient editor. But when it came to the meaty part of screenwriting, I took a back seat to Tony.

As Tony’s illness worsened, I stopped keeping a journal. I had no desire to examine my life, nor was I able to admit how unhappy I was. I did little bits of writing here and there, but I wasn’t living as if I wanted to be a writer. I was living to survive.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that the day after Tony died I picked up a notebook and brought it with me when I left our apartment for the last time. I started keeping a journal again. I started this blog. I wrote a novel last November. In spite of all that, though, I still wasn’t saying those words again. I was still holding back. I was working the same day job I’d worked all those years while Tony pursued his dream of writing, and mine languished.

The third time I said “I want to be a writer” I said those words with a vengeance. I am saying them every day. I said those words to myself when my boss gave me an ultimatum about moving back to San Diego. I said them when I got a freelance job writing an ebook. I said them when I told my boss, at the end of last month, that I would not be moving back to San Diego. I told him that I was going to be a writer.

Today is my last full day working at Primary Funding, the company I’ve worked for since December of 2003. I’ll be on call for another month to answer questions and help them with the transition, but as of tomorrow I am a full-time freelance writer. In the past three weeks or so I have written 6 short ebooks and a magazine article, and I am halfway through ghostwriting a novel. I have several sources of steady work, and although I imagine it will take me a while to earn the kind of money I was earning before, I am finally – FINALLY – being paid to do work I love. It’s been 39 years since I first said those words to myself, and at last my dream is on the front burner, on high heat. My heart is about to explode.

You guys. I AM A WRITER.

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Our Veterans Deserve More Than This

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Today is Veterans’ Day.  Today we honor the men and women of our Armed Services, those who keep us safe and voluntarily lay down their lives to protect us and others around the world.  There has been a small amount of attention paid lately to the suicide rate among veterans, and while some may disagree, I think that we are undervaluing the lives of those veterans if we talk only about their military service and avoid talk of the lingering trauma that they carry with them when that service has ended.

Our veterans kill themselves at least two times as often as civilians do, and that number is underreported (like overall suicide rates) because families can pressure coroners to list another cause of death if they fear the stigma of mental illness.  There are also states (including large ones like California and Texas) that don’t report information on veteran suicides; and suicides that are not counted as such because they are things like single-car accidents or drug overdoses, manners of death that are open to interpretation if there is no note.  That’s not taking into account homeless veterans, who are often completely left out of reporting.

If we focus on flags and anthems and uniforms and glory today, we need also to think about war and violence, and the trauma suffered by the people who see it.  If you’ve never experienced it, it’s easy to dismiss something like post-traumatic stress as a myth or a question of mind over matter.  It’s not that easy, though.  I am on medication for PTSD right now, because it helps me sleep without the horrible, violent nightmares I was having after Tony died.  I cannot imagine the nightmares that must haunt the dreams of those who have seen combat.  Who have killed.  Who have seen their friends die in front of them, who have seen up close what war really is, and what it does.

Marching bands and flags are an important part of Veterans’ Day; but I hope that when you pause today to honor our veterans you will take a moment to think about the fact that when the military battles are over, many of them continue to fight battles that are unseen, unreported and often fatal.  That is a kind of heroism that is rarely celebrated, but requires a level of courage that must be recognized.  Our veterans deserve better than a celebration of their service that fails to acknowledge that the war, for many of them, rages within without ceasing.