That’s How the Light Gets In

Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.

Today it is 23 months since Tony took his own life.  One year and 11 months ago, I sat on the concrete steps outside our apartment in San Diego.  It was the darkest night of the year, both literally and figuratively.  In many ways, it was the darkest night of my life.  I did not know, truly, how I would survive it.  It felt to me like there were no bells to ring.  No hope, no light, no life.  It was, I thought, the end of everything.

I was wrong.

Nearly two years later, I find myself in a strange place, emotionally speaking.  Strange, I say, because I’ve been struggling for weeks to put my finger on what it is that I’m feeling.  I keep having the sense that I am cracking open, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.  I feel raw and exposed, vulnerable and new.  This feeling has coincided with some significant life events – some that are meaningful in a way that I can easily identify, some that I can FEEL are profound although I don’t think I fully understand them just yet.

One is my new career.  I am finally doing something I love to do, every day, and getting paid for it.  That is huge, and it’s had a remarkable impact on my outlook.  For the most part, I wake up excited to work.  I am sleeping well and eating well.  I feel energetic and intellectually satisfied.  I feel creative.  It’s the first time in my whole life that I’ve had a job that left me feeling fulfilled.

Another is that I’m starting to achieve the balance I need between the writing that pays my rent and the writing I do for myself.  I started outlining a screenplay.  I’m finding time for blogging.  I’m also making time to read – something I haven’t done as much of as I’d like to since Tony died.

Friendship is another piece of the puzzle.  My relationships with the important people in my life feel healthier and deeper than they ever have.  I have several friends who have had a knack, in the past 23 months, of reaching out to me with such kindness that it overwhelms me.  I’ve reconnected with one of those friends recently, and his kindness got me thinking about kindness in general.

At the beginning of last year, not long after Tony died, I decided to perform acts of kindness on his birthday.  I knew I needed to do something that day to keep my mind off the fact that he was not there to celebrate the day, and never would be again.  Acts of kindness seemed like a natural thing to do in many ways, because Tony had such a hard time seeing kindness.  He was so disappointed, so much of the time, by his life and by the world.  On very rare occasions he would have moments when he’d see it, and when he did I used to tease him that he looked like the Grinch after his heart grew three sizes.  Imagining him like that makes my heart feel like it’s going to float out of my body, away into the sky.  I wish he’d had more of those experiences.

I wrote the other day about how the kindness of the people in my life has sustained me over the past two years.  Starting the night that Tony died, I have seen – over and over – how truly kind people can be.  The police officers, medical examiner and crisis counselor seem like miracles to me.  They gave me the worst news I’d ever heard in a way that makes it possible for me to be grateful to them.  The same is true of my co-workers, who held my hand and took me in and made it possible for me to work remotely for 22 months so I could be near my family.

I can hardly find words to talk about the kindness of my family and my friends.  They have loved me and buoyed me over and over again.  They have had a knack, many of them, for reaching out to me at just the right time.  They have written and spoken so many words of grace and love and kindness.  I have been cracked open by them again and again.

It is those cracks that have let the light in.  It is those cracks that have allowed me to feel the way I do, raw and vulnerable and open and… happy.  Yes, that’s the word.  I am happy, right now, in a way I haven’t been in a very long time.  That doesn’t mean I don’t miss Tony, because of course I do.  It doesn’t mean that things are perfect, because that’s just silly.  It means that I look at my life – at where I live and who I am and the people I care about – and I feel so overwhelmed with love that I think I might burst.

I didn’t do acts of kindness last year on December 21, because last year that day seemed unremittingly dark.  It seemed like a cave – a dark and dank place, dripping with tears.  It felt like a grave.  This year it doesn’t feel like that.  This year, I can look at it and see that as horrible as that date was in 2012, it was also a beginning.  It was that day that set me on a path I could not have anticipated.  It was the first crack, that day, and now – at last – the light is streaming in.

I hope that wherever you are in the world, you will join me on December 21st.  The holidays are an especially hard time for people who struggle with depression.  An act of kindness so small that it seems almost inconsequential to you could be exactly the ray of light that someone needs to find the strength to keep going.  Kindness is free.  Yes, you can do things that cost money if you choose to, but there are plenty of things that you can do that won’t cost a penny.  I will post some ideas and pictures over the next month.  I hope that if you do plan to participate, you’ll leave me a comment now (I would love to get people on all seven continents) and then let me know, later, what you did and how you felt about it.  Let’s turn on the lights.

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Let the World Burn Through You

FADE IN

The other day a writer friend of mine sent me a message asking me to read a short story he’d written. Before I read it, we chatted a bit – he’s a screenwriter, someone Tony and I met online but never in person. The conversation turned to screenwriting.  I told him I hadn’t done any since Tony died, and he told me there was a script he’d been wanting to write for a long time but hadn’t, yet.  We agreed that we’d encourage each other to write and submit our screenplays to the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting contest next year, and reward ourselves with a trip to the festival to meet some other screenwriter friends.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? I mean, I’ve been writing so much lately. Writing one little screenplay shouldn’t be that big a deal. That’s what I tell myself… so why do I feel almost panicked when I think about writing a feature on my own?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about that this past week. I’m not afraid of writing. I’ve written two novels. I wrote 30,000 words in the last five days. I know I’m a good writer, and I’m not afraid of hard work. That means it’s not any of those things causing the panic.

What it is, I think, is that I have never written a feature-length screenplay by myself. I’ve only done it with a partner. I’ve only done it with Tony. I’ve written short scripts on my own, but those were all very short. A maximum of five pages. That’s part of the panic – the knowledge that this is, in some ways, uncharted territory for me.

There’s something else, though. Tony was a very good writer, funny and with a real gift for giving every character a unique voice. He had this huge talent, but his self-esteem was low. His ego was so fragile. When we first started writing together, we used to outline the story and then write in shifts. We’d carve out chunks of time – a half an hour apiece – and one of us would sit at the computer and write as much as we could in that period. The deal we made before we started was that when one of us took over from the other, we would just read, not edit. It was meant to be a free-flowing thing, only Tony could never do that. Every single time, when I would go back into the room after he’d been writing, I would find that he’d made all kinds of little tweaks and changes to what I’d written. I know he didn’t mean it to have this effect, but it crushed me.

In 2006, Tony quit his job to write full time. I kept my job in finance. At first, I would get home from work and even though Tony had been writing all day, we would still write together. Gradually, though, his self-esteem grew more and more dependent on being able to do all of it himself. He felt a responsibility to be able to make our shared dream come true for both of us, and there was very little room for me in that equation. I hardly wrote at all. I was still part of the outlining process, and I edited and occasionally suggested changes. I called myself a screenwriter, but I wasn’t. I felt like a fraud.

It’s perhaps not surprising that I’m feeling more mired in grief than I have in a while. The second anniversary of Tony’s death is approaching. I am not as lost as I was at this time last year, but it is a melancholy time for me. I find myself crying more frequently than I have in months. I am dreaming about Tony again, which I haven’t done in a while. There are moments when I’ve been able to tell myself that the worst of the grieving is over, but what I’m realizing now is I still have a very long way to go. I have spent so much time grieving my husband that I’ve barely allowed myself to touch on the fact that I lost my writing partner too. Screenwriting was always our shared dream, and if it’s going to happen for me now it has to be my dream. Perhaps part of me doesn’t want it to be mine alone. I want to be able to continue to think of it as ours, but it can never be that.

These things, all taken together, explain my panicked feeling when I consider stepping back into screenwriting. There is some deep part of me that fears that I can’t do it, that I’m not a good enough SCREENwriter, to make it happen. That I squandered whatever gift I had for this form by taking a back seat to Tony all those years. I don’t want to think that I’ve lost screenwriting forever, so I’m pushing my fears down and moving forward. I have so many wonderful friends who are screenwriters – not just the friend whose challenge made me consider this step, but dozens of others who I know will cheer me on, give me notes, and remind me why I fell in love with screenwriting in the first place. They all have their own lives, with their own families and jobs and friends and writing. Yet I know they will make a space for me at the table. They’ve stuck with me, even as I’ve stayed away from the kind of writing that brought us together in the first place.

I’m going to do this. I’m going to take the Young Adult novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year and I’m going to turn it into a screenplay. It’s a story that deals with mental illness and suicide, so I have no doubt that I will cry and cry as I break the story down and build it back up again. I’m under no illusion that it will be easy, but I am putting a quote by Ray Bradbury above my desk and I’m going to push through it. It’s going to hurt, but I’m going to let the world burn through me. In the end, it’s what I was meant to do.

 

“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper. ~ Ray Bradbury

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.

A New/Old Voice in My Head

NaNoWriMo

Something happened this week that hasn’t happened in a long time.  Before I met Tony, before we started writing screenplays together, I was working on a novel.  I wrote short stories.  I always knew I had a story that needed to be told when I could hear the characters, clear as day, talking to me. 

About sixteen years ago, I wrote a couple of short pieces on Halloween.  Both were for a Yahoo group I belonged to, a group of people who were Northern Exposure fans and had met on a separate group.  Shortly after forming that group, we decided to have an Halloween party, a sort of online costume party where the costumes were words.  I thought about it and got an idea – heard a voice, really – and wrote, lickety-split, this one page monologue.  The character was a 12 year old boy named Charlie, talking a mile a minute about what some friends of his had seen at the cemetery.  His words said he didn’t believe in ghosts, but I think it was clear that he did.

That’s the only thing I ever wrote about that character.  Sixteen years have passed.  And yet last Saturday, on the way home from the Out of the Darkness walk, he nudged me and started talking again.  This time he’s got a longer story to tell.  A story about loss and love and cemeteries and ghosts and bravery and yes, suicide.

So.  It’s been almost a year since I’ve written fiction.  Over a decade since I’ve written fiction that wasn’t a screenplay.  But the other day I signed up for NaNoWriMo.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s short for National Novel Writing Month, and it happens every November.  Participants join for free, and agree that they’re going to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November.  That’s 1,667 words a day.

I’m telling you, my blog readers, because it’s important to me and because I want you to keep me honest.  I’ll report here about my progress, and maybe post an excerpt.  It’s going to be a YA novel, in the form of Charlie’s journal (he fancies himself a reporter) and I am determined to do it.  My working title is The Unraveling of Gracie Stone. Not only is this a return to a kind of writing that I love and have missed, but it’s also a way of raising awareness about something that is so important to me, but in a way that will be, I hope, entertaining and funny and thought-provoking.

The Best (Worst) Writing Assignment Ever

I’m alive!  I am still mucus-filled, albeit slightly less so than I was when I wrote my last entry.  I am going to blog about the trip to Boston, I promise, but today I want to talk about something that I did before that trip, something that helped me during the trip.

I’ve been very slowly working my way through a book called Self-Compassion, written by Dr. Kristen Neff.  It was recommended to me by my psychiatrist because I was have such a hard time letting go of my guilt over Tony’s death, my feelings that I should (least favorite word) have been able to prevent it.  It’s not a book to be read quickly, because each chapter includes a written exercise; and to put it mildly, they are difficult.

The one that has been the hardest for me so far is one where the assignment is to write a letter to yourself as your inner critic.  The goal is to not hold back at all, to put into writing the very worst things you say to yourself.  Then, after getting that down, you write a second letter to yourself, one that you would write to a dear friend.  The first time I did this exercise I did it about my weight, something I’ve struggled with my whole life.  It helped, because it made me realize that my inner voice is a TOTALLY WRETCHED SNAKE. 

Leading up to the trip, I was struggling hard with my guilt, and with fear that somehow Tony’s family blamed me for his death.  Mind you, this is in the absence of even the slightest inkling of anything other than love and support and even gratitude from Tony’s family.  There is no earthly, logical reason why I should have been feeling the way I was; but I was.  I was talking about this to my therapist, and I told her about the exercise I had done and suggested that I do the same exercise again, about my guilt. 

As soon as I said, I did a mental head-slap.  What was I thinking?  That exercise had been eye-opening, sure, but it had also been HORRIBLE.  This topic would be even worse, even harder.  Gah!  She told me I didn’t have to do it, to only do it if it would help me.  I assured her that I wouldn’t push myself.

Reader, I didn’t push myself, not until the day of my next session.  I came up with a million artful excuses about why I couldn’t do it, I just wasn’t in the mood, I was having a bad day already and JEEZ, why did I have to make it worse?  All the while knowing that it truly would help, but that it also would truly TRULY suck while I was doing it.

Finally I did it.  I took all of the awful, unkind, mean and terrible things I’d been saying to myself and wrote them down.  I just let it pour out, all of it.  Let me tell you something.  Calling my inner voice a snake is an understatement.  She is BAD.  She is an EVIL UGLY VOICE OF BADNESS.  She says things to me that I would never ,ever, ever say to another human being.  Not ever.  She is without sympathy, without mercy, without kindness.  Reading those words freed something inside of me.  I don’t mean to imply that I have completely vanquished the guilt I feel, but I will say this: it’s easier now.  I have gone back and read those words several times now.  I read them out loud to my therapist, along with my much kinder letter to myself.

Everyone’s different.  If you are struggling with guilt over something, or with low self-esteem in general, I can recommend this exercise in the same way I would recommend taking a teaspoonful of cod-liver oil or some other equally repugnant yet healthful remedy.  It might help.  It helped me.

One Half of a Writing Team

That’s how I sometimes described myself when Tony and I were writing – one half of something, one half of a whole that we made up, together.  I also sometimes said, to him and to others, that together we were greater than the sum of our parts.

So what does that mean for me as a writer – and especially as a screenwriter – now?  Because I would say that we were greater together, it’s hard for me not to think that means that I’m less, alone.  Less of a writer.  Less of a person, maybe, too. 

Somehow this blog exists outside of that.  I never blogged before Tony died, not seriously.  I once wrote a few blog entries, one of which I entered in a “Blogging for Books” contest, but I didn’t keep at it.  The reason I didn’t was because I couldn’t put out fiction and pretend it was fact.  I couldn’t gloss over parts of my life.  I wrote earlier about the fact that Tony, while he was alive, would have hated the idea of me writing about him and putting it out in public.  Being honest about our lives would have felt like a betrayal to him. 

This week I ventured back on to a screenwriting site that Tony and I once frequented.  We were actually members from the very beginning, and for a while, we both loved being there.  It was a supportive community, we met some of the people there who also lived in Southern California in person, and I think our writing got better while we were there.  Then Tony, as he did so often, began to doubt the sincerity of people there.  He was suspicious of their motives.  I didn’t see what he saw.  I didn’t feel what he felt.  But as I did so many times during our marriage, I gave in to his needs.  He and I both stopped going there, stopped posting, stopped entering the monthly contests.

I missed it.

I went back this week and got such a warm, lovely welcome.  I don’t think I’ll be entering this month’s contest.  It’s funny how things happen, but each month’s contest has a theme or topic, and this month’s scripts must include a character holding his breath.  That’s a little too close to how Tony chose to end his life.  I can’t even think about it.  When I wrote that first post this week, I shared what I felt about the contest theme with everybody.  And that’s the difference between the writer I am now, and the writer I was then.  Before I wrote with a partner, and while his talents and creativity and work ethic made me a better writer, his fears and suspicions and secrecy also held me back.

I think I will write screenplays again.  They will, necessarily, be different than the ones I would have written with Tony.  I am no longer half of anything.  I am wholly myself.