Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Man Who Saw

All right, one of the down sides of following someone's therapy blog is that you have to deal with their bullshit when it comes to staying consistent with the writing. I hope you'll forgive me the occasional gap.

That migraine from last time lasted several more days-- I think it finally went away on day 12-- so last week, when it was time to sit down to write, I... went to the movies instead. 

(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in case you're wondering. Good flick. Quiet. Atmospheric. Interesting casting. Positively soaked in 70s aesthetics, even down to the camera techniques. And Benedict Cumberbatch, even if only for moments here and there. So. A good day, and migraine-free!)

But I'm back and ready to tell you another story.

I've been thinking that a lot of this blog so far has been about telling you some pretty scary, ugly stuff. These aren't the only stories. There are others that stand out for their radiant, transcendent awesomeness, and if so much of what has happened to me in the past 20 years has been caused or affected by the accident, those moments have too and deserve their place in the pantheon. Time to even up the balance sheet a bit.

Dr. Oz calls them "I WANT TO LIVE!" moments. Moments where the real me broke through the reptilian brain-freeze and reached out and affirmed itself: Alive. Here. I survived! 

My favorite part about that idea is that the PTSR (Post Traumatic Stress Response) gets no credit for whatever cool thing happened as a result. I get to see the moments of beauty and life and love and transformation as products of action by the real me. She's in there. And she will not (all the time, anyway) be silent.

One of the first I WANT TO LIVE moments (hereby known from this point forward as IWTLM...rolls off the tongue, no?) that I can remember was caused, paradoxically, by a vampire.

His name was Ian Becker. I wrote stories about him.

But let me start at the beginning. After the accident, I took my sizable insurance settlement, bought myself a car and a killer stereo, and then financed an expensive, rigorous, and absolutely life-transformingly wonderful private college education. 

One heck of an IWTLM, that.

I entered as an almost-junior creative writing major, and for the first year and a half, I wrote poems. I did this for two reasons. One was that I'd fallen into the poetry set first and loved the professor, and I wanted to milk everything I could out of his mentorship. Blah blah blah.

The second was that the fiction professor had a reputation for being crazy, pompous, cantankerous, and I was terrified of him.

His name was Bruce. I finally entered his short-fiction workshop in the fall of my senior year, intimidated into watchful silence. His first entrance was like all his others: noisy, reckless, late, carrying bundles of books and papers and leaving a cloud of disaster in his wake. He had sallow skin and thin, wild, pale hair; sloppy clothes; huge, rough, calloused hands. He didn't look at you when he talked, but scanned the room through narrowed eyes as if reading notes on the walls, rubbing his hair into disarray, his voice clear and booming.

He talked a lot. 

The first day, he asked us to write a bio and tell him about ourselves, our goals, our ideas for writing. I wrote about my car accident 2 1/2 years earlier, and how it had impacted my life.

The second day, he asked us to write about a recurring dream we'd had. I wrote about a nightmare I'd had as a kid, where I'd be engaged in a normal activity, and then suddenly notice the same strange images--a patchwork quilt, a syringe filled with clear liquid, an older woman with red hair bursting into a sudden scream-- which always meant the same thing: I'd suddenly fly off into a void, weightless, anchorless, lost. I'd jolt awake, spinning in space, terrified.

The third day, we handed in our first stories for the workshop.

I wrote about Ian. I'd been hanging out with my friend Chris, who had a vampire character of his own that he'd been writing about: a cold, ruthless killer who stood out in harsh contrast to my more romantic, Anne Rice-steeped vision of soft, sensual vampires who wrestled with the moral implications of their nature. We argued often about the virtues of each type, and eventually agreed to disagree about which was the most awesome (oh god, don't you miss college?).

Ian was born during one of those conversations. My first story to Bruce, in fact, was about that moment of inception, and how the character emerged. The story wasn't about Ian, it was about me as a writer, responding to a challenge from a friend and creating a character from thin air to match wits with his.

At the end of the story, I have my writer character go home and go to sleep, only to be awoken in the early hours of dawn by none other than Ian himself, real and in the (undead, why-are-you-not-fictional) flesh. He's just stopped by to say thanks. And that he's looking forward to seeing her again very soon.

My writer/alter ego is now living in a world where the character she's created is alive and on the loose. How much does she control him? How much danger is she in? Is she writing his story, or is she just his scribe?

(And before I go any further, screw you, Stephanie Meyer. You took something awesome and made it lame. And mine was better. And first. Curse my luck! I could be rolling around in your piles of cash right now if only I'd been more on the ball! And I wouldn't have left out the sex scenes! (srsly, wtf) (not that I read them) (okay, okay, I read them) (I was out of my mind. PTSR, you know))

Anyway, that's what I handed in to Bruce that second week of class. He had us all schedule appointments to meet with him privately, so he could become better acquainted with us before we got too far into the term.

My appointment was in the evening, I remember, after most people had left the building. I stepped into Bruce's office and was shocked by the chaos: every surface in the room was stacked with books and papers. The shelves were overflowing. There were waist-high piles of books on the floor, with a narrow path carved out between them leading to Bruce's desk and a deep leather chair placed beside it for guests. It was ridiculous. It was claustrophobic. It was an episode of "Hoarders Goes To College." I will never forget that room.

I sat in the chair. Bruce moved some piles around. And then he picked up a folder containing my writing, flipped through it, and turned to me, his eyes bright and intense, and said, "I am so excited to talk to you. I was floored by what you've given me so far. There is so much synchronicity between your writing and your life, and I bet you don't even know it. Am I right?"

I don't know what I said. I don't remember exactly what he said, either, except for a few key phrases that have stuck with me these 20 years and will, I'm sure, for the rest of my days. 

He said: "This is the most exciting student work I've seen in years. Decades. Maybe ever."

He said: "Your subconscious is working so strongly in your fiction. Your accident didn't just happen to you. It's still happening. Don't you see? You came so close to death, and now you're writing about a vampire! You're working it out on the page!"

He said: "It's all right here. You're not afraid of dying. You're afraid of a living death."

Ahem. Yes. In 1993, years before Peter Levine ever published his research, my creative writing professor diagnosed my PTSR after reading 20 pages of my writing.

The meeting went on for some time in that vein. Bruce was nothing like his reputation had led me to believe. He was encouraging, insightful, incredibly sensitive to my innermost thoughts. He was like a conductor, drawing together the discordant pieces of my life and turning them into a cohesive song. 

It was one of the most transformative moments of my life. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about it.

In fact, tears are important to this story. When I left Bruce's office that night, I went out to my car and sat in the dark and cried-- really, truly cried-- for the first time since the accident. I shook and sobbed and experienced blessed, cathartic, emotional release for the first time in three years. Somehow, I'd been seen, I'd been known, in a way I didn't even see or know myself, and it was all tied into my art and my purpose and my vision for my future.

And it was terrifying. Electrifying. Glorious.

Bruce said something else to me that night which, in my youthful self-centeredness, didn't resonate as much as I wish it had, although I don't know if anything would have come of it then or in the years following.

Remembering it now, within the context of the work I'm doing, it makes me weak in the knees. 

He said: "I haven't seen this kind of synchronicity since I was writing my novel. I interviewed a lot of people back then that had this same kind of magical thread running through their lives."

I didn't know then what I know now: Bruce's novel is science fiction, but it is set within a very real, modern context. He wrote about CIA experiments on a secret force of psychic soldiers during the Vietnam war.

For his research, he interviewed hundreds of Vietnam vets, most of them with what we had not yet come to understand as PTSD.

He saw in me what he saw in them: the spark of life in the aftermath of the ravages of trauma. Somehow, that crazy, pompous, cantankerous man saw in me something I didn't know was there; something I am only now learning to identify: that inner real me, crying out for recognition:

I am here! I survived! I WANT TO LIVE!

My story with Bruce will continue next week. Oh yes, dear readers, there's more!


  1. Once again fantastic writing, so engaging. I'm looking forward to reading your future novels:)

    If you liked the film Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy you have to see the BBC series from the 80's it's extremely similar but there's more of it and Alec Guinness is in it.

  2. "We argued often about the virtues of each type, and eventually agreed to disagree about which was the most awesome."  The soft, sensual kind, obviously!  Der, Chris!
    "His first entrance was like all his others: noisy, reckless, late, carrying bundles of books and papers and leaving a cloud of disaster in his wake."  I am now officially in love with Bruce.  Or your writing.  Or both.  "He's just stopped by to say thanks. And that he's looking forward to seeing her again very soon."  Holy crap.  I got chills up my arms reading that.Similarly, my father-in-law insists that Robert E. Howard did not get the idea for his Conan character so much as Conan appeared to him with an ax and forced him to write down his story.  I'm not sure what's up with that.Wait.  Stephanie Meyer doesn't even provide sex scenes?  What a rip.  So glad I didn't spend $13.00 per hardcover for that."Hoarders Goes To College." Bwahaha.  "He said: 'It's all right here. You're not afraid of dying. You're afraid of a living death.'"  Hold the phone.  That is ... amazing.  

    Yay!  Can't wait for more Bruce.  

  3. Oh, this really didn't like my paragraph formatting this time.  Sorry about that.