Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Couldn't Have Written This Better, Myself

When a writer says to you, "I couldn't have written this better, myself," listen up.

Things are about to get crazy.

So here's the scene: three weeks ago, it's a Friday, and I am wrangling toddlers and puttering around, mentally preparing for my Saturday blogging session-- the second half of the Bruce story that you saw in the last post.

The phone rings, and it's my sister Liz, and she says she has Something To Tell Me.

That was how she said it, with capital letters and everything.

"Okay," I say, automatically scrolling through the things this particular girl might feel the need to Announce She Needs To Tell Me in this way: I'm getting married! I got a new acting gig! I joined the circus! 

Wait a minute. 

"Good, I hope?" She seems in good spirits, but it's probably best to clarify and make sure I haven't prematurely narrowed the field.

"Yes," she says. "At least, I hope it is. I think it's wonderful. I hope you end up thinking so, too."


"It's about your blog," she says, jerking my over-active imagination to quick and bewildered halt and veering down a very unexpected path.

"Ooookaaaay," I say. I have no idea where this is going.

"So you know I have to read your blog with a box of tissues handy, and last week's post about Bruce was no exception," she says. "And after I read it, I started thinking that any teacher would love to hear about it if they had affected a student that way.

"So... I picked up the phone, and I called your college. And they connected me with someone named Ralph. You remember Ralph?"

It's around this time that I realize I'm going to need to sit down.

"I remember Ralph," I tell her, my voice catching. I clear my throat. "Yes, of course I remember Ralph. He was my mentor. He was the director of my department."

"Well, I spoke to Ralph, and he was very gracious, and he totally remembered you and was glad to hear that you were doing so well, and he told me that the Bruce you were talking about would have to be-"

"Bruce McAllister," I say. My pulse is pounding in my ears.

"Right, Bruce McAllister," says Liz. "So I googled him, and it turns out that he is still in Southern California, and he's a professional writing coach. He has a website!"

Yes, I think, but don't say. Yes, I know. I cover my eyes and lean on one elbow. The tears start. Oh god.

I've googled Bruce, of course I've googled him. I was thrilled and relieved to see his picture, see him well and thriving, see that he is still working with writers-- of course he is. Of course he is. A teacher like that can do nothing else but teach, no matter what his circumstances.

"Soooo," says Liz, and I should be screaming right now, I think, or running from the room, stop this, stop this STOP THIS! ...but instead I'm gripping the phone and listening and my sister tells me, "I emailed him. And I told him your story. And I sent him a link to your blog."

My palms are sweating, my hands are shaking, my body is tight, trembling, ultra-sensitive to light and sound. I actually reach out and close the blinds behind the couch. I feel the stretch of every muscle required for this action, a shock of pinched nerve in my elbow, a click of tendon in my wrist. My stomach is clenching, a tendril of nausea deep in my throat.

This is an inappropriate response, some lucid part of my brain says calmly. This is completely ridiculous. This is not bad news. This is best-case scenario. This is the movie version of your anxious little life, happening right now in real time. What the fuck are you freaking out about?

My lucid brain swears at me a lot.

Liz continues: "So, less than 12 hours later, I got an amazing response, and I'm going to read it to you right now."

Dear Liz:

What a wonderful email to receive.   One of those real gifts that come along only once in a while, believe me.  Not only do I remember your sister, but I remember her story and that office conversation we had vividly.  It's been important to me, too, over the years, though of course for my own set of reasons.  

Thank you for the link; I'll be checking it regularly, believe me.  Kate does write wonderfully, and with the story she has to tell I'm not at all surprised she has so many followers.  I do hope a book comes from it.  Please tell her hi for me; and, if you think she might be interested, please pass along to her this link to an interview with yours truly that just posted:  

The part on the medical crisis I was going through at that time and how I healed by writing is why I'm sharing it; the rest is just writer-talk, and she doesn't have to slog through.   Moral:  We all write--if we write--to heal in one way or another, as all writers know.


At this point, I'm blubbering like an idiot and halfway to a panic attack. Bruce remembers me. He remembers that meeting. Somehow, that fact validates my own memory of the remarkable power of that conversation. I never told him what happened after I left his office, and yet he remembered it anyway. I can't quite get my head around it.

"I hope it's okay that I did this," Liz says, now crying herself. "I just think it's so amazing, what you're doing. I'm so proud of you and I want everyone I know to read it, and I thought Bruce would want to know the impact he had on you."

In spite of all the reeling and the sweating and the impending vomit, I am able to tell Liz what honestly feels like the truth: "It's fine," I say. "It's good. It's better than good, it's amazing. This is the right direction. I would have gotten here eventually-- at least, I hope I would have-- but now I'm here and I can't put it off anymore and it's... fine."

In the intervening weeks, I've been waiting for the other boot to drop, and it hasn't. Intellectually, I expected to feel violated by the whole thing. Why get involved in something so intensely personal without checking with me? My boundaries around this sort of thing are notoriously narrow, blog or not. 

But emotionally, that second wave never came, and instead of feeling uncomfortable, I have felt increasingly liberated by Liz's gesture, and by Bruce's generous response.

More importantly, in case you missed it: I have FELT. 

The first few days after that phone call, I got to watch my PTSR in full display. For the first time, though, part of me stayed alert and objective, and I was able to observe myself in a full-blown triggered reaction from start to finish. 

It started with the physical symptoms-- shaking, nausea, panic-- during the phone call. And then the fight-or-flight response kicked in, first Flight, then Freeze: Run! Get away! Hang up the phone! Stop this conversation NOW NOW NOW!

After the call was over, I paced around the house for a while, alternately feeling sick and elated, waiting for the anger and dread to kick in. Since I knew what was happening, I tried, as an exercise, to simply sit with those uncomfortable feelings for a while and try to process them and accept them and integrate them and move on. This is something Dr. Oz has been telling me to do for months, and I hadn't been able to identify an opportunity until now.

So I did that for a while. I feel physically sick. Why is that? Where do I feel it in my body? What else is my body telling me? What is uncomfortable about this, anyway? Why does this feel like such a crisis? Isn't it positive? 

Why do positive events have such a negative effect on my body and mind?

All of a sudden, something I've understood abstractly for months became viscerally clear. Remember this diagram?

Image recreated from Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide To Auto Accident Trauma & Recovery by Diane Poole Heller, Ph. D.

Those two horizontal lines represent normal boundaries of experience-- typical limits for highs and lows, before things become overwhelming. The red line is the normal, healthy charge and release of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. And the black, jagged line is that charge and release under the influence of ongoing PTSR.

One of the things that PTSR sufferers tend to do (consciously or otherwise) to keep their emotional balance from careening out of control like this is reduce the triggers. For example, people avoid the site of their trauma-- a childhood home, a spot on the sidewalk, a certain curve in the highway. Or they have difficulty on the anniversary of a traumatic event. Some car accident victims don't drive, or limit their driving. That sort of thing.

Makes sense, right? But what that does, especially if left unexamined and untreated, is begin to narrow those boundaries of experience, both emotionally and literally.

After a while, you're functioning with boundaries that look more like this:

Here, normal functions (the red line) start to feel stressful, and anything outside of that can put you into crisis territory. But that's the trade-off: in order to limit triggers, you have to limit your experience. Before long, your emotional capacity becomes modified as a result.

And when you've been at it for as long as I have, it starts to get really fun. Because the more you limit your experience, the less it takes to trigger you, and that causes you to limit your exposure even more.

In that case, you get something that looks like this:

You'll notice that in this diagram, even normal emotional charge and discharge lie outside of the boundaries. This is a person who lives in a constant state of overwhelm, whose emotional capacity is so narrow that things seemingly inconsequential to others can be incapacitating.

A few months ago, I had loaded the kids into the car and was on my way to the gym when I remembered I needed to call the property management office for our rental and request a plumber for a leaky faucet. I went into a complete panic and had to pull over, where I freaked out for a full five minutes about what to do next. 

I was already on the way to the gym. Should I turn around and go home? Then I'd have to deal with the girls' disappointment at not getting to go to the gym's playground. Could I wait until tomorrow to call the office? But I'd already put it off for weeks and the leaky faucet was beginning to keep me awake at night. I went back and forth and back and forth, paralyzed and anxious and unable to see the solution.

And then that small, lucid voice inside spoke up: I was talking about a trip to the gym and a 2-minute phone call. These things were not mutually exclusive--could even be done concurrently-- and, more importantly, neither was stress-worthy. This was not a situation that should send me spinning out of control.

Until last summer, things like this happened to me all the time and I didn't have the perspective to squelch the panic reaction. Something as simple as this could either keep me from leaving my house or prevent me from getting a needed repair in my bathroom, because I couldn't hold both in my consciousness at once.

It is an exhausting way to live.

As my awareness of my PTSR grows, I am noticing things like this all the time and really beginning to wonder how much of my life I've simply missed, buried as I've been under a pile of futile anxieties and false distractions. The weekend after Liz's phone call, as I observed my reptilian brain's reaction to this boundary-pushing experience, I got to see a particularly disturbing-- and frustratingly familiar-- defense mechanism at work:

After a few hours, I began to forget the phone call ever happened.

That sounds crazy, I think. But it's true. It's as if some sort of inner Pac-Man were swallowing up the events of my day, and they were disappearing before my eyes. I saw it coming and I fought it off for a few hours, but eventually, I must have tired of the fight and given up. I don't remember.

It felt like a fog bank, slowly seeping in and covering my memories, making them hazy, then  indistinct, and then obscuring them completely. By the third day, the conversation and the surrounding hours were gone. Three or four days later, I remembered with an uncomfortable start that something had, indeed, happened, that my sister had called me, that we'd spoken about Bruce, but the details were difficult to recall. It was like trying to remember a dream a week after you've woken from it.
You doubt your sanity, in moments like this.

I remembered that she had forwarded me her email and Bruce's reply, because I'd seen it come in while we were still on the phone. I had to search through my inbox to find it-- I hadn't even opened it. Out of sight, out of mind. I read them both, and some details came back. 

I wrote them down to fix the event in my mind. I don't so much remember the conversation now as I remember remembering. 

End to end, this was a new and novel experience for me. I've been functioning like this for years without noticing; losing moments, experiences, days to this fog bank that creeps in when emotions run high to settle things and keep them under control, very effectively preventing me from fully inhabiting my own life and the richness of a healthy emotional range.

All the real feelings-- sadness, joy, grief, excitement, terror, jubilation-- get swallowed up in the fog. Insulated. Shrouded. Obscured. Deadened. Rendered silent and powerless, and hidden from view.

I have seen, now, how this monster works, how tenacious it is, how difficult it is to resist even when I am aware of its tactics and watching it approach head-on. I wasn't able to stop it, but I fought it off for longer than I ever have, and more importantly, I was conscious of it for the first time, whether I won or not.

And that, my friends, is goddamn something. 

So I offer my sincere thanks to my boundary-pushing sister, Liz, without whose generosity of spirit I might still be waiting for the Next Big Step in my work with this therapy, and in my life as a writer. It seems more than just coincidence, as time goes on, that the two are linked.

Liz, thanks for reminding me that the web of support out there is beyond my narrow scope. You've restored an invaluable connection for me in Bruce, and you've reconfirmed that I am heading in the right direction on this strange journey. Thanks for knowing it was time to take a leap.

In the fight against the fog, I'm glad you're on my side. 

In case you're wondering, I have written to Bruce and thanked him for... well, everything. I hope to hear back from him soon, and that he won't mind me sharing these developments here. 

I hope, also, that you will check out his books, Dream Baby, Humanity Prime,and The Girl Who Loved Animals: And Other Stories .

You can also find his short stories in many anthologies and years' best collections, including  The Best American Short Stories 2007 and The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection. And you can check out his website here and his Wikipedia page with a partial listing of his short fiction publications here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Feather And The Fang

So, where was I?

I did a lot of writing during my semester in Bruce's class, all of it about Ian Becker. I still have those pieces, but they're buried in storage at the moment. I will dig them out, I promise, and maybe even share some bits and pieces here if it's not too embarrassing. 

What strikes me most strongly about him now is something I struggled with at the time, because even though I didn't understand it at the time, I felt compelled to write him this way: not as a predator, but as an observer of life. That is what he does, how he spends his time. Embodied death, watching the living from the shadows. 

He's not a killer, Ian. Or at least, he tries not to be. It's the classic romantic vampire's conundrum: the desire for love and human connection vs. the unquenchable thirst for blood. He longs to be included but must remain forever apart.

I'd been reading Anne Rice since early high school, years before I even owned a Volkswagen, and I had always been drawn to the reluctant hero, Louis de pointe du Lac, the one who hated his dark desires and longed to exist without taking life. Louis is the vampire, of "Interview With The Vampire" fame-- the sensitive soul who reaches out to tell his story before Rice's vampire universe gets absconded with by Louis' much flashier creator, the arrogant, selfish, attention-hungry Lestat.

I never understood how anyone could prefer Lestat to Louis. 

It wouldn't surprise Dr. Oz, I'm sure, and it no longer surprises me, that the seeds for these things didn't spring up post-impact. The traits I already had were magnified by the PTSR, and that includes, I guess, a rather romantic nature of the sort disposed to wearing black clothes and hanging out in cemeteries and listening to music like this (I apologize for the ad and the German. Hang in there for a second if you want to hear the song that owned my little Goth heart!).

So the vampire idea didn't come completely out of nowhere. Where my subconscious mind was doing its real work, I think, was in the story's gimmick: the idea that this character, real and not real, dead and yet impossibly alive, comes to his creator to discuss the nature of his existence and figure out a way to live with his circumstances. And the writer is both terrified by him and inexorably drawn to him. He is her creation and, for all she knows, her destruction, but she can't turn him away. 

He is a part of her-- a very dangerous part with sharp teeth, but still, a part-- and she wants to help him even as she wants to run screaming from the room. 

I think that even in those early years, I knew there was something dark lurking inside of me; an alien force with a mind of its own. And that some day it would come knocking, and I'd have to deal with it, for better or for worse.

There's no escaping the monster in the closet.

Anyway. Ian was modeled on Louis, obviously, like all the fashionable soft, sensitive vampires that win over the hearts of teen girls these days, whether they know it or not (I'm looking at you, Edward "Sparkles" Cullen!). 

I developed Ian's character in a series of vignettes over the course of the semester, and it began to be clear to me that I had a novel on my hands, although I didn't have a clear idea then  of where it was going or how to get there. I continued to work with Bruce, whose commitment to his students and thorough, thoughtful attention is as awe-inducing today as it was then (maybe even more so now, having been a college professor myself).

Every class session, twice a week, Bruce would burst into the room carrying a milk crate piled with rubber-banded stacks of used books and copied pages from magazines, anthologies, textbooks, or who-knows-what. Each bundle was marked with a student's name, and each student got a stack often, if not every time, along with a personal comment from Bruce: "I saw these short stories and thought of you. Read them for ideas on how to develop character," or, "Here are some thoughts by female writers on creating believable love scenes. I thought they might be useful for your next chapter," or, "These essays are relevant to the things you're doing with point of view. See what you think of them."

Halfway through the term, however, something happened, and everything changed.

Bruce left.

It was a "health crisis," they told us, although we never found out what kind. Cancer. Thyroid. Nervous breakdown. Rumors flew, as rumors do in small communities, but we were assured that Bruce was okay; that we'd have a sub for the remainder of the term; that Bruce would have oversight and give us our final grades.

I wrote some more in the final weeks of class, but I'd lost some of my focus, unsure of how to shape this strange story I was spinning. I didn't have the belief in myself or my work that Bruce had, and I didn't see the "magic thread" as clearly without him. I knew I had something, but I didn't quite know what it was or how to get it out onto the page in a way that made sense.

At the end of the term, right before Christmas, I went to the department office to pick up a packet I'd been told was waiting for me there. It was an envelope and a small box, both from Bruce.

Nearly twenty years later, I still have the contents.

The envelope contained a letter from Bruce to the entire class. It was strange and rambling and vulnerable and powerful and intense, like Bruce himself. He was ill and suffering side-effects from medication and it was too difficult for him to write, he said, so he had begun to make visual art instead as a way of remaining focused:

"As I worked on this "art" (because making something was better than making nothing at all-- a truth that would turn out to be much truer than I ever imagined) I found I could think about each of you-- your writing, your lives, and where I sensed, in deep places, you were heading. I found that what I made, for me at least, became you, an "objet"-- a koan, a totem, a two-sided mirror perhaps-- or, more accurately, a symbol of our touching in passing on the journey of our lives. I discovered in each case, too, things about myself, and in turn (as in any giving and taking)... making what I was making for you gave those things back to me." 

Whatever he'd been going through during those months-- and it was clearly affecting him profoundly and he'd become a bit unhinged by it-- he was still channeling his energy toward us, his students.

"May what I am giving you mean at least something. It is, I know, a poor substitute for the curriculum you deserve but at least it is a giving, a making (as any teaching is) in response to your own "making" and struggles and victories and destinies-- your own life." 

Inside the box was an ornament: a small, winged cherub, painted gold. One side of its face was painted black, and bright red drops dripped from the corner of its mouth. A vampire on one side, a smiling angel on the other. Hanging from the cherub's feet on golden threads were a white feather and a smooth, polished stone in the shape of a fang.

Along with the ornament was a card with a picture of Shiva on it, and on the back, in red pen, a hand-written note from Bruce:

for Katie: Vishnu and Shiva (the Hindu god of preservation and goddess of destruction)

Without her dark brother, the Angel of Roses cannot understand death. Without his sister, the Angel of Dead Children cannot understand life. Only together (and that is why they are in love) can they understand what it means to be truly human.

For your writing and your life.



The card. The cherub ornament is packed away in storage somewhere. I will find him ASAP and post a picture!

I am still moved by such a pointed effort to connect, to reach out and shed light in the darkness and make meaning from chaos.

He may have been doing it, in large part, to find meaning in his own personal chaos at the time, I don't know. 

What I do know is that I carried that cherub with me for years, like a talisman.

I still have it tucked away in a box with the most precious keepsakes from my life's journey, and every time I look at it, I remember his words in his office that night, and I marvel that someone said those things to me-- to me!-- and I am grateful to have such a visceral, physical memento of one of the most important moments of my life.

I never saw Bruce again. 

He didn't return the following term, and I graduated that spring and moved away shortly thereafter. I thought of him often over the years, especially in grad school, when I showed up to my first MFA short fiction workshop with a piece about Ian and was nearly laughed out of the building.

MFA programs are notoriously unfriendly to anything but the most mainstream fiction. "Genre" fiction, I learned very quickly, was a) not real, serious fiction, and b) not going to be received well by... well, anyone. 

But if I really wanted to, I was told, I could take the occasionally-offered "genre" class, where people who wrote things that could be described with words like "mystery," "horror," "science fiction," "fantasy," or anything else not typically found in the pages of the New Yorker huddled together under a bare, flickering light bulb beneath a damp staircase and whispered their shame to each other.

Or at least, that was how they made it sound.

By that time, I was long accustomed to choosing the path of least resistance to keep things calm and manageable in my head, and so I shifted my writing to fit the mold. And I left Ian's story stranded where it was, even though I knew by then that it was my story I was trying to tell, and in that way it was not really a "genre" piece at all.

I had no fight left in me for such things by then. I was too busy marshaling resources for a different battle all together.

A battle that I will talk about in a future post. Not ready to go there yet. 

Not yet.

Update: Astonishingly, the Bruce story has a new chapter! Tune in next week for more!