Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Book from Another Era or Stuck

Back in 2002 I was working for a self-publisher that I'll call One Horse (because that's the name of the Menomena song that's playing now). It was a life-altering, bizarre, stressful, hilarious workplace. Know this: in a parallel universe, I accepted the offer to live in the Philippines for 7-8 months a year and oversee a book production department. (I would "live like a king" on my salary. I would gain "invaluable experience." I would be a "valued asset, even twelve time zones away.")
In this, preferable reality, I declined and moved on from that place. I earned a couple of graduate degrees, adopted a dog, started a family, played my guitar and some video games.
But during my time at this self-publishing juggernaut , I decided on a much-needed ass-kicking project: write a short story collection. I had a story from college that won an award. I had ideas that involved using that story as a hub of sorts and telling other stories about characters from that central piece. Why not find a way to finish a project? Something that couldn't be brushed aside! Something with a structure, so it wasn't just a bunch of ideas that I had no reason to finish.
Outlines and legal pads full of rough drafts began to take cover my apartment floor. My collection, titled Stuck, would take a cue from James Joyce collection Dubliners. The structure would follow, roughly, an arc with each successive character somewhat older than the main character of the prior story. The opening story follows an 8 year old girl and ends with an 80 year old woman.
"This is a book written by a depressed person." -- paraphrase of my therapist back in 2002
My final year of college, when many of the ideas for Stuck began to appear in the muck of my brain, I lived in an apartment complex near Rowan University with two friends. It was not college housing, so most of our neighbors were regular people, some significantly older and retired, some younger, some single mothers/fathers, etc. Shaped like a U, ringing around a big grass field with a lone tree (which would get struck by lightening shortly before I moved), the complex felt perfectly suburban and lonely. My upstairs neighbor often sat on his balcony in gym shorts (though he never went to a gym), drinking Bud from a brown bottle. He drove a large, white-and-aqua Ford Bronco and demanded that he get a particular parking space. He pounded on our door one Friday night to ask who dared park in his space.
The collection eventually came together as I worked for Philladlephia-based self-publsiher, a job that taught me more than I can ever say (both good and bad). It taught me little about traditional publishing, sadly, but a lot about marketing, cubical jobs, personality disorders, conflict resolution, and more. (Plus, I met my wife there.) I eventually completed my book, designing it during my free time and constructing the cover with the help of my sister.
The end product was not just a book, but my book. Something that I had made as a writer but also as a designer. The cover photo was a photo I had taken. I wrote the copy, picked the fonts, designed the interior.
Literally, Stuck is my book cover-to-cover.
This is not to discount my love for my forthcoming debut novel, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets. That book is wonderful and fun, but profoundly different. I was a different writer when I wrote it. I was a different person. I was writing for different reasons.
Stuck will always represent another time for me. My post-college listlessness was made worse by living alone and wrestling with serious, longstanding (and undiagnosed) mental health issues.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression and social anxiety disorder (that tepid, commercially neutered term).
Stuck, as my therapist at the time said after reading it, was written by a clinically depressed person. She asked me how I felt about that. I don't remember my answer, just her statement. I don't even remember whether I wanted her to like the book or not. I was ok that she read it, of course, but I didn't know what to expect.
Stuck, unlike Dr. Bird, is not a young adult book. It's not that teenagers can't relate to depression or loneliness or characters that are beyond their teens. But Stuck is steeped in depression and anxiety. The very purpose of the book is to soak the reader in those feelings and find as many ways to describe those feelings as poetically possible (or so I believed then).
Stuck's stories are like paintings of loneliness, pacing, alienation, sorrow. (There is a moment of uplift, but really only one and when it arrives, who knows if a reader will be able to see it as genuinely uplifting or just cynicism.)
The characters are all reflections of feelings that possessed me. The title story is about a girl who isn't invited to a sleepover; she packs a suitcase and decides to go anyway. Another follows the apartment complex handyman, who steals things from apartments to distract from the guilt he feels about his alcoholic father. The entire second half of the collection involves stories about various characters who all interact on a day when an unhappy, obese woman appears at the communal swimming pool and causes the other residents to gossip.
My therapist read this collection and asked me something very important. "Evan, are you afraid that you will not be able to write if you start managing your depression?"
Was I afraid of discovering that my writing was fueled by my emotional turmoil and that my creativity would sputter out if I began to seriously manage my newly diagnosed clinical depression?
I told her no. I didn't want to be depressed all the time, so if I did lose something, I would at least be better off losing the need or urge to write if all I was writing for was to battle depression.
Honestly, I did fear losing something. I feared losing myself, being numb. I didn't believe I would stop writing, though. Not then.
Still, my writing process, my very writerly life, didn't ignite totally for another five or six years after that -- with almost eleven years between my self-published personal project and my first novel. But I managed to get through. I manage my depression and anxiety. I am not numb or perfect. But I write and have many things that help me feel happy.
And thank goodness that's all true and I didn't lose my will to write. Writing is too much damn fun.