Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel”

December 14, 2016

The second edition of my 2011 novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, just came out so I thought I’d write a little about the hell of writing it just in case you had a tortured artist on your gift-giving list.

The twentieth century ended not with a bang but a whimper. I was in the throes of a classic Randy heartbreak. (I hadn’t yet accurately identified the pattern or the appropriate response.) I was going through a divorce with a woman I had met in a poetry reading in Augusta, Georgia. We got married after the Atlanta Olympics and I brought her to Portland, mistakenly thinking that I was ready to be in a partnership and that she was ready to settle down.

I tried to comfort myself with the idea that it was just a “starter marriage” (A Gen X hot topic at the time), but there was a trip to Cannon Beach with the thought of hurling myself off an appropriately dramatic cliff. Long story short, I didn’t, but got into therapy and got on an anti-depressant called Zoloft. There was other suicidal behavior in my family so I began to wonder what that impulse was about and, more importantly, what was it that stopped most of us from actually doing it.

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Since I had been pretty successful as a spoken word artist in Atlanta, I thought it was time to write something longer than a poem. It was musician Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles who had given me a copy of Sophie’s Choice to encourage me to follow my fantasy of becoming a writer. Now I had the start of an idea for what might be an important book – Why is it so hard to kill yourself?

It’s not a rock opera

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Someday I’ll write a whole thing about the joys of locking yourself in the room in the days before the internet and even MTV and listening to record albums. Suffice it to say, I did it a lot in the 1970s. When I was 13, one of my favorite albums was A New World Record by the Electric Light Orchestra. For those out of the loop, ELO’s schtick was that they played rock music with a string section (like how Chicago had a brass section). Very Beatle-inspired pop that infected the airwaves. This album had songs with compelling characters, like opera singers and a guy on a telephone and an alien, and a mother on a corner with a baby.

My teenage brain, alone in my room, strung all the songs together into one long narrative. Maybe I was listening to The Who’s Tommy too much but I believed I was listening to a “rock opera.” It all seemed to fit together to well.

When I got a CD version of the album 20 years later I realized it was just a bunch of songs, not a concept album. But then I thought, “What if someone were to write the story I first heard all those years ago? It could be a rock novel!” Adding a few contemporary themes, like homeless youth and turn-of-the century-depression, and you have a new genre!

Late night on the iMac

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Between preparing lectures, going to shows, occasionally sobbing, and inhabiting Portland dive bars like I was Sinatra with an ungodly thirst for Jack Daniels, I’d write away. I was translating my funk and the world it existed in, trying to find the answer to this question. The ELO album played over and over as I used it as a template for my story about a small group of Portland creatives, a gutter punk with a baby and a dude who may or may not be an alien. I’d bash away at my aqua iMac as I lived with these people; Zak, Lenny, Cozy, Telly, and Lucinda.

By the last chapter, I had the answer. Why we hold on. And a wonderful story about the power of music to move us through the tar pits of our lives. On December 31, 1999, I took a draft of the manuscript into the desert at the Warm Springs reservation and read it as the sun set on the century. I burned the pages to keep warm and hoped my hard drive back in Portland was safe from the Y2K bug.

It was really the writing of it that saved me. During that period I also co-authored a great book on suburban delinquency, bought a house, weened myself off the Zoloft, and took a visiting professorship at Emory University. I suddenly didn’t need the book, until I did again. That’s when I self-published it in 2011. It’s done pretty well, getting some amazing attention, and now it’s been optioned by a screenwriter in Hollywood for a future film project. And it all came out of a moment when I thought there might be something better to do than throw myself into the sea because my heart got beat up.

Why we stick around

The answer that I reached on the last page of The Mission of the Sacred Heart is that we stick around to see how things turn out. In our deepest moments of sorrow, sometimes it’s hard to see the countless moments of joy and lay ahead of us. If I had jumped I would have missed so many blissful moments; drives across the country, being inches away from Patti Smith as she sang “Gloria,” seeing Andrea walk into a room for the first time, hearing Cozy say, “I need to poop,” and more to come. Why walk out before the movie ends? Even Speed 2 had a pretty cool ending.

The sequel to Mission, The Dream Police, is now out and getting a positive response. I thought it was time to clean Mission up a bit, fix the cover, and take out a few less evolved terms in the story. (Sorry history, “retarded weathermen” and “big boobed Asians,” as funny as they sounded, have been revised.) Mission had an important impact on some folks who were going through the same thing I was, so it has served its purpose, but it’s still a timeless story about those moments and how we survive them with the power of a good song.

I’m not intending to write a trilogy. The Dream Police may be the last time we see Lenny, Zak, and Cozy. But who knows? I just want to get these books to people so they can be as good friends to them as they were to me.

The Mission of the Sacred Heart is available here on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.

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Why George Bailey (and I) didn’t jump off that bridge.

December 23, 2015

Who doesn’t love all the lights and spiked eggnog? The Fox News war on Hanukkah aside, there’s lots of smiles in this season of holidays. But for so many, Christmas is a time of deep sadness. Even the best seasonal songs are downers, like “Blue Christmas” and “ Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (“Next year our troubles will be miles away”). It’s a myth that suicide rates go up over the holidays but it makes sense to a lot of people that between the economic pressures to buy more crap, absent loved ones and your drunk uncle who won’t stop complaining about ISIS, the exit door has a strong appeal.

On top of this is the uplifting, then soul crushing, then uplifting again Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. The 1946 film was a sleeper hit thanks to UHF and late night movie showings in dozens of Decembers. It’s rightfully become a classic, brilliantly executed by director Frank Capra. That close-up shot of the face of George Bailey (completely inhabited by Jimmy Stewart) when he realizes he is experiencing something more than a lucid dream has surely inspired every little David Lynch to see that film has the potential to slam every human emotion into one brief scene.

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I’ve seen this film more than any other and it is burned into my consciousness. When I fell through the ice as a kid, I worried about losing my hearing. When I lectured about bank fraud to my criminology students, I talked about Mr. Potter’s savings & loan grab. And on the Christmas Eves that I was alone I just wanted to get drunk in a bar like Martini’s. Flaming rum punch! We assume everyone and their buffalo gal has seen it.

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Capra takes on the dark matter of suicide and puts a Christmas bow on it and then hits us over the head with the message that our lives really do matter. George Bailey decides not to kill himself, instead returning to his family and friends. Then Clarence gets his angel wings and Zuzu’s petals grow into a garden. “We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

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The dark matter of suicide has been a theme in my own life, as anyone who has read The Mission of the Sacred Heart could guess. The first time I stood on the edge, I had just turned 16 and was overwhelmed by the chaos in my family (and probably too many viewings of Quadrophenia). I thought about throwing myself in a lake in Stone Mountain, Georgia that was probably three feet deep. Then there was Pont Neuf above the Seine River in Paris and the fantasy of the romantic death. The big one was in 1998, with a brief failed marriage and an assumption that “all you need is love” was a giant lie. (I still had a lot of self-reflection yet to do.)

I was pulled off a cliff in Ecola State Park by a cop from Seaside, Oregon who was very honest about his own rough patches. I agreed to go into therapy and it was the beginning of the journey to understanding what this suicidal impulse was. It’s something that runs in the family. There have been a bunch of attempts by others in my clan, but we all came out the other side better people. It seems silly or stupid to people who have never been encased inside an inescapable darkness, but I know there are plenty of people reading this who have been down in that pit.

The first part of therapy is the intervention. Stop doing dangerous things! So the immediate message is this – Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. So true. If I’ve learned one thing in my 51 years on earth is that, at some point, everything will be in the rearview mirror. You are going to get knocked down in life. You are measured by how you get back up. Survive and thrive. Some seriously great stuff is coming. The other quick mantra you get is that suicide is an inherently selfish act. You check out and leave the people who love you with a lifetime of pain. So don’t be a dick on your last day.

When you are in the grips of depression, sometimes it’s hard to see that. The psychiatrist immediately put me on Zoloft which made me feel like I was mainlining espresso. But it gave me a plan. I wanted to know why is it so hard to actually kill yourself. So I started writing the story of Mission and I promised myself I wouldn’t kill myself until it was done. And then when I finished, I had my answer and decided that life was worth sticking around for. The fact that others have told me that my story helped them with their suicidal issues means I must’ve found a valid answer.

Most of us depressives have our favorite way to imagine our grand finale. For some it’s the peaceful sleep of an overdose, or a violent but quick gunshot to the head. For me it was drowning, the idea of returning to the water. Then someone told me that drowning is actually the worst way to go. You just can’t win.

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While I was writing the book, I was having a lot of conversations about suicide with a friend of mine named Heather. I was so wrapped up in fixing myself, I didn’t see how deep her struggles were. In 2008 she jumped off a parking deck, leaving a wonderful husband and 5-year-old daughter behind. She was a PhD. and well revered in her field but completely consumed by her depressive thoughts. Mission is dedicated to her. If she had decided not to jump, she could’ve gotten to see how much her daughter now looks like her.  Instead she must be haunted because of her mother’s impulse to exit.

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These things have a tendency to stick around. By the Christmas 2008, I was in a similar spot. Christmas morning I watched Wonderful Life and balled my eyes out. Then a radio program about suicide came on. (Merry Christmas!) Someone had interviewed the handful of people who had survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and they all said the exact same thing. The second after they jumped, they all said to themselves this; I want to live. More sobbing but something that people like me need to hear.

Therapy has been a wonderful friend. Besides working out why this “feminist” kept having similar problems with the women in his life, I got a better picture of my suicidal ideations. It’s about escape and control, getting the last word and checking out on your own terms. It’s not that different from the guys that shoot up their workplaces or schools with the intention of dying in a hail of police bullets. But you don’t get the privilege of looking down from heaven and saying, “I really showed them!” You’re just dead. (This is why religions really have to make suicide a big No No. The fantasy of the afterlife might make watching the aftermath of your death pretty appealing. “Oh, that asshole’s sorry now!”)

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I think my suicidal impulses really started to disappear that day in 2014 when we first heard Cozy’s heartbeat. My whole world changed in that moment. It was no longer about me but this child, about protecting her and making the world a better place for her. When she was born, my very sense of self was transformed. There was only one priority, making her and her mom happy.

The blues still come back. I’ve got a whole legion of racist skinheads, psychotic bigots, neo-Nazis, and now Trump cultists that would like me to drink an arsenic smoothie and they occasionally make my life hell. The university witchhunt that culminated last winter had me back in that black hole and I re-upped my Zoloft. I was in similar place on Christmas Eve, on the verge of losing “everything.” But it was different this time. I had a mandate to stick around and fight for my child and her generation. Cozy cured me of thoughts of diving into the Willamette River. I want to be there for her to the last moment. And I don’t want to miss a second of her own wonderful life. I would never want her to suffer the way every single child of suicide has suffered. I might be living in a box under a bridge, but I’ll be there. In a box under a bridge. I’m sure Frances Bean Cobain would take that. (And the Zoloft sits unused in the medicine cabinet if you need some.)

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That moment when George Bailey is back on the bridge, praying to live, is a gift. It’s the moment that most folks have the second after they’ve jumped and it goes unanswered by anything but the last moment of pain. There is always joy ahead. As bad as things get, they always get so much better. If I had jumped at any of those points I would have missed all the bliss that was ahead for me. That incredible Sonny Rollins song KMHD Jazz Radio played in the middle of a rainstorm yesterday. The moment yesterday when Cozy rubbed her face in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And Andrea’s beautiful face when I dropped her off for work this morning as she said, “Take care of my baby today.” How could I even have imagined forfeiting that? There are surely some hard times ahead, but there are many more moments of bliss like that.

Social media reminds us of how many totally miserable people there are out there. Some are truly suffering from depression. Some are just sad, sad people who want everybody to hurt the way they do. They haven’t found the strength yet to see the root causes of the negative patterns in their lives. I’m sure they all have had moments on that bridge in Bedford Falls. I would say to all of them, there is great joy ahead that is worth sticking around for. One minute with Andrea and Cozy is the reward for not quitting this mortal coil, easily worth all the emo months of dwelling on my grand demise. And there’s a lot more of those beautiful minutes ahead. So stick around, okay? And dance by the light of the moon.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s streaming for free here: WONDERFUL

NOTE: As my friend Dave just pointed out, George does in fact jump off that bridge, but it is to save Clarence Oddbody, AS2.