On Robin Williams, suicide and survival

Like many others, I first learned of Robin Williams' suspected suicide via Twitter as I sat at my desk at work. When I read the initial news, I let out an audible gasp.

And then I started crying. Crying because I genuinely loved Williams as an actor and a comedian -- I grew up watching Mork & Mindy. Good Will Hunting is one of my favorite films.

Crying because in that moment, I also felt his pain immeasurably.

I felt the absence of hope, the absence of faith that life will get better. The absence of any light.

It's almost the exact same reaction I had earlier this year on March 17 when I learned that the fashion designer L'Wren Scott, 49, had committed suicide by hanging herself in her Manhattan apartment.

I didn't know Scott of course -- until her death, I didn't even know she'd been dating Mick Jagger -- but I knew her name. I'd seen it in magazines, accompanying photos of celebrities wearing her clothes. Scott crafted beautiful pieces that were both modern and retro cool.

Her suicide shook me to my core, bringing me to a horrible, dark place.

Have you ever felt suicidal?

I have. I've suffered from depression for years, and that suicidal feeling is one I know all too well. It is a horrible, awful and dark, dark place. It is the feeling of loneliness and despair and pain and emptiness and a lack of hope and an absence of all things good -- all things beautiful and worth living for. It is all those feelings, wrapped tightly into a homemade hand grenade barbed with self-loathing.

I remember the last time I felt that way: I was in bed, curled on my side, trying to sleep but overcome with a suffocating sense of loss and purpose. A loss of hope, a loss of faith, a loss of light. The feeling was so tangible, it physically hurt. My chest and stomach ached. I felt as though I'd been immersed in a pit of black. A black hole. A vacuum. A vacuum that felt near impossible to escape.

Eventually, I managed to confide in my husband. Then in my best friend. And then in a therapist.

I am grateful that I made it through, but for some that vacuum eventually consumes everything. To be honest, I'll never know for sure if I've entirely climbed out of that pit. That's the brutal mystery of depression.

Now, as I think about Robin Williams, my mind and my heart and my stomach wonder, very briefly, about the place that overcame his mind, heart and stomach in the moments before he took his own life.

And all at once I feel horrible and sad and something of a survivor's guilt but also relief that I made it out of that place, at least for now. When you learn that someone's succumbed to those feelings that relief is both overwhelmingly comforting, but it's also no solace at all.

Please, please, please if you feel yourself falling into that vacuum, talk to someone. A friend, a therapist, a doctor, a complete stranger. Likewise, if you have reason to believe that someone is despondent or considering suicide, please reach out. If you're not sure how to do that, ask someone else for help.

Anyone. Please.

It's super noisy out there, so why write?

I'm writing this from a chilly conference room in San Jose, which at this particular point in time is home to the BlogHer14 conference. The subject: The Future of the Social Web.

It's a heady topic, covering the last 10 years of change--from Friendster and Blogger and MySpace to whatever hip new thing you're totally beta-geeking out about right now.

One of the main takeaways that I'm getting from this, however, is a constant: There are people hungry for content and content creators are always working hard to figure out how to get those eyes on their websites, blogs, apps, photos, videos, games, etc. And, of course, there are so many people and companies clamoring to figure out the ways to "monetize" their "brand."

(And if I never hear the words "monetize" and "brand" again after this weekend, it will be too soon).

(Fun fact: I once unironically used the word "brand" in reference ot myself in a conversation with my friend and I've hated myself over it ever since. Seriously, sometimes it's the last thing I think about before I fall asleep and I think, "Why? Why were you that asshole?")

(This is nothing against those who do want to monetize their brand. Honestly. It's just not for me.)

The primary question that it leaves me with is this: Where do I fit in?

I've worked as a journalist for 20 years now--that means I've always had eyes on my work.

But when it comes to my personal writing, that audience has mostly been smaller, more intimate, more curated.

And by that I mean that sometimes it's just been an audience of one: Me.

(Cue throwback pic of junior high-age me writing in my diary. Oh wait, that picture doesn't exist? #sorrynotsorry).

Of course sometimes there have been more people. Ten years ago-ish I launched my first website and blog and used that as a place for both blogging and posting creative work. Mostly my entries centered on pop culture. Music, film, fashion, a little politics, maybe too much Britney Spears. I also posted a lot of poetry. Because I just know how much the world was clamoring to read all those poems I wrote the summer after my divorce. I mean, right?

At some point however I got busy and the blog lapsed and eventually I let the domain name expire. I had too much work-related writing to do--who has time to throw a few words up online for, you know, just fun?

Eventually, however, I started hungering for something else. Perhaps Facebook and Twitter fueled this where, for me at least, there's the intersection of private and public.

So four years ago I launched a new website.

And let it sit.

And then I added the blog.

And I let it sit.

And then in 2013 I posted a few entries.

And then let it sit.

Why the lethargy?

Maybe it's because, as Twitter exec Melissa Barnes just said on stage, "it's super noisy" out there.

There are so many, many, many people shouting to be heard.

And without the traditional platform of a corporate-driven print or online product, it's very difficult to rise above the din.

So honestly, sometimes, you just think 'why bother?'

And then sometimes you kick yourself in the ass and tell yourself it's not your job to be the center of the universe--it shouldn't be your goal to be the center of the universe. Rather, it's your job to write what you believe in---to write what drives you.

And so I started blogging again. This time it got more personal. I mean, really personal.

I've written about my struggles with depression, past relationships. I've written about getting an abortion and why I reject the idea that it's a taboo topic.

So far the response has been positive. Which is not to say that's why I'm posting these entries. As a paid journalist I'm pretty damn familiar with negative reactions (that's a post for a different day). But, certainly, it's helped. It's helped to realize that sometimes one voice (mine) can connect with another human being.

This really and truly means a lot when you are, like me, an inherently internal person. An introvert. Someone who, in person at least, can come across as painfully awkward (remind me to tell you about the question I tried to ask at a BlogHer panel in which the panel speaker looked at me as though I had two heads. Two very stupid heads. No big deal, really.)

When one of those posts resonates with another person, it feels damn good. Earlier this week, BlogHer posted my What we talk about when we talk about abortion post to its home page and I flipped out with joy. Never mind that my writing reaches thousands upon thousands of people weekly through my job. This was different. This was something I wrote because I couldn't stop thinking about it. This is a post I labored over for a week. This is a post that I hesitated to share--my mouse cursor lingering over the "share" button when it came to posting it on Facebook.

The reaction that I received on that post validated every single reason why I write--both ego-driven and soul-driven: To connect with people. The conversations that it opened up online and in real life (another post for another day) were revealing and rewarding.

Now, I'm not going to lie and pretend that there's not a small (OK, medium-sized) part of me that doesn't fantasize that maybe one day I'll write a blog post that goes crazy viral or that makes people look at me as if I were the next the Bloggess (hello, New York Times bestseller!) but in the stone cold light of day I know that's not how it works.

And that's not really why I'm doing it. Yes, I'd like to write more and for different audiences, for different sets of eyes. But I also want to write for myself and to connect with others--even if that other person is just a friend at a backyard party who wants to share her own experience with me.

When that happens it's goddamned awesome.

But I wouldn't say no to that book deal of course. I may be a shy introvert-asshole that once used the word "brand" in a real sentence about herself, but I'm not stupid, y'all.



The writing process: A self-interview (or why it took six weeks to write this post)

My good friend Sarah Stevenson* invited me to participate in this writing process blog tour a while back.

Actually, it was a month ago.

Wait, it was actually about six weeks ago.

So, yeah that's my writing process in a nutshell--I guess we're done here, right? Kidding. But procrastination is a big part of it, obviously.

I'm writing this post now (finally) from San Jose where I'm attending BlogHer 14, a social media conference dedicated to all things blogging, networking, and writing. Seems like as good a time as any to finally tackle this.

The writing process is a mysterious one. As Sarah wrote in her post, "writing is often an isolated, isolating activity, and that tends to make us writers feel like we're weirdos alone in our self-imposed struggles."


This applies, largely, whether I'm writing for work, working on my book or poetry, or tackling a blog post. Before I started blogging regularly again I'd tricked myself into thinking I'd blog several times a week but truth is it takes me forever to even write a post sometimes because I agonize over words, phrases, the order of information and thoughts.

I'm not saying my blog posts read as if they're superbly crafted (they do not), just that sometimes it's very, very difficult to commit them to the Internet. (The exception to this, of course, occurred when I took part in the BlogHer writing challenge, which forced me to post every day for a month).

Anyway, the degree of anxiety, neurosis and weirdness may shift depending on the focus, but those components are mostly always there.

On that note:


I'm always writing something. That's what I do for a living. Well, I'm also an editor so often this means I only have time for really short pieces. But sometimes I knock out longer articles; occasionally I even write a 3,000-word cover story. In the last couple of years I've also made a concerted effort to work on a book. It's been both a rewarding and a frustrating process. After all it's been nearly 10 years (!) since I received my MFA in Creative Writing--you'd think I'd have coughed up a book by now. I do have a contemporary lit book that I'd like to return to one day but in the last five years I've been working on two books. Both are young adult novels. One is a collaboration with a friend but for various reasons it's been on hold for the last year and a half.

I started the other book about four years ago and have been writing it on and off with more seriousness for the last two years. I've set a goal to finish the draft by the end of summer (I'm about three or four chapters out. I think. I mean, that could easily change) and another goal to do at least one serious write-through revision by the end of the year.

The book is called Kissyface but that's just a working title at this point. It's a coming of age story about a 17-year-old girl who feels stuck in childhood, abandoned by her parents and completely lost in life. 

 This is really simplifying the story of course, but ultimately that's what it's about, at least in part. The scope and tone of the book have changed so dramatically that sometimes I hardly recognize it anymore. This is mostly a good thing. In the last year or so I've worked hard to focus the story and make it something that I would want to read. That last part is key. Initially this story started out as a screenplay in the style of an 80s-era teen movie--lighthearted, funny, etc.  Now as I continue to shape it into a book, it's become more serious, more melancholy, a bit grittier in places.


Hmmm, good question. When I think of contemporary YA lit that I like--stuff like Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park or Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road, I think of books that stay with me for a long, long time. Books that make me cry or talk out loud to myself. When I finished Eleanor & Park I literally gasped at the last line. And cried a little.

Jellicoe Road was, at first, hard to get into it but I pushed through and was rewarded with an emotionally complex book that haunted me so much I had to reread it. I want to reread it again because I still can't really pinpoint just how it got under my skin.

Anyway, that doesn't answer the question I guess. Truth is I don't know how it differs other than it's my story in my voice. That's the beauty of writing fiction--or writing at all, really. No two people will craft the same thoughts into the same sentences in the same order. Even if it's a story with an ending that's already known. No two people will tell that story the same way.

More concretely, I suppose, much of my fiction deals with themes of identity--figuring out one's purpose--and also themes of friendship. The subject of female friendship is something I write on a lot. It interests me more, I suppose, than just writing a love story. Don't get me wrong, I love love--I'd really be a weirdo creep if I didn't--but when it comes to writing I think I just like examining the complexity and entanglements of relationships period, whatever their nature. Why do we interact with people the ways that we do. How do people influence us and change us? How do we influence and change them? That's an underlying theme in my current book.


Because that's what interests me. Or sometimes when it comes to poetry, it's just because it has to come out of me. That probably sounds horribly pretentious but many of my poems were written in what I can only describe as a fugue state--I have little recollection of writing them. I mean, I remember the seed of the idea and I remember putting a few words together and I remember endless polishing but often I don't remember the core that made up the experience. It's not quite the same with fiction and it's definitely not the same with journalism or my blog even.  For journalism, I write about things that either need to be covered or about things that encompass topics that interest me. For blog posts I tend to write about whatever is stuck in my craw at that particular moment.


I think the real question should be 'does it ever work?' Kidding. Kind of. I'm a horrible procrastinator and when I do get down to writing, more often than not I have that evil little voice in my head telling me how horrible my writing is.

I also get very easily distracted. The Internet does not help with this. Laundry does not help with this. A million and one minor work tasks definitely do not help with this.

In the last few years I've worked hard to push through some of these moments. To just write, almost blindly, and then sort out the mess later. I've been working from an outline on this book--which is great, but sometimes I think it can also constrain the creative process. Two years ago when I took the train out to see family in Texas I remember sitting, staring at the window, stuck in a particular spot on the book, stuck on what the outline was telling me to do. Finally I just looked down at the keyboard and started typing. At that particular moment I refused to listen to the evil voice, I refused to question the logic (or quality) of what I was writing; I refused to think too hard. I found the process pretty damn rewarding. Suddenly my story veered off course and I had a brand new character and subplot. I absolutely love the character that appeared out of nowhere once I shut off the more orderly, logical side of my brain. This is not to say that the revision on this particular writing wasn't brutal--it was--but it shows that creativity requires room to roam, wander and get lost.

That said, back to the outlines. I love working with an outline--it's vital to my journalism, too. For my book I also use flow charts and lists and other various visual tools. For example I have an online notebook with photos of what I think my characters look like. Last summer I started a family tree for my main character and I found that to be a really interesting process as it got me to better understand her quirks--most of this won't ever end up on the page, but it helps for me to know it. I also use maps, playlists and other tools that help me flesh out the characters.

Currently I'm taking a step back and applying the Save the Cat! beat sheet method to my story and that's taking me down a whole other rabbit hole. I probably should have done that first but it is interesting and useful to do it now because I think it's helping me identify issues that I might not have seen before I started writing even if I had done the beat sheet at the beginning. You know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that.


I'm not very good at explicit character back story details sheets (some people devote pages and pages to this).

I also am not very good at packing writing into small chunks of time. I wish that I were--I'd probably be done with this book a million times over by now. Truth is, I usually need a few hours to think, procrastinate, be distracted, look up stuff on the Internet, make coffee, play with my cats and, oh yeah, put a few words down.

And that's all she wrote.

For now at least.

The whole point of this blog tour is that you're supposed to pass the torch to other writers. I asked three other bloggers; two of whom declined ("too busy"--I get that) and one who, I think, pretended not to hear me. No worries. Consider this an open call to anyone who wants to join in and share his or her own process.

*Sarah Stevenson isn't just a good friend, she's also a really talented YA author. Her debut novel The Latte Rebellion received tons of acclaim and you should also check out her latest book The Truth Against the World.