Sunday, March 1, 2015


We’re an egocentric lot. Ever notice how a certain topic may have had no relevance in your life for the past decade or two or ever and then, when it suddenly matters, the subject everywhere? Articles in the newspaper. Twitter comments. An overheard conversation on the bus. Yes, all this focus on, oh, say New York City, is a sign. The upcoming trip is meant to be. The world is telling you so, in the form of helpful bus messengers with distractingly tattooed facial features. All this Big Apple talk. New York, New York, New York. Yes, it’s all for you. What else could it be? What are the chances that the topic could come up at random? Sure, there are 8.4 million people who live in that town, but this is the West Coast, a different country even. Despite all that science gibberish, the world revolves around you. Or, really, me.

Okay, this post has nothing to do with NYC. It is true that I am making my first trip there next month, but this is not the time for that. I needed a lighter way to introduce a heavier topic. I could have led with ancient Egypt. The first time I ever taught that, articles about pyramids and Tutankhamen suddenly popped up everywhere. How could that be a coincidence? I mean, that was all old news. Ancient history.

The subject that I’ve been stumbling upon all too often in the past two years is suicide. And let’s be clear, I realize that neither Robin Williams nor recent Oscar acceptance speeches have anything to do with me. My egocentrism has its limits. The first ongoing thinking on suicide came from a screenplay idea. I had a clear vision of an opening scene involving a suicidal woman working at a daycare. Then more scenes. Dark thoughts, but darkly comical. I suppose I’ve wanted to tackle a project like this ever since I saw the underrated “Crimes of the Heart” on New Year’s Eve, 1986, in a movie theatre in Fort Worth, Texas. The performances of Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, Tess Harper and Sissy Spacek crackled, but Beth Henley’s screenplay (based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning play) was the true star. Dark, yet warm and funny at the same time. A major writing accomplishment.

And so I began to write. The flurry of early scenes came with ease. Why stop and outline? The story, the characters would be my guides. But the story and characters stalled in hospital. My comedy became melodramatic. Murderous ideas flopped. A change of setting made matters worse. I put the project aside. Not dead, but on life support. And so my suicidal character hovers about. Sometimes I pay her a formal visit; sometimes I can’t cope—I don’t know how to rescue her or her story. But I can’t let her go. She needs me.

I’m sure it is that writing and not my increasing despair that led me to read Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People a year and a half ago. I’d first seen the movie as a midnight screening on campus during my freshman year and Timothy Hutton’s performance has stuck with me ever since. (I have a Mary Tyler Moore obsession so the fact that Hutton’s portrayal lingers stronger spoke volumes about his acting and, I presumed, the source material from Guest.) Naturally, after reading the book, I had to see the movie again.

Still, my screenplay remained comatose. Thoughts about suicide continued to shuffle about in my head. But I knew, based on how the subject was taking on more personal relevance, I needed to focus on other things. Happy thoughts.

And so I bought Allie Brosh’s wildly refreshing book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened. This had nothing to do with being stuck on suicide. In fact, I stumbled upon the book after some comment I made on Twitter about not being able to follow anyone who committed three writing errors in a 140-character Twitter profile. Someone replied by saying he agreed with me “alot” and by giving me this delightful link. I bought the book, looking for a stickler companion to Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves, not as Ordinary People II*. It was as laugh out loud funny as I’d hoped. (I’ve read it twice. A third round is imminent.) But smack in the middle of the book were two brutally honest chapters on the author’s bouts with depression and feeling suicidal. My god, that’s me. How did that get slipped in? Maybe I picked up some wonky world-revolves-around-me edition.

How else to explain this sudden literary fixation?

My next book pick was one that I grabbed while in a rush at a bookstore. I bought it based on the title—It’s Kind of a Funny Story—and for the fact that I had a vague recollection that the novel had been adapted into a motion picture with a comedian or two in key roles. Figured I’d get to study a writer’s attempt to carry humor through an entire book and then I could treat myself to the movie version so I could casually fit all this into a conversation with someone, along with the standard Book Snob line, “The book was way better.”

It’s Kind of a Funny Story wasn’t a funny story at all. Not even kind of. It was all about suicide. Well, and drugs. After some heavy suicidal ideation, this kid got assigned to an adult psych ward. It mirrored so much of my hospital experience. I’d turned to reading for escape, not for validation of my traumatic experience. SPOILER ALERT: The book ends with the kid making it. He’s almost rosy-hopeful in the end. I made the mistake of Googling the author, Ned Vizzini. He killed himself in December 2013 at the age of thirty-two.

So not funny. I never bothered checking out the movie.

Next came The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. No suicides. But the main character’s husband goes through years of depression. Still not enough distance from the subject.

In searching for this image, I discovered
the book was adapted into a movie last
year. Who knew? Apparently, based on
box office returns, no one.
My most recent read is by British author Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down. I checked it out of the local library right before planning my most recent weekend escape to Seattle. He was doing a talk and a book signing for his new release, Funny Girl, and I felt it would be rude to attend without having read—or begun—one of his prior titles. I passed on the more familiar books on the shelf like About a Boy and High Fidelity. I wanted to be different. Maybe I could pose a question based on a less celebrated work. Ooh! Maybe I’d sound smart. A veritable Book Snub who doesn’t even need movie adaptations to guide reading selections! All I knew about the book was that it was about four very different characters and that Hornby took on the first-person narratives of each. And it was supposed to be funny. My kind of reading, my kind of writing—at least, what I aspire to write.

The first sentence brought back a familiar refrain. “Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block?” Seriously?! Yes, the four characters had nothing in common. Nothing except for the fact they each decided to commit suicide from the same building on the same New Year’s Eve.

How to explain this unconscious cycle of suicidal reading? Perhaps I have been irresponsible. I do hate reading book blurbs. I don’t want an inkling of plot revealed too soon. But for the next little while, I think I must change my reading habits. I’ve got Tina Fey’s Bossypants on deck next. She doesn’t seem the suicidal type. Maybe I’ll retreat to comics after that. Collections of Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, anything by Berkeley Breathed.

I would happily let the world revolve around someone else right now.

Or, if everything must continue to revolve around me, I need to channel a new topic. The inexplicable fascination with the Kardashians? The life of a belly dancer? Amazonian grasshoppers?

New channel. Please.


*I do realize that not everyone agrees with my conscious decision to leave off the s when writing the possessive form for a person whose name ends in s. To me, adding the extra s looks cluttered, a distraction to the eye as I read. The apostrophe hanging after the s in the last name suffices. Not sure what Lynne Truss’ (or Truss’s) position is on the matter. I could look it up in her book, but that would be a mere formality. I won’t change on this issue.

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