A very young man who called himself September took these photos. I met him my freshman year at NYU and he asked me to sit for him, a last-minute photography final deadline approaching. Looking at them now, I wonder what he saw when he looked through his camera. In one photo I am camouflaged, black and white war-painted across my face. In another, I am sitting in a canvas sack, literally and figuratively, a girl in a body bag.
So much symbolism, so little time. This was my first year in NYC. I was heady with freedom, drunk on cheap screwdrivers served in dive bars strung with Christmas lights, not so much dipping a toe in the waters of adulthood as much as diving head first into the breaking waves of it. A small town girl, drinking and smoking my way through late 80s Gotham, following a well-worn path of cracked pavement stones around the city. I purposely stepped on the cracks. Defying genetics and history to come and get me.
When I was ten, my father had a nervous breakdown. Not a buy a Harley-have an affair-get a tattoo-kind of breakdown, but a full fledged-hospitalized-white gown open down the back-kind of breakdown. I was young, I remember flashes, though some stand out more than others: where I was, visits to the hospital, strange visits home with a man who looked like my father, but did not act like my father. But the scar tissue of that time period must be harder and deeper than I realized because this idea of broken individuals, cracked not just along the surface but deep down to the core, has been and is a central theme of much of my writing. The genetics of depression, the science of disorder, the trickle down/you can’t escape/it’s only a matter of time type before it swallows you up darkness.
Inevitably the darkness came for me. And for a long time, darkness suited me. The portrait of the artist as a tortured soul rings true with so many for a reason. For me, it boils down to the fact that I see in words. It’s how I make connections in my world, in my life. Sometimes I am not even aware I’m thinking something until I put it on paper. Words make it real, make me see, let me map out and navigate. They are my atlas and my compass, my sexton and my scope. For too long I mistakenly thought that depression and the ability to see and connect through words were mutually exclusive, yin and yang–that I had to trade living a flat line of emotion for the ability to write. And as writing was the only thing that could make the dark bearable, it was a vicious circle. A little girl lost, adrift on a sea of sentences, waiting for a life raft to tow her back to shore. But at the same time, not really wanting one.
Last summer, digging through boxes that had been stored in my mother’s basement, I came across seven chapters of an idea that I wrote a long, long time ago. It was disjointed and gimmicky, switching back and forth between personas, but that was the point, I guess. What stood out to me were the ideas behind the gimmicks, the same central themes that have been the basis for every story I’ve ever imagined writing. You know, ‘THE BOOK‘. It was all there. All the same. It’s been haunting me for years apparently, stalking my psyche without me ever being fully conscious of it.
A broken father, a broken girl, and words. Now, so many years later, the themes are still there, but they are softened. I am approaching them from a very different place, a very different perspective. But they are there all the same. There were some very, very dark things in those seven fictitious chapters. Hints of rape, abuse, mental illness. There was a story within a story about a young girl with a broken back, drug addled and prostituting herself for heroin. She had the capacity to call for help, yet never did. And I read these pages and my first though was holy shit, thank god I eventually got help. But despite the darkness, the bones of the story were all there. So I will play vulture and pick over the carrion of my own words to find the choicest bits to gnaw on and digest.
I need to write the goddamn book. I feel like I need to write through it, get it out, put it on paper. I feel like it’s holding me back, like a sort of living, writhing writer’s block. I have to hack away at it and kill it by making it come alive. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, or if anyone else reads it, those things can be decided down the line. But I feel like I owe it to myself to write the story I’ve been carrying around in my soul for the last twenty years. Because I feel like I can’t go under it or over it or around it. I have to go through it.
So by writing the above paragraph, I made it real. I’d like to say I have a timeline, but I’ve never been good at timelines. But soon.
I am not the girl I was in these pictures. Whether it is age or pharmaceuticals or something else entirely, I can’t say. But here is the best part: I can still weave magic in my head with my words. I can still feel my heart ease when I put them on paper. When I bridge a gap with description or navigate a minefield of emotion with metaphor, my heart flutters. The edges haven’t dulled even though I am in a much brighter place. I am not tortured, but I can write.
And now I can look forward to the portrait of the artist as a woman.