When and if he happens,
he'll see the future
in tarot cards and Irish coffee.
He'll wait at a crowded eclectic place,
unworried that I'm far beyond late.
As I finally arrive, rain in tow,
he'll let all of the non-reasons go.
When and if he happens,
he won't question my quiet nature
or the ever-gestating masterpiece;
the one laden with mistakes.
He won't coerce me to change
or see anything wrong with how
I sometimes like being alone.
When and if he happens,
I'll lean upon his shoulder,
as She drifts away from me
and I hear someone say:
"She wasn't in any pain."
He'll instinctively know
to hold me closer than close. –from A Garden of Storms, 2015
Many years ago, a writing professor once emphasized, “Most writers aren’t happy. If writers were happy, they wouldn’t have much to write about.” I agreed with the sentiment then, and I wholeheartedly agree with it now, ten fold.
Of course, he didn’t mean that writers went about their daily lives without ever cracking a smile. He simply meant that dramatic work comes from a place of friction; something grates against us–which produces a reaction. The writing itself documents the emotional journey (hopefully in an interesting way). Two main events provided that friction for me while writing my first literary novel, Portraits of Familiar Strangers:
1) The death of my grandmother from cancer in 2011.
2) A few years later, a friend of mine changed gender, transitioning from male to female.
Of course, when I began to write, I followed a stream of consciousness approach. It was only as I trudged forward (and I do mean trudged), that those two life events gradually and naturally came to the forefront, albeit in a fictional way.
As the story took shape, as I revised my work again and again, I started to realize how depressed I was. I had never really gotten over the death of my grandmother, even though I’d previously written and illustrated a poetry book about her decline, A Garden of Storms.
One of the main protagonists within Portraits of Familiar Strangers, Patrick Whidby… in a subliminal way, he began to endure many of the things my grandmother had endured. Wounds that never heal. Negligence. And above all, hopelessness. Pure hopelessness.
To this day, there are still parts of Patrick’s struggle that I can’t read without crying. However, it was a book that I had to write. It would be too easy to call this process therapy. The novel was going to come into existence, no matter what. I was the vessel.
In regard to the second life event that manifested itself through my writing–there was one character that surprised me the most. I never expected Patrick’s sibling, Michael Whidby, to become a main character, let alone transition from one gender to another during the course of the book.
After my grandmother’s death, my roommate from college and I struck up a correspondence again. At one point, we were writing letters to one another on a weekly basis. One day, at the end of his letter, he wrote (and I’m paraphrasing): “Don, I’m transgender. I’ve been going to therapy for several years. I’m taking hormones. I’ll soon start changing. Don’t freak out.”
My very first reaction: “Why in the world would I freak out?” And then, shortly thereafter: “Why didn’t he tell me?”
As time went on, we continued to write one another. More and more of a personality shift occurred with each new letter. Eventually, as hormones increased, he disappeared, and she took his place.
Thus, I encountered a tinge of difficulty. Not because I couldn’t understand… but because I’d never see him again. Almost as if one person died, so that another could be born. That difficulty doesn’t compare with what she went through of course. Nonetheless, it was a struggle I didn’t expect.
And so I began to ask myself questions: What would it be like? As my friend goes about her day, how do others react to her? How do her neighbors react? What would those first few days be like–going out in public for the first time as a woman?
Before I knew it–the character of Rebecca was born of Michael Whidby.
Fast forward to the present… I’m in the middle of the query trenches. Though I could self-publish at any time, for a book that is so close to my heart, I want to attempt the traditional route first. Just like all of the other parts of writing, this is difficult. There is a lot of waiting. A lot of not knowing. It’s very hard– trying to convince strangers to care. However, a quote from Marcus Aurelius hangs above my computer: “What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?”
There are certainly worse things in the world. I’ve survived worse. Of the writer’s role, author Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms) once said, “It’s not cancer.”
He made the comment in a casual way, and I’m sure he didn’t mean for it to become a mantra–but at its core, it’s a true comment and a frank one. Whatever happens, as I go forward with the book–even if I encounter a mountain of rejection–I’ll keep fighting for my work and sending query letters out.
One day, all of the writer’s inherent unhappiness will be worth it. As my grandmother would say, “My ship is going to come in.”
Some films are the cinematic equivalent of mac n’ cheese; just good comfort films that sooth the soul of the viewer. Dirty Dancing, A Fish Called Wanda, and Tootsie are a few great examples. “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Priceless! Alas, there is one movie–released in 1982, the same year as Tootsie, that ranks right at the comfort food top for me: Making Love.
By modern standards, the dialogue is on the overwrought side. “God, Zack, we’ve always gotten each other through, because we’ve never been afraid to share,” stresses Claire (Kate Jackson) to her closeted husband (Michael Ontkean). “You’ve closed yourself off, and I feel helpless.” But this sugary veneer is part of why the film works, especially when one considers the era during which the film was originally released. People were dying. They were scared. Misunderstandings about HIV and AIDS were rampant. To say that movies of the time were limited in relation to gay characters and themes would be a grand understatement. From Cruising to Silence of the Lambs, from The Gay Deceivers to JFK, gay characters were generally presented as mentally ill sexual deviants, whether it be for laughs or to evoke fear. What’s more, throughout Hollywood’s earlier decades, many films had to rely on subtle visual cues or spoken hints to emphasize gay themes. While filming A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivien Leigh rightfully scoffed at Blanche DuBois’ censored dialogue. Instead of having the ability to say that her husband killed himself after she caught him in bed with another man, as Tennessee Williams wrote it, she was forced to imply that he killed himself because he was weak and wrote poetry. “You mean I actually have to say that?” she asked director Elia Kazan.
A change was definitely warranted.
Well before the likes of Brokeback Mountain, director Arthur Hiller and writer Barry Sandler took a big risk with Making Love. Their film brought gay themed drama to mainstream American audiences with a storyline that not only depicted gay protagonists in a positive, open light, but concluded in a very brazen way. Despite the cultural climate of the early 1980s, the film featured a happy ending; bittersweet maybe, but happy and earnest just the same.
A few years ago, actor Harry Hamlin admitted to television host Andy Cohen that his career changed course after his portrayal of Bart, Zack’s love interest. Though restricted afterward to roles on television, Hamlin also commented, “It was way before its time… I would do it again today.” Mr. Hamlin’s stance, in and of itself, is comfort food for the soul too. The film has brought a happy ending and a positive outlook to many viewers over the years, myself included.
“Are you happy?” Claire asks of Zack toward the end of the film, when she has remarried and Zack has moved on, now open with himself and pursuing a relationship with another man. “Yeah, I really am,” he answers. Lovely.