ON LOSS, ON ART

 

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

We’ve experienced some loss here recently.  It was hard for all of us to learn that Louise’s wonderful, talented, charming husband Bruce had died.  I think we’re all experiencing that same kind of shock after hearing about Cornelia’s father, who died from suicide last week.  We’re all thinking about them, and caring about them, during this very painful time.

Cornelia’s post about her father brought instant memories of my own father, who took his life twenty-five years ago.  I was twenty years old. 

I want to be careful not to detract from their losses by rattling on about my own ancient history.  But, in many ways, it’s never ancient history.  Although things are easier, I still live with this loss every day.  Last night I woke from a dream that I was certain was real.  I dreamed that, after many years thinking my father had died, I discovered he was alive and well, having faked his death and assumed a new identity.  I dreamed that we were close again, that I had forgiven him for disappearing and making us think he had killed himself.  I sat for twenty minutes awake in bed before I realized that I had it all wrong.

Everything that has happened in my life since the day he died has been influenced by that moment.  Every sentence I’ve written flows from that place of wonder and anger and passion and curiosity and pain.

I’ve always written stories and by the time I was twenty I was in the middle of writing my first screenplay.  A crucial relationship in the story involved the eighteen-year old protagonist and his estranged father.  The father didn’t know how to love his son.

So, while I’m writing this screenplay, my dad up and kills himself.  He accomplished this using Demerol, which he had easy access to.  He was a doctor.

My writing changed instantly.  Suddenly I had feelings and questions and an anger that needed to be communicated.  Feelings so strong they couldn’t be buried in immature writing.  The writing would have to mature if I was going to be heard.

When my parents divorced I was just fourteen years old.  I was in shock for a year, thinking things were just hunky-dory.  And then—Wham!—it hit me.  Hard.  I had wild fits of anger, punched walls until my knuckles bled, kicked boulders, screamed epithets into the sky. 

Remembering this, I knew my father’s suicide would hit me harder.  This time I wasn’t going to be caught off-guard.  So I dove in, writing, writing, writing.  I wrote whether I had something to say or not.  Most of it was free-verse poetry, not my forte.  But it tapped the emotions, the anger, the grief.  I also explored my father’s last days, trying to get a handle on why he did what he did.  I went to the hotel room where he ended his life, where he spent a long three days and nights before committing the act.  I sat on the bed where he was found.  I stared into the bathroom mirror, as I imagined him doing, hour after hour. 

I wrote my first short story at this point, called “Yahrzeit Candle.”  It was about a little Jewish boy who wakes up one morning to find his father sitting in front of this ominous candle in the living room.  When the boy goes to the candle the smoke from the flame gets in his eyes and he is suddenly overwhelmed by memories of his grandfather.  He doesn’t realize it yet, but his grandfather has died, and his father is engaged in the seven-day ritual of Yarhzeit.  But the father, seemingly hypnotized, never leaves the candle, and the boy sees his daddy falling apart, bit by bit, day after day.  The boy comes to believe that the candle is causing his daddy’s pain and he decides to snuff it out.  But, as he gets closer, the smoke fills his eyes and the memories force him back into his father’s arms and the two finally connect, father and son, and they rock back and forth in their bear hug and the flame finally flickers out on its own. 

It was my first short story and I hadn’t even really considered myself a writer yet.  I submitted it to two national contests and won both.  I sent it to Elie Wiesel and he sent back a note saying it was “Shining, evocative and penetrating.”  I don’t think I could’ve written that story if I hadn’t gone through the trauma of my father’s death.  I don’t think I could have written anything “evocative.” 

I also wrote a screenplay for a short film.  It was really just a ten-page poem, a description of visuals without dialogue, representing the relationship between my father and I from my birth to his death.  I had to enroll in film school, and it would take another five years before I had the skills to do it, but eventually I made “Meditations on a Suicide.”  I needed the help of dozens of professionals, and I didn’t have a dime to pay anyone.  They all worked for free.  Everything was donated.  The budget would have probably been around thirty thousand dollars, but it cost me just about nothing, except for what I managed to cash-advance on my credit cards and the cash donations I received from people who believed in the project.  It all came through at the eleventh hour.  A film that should not have come together was somehow made, and I can’t help but think that my dad was there helping it along, getting people to make the right decisions, making sure I got what I needed to realize the vision in my head.  The film went on to garner awards and accolades, at least as much as it could for being a short, black-and-white, 16mm student film.  The process forced me to reach deep inside myself to do something I hadn’t known I could do.  I don’t think I would have accomplished it if my father hadn’t been at my side.

The film was supposed to be my catharsis.  That’s how I saw it.  But in the process of making the film I became desensitized to the subject matter and I found that I was directing what felt like a fictional story.  In a sense, it was.  I mean, how do you whittle down a twenty-year relationship into a twenty-minute film? 

Every time I think I’m over it, it reappears. 

A good friend of mine whom I met when I made the film (twenty years ago) told me, after reading Boulevard, that he felt I was still dealing with my father’s suicide.  Of course I am.

The anger has gradually subsided, although it has never really gone away.  I’m mostly sad and upset that my children will never know their grandfather.  He was a pediatrician, he loved children.  It would have been great to call him up in the middle of the night as the kids were growing up, ask for advice on how to crack a fever or soothe a sore throat. 

But he did leave me with something.  A reason to tell stories.  Through his own story, his pain and suffering.  His suicide took me by the shoulders and said, “Wake the fuck up.  Look around.  What have you got to say about this?”

As Mr. Hemmingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places.”

29 thoughts on “ON LOSS, ON ART

  1. Karen in Ohio

    So true, Stephen. There’s a reason why our writing matures with us.

    Everything we experience makes us what and who we are, even–and sometimes especially–the most painful ones. From the standpoint of being almost 60, I have learned (the hard way, at times) to value the aches and agonies as much as the joys and elations. If not for the valleys we could not appreciate the peaks as much, and if not for the difficult we would never know how much of like is truly effortless.

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  2. billie

    I think the willingness of the Murderati to blog about these very painful and personal issues, the real stuff of life, is what makes this place so wonderful and so unusual. It’s a big part of why I stop by each morning, and certainly why I feel I know all of you, even if we’ve not met.

    The Hemingway quote has long been one of my favorites, and today it made me remember a book in my reading stack. James Hillman’s Healing Fiction, in which he looks at the work of Freud, Jung, and Adler – but much of what he writes has an application to a writer’s work as well.

    On the back cover the blurb says:

    He asks the basic question, "What does the soul want?"

    With insight and humor he answers, "It wants fictions that heal."

    That makes so much sense to me, as a reader and a writer and a therapist.

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  3. Alafair Burke

    I am sorry to know that you also experienced that particular brand of loss. Thank you for sharing with the rest of us how you have found ways to explore those emotions through writing.

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  4. Anonymous

    We must be so careful. Of the children. We can do whatever we like with life. Choose to keep it or throw it away. But not if we have children. The rules change when we have children.

    You certainly are a wonderful story teller, Stephen. I remember in an older post of Cornelia’s, she told us about the Hawaiian tradition of "talk story". I feel that this is what this blog is about, at times. Just sitting down together and telling stories. Some painful. Some joyous. All treasures.

    (Perhaps you could share YAHRZEIT CANDLE with us someday?)

    Thank you for this post.

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  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Karen – these are the things I try to teach my children–that we know happiness by its comparison to grief. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that needs to be learned first hand. They will have to go through their own trials in order to truly appreciate it.

    Billie – what a great quote. I like it. Very Jungian. The purpose of mythology is to teach people the lessons of life through fiction.

    Alafair – if I’m not exploring my life in my writing then I might as well write technical manuals. I think we all explore the bigger questions in our works.

    Anon – you are so right about how the rules change when we have children. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t get that, like my father. Everything changed when my kids came around.
    I never did try to publish "Yahrzeit Candle," even though Mr. Wiesel suggested I do so. I want to give it a re-read and a polish, coming from having another 25 years of experience behind me. But I don’t know where to go with it–I’m completely out of the loop for short stories (especially since I’ve established myself as a crime/thriller writer, and "Yahrzeit" is completely different). As soon as I get settled a bit, sometime in the next year or so, I’ll give it some attention.

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  6. MJ

    Outstanding post – you demonstrate how good writing – and successful living – are dependent on trying to deal with our traumas instead of closing ourselves up and hoping that pain goes away. It does not, and we can’t make fiction that heals if we don’t at least acknowledge that we need to heal ourselves (whether it be from big stuff – parental death – or smaller stuff – estrangement, family addiction, rejection, etc.). Really lovely POV on getting on with the business of being a survivor instead of a victim.

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  7. Rachel Brady

    One thing I appreciate in people is candor. Thanks for sharing your story and for relating it to how you’ve found your place in the world, and especially to how it has influenced your writing. One thing I’m noticing as I read Boulevard is a real gift for taking any common observation or detail and putting it in the context of something emotional. I’m sure that if your dad could read your work it would knock his socks off.

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  8. JD Rhoades

    Thank you for that, Stephen. Whenever I look into that abyss myself, what always pulls me back is knowing, in part from stories like this, how it would affect those I’d leave behind.

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  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    MJ – I’m a firm believer that writing, writing anything, whether you’re a writer or not, will help a person through difficult times. It’s the difference between keeping the trauma in your head to fester, or letting it out into the light of day, where it can be examined.

    Rachel – thanks for the kind words. I do wish my dad could have read my work. But maybe he has, and maybe he does.

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  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JD – that’s what keeps me off the edge, too. They always talk about how the children of suicides are more likely to commit suicide themselves, but I feel exactly the opposite. I know the result of suicide, and I’m going to avoid it at all costs. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that we’ll all meet our end. So, why rush it? Life’s too short as it is.

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  11. Allison Davis

    Life is a mixed bag, but it informs us. We react to it or tangle with it driven by the will to survive it, and we write, we strive, we seek, sometimes we hide. The best part about sharing these stories is that it is supportive, helps you see that others went through a crucible, and you, too, can not only survive whatever your own crisis was, but that you can use it to make you stronger. My mom was an alcoholic when I was a kid, turning my dad into an anger ogre (my memory of it). I was the oldest and my priority was to keep peace in the house and I became what a therapist later labeled "the pleaser" to keep everyone happy (I have three siblings). It was a pretty dysfunctional household but I developed coping mechanisms that help me in my work (marketing, client relations) and undermine my private life (two divorces). I also wrote a ton of poetry, had it published, produced a play around dysfunctional families, and made a safe place in my head where I didn’t have to cater to anyone and no assholes were allowed. Light drama, and not so unique, but drama nonetheless.

    I do better at these stories if I’m sitting around having a drink, but the coffee will do. Stephen, good soul baring sharing.

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  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – that ain’t light drama. Sounds like "Long Days Journey Into Night." It’s easy to identify trauma from the death of a loved one, but my own trauma began with the dysfunctional family that preceded the death. Just as the trauma you faced began very early, and caused lasting damage. Alcoholism has destroyed more families than I can count. It’s so good to see that you have survived, that you are a survivor yourself, and that you have committed your life to doing acts of good, as you see them. You’re a pretty remarkable person yourself, Allison.

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  13. Tom Barclay

    Once suicide has touched you . . . life never seems durable and reliable again, does it?

    Yesterday morning there was a news story about a young sailor in San Diego who’d barricaded himself in his garage with his weapons. He was upset about an upcoming deployment. His wife and infant daughter escaped unharmed. San Diego SWAT tried to talk him down, but he took his own life in the small dark hours.

    It took me three hours to be sure it wasn’t our oldest grandson, who is in much the same position in the Navy in San Diego as was that young man. The surrounding facts all fit. Then it took another couple hours to make myself believe it wasn’t our grandson. The possibility had become too real in my
    imagination. Three friends cut themselves out of the picture between 1973 and 1974. Others, more recently. I knew it could happen, that permanent solution to a temporary problem.

    Stephen, thank you for taking on this difficult topic. You’ve mentioned your family history in passing before. This was extraordinary, and helpful.

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  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for sharing your story, Tom. Thank God that wasn’t your grandson. I can’t imagine the tense hours you spent waiting and wondering.

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  15. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you for writing about suicide, Stephen.

    My godfather, with whom I was very close, took his life rather than face another round of hospitalization b/c of cancer. I still hurt from his death, especially since it was only two months after my mother’s. I miss him every day and can’t help but wonder if I could’ve done anything that last weekend to help prevent his decision. I was so busy with my own grief — and a new baby — to think much about anyone else . . .

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  16. JT Ellison

    Stephen, I’m sorry you and Cornelia, and so many of us, have had to deal with the loss of a loved one through suicide. I’ve lost several friends that way, and it’s always so horrifying, the second guessing and backtracking and Monday Morning quarterbacking. All I’ve learned is that there really is nothing that we could have done, and beating ourselves up over it accomplishes little. Channeling that energy writing is a beautiful outlet. More power to you.

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  17. Spencer Seidel

    Hey Stephen —

    Thanks for that post. I don’t think it’s an accident that many writers have these awful things in their past. I lost 2 sisters when I was just a kid (about 7 years apart). Everything I write relates to that surreal and awful time in my life.

    As an adult, I’ve learned to look on these things as fuel for the creative fires, tragedies though they may be.

    Spence

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  18. Judy Wirzberger

    It’s so easy to intellectualize that each person is responsible for his own decisions and actions. It’s difficult to accept that we probably couldn’t have done a thing to change the outcome. Sometimes we wear guilt to help us grieve, as if grief is a measurement of our love and guilt the ruler. When the world is too painful to endure some people choose to leave it. And if you find yourself circling the chasm of despair, seek help for when the darkness becomes ink black nothing releases the pain except escape. The devestation we leave behind is but a passing thought.

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  19. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Pari – I always wonder what I could have done if I had answered the call I got from my dad, about two days before he died. I was in Santa Cruz, had just moved into a house with a bunch of room-mates and one of them said, "Oh, Stephen, your dad called." I was upset at him at the time so I figured I’d get back to him in a week or so. Sometimes I think that it’s a good thing I didn’t get that call, because I might have said something I wished I hadn’t. At the same time, I always wonder if I could have heard something in his voice, maybe seen that he was in real need. But I don’t beat myself up too much, I was just 20 years old. I can’t live my life second-guessing myself.

    JT – And I agree wholeheartedly with you. There’s really nothing we could have done. If someone wants to do that to themselves, really wants it, they’ll find a way. We’re not responsible for the lives and decisions of others.

    Spence – man, that just hurts hearing about your sisters. A terrible tragedy. To lose a sibling just seems like the worst kind of pain. I bet your writing is layered with truth and compassion.

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  20. Barbie

    Stephen, I’m SO sorry for your loss. I can’t even imagine what it would be like, to losing someone so essential in such a brutal way. I’ve seen it very close to home and it just breaks my heart. I read an article about years ago called "Children of Suicide", but I haven’t been able to find it since then.

    When I was 17, my father’s ex wife took her own life. She was my half sister’s mother, who was 13 at the time. She’d been divorced to my father for years and didn’t get along with him and was often trying to make me, or my mom, who is best friends with my dad, a mediator in their fights. She called me one day, crying a lot, saying she’s had a fight with my dad and saying bad things about him. I was so mad at her, he was still my dad after all. She bad mouthed him, then asked me to take care of my sister while she was away. I asked where she was going, and she told me Italy. Said she was going to take some course there. I was 17. I believed her. She asked, once more, for me to take care of my sister and I said okay.

    About three weeks later, she called again, asking to talk to my mom. My mom wasn’t home, so, I asked her what she wanted. She needed us to mediate between her and dad again. I was done with it, and I told her that. I told her I was sorry her relationship with my dad sucked, but that I didn’t want to jeopardize my mom’s relationship with him, or mine for that matter. She said she understood and hung up. She killed herself less than a week later.

    I still feel guilty about it. I still wonder if there was something I could have done, if I should have told someone she was planning to go to "Italy". I’m angry at her for having left a 13 year old (and her other daughter who was 17) motherless in such a horrible way , and, selfishly, I’m angry at her for involving me in her mess.

    My sister is going to be 18 in a few weeks and believes she is "over it". She never got therapy and believes she’s dealt with it all. I worry for her. I know she’s thought of suicide before. I know she wonders if she’s like her mother. I see her online statuses saying she hates her life, and is sick of pain. And I don’t know what to do. I keep wondering if some day I’m going to get the call saying she did it. Like I said, I don’t know what to do.

    My aunt took her life last December. She was lost in illness. Her son was 5 years old. He’s been very dark about life and everything since then. I hope time brings him peace.

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  21. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Barbie – such a tough story to hear. I feel for you. But you were just 17, a kid, you had no place in those adult relationships and situations. There was really nothing you could do. I remember being stuck in the middle of huge battles between my mom and dad (after their divorce) and I tried so hard to make everyone happy. It’s not fair when adults put their kids in those situations. Kids should never, ever have to choose sides.
    I hope your sister and your aunt’s son will get some therapy. Things do get better, bit by bit, but it takes a long time and usually requires the survivor to open up, be vulnerable, face the anger and fear head on. Some kind of therapy or survivor’s group is essential.
    And cut yourself a break, too. You’re not responsible for the actions of other adults. You did what you could.

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  22. KDJames / BCB

    Barbie, as Stephen said, there was nothing you could have done to change that outcome. Not even if you’d known about "Italy." And good grief, you’re only, what, 22 or 23 now? Please let go of that guilt. It doesn’t belong to you.

    Tom, I empathize. I feel something similar every time one of my kids is out driving and I hear a siren. I just know one of them has been in an accident. Of course, it doesn’t help AT ALL that each of them has been in a very minor (no injuries) car accident.

    Stephen, your posts are always so heartfelt and sometimes difficult to read because of their honesty. Today’s made me remember this quote:

    "A great writer reveals the truth even when he or she does not wish to." -Tom Bissell

    And this one:

    "The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything." -Walter Bagehot

    Not a problem among this group of writers, is it?

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  23. Lil Gluckstern

    I’m just a reader who recently discovered this blog, and I am so moved to hear of your loss. It is important to me to know that the person behind that wonderful book is indeed a remarkable human being. I read "Boulevard" and found it compelling and very moving. This blog answers many questions, and raises more-about the nature of suffering and its meaning and how it shapes our lives. Thank you.

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  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks, Joni, I appreciate your comment.

    KD – what a great quote from Tom Bissell! And, by the way, I’m really glad my kids aren’t driving yet.

    Lil – thanks for your WONDERFUL comments. It does feel great to know that Boulevard can have that effect on people. And I’m glad you’ve found Murderati, too. There are so many good stories here.

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  25. Berenmind

    Lil. That was a lovely comment about Boulevard and the blog its author has chosen to snuggle in with. NICE to read your words.

    "about the nature of suffering and its meaning and how it shapes our lives."

    For me, this is what makes Murderati Land "more" than a lot of other writer blogs. There is that emo that keeps all who enter here ….. reader or writer …..safe within the blog shelter of the Murderati hug, kiss, slap, tears, reminders and puke (thinking of you Cornelia!) Don’t make this your last visit. Please?

    Spencer…….Jeezus. Your sister tragedy is simply horrible. You never ‘speak’ of it. Maybe someday you can be a guest blogger here and tell us your story. Looking forward to your Dead of Wynter release next May !!!

    Thanks for joining in, as always.

    Reply

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