Writing Through The Madness

by Stephen Jay Schwartz


I’m not particularly sociable today. If I had my way I would have stayed in bed. All day. Curled into a ball.

I’m writing through a particular madness. It’s had me for a few days now. I feel like I’m floating through a numb dumbness, answering questions when asked, nodding appropriately, making eye contact when necessary. I’m dodging decisions and putting off the things that should be done today but can wait until tomorrow or the week after.

I’m absolutely no help to anyone, except when I look directly at my wife and children and tell them I love them. With watering eyes. I’m as sensitive as a bee sting. I don’t trust myself to watch commercials because I know I’m easily manipulated by images of babies and puppies.

I have to be aware of when I get like this. I have to watch for the signs. The shortness of breath, the thousand-yard stare, the anxiety. I can pull the shit together if I have a story meeting or an interview or if I’m on a panel. I just compartmentalize the crazy and go with what I imagine appears normal. This is complicated by the fact that I know that normal doesn’t really exist.

Watching babies and petting dogs helps. Maybe that’s why I write at cafes. I see a lot of babies, I pet a lot of dogs.

I suppose I feel too much. I remember my mother telling me when I was in high school that I was too sensitive. This was when I was supposed to testify against my father in court for not coming through on sending me to college, as he had promised in my parent’s divorce settlement three years before. I guess that whole thing must’ve made me just a little bit…sensitive.

I often feel shame for feeling too much, when I know that others deal with a kind of pain I’ve never encountered. The pain of war, of losing a child, of homelessness and absolute poverty. The pain of hunger. There are so many things that bring a person down.

One cannot discount one’s own pain, however. We cannot assign a point system to compare our pain against another’s.

I’m a “day later” kind of guy, when it comes to shock. It hits me the next day. And then it lasts, well, as long as it lasts. I’m having a hard time writing through this one.

My wife tells me the moment of impact was Monday night, when my thirteen year old son had an earthquake-sized meltdown. He has Aspergers Syndrome and the worst case of OCD the specialists have ever seen. My wife and I have been fighting the special needs battle for seven years now. But Monday night was a watershed moment, because I was forced to face my helplessness in this battle. I came away from it knowing we’d be looking for a respectable, affordable outpatient or residential program somewhere that can provide my son with the tools he needs to live in this world. And, while that realization marks a positive step in my evolution as a caring parent, it also scares the hell out of me and makes me feel, somewhere deep inside, that I’ve failed. I think I’m smart enough to know that I’m stupid to make this about me. And, intellectually, I know that this does not represent my failure as a parent. But intellect and emotion don’t always agree.

I think I’m just scared. I want my son to be whole. He’s sweet and caring and unique and smart and oh-such a character. I want to see the best of him encouraged. I don’t want madness to envelop him.

Then Wednesday morning my wife’s father died. He was in the hospital and I wanted to visit him and I didn’t. Theirs was a complicated relationship, so it brings up complicated emotions for her. He was almost 90 years old – a man from a different era. He was a professional jazz pianist and composer, and he also painted and wrote short stories. He had given up writing decades ago, but his early short stories were published in an O’Henry collection. I read them and was blown away. I was going to ask him if I could publish them as ebooks. That’s what I was going to ask him, when I was going to visit him in the hospital, when I didn’t.

I spent the day yesterday with my boys while my wife was with her mother. We visited the university where I graduated from film school and I tracked down John Schultheiss, my old film criticism teacher, a man whose influence on my writing and film making cannot be over-sold. I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years. Me and the boys sat in the back of the lecture hall as he administered a final exam, and I was thankful as hell that I would never have to take another one of his tests again. Ultimately, we came face to face and I went all fan-boy. It was great, but it was sad, too. Because time ravages us. And my mentor has aged. I’m sensitive, remember. I’ve also been told that I’m nostalgic and sentimental. How the hell did I ever end up writing noir? It might have had a little to do with John Schultheiss, who taught me and Brett Battles the elements of film noir.

I was also babbling like a groupie, with mile-a-minute recollections of every wise word he had imparted, and how and where I’ve taken his advice into my own worlds of writing and film. I was like a silly teenager. Only later did I realize this was the trauma talking. Like I said, I have to watch myself when I get this way.

Maybe writing will bring me out of this funk. Like therapy, writing turns us inward. And, if we’re honest with our emotions, we’ll teach ourselves a thing or two.

I think this is why I’m struggling so much with my third novel. I don’t want it to just be a fun ride. Boulevard and Beat explore the world of sex addiction. I feel like they had something to say. I’m searching for what needs to be said in my third book. I’m trying to connect with what is true and human and honest. I’m turning inward, which is the only way I know how to do this shit. But it’s painful and I just want to zone out. I want to stay in bed. All day. Curled into a ball. I don’t want to face the hard stuff, and yet I know I’ll have nothing to write about if I don’t.

Living is madness. Writing is madness. Living, however, is easier than writing. I guess the only thing harder than living and writing is making a living writing.

“And that’s the way it is…”


39 thoughts on “Writing Through The Madness

  1. Gerald So

    Don't be too hard on yourself, Stephen. I know the feeling of wanting to face the hard stuff, but sometimes by charging our way through, we miss the real life lessons moments like these can teach us. By all means, do the best you can, but also be ready to accept zoning out as a valid way of coping. Allow yourself the time to digest what you're going through and to figure out how to use it in your writing.

  2. JD Rhoades

    Stephen, if you didn't go at least a little nuts after all that, you wouldn't be normal.

    Hang in there, man, we're all pulling for you.

  3. MJ

    You are not alone. The biggest thing that gets in the way of my own writing is my own mind (my trauma processing mind). Creatives are sensitive, and boy does that cut both ways.

    I blocked myself for something like 20 years so I would never have to feel anything – don't be me. It's hurt like hell to unblock but better to hurt and write than be silent and numb, I guess. I guess?

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ugh, what a hard week. No surprise at all you just want to curl up in a ball.

    I just had a couple months so hard I couldn't write fiction at all. Writing on my workbook was the only thing I could manage because there was no emotion involved. Wish I could say something to make it better, but the only thing that really works is time.

  5. Alafair Burke

    It sounds like you deserve a day or two of curling up in a ball, but then you'll pull yourself back up, as you always seem to do. Hang in there.

  6. Louise Ure

    Oh honey, I'm so sorry. Those are two terrible blows. Does your life afford a little curling up time? I hope so. You need it right now.

    And yes, you should e-publish your father-in-law's work. What a lovely elegy to him.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    My heart goes out to you. Either one of those events this last week would've been enough to cast someone into the fetal position. To have both occur seems incredibly cruel.

    Yes. Write. And keep writing.

  8. Gar Haywood


    It sounds like something out of a Judd Apatow movie, but I'm serious: "I'm here for you, man."

    Anything you can think of I can do to help, I'm just an email or phone call away.


  9. Timothy Hallinan

    Hey, Stephen — You want to take some time and hang for a few hours? I'll even come to your dreary cafe, if you'd like. You want to join Brett, David Angsten, and me for lunch at 1 today at the Farmer's Market over on Fairfax?

    You've got my phone number.

  10. Barbie

    Stephen, sending lots of good thoughts and energies your way! I get you more than you can imagine. I hope you get to curl up in bed for a while and just tell the world to eff off and leave you alone. I hope you feel better soon! 🙂

  11. Katie Arnoldi

    Great essay. Your honesty blows me away. Also your strength. It's what makes you such a great writer. I'm here for you, if you need me. Thank you for writing this. You inspire me more than I can say.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Everyone….thanks so much for your support and comments. I'm actually feeling better today after having written this, after sharing it, after reading your comments. You ground me. What a great community we have here. Thank you.

  13. Allison Davis

    Hey Sweetie, don't be so hard on yourself, we all have really bad weeks and meltdowns — and yes, you've had your share. Sorry for your loss and your kid worries. Call Hallinan and go to lunch.

    And if you want me to help sort out the copyright issues on your father in law's stories so you can e-publish, let me know.

    I have mini stress outs and have to zone and turn my brain off even for ten minutes before I can get back on line — like with computer solitaire or a walk or really really bad: internet shopping…anything to bring me back into control. Gotta write through that stuff, really hard — or work thorugh it, which I do during my 12 hours days.

    It's the ying and yan of life, some days are more volatile than others. Hang on, and let your hair fly in the wind of it all.

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Tim – I sent you an email – can't make it today, but maybe we can write together in the South Bay tomorrow?

  15. toni

    Here's the beauty of what you've just said about yourself, Stephen:

    You feel. You feel deeply and eloquently. Yours is not a shallow, cheap world where other people's traumas are irrelevant.

    You express. You let people know that you care, that you *see* them, and what they're going through. That is a gift, my friend. A gift.

    You want. You're not moving through life like an automaton, ignorant of what's important, what life could be like, should be like.

    You love. Deeply, widely, without holding back.

    I believe, dear friend, that you've been looking at yourself through the wrong end of a telescope, thinking that there are "shoulds" — some imaginary tough-guy way of being — that you are comparing to how you are. There are no shoulds. There is only you and your gifts and as painful as they are to wield, as overflowing as the feelings are, they are you. Be at peace with that, Stephen. It's what makes you beautiful.

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Toni….awwww, man….that was so wonderful…I don't even know what to say. Thank you.

  17. lil Gluckstern

    Beautifully written, and beautifully said. You feel deeply and know your own humanity. It makes you the writer and husband, parent you are. I, too, see the love that you radiate. i wish you some moments of curling up, even if it is just in imagination. And I am looking forward to your next book.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Gerald – thanks for the words. I'm zoning out less today, feeling more like myself. My family can tell the difference.

    JD – thanks. Next time I go nuts I'm going to tell everyone that you gave me permission.

    MJ – I'm with you 100%. I've done the silent, numb thing, too. For years. It feels better to remain alive and in the moment. I'm glad you got through yours.

    Alex – that's what I've discovered, too – time. Although, diving into the writing process to find out what I'm feeling helps reduce the time spent numb. Just writing this blog has done so much for me.

    Alafair – thanks – I curled last night. Didn't feel the need to yet today.

    Louise – the ebooks is a subject I'll have to bring up with my mother-in-law. When the time is right.

    Pari – I'm on it! Taking your advice presently.

    Gar – thanks, bud. You got my email…we'll hook up as soon as things settle.

    Tim – I hope you got my email as well – today doesn't work, but writing tomorrow in the South Bay does.

    Barbie – thanks for sending the love my way!

    Katie – amazing words – they mean so much to me. I'd have to say…right back atcha. I feel the same for you.

    Allison – I'll let you know about the ebook rights. I'm sure the rights reverted back to him a long time ago, although I don't know what type of paperwork is involved in handling them since he died. I suppose they'd have to be placed in his wife's name? Thanks for the offer, and all your kind words.

  19. Murderati fan

    Writing and mood swings aside, how wonderful that you are going to make an effort to furnish what your son needs. Having just read Jodi Picoult's House Rules and having to deal with mental
    "conditions" in my own family, I know how difficult this is. The first time I saw my daughter through a small window pane in a locked steel door, my heart crashed to the floor. She's on the other side of the door now but it is a barefoot journey over broken glass. My heart goes out to you and your wife and that magificent son.

  20. Reine

    Stephen, I know. I've been taking the "just keep going" approach. Works for me. It hurts. I make big mistakes while out and about, but for me it works better than hiding out.

    And you are right, "One cannot discount one's own pain, however. We cannot assign a point system to compare our pain against another's." I try to say that when I get accolades for just living, but it never seems to work. Dealing is dealing. Pain is fucking pain.

    Walking is highly overrated.
    Reading a book is not.

  21. Reine

    Sorry, the part where I said, " l love you, Stephen," got deleted. So . . . I love you, Stephen. You are brilliant and wonderful. I know it will hurt and hurt and hurt, but . . . I hope you will be able to let go and keep on and not hurt so much, soon.

  22. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    lil – thanks. I wanna get that book out soon, too, so I'm fighting that urge to curl up right about now. I think chocolate will serve the same purpose.

    Murderati fan – it broke my heart to read that line of yours, "The first time I saw my daughter through a small window pane in a locked steel door…" Ugh. I don't want to have that feeling. We're going to work hard to try and do this through an outpatient program. I hope it works. I'm glad your daughter is on the other side of that window now, and I wish that all the love that you obviously have for her helps to keep her there.

    Reine – I'm glad you added the last part – it means a lot to me. I think about you and your struggles often, and I think how you must love life, for the way you push forward, the way you stay active in body and mind. You also have a community who loves and appreciates you, Reine. You give us so much.

  23. Allison Brennan

    I wish I could have said what Toni said, because it's perfect.

    I used to want to be a cop or doctor or coroner, but when I hit puberty I discovered the ups and downs of emotions and I didn't think I could face trauma or death or heartbreak. I've cried at cartoons. I've cried at commercials. And at church and every watershed moment in my kids' lives. It was only later that I realized I don't cry at funerals or weddings or even when my daughter went into surgery when she was two. I compartmentalize in order to do what needs to be done. I probably would have made a good cop or coroner because I can separate myself from the situation. It's only later when something that's supposed to be cute or funny or sweet reminds me of the pain or the loss that I cry or get upset. So I don't think it's unusual or weird that you have a delayed reaction to the bad stuff.

    XOXO, Stephen

  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison B – you described my process to a tee. That's exactly how I respond. I'm glad I'm not alone in this.

  25. Reine

    Damn. I keep leaving stuff off my posts . . . "not too many people can make me cry, stephen . . . ," but you did today.

  26. blair

    Man, you have had a couple knock-down blows there, Steve. Really feel for you, brother, and yeah, a nice two day curl-up would probably do you a world of good – but I'm already seeing a greater catharsis in these few paragraphs. Your creativity and overwhelming desire and need to get it down on paper will see you through this and all life's curve-balls and sink holes. It's a powerful gift. And both a blessing and a curse.

  27. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks, Blair! By the way, folks, Blair is the director of the now cult classic film, "Bubble Boy," starring Jake Gyllenhall.

  28. KDJames

    Yeah, what Toni said. And Allison too — I'm good in the moment, when it feels imperative to survival that I lock it all down. It's all the little triggers afterward have the ability to just destroy me.

    After work tonight I got out of the car and almost stepped on a little billion-legged creature making its way across the garage floor and I thought, I can't leave that thing in the garage. So I got a broom and whisked it out toward freedom. And it disappeared. Then I looked more closely and realized it was still there, it had just curled itself into a tight little ball. Then I felt bad for traumatizing it (well, only a little, it's a goddamn bug and it should stay the hell outside like any sensible bug) and so I swept more gently until it rolled all the way out to the driveway. And then I closed the garage door. So it couldn't get back in.

    Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that curling up into a ball is a natural reaction to trauma. After the week you've had, I'd be worried if you were still placidly marking your slow quiet determined path across my garage floor. Well, okay, I'd be worried if I discovered you were in my garage AT ALL. Because, you know, I do have a front door — it may be way on the other side of the country from you, but it's always open to you and yours.

    Hang in there, Stephen. We're all doing our best and hoping it turns out to be good enough. You're not alone in that.

  29. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks, KD – great story. I'm sure the hawk waiting outside the garage door appreciates all the work you did getting that caterpillar to him in time for dinner. And don't be surprised if you find me in that garage someday, too…it sounds pretty comfy.

  30. KDJames

    Meh. Freedom. Certain death. Semantics are fuzzy when it comes to bugs.

    And that was not a "story." Sheesh. That really happened. Tonight. After work. Right before I read this. It was like fucking karma or something.

    Okay, fine. From now on I'm just going to make stuff up. So it sounds authentic. It'll be like Pixar. Only without animation. 😉

  31. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    KD – of course I didn't mean to say that it was a fictional story – there is such a thing as a TRUE story. And yours was too authentic to be read as fiction. Still, the hawk thanks you. And the bug, for one fleeting moment, considered you a friend.

  32. JT Ellison

    Stephen, you really should talk to former 'rati Jeff Cohen. He may be able to give you some guidance with your son.

    Many blessings to your wife and all of you as well. And you've given yourself a few months of therapy today. Really, writing it out always, always makes it better.

    If you need anything…….. Man, I wish I could come write at the cafe with you guys!


  33. KDJames

    Stephen, I'm teasing. You know that, right? My tongue is so firmly planted in my cheek that– um, maybe I shouldn't complete that thought. Some things are better left to the imagination.

    Going to go prepare now for the arrival of the Raptors. I hear those NBA players have insatiable appetites.

  34. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks, JT – if you've got an email address for Jeff Cohen I'd appreciate it.
    And I'm feeling loads better – my smile has returned.

  35. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    And KD – of course I know you're teasing. Your a teaser. Not a bad thing to be. I'm a teasie. So, I'm prepared for ya.

  36. Erin

    I just want say your amazing! Taking care of a child with special needs is not easy I had a brother with physical and mental disabilities. I know how hard it can be. Just remember your a hero, even though it does not seem like it most of the time. You are NOT a failure as a parent your A HERO remember that!

  37. Robin

    No wonder you wanted to curl up into a ball. Getting slammed with both those things would have done to same to me. Just want to say I understand the issues a child with special needs presents. My 11 son has Aspergers. My husband has only recently gotten to the point where he realizes he isn't broken and we can't fix him. That all we can do is accept him as he is, work with his issues and help him with life the best we can. Being twice exceptional is difficult, but as long as he knows you are advocating for him and there for him, hopefully things will get better. You haven't failed as a father when you care enough to do what needs to be done to help him. We love our kids unconditionally and they just need to know that.

    I'm sorry about your Father-in-law. Your best tribute to him will be getting his books published in ebook for all to read. He'll know.

    You have a lot of strength, much more than you know. It allowed you to share it, own it, accept it and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Your next book will be all the more powerful, because those emotions you are experiencing now will be poured into your characters. *hugs*

    Now go give your wife a huge hug, because I'm sure she needs one right now.

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