Ben and Sarah Talk About Medication

“Ben, you need the meds. They help you function. They’ll help you make sense of things.”

“No, they make it worse. I can function. I’m not even sure I could write a novel if I were taking them. I mean. I’ve never written one before, never tried while I was on the drugs.”

“Ben, listen to me. I’ve known you and loved you for a long time. You have depression. You can’t change that. It’s some kind of chemical imbalance and the meds get you part of the way back. Going off the medication only makes it worse.”

“I don’t think it does. I think I’m pretty stable. I just wish I slept better. But there’s something that keeps me from making a real connection to others, to someone I really need, like Emma. And I think it’s the meds.”

“Think, Ben, maybe it’s not you or the meds, maybe it’s her. It’s not hard to imagine that your relationship just isn’t right for her.”

Ben fell silent for a moment, just long enough to consider that and reject it. “But what if that’s true because she hasn’t been able to get close enough, because I won’t let her, even if I think I am?”

“Ben, what separates you from connection, from emotion, is not the meds; it’s the depression. Think back to before you were on the drugs. Remember your family, how you always felt disconnected. That’s who you are. It’s not what the drugs do to you. You know this. I’ve heard you say it yourself. Please trust me.”

“Sarah, I know you mean well; I’m just not sure you’re right. You’ve been on these meds as long, maybe longer than me. Maybe this creates a challenge to you. Maybe I’m leaving your sphere of influence and that threatens you. It shouldn’t. It has nothing to do with you. This is about me, only me. I really want to write this novel and I think I have to get as close to the bone as possible to do it. I can’t be removed and dispassionate and still convey passion.”

“That’s nonsense Ben and you know it. You’re confusing your book and your life and making about as much sense as a Raymond Chandler plot. You don’t have to experience something to be able to write about it; did you have to drive into that cliff so you could write about it, or did we have that accident because your mind was elsewhere?”

“God damn it, Sarah. It’s my fucking life. Stop trying to produce it.” His anger was so rare, it startled both of them. Sarah was reeling. This just wasn’t Ben. “You’re wrong, Sarah, this is me. Me without the drugs. Me being honest. Not afraid of the anger. I need to feel this.”

“Ben, I don’t know what to say. You have reasons to be angry with me but this isn’t one of them. I’m trying to help.”

Angle of Reflection 

©2015 Ron Scherl

 

 

Chapter Two

Here’s a bit of text from Raffi Khatchadourian’s article in this week’s New Yorker on the development of emotion recognition software. He’s writing about a scientist named Rosalind Picard who did much of the early work in this field that has now been hijacked by ad agencies and phone companies.

“She became convinced that reasoning and emotion were inseparable; just as too much emotion could cause irrational thinking, so could too little. Brain injuries specific to emotional processing robbed people of their capacity to make decisions, see the bigger picture, exercise common sense…”

I don’t mean to suggest that I have some kind of brain injury, I don’t, but symptoms described here very closely mirror some of the trouble I’ve had using anti-depressant medications, which makes me wonder if the effects of the medications might not be compared to brain injury.

I’d expect the medical and pharmaceutical industries to argue that it’s not the drugs, it’s the depression, but I’d counter with the idea that the meds exacerbate the problems by making the patient comfortable with his condition. By rounding off the rough edges, dulling emotions, and allowing one to function, the drugs extend the damage caused by the depression.

If I can’t feel the anger, how can I summon the will to fight it?

I’m not suggesting that everyone quit the meds and sue the drug companies; I’m only talking about my reactions and desire for change.

Almost two years ago, when I first began writing the semi-autobiographical novel now called Angle of Reflection, I made my first attempt to quit the meds. Early effects including disturbed sleep patterns and overreaction to sentimentality were the same then as now, but then things got a little out of control. Just beginning to write fiction, I became a bit confused about reality, and a phone call from a friend who is the model for a pivotal character drove me over the edge and back to the meds. Looking back at that now, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I tend to think I got caught up in my own fantasy, resulting in an extremely exaggerated reaction. Whatever it was, it’s different now, well some things are. I’m still working on the book, but I’ve learned a lot about the process of writing fiction and a few things about myself.

And now that I’m learning about withdrawal from the medication there are several scenes that will need to be rewritten – again.

By the way, the New Yorker piece is terrifying to those of us who still think we have some privacy. It’s in the current issue.

 

 

Depression

I decided to stop taking anti-depressant medication and thought I should tell my friends so they could keep an eye out for erratic behavior. Then I decided to write a journal in order to monitor my feelings; finally I thought I’d publish the journal on the blog. The reasons for that are a bit more complicated but I’ll explain.

One of the symptoms of my depression is isolation: the feeling that I can’t really connect with anyone on an honestly emotional level. When the depression is at its worst, I compound the effect by physically isolating myself from everyone. So, in an attempt to counter these tendencies, I decided to violate my own predilection for privacy by publishing my thoughts and reactions on this issue. That may not be as radical as it seems because the audience for this blog would fit nicely in my living room, probably has.

Saturday, 10 January is Day 6 of this experiment and I’ve been beset by a cold throughout, so it’s difficult to gauge the effects so far. Let’s start with a bit of history and the events that led me to try to quit the medication. A diagnosis of major depression has been consistent through several shrinks for most of my adult life although I really think it goes back to my childhood. I’ve been on a several different medications for 15-20 years, not sure exactly when it started. With the occasional help of therapy, I’ve been able to function throughout, making a living and sustaining, to a point, loving, romantic relationships.

But writing a semi-autobiographical novel spurred profound changes: everything in my life was subjected to critical self-analysis and I began to look at many events and relationships as failures. Naturally, I wondered about the role of depression in everything I had experienced. Thinking and writing about my parents, I saw my mother as someone who had encased herself in a protective shell. Nothing could touch her, therefore nothing could hurt her again. Merde, I thought, that’s exactly what I had done. My mother had very good reasons to seek emotional protection, but I could not recall anything to justify my response.

For me, the instinct to guard my emotions led beyond isolation to timorousness; when I tried to breach the isolation, I did so with a guarded reticence that was no more effective than staying home. I thought to adopt Stuart Brand’s advice to “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” and maybe that helped me begin a novel but couldn’t help beyond that. Writing is, after all, a solitary pursuit, so it wasn’t too hard to work it into my comfort zone. Elsewhere, I was timid, apprehensive, unable to break through the shell even when the stakes were high and, I was sure the goal was worthy.

Given all this, why quit taking the medication? If behavioral patterns extend back before the meds, what can be gained by stopping? Just this: I’ve come to suspect that while the drugs have a moderating effect that keeps me on an even keel and allows me to function, it is precisely that effect that hardens the shell around me. In other words, getting by isn’t good enough and I think I’ve learned enough to be able to cope with whatever comes along. If a deeper emotional response fractures the shell just a little bit, that’s a positive result worth pursuing, before it’s too late.

One other thing: in a successful autobiographical novel the reader makes an emotional connection to the protagonist. In reading my work I saw that I wasn’t getting deep enough, revealing enough to allow this to happen. Self-censorship undermines emotion in fiction and in life. I’m hoping that losing the medication will allow me to pierce the protective skin.

This blog will use the journal of reactions to explore some of the issues raised in the novel and, maybe, create a blueprint for better fiction. If I’m able to maintain the blog as planned, you’ll be able to follow along on this adventure and, I hope, contribute some feedback.

Working With an Editor

Not long ago I submitted my first novel to an agent. She responded with several compliments and suggestions for changes and said that if I agreed with her changes and were willing to rewrite, she’d be happy to read it again. I agreed with one of her ideas and rewrote the book with it in mind. Her response was to praise my efforts in rewriting but, sadly, she still felt it was not a good fit for her agency. She said this was a personal opinion and others might disagree and encouraged me to continue submitting to other agents. I was, of course, disappointed but not discouraged; not many players hit a grand slam in their first major league at bat.

I continued to work on it while researching other agents until I decided to start querying again. The next agent to respond asked to see the first chapter only. Of course I wanted everyone to read the whole book before passing judgment but that’s not the way the industry works, so I sent her the first chapter. She too responded with both compliments and criticisms, some of which were similar to those of the first agent. Now I needed to re-read and reconsider what I was submitting.

The first thing that struck me was the need to totally rewrite the first chapter because a lot of the things I felt were interesting and necessary to understanding the story were really backstory rather than the dramatic hook necessary to catch the reader’s attention.

The second thing was that I knew I needed help. Until that point I had resisted the idea of hiring an editor, feeling that my process of constant revision would get me there, eventually. But I had reached a point where I no longer knew what to revise or where to take it. And this is where non-professional friends who were my first readers were unable to help. The time had come.

I’m lucky to have very good friends and one of them recommended an editor he knew and liked. We talked, I liked her too, and hired her. Good move, Scherl. Her work was smart, perceptive, professional and on time. Her method was to simply assume the role of any reader and comment on what she liked, didn’t like, or didn’t understand. Then she wrote a detailed report explaining her comments and connecting them to the whole. She pointed out several characters who, while interesting, really had no effect on the plot. She was particularly acute in recognizing autobiographical details that might be interesting to me, but had nothing to do with the story and, therefore, meant nothing to the reader. There were many other ideas relating to character development and treatment of the plot that led me to realize that the real process of writing this novel began with autobiographical details but developed by moving away from reality into the imagination, while retaining the truth of what I have to say.

She strongly encouraged me to stop submitting to agents before I had made substantial changes because there was potential in this book and I shouldn’t sell it short.

So I’m back at it. I’ve put a hold on Book 2 because what I learn in another revision of Book 1 can only help. A good editor is an enormous help and now, the next time I get on a plane to New York, I can tell my neighbor to please remove his elbow from my ribs and, by the way, I’m going to NY to have lunch with my editor. I always wanted to say that.

The Rhythm of Writing

After many years as a photographer, adapting to the process of writing novels is very much about adjusting the pace of creativity. Photographs record moments, miniscule fragments of time measured in fractions of a second. The creative process may be much longer and may involve such things as travel, research, rearranging the furniture, image processing, editing, sequencing, and printing. But the critical act of framing the subject and releasing the shutter is brief and fleeting. The expression of a portrait subject or the light on a landscape is a momentary thing and capturing that moment is the essence of photographic creativity.

The final product may take months or even years to complete, but that process is usually just a matter of repeating the critical moments of creativity in different circumstances.

Writing fiction is a whole different ballgame, one that involves retraining the brain to accommodate a much longer creative process. Think about stretching that fraction of a second out to the time it takes to write a three hundred page novel; it takes endurance, dedication, and discipline in the face of great odds against success, whether critical or commercial.

I write every day because that’s what it takes for me to maintain the creative process long enough to finish a book. Sure, there are days I accomplish little. I’ve learned to accept them and try to use those days for reading related to my current project. And I adjust my work schedule to accommodate other interests, especially when the Giants are playing.

I try to keep in mind that I may be an accomplished photographer but I’m a novice writer. I’m working on my second novel, while continuing to revise and rewrite the first. These incremental changes take time: some changes necessitate others, and flaws missed on the fifth draft may not be obvious until the tenth. The process makes me feel like a manuscript is never finished. It is, I guess, like a photographer’s portfolio: it may never be perfect, but at some point you have to go out and show it to the people you want to work for. Where I once called on magazine picture editors, now I’m searching for a literary agent. Every industry has its gatekeepers.

I like the task of learning something new, but I’m surprised that I seem to have lost interest in photography so quickly. Earlier this year I was in Paris, a city that has never failed to engage my eye, until now. I passed days at a time without shooting anything, although I did keep a journal. Last week I went to Lake Tahoe with my friend, Tom. It was beautiful. I shot little, more with an iPhone than a Nikon.

In this era of instant and constant communication, of disruption and sharing, I have taken up a practice that is slow, solitary, traditional, and personal. I like it.

IMG_0903

Research

 

Kate Atkinson makes the following comment in a Reader Guide included in the paperback edition of Life After Life: “To research the background of this book, I read as much as possible before beginning and then tried to forget as much as possible and simply write.”

Someday I may write well enough to do that, but right now I’m trying to figure out the Spanish Civil War and it’s making my head hurt. I’m making charts and little study aids, trying to remember that not all Republicans supported the Popular Front government; that the communists were actually the conservatives of the left, and communists come in different flavors, as do monarchists; that the Generals staging a coup liked to refer to the loyalists as “rebels and mutineers;” that the Basques were traditionally conservative and religious but repelled the generals in seeking self-rule; and the Catalans also wanted divorce from Madrid but couldn’t afford to antagonize the anarchists who didn’t want any government at all. But tallying up all the factions is like trying to count stars in the sky and even if you decide on a number, keeping them straight, and figuring out what side they were on is anything but straightforward.

To reduce this war to right vs. left doesn’t really tell the story. It must also be seen as a class struggle, as Catholic-based authoritarian rule vs. libertarian freedom, and of centralized government against regional autonomy. In Spain before the war church and state were one, two pillars of an authoritarian government that suppressed the people with brutality by the state, and a promise of a place in heaven.

On the Republican (Loyalist) side

  • The Popular Front Government of the Republic sought a democratic government dominated by the moderate middle class.
  • Basques and Catalans sought freedom from the state through autonomous self-rule.
  • Anarchists sought to replace the government with local committees of unionists that would govern without leaders.
  • Socialists sought a democratic, socialist central government dominated by the trade unions and an alliance with the anarchists.
  • Soviet communists believed strongly in centralized control.
  • Anti-Stalinist communists did not.

On the Nationalist (fascist) side:

  • Carlists wanted to restore the monarchy of the Borbon Don Carlos line.
  • Traditional monarchists favored the successors of Queen Isabella II
  • Falange wanted a dictatorship of the privileged
  • JONS was the socialist wing of the Falange
  • CEDA was a political alliance of right-wing Catholic parties wanting to re-unite church and state with the power in the church.
  • The Radical Republican Party wanted a religious quasi-democracy.
  • The Liberal Republican Party just wanted to do away with the monarchy.
  • Catalan League were bourgeois industrialists of Barcelona opposed to taxation from Madrid.
  • The Generals wanted power. They saw the government as weak and ineffective, wanted to protect Spain from communist rule, despised the anarchists for everything they believed, had no use for the monarchy and wanted to use the Falange as a particularly brutal military force.

In 1936, the Popular Front government of the Second Republic of Spain had an anarchist inspired revolution on one side, and a military, Catholic, monarchist coup on the other. Its leaders didn’t know which way to turn.

“The ultimate paradox of the liberal Republic represented by its government was that it did not dare defend itself from its own army by giving weapons to the workers who had elected it.” Antony Beevor: The Battle for Spain

 

 

Riga to Hamburg; Capa and Blum

Writing historical fiction can lead you in several directions at once. This morning I was trying to figure out how one could get from Riga to Hamburg in 1905. A little later on, Robert Capa led me to Léon Blum.

Let’s start with the geography. At that time, Riga was in Russia, in the Pale Settlement to be exact, the region where Jews were permitted to live. This region was created by Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century, but the use of the word “pale” as a fenced in area, and the phrase “Beyond the Pale” which we now take to mean “unacceptable” date back to 14th century Ireland. In Russia, the pale was most of the western part of the country, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. There were many Jews.

The first decade of the 20th century was not a great time to be a Jew in Russia: new restrictions were imposed daily and the pogroms spread throughout the Pale. A massive wave of emigration to the west beginning around 1880 and continuing up to the revolution of 1917 saw 2.5 million people leave Russia, the great majority of them Jews. Most went to the United States, the Lower East Side of New York City, to be precise.

The peculiar logic of prejudice dictated that while the Russians from peasants to Czars didn’t want the Jews, they had to make it difficult for them to leave, a last chance to punish. The result, as often happens, was an underground railroad of sorts from Warsaw (in Russia at the time) to the German border. And as happens just as frequently, there were good people of all religions who helped, and there were those who would help for a fee and betray if the other side offered a larger fee.

It would have been possible to travel from Riga to Warsaw by train – perhaps under the pretense of visiting relatives – and then by foot or cart to Germany with the help of friends, or to prison if you were not so lucky. Many young Jewish men who did not make it soon found themselves in the Czar’s army, an honor most did not survive. Those who did make it to Germany had to prove they had tickets on a German shipping line for passage to England or America. Tickets on the lines of French or English companies were often declared invalid since they did nothing for the German economy. The German government was willing to let the Jews pass through their territory, as long as they could profit from it. They also picked up a few marks by housing ticketed passengers waiting for a ship in some hastily built, fenced-in barracks near the docks. When the refugees finally boarded, they were faced with 7-10 days in steerage dormitories, followed by the Ellis Island entrance exams and, if all went well, a Lower East Side tenement.

Léon Blum and Robert Capa

Léon_Blum_1927

As far as I know, Capa and Blum never met but why not? In 1936, Capa was in France and his photojournalism career was gaining momentum. Blum was creating the leftist coalition dubbed the Popular Front and campaigning as its leader. He would go on to become the first Socialist and first Jewish Prime Minister of France.

Capa did photograph Blum at a campaign rally and that’s the starting point for a fictional scene that allows me to weave them into the plot of a novel that spans the years from 1905 to 1972. Stay tuned, this is going to take a while.

Detour

I took a few days off from the Rivesaltes book to work on a photography webinar for a medical laser company, which brought me back into the world of cosmetic medicine.

When I returned from France about 18 months ago, I thought I’d be fine if I could pick up a couple days of work per month from the medical device companies I knew before I left. Didn’t happen, rien, nothing. I built a website dedicated to this specialty and got active on LinkedIn trying to rebuild relationships. Nope.

So I got serious about writing and didn’t think much about photography, even spent a few weeks in Paris and, while I did write a journal, I wound up taking more pictures with my iPhone than my camera. When I got back, I decided to take down the medical photo web site and re-start my blog. The same week, I got three calls about medical photo jobs. Probably just a coincidence.

But it feels like when I was a full-time freelance photographer and business was slow, I used to think all my clients were in a conspiracy to torture me, until they decided I had suffered enough and then they all called at once.

So it’s nice to have a few things to juggle, leaves me less time to worry, and hardly any time at all to beat myself up over things I can’t control. I’m back to work on the Rivesaltes book and researching the plight of the Harkis, those Algerians who chose to fight for France in their country’s war of independence.

More about that in future posts, but I want to return to Robert Capa. Actually this is more about Hemingway. I’ve been reading his last novel, The Garden of Eden, and was discussing it yesterday with Dave Sumner. It’s atypical Hemingway for sure and very surprising in that he deals, in very mannered and sometimes abstract prose with his own bisexuality. David and Catherine Bourne, who cut and dye their hair in the same way, tan their bodies to mahogany, trade sexual roles and make love to an openly bisexual woman can be seen as two sides of the same person. Or not. Perhaps they’re Scott and Zelda or Hemingway and one of his wives. It will never be known and doesn’t really matter.

What struck me as most un-Hemingway of all is David’s passive reaction when Catherine burns the stories he’s been writing throughout the novel. It’s an extremely violent act that I thought would beget a violent reaction. Not at all. He just drifts off with Marita, the other woman.

The novel was unfinished, then severely edited and published posthumously.

My friend Dave suggested that Hemingway like Capa may have constructed an image of himself and then felt compelled to live up to it; Capa became the fearless and carefree combat photographer, Hemingway: the macho, brawling, hunter-warrior.

They were good friends, and while I doubt either one was subject to confessional revelations in their conversations, it would have been interesting to be there, to watch and listen to these two master actors.

Any Hemingway scholars out there? Please add a comment.

Capa Two

Just a few more thoughts on Capa before we move on. Larry Walker’s comment about belief and reality strikes home: “If I believe the Capa snap is a picture of a soldier just killed, lacking any evidence one way or the other, does it matter?”

Capa’s job was to report on the war in support of the Republican cause. He was employed by Vu magazine, and the photos appeared in a special issue supporting the Republicans. He was, in short, a propagandist. If he was shooting training exercises and an editor seeing the picture with the caption, The Falling Soldier chose to believe it was a picture of a man dying, what difference does it make? Either way it succeeds in its purpose, which was to create sympathy for the Republican cause.

I doubt Capa set out to deceive, but he gave at least three different versions of the circumstances of the photo. In one he said that he was ducking down beside the hill and holding the camera over his head when he released the shutter. The film was then sent off to France to be developed. If this is true, he didn’t know what he had captured. When the magazine claimed it was the moment of death, what could Capa do?

If he contradicted the editors, he would lose all credibility, probably forever, and certainly lose his job. He would also damage the cause he passionately supported. Capa was a gambler: sometimes poker, sometimes he put his life on the line. In this case, when everyone felt he held the winning hand, and it would have been foolish to fold, he went all in. Was it a bluff? Maybe. We’ll probably never know, but it makes for a very interesting story.

A fascinating and enigmatic man who hated war and was never happy when he was away from it, Capa spent his life surrounded by beautiful women, poker playing artists, and soldiers fighting for their cause, their country, or just their lives. He wasn’t a very good poker player – Huston would win back all the fees he paid him to shoot stills for his films – and he was never able to commit to any of the women he loved. He was a great war photographer and a dedicated anti-fascist who lost his life covering the ridiculously futile French colonial effort in Vietnam for the vehemently anti-communist Life magazine of Henry Luce. The final irony in a complex life.

Here’s a link to Magnum Photos, the cooperative of photojournalists founded by Capa and others where you can view The Falling Soldier and a whole lot of other great images.

http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL535353

Robert Capa

I intend to use this blog to preview themes and develop ideas for a novel-in-progress. Your comments are welcome.

How do you know what to believe about a man who created a false identity, inhabited it with enthusiasm, and willed himself to actually become that person?

He was born Endre Erno Friedmann on 22 October 1913 in Budapest to middle class Jewish parents. Having trouble getting paid photo assignments in Paris in the early 30’s, he and his lover, Gerda Taro (née Gerta Pohorylle) invented Robert Capa, a brilliant but reclusive American photojournalist whose photos commanded very high fees. Editors never met this “Capa” but Gerda, acting as his agent, sold many photos and procured high profile assignments.

So Friedmann became Capa, and Capa became famous. Picture Post called him “The Greatest War Photographer in the World,” and Capa came to believe it. He was never a great technical photographer, but in the words of his friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Capa knew how to tell a story in pictures.”

He also knew how to promote himself, including writing and publishing a memoir that he freely admitted wasn’t always true, but was the way it should have been. The book, Slightly out of Focus, was always intended to be the basis for a film script and Capa followed it up by becoming friends with writers, actors and directors, such as John Huston, Ingrid Bergman, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

He was passionate about left-wing causes and his coverage of the Spanish Civil War is anything but objective journalism, but he was not alone. Writers, artists, and photographers from around the world enlisted in the cause of the Republican government. This was the first battle against fascism and when it was lost, WWII became inevitable.

Capa went on to cover the China-Japan war, WWII, and, finally, the French war in Indochina where he was killed by an anti-personnel mine in 1954.

The problem with Capa is not in his ability or his sympathies, it is in just one photograph, which Capa titled: The Falling Soldier. It’s also been labeled: Death of a Loyalist Militiaman and The Moment of Death. There are a number of questions about the validity of the photo, many stemming from the fact that Capa sent the undeveloped film to Paris, did not provide captions, and the negative has never been found. The name of the subject and the exact location are in dispute, and there is evidence that Capa’s statements on the location and circumstances are false. He claimed in an interview that the soldiers were on an exercise and not expecting combat when a sniper’s bullet hit his subject, but subsequent research has established that there was no combat and no snipers in that area at that time. Some accounts say the man was shot in the head, others in the stomach. Several researchers are convinced it was a machine gun. There is no blood in the photo. There is another photo of a different man apparently being shot in the exact same place. Is this possible, or is it the same scene staged with two different soldiers?

The 1997 discovery of a suitcase with 4500 negatives from the war shot by Capa, Taro and Chim (David Seymour) raised hopes that the controversy could be resolved, but The Falling Soldier was not in the case. Negatives on the same roll shot before and after the famous image are also missing. None of this is very surprising and all of it does not add up to an indictment. Capa was 23 years old in 1936 and still inexperienced as a combat photographer. Spain was in chaos, systems were broken, communication was difficult. There are many reasons why the negative could have been lost and why he might have been confused about the circumstances. And this is in no way meant to denigrate his accomplishments: Capa, Chim, and Taro defined combat photojournalism in Spain, and Capa’s WWII coverage is extraordinary.

But questions remain and that leaves an opening for interpretation. Is it the greatest war photograph ever made, or just an awkwardly composed, slightly out of focus snap of a man tripping on a slippery hillside?

Art lives outside the borders of certainty.