The Boy in the Film

I’m not sure why this image haunts me. At first I thought he resembled me at that age but now I’m not sure. This picture was made at the Mémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes, from a film about camp inmates that is projected on the wall of the museum.

I’m not much of a believer in fate; the idea that I might have been drawn to this place, to this story because of some unknown personal connection doesn’t resonate. I’ve never uncovered any evidence of any member of my family having been at this camp, and I simply do not believe in reincarnation, which nixes the thought that it might in fact be me. It’s tempting but I’ve already written this book and I’m not in it.

So what’s going on here?

My best guess is that the superficial resemblance cemented an emotional connection to the camp that informs the novel. That connection began with my first visit to the site, deepened with the photos I made that day, and went further with the research that followed. It became personal with the challenge in the eyes of this boy looking directly into the camera.

I’m not sure how old he is. I would have thought about fifteen but the dark pouches under his eyes belong to an older man. He is shirtless, which would suggest summer heat on the Rivesaltes plain, and while his face is thin, we cannot see his torso and can’t know for sure if he has had enough to eat. He looks healthy and his direct gaze projects strength.

I’d like to think he survived. Perhaps he was one of the more than six hundred children who were saved from the camp by the heroic efforts led by Friedel Bohny-Reiter of Secours Suisse aux Enfants. Perhaps he made it to a home in the region and was raised by one of the many anonymous families who risked their own lives to save the children of strangers. He could have grown up to be an artist, a musician, or a writer. Or maybe he settled nearby, married, raised a family, plowed his vineyards, and sent his fruit to the coop. Maybe he still does.

I am not the boy. I am the camera.

©2016 Ron Scherl

A Walk with Bob and Gerda

Not along after Endre Friedmann and Gerda Taro invented “Robert Capa” they established the Atelier Robert Capa on the second floor of this building at 37 rue Froidevaux, (François-Xavier-Eugène 1827-1882, a commander in the Sapeurs-Pompiers, the fire and rescue brigade of Paris), in the 14th arrondisement. It was the closest they ever came to having a home and turns up repeatedly as a touchstone in the invented life of Capa. Most interesting is its appearance in Patrick Modiano’s novella, Suspended Sentences, as the setting for a story about creativity and loss.

rue Emile Richard
rue Emile Richard

I don’t know what was on street level in 1936, now we find a florist and funeral service business because across the street is the cemetery of Montparnasse. That’s where I am, standing on the corner of the rue Émile Richard (1843-1890, a President of the municipal council of Paris), which bisects the cemetery and is now the site of a small tent encampment of the homeless. Several campsites along the street are furnished with modern red office chairs in such good condition they appear to have been recently delivered.

tent and chair
tent and chair

Walk through the cemetery and you come to the Boulevard Raspail, (François-Vincent, 1794–1878, French chemist, physician, and politician), one of the main thoroughfares of Montparnasse.

Turn left on the boulevard and you’ll pass several hotels, a school, and a student residence. Paris is a national education center and the presence of students and scholarship animates and rejuvenates this historical city of imposing architectural monuments. Just a few blocks down is the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse, the site of Le Dôme.

Le Dôme
Le Dôme

In the thirties this café was the gathering place for the growing coterie of photojournalists who were drawn to the city. Some, like Capa and Taro, were Jews who had fled the growing threat of National Socialism in Eastern Europe; some, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, were French who came here to meet with their peers. They were joined by André Kertész, Giselle Freund, David Szymin (Chim), and others in what must have been the greatest gathering of photographic talent ever to grace a coffee shop. Photographers aren’t always verbally gifted but I’d guess the competitive banter of this group was lively and amusing. This was their living room, clubhouse, and office where they met to compare notes on editors and assignments and plan coverage of the great stories of the time.

Cafes had personalities then, created by the crowds they attracted, so while you might find Hemingway and Picasso in a raucous scene at Le Select, Sartre and de Beauvoir would be presiding over a quieter discussion at Café de Flore.

Le Dôme was the home for photographers and, of course, it was a very different place then. Now the interior is an upscale seafood restaurant that smells only of cashmere and money. The terrace is more casual, and more democratic. I’m seated next to a well-dressed man in his sixties (I need to upgrade my wardrobe), reading Racine and taking notes: a professor, I’d guess. Next to him is a younger man intensely focused on his MacBook, and obsessively checking his phone. I’d like to think he’s a lovelorn novelist. Why not, it’s Paris? There are several women of different ages, some alone, some in pairs, all having lunch. A middle-aged couple orders the skate wing lunch special and the novelist another coffee. A young woman with a suitcase orders a café crème, tends to her text messages, and leaves a few extra coins for the waiter. The professor finishes preparing his lecture and relaxes with a glass of white wine.

Le Dôme Terrace
Le Dôme Terrace

I order a beer, which comes with a small bowl of olives, then get a little hungry, so I order a sandwich mixte au pain Poilane, without butter (I love this city but don’t want to die here, at least not yet). I ask for a little mustard. It’s a good thing I’m not very hungry. I make a few pictures and a few notes for this essay and order a coffee. I leave an extra tip for the waiter because I think it’s what Capa would have done, even if he had to borrow the money from Cartier-Bresson.

Capa and Taro have gone off to war in Spain. They are photojournalism novices and their quest is not to document facts, but to witness and support Republican victories. Only Capa will return.

I decide to go to Père Lachaise and find Taro’s grave. I ask for directions in the cemetery office but the computer cannot find Taro, then I remember her birth name, Pohorylle, and we get a hit. I’m following my map down a path covered with autumn leaves when I pass an attendant who shouts and points: “Jim Morrison, that way.” I shake my head and walk on.

Père Lachaise
Père Lachaise

Taro is buried in a small Jewish section near the Mur des Fédérés, the group monuments to those unidentified souls who died in wars and Nazi extermination camps.

Gerda Taro Grave
Gerda Taro Grave

Her tomb is small, much smaller than her neighbors, and plain, adorned only with a simple block with her name and dates, and the Giacometti falcon that was commissioned by the Communist Party hoping to profit from her death, although she was never a party member. Visitors have left a few stones, several painted with the colors of the German flag, although she was not German, and a print of a Capa photo of Taro resting by the side of a Spanish road. Some flowers are long gone, but their plastic wrappers remain.

Taro Grave
Taro Grave

She’s mostly forgotten now. After she died in Spain, Capa tried to save her work and he probably did, but credits were haphazard. Many old prints bear stamps that say both “Photo Capa” and “Photo Taro,” and many negatives carry no attribution at all. It’s often impossible to know for sure who made the photos, so the credit usually goes to the famous Capa, who might never have achieved that fame if he hadn’t met and fallen in love with Gerda Taro. It’s a subject that is explored in greater depth in Rivesaltes, a novel in progress.

Gerda Taro
Gerda Taro

©2015 Ron Scherl

Memorial du Camp de Rivesaltes

It’s not easy to find. I expected it to be near the roadside steles that have been in place for years but it’s not there and there are no signs to indicate where they have built this memorial and museum to tell the story of the camp at Rivesaltes. I have to wonder if there isn’t still an element of shame alongside the better instinct that allowed it to be built so we would not forget. More likely just a bureaucratic delay, the museum only opened to the public this week. You can find it at the base of the wind farm.

Camps of all kinds are, of course, numerous and widespread; from Auschwitz to Manzanar they are a feature of life on a planet where war is common. But Rivesaltes is unique in the variety of different populations it has detained: Spanish refugees from the civil war; German intellectuals fleeing Nazism, Roma, Jews, German military prisoners of war, Harkis. Rivesaltes holds the history of twentieth century European conflict.

The site of the camp is huge, over 600 hectares that now wraps around an industrial zone, and the museum has been built behind that zone, beside a farm of wind generators, far from the department road. You would not find it if you didn’t know where to look.

Rivesaltes-9471 The museum building itself is built into the ground and from above resembles a soaring monument at rest, surrounded by the crumbling barracks and latrines of the detention camp on their way to returning to the earth. There is a path circling the building and, on an overcast day with the wind blowing, you can almost feel what it must have been like to be imprisoned here.

Rivesaltes-9508The entrance is a long descending ramp that appears to lead nowhere, but turns to the right to reveal a door.Rivesaltes-9525

The receipt for my eight euro entrance fee is printed with the name Marie Weiss-Loeffer, a young Roma woman, and the date of her escape 10 Novembre, 1941.

Rivesaltes-9555Rivesaltes-9558The main room is divided into sections that tell the story of each of the populations with historical footage projected on the rough cement walls, oral testimonials accessible through tablets, and informational films on video monitors. And there is also a look forward, a consideration of how we will deal with the same issues in the 21st century. The overlapping sounds and the design of the structure itself simulate the lack of privacy in barracks life.

The overwhelming amount of information takes its toll and you begin to understand the incomprehensible scale of devastation. Camps like this were created to separate us from those we fear. They continue to be built today.

Rivesaltes-9570http://www.memorialcamprivesaltes.eu

©2015 Ron Scherl

A Tale of Two (or Three) Suitcases

One of the joys of researching a historical novel is the uncovering of parallels, unrelated facts that nevertheless strike me as significant. When you read a lot of mysteries, as I do, you come to believe there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything is significant.

The scope of the novel encompasses several wars from 1936 to 1962 and there are many parallels involved. War does awful things to people no matter who’s fighting; brutality breeds only more brutality and what’s learned is passed through generations. You torture mine, I’ll torture yours even more. It’s a chain of iniquity that continues to this day.

But we were talking about suitcases. When photojournalist, Robert Capa, fled Paris as the Nazis arrived, he may have had with him a suitcase full of negatives from the Spanish Civil War, photos by Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) as well as Capa. The suitcase was lost for many years, until it turned up in Mexico in 1995. When it was found, it was hoped by many including Capa’s brother Cornell, that it would contain the negative of Falling Soldier, Capa’s most famous photo that is said to depict the moment of death of a Spanish Republican soldier. Cornell Capa’s hope was that finding the negative intact and in sequence would finally put to rest the controversy that has always followed the photo: real, or was it staged?

Unfortunately the negative was not in the case, the controversy continues, and no one is absolutely certain how the suitcase wound up in Mexico. I have a theory about that and it fits nicely in a novel.

The parallel suitcase belonged to Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in France after fleeing the Nazis, appearing to make it safely to Spain on his way to America, then being turned back by Franco’s guards. Despairing, ill, fearing he would be turned over to the Nazis, and unable to summon the energy to try again, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine in Portbou, Catalonia on the French/Spanish border. The suitcase containing the manuscript of an unpublished book he had carried from Germany was never found.

In a totally unrelated postscript: Harry “Suitcase” Simpson was a well-traveled Major League ballplayer who played for seventeen different teams in the majors, minors, and Negro Leagues. There are two theories on the nickname: one because he was always being traded and two, because his size thirteen shoes reminded a sportswriter of a cartoon character named “Suitcase.” I can’t find any evidence that Harry ever lost a suitcase and as far as I know, he never met either Capa or Benjamin, but I’ll take any opportunity to throw in a baseball reference.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Writers and Agents

My first novel attracted some interest from an agent who read three very different drafts before finally deciding it wasn’t right for her. She was encouraging and complimentary and her feedback was very valuable to me. It made me really want to work with her. The novel has taken on a much darker tone – it’s no longer a light-hearted travelogue of southern France complete with food, wine and colorful natives – it’s more honest, more personal and painful, a true first novel. I may not have revised it to a book the agent wanted to sell, but I’m happy with it, now. Of course I had to go through the early rejection stage of thinking it was all shit and I couldn’t write a want ad, but I’m past that now and submitting to other agents.

I’m close to finishing the first draft of my second novel. This is a totally different animal; set in twentieth century Europe, it tells multiple stories in different time frames that converge in a single location. It too has taken some surprising turns – into consideration of issues of personal responsibility in the face of evil and how we learn violence. And two characters who were not in the original conception, both female, have assumed prominent, catalytic roles.

Let’s talk about agents. They are the gatekeepers to the world of traditional publishing; there’s no entry to major houses without one. There’s some variation but the basic process goes like this: I send a one page query letter describing my novel and hope that some word or phrase strikes a chord that makes her want to read a few pages of the book I’ve been writing for the last three years. If she hears the sweet music in those pages, she may ask to read more. If she doesn’t, there’s only silence. Now I understand the pressures on all sides. The agent already has clients and her first responsibility must be to them. What comes over the transom is future business development, part of the job but not the highest priority. Still, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for an automated return email that says: “No, thank you.” The writer’s only option is multiple submissions, a process that feels something like trying to strike a piñata without knowing it’s in a totally different room.

There are web sites like Agent Query and Publishers’ Marketplace that list recent publishing deals and give me an idea which agents might be a good fit. Then I go to their web sites, see who they represent and what genres they’re looking for, and try to decide if they’re right for me. It ain’t easy. Genres are marketing categories and they’re fluid. Where’s the line between literary and commercial fiction? Why do some mysteries cross over to become literary? What on earth is women’s fiction?

And where do I fit in? If an agent has big name authors will she have time for me? If she doesn’t, is she any good? Is a big agency with multiple divisions and foreign offices better than a boutique with personal relationships?

So I look for any clue that might indicate there’s a chance to break through the clutter, and send another query.

The alternative is self-publishing which holds no appeal for me; although many people think it’s the future, most of them happen to be part of a whole new industry that’s developed to support the new writer-entrepreneur. And if, as my friend Mike Shatzkin writes, very few self-published writers are selling many books, and agents and traditional publishing houses are wary of taking on a title that’s been self-published, then what’s the difference between the new model and the bad old days of vanity publishers?

Enough for now, I need to research the record for oldest writer to publish a first novel.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Poker

Back to work on Novel Two, which means relearning all the acronyms and trying to remember the factions they represented in the Spanish Civil War. So I took time out from multiple flavors of socialism to have some fun imagining a poker game that might have taken place in the Hotel Florida in Madrid sometime in 1937. Madrid was still in Republican hands although the Nationalist bombing campaign had begun. The characters are Robert Capa, Chim (David Szymin), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernie Pyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Lenoir, who is a young, entirely fictional French journalist. The game is five-card stud.

 

Chim: “We don’t have all day, André, Franco’s planes are due any minute.” Chim, who had changed his name from Szymin to Seymour but was known to everyone as Chim, refused to call Capa anything but André, although that wasn’t his birth name either. His parents called him Endre Friedmann.

Pyle: “It would be more accurate to call them Hitler’s planes. The Condor Legion is leading the raids.”

Cartier-Bresson: “That’s not exactly comforting.”

Hemingway: “Your king bets, Capa. What do you say?”

Capa: “I need a minute, where’s Gerda?”

Lenoir, who is not playing, answers: “I think she went upstairs to edit photos.”

Capa: “Lenoir, can you ask her…No, wait. Can you loan me 100 francs?”

Lenoir: “Sorry, Bob. I don’t have it.”

At that moment the concussion from the bombing was close enough to rattle the windows.

Cartier-Bresson: “That does it. I’m going to the shelter.”

Hemingway: “You can’t leave, Henri, Capa has to bet.”

Cartier-Bresson: “I fold. Now I can leave.”

Pyle: “You can’t fold. It’s Capa’s turn.”

Capa: “Henri, if you’re out, you can loan me 100 francs.”

HC-B: “To be returned when?”

Capa: “When I win, of course.”

HC-B, walking away: “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Chim: “I’m beginning to think the war will end before this hand, and neither ending will be pretty.”

Capa: “I raise a hundred.Henri will cover it, but it won’t be necessary. ”

Pyle: “I don’t think I want to know. I fold.”

Chim: “Me too. It’s up to you, Papa.”

Hemingway: “I’ve got to call your ass, Capa. How many of those aces do you have?”

Capa: “Two. That ought to be enough.”

Hemingway, revealing three nines, “Not quite.”

Capa: “Let’s have a drink. Lenoir, can you buy us a drink. What’s that you’re reading, a letter from your lover? Is that a smile. I’ve never seen him smile before. Is he happy?”

“Hard to tell,” Chim said. “That might be a smile on his face, I’m not sure.”

“I don’t think it’s a smile, maybe it’s a rueful smile. What would you call it, Papa?”

“Photographers, totally useless without a camera. You don’t know how to interpret or even describe, you can only record what your machines allow. It takes a writer to truly understand another man. The young man is trying to be happy but that is only part of the picture. When you study him, you see sadness behind the smile, which is not rueful at all. He does not regret; he hasn’t yet done anything wrong, in fact he hasn’t done anything at all. His sadness is not full of remorse, it is empty, unfulfilled. It is the sadness of a man who thinks he knows what he wants but cannot have it. Yet the possibility remains, it might still happen, but he cannot make it happen. He must wait for events to run their course, so he is frustrated, but his love has given him reason to hope. He is still in the running, if not yet in the lead. Gentlemen, our young Lenoir is in love, although he has not yet been able to make love to the woman he desires. He is trying to compensate by devouring, again, and again, the words that give him hope. But it is not enough. Il est triste, oui, but he is also very horny.”

That brought a great roar of laughter and cheers from the assembly of journalists.

“Bravo, Papa.” they shouted, and produced a round of drinks.

Lenoir looked up from his letter. He was not smiling: “Fuck you, all of you. Especially you, Hemingway.”

Papa roared: “Bravo Lenoir, not exactly eloquent, but the only appropriate response.”

©2015 Ron Scherl

 

 

 

Gateway to Understanding

Is emotion the gateway to reason or is it an obstacle to understanding?

I had always believed in the power of the intellect, that an educated intelligence should be sufficient to decode the clues and understand the opportunities and conflicts we all face. Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true; it is only through emotional engagement that we can truly understand anything at all. How we respond to art offers a window.

Angle of Reflection contains a scene in a museum where Ben and Emma are discussing a Picasso exhibit. Ben is able to admire the technique and appreciate the results from an intellectual distance but maintains that Picasso never moves him. (Let’s assume he’s never seen Guernica.) Emma tells him it may yet happen and to beware of sealing his emotions in today’s opinion.

Later he reflects on a painting that moved him more than most: Vermeer’s, A Maid Asleep. “I couldn’t turn away. I was immediately and profoundly drawn into that world, I could walk into that woman’s dreams and imagine stories that explained all the elements Vermeer chose to include.” We can’t know whether the artist had the same stories in mind but it doesn’t matter, what is significant is that the emotional reaction to the image made the content knowable.

Here’s where we get back to the question of antidepressant medication: it is my contention that one of the severe effects of many years on SSRIs was a stifling of emotion, which led to a failure to understand what was happening to me. I couldn’t get to it because I couldn’t feel it.

I’m not the first to report this. “SSRIs also cause a multitude of troubling side effects. These include sexual dysfunction, suppression of REM sleep, muscle tics, fatigue, emotional blunting, and apathy. In addition, investigators have reported that long-term use is associated with memory impairment, problem-solving difficulties, loss of creativity, and learning deficiencies.” Robert Whitaker: Anatomy of an Epidemic, Broadway Books, Random House, 2010.

I’m beginning to feel that I’m nearing the finish line for Angle. Could be wrong, of course, I’ve thought this before, then I sent it to my editor. I began to wonder how you know when you’re done with a novel. There is no requirement for length, no facts that have to be explained, no rules to follow. Thinking won’t get you there. I suppose you can say that it’s finished when someone decides to publish it, but Fitzgerald was still trying to rewrite Gatsby as it was on the press. I asked a friend who is a wonderful painter how she knew when a painting was finished. She said: “I don’t know, I just feel it.”

Feels right to me.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Work

I’m beginning to understand how Donna Tartt could spend ten years writing a novel. I used to think it would be impossible to maintain interest in the same book over that long a time. I used to think you could rewrite and polish only so many times before it was perfect. But that was before I tried to write a novel, and before I hired an editor to help.

A few weeks ago I sent my latest draft to my efficient and perceptive editor, a draft that I had polished through the technique of reading it aloud, recording it, and making changes as I listened to the playback.

I was really pleased with it. I thought reading aloud had helped to make the dialogue flow better and cleaned up some awkward sentence structure. I had noticed that when reading I stumbled over inaccurate punctuation and fuzzy thinking. Any text that I wasn’t fully committed to didn’t read smoothly. I had discovered a way to get to the truth of the book.

I was also weaning myself from antidepressant medication and was sure I was seeing the effects of clarified thinking and emotional access in my writing. I was right about that, especially in the passages dealing with relationships, but I was missing the bigger picture. In the process of stripping down some characters trying to get to the truth I wanted to convey, I lost some objectivity and allowed reality to overwhelm the fictional narrative resulting in a loss of pace, tension, and structure.

In other words, in finding some truth about myself, I managed to lose my reader. My editor had no trouble pinpointing the problems: “I think what’s missing in this chapter is an emotional hook that will compel the reader to care…As a reader, I feel unsure of what the book is about and therefore unsure of what I should care about, and why.”

Ouch!

I was surprised and disappointed.

When we talked she was quick to apologize for being so blunt, then added: “but isn’t that what you’re paying me for?”

She’s right, her comments and suggestions are enormously helpful, and I’ve gone back to work with enthusiasm, understanding the task is to fictionalize the narrative while retaining the emotional truth.

Not a problem, this is only year three of this book.

©2015 Ron Scherl

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

 

 

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.