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Publication Announcement related to If Anybody Could Have Saved Me

The essay originally written as part 1 of If Anybody Could Have Saved Me: Battling Depression at Mid-Life has been traditionally published on rolereboot.org. Please take some time and read it here.

If Anybody Could Have Saved Me: Battling Depression at Mid-Life– Preface

Depression sometimes feels like drowning. You’re wading in a river, and the bank drops from under your feet, and you realize that someone filled your pockets with stones. Perhaps it was you. You fight with all your might, trying to surface, but your lungs burn and your muscles ache and the light gets dimmer until darkness seems like an old friend.

Another take: David Foster Wallace, the great writer and suicide, once said that depression is narcissistic. Though I doubt he meant it as a universal truism, and I certainly don’t take it that way, I understand his point. When you feel emotionally crippled and physically ill because of your life, your career, how people perceive you, and so forth, it’s easy to dismiss your reactions, your very emotional health, as navel-gazing. Admitting that there is a certain amount of narcissism inherent in depression, though, I think such a blanket dismissal of its legitimacy would be a mistake.

If you’re not going to dismiss it or just try to “suck it up” and ignore it, though, what do you do?

I’m a writer, so my first instinct is to write about it.

Going DFW one better, I think there must be an element of narcissism in any personal essay or memoir. It’s far from the only or most representative element in those genres, but it’s there. To believe that some story from my own life might be entertaining or enlightening to others is to assign myself value. The same is true when I “write for myself,” at least when I subsequently publish those works.

I suppose that this project therefore represents a double-dose of narcissism, but those who know me can tell you that, like much of my work, it also originates in a deep and well-earned sense of self-loathing. I am not doing this to make myself look good or sympathetic, nor am I doing it to punish myself. I am writing it to understand and deal with my depression. At the very least, I hope my doing so can help remind other depressed people that they are not alone.

I first proposed this project as a kind of dark joke on Facebook. “I am thinking of honest-blogging about my struggle with depression,” I wrote, “but my depression tells me nobody would read it or care.” I expected to get a few “ha-ha” reactions and, perhaps, a couple of well-wishes. The status update hardly went viral, but it produced more responses than I imagined. Between comments, which are still appearing as of now, and personal messages, at least two dozen people have encouraged me to share. “Perhaps,” I thought, “there’s a space for something like this, maybe even a need.” More specifically, since the depression blog/memoir could well constitute its own sub-genre, maybe there is a space for my contribution.

As for what that contribution will be, it’s anybody’s guess. I don’t have a specific structure or form in mind. I would imagine that some entries will be long and detailed, like book chapters or personal essays. Others will probably read like journaling. Sometimes I may tell you about what I’ve fought through on a given day; sometimes I may recount an experience or a hope/fear for the future. Some posts may be only one or two sentences long, or contain only a single image, or read more like a prose poem. If I solidify my own conception of what this project is over time, I’ll let you know.

What I can tell you at this point is that it’s not my only focus. I teach five English classes a semester. I am working on several writing projects besides this one: several stories and essays, a potential novel, and a script I’m tinkering with. I’ve got a wife, three kids, a son-in-law, a granddaughter, a cat, and a dog. And as a narrative junkie, I read and watch movies and television all the time. If some time passes between entries, keep checking back, or join my mailing list. I’m probably just buried in work. I’ll be back eventually, God willing.

I can also predict that, like most of what I call my “freebies”—works I post on my site, rather than trying to publish them traditionally—these entries will be rawer, not as exhaustively drafted and edited, less organized. I’m trying to do something that’s very difficult for me—share intimate details about my life and emotions—and if I think about it too much, I may well dilute or even ruin the work.

Now, a warning. Some of my content may be disturbing. You might find descriptions of live-wire nerves, rock-bottom anguish, poor behavior, harsh language, violent acts, sex, and more. I hope you’ll also find humor and love and light. Life is, after all, good, and I am quite lucky and blessed. That’s one reason my depression is so maddening. That’s one reason I need to understand it.

Join me, won’t you? The waters are choppy and filled with jagged rocks, but if we work together, you and I, we might just find our way back to shore.

Email me: officialbrettriley@gmail.com

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A Publication, and News

Please check out my latest publication, an essay on politics and the recent election, at Role Reboot.

If you’re into political writing and art, follow a new Medium site with which I’m associated, A Time to Speak.

You might also want to read a piece of narrative nonfiction I’ve posted on my personal Medium site. Check it out here.

 

ICYMI: New story, “Orville’s Song,” published by Burlesque Press

For those who didn’t see it on my Facebook or Twitter feeds, my new story, “Orville’s Song,” has been published on Burlesque Press’s online journal, The Variety Show. Read it here for free. And please like, share, forward, etc.

Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — V

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 5

 And so it ends—most of my friends had already hit the airport by the time I got up at 10 am CST. Checkout time was noon, our departure at 5:40 pm CST, so why hurry? We got ready and finished packing and headed out, most of our purchased books and journals (and my AWP bag) already on the way to Vegas via UPS. We ate lunch at North 45, a lump crab cake sandwich with aioli on a ciabatta roll for me, burgers for Kalene and Maya. After the meal, we hung out in the lobby until the shuttle arrived. I graded papers. Maya read and played video games. AWP ’15 was truly over.

The shuttle arrived a few minutes early, and the three of piled in, along with three or four other writers with late departure times. One carried a bag that read, “Poetry.” I guess that’s about as direct as it gets, like Richard Castles’ bullet-proof vest with “Writer” printed on it. (CASTLE, by the way, has always seemed like PATV to me—perfectly acceptable television, fun enough on its own merits but not memorable or important. It’s really like a younger-skewing MURDER, SHE WROTE with more romance angles. I’d watch Nathan Fillion in pretty much anything, of course, but it bugs the hell out of me that real-life, highly talented, even previously published writers I know can’t get their current project published, yet you can go into Barnes & Noble and find works by Richard Castle, who doesn’t even exist. You should have seen me roll my eyes when JANE THE VIRGIN’s title character stated her desire to be a writer. “Of course,” I said. “Why not?”)

At the airport, we found that our usual luck was holding; our drop-off point was about a mile away from our ticket counter, which was itself about a mile away from our gate. At least there were almost no lines. We reached the gate with two hours to spare, which is what always happens when we get to the airport two hours before departure and what never happens if we’re even fifteen minutes later than that; in those latter cases, half the world is flying with our airline, and everybody’s got fifteen bags to check, and none of them know how to navigate security. Anyway, our gate had free wi-fi and lots of plug-ins, so we got more work done as the area got more and more crowded. Soon, three gates’ waiting areas were packed, and more passengers milled about in the aisles and shops and restaurants, probably anywhere from seven hundred to a thousand people. Meanwhile, the only men’s bathroom in the area had maybe five stalls and six or eight urinals. Not cool, Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Not cool.

Our flight was packed to the gills—everybody wants to go to Vegas, right?—and we stuffed ourselves into the tiny coach seats, three on either side of the aisle. Maya and I sat together, along with a guy who was traveling from Minneapolis to Vegas for his own convention, kind of our trip in reverse. Kalene had the window seat across the aisle. My seat’s “locked and upright position” seemed about ten degrees forward out of true, so by the time we could move about the cabin, my back was killing me. I fell asleep as we were ascending (I was exhausted), so when I woke up, the crick in my neck nearly matched my back pain.

Of course, when I say “move about the cabin,” I am only speaking for the five or so minutes of the three-hour flight when we could actually do so. The seatbelt light stayed on for most of the flight, which was the most turbulent I have experienced since a stormy trip to Philadelphia back in 2000 or so. We rattled and shook and bounced and laughed nervously and prayed and sweated until we were descending into Vegas. My bladder was near to bursting after my in-flight coffee; every time someone got up, the flight attendants would cluck (and, once, announce that we were taking our lives and those of our fellow passengers’ in our hands), but I tried once anyhow. I found that the muscles required for standing up in a jittery plane were precisely the ones I needed to relax before I could pee. Plus, I kept seeing vivid images of getting a flow started just as we hit some bad air and spraying the entire compartment and my clothes and shoes, so I finally just gave up.

Naturally, we landed at McCarran terminal three and had to get our bags in terminal one, so another long hike took us to baggage claim and then to the shuttle parking area. There, we waited nearly 45 minutes, because Silver Se7ens shuttles run on the hour. At least they sent a stretch Hummer for us.

We retrieved our car and, starving and too tired for a store trip or cooking, we decided to eat at Friday’s, one of the only places nearby that wasn’t closing soon. I had a Long Island Iced Tea and some fried shrimp. An hour later, we finally got home, where our cat yelled at us all night. Apparently she has abandonment issues, even though one of our good friends came over a couple of times a day to feed and play with her.

As of this writing, she’s still clingy. She keeps cutting me off as I try to walk and hip-checking me, herding me toward her food bowl, even when it’s full. It’s as if she’s convinced that she’s going to starve if she can’t see us at all times. One wonders how much our absence traumatizes our pets.

I have other things to say—a comparison of this year’s conference to last year’s, the nature of community in writing, and more—but I’ve got about three hundred things to do this week, so that will have to wait. Watch this space for more.

Given world enough and time, more later.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — IV

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 4

 Up at 7 am CST on this, the final day of AWP ’15, and already contemplating next year in Los Angeles, when I’ll hopefully have some new publications to make me feel like less of a poseur—I greeted what turned out to be a breakfastless morning (no supplies, no time to order) on which my shower and shave and tooth-brushing feel positively Sisyphean, a beautiful cloudless day in Minneapolis, warm enough to make you sweat on your walk. By 8:30 am CST, Kalene and I have quit the room.

We split up in the Convention Center, heading to different sessions and, in my case, a pit-stop for a caffeinated beverage. The line for coffee snaked around corners, the people surly and red-eyed and territorial; do not come between writers and their coffee, lest you put your very life at hazard. No thanks. I stopped by a food kiosk for a Diet Pepsi, a 20-oz. bottle consisting of what appeared to be plastic, not gold, but which nevertheless cost me four dollars.

My 9 am CST session consisted of a panel of editors discussing what made a submission leap off the slush pile and into their magazines—or the trashcan, depending on the piece. They shared a lot of advice, much of which can be boiled down to this: “make sure your story/poem/essay fits my personal taste.” They talked a lot about finding your unique voice, being “surprising”, and the like. Of course, those sorts of nebulous, subjective areas are really life-long projects for any writer, and so much of it seems to come back to luck—getting the right piece in front of the right person at the right time. The editors weren’t able to give much insight on how to write a piece that would necessarily appeal to any subjective criterion—who could give such advice, and what would it be?—but they did provide a lot of helpful hints on things like following guidelines to the letter, being professional in any contact, and so forth. They also hinted at trends that writers might not be aware of, such as how they are seeing so much dark content that humor—even dark humor—stands out these days. Good to know. I enjoyed this session very much; the editors all impressed as knowledgeable, passionate-about-literature people with whom you might enjoy sharing a beer.

I was particularly gratified when the editor of Juked discussed how tired he was of stories that begin with the protagonist’s waking up for no particular reason and going through a typical, boring routine before anything happens. He also hates personified body parts, which I can understand, given how many times my recent students have written things like “He gave a sigh” (how? Did he wrap it up in a gift box and send it by UPS?) or “The smile crept onto his face” (where was it before? On his leg?).

After that, I skipped out on a session I had planned to attend and hit the Book Fair, where I scored some copies of journals to show my classes.

Next, “Marketing Your Small Press Books,” a session I really need, so maybe one day I can sell more than fives of copies at a time. (Have I mentioned that The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light is available through fine online retailers everywhere?) This session was a blast. The panelists shared a lot of great practical device and a good deal of humor. I’d tell you what they said, but I’ll probably be using some of the techniques quite soon, so you’ll get to experience them first-hand. You can thank me later.

Back to the Book Fair for one last pass and a few more journals. I was hoping to chat up some more editors from small presses, since I’ve got a second collection of stories that I haven’t placed yet, even though most of the tales therein have been published in various journals. Of course, around 2 pm on the last day, said editors and staff are more interested in selling their books (for the press’s sake, for the authors’, and for the aching backs of those who have to lugged the unsold tomes back across the country), so very little of said chatting up was accomplished. Still, I grabbed a few more journals for classroom use (and my own reading pleasure, naturally).

Here, a bit of editorializing. When you know a lot of writers, and especially when you get a boatload of them in one place like you do at AWP, you hear a lot of understandable grousing about journals and presses and editors and agents and publishers and how they’re all out to get us and ruin our careers, either by tanking the publishing of our work or by not taking what is obviously brilliant in the first place. You also hear a lot of equally understandable griping from publishers and editors about how not enough people are buying their books and journals.

I think both sides need to remember that we’re in this together. I’m in a slump myself, so I know how hard it is to have your work rejected, especially when you honestly believe in it, when you KNOW it’s good. Rejection sucks. Lots of rejection sucks a lot. But I don’t think for a minute that there exists a cabal of editors who have a list of writers they automatically reject. Whether we’re talking a single poem or a book-length work, we have to remember that “quality” really is a subjective term, and what one person loves, another may feel indifferently about or even hate. It doesn’t mean one is right and the other is wrong. If someone passes on our work, it doesn’t mean that they themselves suck or that we have no talent. It just means they don’t see the connection between our work and their journal/press, even if we do.

On the other hand, editors/publishers who rant about sales should remember that writing literary works and teaching are not clear pathways to riches. It happens, but it isn’t what you’d call easy or common. Many AWP attendees are graduate students who share rides and pile a half-dozen people into a hotel room. Many others are adjuncts, who are criminally underpaid, or tenure-track professors at places that can’t or won’t pay what the professors are worth. Others are starving writers who don’t have a teaching gig—the writer/barista, the writer/construction worker, etc. In short, you can’t assume that everyone who comes to AWP carries with them a truckload of disposable income that they’re just hatefully withholding from you.

Plus, you can only buy and ship so many books at once. A lot goes into buying books at an AWP outside your home city. It is unlikely that many attendees aren’t buying your books because they’re out to get you.

I think we can all be better to each other.

We stopped by the UPS store to ship all our books home and there finally met up with our friend Robin Becker, fiction writer extraordinaire (check out Brains if you haven’t already). We hadn’t seen Robin since she left LSU ahead of us, way back in the early 2000s, so we had a snack and a beer in the hotel bar. The chat was lovely, the company awesome. I’m only sorry that I had to spend half the time on the phone, fighting with the world’s least helpful and most sarcastic customer service representative. “Superior” Shuttles my ass. This is the last time I use that company.

A one-hour nap later, we met my good buddy Ash Bowen for one more meal and a couple rounds of Guinness at Brit’s Pub. We had a great time and talked about our pasts, art, our lives today, art, food, art, and why making art in a world that devalues it hurts so much. Ash, thanks for your encouraging words. I needed them.

Back to the room by 8:30 pm CST for some grading, packing, and writing this dispatch, and the time is now 12:47 am CST. In eight hours, we will rise, finish packing, eat lunch, and head to the airport, and then it’s home to Las Vegas and, perhaps, one final dispatch.

AWP, AWP, AWP—we’ve all been there.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — III

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 3

Today, we might have grouped most of our experiences under the general heading of “mishaps.” You can’t use something with a darker, more serious connotation like “disaster” or “debacle” or “catastrophe,” because nothing terrible happened, but a lot of little inconveniences added up to a day that was less than it could have been.

At 9 am CST, the first of our alarms sounded. We shut it off. At 9:30, the backup alarm blared until somebody smacked it upside its head, after which it got the message and left us alone. We awoke at 10 am CST and ordered breakfast—in my case, ham and eggs, fingerling potatoes, grilled veggies, and toast. I did not bother with lunch.

Our hunger and exhaustion having ruined our chances of making our first scheduled session of the day, as well as a friend’s book signing, we finally stumbled out of our room at approximately 11:35 CST, headed for a session on applying for an individual creative writing NEA grant. Having seated ourselves around 11:45 CST, we got word of a minor issue in our room (don’t ask), so Kalene headed back to deal with it. I stayed long enough to discover that I was attending the exact same session that I attended last year, and we were once again discussing poetry submissions because I had somehow missed the fiction submission deadline. This….THIS is what happens when you teach five classes and serve on seven committees while trying to write. Something inevitably slips by, no matter how structured you are, and it’s usually something important. Now I can’t apply for an NEA grant until 2017.

Kalene texted an update about our situation at the hotel, and I wasn’t learning anything new, so I bailed and headed back.

The situation-that-shall-not-be-named required a trip to Target, and it was cold outside (Minneapolis in April, but hey, it wasn’t snowing like it did yesterday), so we decided to take the free-ride bus to the store. We sat down at a covered stop and shivered in the wind, watching buses pull up on the other side of the street and rumble away in the wrong direction until we said, “Screw this,” and started walking. The store lay only three or four blocks to our north (I think), and we were enjoying the chance to see a bit more of downtown—clean, modern, not as many people walking about as you’d think—until we started to cross what I have already come to think of as That Stupid Intersection.

We had barely stepped into the crosswalk when a car driving parallel to us suddenly put on its left blinker and veered our way. “Wait!” I cried, sure that we were about to be flattened, but the car merely changed lanes at seven thousand miles per hour and went on its way. Unfortunately, Kalene tried to heed my warning while walking much too fast for her own good. She managed to step in the one piece of broken pavement that I saw for at least a block. She turned her ankle, cried out, and fell onto her knees, scraping the skin off one of them. Then she rolled onto her back and lay there groaning. By this time, a bus was bearing down on us and showing no signs of stopping, so I reached down and yanked her upright. We stepped back onto the sidewalk and assessed the damage as the bus passed on by us like nothing had happened. The driver didn’t even glance our way.

Like the trooper that she is, Kalene kept going. We reached Target, bought our supplies and some snacks and first aid stuff, and headed back. We were going to catch a bus so she wouldn’t have to walk, but she decided that she would rather not let her ankle stiffen up, so we finished the trip on foot.

Back to the room for a bit of relaxation (for me, that meant a twenty-minute nap) before we headed back to the Convention Center (yep, Kalene was still walking) for two sessions.

The first one featured T.C. Boyle, Ron Carlson (for this semester’s CW students at CSN, he’s the one who wrote “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”), and Susan Straight. The panel was about the importance of place in creative writing (hey, CW students—think “grounding,” “setting,” etc.), specifically the landscape (physical and otherwise) of southern California. Straight and Carlson read short pieces from existing novels, while Boyle read a thus-far-unpublished story about a guy who invents a five-pound burrito. It struck me as very Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I mean that as a compliment. All three were great, of course.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to buy their books and or meet them because our next session started right away—a live NPR conversation with Louise Erdrich and Charles Baxter. The talk veered from memorable bad reviews to books that evoke a certain place/time in the writers’ minds to what the panelists wish that they had known when their careers were just beginning. Both demonstrated a sense of humor that most good writers have and that are often on display only during readings.

We had nothing scheduled afterward, and I had picked up copies of Baxter’s latest short-story collection and Erdrich’s award-winning novel The Round House, so we lined up to get them signed. A first for the Rileys, whose bad luck in minor matters is legendary—we were second in line. Usually we’re more like seven hundred and second.

Mr. Baxter was warm and gracious. He chatted with Kalene about the dangers of Minnesota roads as he signed my book. Ms. Erdrich was more reserved, but not in an unfriendly way. One gets the feeling that, like me, she’s a bit of an introvert and thus more comfortable in front of large crowds than when she’s chatting with people one on one. In spite of that, she took Kalene’s hand and complemented her on her style. I told Ms. Erdrich that this moment, speaking with her one-on-one, was our main motivation for coming this year, and I wasn’t lying. The pedagogy and craft talks are invaluable, and I admire the various other writers very much. Who could possibly dismiss T.C. Boyle or Baxter or Dybek or Prose? Still, I find that Erdrich’s work speaks to my own individual sensibilities in ways that I can’t quite explain, so I really wanted to meet her. She seemed surprised but touched that we felt that way about her books.

From there, we picked up Maya and sent across the street to the Hyatt, where we ate supper at the Prairie Kitchen and Bar. I had a ribeye (I’m eating more meat than I should on this trip, which is to say more than almost none, but after a rough day, I was in the mood to rend some flesh), while Maya chose a burger. Kalene had a mac and cheese dish with some kind of chicken in it. It was all good, made even better for me by a couple of margaritas on a mostly empty stomach.

Afterward, we returned to our room, where I graded a few papers and wrote this dispatch in about fifteen minutes.

I’m beginning to think any profundity in these little pieces may have to come later, upon reflection, because by the time I’m ready to write them, it’s late and I’m tired and I’ve still got grading to do. Still, this was our least busy day in terms of conference activities, and I’m just now winding down at 10:40 CST.

If any of my CW students are reading this, though, I’d like to share something that Ron Carlson said about place: “Nothing happens nowhere.” Every story has a setting, and every setting has a feel, a texture, an atmosphere. Within that setting—desert landscape or bedroom, alien planet or storm-tossed ocean liner, meth lab in the California mountains or a dude ranch or an urban diner—people live. They act. They talk to each other. They think. They react, to each other’s actions and thoughts and to their own emotional turmoil and to the setting itself. Place is not just a backdrop. It’s a living, breathing, absolutely necessary part of any story, and a writer at any stage ignores it to his/her peril.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve said it before, as have thousands of writers before me, as will thousands after I’m gone. If you’re a writer and you haven’t learned that lesson yet, there is no better time than now.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

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