|Reading a blog at Levy Lee's "A gathering of Friends" in June 2016|
"She's holding her fork wrong."
I looked up with surprise. I had been picturing a scene in my favorite movie, The Jungle Book. The one where Baloo the Bear fights Shere Khan the Tiger to save Mowgli.
Wait, there's a wrong way to hold a fork?
I remember my mother intervening, "just let her eat -- please. It's okay."
"It's NOT okay!" He shouted as he reached for my hand.
I flinched away from him. Not because of his touch, but because of the violence in his voice.
I wanted out.
I was trying to slip under the table (so I could bolt for my room), when I felt hands swiftly grabbing my shoulders and settling me back in my chair with a soft (humiliating) thud. I felt the familiar beginnings of a shut down, my eyes had a sedated, heavy feeling behind them and my thoughts started to float away like balloons. Instantly, the movie screen in my mind went dark.
"She's going to learn how to hold a fork — now -- TODAY."
After what felt like many hours later, (but was probably 20 minutes or so) I was finally "allowed" to leave the table and go to my room.
Mr. Scarry was there was waiting for me when I closed my door. Mr. Richard Scarry, that is -- the Swiss children's book author. I climbed up on my bed and pulled the heavy, blue blanket over my head like a tent to drown out the sounds of my mom and Kenny loudly "discussing" what had just happened. Dust particles danced in the last rays of the sun that poured through my street-facing window as I flipped through the well-worn pages. Finally, I found it -- "Couscous The Algerian Detective." I put my nose close to the inside spine of the book and breathed deeply. The sweet, comforting smell of good paper and binding glue wafted up to my face and filled me up with a feeling that made my stomach flip. I criss-crossed my legs and shifted the book so that a shaft of sunlight fell across the words. Couscous was a large-nosed dog that lived in Algeria and solved mysteries for a living. I was instantly transported from my thin-walled, odd-shaped, hand-painted bedroom to the noisy, vendor-lined streets of North Africa.
"Dear Betty," I wrote later that evening in my powder blue, "line a day" diary with the gold lock.
"Kenny was meen. Mama sed no, but he was stil meen."
My mother read to me (from her own books) every night until I could read to myself (and actually for some time after that, because we both enjoyed it so much). As I got older, I found that I loved writing just as much as reading. They went together for me. Reading was the inspiration for my writing.
Writing helped me navigate through my teenage angst and confusion. It helped me unravel how I felt when my heart shattered after my first high school dance (I was left standing alone when the harsh cafeteria lights came on at twelve o'clock, while HE left with Mona Bauer).
Note to self: Don't stand next to the girl with the biggest boobs at the next dance. Make yourself stand out! (maybe tighter pants)?
I devoured books written by and about "mistresses" in an attempt to come to terms with (and maybe glamorize) the fact that I was in-love with someone else's boyfriend in the 10th grade. It was from Anne Frank that I learned the power of writing my truth at the end of each day. It was Zora Neale Hurston that made me feel better about not having heat at home in the winter or money to spend on new school clothes in the fall. And it was Toni Morrison who showed me that my brown skin could be regarded with something more like wonder than disdain.
"I'd sooner go without food than books," I was known to proclaim when the subject came up. And often, during my early twenties (when things were really lean), I quite literally did. For me, reading and writing were more than a hobby, more than something that I "liked to do sometimes." Reading and writing were oxygen. They were the Source (capital S) of my bright, inner light.
I was hired as a publicist at 26 because of my writing skills. Suddenly, all of my "recreational reading" had to take a back seat to all of the reading that was required in order to be a good publicist in the late 1990s. Prudence Baird and I had to read all well-known magazines and every major newspaper EVERY DAY, as this was "pre-social media-times" (can you even imagine that?).
It mattered little that I all I wrote were bios and press releases and that a lot of the reading was dull and tedious. I was READING! I was WRITING! And I was getting PAID FOR IT!
I was happy.
After I was married, (and no longer working outside the home) I would take pride in bringing novels and biographies to Brian's attention if I thought they might make good movies or TV shows. I did the same with all of the newspaper articles I still read (now just for fun). Reading at this level made me relevant and able to participate in any conversation. Just like all of those year's before in Cambridge, I still wrote daily notes to myself. Internally, I referred to my insatiable need to write as my "spark." When I felt my spark "coming on," I rushed to my nightstand drawer and pulled out my journal and a pen. My journal held all of my worries, all of my thoughts, all of my fears and all of my dreams (not just my ambitions -- literally, my dreams, I wrote them down in my journal every morning). I kept my current journal in my nightstand drawer and my completed ones in a foot locker in the attic. I was the only one who had ever read them. Sometimes, when I needed to recall a certain feeling or taste or smell for a story that I was writing, I would seek (and usually find!) the answer in those journals. Those journals were my chronology. They are my life story.
* * *
Years later, when my kids were little, I suffered from what I now know to be called, "Traumatic Postpartum Insomnia." In my frantic search for what was wrong with me, I found a psychiatrist who prescribed for me, several "helpful" (and astoundingly addictive) pain and sleep medications. The effects blindsided me and took me so far off course that I didn't know how to get back. My astonishingly rapid descent into active addiction brought forth a variety of painful new realities. One of them being, that Brian's piece of mind was slowly eroding away. As things got darker and darker at home and I became increasingly hard to reach, my journals became my only place of refuge. To them, I told all of the absolute truths about what I thought and what I did. I kept track of my precious pills in my journals (in case I forgot how much or how many or where I'd hidden them). My journals knew everything, so even if I couldn't remember, they did.
I still feel swirls of shame and guilt in my gut when I think of that fateful day when Brian found out. I can't imagine what that must have been like for him. My memory (as usual) is sketchy here, but I know that whatever he encountered when he came home that afternoon (possibly me asleep during the day — again) prompted him to go searching for the real cause of what everyone was wondering about but no one was talking about. I didn't see him go though my nightstand drawer for my current journal or head to the attic and open my footlocker to retrieve the others, but I'll never forget the look on his face when he showed up in the bedroom after having read them.
"I know what's going on..." he started, he held my nightstand journal in one hand and several of my footlocker journals in the other.
Oh my God. Those are my journals.
"We're going to get you help."
He read my journals...
Everything after that is mostly a blur of tears, pleading and packing. While my body probably looked like it was complying with the new reality (which was at that point, inescapable), my mind was filled with a shriek that circled around inside my head like hula hoop.
He read MY JOURNALS!!!
I knew that wasn't the point. I knew there were so many things that were SO much more important at that moment, but I couldn't feel connected to those things. I felt the familiar heaviness behind my eyes. Gathering my thoughts was suddenly an excruciating task.
He read my journals...
I remember looking in the mirror and seeing dead eyes looking back at me. It felt as though my soul had sprung a leak and all of my bright Source light was pooling out around my feet, like blood from gunshot wound.
* * *
In 2012 (at the lovely Kacy's insistence) I picked up a copy of Gone Girl. You see, Kacy had no idea that I hadn't picked up a book in over five years (the longest period of my whole life without reading for fun). She didn't know that after I returned home from treatment, I'd put all of my journals back into the footlocker and snapped the lock shut. She didn't know that the very thought of reading ANYTHING EVER made me feel like I wanted to disappear.
Kacy had no idea that there were no more "daily notes to self". No more writing stories, no more laying in bed on Sundays reading the papers. She didn't know that there were unread magazines stacked on tables all around my house. She didn't know that the very idea of opening a notebook or sitting in front of a computer keyboard made my arms unbearably heavy.
This must be what depression feels like.
When I thought about reading or writing there was a deep, gaping void in my core. My mind would click off like a TV and go dark. Where unflappable enthusiasm, excitement and energy used to pour out of me so effortlessly, now there was only silence, apathy and a complete absence of ability to "muster." And try as I might, I couldn't summon even an iota of curiosity for the book in my hand. I set it down with a heaviness that felt insurmountable.
Stop trying to rekindle it! You'll never get the spark back again. Just face it -- it's gone.
I set it down and ran the palm of my hand over the smooth book jacket.
Gone Girl. That's me.
I found myself chuckling out loud at my little joke. Another swipe of my hand over the cover and I stopped chuckling abruptly.
Gone Girl, eh? I wonder what it's really about? Why was Kacy so sure that I'd like this book?
I observed my fingers picking the book up and bringing it closer to my face. My left hand came over my right and my index finger and thumb delicately opened the front cover.
Chapter One Nick Dunne
"When I think of my wife, I always think of her head."
I sat down on the bed and leaned cautiously against my pillows, holding the book as far in front of me as possible — as though it might bite me if I brought it closer.
"The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her it was the back of her head."
Two hours later I found myself turning on my nightstand lamp. Three hours later, I (painfully) uncurled my legs from under me and threw off my blanket. I set the book down on my nightstand and closed my eyes, trying to shield myself against the feelings of hope that bubbled away somewhere deep down inside me.
* * *
I walked into the empty Hollywood theater where the writing class was gathering in musty, velvet theater seats. I looked around cautiously and took a seat near Stefanie, my friend and the instructor. She started off with introductions:
"Tell us who you are, how long you've been writing and why you're taking this class."
After introductions, she gave us a writing prompt. We had 10 minutes to write about a time when we felt embarrassed.
Well, that's easy!
But I found that my hand remained motionless as I placed the nib of my pen on the empty journal page. I looked around in horror as I saw that the other 6 or 7 women in the class were furiously scribbling or typing away. But the more I tried to think of one, the further away any "share-worthy" embarrassing memory drifted.
"Time," she said finally.
I felt hot tears welling up in my eyes. My page was blank.
I had failed.
Stefanie must have seen the despair and shame in my face. She looked over at my notebook and then back up at me with a generous smile.
"Don't worry about it," she said in a comforting, confidential tone. "All of these women have been taking classes with me for a while. You'll get the hang of it. It's okay."
* * *
A few weeks into class and true enough, I could write when she gave us prompts. I could even do writing assignments at home -- as long as I had a deadline. But there was one other caveat -- she had to give it to me. When I tried to write at home by myself without a Stefanie-issued deadline, I ended up in a stand-off with a blank page.
Before the 8-week class ended, Stefanie called me and told me she was referring me to Larry Smith, an author/editor who was publishing a book of short stories called "The Moment."
"I think your stories are just what he's looking for," she said. I could hear her smile through the phone.
A few weeks later, Mr. Smith emailed to tell me that yes indeed, he would like to include my story, True Calm, in his book. I danced around my office and called my mother.
"He chose my story, Mom! I'm going to be PUBLISHED!"
I had never worked with an editor before. It was much harder than I thought it would be, but I loved receiving the book with my name in print as an AUTHOR:
True Calm, by Laura Cathcart Robbins.
Maybe there's still some spark here after all.
After Stefanie's class ended, I signed up for another class through The Writing Pad. And then I signed up for another one as soon as that one ended. From 2013 through June 2016, I was in classes all year-round writing, writing and writing. But I still wasn't really reading.
Maybe I can't write without being in a class, because I'm not reading. Maybe if I can become inspired to read again, the writing will pour out of me like it used to.
I tried to read 50 Shades of Grey. I knew it was fluff, but I figured maybe light reading would be easier to commit to than something heavy. I got through it, but barely.
But I read Gone Girl so quickly!
"The spark is gone," I told myself sternly. "Stop thinking about it."
But then a little thought would pop its head over the ridge of my sub conscious.
But is it really gone forever?
"Maybe not" I decided. "And I'm not ready to give up. If I can only write while I'm taking a class, then maybe I'll just have to stay in classes forever. And perhaps the reading will come in its own time, but even if it doesn't, I'm going to keep writing."
* * *
One day as I was printing out a story for a Sunday afternoon Writing Pad class, I realized that all of the writing I had been doing (in all of these the classes) seemed to have a kind of an order, a connection. "Maybe," I thought. "Maybe, these short, individual stories could be put together in a more linear fashion. Maybe these stories could be..."
"Yes, for sure, Laura," said Lisa Jakub, my writing teacher at the time (author of "You Look Like That Girl..."). "There could really be a book here. And also, you should start a blog."
A blog would be impossible, because I would have self-imposed deadlines. I could never write a blog without my spark! I don't have the ability to make myself write.
Also, what would I ever write about? My life was full of mothering, adjusting to divorce (and my new family "status,") being Scottie's girlfriend and my recovery meetings. There's nothing interesting there.
I felt that same heaviness returning behind my eyes. My brain was shutting down.
"Memoir authors can't even solicit an agent without having an 'author's platform',"she continued.
An author's platform?
"They want to see a social media presence," she explained patiently. "You'll need to get a writer's page on Facebook, and then start a blog and post it to your page every week, or at least regularly. It's important."
"I'll try," I said out loud, fighting my shut down. "But I honestly don't know how I could possibly write anything every week. That really just seems like too much."
* * *
It was my friend Lilah who gave me the idea later on that week in a conversation. I sat across from her at lunch, trying out different blog ideas on her.
"I could blog about my volunteer work?" I ventured. "Or I could blog about being a basketball mom."
She laughed little. "Yeah," she said. "You could...."
"Well, I'm 51 and I'm still waiting for menopause. Maybe I could blog about that."
"Maybe," she said thoughtfully. "But I think you tell such great stories. I think you should just do that. Talk about where you are. You really helped me through my divorce. You might be able to help someone else."
Just tell stories...?
At Lisa's suggestion I ordered "writer's business cards" from Vistaprint and purchased a web-domain name (laurarcathcartrobbins.com). On a whim, I had signed up for a three-day writer's conference in April. I had decided that I wanted get my first blog "up" before I went. When I wrote that first (now cringe-worthy) blog and hit "publish" for the first time, I closed my eyes and held my breath.
I did it.
I opened my eyes and looked at the screen, expecting to see comments pouring in.
While I waited, I spent some time thinking about how I would answer my "fans" and how diligently I would respond to every single person who left a remark on my page. I checked and re-checked the blog several times that day, (and the next and the next and the next) but no one ever clicked onto the post. It seemed that no one even knew that it was there.
I was devastated.
But the very next week, I published again. Slowly, I started to get comments and compliments. Every once in while, someone would message me and say how my blog affected them/touched them/impacted them.
So now I keep at it. Every week I sit myself down on Wednesday afternoon to write. Every Thursday night, I edit until about 11pm and then early Friday morning (after one more "once over" at 6:30am) -- I hit the "publish" button.
So far I have almost 50 blog posts published. I am excited to keep going in the hopes that I can again live that inspired life that I once took for granted. Now, I know for sure that "it" still shines somewhere inside of me. I don't think it will ever be like it was before. But the truth is, neither will I. All I know now is that I'm not willing to abandon the possibility of igniting my spark again.
Readers or not, comments or not. I will continue to write because I am a writer. And that's not just what I do. It's who I am.
* * *
Have you ever lost your creative "spark"? I'd really love to hear about your experience. Please leave your responses in the comments for others to see as well. Thank you.