Please forgive the mass email. I’m writing because you are a person who nurtures—and is nurtured by—the world of books. I’m going to tell you a story, and then I’m going to ask you a favor:
As someone who makes a living as a novelist, I am frequently asked to give advice to aspiring writers. One of the things I always tell them is how essential it is to seek out a supportive community of readers and fellow writers, even if it’s a small one. I reference the ongoing experience with my writers group. We have been meeting every month and critiquing each others’ work since the summer of 1996.
But I also point out that there are many ways to set up a support system. As an example, I like to tell the story of my first experience as a member of a writer’s group.
In 1994, when my eldest son was a baby, I left a twenty-year career as an actor and—ever so slowly and timidly—was trying to navigate toward the life I’d dreamed of ever since I wrote my first story at the age of seven.My husband and I had a friend staying with us at the time. He was a far more experienced and credentialed writer than I, and when I shared with him the fact that I had a file cabinet full of short stories that had never seen the light of day and was hoping to “come out of the closet” as a writer, he made a very generous and (to my way of thinking anyway) radical proposal:
We would meet once a week and read something we’d written. It could be any genre: fiction, non-fiction, poem, journal entry…It could be any length: a page, a paragraph, a sentence…It could be a grocery list. We could invite comments or not. We could say, “Only tell me what you like,” or “It’s going to take all the courage I have just to read this to you.” We could ask for whatever kind of feedback we needed.
I was astonished. Is this what “real” writers really did?
It sounded too good to be true.
Above all, it sounded safe.
And so, every Saturday for several weeks in the fall of 1994, my friend and I met in the dark, cavernous place I euphemistically referred to as “my office”—located in the basement, barely bigger than a closet, it had a single postage-stamp sized window and a ceiling so low that my tall friend risked a concussion every time he entered. We sat on an atrociously ugly orange sofa I bought at a church yard sale in Georgia for $20 and insisted upon moving across the country, and we read to one another.
My friend’s name was Michael Maschinot. The gift of the time we spent together was immeasurable.
In the kindest, gentlest, most nurturing way possible, Michael gave me my first experience of being accountable to someone else as a writer. My showing up every week to read something to him was a contract, a bargain. Suddenly, my writing mattered to someone besides me.
I cannot tell you what a profound thing that is.
In his kind, quiet, nurturing way, Michael provided a safe haven where I could dare to start calling myself a writer.
Michael always said that a writer is simply a person who “applies the seat of their pants to the seat of the chair.” I’ve always loved the unpretentiousness of that. It’s simple wisdom I hold dear, and it’s another piece of advice I frequently impart.
My office now is above ground, a sunlit and spacious place painted in light colors. It has a large window and two skylights. It contains an attractive sofa and a very comfortable chair.
But I’ve never forgotten the small, dark, low-ceilinged room where Michael sat with me on a shapeless rummage sale sofa, and where, in a shaking voice, I read to him, and he listened. It was in that place, and thanks to Michael, that I first began to come into a life I’d dreamed of for so long. It was Michael who shepherded me toward that dream. His name appears in the acknowledgements page of my first novel. It will appear on the dedication page of my second.
On the evening of June 23, 2007, Michael told his wife Eve that he was going to the library. This lie haunts me. I’m sure it haunts Eve and their three daughters as well, because instead, he checked into a hotel room and shot himself.
No one seems to know why.
On June 14-15, 2014, I will once again be joining with hundreds of people to walk 20 miles through the night in the Out of the Darkness Overnight to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I will be walking for Michael.
But I’ll be walking for others as well, for people I’ve never met: a friend of a friend who lost her son to suicide; for the three adoptive sons of a bookseller I met in Stillwater, Minnesota, who were orphaned when their father shot their mother and then killed himself; for the little boy I heard about in a Frontline documentary called “Growing up Online” who experienced a new brand of soul-killing, suicide-inducing depression called “cyber-bullying.”
Ironically, it was Michael who first encouraged me to think of depression as a medical condition rather than a moral failing, a source of shame. He said, “No one ticks off a cheery list to a cancer patient, reminding them of everything they have going for them, of every reason they have to not be sick. No one ever asks someone with diabetes, ‘What have you got to be so diabetic about?'” It was Michael who urged me to seek medical attention for my own depression, which I did. I’ve struggled off and on with the darkness for forty years; I do not believe I would have struggled as successfully without Michael’s counsel, kindness, wisdom, and empathy.
So I will walk for myself, too. And for the many dear friends and family members who have struggled/are struggling with mental illness.
I hope you’ll consider supporting my participation in this event. Any contribution will help the work of AFSP. Checks should be made payable to AFSP and are 100% tax deductible. Please feel free to forward this email to anyone else you know who might want to be involved—either as a contributor or a walker. (There is also a walk in NYC in early June.)
Thank you for considering this request for your support. If you have any questions about the Out of the Darkness Overnight or AFSP do not hesitate to contact me.
Please visit my Overnight fundraising page if you would like to donate online or see how close I am to reaching my personal goal.