Friday, February 4, 2011

Nightmares Come True

Well, anyone who reads the dates on these things will notice a big gap between my first post and my second. There's a few reasons behind that.

Dreams come true, as I said in my first post and the publication of the Twilight Age was an example of that. After I finished the Preview, however, I had a crisis of confidence. I'd done it under extreme pressure for a deadline I should have been wise enough to say it would be better not to aim at. The result was that the work was uneven and I regretted that greatly. Since then I've been able to rejig a lot of the Preview and now as the O issue I'm happy with it.

I was also going through some tricky stuff in my personal life - relationship breakups and a health crisis - all of which saw me in pretty bad shape to do issue 1.

I was just starting to get my act together when I heard that my son Jaspar's girlfriend had committed suicide after an eleven year battle with anorexia. He suffered from bi-polar and I was very concerned that this would tip him over the edge. I flew down to Victoria to be with him and the family. We saw Michelle buried and I hung around until I felt Jaspar was okay with the rest of the family and health services to help him cope. I told him I'd come back if he needed me or he could come to Sydney and stay with me - we were extremely close.

So I returned to the Twilight Age, trying to catch up my deadline while battling my own neurosis, recovering from the shock of Michelle's death and worrying about Jaspar. Not the best work I could do under ideal circumstances but the best I could do under those. We artistic types are sensitive souls and I've heard plenty of stories of other creators having a meltdown with their first big gig, so I sort of feel normal in my abnormality there. Again, I've done a lot of tweaking and Issue One is going to look a whole lot better in the trade that's coming up.

Jaspar came to stay with me while I was working on the last pages of issue one. We sat and watched Lost on the bed in my bedsit in Glebe while I drew. (The irony of the title of the show was not lost on me). We hung out. Went to see a band. Went to dinner with friends. Walked down Pitt St, pissed, singing Van Morrison songs arms around each other shoulders. We talked about Michelle and life. I told him I knew how he felt. I'd suffered breakdown, broken hearts, the loss of a marriage. I'd recovered from unbearable grief and he would too. I was an idiot. A well-meaning idiot but an idiot nonetheless.

I didn't know what he was going through because I wasn't him and whatever hell I'd been through in the past wasn't a preparation for understanding his hell or the one that was coming. But we shared a great connection and he knew where I was coming from and forgave me my idiocy and we had as good a time as one can expect in such circumstances. After two weeks it was time for him to go home. I would not see him alive again.

I'm a writer. I believe in words and writing and the power that has. I believe that writing can be important. As well as entertaining it can help us understand life and who we are. Everything that happens to the writer is grist for the mill. And there is a part of you that you can't turn off and is there taking notes whatever happens (and sometimes when you catch it at work you feel a disgust that becomes just another note).

I've always been interested in the big questions. I studied philosophy at university. It was my plan to be a professional philosopher actually. So the big questions, too, are something I have always planned to write about. But now there is this. This thing in my life that will not go away. The death of my son. His suicide. And all my belief in myself as a writer and writing in general is severely challenged. I’ve tried to write about it over the two and a half years since Jaspar’s death and every time I just stop after anywhere between 2 and a dozen pages. Everything about what I write seems wrong.

I believe in honesty. Good writing has honesty and integrity. Good writing gets to the core of things. And that is why I can’t write about this. Or rather, I can only write about this by writing about how I can’t write about it. I love the big questions, or I thought I did, but this one is too big. Whatever I write, when I read it back, it seems inadequate or inappropriate and usually both. It seems too trite or too cold or too self-pitying. In the classical view of philosophy the truth is what is unchanging. But in existential reality, the truth is a series of shifting perspectives.

So having covered my ass by saying how I can’t write about this, I’m going to write about it, knowing I can’t do it justice.

The irony has struck me that I was writing a comic about the end of the world and my world ended. The final page of issue one is a scene where a man cries out in anguish – ‘why doesn’t anyone come’. For me this became an echo of the aloneness Jaspar must have felt in his grief, and the aloneness I felt in mine. I didn’t know what it was like for him to be grieving the loss of his girlfriend and I know no one who hasn’t lost someone through suicide can understand mine. Nor do I want you to. Some things you are better off not knowing.

One of the first stages of grief is denial. Mine took the form of being extremely philosophical. Life had to go on. Grieve and move on. There are deadlines to meet. I really thought I could do this. And I thought I needed to do this. I needed to focus on the work and take my mind off what would really bear no contemplation. My son was dead – what’s to contemplate? It’s a tragedy. I feel guilty as hell because I’m his father and the most important job I have to do in life is keep him alive. If I fail in that then nothing else I achieve matters. Pretty simple really. How many times do you need to turn that over in your head? Jaspar lost his life because he lost Michelle and he blamed himself for not being able to rescue her. And we (his family and friends) were all suffering for it. So I had to get over it. Accept the guilt was never going to go away but get on with it. Otherwise I’d kill myself and a whole lot of people would be blaming themselves for my death (because that’s what we do).

Yep, pretty simple. Your kid’s dead but pull up your socks and get on with it. Them pages aren’t going to draw themselves. And I hasten to add that this all came from me. Baden Kirgan had invested a lot in TTA but he never made me feel under any pressure to get to work. I’ll always be grateful for that. Just like I’ll always be grateful to everyone who offered me support and help and sympathy. In the end you have to carry it alone, and there are times nothing seems to matter, but it helps. Even when you don’t know how it helps, it does. Knowing people care for you and they don’t want to see you go under.

So I finished the Twilight Age. Each issue, I feel, got better and better. A lot of this had to do with me getting things in perspective a bit more. It took me a couple of months to realise I was in denial. There was no just getting on with it. Life didn’t go on. You’ve taken the biggest shot you ever will in your life and you’re down on the canvas. At least wait til the ref get’s to 5 before you even think of getting up.

So I took time. I took time to redraw stuff. I learnt as I went. Even then, some days it was agony to sit at the table but I forced myself. If issue two is uneven I’m damn proud of it. I’m proud I did it at all.

There’s a certain school of thought that says we should embrace our challenges. Well you don’t wish for one like this. Whatever you get out of it, you’d give it back if you didn’t have to pay the price. But I didn’t have a choice. The challenge wasn’t going to go away, so I might as well learn from it what I could. What I learnt was that I can keep on writing and drawing even when every part of me thinks I can’t; that I suck, that my life sucks, that life in general sucks and we might as well all just end it. That I can crawl out of that morass and put my pen on the paper and move it and the drawing will come out. And even if it isn’t great I’ve begun and I can go back and rework it. But I’m doing it and nothing can stop me, not even the end of the world. And the more often you do it the more often you prove that voice of doubt is a liar. The more often you face down fear and grief and agony and depression, the easier it is to say – oh yeah, you, I’ve seen you before. You can waste my time all you want, I’m getting better every time. I am not going down.

Don’t think it is easy. It isn’t easy for any of us sensitive artistic types, even when life is going well. Like Van the man says, ‘My Momma always told me there’d be days like these.’ But two and a half years after Jaspar’s death I’m excited about the future. The Twilight Age Trade is coming out soon and having reviewed it from back to front I’m happy. I think it’s a good bit of work. It’s about death and loss and about going on when you don’t think you can. It’s about madness and depression, love and devotion. I wrote and drew it from a place more intimately connected to all of that than I care to be (not love and devotion but you get my drift).

Well, if you’ve read this far, thanks for bearing with me. Like I say, I can’t write about this and feel good about it, but I also can’t ignore it. I think I’ll return to it often in fact and fiction, trying to get a handle on it (but not for a while, I promise you that). It is good to share, and it is too lonely walking around and being with people and carrying all of this inside you without anyone knowing. And of course I am not alone and I’ve never lost sight of that no matter how bad things got. Many of us have a private grief and no one can know or judge what another has to bear or what it means for them. Maybe these things are best kept private but that is not my way. What use is my suffering if I don’t learn from it and if someone else can learn anything from it, then that’s a bonus.

At the end of the last blog I said I’d write about why TTA isn’t set in Australia. I’ll fulfil that promise next time around.