I’m still wrecked by Ned Vizzini’s sudden death. It’s staying with me, hard, and I’m trying to figure out why.
Maybe it’s that he only died exactly a week ago and it still doesn’t seem real.
Maybe because yesterday was Christmas, and he jumped out of this lifetime less than 6 days before this traditional family gathering time, off his parents’ roof. And that’s almost too ironic.
Maybe because he died on the 19th and he wrote me only two days before regarding reviewing my new book, also congratulating me on our new baby:
From: Ned Vizzini <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: from Aaron Levy at KSU
Date: December 17, 2013 5:03:49 PM EST
To: Aaron Levy <email@example.com>
Aaron, I got it, will check it out ASAP! Wonderful news about your little guy!
Reading all the testimonials in Twitter-verse and FB, the notion that Ned would help someone with his writing career is not a foreign one. He did it authentically often, when he genuinely saw fit. So I’m certainly not suggesting that I’m an exception; just the timing is rather screwy in my brain and my heart.
I’m wrestling with a bunch of ironies here really that are still pulling at me hard. As co-director of our YA Conference at Kennesaw State University, I selfishly lobbied to bring Ned to our conference as a featured author back in 2009. As a writer new to the YA genre, I really tried to acquire authors for our conference, who, well, I really dug. Besides booking the authors, it was my job to discuss with them their presentations. Typically it was a quick exchange about the audience and venue and the authors would take it from there.
But Ned was different. He seized the opportunity to create a new presentation for our conference, and workshop it with me almost like a draft of a chapter for a novel, going back and forth via email. Essentially, Ned became a student of mine for about a month, bouncing his presentation ideas/drafts off of me. Eventually he settled on a title for his presentation, “Angspiration,” that I believe he subsequently delivered for many speaking engagements after testing it out at ours.
The truth is, Ned’s books BE MORE CHILL and IT’S A FUNNY KIND OF STORY inspired and taught me so much about what could actually be done in YA fiction, despite my own years teaching creative writing and English Education. I had only written plays for young adults up to that point, and Ned’s books gave me permission to write real AND with self-deprecating humor. And not just witty ha-ha lines. His humor was character-driven, really smart-funny. Not everyone can do that. You have to be really talented to be tragic and humorous at the same time. He was one of the first and only YA authors that I admired and wanted to emulate…and he was 12 years younger than me… asking me advice about his speaking presentation.
But perhaps even more ironic, or sad and maybe what’s still got me by the throat today, is after much thought and dialogue, what he ultimately presented to our students and teachers, over 300 of them, who were dazzled by Ned’s presentation(s), which were, like his books, fun, funny, incredibly poignant, and excruciatingly relevant. He wrote the below on March 26th, 2009, and presented it four days later at our conference (which eventually became the guts of “Angspiration”). And it’s been haunting me for the last week:
On Mar 26, 2009, at 11:52 AM, Ned Vizzini wrote:
Seeing as this is an audience of educators and education students, I am going to focus on my personal story with my presentation: "Coping in a Culture of Unrealistic Expectations: my journey through depression".
The core of the message is:
overachiever -> institution
I started writing when I was 15, so you could say I was an overachiever. I always pushed myself to the limit and didn't listen to anyone who told me it was unhealthy. Then, when I was 23, I went through the experience that led me to write It's Kind of A Funny Story. A key moment for me was when I looked up at the television in the dining room at the psych hospital and realized that I was missing my high school reunion.
So I'll talk about :
our culture of high-pressure overachievers
how to understand the new dangers of stress (including the research that shows it causes brain damage)
how to catch a student who might be in danger of going from overachiever to institution (and I use the term institution here almost for a humorous effect--I am a firm believer that being able to laugh at the worst things in our lives is what allows us to deal with them)
how to use literature and writing to help right our students--and ourselves
I’m NOT judging Ned’s suicide. My friends/writing colleagues, Bill Konigsberg and Chris Crutcher wrote about this notion much better than I ever could.
Where I’m still stumped here is the idea of HOPE. A young person may read Ned’s books, especially IT’S A FUNNY KIND OF STORY, where it’s noted to be 80% autobiographical, and really connect big with Craig and Craig’s battle with depression, and maybe find HOPE that it’ll be okay in the end, that one can get that low and still survive…only to find out Ned did not. And I wonder, what do teens do with that information? How do they process it? Hell, what do I do with that information?
I’m reminded of this one other episode from my own young adult years and then I’ll promise to move on to happier and perhaps hipper blog posts in the future.
I was a grad student, 20 years old, and I thought I’d met the great love of my life. Like most of the women I’ve been deathly attracted to in my life, she was complex, extremely motivated and successful. She dazzled me with her accomplishments, and her laugh. Her smile melted me too, and blah blah blah, all of it.
It was a Sunday morning and we were about to get breakfast after spending every minute of the weekend together. I’d parked the car in front of the restaurant, looked over at her because she wasn’t really moving to get out of the car. She was sort of stuck there in my front seat, crying.
I was like, “What?”
She was like, “Nothing. It’s nothing.”
We did that a few times (me saying “what?” her saying, “No, it’s nothing. Sorry,” and me saying, “C’mon, what.” Of course I was dumbfounded.
“I have something to tell you,” she said, finally.
I remember having a nervous, physical reaction to this, thinking something really amazing was suddenly about to turn really awful in my life. A million typical and insidious things ran through my mind as she sat there, crying still, unable to tell me this gigantic THING.
“I’m depressed,” she finally said.
“Not depressed like normal depressed. I mean I’m happy. You make me happy…I mean, ah, chemically depressed.”
That’s it? That’s it, I thought???
“That’s it?” I also said out loud.
“Yes,” she said.
“Whew,” I actually said. “I thought it was like some kind of—but you’re not depressed, you know, now?”
“No. It’s not like that. I’m happy. You make me happy.”
“Sometimes I can get depressed though—like my body just does it. It’s hard to explain. But I take medicine. And I’ve been good. Really good lately. And you make me happy.”
“Good,” I said. I watched her wipe her tears and gather herself. “But that’s it?” I asked again.
She nodded. I was extremely relieved. In my mind, what could have been something was really nothing at all.
Truth is, I was actually just really stupid. I was relieved and stupid, because I didn’t have a clue what I was relieved about. She was happy is what I heard. I made her happy is what I heard. She was on medicine that would manage the small spaces in between our happiness. So, as far as I knew, we were all good. She was happy and I was happy, and we were in love. What else could she need?
Of course, I was wrong. She didn’t just stay happy because her body clearly wasn’t capable of it. And I was an emotional idiot child, not to mention completely ignorant about chemical depression. Needless to say, this combination did not make for a healthy future and we fizzled hard and ugly on the way to eventually terminating the relationship.
But I’ll always remember that exchange. She just started crying out of nowhere, told me she was depressed and I said, “…that’s it?”
I’m still admittedly ignorant and stumped about what sent Ned figuratively and literally over the edge. I can get down, and I’ve been depressed, but I can’t say I’ve been so dark in my body where I felt shutting my life off was the only answer. I don’t understand it, but I respect it even if I’m miffed by it. I won’t judge it.
I want to be hopeful that Ned’s books, his memories, and even his life will be a source of hope instead of despair and confusion. But maybe I don’t get to have that hope in this case. Maybe my need to control crap, to make it neat, to make stuff fit, to make people happy, is my b.s. to deal with. Maybe people can read Ned’s books and find hope if they want to regardless. And even if they don’t find hope per say, it doesn’t mean they’ll kill themselves.
And maybe I’m sad considering the notion that families gathered yesterday for Christmas and I couldn’t help thinking about how awful Christmas must have been for his wife and family. But then, I don’t know. It could be that his family also felt a sense of relief the way some families do when a loved one who is suffering from a painful, incurable disease, finally passes. It’s a HOPE I have. But I don’t really know.
Ned, we didn’t talk every day, but we did keep in contact over the years. And every time we communicated, it was never generic or pointless. I hope my book gets published, but if it does, there will be an empty spot where your blurb would have potentially been and lived forever. Selfishly, that makes me sad. I think you would have liked my book because I tried to write it FUNNY and REAL like you never knew you taught me to do.