By Francisco X. Stork
A few months ago, Cheryl Klein, my editor at Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, asked if I would be interested in writing a novel about a young girl recovering from depression and a failed suicide attempt. My initial reaction was that such a book was the last thing I wanted to write. As someone who has suffered from depression since he was a teen, I was afraid that writing about that illness might well sink me into a dark place from which it would be difficult to climb out. But only a few moments after Cheryl asked, I found myself not only agreeing wholeheartedly to do it, but believing that this may well be the very book I was meant to write.
I’m not exactly sure when the first bout of depression came. The earliest episode that comes to mind was soon after my adoptive father died, when I was thirteen-years old. Charlie Stork died instantaneously when he crashed his 1965 Rambler station wagon into the concrete pillar of a railroad overpass. We were living in the small town of Alpine,Texas, located somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio. I’m an only child and my mother had gone to Mexico to care for her gravely-ill father. Charlie and I were living in a dilapidated house in the poorest section of town. Our trailer had been repossessed a couple of months earlier for failure to make the monthly payments.
As hard at the grief of losing my father was, it was still better than the debilitating depression that came a few months after his death. I was living at that time with Father Martinez, a priest and old family friend. (My mother had to return to Mexico to care for my grandfather.) There, in a dusty room cluttered with statutes of saints, I felt for the first time the hollow, sad emptiness that we identify with depression.
One of the things that happens after you’ve lived with depression for a long time is that you are able to look at it with a measure of distance and objectivity. You are able to see it as an illness that is different from you, an illness for which you are not responsible, just like you are not responsible for, say, diabetes. After a long time, one is able to say not so much “I am depressed” as “I have depression.” You are able to say not “I am worthless” but “I feel worthlessness.” But this objectivity is hard to achieve when you are a young person who is perhaps experiencing depression for the first time. What saved me during that first bout of depression was a small leather notebook that I found in one of the boxes of old religious books with which I shared a room at Father Martinez’s house. The notebook was the size of my small hand and when I opened it, I saw that someone had written down a list of names. At the end of each name a hospital was listed. I figured that one of the priests had used it as a reminder of those hospitalized parishioners he intended to visit. But the list of names only took two pages of a journal that had one hundred blank pages. It was those remaining ninety-eight pages that saved me. Those blank, un-lined, soft, yellowish pages were an invitation. I took out a pen and began to write. I remember that the first thing I wrote looked like a poem. It was pouring rain outside and from the loneliness of my inner-being, I wrote:
A mute flash of black
Inside my night
During the days that followed I wrote in that journal other equally dark poems. I wrote everything and anything that came to mind. I even wrote blasphemous dialogues between the various stony saints that kept me company. I’m not sure that the writing made me feel any better, but I do know that, without realizing it at the time, I began to see that the sadness I felt was something separate from me. Depression wasn’t me, it was something that had invaded me, something I could draw a picture of with my words. To describe something, you need some distance, and distancing yourself from depression is the only healthy way to cope with it.
I’ve never been much of a believer in writing as a form of therapy, of writing as a way to exorcise our inner demons. It’s not that I don’t think that writing can do that; it certainly can and does. A large reason why I have been able to cope with depression is my daily habit of writing my thoughts, my feelings, my observations, in a journal. This habit started with that black leather notebook that I found when I was thirteen years old, and I have been doing it most every day since then. What I don’t believe is that writing as therapy is the kind of writing that can be automatically shared with and enjoyed by others. The process of going from raw feeling to art requires arduous work and that kind of effort does not come easily while depressed.
I found out just how much effort creating art requires some forty or so years later when I found myself in the midst of another depressive episode. This time, I had no choice but to write. I was under contract to write a book and the book was due in three months. It usually takes me at least one year to produce a workable first draft. I had waited as long as I could wait. I could have asked my kind editor for an extension and she would no doubt have agreed, but I didn’t want to do that. I felt that if I missed my deadline, I would never get the book written. Having a fixed deadline is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because even though it doesn’t feel good, forcing yourself to work even if just a little, is helpful. A curse because it requires so much effort to write even a couple of paragraphs and, when written, those two paragraphs are never kindly judged by that stern, overly-critical judge that always appears during depression.
I am sure that in the next year of writing and the period of editing that will follow, I will have to perform these tasks while depressed. These days, my depression is medically controlled. For the most part, I am able to work and do what life asks of me. Yet I am certain that I will have to write through a depressive episode because these episodes, while lessened by medication, never truly disappear. How will I do it? Will I be able to write about depression from the depths of depression? Here are some thoughts about how I am preparing myself to do this.
- I will tell my junk mate what I am feeling. A junk mate is like a soul mate only instead of someone with whom you share your deepest secrets, a junk mate is someone you can safely tell your whiniest, ugliest internal junk, someone who will listen without judgment. I am grateful to Jack, my friend for more than thirty-years, who also suffers from depression, for being my junk mate.
- I will commit myself to the execution of certain daily tasks whether I feel like it or not. Such tasks will not be overwhelming; they will be small, and I will do them. A small task, for example, would be writing in my journal for fifteen minutes, or taking a ten minute walk each day.
- I will love the characters in my book even as they face all the hardships that their creator throws at them. It is very hard, while depressed, to feel love for real people. But it is possible to feel the tender concern of a creator for the characters we’ve invented. That’s why it is so important to keep writing even while depressed, for writing keeps the small embers of love burning.
- Even though my book is about depression, it will not be depressing. This will be the hardest challenge of all. It will require that I utilize all that I have learned about the craft of writing. A book can be sad and still not be depressing. Depression comes from a lack of hope. Even if I write about people in despair (people with no vision of a good future), the way that I write, the way that my writing shall always strive for truth and beauty, will not be without hope and grace.
- Every day I will do something kind for someone else. I will write an e-mail to a friend. I will say hello to someone who looks sad. I will do some kind task for my wife at home. These small acts of random kindness will help me to step outside of my constricted self, even if it is for only a moment.
I accepted Cheryl’s offer to write a book about a young girl recovering from depression not because I thought that writing the book would be good therapy. I know it’s not going to necessarily lift me out of depression and heaven knows it will not be easy. I accepted her offer because I firmly believe that all those years of writing will allow me transform all the inner darkness into some kind of light not only for myself but perhaps for others. I know now that I can’t do it alone. I am going into battle armed with the help of family, friends, and a firm belief in the need for a spiritual discipline that has its roots in kindness towards myself and others.
Francisco X. Stork was born in Monterrey, Mexico. When he was six years old, Charles Stork, a retired American citizen of Dutch descent, married Ruth Arguelles, a single mother, adopted Francisco and moved the three-member family to El Paso, Texas.
Francisco studied at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit College in Mobile, Alabama, where he majored in English and Philosophy. After college he attended Harvard University where he studied Latin American Literature. After four years of graduate studies at Harvard, he entered Columbia Law School. Since graduating from law school in 1982, he has practiced law while pursuing his vocation to write. Currently, Francisco works as an attorney for a Massachusetts State Agency that develops affordable housing.
Francisco is the author of five novels, one adult novel (“The Way of the Jaguar,” Bilingual Review Press, 2000) and three young adult novels: “Behind the Eyes” (Dutton, 2006); “Marcelo in the Real World” (Arthur A. Levine /Scholastic, 2009) ; “The Last Summer of the Death Warriors” (Arthur A. Levine/ Scholastic, 2010) and “Irises” (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012).
“The Way of the Jaguar” was the recipient of the 1999 Chicano/Latino Literary Award. “Behind the Eyes” was a New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age 2007. “Marcelo in the Real World” received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Horn Books, Kirkus, School Library Journal and Booklist, as well as the 2010 Schneider Family Book Award; it was also named a YALSA Top 10 Best Books for Young Adults, 2010. “The Last Summer of the Death Warriors” received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Horn Books and Booklist and was the recipient of the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award.