A Short List of Things That Did Not Kill Me (And Therefore Made Me Stronger, I Guess. No Definitely. Definitely Stronger.)

If you pay attention to such things, you’ll note it has been quite a long time since I wrote here. Blame it on the booze, got you feeling loose. Blame it on ‘tron, got you in the zone. Blame it on the P P P P P P Prozac.

No seriously, blame it on the Prozac. I hardly drink anymore and I don’t know what ‘tron is.

I started taking a little blue pill with my morning coffee more than two years ago, and it has been a cure in all the ways I hoped and in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I was amazed by how much pain I was in, which I didn’t even recognize as pain until it went away, because I’d been living with it for so long. It’s been “a journey,” as they say, although mostly I sat on my couch and thought about things while looking out the window. I am nearly used to myself, now, this properly medicated version of myself, this (according to my latest performance review at work) energetic, kind, calm, generous, courageous, forgiving, resilient, resourceful, curious, friendly, self-preserving rather than self-destructive person who sleeps at night.

So now what?

Part of this “journey” (which I took on my couch) has been facing and doing things that have previously terrified me. Terrified me in the way being told to brace while your plane goes down, or seeing a shark fin in the water while you’re swimming far from shore, or waking up in a dark hotel room and realizing there’s a stranger standing at the foot of your bed would. No casual nervousness for this girl. No, I’m talking, “I’m gonna die, aren’t I?” levels of fear.

What were these harrowing tasks and incidents? Let’s review:

My favorite writer got mad at me, blocked me on social media,  and wrote a mean comment on this blog. Back in November of 2016 I wrote a post about how a story in author Jennifer Weiner’s collection, Hungry Heart, hurt my feelings (it’s here if you want to read it). Make no mistake, I LOVED JENNIFER WEINER and MY LOVE FOR HER is why the little story she told (in which she characterized my profession, advertising, as a place where shills go to sell crap to vulnerable citizens) gave me the spiritual ouchies. She could have done any number of things. For example, nothing. She could have done nothing. She could have written to me and thanked me for being a fan who BOUGHT HER BOOKS IN MULTIPLE FORMATS AND ALSO MULTIPLE COPIES THAT I GAVE TO FRIENDS and, I don’t know, said she was sorry my feelings were hurt? Instead, she blocked me on all social media (Sure. Fine. Whatever.) and sent me a note about my butt being hurt via a comment on this blog (which is below this post, if you want to read it). I was hotly embarrassed by this, and low-key devastated, because I honestly LOVED HER BOOKS AND DEEPLY RELATED TO THEM, and I had always dreamed Jennifer Weiner might blurb a book I’d write some day. I was also disappointed, because I kind of did think if Jennifer Weiner and I ever met we’d be friends. And I enjoyed her Twitter, and miss it. But I did not die.

I applied for a writing residency and was rejected. The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts introduced a new residency this year, designed especially for New York State working parents with a dependent child at home. I have always wanted to attend a writers’ residency, and Saltonstall is a beautiful colony located in Ithaca, NY, home to Cornell, gorges, waterfalls, and many adorable little shops. So I prepared my packet and included my writing sample — 20 pages from the novel I have been “working on” since 2013 — and in return was sent a polite letter (take note, Jennifer Weiner!) letting me know I didn’t make the cut. I was disappointed by this, and frustrated. I cried about it. But I did not die.

I stopped dieting and decided to live a full, rich life in the body I have.  Hey, so, I’m fat. I’ve been thinner than I am now and fatter than I am now, but I’m fat and have been fat since I was…uh, always? I’m also Type 2 diabetic since 2005, when my gestational diabetes decided to take up permanent residency in my body even after my daughter was born. Fat is an adjective that describes a body, like tall does. And diabetes is a chronic illness attributable to genetics, environment, and other factors. Neither is a reflection of how good a person I am, my value in the world, or how much love and respect I do or do not deserve. I know this, because I spent an excruciating 6 months working with Isabel Foxen Duke, powerful force for good and lodestar of food and body sanity, learning about the science of diets, diet culture, body respect, intuitive eating, and getting off the crazy train of misery I’d been riding since I was 11 and put on Weight Watchers for the first time. Through my work with Isabel, I have found a kind of peace and self-respect I never thought was available to me. I Marie Kondoed the hell out of my closet, got rid of all the clothes that pissed me off, and bought fabulous new clothes that fit. I started exercising regularly, because it feels good to move around. I started eating exactly what I want (which is sometimes fried chicken and sometimes salad and sometimes fried chicken ON a salad), and monitoring my blood sugar carefully to make sure I stay within healthy ranges. I cut off all my hair and now rock a pixie inspired by a French model. I travelled to Europe, to Vienna, Austria, a place I have always wanted to go, because my family is Austrian and Billy Joel has been telling me Vienna waits for me since I was a child. I have stopped waiting for my real life, the life in which I am finally thin enough, to begin. This process has been rife with grief. It has been painful. It has been unaccountably frightening. I hated a lot of it. But I did not die.

I stopped writing the novel I’ve been “working on” since 2013. The book I’ve been thinking about and puttering with for six years is called Rom-Com Rehab, and it’s the story of two best friends, one of whom saves the other from a rock-bottom self-destructive depression by designing a rehab program based on tropes from romantic comedies. There’s a lot of material about mythology and how modern female characters are avatars for ancient goddesses. Some funny scenes about working in television. A bakery/bookstore. And a bit with a dog. It’s a big, sprawling thing, heavily influenced by Wally Lamb, who I idolize and who has never said anything mean about my butt (take note, Jennifer Weiner!) But honestly, that book as it currently stands is a wail of desperation and rage tinged with vengeance, filled with coded messages to people I don’t want to talk to anymore. So I’ve officially abandoned it, by which I mean I no longer angrily berate myself about being a loser and a quitter and a coward who can’t finish anything for not writing it, and instead lovingly encourage myself to think about other things I might write. Maybe I’ll go back to it someday, with new eyes, a different approach, an untangled heart. With the right intentions. But for now, I’m letting it go. And I didn’t die.

I’m turning 50 in April. It’s a birthday, like any other, but it feels like a waypoint. A moment for deciding what’s next. And for me, what’s next is knowing I am moving in the right direction, amongst friends I can trust, including myself. Realizing the things I fear are far less powerful than my ability to face them. Understanding cake is not the enemy. Acknowledging Jennifer Weiner is fighting her own battles that have nothing to do with me (and if I ever do write a book, I’m definitely including, “SO BUTT HURT! -Jennifer Weiner” as a blurb). And believing even if I lose ground, make a mistake, don’t get what I want, or someone is a jerk to me, I will not die from shame or rejection.

There’s always another writer to love, another residency to apply for, another self-limiting belief to dissolve, and another story to tell. And so, what’s next is new stories. Told honestly. Without regret. A place in the world I don’t have to ask permission for, but instead can inhabit wholeheartedly, sure I will fail sometimes, and equally sure I will survive it.

 

The Definitive Word on Working in Advertising

Not so long ago, I wrote about how one of my favorite authors inadvertently hurt my feelings by dismissing a career in advertising as the lowest form of hackism.

Yesterday, my gallant friend and advertising colleague Ryan forwarded me this letter, which was originally sent to a fan from Kurt Vonnegut.

vonnegut

Given a choice between being Jennifer Weiner’s shiller of crap and someone Vonnegut might consider witty and well read, I’ll choose Vonnegut every time.

So it goes.

My Life in Books

I was flattered and delighted when We Wanted to be Writers asked me to contribute to their Books by the Bed series. I was also immediately thrown into all my old insecurities about not being good enough or smart enough or educated enough for this task, since We Wanted to be Writers has its genesis in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place that seems nearly mythical to me, like Camelot, and deals in fancy authors with impressive degrees and publications.

This particular demon, the one that tells me they made a mistake when they asked me to write for them, that I am unworthy, a hack, a pretender and a loser and no one is interested in anything I have to say, is named ‘Broken Childhood SUNY Bachelors Degree’ and it is an old friend by now. I have learned to ignore it, to tell it to hush and send it on its way.

One of the ways I learned to do this, to not snuggle with the demon and instead do the next good (scary) thing, was reading. Books have been my solace, my escape, my education, the father I needed, the adventure I craved, my ticket to the world. Over and over, I have been transformed and sustained by books. I do not exaggerate when I say Wally Lamb saved my life, Anne Lamott set me free, Atticus Finch showed me what a man is, Jennifer Weiner was the friend I needed.

Books have been my constant companion, they are how I lived my life. They are also how I remember it. And so, I shushed the demon and wrote a love poem to the stack by the side of my bed, that ever-changing tower of inspiration and friendship, grief and care.

Demons be damned.

My Books by the Bed post: http://wewantedtobewriters.com/2014/12/books-by-stefanie-gunnings-bed

Books & Letters

For years, I have been talking about writing a book. Talking about it and thinking about it, and wondering if I could, and what it should be about, and if anyone would read it, and if people would be mad at me if I did. I’ve made several starts at this, taking classes and trying to publish stories, blogging (very) occasionally, reading out now and then. But I’ve never managed to get any traction on it, to make a commitment (which, if we’re being honest, is kind of a theme with me anyway). And the reason is, writing is  hard. IT IS FUCKING HARD. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it’s boring, and awful, and you hate yourself and all the words. Sometimes it’s OK. Sometimes it’s like a door inside of you opens and a thousand unicorns come flying out on a double rainbow that tastes like dark chocolate and smells like lilacs. But mostly it’s really, really  hard. This is not news to anyone who has tried to write, or has listened to anyone complain about writing.

But hey! I’m doing it. I’m writing a book. I made a commitment. I hired a book coach. I have pages due on deadlines, and I wrote an extensive outline, and character bios, and parts of it are actually written, which is sort of remarkable, that I can open a Word document on my computer and see the beginnings of this book that I’ve been carrying around inside my head for so long.

That’s not what this is really about though.

My book is not a memoir, not by a long shot, but it’s fair to say that it’s influenced by some things that happened to me once, a long time ago. And I’ve been struggling with that, with where the line is between what happened, what I think happened, and what I wish had happened. And then there’s the matter of how to write about it at all, because I still am worried that people will be mad at me, that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings, or tell a secret, or expose a lie.

Then again, I keep telling myself, it’s my story too. I get to tell it. Damnit.

Even that’s not really the point.

The point is this. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 9. There are gaps, to be sure, times when I didn’t write because I lost interest or got distracted, or fell in love (I almost never wrote about my happiness, but the breakups I recorded in obsessive detail). And there are other, sadder stretches, where terrible circumstances kept me silent. But mostly, I have been keeping a journal for 34 years. This story I’ve been writing for myself arcs across 24 books — plain notebooks, beautiful diaries with artful covers and creamy pages, moleskines. Many of these journals were gifts from people who knew me well and cared about me, and those books are inscribed with notes from them, on the inside covers. I carefully dated and numbered each journal, and jotted down poems and lines from songs on the first few pages, as inspiration or to set the tone. W.H. Auden’s Leap Before You Look was a favorite for years, this passage in particular:

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

Sounds about right.

My old journals — everything that pre-dates Emerson, her sunny sweetness and my uncomplicated, ferocious love for her — have been stored away in a large tote bag in the back of my closet for years. Now and then I’d glance at them, with curiosity, and a little fear. I was pretty sure I knew what was in there, and most of it was nothing I wanted to re-visit, nothing I needed to go back to.

Except.

Except that writing is hard. And it hurts. And it requires a kind of courage I didn’t really expect. And somewhere between what I think happened and what I wanted to happen and what I thought happened, I actually wrote down what was happening. At least as I understood it. At least how it felt at the time.

So last Sunday, I pulled out the bag, and I started reading. I began in 1983, my freshman year of high school. I’ve read through, so far, to 1999, the year after my first husband left me and I was hell bent on recreating my entire lost 20s in a single year (with near disastrous results). It has been a bizarre fling through time, and incredibly surprising. It’s sort of like reading someone else’s story, and I’m alternately charmed by this girl, her bravado and depth of feeling, and utterly horrified by her selfishness, the way she’s dominated by fear and longing, so completely unable to understand, much less ask for, the things she so desperately wants and needs.

Still, I’m happy to see her again. Happy to see the old friends and loves that wave to me from the pages. Happy to remember these things, even the really terrible ones, because I know how these stories turn out. They turn out with me safely snuggled in bed in Brooklyn, Emerson napping next to me, Jonathan in the living room reading about some battle. That’s where all those journals lead. They lead straight home.

And there’s another thing too.

When I was a freshman in college, I was enamored of a certain professor. He was the kind of professor that a girl like me was made to fall for — bearded and brilliant, tall and lean, outdoorsy and rebellious. He taught in the English department (of course he did), and we had long, meandering conversations about The Book of Job, and the problem of suffering, about the hero’s journey and ancient goddess religions, about the Greeks and the Romans, and the power of words, and The Word. I’d show up at his office door in the afternoons, long after office hours were over (no appointment necessary for me), and curl up in his guest chair. After a few weeks he started bringing me a thermos of hot tea, sweet with honey, and I’d sip from it while we talked.

He never touched me. I wanted him to, and was petrified that he would. I had a boyfriend I loved, for one thing. And this professor, with his hard hands and easy grace, his intense thoughtfulness, was a man. Not a boy I could figure things out with, or a friend I’d known for years, or someone who was mostly like me. He was a wild, unexplored wilderness. I was utterly mad for him.

I ended up transferring schools after my freshman year, and here I will confess, all these years on, that he invited me for tea at his house the day I left school for the last time, and there was an invitation in the air, a moment to be seized, and I let it go. He did kiss me though, a single kiss that stands out, still, as one of the most delicious moments of my  life. And then I got in my car and drove away as fast as I could.

We wrote for a long time after that. Postcards, and letters that he would type on an actual typewriter and then doodle and draw on. I kept those letters for years, in an old tin box, and then at some point I misplaced them. I know this because in 1998 I went looking for him, ready, finally, for him, and discovered he had died, two years before. In a haze of grief I went looking for the letters and couldn’t find them.

Until one night last week, when I pulled out a journal from 1989. It was bulky, with a packet of paper tucked inside, wrapped with a rubber band to hold it together. I flipped it open, expecting to find a sheaf of poems or pages ripped from another notebook, and instead, there he was. All his letters, typed on his wonky typewriter, inked with his slanted handwriting, tied in blue ribbon. I unfolded the pages with careful, shaking hands. He was as present and visceral as he had ever been, his voice and his thoughts, his wisdom and his playful, questioning flirting, his vision of me at 19 as someone worth knowing, someone extraordinary.

When I think about that afternoon, when he invited me for tea and so much more than tea, it is always with regret. Regret that I let the moment pass us by, and also that it was simply the wrong place, the wrong time. Regret that I went looking for him too late. This is how it goes sometimes. And it makes me sad, in a wistful way, the way missed opportunities always do. The way losing what you never had always hurts; that particular, confusing ache of something that was over before it started. But I can still hold him in my hands, this part of him he gave me, in words, in doodles and ideas.

And that is something worth having, regardless of how it all turned out, or didn’t, in the end.