How to talk to dead writers—and get them to talk back

(aka another off-the-rails-column-by-dear-leo)

by Leonora Desar

My favorite writer is Ned Vizzini. There’s this book, It’s Kind of a Funny Story. It’s sitting here right now. It has a yellow cover and a map of a young man’s brain. It has sometimes been my dream, my wish, that I could crawl into this book; that I could spend time with Ned and all his characters. I could live there, inside it. This would involve hanging out at a mental hospital—but there would be certain perks.

  • I’d get to be a teenager forever; or at least have that teenaged feeling. That life is crazy and fucked up but that everything is possible
  • I’d get to hang out with people more depressed than me, and we would magically talk ourselves out of it; or rather there would be a Strong Narrative Arc after which there’d be healing
  • I’d get to be a teenager forever

I’ve tried crawling inside it. I’ve put it under my pillow and Googled “shrinking potions” and “how to crawl inside a book.” Sometimes I stick a finger in. A toe. I read the book from cover to cover and then I start back at the beginning, and I keep waiting for a name to appear—Leonora. But there is no Leonora in the book. Only a Muqtada. Muqtada tells me that there’s limited space for Weird Old People and that he has first dibs, thank you very much. I shut the book. I Google “how to expel Muqtada” but Google only returns this:

“Muqtada al-Sadr’s Fiery Call: ‘US Out of Iraq’”

I have no interest in Iraq. I have interest in Ned Vizzini. I want to write to him:

Dear Ned,

Do you have a shrinking potion that I can borrow?

Dear Ned,

How did you write when you were depressed?

Dear Ned,

Can I go back in time and hang out with you?

I write these things but Ned doesn’t answer. I keep writing. I try writing a story. The story is pretty lame. This only makes me more depressed. I look in the mirror and see this–>angry storm cloud. I try writing about the storm cloud but it doesn’t want to be written. It just wants to be a storm cloud. I tell my shrink about it but she just takes my money.

I feel like Ned would understand this—only he would make it clever and more interesting. This would ordinarily make me jealous, but because it’s Ned I don’t mind.

I keep writing (insert some boring stuff) (insert more boring stuff) (stuff about how me and Ned may be secret soulmates because we both love Nintendo/have angry storm clouds/like to hide out in bathrooms)

And that’s when Ned starts talking back—

Ned tells me to forget the bathroom thing. This is something that he’s learned: Outside is a good thing. Bathroom’s are not—He takes me by the hand. This is a hard thing to explain. He simply says, I am holding your hand and now you are going to leave this bathroom. 

But I’m not IN the bathroom, I say.

You are though, here (–>Leonora’s mind/brain)

He smells like baby powder; jellybeans. He’s tall and dark with really messy eyebrows—I want to comb them back but I restrain myself. Also: he may be 30ish but I can see his soul; which sounds cheesy but is completely true. And here’s the thing: something that I can add to my little list. His soul is the same age as mine. 15. Maybe 15 ½—tops. But no more. He sees me seeing this and smiles.

We sit right outside the bathroom. I say, aren’t we going to go somewhere and he says; let’s not go too crazy now. He points to his storm cloud. I point to mine. We sit there; smiling. I want to ask him things but I don’t want to ruin it, either. Then Ned looks at me—

Ned: So what’s up with that angry storm cloud

Me: I can’t write

Ned: Why can’t you write

Me: I don’t know. I suck—

We sit there with my sucking.

Ned: Tell me about your grandparents

Me: Why

Ned: Because that’s what you want to talk about. I’m part you. I know

Me: My grandma was also a bathroom fan. But it was more like her entire HOUSE was the bathroom; she never wanted to leave. She had this sign: Outside is overrated

Ned: Hey that’s kind of interesting. What else?

Me: (insert a long rambling faux-poetic description that is completely emotionally untrue)

Ned: Too voicey

Me: I know

Ned: What do you really want to say about your grandmother?

Me: I don’t know

Ned: Try—

I try again—After which Ned says:

Ok. This is what I want you to do. Tell me true things about your grandmother. And stop worrying that you stole the title from Miranda July. Her story was Ten True Things. Yours is Ten True Things About My Grandmother and then you can CHANGE it. Okay?

Me: Ok

Ned: Now go

I go—

Ned: Better. But don’t be so abstract

Me: I know, Ned, I know

Ned stays and I end up with this: Things You Need to Know About My Grandma: (you can read it here)—Now, I know what you’re thinking. Leonora has really gone off the rails. This is a True Statement. Actually, I’ve always been off the rails. Ned knows this and doesn’t judge me, which is why I love him.

What I am trying to say is this: by having a dialogue with a beloved writer you are really tapping into you. In my case, it’s a sarcastic but well-meaning critic. Ned’s writing was funny, kind—he never sugarcoated things or used big words. When I “talk” to him, I am bringing myself to Earth. Does my writing pass the Ned test? Meaning is it funny or at least emotionally true?

Ned—the real Ned— killed himself when he was 32. But he wrote about depression in a way that, as Teen Vogue said, was “not the least bit depressing.” In fact, he made you laugh. This is the side of him that I want to tap into, the side of me—

How to talk to dead (or living) writers practical instructions because this is an advice column after all:

  1. Pick a writer: this is the most important part. It should be someone you really love; who you obsess over; maybe even someone you read way back in childhood; or under a fake book jacket—Book jacket: Insert fancy literary author

Real book: Stephen King/something you don’t want people seeing

  1. Ask them a question
  2. Tell them a story
  3. Let it evolve naturally; or start by writing them a letter; a post-card; a Post-it note; Or simply a PS—

Then reward yourself with this—


Also this—

Ice cream/ridiculous hot fudge sundae

And this—

an awesome (true) story about Ned going to the dentist—

And which makes me feel like Ned is still alive.

Leonora Desar’s writing has recently appeared in River Styx, Passages North, Black Warrior Review Online, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Quarter After Eight, among others. She won third place in River Styx’s microfiction contest and was a runner-up finalist in the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose contest, judged by Stuart Dybek. You can find her at the diner, drawing stick figures.

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