"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The first inkling my husband had that I was thinking about suicide was when he checked my blog. He was in Little Rock, on the first leg of a tour that was supposed to take him from Arkansas to Alaska, back to Denver and over to St. Paul, Minn., a circuit more suited to a professional indoor lacrosse league than to a literary novelist. I’d been distracted and irritable when we spoke on the phone, but not necessarily any more than you’d expect from someone left behind with four children. The suicide essay definitely came as a shock.
I had begun my blog two months before, imagining that it would act as a journal, a way of taking notes on my life, and at the same time be a sort of marketing tool to remind readers that I still existed in between novels. Almost immediately I discovered in myself a confessional impulse, a compulsive need to haul open the tattered edges of my emotional raincoat and expose the nasty parts lurking beneath. I blogged daily, chronicling everything from what my youngest son ate for dinner (one spaghetti noodle, one pat of butter, and all the green, blue and pink frosting off a very large cupcake), to the Supreme Court’s dramatic shift on sentencing guidelines, to the various side effects of the medications I take for my bipolar disorder. As soon as I read something interesting, as soon as I heard something moving, as soon as one of my children said something funny, I posted to my blog.
The entry that greeted my husband on that day was a well-researched commentary on suicide rates among people with bipolar disorder. I informed my readers, among them my husband, that what I have, the milder form of the disease, has a 24 percent suicide rate. Then I wrote, “It does not help to know that one’s mood is a mystery of neurochemistry when one is tallying the contents of the medicine cabinet and evaluating the neurotoxic effects of a Tylenol, topomax, SRRI and ambien cocktail.”
The readers of my blog had no way to determine the intentions behind my entry. Was it some kind of public service announcement, designed to help people understand the seriousness of mental illness? My husband had an easier time realizing it was a cry for immediate and urgent assistance. He, however, felt entirely powerless, sitting in a hotel room 2,000 miles away with no way to intervene and nothing to do but wonder whether he should be cursing or blessing the phenomenon of the blog. He called, he made plans to come home, but it was my girlfriends who responded with the most confidence, perhaps because they had so much less at stake than he did in my stability. They formed themselves into a kind of telephone round robin, refusing to let up until I called my psychiatrist, who immediately diagnosed a problem with the dosage of my medication.
Without their help I’m not sure what the outcome of that dark and frightening night would have been. Because they read that blog post, the problem was diagnosed and solved very quickly. I have never attempted suicide, and did not then. But when I wrote that entry I was certainly engaging in what psychiatrists call “suicidal ideation.” I went so far as to plan the funeral, even deciding whether my children would attend (the older ones should, the younger should not), although I managed to keep myself from doing that online. This, the most dramatic emotional collapse of my career as a person with a mental illness, happened out in the open, in front of 1,862 people according to my site meter, and with the comment line open. The letters poured in, overwhelmingly ones of support and compassion, and even identification.
A couple of weeks before, I was interviewed about my blog by a reporter for the New York Times. I tend to approach giving interviews with the same sense of circumspection and restraint as I approach my writing. That is to say, virtually none. When asked what I made of blogs like my own, blogs written by parents about their children, I said, “A blog like this is narcissism in its most obscene flowering.” I uttered those words lightly, almost but not quite in jest, but I believed them.
As debates rage about whether bloggers are journalists, whether they need shield laws to protect sources, whether they brought down Dan Rather and are going to take over the media world, on the other side of the blogosphere the diarists and memoirists and mothers are coping with a different set of ethical dilemmas: How much of themselves should they expose online, and how easily should they indulge their urge to confess? In my case, blogging about suicide might have crossed the line.
My blogging has been cathartic; my self-exposure served some kind of purpose, but there is no doubt that it exacted a cost. One of the problems was that there are a whole lot of people huddled under my particular dirty raincoat. There is my husband, a gracious and good-tempered man, and one who has himself wrestled with the self-exposure business. More important, because they are more defenseless, there are my children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from not quite 2 to 10 years old. I have always used my children as material in my fiction, and even occasionally in essays, but never with the immediacy demanded of a blog. My daughter shouted at her father, “You like being mean to us; you’re nothing but a hatred machine.” Half an hour later, it was in print online. The children are not allowed to read my blog — they are still young enough that I can monitor their computer use with relative ease. Frankly, at this stage they are far more interested in Gaia online and Muffin Films Web sites, but there will surely come a day when they will Google themselves, find my blog and both be furious with me for having stolen their lives and humiliated at the extent to which I have laid open my own. I told the New York Times reporter that blogging was “payback for driving back and forth to gymnastics all week long,” but I don’t really believe that. As much as I despise carpool, I wasn’t trying to exact some kind of complicated revenge for having been forced to spend too many hours in a minivan.
At the same time, I was becoming convinced that all this blogging was having a deleterious effect on my writing. It was more than the hours I was spending posting to my blog, reading my comments page, reading other blogs, and checking my site meter. As a novelist, I mined my history, my family and my memory, but in a very specific way. Writing fiction, I never made use of experiences immediately as they happened. I needed to let things fester in my memory, mature and transmogrify into something meaningful. The fictionalized scene I ended up with was often unrecognizable from the actual event that had been its progenitor.
But in the months I had the blog, I was spewing as fast as my family was experiencing. My initial idea, that the blog would act as a kind of digital notebook, was not panning out. Once the experience was turned into words, I found that it was frozen. The fertile composting that I count on to generate my fiction was no longer happening.
In the introduction to the collection of her New York Times columns, Anna Quindlen wrote about the challenges of “Living Out Loud,” writing life as it is happening. If producing a regular column is living out loud, then keeping a daily blog is living at the top of your lungs. For a couple of months there, I was shrieking like a banshee. I realized in the wake of my online suicide note that for the sake of my family and my fiction, I needed to turn down the volume a few notches. I needed to give up the blog.
At the same time, the experience of writing about my daily life, about my reactions to contemporary events and politics, about my children and husband, was satisfying, not merely therapeutically, but creatively. I enjoyed attempting to rise to the literary challenge; I even took a sort of pleasure in occasionally failing. While I did not want to continue blogging, I did not want to give up that part of the experience.
I hope to strike a balance with this column. Here is an opportunity to give shape to my musings, to capture some of the immediacy of blogging, but also to force structure on my thoughts, to search for meaning in, rather than just express, emotions.
My children — Sophie, Zeke, Ida-Rose and Abraham — will still find themselves subjects of my columns as they were subjects of my blog. This is inevitable, I’m afraid. I was once on a panel with a novelist who claimed that while she stole liberally from her parents’ lives and those of her friends, she never wrote about her children because that “wouldn’t be fair.” I’m sure my children will one day envy that mother’s scruples. At this point in my life and my children’s, I experience so little that is entirely separable from my identity as their mother. Mothering consumes not just the bulk of the hours of my day but the majority of my emotional and intellectual energy. Were I to declare that part of my life sacrosanct, I would have much less to say. I want to write about being a mother and about them precisely because they are such a large part of who I am. But I will no longer be writing about them just because they have said something amusing, or because they happen to look cute in their matching pajamas. I can’t promise not to invade their privacy, but I can promise to do it more thoughtfully, and, I hope, to more meaningful an end.
Cold comfort to a 7-year-old, I know. While my son Zeke knew that I was in a fragile emotional state during the period before I wrote the suicide post (it might have been the constant crying that gave me away), he was not aware of the extent of it until he overheard someone discussing what I wrote. He did not react then, but I knew there was something wrong. I sat him down and explained what had happened, that I had been taking the wrong pills and that my doctor had fixed my medicine. I asked him if there was anything he was afraid of. He looked at me, his deep blue eyes full of unshed tears, and said, “I am afraid you’re going to kill yourself.”
The same exhibitionism that allowed me to write the post in the first place allowed me to make the mistake of talking about it within his earshot. First I hugged him, then I told him that I knew why he was afraid. I told him what a good doctor I had and how careful we were now to make sure nothing like this ever happened again. I also told him what to do if he ever became frightened: He should talk to his father, call one of his grandparents or, if he was really scared, call 911. This is a child who once called the police because his older sister changed the television channel, so I am confident he will be able to act in a crisis, but I am also adamant that he will not need to. I promised him that I would never, ever hurt myself. A rash promise, perhaps, but I do my best not to break my promises to my children. And I don’t intend to start with this one.
Ayelet Waldman is the author of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," "Daughter's Keeper" and of the Mommy-Track mystery series. She lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children.More Ayelet Waldman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)