Memento Carrie: Nonfiction Narrative (3 of 3)

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I wrote this essay shortly after Carrie Fisher passed away in 2016 and have been trying to find a home for it ever since. In honor of what will be her final appearance as General Leia in The Last Jedi, I’ve decided to just post it here. This is part 3 of 3. Part 1 is is linked here and part 2 is linked here and below. Thanks for reading.

Your therapist, thank God, does not call 911. Your therapist, bless her heart, does not make a referral to an inpatient facility where you will have to sit at a formica table and talk about your childhood while making snowflakes out of popsicle sticks. Instead, your therapist asks you to think back to the last thing you did that made you really happy. What was it? How did you do it? Why did you stop?

Your mind immediately darts back to that spiral-bound notebook of galactic fairy tales, the first thing you ever wrote for yourself. The drafts of satirical articles for The Onion, your teenaged hot takes on boybands and President Bush languishing on a forgotten home PC somewhere in your basement. Your early efforts at humorous internet writing, always well-received even when your relationships with editors and colleagues deteriorated due to your chronic brain fog-induced lateness and asshole tendencies. Those things made you happy.

So what stopped you? Humor always came easy to you, as did fantasy. It seemed like you could write about anything you wanted except yourself. All the stories you want to tell burn in your heart like a hot splinter, making your eyes water, begging to be drawn out. But in all of the writing you’d ever done, you’ve always created a protective layer of irony between yourself and the things you really wanted to say. You’d write under a pseudonym, or use some kind of a cutesy gimmick like referring to yourself in the second person, literally begging the reader to discard you as a matter of understanding your work. The gaps between what you write and what you are feel insurmountable, and leave enough space for the toxic fingers of your anxiety to sneak through and strangle your ambitions in the cradle. Your real thoughts feel simultaneously too raw, too personal, and too pedestrian to share.

You left your therapist’s office that day with permission to avoid hospitalization on the condition that therapy would be a long-term consistent part of your life plan, and that you would endeavor to learn how to be the kind of writer you wanted to be. To help you begin, the therapist recommended a handful of books where authors mined their difficult pasts for material. One of those books, of course, was Wishful Drinking.

You read it all in one day, and then you immediately read it again. You’re overwhelmed by the style, the wit, the ferocious honesty on display. Before Carrie you had only read narratives where depression rendered women into victims, not victors. Stories where women literally and metaphorically wasted away, imprisoned in the high tower of their sadness by a gothic villain made of misfired neurons and circumstance. Depression was meant to be a woman’s Mr. Rochester: moody, dreamy, dreary, and somehow Victorian. You weren’t supposed to be angry at the depression depicted in these stories, as unreasonable and violent and crushing as it was. Instead, you were to join the long-suffering heroine at a rain-streaked window, wringing a handkerchief in your hands, watching the dreary grey landscape and waiting for that sexy son of a bitch to show up and ruin your life again.

Carrie’s writing had no patience for self-pity and melancholy. Her work did the delicate tightrope walk of explaining her sorrows and making them understandable, while also not giving them the power to control the narrative. Her honesty and that humor gave her the tools she needed to reap a harvest from her pain. When she battled the mania of her dark Urkel, she did not allow him to tyrannize her life with his mindless spasms. When she fought the dark blue depression of her Mr. Rochester, she did not allow him to make her swoon into the attic at his convenience. She broke free from them both and used her writing to wreak a deserved bloody vengeance upon those needy life-ruining bastards. She stabbed her problems in the neck with her pen and ate their hearts to gain their powers. She took her misery, devoured it, and made its terrible wrath her own- to process, yes, but also to profit.

And to do it- to really make it work -it had to be her story. Nobody else’s. No second person distance or omniscient third person tricks for Carrie Fisher. Every experience, every joy and heartbreak, every gleeful epigram and tortured pun, were in her voice. She made cheerful claim to the pain of death and addiction, the bizarre side effects of diagnoses and electroshock therapy, the twisted ugly roots of a Hollywood family tree, and even the double-edged lightsaber of her time as the world’s most famous space princess. Because she claimed it as her own, she could make it what she wanted to be. She could make us cry or laugh in our faces. That was the power of her storytelling.

That’s the power I want. So I’m taking the voice of this story back. You may step away from the narrative now. Thanks for playing along.

After I finished Wishful Drinking for the third time, my mind wandered back to my mother and her command for me to extract whatever of value I could from the awful crap life seemed to never stop piling at our door. A lifetime gardener, my mother knew what kind of flowers one could grow from good manure. But it’s not in a gardener’s best interest to thank the manure, or glamorize it, or let its stink overpower everything in her life. After all, one mustn’t give too much power to bullshit.

But my mother died before I was old enough to understand what she was trying to explain. And so Carrie appeared once more in my life, in the form of a book, to give me a first-person voice and show me the way to use it. I know that I am not the only female essayist who points to Wishful Drinking as a turning point, and a blueprint for wringing comedy from the dull ache of tragedy. Carrie’s legacy is an army of princesses, yes, but it is also a quiet sisterhood of scribes: funny, damaged women who didn’t know you could talk about it like that until Carrie showed them the way. I am still learning how to tell my stories, and every word in the first-person is progress. I have no delusions that my writing will be ”important”, but I can’t help but hope it will mean something to someone someday, like Carrie’s work has to me. Leia showed me how to be a hero, but Carrie showed me how to be a writer. It turns out I need to be both. I’m grateful to have learned how from the best.

The last time I saw Carrie Fisher wasn’t a private moment, of course- when did she ever have private moments? As soon as General Leia Organa showed up in The Force Awakens, I cheered myself hoarse, along with every other woman in the audience. Our princess had grown not into a queen, but a warrior, with a new young woman looking to her for hope. I can’t prove that Lucasfilm lifted Rey directly from my fanfiction, but I would not hold it against them. I would only thank them for finally letting me see my childhood hero inspire another woman to survive. And then I would write an essay about how much I loved it, and how much I loved her, and how grateful I was to however briefly share a planet with her and benefit from the gifts that she left us.

 

 

Which I have now done. Rest in power, Carrie Fisher: drowned in moonlight, and strangled in your own bra.