Thanks, Ned Vizzini

I’ve always had a thing for libraries and book fairs.  There is something calming about walking around a bookstore, perusing the titles.  I guess the emotion I am looking for is “inspired”.  There is something about seeing the creative efforts of others beautifully bound, lined up and waiting for me to discover them.

In 2006, I went to a lot of bookstores.  I needed inspiration.  Moreover, I needed direction. As someone who is always rather keen to have a plan or a list or several plans and several lists, I was at a point in my life I didn’t expect to be at when I was 22 years old.  I had just quit my job at a notable Hollywood management company after surviving only nine months.  I called my mom, packed my bags, and moved home.

I never expected to be the person whose college plan failed so quickly. I knew in high school I was going to be a film major. There would be no undeclared for me. I was going to produce movies and I was going to be good at it, dammit.  Instead though, I was less than a year out of college, back in Kentucky, and toying with the idea of grad school, just not sure what on Earth I should be studying.

In order to pay the bills, I held a mish mash of jobs to pay my bills.  I resumed at the ole Blockbuster Video, my summer job during the college years.  I also managed to find a string of gigs as a freelance script reader now that the advent of this nifty little file called a PDF made it possible for me to do the job digitally rather than have a courier deliver screenplays to my doorstep.  I was barely scraping by both in the financial and the psychological sense.

When the Lexington Book Fair came up that fall, I went hoping some sort of divine intervention would help lead me down a path.  To be fair, I also had a lead. My best friend’s uncle is one of Kentucky’s more beloved authors, so I went to support him and chat with his wife about their new publishing venture.   That couple had always encouraged my academic pursuits and, knowing of my growing interest in the way pop culture depicted rural white people, an area similar to their efforts in the literary realm, they gave me some great suggestions about grad school.  They recommended programs, gave tips on reading material, and even loaded me up with some books I still have on my shelf.  It was great help, but I was still hesitant about my plans.  I didn’t want to fail again. I didn’t want to go to grad school because it was what I am supposed to do, only to have it not pan out into a career.  At 22, I naively thought a second false start into a career would make me some sort of middle class bum.

After a brief visit with my friendly unofficial academic advisors, I departed their kiosk and began to amble around the rest of the festival.  Authors were set up in booths hawking their wares, while panel discussions ran in nearby conference rooms.  The cookbooks and publications on UK basketball were drawing all the attention.  While I love me some food and some Wildcats, I just didn’t feel like fighting the crowds.  So instead, I slowly strolled down the aisles, never quite stopping, but slowing to glance at the titles that looked interesting.

When I came upon the cartoonish disembodied head on the cover of “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”, I actually stopped.  I had read this book for one of the production companies I did freelance reading for.  My ability to speed read led me to be their novel girl when I lived in LA.  Every Friday, the company would courier over a photocopy of an entire book.  I had the weekend to read the book, write my report, and turn it in on Monday morning.  This book, written by Ned Vizzini, had been one of my more enjoyable assignments.  Thematically similar to the popular “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, it was a young adult story of a teen struggling with depression that fit well with the production company’s MO, so I recalled writing a favorable report.  It was like bumping into an old friend from my LA life to see this book staring back at me from the table.

My eyes glanced up to see that the guy manning the booth was giving me the once over. He offered a friendly smile and opened the door for conversation, identifying himself as the author.  “I’m Ned, if you have any questions.”

He didn’t look too much older than me. He also looked rather bored. Apparently, I was one of the few people here pulled in by the notion of teen suicide tomes moreso than the story of the 1996 Wildcat squad or books instructing me how to make the perfect bourbon ball.  Normally, I avoided these kinds of conversations with people at craft or book fairs.  I didn’t like having wares hocked at me, I preferred to shop in peaceful quiet.  For some reason though, I ended up starting up a conversation.

His table featured more than one book, which took me aback. How could someone who couldn’t have been more than 25 have accomplished so much with their life already? Here I was, alphabetizing DVDs at the Buster while this guy was on published novel number three. 

Having read his newest book, my eyes and the conversation drifted towards his first book, “Be More Chill”.  I was immediately won over, as it boasted the Today Show Book Club symbol on the cover.  You may like your Oprah Blook Club, but I’ll take a Today Show book any day.  Been a fan since college, so to check another one off my list seemed like a no-brainer.

As I looked over that one, he made the push for Funny Story. I admitted to him I had actually already read it.  As a reader, you really aren’t supposed to disclose who you work for and what projects they are considering, so I left that part out for the moment, but eventually it came up in conversation that the book was on the verge of being optioned as a film by a company different than the one I read it for, so I felt a little more comfortable to admit how I came across his work.

Even though he was the one with the optioned Hollywood screenplay, he acted as if my job was the cool one.  He asked numerous questions about what being a freelance reader entailed and how I got into it.  He asked me about what I was up to now, which were much tougher questions to answer.  I tried to succinctly explain why I failed so hard at being the next Hollywood it girl. I tried to not sound too sad that my closest connection to the movies was a DVD rental store. Basically, I tried to sound like I didn’t feel as pathetic as I did about the direction, or lack thereof, my life was headed in.

But this guy managed to do something my friends and family couldn’t.   He made me feel worthwhile and important, asking me about script reading and grad school plans.  Unlike my friends, who found my job superfluously interesting, he asked me lots of question about my process as a reader.  How did I evaluate a text?  How was my time divided up? Did I take notes in the margins? Did I write my synopsis as I went along?  What I didn’t realize at the time was that he was talking to me as if I was another writer.  It was the first time someone spoke to me as if I was a creative peer as opposed to a student.

At the time, I didn’t think much of our 20 minute chat beyond, “wow, what a nice guy.”  When I got home and glanced inside my newly-signed copy of Be More Chill though, I think that was when the light bulb went off.  “You may feel completely lost right now”, I told myself, “but this person thought what you do is worthwhile.  You had a conversation with a successful author in which you brought something to the table too.”

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It was the confidence boost I needed to get me out of my funk.  Shortly after that, I found a much more fulfilling job working as a Kaplan test prep instructor.  I realized I wasn’t a bad teacher.  In fact, I was kind of good at it.  I applied to Indiana University and, after a stressful sweat on their waiting list, made it into their Communication and Culture program.  I spent the rest of 2006 and most of 2007 reading everything I could get my hands on, going back over my old papers, and finding a lot of comfort and solace in the process.

Yesterday, I learned that Ned Vizzini died at the age of just 32.  Apparently it was a suicide. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” was actually based on his own experiences in a psychiatric ward. He struggled with depression his whole life, it seems.

My heart sank a little when I found out the news.  While I certainly can’t say I knew the man, I can say that, at a time when I felt lost and frustrated and unsure if I was ever going to find my path in this world, Ned Vizzini popped into my life and gave me a little perspective.  He gave me a glimpse at what it was like to be a creative professional.  He made me feel like a life like that was something attainable.  He was probably just trying to pass the time at a boring book fair in Kentucky, but I will always remember him taking time out of his life to talk to me, inadvertently helping to steer me back in a direction at a time when I had none at all.

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