Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Power of One Good Friend

I've been trying to write this post for a year. Brace yourself, it's going be long and weepy, but sometimes these things just need to be said because it's important to say these things out loud (sort of). So here it goes:

One morning last October I was packing up and getting ready to leave Yellowstone National Park, where my family had been staying at the Old Faithful Inn for a long weekend. My cell phone rang. I smiled when I saw who was calling: my friend Joan Kremer, who had been my off-and-on writing partner for the past six years.

"I was just thinking about you yesterday," I said as I picked up. "Happy birthday!"

But on the other end, there was silence.

"Joan?" I asked.


"Silas?" I said, thinking maybe Joan's baby grandson, whom she adored and was often joyfully babysitting, had gotten ahold of her phone. "Silas?"

A throat cleared. Then, in a faltering voice, Joan's wife, Brenda, told me that Joan had suffered from a sudden brain hemorrhage the day before. She'd been in the hospital all night, surrounded by her family, but there hadn't been anything the doctors could do.

"She's gone," Brenda whispered.

After I hung up I sat down on the edge of the hotel bed in total shock. Just like that, my friend, who I'd spent hours upon hours talking to and laughing with and goofing around with, was dead.


I spent the first several months in that stage where I couldn't get my brain around what had happened, where it felt like there'd been some kind of awful mistake. Joan can't be gone, I'd think. There was just so much I had to tell her. I never got to tell her, I kept thinking, how she kind of saved my life.

Hiking with my son in Westlake Village, CA
Rewind seven years. My husband and I had just moved to southern California so my husband could start his new job at Pepperdine University. We had very little money at first, and only one car. Every day my husband took the car to Pepperdine, and I was stuck at home with my toddler in a city where I didn't know anyone.

To say that I was unhappy during that time is such an understatement that it almost makes me laugh. I was deeply depressed--a touch of postpartum, a dash of guilt that I clearly wasn't "enjoying the time" with my baby, a whole lot of cabin fever. I was bored. I was wildly lonesome--the kind of lonely that caused me to start up conversations with the grocery store clerk just so I'd have a flicker of adult conversation. The second my husband crossed the threshold of our apartment I was like an excited puppy waiting at the door. The problem was, he was usually exhausted at the end of the day, trying to get on his feet in his new job.

It was not a good year.

In April of that year I heard an NPR story about a new internet phenomenon: SecondLife, a virtual world sort of like The Sims but where the inhabitants were all real people and the content was all created by the players. It wasn't a game so much as a social experiment, NPR claimed, and it cited colleges setting up virtual campuses to hold virtual classes and people doing cool things like recreating the Sistine Chapel and having poetry readings attended by people from all over the world.

I was intrigued. I was also, as I've said, dull-eyed bored, so I thought I'd check this Second Life thing out. So, one day during my son's nap, I created a profile, put together an awkward avatar, and stumbled into another world.

My avatar at the virtual Sistine Chapel
I'm always a little hesitant to talk about SecondLife, honestly. It shows off my geek side, sure. There are some incredibly cool things to see and experience in that place--yes, there IS a virtual Sistine Chapel, where you can fly up and get a closer, private look at every nook and cranny, which is SO cool-- but there is also a very seedy underbelly. It can be like a gigantic costume ball where everyone is wearing masks. Real money is constantly flowing through that world--money for virtual clothing for your avatars, virtual property that you can rent, virtual furniture you can buy for your virtual property, sounds and textures and animations for sale to make your experience more and more lifelike, and it isn't really surprising that the best selling items in SecondLife have to do with sex.

It can be a creepy place, is what I'm saying. But I guess, like anything, SecondLife is what you bring to it.

So there I was, duck-walking around a self-proclaimed "writing center" in SecondLife--somewhere that people had set up to hold these aforementioned poetry readings and serve as a resource for writers--when I literally (or virtually, I should say) bumped into an avatar named Alas Zerbino.

Like me, Alas was new to SecondLife. She quickly introduced herself as a freelance writer and educator who'd heard the same NPR story that I had and come to check it out.

So we decided we'd check it out together.

Alas Zerbino and me in the virtual Vincent Van Gogh exhibit
At first we were just merry traveling companions. There's a lot to do and see inside Second Life, and from pretty much that first day, Alas Zerbino and I experienced it together. We went to poetry readings and fiction writing groups. We explored the Emerald City and the planet Mars and the inside of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. We shopped. One of our favorite things was to collect a bunch of free hair demos (in SecondLife, you have to buy your hair the way one buys a wig, already styled, but most places will let you try on a demo first) and then try on the silliest ones and laugh our butts off. In the beginning Alas wore her hair in an updo--a cascade of curls. Over the years we both went through a series of different looks, but Alas always sported auburn hair, large brown eyes, and a hint of a smile.

We were a bit guarded with each other at first. We were both wary of the dangers of the internet, and we didn't give out our real names and locations. We didn't voice chat--only type. But over the weeks and then months that Alas and I hung out in that virtual space, the details of our lives started to trickle out. We started to talk about more than just our writing. Alas Zerbino slowly became Joan, and Clarissa Tolsen (which was my avatar's name) became Cynthia, and we spent less time exploring and more time just finding cool places to talk.

Joan and me literally hanging out

It didn't add up to that much time that we spent together, really, maybe one or two hours a couple of times a week, but it made a HUGE difference in my life. Suddenly I had someone to talk to, and not just someone, but Joan--Joan who was quietly funny and whip-smart, sympathetic yet capable of calling a spade a spade when the need arose. We were both writers and mothers. Her younger sister had died when Joan was a teen--my younger brother had died when I was twenty. She was older than I was, in the next stage of her life, with two kids in their late teens / early twenties who she was constantly worrying about, but she remembered her early times with her kids so well. We had so much, we found, to talk about.

After so long feeling completely adrift, I felt like I'd found myself again. And it was all because of the power of one good friend.

It was about a year after I met Joan when I had the idea for UNEARTHLY. At the time it seemed like a huge undertaking--WRITING A NOVEL!-- one that I had tried before and pooped out on long before I'd finished. When I told Joan about it, she was the best cheerleader. Not only did she urge me to just start writing, she offered to write with me. By this time Joan and I had pitched in to get our own little spot in SecondLife, a place we called Story Mountain, which was basically like a big ski lodge where Joan and I compiled all the SL information about writing and writers into one beautiful reference location and where I taught intro classes in creative writing from time to time.

My alter ego working on my real book.
So for the next six months after I had the big idea for UNEARTHLY, Joan and I showed up every day at Story Mountain to work. We both set up virtual desks with virtual computers and directed our virtual avatars to sit at those desks and type while we sat at our own real life computer and wrote. We wrote hard for a couple of hours, and then we retreated to a couch in my Story Mountain office. We copied and pasted our day's work onto a virtual notecard and traded. We read each other's work and offered advise and encouragement. (Click here to see a transcript of one of our discussions of Unearthly.) And then we showed up the next day, and the next day, and the next.

At the end of that six months I had a novel, and within a year, I had a book contract with HarperCollins and my life would be forever changed.

And it was all because of the power of one good friend.

Joan and me in Chicago
I met Joan is real life once. I came to Chicago for the Romantic Times Book Convention. Joan and Brenda drove down from Wisconsin. I remember that I was a little nervous to meet her in person, and I knew I was being silly. We ran up and gave each other a big hug and then found a spot to hang out and talk. I shouldn't have worried; it was just the way it always was--totally comfortable. Sure, we weren't as thin or as well-dressed as we were in SecondLife, but guess what? Our friendship wasn't based on looks, obviously. We had a great time.

In the past few years we didn't log in to SecondLife as much. I became monumentally busy with all of my Unearthly stuff, and I had another baby. Joan finished her novel and shopped it around for an agent, but didn't have any luck. But she was tough--she just kept working on it, revising and revising. And then along came Silas, her grandson, and Joan threw herself into being the epitome of the loving grandmother. We both got caught up in other things, but every now and then we carved out a little bit of time and found a place to work together--a virtual cabin or a virtual beach, wherever we could put down some virtual laptops to work. We'd write and we'd talk, and it was always like picking up right where we left off.

Joan and I writing together and also 1500 miles apart

This is the last picture I have of Joan and me: the two of us as avatars writing together. Today, on what would have been Joan's birthday, I pulled it out and looked at it, and finally let myself have a good long cry over the loss of my friend. I wish I could call her right now and say thank you, for being my person when I desperately needed a person, for being my cheerleader and my writing partner and my friend. You showed me just how much power one good friend can have in changing a life.

Thank you, Joan. Love you. Wherever you are.