Monday, July 13, 2009

Vania 3.0 as explained to a friend....

So had a friend ask me recently about my recent play, and the story behind it all. It'd been years since we'd seen each other, and we'd only reconnected for the first time in almost 10 years last -- what? June? May even?

I remember particularly that when he was last in Knoxville, we were good friends, but I was waist deep in a depression that had become over the years nearly crippling. God(s) love him, he was one of those people who, when I started picking up on his and his girlfriend's body language showing awkwardness around me, admitted that they were getting frustrated with me because it was hard to listen to someone who complained all the time but didn't do anything about it.

Can't remember exactly how he phrased it.

At the time, I told him, actually, that I quite understood. And I hardly ever saw him and his girlfriend again. And I rarely brought up any of my depression issues again to him. And increasingly, I rarely brought it up to anyone else again. I didn't want to be a burden.

It was only years later that I began to get a little angry about it. But as angry as I was about how cruel it felt to be told to shut up about my depression, I was also angry at the very real predicament depression puts you in.

If you haven't experienced depression personally, it is next to impossible to rely on your friends as a support structure, because you are imposing a burden on them. And yet, the most critical part of getting past crippling depression is to relay on your support structure until you are more capable of using your own coping skills.

But that was then. 14 or 15 years ago. When my practical world was steadily shrinking down and it was almost to the point where I had to kill myself or have a miracle to keep myself sane. My how perspectives can really play with your world.

Well, I recently reconnected with this old friend of mine, after he and I both had spent over 10 years almost entirely separated a continent apart living our own lives. It'd been a while since I had an opportunity, for work or otherwise, to make a trip to San Francisco, where he lives, and he'd hardly made a trip to Knoxville at all since he moved out there.

Then a few months ago, we reconnected on Facebook (the theme of my life this year especially) and lo' and behold, he was coming into town! We got to spend some time together, got caught up on the latest, and then he left.

And as I've mentioned before, I then got back into theater for the first time in nearly 20 years, and I got a hankering to get back into a long lost love, writing stories....

Well, Don, my friend, got interested in my posts about my play, and decided to drop a line on Facebook and ask me about what was behind it all. I thought it was worth sharing here.


Those pictures Patty Pope posted. wowow. beautiful.

Hey! how'd the play go? what's the story there?

Vania Smrkovski
Today at 9:35am

Those pics were taken forever ago, back when we were all still in school, back even when we'd only just first met, or even before that. But then, perhaps you can tell. If you put my and my brother in law side by side with those pics, you'd be much more likely to say that they look like him than me. It's weird to see them.

The story behind the play? Hmmm.....

There are two answers to that. The briefer (which I guess is not all that brief) one is that, as is so common on Facebook, my circle of Facebook Friends grew by invading a different time period of my life, by having a random friend from my past connect, and then connecting with all of their friends who I also knew from that time period. This year was the most intense, starting from January or even late last year, and connecting with people from iPIX, from my counseling days, from my frakking High School days in Illinois! [Note: I moved to Tennessee during my 4th year in high school.] And then at last from those few years around 1990 where I did some theater here in Knoxville.

An actress friend, Lisa, found me and we got to talking quite a bit, and she started egging me on to get back into theater after she found out that I'd been playing around with the idea recently. (Lisa was one who was really pushing me to keep at my writing way back when in the early 90s.) After a month of catching up, she told me about auditions for Picnic, and I got totally stoked, and my life has been amazing since I auditioned, got a part and performed for the first time in nearly two decades.

The longer answer is this. After my breakdown, which I felt was largely caused by my depression and feelings of being unable to connect with people, but also feelings that I was not cut out to do anything meaningful, especially in art, writing, acting, etc, I spent most of my years focused on the task of learning how and accepting being an ordinary 9 to 5 worker bee, sheeple, whatever you want to call it. I literally made the decision that if I was determined to commit suicide, might as well kill off the writer, actor, dreamer that was trying to achieve impossible dreams, but leave the ordinary guy in me to still have some kind of life, even if it was totally unextraordinary. (Can't even say "ordinary".)

After about 7 or so years of this, becoming an increasingly successful programmer, I started having these scary moments where I wanted to write again, to dream of doing something grand. By that time, I looked at this as if it was a symptom of depression, I would feel panic attacks, full on anxiety, so I suppressed the urges as best I could, but after a while I started wondering if I might, in my new "Vania 2.0", be able to do it again in a way that wouldn't create the anxieties and false , unrealistic expectations I had that brought me to my knees before.

This time I was focused on the problem as an ADD problem, since that was a theme in my self-care at the time (I did actually get diagnosed with neurological tests, if you're curious). How do I organize notes, character studies, plot summaries, timelines, snippets of writing in such a way that I could be inspired, write, walk away and still have the body of work collected in increasingly large collections of stuff that I might one day be ready to tackle full on. How could I learn to re-learn all of the life of a writer I once knew. I had forgotten everything I knew, all of the little things like looking at people in a restaurant and absentmindedly wondering if any of my characters might say similar things, or driving down the road and spontaneously imagining a new twist or piece of evolution of the story.

When the above mentioned nagging to get back into theater happened, I'm starting to think I hit a watershed moment where I was at a proverbial cliff and I had to choose to jump. And I had friends who kept egging me on to do those creative things again, people who knew me back then and wanted me to have that happy feeling once more, and I jumped. Even before I really knew what I was doing.

Don, these last few months have been absolutely terrifying, thrilling, overwhelming and liberating for me!

For the first time in over 13 years, I am feeling a sense of confluence in my life, a series of events and experiences that are conspiring to change my course again. I feel like I am heading to Vania 3.0.

Everything terrible, remarkable and amazing has been happening. On the terrible side, my marriage has been called into question. My wife wasn't prepared for this new commitment, this new mistress called the theater. And she will not be prepared for the writer if I let him out to play again. Besides, I have also realized that in the process of learning to tend to my own wounds these past 13 years, I have unwittingly allowed my self esteem to be diminished by her. Not out of any sense of overt abuse on her part, but from the natural give and take compromises one tends to do in relationships.

Meanwhile, I am hanging out with that singularly exceptional group of people known as the theater crowd. I hadn't realized how different they were until Olya came to an outing with us after a show. She felt more lost there than I ever felt with her and vet school colleagues. If you remember "Freaks" and can remember the nice suit guy taking the dainty lady to meet his circus freak friends, that's how I suddenly felt with this thespian crowd.

And I realized that it was time to start feeding my muse again. That it wasn't just about writing in the dark rooms of my home. I had to nurture that other side of me again.

The last ten years have been spent tending to the ordinary guy in me, trying to build a strong foundation, a core of being that could help me weather the bad times, and manage the bills and finances.

Now, with that task done, I realize it is time to begin preparations for Vania 3.0. The artist didn't die of suicide after all. And now it is time for me to nurture him to grow, give him a playground, give him paper and a chance to write the story he wants to tell.

I really don't know what will come of it. Somehow my sharing all of this with my circle of friends has unexpectedly inspired some of my friends to start writing and exploring, too, and they are making more progress and writing and doing than I am. Maybe it's my core, methodical self managing the show, but I'm tending a garden here, and instead of using fertilizer and UV lamps to get really fast growth for quick harvesting, I am working on the process, trying to learn how to live like an artist again.

I may never get around to actually writing again, but I'm trying to remind myself that the life of the artist, the living and thinking like an artist, is really the first goal. Tackling the fear of failure by simply loving the act itself.

"Picnic" went resoundingly well. I have a short list of things I'd like to have done better, but I am very pleased with how I did on my first play since before you and I even met, and the director has invited me to join in his upcoming production of The Diary of Anne Frank for September (I play Mr. Van Daan). I have some friends who are hounding me to start posting some writing, and I'm still actively finding ways to explore the process and how to integrate it into my life.

Olya and I are seeking counseling, which I think we need (we have had some very nasty arguments, and well there are other issues), but in the process, our counselor has also been my personal counselor and has had some interesting things to say about how he thinks I have never really had a suitable father figure and the resulting self-esteem is really something that has been keeping me from focusing and challenging myself. Whatever the truth of all of that, he seems to have some interesting notions of how I can improve some things in my life, and I'm excited.

Vania 3.0 is happening, and it's largely happening without much effort on my part. Things outside of my control are changing, and I am often reacting instead of planning. It allows me to focus on responding and nudging things here and there, learning and hopefully growing.

I am fascinated to see where it will all go.

So that's it. That's the story. The upgrade to Vania 3.0 is free for you. Or maybe I'll charge you a sushi/sake meal next time I'm out there.

As a general update, I haven't been doing a lot of writing yet. But I've been following the book "The Artist's Way" and have been trying to diligently (not so much) do my "daily pages" where I write 3 pages of whatever is on my mind. The idea is that it's a toxic brain dump that helps clear your head of the distractions and stresses that cause your writer's (or artist's) block.

But I said up front it was going to be a long term rewiring of me. Vania 3.0 doesn't get to happen over night, so I'm not discouraged, yet.

And I am very thankful that I have had some new friends and some already dear friends nagging the hell out of me to get something out there for them to read. I may end up doing that very soon.


J.A. Saare said...

Very interesting entry and I have to say, I really enjoy your "voice".

Personally, I think anything which helps a person transcend, be emotionally or personally, is positive. If posting your experiences on facebook did this for you (and by association others), I say go for it.

It's funny. I was a mild theater nut in college. It was exhilarating and allowed me to relinquish the things that chained me to reality without shirking any of those unavoidable responsibilities. Hearing you refer to the "crowd" took me back. I had some fantastic times then - times I often recollect and miss.

I wish you nothing but the best in counseling, your writing aspirations, and everything else you set out to conquer.


VSmirk said...

Thank you! And by the way, LOVE LOVE LOVE your website design! Very smokey, sultry, Victorian dark. (

Been reading through your story excerpts, and now I have to go hunting for a copy of your books!

ikildjennie said...

Viva la artiste!! You know how proud I am though ;-)