After Three Long Years…!

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Name:  Californio

Born: August 30, 2016

Weight: 99,000 words

Height: 8 1/2″ x 11″

Length of Labor:  Three years

The baby needs to be cleaned up, bathed, swaddled and nursed before he can go out into the world. But when he’s ready, you will be the first to meet him.

—The proud Momma

Just Because I Haven’t Written Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Care

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I miss you.

Every one of you.

If you’ve ever left a comment here, or somehow let me know you’ve been reading my blog, whether reaching out to me by email, Facebook,or Twitter: I think of you when I sit here all alone and write.

Or at least try to write.

That’s what I’ve been doing for over a year now – writing a novel.  This is where I’ve been writing it…

Stowe Grove Redwoods

That’s the view from my office – from a picnic table in the middle of a redwood grove.

I’ve never been an outdoors-type writer – I prefer the comfort of a computer screen and indoor plumbing. Hot cups of tea, and an occasional nap in an armchair. But I’m writing outdoors now because the story I’m working on is an outdoor adventure – about the first Californio families who traveled over a thousand miles on mules and horseback to start their lives in a place called Nueva California. Somehow being outdoors makes me feel a little bit closer to these people who I’ve just recently met on the page.

It’s not easy to write a novel.

Not.at.all.

Fiction writing makes writing screenplays seem like finger painting in kindergarten. The average screenplay uses 15,000 to 20,000 words to say what it needs to say. I’ve written 52,000 and I’m maybe halfway done. Adult fiction can run from 75,000 to 100,000 words, so I’m guessing mine will come in long. But I’m a wicked editor and I love to use my red pen, so (unlike dieting) I have no problem slimming down my words.

In the meantime though, while I’m still in the throes of a first draft, I try not to edit or I’ll slow myself down. In fact, on those days when my persnickety internal editor is working overtime, I find it hard to write at all. I sit there in the middle of those beautiful trees and wonder why I’m even doing this. Why am I struggling with this story when it would be so much easier to not be writing at all?

That’s when I think of you.

Some of you have photos to your names or avatars, and those cross my mind. Others are only email addresses, but my imagination pictures you there beyond the .com. When I’m stuck and searching for a way to continue, for a reason why I should keep going and not give up, you come to me in my thoughts, and I think about you some day reading this story. And remembering that makes quitting this novel not an option at all.

The joy of writing comes from sharing. From connecting with another human being. That’s why I wrote screenplays. That’s why every time one of my screenplays became a film, on the big screen or small,  I was sharing, connecting with other people. The words had found their purpose. That’s why I started this blog, and why I miss coming here more often. You keep me writing. You keep me battling with that pesky editor, keep me focused when the squirrels are scrambling in the overhead branches, and the people are walking their dogs past this strange woman scribbling on legal pads and mumbling to herself. You keep me going forward. Knowing that you are here is what keeps me on this path, taking this journey and finishing this story.

That’s why I’m writing this today.

To let you know how much I miss you.

And I can’t wait to share this story with you.

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An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood

The Sweetest Avocados Aren’t For Sale

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I’m not a saint.

I’m a wife and a mom, and I hate to admit I’m anything less than Mother Teresa, but yeah, self-sacrificing, stoic, patient, and charitable are not me.  I’m also a writer and maybe that’s the problem.  At our best, writers are anti-social. That’s us sitting in the farthest corner of a room at any kind of gathering that has more than one person. At our worst, we’re just downright cranky as hell.  J.D. Salinger used to lock himself away from his family while he wrote in a bunker. Only someone who isn’t a writer is shocked to hear that.  I, on the other hand, understand completely and wonder if our backyard is big enough to accommodate one.

I love my family, but I also love putting words to paper, and sometimes those two worlds collide. While I do the mandatory labor – cooking, cleaning, and laundry, I do it at the barest minimum.  I’m content being the C- student, unless we’re having company over and then, like an undergrad illicitly buying a Moby Dick essay online, I pay someone to do the cleaning for me. And as for taking care of everyone’s needs:  I nurture when it’s needed, and I hope to God it’s not needed for long.

Unfortunately, a hip operation and rehab takes months.

That’s what my dear husband went through in December, and as we are approaching February, he’s still on the mend. He’s graduated from physical therapy in the home to three days a week every week at a physical rehab center. So in addition to all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, picking up of groceries (which is a real challenge for a recovering agoraphobic terrified of Albertsons), and doctor appointments, I now have to be a chauffeur to and from physical therapy.  The only writing that’s getting done  by me are To Do lists.

Yes, I know – My dear husband is the one who is going through all of the pain from the operation and the hard work involved in getting better. I’m just the wife and caregiver. But you know how marathoners talk about “hitting the wall” at mile 20.  I hit the wall yesterday.

We had rehab yesterday and also a doctor’s appointment. That meant one hour at one location waiting in the car, and another hour at another location waiting. That was after a morning of doing my version of grocery shopping:  Quickly running into Albertson’s (at daybreak when no one is there) to grab the first eight items I saw, and then, rushing to the checkout (to avoid a panic attack), and out to the car where I then drove to Walgreens to pick up paper towels, toilet paper, milk, and cereal, before going to a little butcher shop to buy meat for the week.  Small stores and short errands are the only way I can manage grocery shopping on my own, so yep, I was ready for a nap by 1 pm.

Which is exactly the hour when we had to drive to physical therapy.

I had just enough time to pack up my iPad, research books, and work-in-progress pages before driving to the mall (taking side streets since I still don’t drive freeways) and dropping off my husband at the physical therapy place at the mall.  I had every intention of attempting an hour of responsibility-free writing, with the hope that I wasn’t too tired to nod off mid-sentence. What I needed was a strong hot cup of tea for vitality, and with that in mind, I put the car in reverse, and drove off for the exit of the mall and the closest Coffee Bean & Tea.

That’s when I saw her.

What I noticed first was the mechanized wheelchair, and the fact that it was just sitting there in the middle of the road.  Then, I noticed the plastic bags filled with God-knows-what that had fallen off of her lap and onto the ground at her feet.  I couldn’t tell how old the woman was – only that she was bending over and trying to gather up her bags, and she wasn’t having much luck at all.  She’d grab one bag, and another bag would fall, and she’d start the process all over again.  All the time while just sitting there in the middle of the road right in front of the exit of the mall.  Cars were whizzing by her, and really, I ask you:  How could I not stop?

I didn’t want to stop.  I wanted that cup of tea.  I wanted to write!  I had planned on writing.  I’m a writer – I need to write.  If I don’t write, God help you if you have the misfortune of being around me.  I’m moody.  I sulk. I get angry.  I roar. The last thing in the world I wanted was to encounter a woman in her late 60s (being closer now I could tell this) who was juggling her personal belongings in shopping bags while sitting in a broken down wheelchair.  The exit was just in front of me.  All I had to do was do as the other cars were doing – drive around her.  It would have been so simple.  Just pass her by, and then, I could have my day back.

“Can I help you with something?”

I asked her, after rolling down the window in a momentary lapse of self-survival.

Any decent person might have answered me, “No, I’m fine.  Go do some writing, why don’t you? You look like you might be a writer – a damn fine one too!  Go put those words of yours on paper, not just for you, but for all of mankind.”

But no, this woman didn’t say that to me.  She had the audacity to say, “I think I do need some help.”

Well, now what?

The thing about offering help to someone is that you should have some idea how you can help.  Maybe I was expecting another car to stop, and another citizen to lead the way.  But as far as I could see, everyone else was content to just drive around us.  “Oh look, honey, there’s a woman who needs help in a wheelchair.  We should probably stop and help…Nope, there’s a lady doing that now.  Let’s just go on with our day.  Hey, let’s go get some coffee and write!”

I was in this scene all by myself.

Well, not really. The wheelchair lady was in it too.

But I was clearly the person who needed to start the ball rolling.  So, I did what I was certain I knew how to do best: I parked the car.  After that, I just ad-libbed, going moment by moment.

“So…uh….what’s the problem?

Now, the two of us stood (well, she was sitting) in the middle of the road at the exit of the mall, and I tried not to think that this was how people get run over: by offering to help.  When you don’t help, a Honda can’t hit you.  That’s just a fact.

And then I noticed all of her plastic bags.

They were crammed with empty tupperware.  Call me shallow, but I did not want to lose my life for Tupperware.  I needed to speed this encounter along.

“Where do you live?  Can I take you home?”

She looked at me.

“I don’t even know you…How can I trust you?”

Well, that makes two of us, lady.

This woman with hair that hasn’t been combed in weeks, wearing not a blush of make-up (God forbid), dressed in ancient peddle-pushers, a stained sweat shirt, and old Keds is asking me a question I should be asking her.  It’s a good question.  It’s the perfect question to be asking at the moment.  But why is it the woman who looks like a bag lady is the one asking it of the woman who looks like a soccer mom from the suburbs?

And how the hell do I prove to her she can trust me?

I pointed to my nine-year-old Camry with the 2008 Hillary bumper sticker.

“That’s my car,” I say proudly.  Meaning what exactly?!  That I voted so I’m trustworthy?!  “With the Hillary sticker!” I add, as if she hasn’t seen it and that my support for a woman candidate only proves my solidarity to sisterhood. So yes, Sister, trust away.

The bag lady looks at me like I’m crazy.

I actually feel a little crazy at the moment.

But clearly, this woman is desperate and decides to take a chance on me.

“I don’t live too far – You can follow me home,” she says and hands me an armful of Tupperware.

Putting her wheelchair in gear, she leads me over to my car – obviously, taking charge because I seem like an idiot. I open my trunk where I deposit her many plastic bags, and she gives me directions to her house, “It’s past the condominiums.”

O-Kay. What condominiums?

“Is there a street name?” I ask.

“Walnut,” she tells me and is about to leave.

“Address, maybe?”

“By the condominiums!”

I’m thinking I better take charge of the adult reins here because she’s about to disappear down Walnut street (a very long street, I might add), and I’ll never see her again, and end up with more Tupperware than I could ever use.

“How about I write down my cell phone number, and I give it to you, and that way if I get lost, you can call me?” I suggest.

This makes perfect sense to me.  But to this woman, not so much.  “Ho-kay,” she tells me with a little laugh, looking at me like I’m a bit desperate for her taste. She just needs to get her Tupperware home, not make a new friend.  Humoring me, she takes my cell number I’ve scribbled on a sheet from a notepad, and when I insist, she reluctantly gives me her address that I write down.

Obviously, this will be the only writing I do today.

Negotiations accomplished, I jump into the car, ready for this new adventure, and put the key in the ignition, turning the engine on.

That’s when there is a tap at my back window.

“Your trunk is still open,” she tells me.

And I can see in her eyes that my stupidity has now won her trust.

By the time I’m out of the car, and slamming down the trunk, the woman and her wheelchair are roaring down the road to the mall exit, and crossing the street against the light in the middle of the block.  By the time I get my car in gear and follow her route, I’ve lost sight of her and only praying that I haven’t hallucinated this entire event.

I find Walnut and go block by block looking for the numbers on the street signs, and of course in typical Santa Barbara suburban fashion there are no numbers.  I have almost reached the dead end of the street when my cell phone rings.

“I know. I’m lost,” I tell her without needing to hear her voice.

Of course, she expected this.  We’re old friends by now.

She’s standing on the sidewalk…well, sitting in her wheelchair on the sidewalk, so it’s not that big of a challenge to find her house.  She disappears down a little driveway and I follow tentatively behind her, parking the car.

While I unload the trunk of Tupperware, she heads into her house, and tells me to follow.

It’s an old house, and it probably hasn’t seen a paint brush since the last century.  The front of it is overgrown with bushes and shrubs – a wooden fence holding in the backyard has a couple of broken slats, and a huge tree trying to bust out over it.  There is a small hand-crafted plywood ramp leading up to the open front door, and I hesitate only slightly when I walk up it and enter.

It’s too late to turn back now.

Someone has to carry home the Tupperware.

The lady’s name is Loretta and she lives with her father, Charles.  He looks like he’ll never see 90 again, closer to 100 maybe. He’s in a wheelchair too, and he wears an old faded baseball cap.  He meets me in the oversized living room that looks more like a rumpus room – no carpet, no lights on, and just about everything they own sitting out in the open.  Dishes, pots and pans, half-finished little jobs still hanging around on top of a formica kitchen table, the couch, an armchair, and a kitchen counter with a box of wine as its centerpiece with a Dixie cup poised underneath the spout.

Always at the ready, I guess.

Charles just smiles at me but never talks.

Loretta does, non-stop.

Out of the motorized wheelchair, she hobbles around now,

“I don’t really need that wheelchair – It’s my father’s, not mine.  I hurt my ankle in the garden so it was easier to take the chair to the mall.  I don’t need it.  You like avocados?”

How can I say no?

“I do,” I tell her.

Charles keeps smiling.

Loretta grabs up one of her endless plastic bags that seem to be everywhere, and goes into an enclosed porch, talking non-stop as she gathers up the fruit.

“This is the good stuff, not from the store. Grown here, right off the tree. The best!”

This is the Goleta Valley, and all of this land used to have fruit trees on it.  But the track homes and condos around this old house have replaced the walnut, avocado, and orange trees that once grew here.

“These are for you,” Loretta says, as she hobbles over to me and holds out the plastic Ralph’s bag now filled with six avocados. “One or two of them are ready to eat. You can have them tonight.”

I thanked her as she thanked me.

And as I left that house and was heading back to my car, I could hear Loretta say  to Charles, in a voice loud enough for a man his age to hear her:  “She’s a nice lady!”

It took me a moment to realize she meant me.

I never got a chance to get myself that cup of tea yesterday.  It’s exhausting when you stop your life to help somebody.  So I went back to the car and took a nap.  And you know, of course, I didn’t do any writing at all the rest of the day.  But I made a point to cut open one of those avocados later that night, and slice it up really pretty on a plate.  We ate it for dinner and I thought of Loretta and Charles.

And she was right.

It was the sweetest avocado I’ve ever had.

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

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girl  in  grunge interiorIt’s been a year since starting this blog and I want to thank every one of you who’s dropped by to read these posts, and to linger a little longer to leave a comment.  You’ve made me feel very welcome in this tiny corner of the Internet.

Many of you have been kind enough to leave a word or two and to keep the conversation rolling.  I can always count on Lynne, behindthemaskofabuse, Raani, Wayne, Heather, Jen, valeriedavis, Jeri, June, virginialorca, Cookie, bldodson, lindalochridge, alesiablogs, lpaulick, Dixie, Bette, Susan, quirky books, Adrienne, stutleytales, Shirley, 1dlagarino, Jodi, catnipoflife, Jessica, Expat Alien, Ria, Deanna, and Yasseen to let me know their feelings and ideas, as well as giving this writer a real motivation to keep posting. If you write me a comment, I value that, and I will always write you back.

It used to be that writing was something done in the loneliness of an empty room.  Just the writer, some paper, a pen or a typewriter, making up stories for anonymous readers.  Blogging came along and changed that.  Now, there are names and identities attached to readers, and I find myself eager to hear from people who I’ve come to know over the last 365 (or more) days I’ve been writing here.

So here’s to another 365 (or more) days of Can You All Hear Me In The Back?  I am toasting each and every one of you tonight – from those who comment, to those who are so considerate to “like” my posts or to click that “WordPress This” “Facebook” or “Twitter” button at the bottom of every post.  I wish I could send each and every one of you flowers.

After all, it is our anniversary.

Flowers

When Life Gets In The Way Of Blogging

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My mom fell last Friday and life has been crazy ever since.

She’s going to be fine (Thank God). Two days in the hospital, a C-Scan, one MRI, and numerous blood tests later, she’s back at home and eager to be living independently again. I won’t tell you her age; let’s just say she’s definitely a card carrying member of the Greatest (and toughest)Generation. She’s still sore, cranky as hell, and stiff (damn arthritis!), and so she’s still healing, meaning 24 hour surveillance for awhile. Not that she’s happy about it, but she’s agreeing to it for her kids peace of mind, and we appreciate her motherly sacrifice.

Needless to say, my days aren’t my own at the moment, and this blog will have to sit here quietly while I focus on my mom. I figured I should let all of you know since I’ve already had a couple of emails from people telling me they miss this blog and wondered if everything was fine. Well, things are getting fine. But there’s not much time for writing anything except grocery lists, caregiver schedules, and to-do lists. So please bear with me until life quiets down enough for me to find my way back to the keyboard again.

This week made me realize, by the way, that sometimes you can take for granted that which you love the most. I’m not talking about my mom, although there are times when maybe I might take her a wee bit for granted. She’s one strong lady and I’ve gotten used to that vitality and tenacity of hers, always assuming she’ll bounce back from whatever troubles come her way. She’s proving me right in this latest challenge that’s been thrown in her direction, and it doesn’t surprise me at all. But the one thing I never realized before was how much I’ve taken for granted my writing.

Every day I wake up and writing is always there for me. When I get an idea I reach for a pen or click on my computer and the words flow – sometimes effortlessly and sometimes after a little prodding. But this week there’s been no time to write and no way of predicting when I’d find the time to even think about writing.

That was a first for me.

I’ve always found the time. As a professional screenwriter with a paycheck waiting for my words to fill the paper, it was my job to make the time to write. Even when my two babies came along while I was in the middle of of screenwriting assignments, I’d write the scenes in my head while breast feeding. And after putting the little darlings back into the crib, I’d scribble down those scenes in the middle of the night and write them up the next morning.

Somehow I always found time to write.

But this last week was way beyond hectic, and juggling my own needs (my husband, my kids, my house, my dog) with what my mom needed was more hours and energy than this writer could barely manage. Through all of these busy days and nights I realized just how full my life feels when I’m writing. And how empty and lonely it can be when I’m not.

It might be a little quiet around here for awhile. So please, leave a comment just to let me know you’re still out there. It’ll give me a chance to write you back, and it’ll probably be the only writing I’ll be able to do for awhile.

To Write Or Not To Write: That Is The Question

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girl  in  grunge interior

I went to the dentist yesterday.

That’s no easy feat for a recovering agoraphobic.  It was only for a cleaning, so it was relatively low on my panic scale. Thankfully, I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to get me there and keep me in the chair.

One of the things I try to focus on now when I leave the house (to get my mind off of myself and my nerves) is conversation with other people.  I don’t wait for someone to talk to me first, I start the ball rolling right away.  If I can concentrate on talking with somebody I can usually trick my mind into forgetting I’m sitting in an office and not in the safety of my own home.  So yesterday, as the technician was escorting me to the dental chair, I gave her my best smile, said hello, and asked, “How’s your new year so far?”

The young woman hesitated, and was silent for a moment.  Her pause gave me pause.  Was I asking too much?  Should I have just queried her with that obligatory, “How are you doing?” – the question that everyone always answers with, “I’m fine.  How are you?”  Maybe I was being too specific, too inquisitive by narrowing the question to the beginning of the new year.

“It’s been…interesting,” the dental hygienist finally answered.

By her tone of voice I knew not to pursue it, not to ask, “Really? What’s been going on?”  I also knew what was coming next.

“How’s your new year going?”

I gave her the same pause that she had given me.

There was a lot going on in my life, but it involved other people, not just me.  2013 had rushed in impatiently filled with big decisions and even bigger emotions.  But I realized that everything happening in my life wasn’t mine to share.  Not just in this dental office, but also on the page.

One of the freeing aspects of writing is being able to write anything you want.  Carefully disguised in fiction, names can be changed, and events somewhat altered.  It feels good to be able to purge yourself of some deep hurt, some great moment of drama, or to just reveal the hilarity at times of being human.  But when you write a blog, it’s a whole different kettle of fish.

I feel an obligation to be careful about what I write here about the people I love – the ones who are unlucky enough to have a writer living among them. I won’t write something if I feel it violates their sense of propriety or their need to remain private.  After all, they’re not celebrities who have given up a portion of their privacy in exchange for notoriety.  That’s a bargain that’s struck by anyone who chases fame.  I write about everyday people, and there are some days when I simply won’t write about them at all.  I’m sure my friends and family feel much better knowing that.

But it sure makes for a quiet blog.

(Where do you draw the line as a writer?  Do you feel a need to protect as well as create?  Or  are all bets off when it comes to your writing?  Have you ever written something only to find out later that it’s hurt someone that you love?  Or have you put down the pen, pushed away from the keyboard, and waited to write about something else on another day. What’s off limits for you as a writer?)

Old typewriter

If I’d Listened to My Agent, I Never Would’ve Written It

Becoming a writer doesn’t seem real until an agent wants to sign us.  We look to them for guidance and to lead the way.  But sometimes agents can be wrong, and you shouldn’t listen to them at all.  If you ever have any doubts, look back to your beginnings, and remember why you first started to write.

I Hated Plays, But I Went Anyway

“You should write a play,” my creative writing teacher said to me one day in class.

“I hate plays!” I objected in my best 15-year-old impression of an angry adolescent.

“Have you ever seen a play?” he asked, knowing in his wisdom that I hadn’t.

“No,” I answered, sheepishly.  “But I still hate them!”

Brilliant teacher that he was, he gave me an assignment that I couldn’t turn down: Our high school was putting on “The Glass Managerie” and he made me go see it.

As I sat there in the anonymity of a darkened theater, I was certain every word Tennessee Williams had written was for me. I was transfixed, as my soul exited my body and floated across the seats, over the empty orchestra pit to slip into those characters, and into the life of that magnificent story.

I went home and started to write a play immediately. It was called, “The Merry-Go-Round” and it was about (surprise!) a 15 year-old who felt she couldn’t fit in with any of the peer groups in her high school.  I didn’t have to do any research at all.

Write What You Know – It’s Easier

At 15, what I knew best was alienation and loneliness. I decided to go with that.

I was shocked when my high school wanted to put on my play. The auditorium filled up with hundreds of students: they listened, they laughed, and most importantly, no one tried to ditch.  Afterwards, a girl I didn’t even know, but someone with a teenage life I could only envy (she was popular and smart) stopped me in the halls, and thanked me for writing the play.

“I never knew anyone felt that loneliness except for me,” she said.

Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite so alienated.

I filed that moment away until years later on a hot August night in L.A. when my life seemed to be going nowhere.  No job.  No boyfriend.  No money. I was angry, frustrated, and fed up.  I was someone who had followed all the rules I’d been handed as a good girl growing up, and for the first time I faced the fact that all those rules weren’t working. That night I was pissed off – I wanted to strike out and do something out of character, a little dangerous, and definitely life changing. So I picked up a pen and started writing Pizza Man.

Why Writers Need to Write and Ignore Everybody Else

I tell you all this not to promote my play (although another NYC production – the fourth one this year – opens April 26th at Theater 54, 244 W. 54th Street # 12, NYC, and I am giving a shout out to those actors because I know their hearts and dreams are in those upcoming performances). I bring up Pizza Man as a cautionary tale: If I’d listened to my agent, I never would’ve written it.

After the first act had poured out of me on that hot August night, I gave it to my agent to read.  She called me up and said she liked up.  And then added, “But no one ever makes any money from writing plays.”

Obviously, she was a Hollywood agent.  Nevertheless, I was heartbroken.

“Should I write the second act and finish it?” I asked her anxiously.

“I guess, if you want.” she said, stifling a yawn.

Not exactly words to motivate.

Sometimes It’s Not About the Money

I took a deep breath, didn’t argue with her, and finished writing the play anyway. I knew it would hurt too much not to complete it.  There was something in that story I needed to work through for myself.  I had to take control of my own destiny, in my own way.  And if that meant I didn’t sell it, I guess that was okay.  What I learned about myself and how that fit into my life’s journey was the importance in writing that play. As far as I was concerned, that was the wealth I’d receive from finishing it. And that would be plenty enough for me.

I think of that agent every time a royalty statement for Pizza Man arrives in the mail from Samuel French. The play’s monetary rewards have come in, little by little, consistently, year after year.  But what matters to me the most is that it’s been produced all over the world, in nine languages, and the fact that with every production (no matter how few performances or how small a theatre), every time an actor or actress says the lines onstage, or does a monologue for a college final or an audition, or an audience member sits in a darkened theatre, losing themselves in that manifestation of a hot, unbearable August night, I can almost hear them saying, “I never knew anyone else felt this way except for me.”

That’s the reason I write. And no one will ever make me forget that.