In life there are second acts, despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s feeling on the subject. Indie publishing has provided one for writers all over. And this Moment proves it. Careers change–whole industries may meet an upheaval of tsunami-size–but Rita Kempley didn’t allow herself to be swept away.
Rita faced the plunge of print media, and the even worse specter of depression, with the kind of creativity that I think is the salvation for many writers. Most of us struggle with some kind of inner demon–they’re often what appear on the page. But Rita got beyond her own story to give us a futuristic thriller. And as she takes the reader to another world, so did she stage her own second act.
Sometimes you don’t know you need a change until it’s foist upon you. So it was for me after 24 grueling years laboring at The Washington Post. I had written my heart out, but like Rodney Dangerfield, I got no respect. That didn’t stop me from waging an ultimately futile political battle to remain a movie critic in the toxic environment that was The Post’s newsroom.
Really, the party was so over, but I dug in my heels. Sixty-hour workweeks, lame editors, much less pay than my male colleagues: What’s not to like? Hoo-boy, did I ever need a wake-up call. In retrospect, though, I doubt even a smack in the puss would have awakened me to how the creativity had been sucked out of me. I hung on until a fairly lucrative buyout was offered, then was stripped on my press credentials and shown the door.
I didn’t know it then, but I would soon learn how worthless I would feel without that position. Though it was a relief to get the hell out of what I had come to call the land fill, I felt as if I was in mourning. Indeed I was. The Rita Kempley who reviewed movies, interviewed stars and went to premieres, film festivals and yes, even the occasional Hollywood party, was no more. Though I had never realized it, I had become my byline. And now that me didn’t exist.
I had a husband, a cat and many friends, but all I could see was time, vast lingering voids waiting to be filled. For two years, I slept as much of the day away as I could. I was depressed, which is nothing new for a bi-polar person, and hoped to die in my sleep as there was a good chance that was what I would be doing when the time came.
If I’d been a child star, I probably would have become addicted to crack and signed on to a pathetic reality TV show. Luckily my husband was there to support me along with former colleagues who had been through the same ordeal. My garden beckoned. I’ve found digging in the dirt puts one back in touch with reality more effectively than hallucinogens. I ordered hundreds of bulbs. I’ve always found that planting bulbs is a reaffirmation of life. Cooking fancy meals is good, too, so I began to add new dishes to my repertoire, had friends over to dinner, threw parties and started going to the gym again.
The cat and I still took too many naps together, but I began to think about a second act. I could teach, everyone said, or volunteer. Perhaps I could walk dogs or sell my gardening skills. Thanks anyway, I said, but I was beginning to feel like putting words on a paper again. Whether anybody ever read those words mattered, but not so much as putting them there in the first place.
Words have always dazzled me. Like a fairy tale heroine in a bewitched forest, I lose my way in a dictionary or a thesaurus. I love to play with them, polish them, toss them into the air and see where they fall. I love to line them up and knock them down like bowling pins, spin them around and watch them get dizzy. I used to get dizzy, too, and sometimes couldn’t see the story for the words.
That may be why I got out a old screenplay that my husband, Ed Schneider, and I had co-written years earlier. It was a futuristic thriller called “Birthright” and as far as I was concerned, it was done. We had some interest in the script initially, but ultimately there were no takers. Although the characters weren’t compelling – I would have called them cardboard in my reviewing days – I had always liked the mystery and the setting. This will be quick and easy, I thought. A tweak or two at best.
If you want to get Hollywood’s attention, I have been told, it is smarter to write a book than a screenplay. All righty then. Let some other schmo do the adaptation. Only I discovered, writing screenplays is more like building a house while writing a book is more like gardening. Lots of digging, lots of pruning, lots of weeding.
Two years passed and the characters were beginning to take shape, but the story still wasn’t there. I realized this because I was learning to become a storyteller. It was no longer about the words or me, it had become about the book.
Initially, I hesitated to call the pile of paper a “book” as I only had about a hundred pages. I’m not a fast writer, but I pressed on till I had a hundred more. And then more after that. How could this be? The longest piece I had ever written in my previous incarnation was a celebrity profile that ran 52 inches. Now I had well over 300 pages in a narrative form. Tada! The time had come to find an agent.
A flurry of rejections later, I made an appointment with my psychiatrist. We came up with a diagnosis of post-partum depression. The rejections weren’t the problem – a writer friend said I had some of the nicest rejection letters she had every seen. No, I longed for my book, especially my characters. We had spent most days and many, many nights together over the past four years and I missed them terribly. The book, now called “The Vessel,” went back in the drawer while I explored memoir writing and finally took a couple of webinars on writing a novel. I gave up on the memoir because I was sick of writing about me – hard to believe I know – and took a second and then a third pass at “The Vessel.”
That’s when I began to really like what I had written. I began to suspect I knew what I was doing. I sent the novel out to a few agents in January and February, but as expected, none were interested. It didn’t matter so much anymore. The publishing industry was obviously going the way of print journalism and self-publishing was practically legitimate. So I thought to myself, as I often do when authority is concerned, “Screw ’em,” and sent the manuscript off to start the e-publishing process.
Weeks later, as I was reading the proofs one last time, I caught myself thinking “Hey, this is pretty damned good.” From that point on, it really hasn’t much mattered how many copies I’ve sold. (Of course, I want to complete the circle, because a book isn’t really a book until it’s read.) What matters is that I’m not beating myself up anymore. I don’t know if it will last, but writing a book and publishing it myself seems to have done more for me than Prozac.
Rita Kempley, writer, journalist and editor, spent nearly 25 years in the dark as a film critic for The Washington Post. Thousands of screenings later she swears she can review a movie without seeing it. In addition to covering the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, she profiled scores of film personalities. She was also a regular commentator on two local FM-radio shows and hosted “Usual Suspects,” her popular weekly film chats on Washington Post Live Online.