Late last night I heard the tragic news that a writer-friend of mine, Denni Schnapp, killed herself on Thursday.
Denni was the first person I knew personally to make use of social media in the lead up to their suicide. In recent months, she’s been very clear about the fact she was in a lot of emotional pain, ridden by angst. Where most of us have an over-ride switch, Denni had a loud-hailer.
So although not entirely unexpected, Denni’s death still has still come as a shock.
As public conversations go, Denni’s social media suicide was strangely one-sided. The terrible reality is, it was all so embarrassing that I suspect no one really knew what to say. I don’t offer this as any sort excuse for the sustained silence, but rather as an possible explanation.
“Plus it’s not exactly urgent. I simply don’t have the energy to kill myself at the moment. Wouldn’t know how to go about it. Takes planning”
Personally, I find the shotgun-sharing side of Facebook pretty hard to take. It’s not that I didn’t care, or want to know, what was happening to Denni. It’s that I didn’t want to know so very publicly. Which, I accept, makes no sense. But it is why, once or twice in that past few months, when things seemed more alarming than usual, I contacted her privately. Once or twice. But not in any really determined, or effective way. When she replied, sounding less despondent, I was relieved. Then, more recently, when she ignored my direct contact, I was very easily persuaded to ‘take a hint’.
This is not to say that I think I could have made some sort of difference. I couldn’t. No one could have. When people – particularly exceptionally bright people – really want to end it all, they do.
I can’t say Denni and I were friends exactly. But we were writer-buds, to use the technical term. In other words, our relationship was built around a commitment to read each other’s work, and engage honestly whatever the reactions. Sometimes, of course, the categories of ‘Friends’ and ‘Writer-buds’ overlap. But equally, with your writer-buds, you can have years and years of deep and involving conversations and exchanges that mean more than anything else in your life, shields-down, broken hearts on broadcast, without ever actually knowing things like what the other does for a living, or whether they have kids or not.
Denni and I were writer-buds. When I was on the train to the monthly meeting, she was always one of the writers I particularly hoped would be there. But never would it have occurred to me to email her in advance to ask.
Although I valued Denni’s input enormously, the reality is that I was little more than a satellite station in her life, and she in mine. But now, I’ll always have a little bit of her signal in my head. And, of course, on my hard-drive. A quick Spotlight search of my Mac last night brought up a random selection of exchanges we had over the years, most of which were about work-in-progress one or the other of us was engaged with. But some of it is about cookery, salted liquorice (of which she was an impassioned devotée), and unsurprisingly, suicide.
Because different people work at different paces, the whole writer-bud thing can end up being a bit asymmetrical. Certainly, I got more ‘writerly value’ out of Denni, than she ever got from me. Not only did I give her more of my work to read than I got in return, but when she did give me work, it was often well over my head. Denni wrote hard SF – in both senses. She was interested in deep space, other worlds, the nature of the mind, and intelligence, and how all consciousnesses are, ultimately, isolated. Plus lots of other shit as well. I didn’t always get Denni. But, since my work is so much more one-dimensional than hers, Denni always got me.
I think anyone who was in attendance for my first critique by our group would agree it did not go terribly well. As, one-by-one they went around the room, it quickly became clear that the content – the castration of a dentist/rapist – held no real appeal for my readers. Worse than this, it quickly became clear that no one in the room had understood what was actually going on in the plot. No one, that is, except Denni. Like me, she thought it was hilarious, but gave me some detailed notes to help salvage the central thread of the plot which no one else had even noticed lurking under the narrative wreckage. In fact, re-reading her crit last night, I remembered cringing slightly at the time because that she appeared to have thought more about this story than I had. Certainly she gave me more attention than I deserved.
The other thing which really hit me hard, was realising I was reading something from a very different Denni than the woman who took her life on Thursday. Someone I now see I had not heard from in a good long while. The crit is surprisingly upbeat. Her views are coherent, her thoughts are ordered, and hugely encouraging, and reading it again with a few years’ distance, I can still feel the elation that comes from knowing something you have written has made a connection.
I never said that to her. Should have done, now wish I had, but didn’t.
A few years later, I submitted the opening chapters of a crime novel to the group. From my point of view, this meeting went really well, with several people offering to read the whole manuscript. But there were also two NO votes. Including one particularly vehement one from Denni. It was obvious this upset her far more than it did me, and as well as a typed critique detailing why she absolutely hated the work, she also gave me a handwritten note, telling me how sorry she was about this. When the meeting ended, she rushed over to me, and apologised profusely in person as well, despite the fact that I actually found her comments really helpful, and said as much, not just then and there, but in an email conversation we pursued in the days after the meeting. After all, what would be the point of a critique group where no one ever tells you when things aren’t working?
As ever when someone dies, there are things I would like to be able to say to Denni right now. One of these – and you’ll have to bear with me, since it makes absolutely no sense either – is that I will always remember that I heard the news of her death on TP-GEN. This will mean nothing to most of you, but Denni would get this. TP-GEN is the closed emailing list that circulates between the fellow writer-buds of our group.
I’d like Denni to know that it was Sara T who wrote to us all – a lovely email really given the circumstances – because she’d seen John’s post on Denni’s Facebook page. It was midnight, but Gary, Rosanne and Sarah E were all still up. And I rang Helen, in Orkney, and she’d just seen it, too. Everyone is shocked, although it’s hard to say why, since it’s not as if you didn’t give us fair warning.
“Anyhow, it’s just a thought. Some people actually manage to plan these things & follow through with it, but they don’t tend to be the ones who talk about it.”
This morning Gaie, Dave, Kathy, Martin, Julia, Jehangir and Colm have all woken to the news. It’ll take time to filter through to everyone since it’s the weekend. But you can be sure you will be front and centre in everyone’s minds at the meeting this afternoon.
This clearly was not a rash act. You have been thinking about this, talking about this, writing about this, for a long time. You had one of the sparkiest brains I’ve ever encountered, and you certainly knew your own mind. I may not agree with your decision. But I do respect it. And for what little it’s worth now, I’d also really like you to know how relieved I am you decided against jumping in front of a train – driverless or not. That wasn’t funny, Denni. Not even a bit.
You may well have gone believing the rest is silence, but can you guess what there is already talk of TP GEN? Here, have a clue.
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.