The Art of Carrie Fisher

I was coaxing my son through his last two bites of grilled cheese, already thinking of what I would mark off my post-Christmas list while he was napping, when I halfheartedly opened Facebook. It was the first item in my feed, posted by Dan Rather only minutes before, and I think that’s fitting in this world of fake news and “alternative facts.” If there is important news to be heard, I want to hear it from Dan Rather. Still, I was not prepared for the sudden Hulk fist of emotion that landed squarely in my chest. I got up and paced back and forth a few times, trying to force composure. It was futile. “Feed me, Mommy. Sit down,” my son said, his little starfish hand waving me back to the table, but I didn’t go. I went into the half bath and closed the door. I sat on the step stool in front of the sink and I wept, and then I sent my husband a text. “Carrie’s gone.”

Carrie Fisher’s death rocked my world, and it’s hard to explain exactly why. I mean, sure, I proudly wore my molded plastic Princess Leia mask on Halloween sometime in the early 80s with a million other little girls. I had Princess Leia shampoo, which was either a point of great contention or great amusement for Carrie, because she talked about it a lot (“You can unscrew my head and pour liquid out of my neck.”). And three years ago when my daughter was supposed to dress like a princess for school, she lamented tearfully that she was “not a princess person” and had no desire to be Elsa or Anna. It was the age of Frozen, and my girl was a rebel–and even though it took us a few days to put two and two together, when princess day rolled around my kid worked those side buns and Hoth-head-to-toe white like a boss.

We are a Star Wars Family, that’s for sure. We love the generational saga, the quirky characters and special effects, the light-vs-darkness motif that drives the whole thing. My husband is well versed in the “Machete Order” and becomes nearly apoplectic when we watch our digital copies of the original trilogy and a not-original creature or unnecessary alteration appears on the screen. There are dozens of action figures (most of them vintage) and at least four different Millennium Falcons scattered around our house. We have movie posters and puzzles and some pretty kick-ass original character artwork I found on Etsy, not to mention the life-size blaster-wielding Leia wall decal peering out of a corner of our loft. My “not-a-princess” sleeps under 7-inch tall letters that spell out the words “THE FORCE IS STRONG WITH THIS ONE,” and my 2 year-old son often carries around a miniature plush Chewbacca and sports Luke Skywalker Stride-Rites. But there’s more to my heartbreak than all of this. As much as I appreciate Leia Organa’s badassery from the very start (“SOMEbody’s gotta save our skins!”), I’m not mourning Carrie Fisher because I love Star Wars. I’m mourning Carrie Fisher because I love Carrie Fisher.

I was 16 when I read Postcards From the Edge. The film’s release had prompted our local library to put the novel on a Recommended Reading display. I made no connection between the face of the Rebellion and the voice of Suzanne Vale, but I was captivated by Carrie’s writing the way every boy my age was captivated by Leia’s gold bikini: I didn’t totally understand what was happening to me, but I knew it was something powerful, and it affected me deeply. My inner monologue became a constant mental diary after I read Postcards. I processed everything that happened to or around me in a constant stream of first-person, like I was observing something fascinating, something I had to document for no reason other than that I needed to talk about it–but I never actually talked about it. I just wrote constantly in my head, and I don’t mean I just thought about things to write. If my parents were fighting, or if I was riding in the car on the way to visit my grandparents two states away, or if I was hanging out with my friends, I was composing long, detailed prose about everything I saw and heard and thought and felt, and occasionally, when I had something just right, I would actually write it down. I later learned that this is called “single draft writing,” but back then it just made me more introverted than I already was. (If you knew me in high school and early college, this should explain a lot of awkwardness. Well, and if you know me now. I still do this now.) This would eventually become how I wrote everything, to this day, minus the occasional academic paper I had to construct with the help of someone else’s opinions–and even then, I could not keep myself out of the details. With Postcards From the Edge Carrie Fisher said to me, “Why bother trying to keep yourself out of the details?”

I had a friend once who scoffed at my interest in any celebrity. I would ask her if she’d heard about so-and-so’s speech at the Oscars, or mention how much I loved such-and-such’s personality. “I don’t even know who that is,” she would say. “I’m only interested in real people,” she claimed. “That’s just an act,” she would insist, “and you get sucked right into it. You have no idea who she really is.” I suppose if you skim the collective resume of All The Famous People you might see her point: multiple marriages, scorned lovers, drug and alcohol problems, tell-all books, and weird behaviors, and that’s just the “Additional Talents and Interests” section of the Hollywood conglomerate’s accomplishments. Actors are paid to be other people, and hundreds and thousands of actors slip in and out of multiple characters over the course of their careers, so it’s easy to dismiss them all as “not real.” I suppose Carrie Fisher’s Hollywood resume isn’t all that different from the norm: she made some memorable (and some memorably bad) movies, dabbled in TV and voice overs, doctored some scripts, did a lot of drugs. Her family history reads like a tabloid, and her love life was a disaster. Her mental illness journey would probably need an entire CV of its own. But–and I’m sure my friend would roll her eyes–Carrie was different. I know she’ll always be Princess Leia to millions of people, and she knew this, eventually embraced it, owned it. But there was so much more to her, and nowhere is that more apparent than in her amazing body of written work–which, because it is 2017–includes a very lively collection of 140-character strokes of genius, compliments of Twitter.

Lots of famous people write. Some of them have written books (or participated in books being written about them). Many of these people are on Twitter (and probably shouldn’t be) and Facebook and Instagram, posting photos of their movie sets and their equally famous spouses, or taking a political stand or promoting a cause, or trying to sell you another weird product that costs more than your weekly grocery tab (I’m looking directly at you, Gwyneth Paltrow). Even my beloved Dolly Parton is on Twitter, leaving charming little videos, old pictures, and inspirational “Dollyisms” in my feed every few days. But if Dolly Parton is posting her own tweets, I’m also a size DD. Most of the “verified famous people” in your social media parade have teams of people who tweet and post and snap for them. The handful who do their own posting stand out–but none of them quite like Carrie did.

I started following Carrie Fisher on Twitter a few years ago, just slightly pre-Episode VII. I was a non-tweeter/occasional browser, and she posted intermittently at the time. Some days she would tweet 10 or 12 outlandish mini-rants in as many minutes, and then go days or weeks without a word. She started out with a handful of followers (whom she referred to as “Sass Factories”), most of whom she followed back and often responded to, but by the time the press junkets and premiere dates started looming for The Force Awakens, her numbers were in the thousands. Suddenly she was on the main stage again, and people took notice. Her original material changed very little as a result. If Carrie’s memoirs allowed her a large space to speak candidly about periods of time or situations in her life, Twitter provided a place for her to put her immediate thoughts about everything from the national election to the hummingbird nest on her back porch to the exploits of Gary Fisher, her French bulldog. It was fantastic. Sure, it was often impossible to know what the hell she was actually saying, once she started tweeting almost exclusively with an emoji-based alphabet she devised–but then I’d figure it out (or read the translation in the replies) and find myself nodding in agreement, or laughing out loud, or feeling some vague sadness that Carrie no doubt meant to convey. That Twitter feed was all Carrie, completely unfiltered, 100% proof, and it was–is–brilliant. There, in 2-4 sentence glimpses, are the ups and downs of mental illness; the process of acclimating to technology (she was a self-proclaimed Luddite); the love affair between a girl and her dog; the coming-to-terms with all things Star Wars and That Space Chick, as she called her famous alter ego; the genuine joy she felt about getting to be her daughter’s mother and her mother’s daughter; and observations about the world and politics and herself so razor sharp and real and freaking hilarious that you’re immediately reaching for a pen to jot them down.

Carrie once said of herself that she was “born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.” If anything at all shines a light on her authenticity, it is this: she was perfectly positioned to be a starlet, a full-fledged Debbie-esque act, a headliner and a first-biller–but she couldn’t, because she had to be Carrie. Another favorite author of mine says that we all tell the truth about our pain, but some of us can’t do it the conventional way, by just talking about it. Some of us tell the truth by hurting ourselves, by drinking or doing drugs, by bingeing and purging, by treating others badly, by spending excessively. Carrie’s truth came out in many of those ways early on, and then she became a writer, and she practically shouted the truth through her fiction, and then in her own voice through memoir, and eventually on Twitter. She spoke about her frequent “oversharing” matter-of-factly, saying she’d rather be the source of information about herself than some uninvolved outside observer. And maybe some real part of her was always trying to shimmy past the overdose headlines and between-takes drug use rumors: “I’m not really one of those actresses like Meryl Streep. Those actresses travel outside themselves and play characters. And I’m more of an archaeologist. I play what I am. I dig what I can. It’s a character that’s not too far from myself…,” she said of her acting style. She was always, always somewhere in the details. I’m not sure she could be any other way.

My friend, the one who thinks celebrities aren’t “real people,” might suggest this is all just a bunch of unfounded speculation on my part, and maybe she’s right–but I don’t think so. I feel like I knew Carrie. If you were paying attention to her at all, it was impossible not to know her on some level. She never closed the door of her life completely, so there was always a sliver of light coming from whatever room she was in, and she didn’t try hard to keep her voice down, so whoever happened to be listening heard whatever she had to say. I’m sure there were spaces she kept hidden, things she didn’t say out loud, and plenty of moments when the door clicked softly, unceremoniously closed on those of us on the outside, but most days, if we were tuning in, she wrote herself into our lives like only Carrie could. She wrote and spoke about herself and her life in a way that connected her experience to your experience, and to my experience. Yes, her father was Eddie Fisher, but he left her feeling lost and abandoned and forever riddled with questions about her worth. Yes, she grew up with money and privilege and attention most of us cannot even fathom–but she also grew up with anxiety and depression, body issues that plagued her for a lifetime, a desire to just be “normal.” Yes, her battles with mental illness and substance abuse were regular fodder for tabloid headlines and ET segments, but she took control of those demons and created her own headlines. She made herself the author, editor, and director of her own story, a story that told the hard, bitter truth about her struggles. Her context and setting were outrageous for sure, but they merely provided a unique backdrop for a reality so many of us can relate to within our own unique contexts. Look past “celebrity” in the same way you might look past “Southerner” or “mom” or “Christian” in my writing, and you’re left with a story. She left her story wherever she went, plain as day, and it was not so different from ours.

I was reading some old Tweets on Carrie’s timeline a few weeks after her death and came across her response to the untimely passing of Garry Shandling: “He didn’t seem the dying type. He had an incredible stupid amount of alive in him. How does that just go missing? But missed is what he’ll be.” The irony bites. Hard. Carrie had a recurring role in a fabulous show. Her scenes for Star Wars VIII were in the bag. She had just released a book, and she was touring to promote it, which means it was a perfectly logical possibility that I could have walked into a Barnes & Noble somewhere in America and stood in line with my stack of books, had them all signed and maybe snapped a selfie with the Queen Sass Factory herself. Maybe it sounds weird, but I miss Carrie. I miss her outrageous interviews, and her brutal honesty, and her raw, unabashed personal disclosure about pretty much everything. I miss the books she won’t be writing, and the sass she could be Tweeting, and the bullshit she ought to be calling on any number of things these days. I even miss the Princess-turned-General whose story now won’t come full circle.  I miss Carrie and all the possibilities that left with her. There is a rather large void where she should be. After all, she had “an incredible stupid amount of alive in [her]. How does that just go missing?”

I have pictured that now impossible Barnes & Noble scene a lot since December 27, thanks to an old 30 Rock episode in which Carrie plays Liz Lemon’s writing idol. I imagine taking all my books and waiting in line to meet actual Carrie Fisher. I would have the same nervous excitement as Liz Lemon did as the book signing line dragged on, and when my turn came I would lean in close and say a lot of equally crazy Liz Lemon things (“You are my heroine,” she gushed. “And by heroine I mean lady hero. I don’t want to inject you and listen to jazz.”). I would tell her how much I adore her writing, and had since I was barely a teenager, and then I would probably tell her I always thought she looked like she could be related to my family, ramble on about how she has the same brown eyes as my grandmother, my mother, my daughter and son, the same dark hair, the same inherent wit and smartassery we all share. How old pictures of her and her brother Todd are freakishly reminiscent of my own kids. That she could show up at our huge family reunion any given year, and one of my great-aunts would hug her and said, “Hey darlin’, it’s good to see you. Now remind me whose girl you are?” And then she might look me dead in the eye with that smirky smile of hers and say, like her 30 Rock character said to Liz Lemon, “I’m going to let you take me to lunch later and get all this out of your system.” We would talk about writing, and possibly anxiety, and dogs, and how much we both love London. There would be a lively debate about which is better, Coke or Diet Coke; she would win, of course. And Star Wars probably would not come up at all, because even though I’ll never pass up an opportunity to watch General Princess Leia Organa kick some ass in space, it’s the words that came from that brilliant, fractured mind of hers that will forever inspire me. I would make sure she knew that, above all else.

As it usually goes with people who die and leave you to make of their loss what you can, I have been reading a lot of words by and about Carrie lately. And as it usually goes, this long distance affection I’ve had for her since I picked up that book in my small town library 23 years ago has only deepened. I like to think she’d appreciate this–that I’ve mourned and honored and missed her through her words, and not by way of binge-watching Star Wars (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s true that she became an icon for the ages when she walked onto that movie set at 19, but she became an artist the first time she put a pen to a page and wrote. She once said she didn’t want her life to imitate art, she wanted her life to be art. And it was. Every single word of it.

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