Episode 17: Writing Episode 4

SCORING MAGIC
EPISODE 17
WRITTEN BY: WIL WILLIAMS
PRODUCED BY: WIL WILLIAMS

In this episode, Wil talks about writing episode 4 of VALENCE. Content warning: This episode discusses suicidal ideation, abuse, and PTSD in depth. Take care of yourself.

Resources –

About Scoring Magic – Scoring Magic is presented by Hug House Productions. You can support us for behind-the-scenes details and early previews of upcoming projects on Patreon.

Credits: – Music by Kai Engel and Komiku

TRANSCRIPT

WIL

Hi. Before I start this episode, I want to quickly say that I’m going to talk about some serious issues regarding discussions of mental health in VALENCE episode 4. If you haven’t caught up with VALENCE through episode 4, now is a good time to do that–but also, please be sure you look at our content warnings in this episode’s description. Take care of yourself.

[intro music]

WIL

So. VALENCE Episode 4.

Um. [laugh]

Sorry! Uhh, I know this was… a rough one.

But in this episode of Scoring Magic, I want to talk about how I wrote that scene and why making VALENCE is about more to me than it might seem.

WIL

If you follow me on social media, or if you’ve followed my writing, there’s a chance you’ve probably seen mentions to some of my background with mental health. To break it down: I have diagnosed PTSD, depression, anxiety, and also ADD, turns out–um, but the PTSD is from an abusive relationship. The abuse took place over my pre-teen and teen years, and ended when I left for college. The abuse was not from someone inside of my family–that’s something we’ll get back to in a bit. Instead, it was somewhere between a friendship and a romantic relationship. The abuse was entirely emotional, not physical.

WIL

So, what does that all mean? What does that look like for me? When people hear discussions of PTSD, they probably think of soldiers–and that definitely isn’t me. When people think of abusive relationships, they usually think of something physical–again, not me. Instead, my abuse manifested as isolation, gaslighting, and a huge, huge toll to my self-worth, which was already, admittedly, pretty low. 

WIL

What it means for me now is that thanks to therapy, medication, and a really loving and supportive network around me, I’m usually pretty stable, happy, and healthy. When people find out about my past, there’s usually some degree of surprise; I know I come across as pretty bubbly and goofy and optimistic. And that’s because that’s all true! That’s how I feel day to day most of the time.

WIL

But sometimes, especially if I’m burnt out, accidentally isolating myself, or if I’m hit with certain types of conflict, I spiral. So, that scene at the end of Episode 4 with Liam and Flynn? Here it is as a quick refresher, without music, just the dialogue. Just to give more context for what I’m gonna talk about.

[A SCENE FROM VALENCE EPISODE 4 BEGINS]

FLYNN: (Very muffled, as though very distant or under water) Liam?

A beat.

FLYNN puts his hand on LIAM’s shoulder. LIAM gasps and jumps.

FLYNN: Liam?

LIAM does not reply.

FLYNN: Can you answer me?

. . . No?

Okay. It’s just us here. You can talk to me.

. . . Still no?

Is it–was it too–

LIAM: I can’t keep doing this.

FLYNN inhales sharply. LIAM starts tearing up.

LIAM: I am so desperately sick of existing. I want so much to not exist.

FLYNN: Okay. That’s–yeah. That’s what I was worried about. C’mere.

LIAM: Mm–no. Not right now.

FLYNN: Okay.

LIAM: It would be fine.

LIAM starts crying.

FLYNN: It wouldn’t.

LIAM: You’d be fine.

FLYNN: You know I wouldn’t be. We’ve been over this. Remember?

LIAM: I don’t–I can’t–I’m so tired.

FLYNN: I know, Liam. I know.

A beat. FLYNN and LIAM look at each other.

FLYNN: You’re my best friend in the world. You’re important to me. I love you. And I’d be devastated without you. I’d miss you all the time. I’d never be able to fix that missing part of me.

LIAM: I hate–I hate that I’ve done that to you.

FLYNN: What you’ve done to me is be there for me when I needed you. What you’ve done is just, like, be my friend.

LIAM: I shouldn’t have, then.

FLYNN: You should have. You’ve gotten me through times like these before too. That’s why we’ve got each other. You’ve been there for me too, remember? Now it’s my turn to be there for you.

LIAM: It’s not equitable. I use so much.

FLYNN: Can I hug you now?

LIAM sighs, half in resignation and half in relief.

LIAM: Yes.

FLYNN moves over to hug LIAM on the couch.

[SCENE ENDS]

WIL

That conversation was taken almost verbatim from a conversation with my husband. Here is a recording from when Zach first read the script for episode 4. As a quick heads up, this is when Flynn was still named “Alex.” So, might be a little confusing, so just as a quick reminder, in an earlier draft, Flynn was “Alex.”

[RECORDING STARTS]

WIL

So. This is all gonna be awkward, given this conversation. Um, not awkward. Just… tonally dissonant. So…

[A long pause]

WIL

So a scene in episode 4 is… one that I didn’t… One that I didn’t know if I sh-should write, for a lot of reasons, um, but one I kinda felt like I had to—

USIDORE (OR MAYBE MOZZARELLA)

MEOW

WIL

Bebes, please, can you not right now? Thank you. Um… Anne and Katie actually talked me into it, and I’m glad they did, but… It is, uh, largely based around… that weekend a little while back? The one that was really rough for me?

ZACH

Right. Yeah.

WIL

Yeah. Um. So first off, I just wanted to give you, like, a heads up on that. Um. And I also wanted to say that, like, the way that I wrote it is not, like–like you’ll see that… Liam says a lot of things that I said, like, pretty much verbatim. Like—

ZACH

Yeah. That’s, I would have assumed that, if you were gonna base it off of that, the words are already there–why use different ones?

WIL

Well right, but, well I wanna bring that up because it’s Liam and Alex.

ZACH

Mmhm.

WIL

Um. And Alex does–I don’t know if Alex says words that you said? Because I don’t remember—

MOZZARELLA (OR MAYBE USIDORE)

MRROW

ZACH

–What I said?

MOZZARELLA (OR MAYBE USIDORE)

MOWW

WIL

Right. So I just don’t want you to think that this is how I think it should have gone or how I would have liked for it to have gone. It’s–j–I wrote it from the perspective of what was going on with me—

ZACH

Yeah.

WIL

–but I also wrote it to, like, be a narrative. Y’know? So it’s–it’s both inspired by something that did happen to me, and to you, um, but it’s–it’s very different. Um. And I also, like, I know that it’s not about you, but I also wanted to make sure that you’re okay with me writing that?

ZACH

Yeah? I mean, I’m not gonna–I-I’m-I won’t and I don’t want to censor you—

WIL

No, I know, but I just… That has implications, y’know? Like—

ZACH

I mean like, it’s just the–I’m–yeah–I mean like that’s why you have a content warning, which is what you’re giving me.

WIL

Yeah.

ZACH

Yeah. That’s, that’s it.

WIL

Okay. Um—

ZACH

I mean like, if I didn’t want to read it, I wouldn’t.

WIL

And that’s okay! Like—

ZACH

Yeah

WIL

–I also wanna say that to you, like, because I know that that must have been traumatic for you.

ZACH

Um… it was just scary cause I didn’t know what the end solution was gonna be and if there was going to be one.

WIL

Right.

ZACH

So that was kind of the scary part.

WIL

Still, I just—

ZACH

I figure that we’d get there, but there was enough uncertainty that it was… yeah, very scary.

WIL

Yeah.

I just don’t want to put you back in that place if you don’t want to be put back in that place. So you don’t have to read it.

ZACH

I would like to. Um, I mean I wanna see what, what it looked like from your side.

WIL

This isn’t what it looked like from my side though. It’s-

ZACH

Okay. I mean—like, like a version of it.

WIL

Yeah. Yeah. Like—

ZACH

Does it have, I’m assuming–like, I’ll read it, but I’m assuming it has the end of, like, “Agree to disagree?” Between Alex and Liam?

WIL

It’s–it’s really different. So, pretty much… Pretty much, it’s the beginning that’s similar, where Liam says, like, “I don’t want to exist. I don’t have an interest in this anymore.” Um. And that’s the part that is mostly inspired by that. And then from there, there’s a little bit of Liam saying, like, “You’d be fine,” and Alex saying, “No,” um, and Liam trying to talk him into it, but–there was a lot more in an original version of this, but I cut it down a lot. One, because I don’t think that it would help narratively, and I don’t want to… It’s really hard writing a scene like this, because I want people to feel seen by it, and I want people to feel understood, because I am sure I’m not the only person who has thought these things with these words?

ZACH

Yeah, like, almost guaranteed.

WIL

Right. But at the same time, I don’t want to… Give more of those words to people. Like.

ZACH

Oh.

WIL

I know, I know. But also, like-

ZACH

I see what you mean.

WIL

I also kinda cut it for time? Cause it was just like a lot of going back and forth, like, “No, you’d be fine without me, here’s why” and Alex being like, “No, here’s a rebuttal” because that’s not narratively interesting either. So I-I tried to balance them, but, y’know. So there’s not, there’s not as much lawyering as there once was?

ZACH

There’s not as much back and forth—

WIL

Yeah

ZACH

–where it’s just like, “No, this argument’s dumb,” and like—

WIL

Right

ZACH

–and the other person responding like, “That argument has no basis because I still don’t want to exist.”

WIL

Right exactly.

ZACH

“This still has no”–like, yeah.

WIL

Right, “This won’t matter, because I’ll be dead.” So…

ZACH

Not applicable.

WIL

Yeah. Um—

ZACH

Okay.

WIL

Yeah. I just wanted to give you a heads up, and make sure that it was okay.

ZACH

Mmhm.

WIL

Um. I love you.

ZACH

Love you too.

WIL

Thank you.

ZACH

Mmmhm.

[RECORDING ENDS]

WIL

So, you might be thinking, “Hey Wil, why do this to yourself? Isn’t this way too personal? Doesn’t this hurt to write?”

The answers to those questions are yes and yes. But to understand why I wrote this scene the way I did, and to understand why I wrote VALENCE at all, we have to go back to when I wrote the novels it’s based on, back when I lived in Flagstaff, Arizona.

WIL

Flagstaff is a really… interesting place to live. It’s beautiful. It’s in the mountains, by the Grand canyon, in a gorgeous pine forest. It has a thriving art community. It comes up in conversations with me a lot because it changed who I am dramatically. It’s probably unsurprising that the year I moved to Flagstaff was the year I broke off that abusive relationship. I escaped emotionally, but I also escaped physically in some ways. I felt at the time like I’d left my past in my hometown.

WIL

But not everything about Flagstaff is great. Here’s the thing about a bunch of creatives living in a small town that’s stuck in dark, cold winters for about half of the year: everyone is usually some degree of depressed, and the art scene, honestly, loves it. The archetype of the tortured artist is alive in Flagstaff and they are probably pouring your coffee and cutting you off on their bike and up on a stage performing some gorgeous art.

WIL

The other worst part of Flagstaff? It’s a beautiful, tiny town in a state park right next to one of the natural wonders of the world. Everyone wants to live in Flagstaff, but there’s nowhere to live in Flagstaff if you can’t afford astronomical rent–and if you live in Flagstaff, you can’t afford astronomical rent unless you’re independently wealthy, because to live in Flagstaff is to work in Flagstaff, which means the job market is a nightmare. Everyone is disposable when you have limited positions to be filled, a university nearby, and recent college grads willing to work for like none money.

WIL

So people in Flagstaff come in, go to college, and then move away, because they can’t afford to live there forever. Making lasting relationships is pretty much impossible because there’s such a churn of people.

WIL

I was, of course, one of those college grads willing to work for none money. I worked at the University for four years, but I was classified as a “temporary employee” so they could pay me next to nothing and avoid giving me benefits. So there I was, in a town that was dark and frozen half the year, living with roommates and still hardly able to afford survival, no health insurance, no therapy, no medication, with PTSD, working in an extremely emotional field, with no lasting friendships except a few people who were also, understandably, all really depressed.

WIL

Because I was so stressed, my symptoms were horrible. I had trouble sleeping, to the point where I was afraid to fall asleep because I was so worried I’d somehow fuck up being asleep. I had nightmares about my abuser finding me. I was depressed and anxious. It didn’t help that, of course, I couldn’t really leave my past in my hometown. My abuser knew, and probably still knows, who I am, where I am, and how to contact me. He displayed that when he RSVP’d to my wedding online. (Anyone remember that anonymous anecdote from Note to Self’s Privacy Paradox? That was meeeee!)

WIL

And now we should probably talk about the elephant in the room: I wanted to die. All. The time.

WIL

And some of that remains, but it’s different now. I have constant low-level suicidal ideation that plays in the background of my head every day. Usually, I don’t want to die die, I just want to not exist–and usually, even that I can kind of roll my eyes at, calling my intrusive thoughts an edgelord and moving on with my day and being actually pretty stoked to be alive. But sometimes, when I spiral, that suicidal ideation isn’t low-level or background anymore. It’s in the forefront. It’s loud. It’s very convincing, to the point where I’ve almost called for help from hotlines when I didn’t know where else to turn. It also goes from wanting to not exist to wanting specifically to die, which is a difference I don’t really know how to explain in words.

WIL

Now, again: I’m okay. I promise! I am still happy and healthy and optimistic and goofy. This is just also a part of me, and it probably always will be. I know it’s probably not convincing when I say that this is okay, but it is. I have made my peace with this, and more importantly, I’m really good at managing it. I know how to get help when I need it. I need you to trust that I know myself well enough to be telling the truth when I say it’s really okay, and all in all, it isn’t that big a deal to me most of the time. But this wasn’t always the case.

WIL

When I started writing Liam’s story, it wasn’t really because I wanted to write a story. It was because I was in such insurmountable pain with no resources to help, and I just needed some way to process. Liam was that method at first–but then so was Nico, and so was Luis. Luis obviously became a stand-in for the therapist I needed.

WIL

So let’s unpack the thing I’ve said about Liam and Nico both just being me in different ways. First, let’s talk about the ways they’re different from me. The reason Liam had an abusive family instead of an abusive relationship–and also the reason he’s a cis man–is because without those important pieces of distance from myself, writing would have just felt like re-opening the wounds of my trauma. I needed separation so I could talk about how I felt without having to talk about my actual experiences again.

WIL

By episode 4, it’s probably pretty clear that both Liam and Nico are self-destructive in completely different ways. When I say Liam is just me, I mean his spirals into depression, isolation, and suicidal ideation. His anxiety is my anxiety. His panic attacks are my panic attacks. He and I feel the same pain–he is just more defined by it than I am, at least right now.

WIL

When I say Nico is just me, I mean his spirals into chaos, escapism, and nihilism. His self-loathing is my self-loathing. His mood swings are my mood swings. He and I feel the same bottled-up energy and adrenaline. Like Liam, he’s just more defined by it than I am, at least right now.

WIL

With all of that distance and closeness in mind, the last question to answer is why I’d write something this personal, this vulnerable.

And honestly, it wasn’t easy. I almost didn’t.

As we approached writing episode 4, I told Anne and Katie that I was so worried about fucking it up. I was worried I was going to misrepresent suicidal ideation, or make it seem like just a cheap plot device, or worse, do something like what 13 Reasons Why did to a lot of viewers and just cause more harm. I was so worried that what I was doing by sharing my experiences was wrong. It was Anne and Katie who told me that I couldn’t be misrepresenting my experiences because they are… mine. And probably, others would feel seen by it. I’m not the only one who has these feelings. And I’m not the only one who’s frustrated by how media almost always depicts them.

WIL

I have reached a point where I feel like I have both a right and a duty to be honest about my experiences. And as much shit as I give Liam, it didn’t feel right to to tell his story dishonestly. It doesn’t feel right to water it down. If I’m telling his story, and Nico’s story, and OUR story, I deserve to and need to tell it truthfully.

WIL

I’d say I hope you feel seen by episode 4, but that isn’t the case. I don’t want this for anyone. As happy and healthy as I am now, I still spiral sometimes. Even with therapy and medication, my brain will never, ever be a normal brain again, if it ever was. I will probably have some form of suicidal ideation for my whole life, no matter how fulfilled and happy I am otherwise. And that’s fine, but it isn’t fun.

WIL

So instead of saying I hope you feel seen, I’ll say that, if you did feel seen, I’m so sorry, and I do see you, and I love you, and I’m so proud of you. In our show notes, we’ve left links to some resources I wish I would’ve had when I was still in Flagstaff, before I moved to Phoenix and started seeing my therapist.

WIL

And if you’re struggling, whether or not it’s similar to how I’ve struggled, I hope that you can find a way to process like I have. I hope your art helps you heal. I hope you can tell your story like I am learning to tell mine.

[OUTRO MUSIC]

WIL

Scoring Magic is a Hug House production. You can find more information about Scoring Magic on scoringmagicpod.com. You can support Hug House at Patreon.com/hughousepods.

Thanks for listening to this episode, y’all. It means a lot to me.

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