Late to work on December 19, 2013, I enter the MTV building in Times Square, shivering from windchill. That’s when the scene, vision, whatever it is, plays in my head: Ned Vizzini’s toddler son is now 17 or 18 (“Jesus, you look just like him,” I say), asking me to tell him about his father. I’m not 30 anymore, but middle-aged, and Ned is dead. Ned has died a very long time ago.
I shake the morbid thought away. Writers and our active imaginations.
Across the city, Ned is standing on top of the apartment complex we’d both called home.
Ned and I met -- had to meet -- because we were the shadows of each other’s teenage selves.
We both had our first books out in 2000. I was 17; Ned was 19. I’d self-published a collection of cynical, profane tirades about the superficial, cliquish misery of high school, which went Web 1.0 viral and sold a thousand paperback copies out of my parents’ basement in Alaska.
Meanwhile an independent children’s book press had released Ned’s lighthearted, squeaky-clean "Teen Angst? Naaah...," the central message of which was:
“The media present adolescence as hell on earth, chock full of evil cliques … domineering parents and wrenching decisions that will determine the rest of your life. Nah. Adolescence is a time to sit back, make some friends -- and maybe discover what you're good at. Don't believe the hype.”
The alt-weekly paper New York Press reviewed my book, and Ned — its youngest writer — immediately reached out. Neither of us had considered that a fellow teen author could possibly exist.
I was the nonconformist punk who secretly craved mainstream popularity; Ned was the adorkable popster who secretly wanted to push boundaries: “A lot of times I wish my writing pissed people off.” We were polar opposites, but so what? Young counted more than yin and yang.
He invited me to spend the summer of 2002 at his place for almost no rent.
I crashed on Ned’s hardwood floor, almost every inch of which was covered with books, CDs, graphic novels, boxes of cassette tapes, “Magic: The Gathering” miscellanea — Ned was an avid, un-ironic player — and his chaotic spiral notebooks.
Ned consumed torrents of culture, high and low. He’d read all the classics any English professor could think to assign, yet made no apologies for loving Michael Crichton and comic books. The day I arrived, I observed that his TV stand lacked an actual TV.
“When you don’t watch television,” Ned said, “it’s amazing how much time you have for other sh—.”
The creative environment in that yellow-walled 1BR was hyperkinetic; the stories wrote themselves.
Our artistic batteries turbocharging off each other, Ned and I churned out hundreds of pages sitting across the couch in our boxer shorts. (The apartment had woefully inadequate A/C.)
By day, we’d stay in writing like monks. By night, we’d go out partying like, well, college kids; he set me up with a part-time data entry job at his parents’ company so I’d have cash for pizza and beer. We had the most profound, ludicrous discussions of literature and love and death and life. A conversation with Ned wasn’t quite linear; it was a rapid-fire series of micro-conversations.
“I believe in God, but not as some angry old man in the sky — more like a computer programmer designing an algorithm,” Ned would say, and then 15 seconds later he’d come up with some gem like: “The best thing about beer is that it makes pissing feel like [ejaculating].”
We compared ourselves to Lennon and McCartney, Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
If that was (wildly) overenthusiastic, our bromantic rivalry did propel us to finish our manuscripts. By the end of the summer, Ned had a deal from Disney’s Miramax Books for “Be More Chill,” a novel about an awkward high school nerd who swallows an ingestible A.I. (like a GPS in his head) that teaches him to act cool…
...and I had a deal from MTV Books. Our movie options from the “American Pie” producers and HBO Films, respectively, were the cherries on top.
Writers spend lifetimes trying to finish and sell their stories; Ned and I pulled it off in a few months. We went back to school, separately, convinced the world was ours to conquer together.
You know the great thing about Ned’s writing?
While mine could be self-righteous and thesaurus-enhanced, his was always humble and casual, yet brimming with subtle insight and depth. If “genius” is “the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way,” as Charles Bukowski theorized, then Ned was the proof.
But genius had a flip side. Over that summer, I’d only seen one sign that Ned had serious mental illness.
But I didn’t realize it was indicative of a burgeoning agony. I just figured, who doesn’t have a few quirks? Who isn’t a little off?
We couldn’t have reacted to success in more opposite ways.
My ego ballooned out of control. I’d reject notes from my editor; curse out his assistants for “incompetence”; make absurd demands of my agent; start beefs with more successful writers for the publicity; dash off assignments; make idiotic political rants on live TV; and show up wasted to my own performances.
At one reading in 2004, with some of publishing’s most powerful names in attendance, I bombed so hard — no laughs, no applause, just disgust — that Ned came onstage and hugged me so the audience would feel sympathy. “I’ll hook you up with my public speaking coach,” he said quietly into my ear. “The next one will be better.”
I was my own worst enemy, blowing money and squandering every opportunity, torching every flammable bridge, and having too much fun to notice or care.
Ned, though, shrank into himself, and felt crushed by pressure to meet expectations for his next book.
He abandoned several manuscripts because he believed they might earn him critical acclaim as a young adult author, but not an adult. He suddenly wanted the approval of stuffy lit-world sophisticates, not to “be stuck writing for teenagers my whole life.”
Except that was defying his own writing DNA, and deep down Ned knew it.
One night in November 2004, I showed up at his place to find him slumped in a chair, awake but motionless.
Something was wrong. All of the lights were off. No music, no sounds. He spoke only in monosyllables, and each garbled word seemed to pain him. He didn’t appear drunk or stoned; I figured he was sleepy, even though I’d seen him sleepy many times and hadn’t felt so disturbed.
In the morning, Ned sat at his kitchen table, again not moving a muscle, a full bowl of soggy cereal in front of him.
“Do you ever… just,” he fought to form each word. “Forget how to eat?”
At the end of the month, Ned checked himself into a mental hospital.
He’d left his building at night and climbed the Brooklyn Bridge, determined to jump ... but sought help instead. The next time I heard from Ned, weeks later, he had — in a burst of catharsis — finished his masterpiece.
Ned uploaded his soul onto every page of “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story.” If you want to know him, that’s where you’ll find him.
I stayed up all night, until 4 or 5 a.m., transfixed by the manuscript. It combined Ned’s own hospital experience with a tender YA story about a stressed-out teen trying to figure himself out.
The book’s heavy, dreamlike, self-contained energy and leitmotif of hope (ending with “So now live for real, Craig. Live. Live. Live. Live. Live.”) vaulted Ned’s writing to the level of true art. His favorite books, films and music would “go for the Nth degree,” and by embracing rather than running from himself, Ned had reached it. He asked for feedback, but Ned's book was perfect.
OK, maybe I suggested changing the title to anything, anything else, but history quickly proved Ned right on that one.
With "IKOAFS," Ned finally got the recognition he wanted and deserved.
It was an instant, massive success in 2006. The New York Times Book Review called the novel “insightful and utterly authentic” and concluded, “This is an important book, not only because it will help teenagers recognize unhealthy expectations and know there are alternative choices, but also because it could enlighten adults who are making their kids crazy.”
Oh, and Zach Galifianakis signed on for the movie version.
Ned spoke about mental health at high schools and colleges nationwide, and received thousands of emails from teenagers — more coming in every single day — thanking him for helping them to stay. Most writers are lucky if we entertain people; Ned was saving them.
He didn’t talk about those emails often but they changed Ned’s mind about YA. He no longer cared as much what critics and professors thought about his writing; he wanted it to matter to readers. And he knew books matter most to teens.
Ned’s career exploded… just as mine imploded.
I’d received the first half of a $30,000 advance for my next book, but a combination of bad luck and my immature egomania got the deal canceled. The publisher (specifically, its lawyers) demanded the money back; I’d already spent every cent on rent and partying. Not awesome timing for my $150,000 HBO deal to likewise fall apart.
At 23 years old, I was in more debt than I could fathom. And then the global economy crashed.
The Great Recession hit every industry, but publishing and journalism got butchered.
No editor would touch a manuscript unless it was a “guaranteed bestseller” (celebrity memoirs, Stephen King novels). Innumerable newspapers and magazines folded. And digital media companies realized that a generation of writers was willing to contribute content in exchange for exposure instead of money.
When the “IKOAFS” film hit theaters in 2010, Ned (who loved the adaptation) asked what I thought of it; I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn’t afford a ticket.
Around this time, my jealousy of Ned became toxic.
I had tried and I'd failed, and I refused to ask my parents for yet another bailout. Ned was the superstar and I was the footnote. Why him and not me too? I asked myself.
In almost no time, he joined the writing staff for “Teen Wolf” and then ABC’s “Last Resort.”
Ned moved to L.A. to pursue screenwriting with our mutual friend Nick Antosca. I felt left in their dust.
“It’s not like you care about these scripts though, right?” I asked Ned patronizingly over the phone. “Like you would with a book?”
“Actually, yeah, I do,” Ned said, sounding vaguely annoyed. “I work really hard on them, as hard as on anything else.”
At his 30th birthday party I was just as much a buzzkill: “I can’t believe college was 10 years ago…” “I’m terrified of turning 30 — it’s, like, the official end of youth. …”
“There are certain phrases that make you older just by saying them,” Ned replied with audible irritation this time. “Am I scared of turning 30? No, I did a lot of sh— in my twenties, and I’m satisfied with it. College doesn’t seem like yesterday; that was a long f—king time ago, man.”
The only quality of mine he wouldn't stand for was self-pity.
More than any other friend, Ned recognized how deep I’d dug myself ... and how far I had to climb back out.
Every publisher in New York had rejected my next book, most of them numerous times. I decided to self-publish — which I hadn’t had to do since I was a teenager — and by some miracle, it hit #1 for multiple Amazon.com categories. One of the publishers that had turned it down picked it up for a second edition. MTV hired me as a web editor off the buzz.
Ned was prouder than anyone, and promoted the book to his thousands of Facebook fans more enthusiastically and tirelessly than most writers promote their own work. I didn’t owe him any favors -- I already owed him everything -- but he just wanted to help.
It’s not that Ned went out of his way to lend a hand; it was his way, his first impulse.
Kyle Buchanan’s great tribute at New York magazine got it so right:
“Everyone he'd ever worked with or known well, he praised at length as though he simply couldn't fathom how creatively that person's mind worked. Every time, I just wanted to say, ‘Ned, you're a better storyteller than all of them. You know that, right?’”
The last time I saw Ned was at San Diego Comic-Con 2013.
“Holy sh—, Ned,” I said. “You’ve reached the upper echelon.”
“The ‘upper echelon’?” He laughed. “They’re just people, man.”
Yeah, we talked shop a little. Mostly, though, we geeked out over vintage comic books and toys, and discussed family life. Right away Ned tried to find a gift for his wife; I admitted that I somehow hadn't even thought to buy a gift for my wife.
“Yeah, well,” Ned said with another big laugh, “you’ve got a lot to learn about marriage.”
We weren’t two young authors determined to mutually prove ourselves to each other. Now we were just two old friends.
We said our goodbyes, and under the sunny blue California sky, I clearly remember thinking: I’ve never seen Ned this happy before.
When he killed himself, nothing about it made any sense.
At midnight, I got word from Nick: Ned had taken his last footsteps from that rooftop, overlooking the double-winged (“like pages”) Brooklyn Public Library where he had discovered books as a kid.
In my disoriented numbness, I tried dialing Ned’s phone — how could he not pick up? Isn’t he still a call or email away?
By noon, Ned’s death was major headline news. That’s when it felt real, final, irrevocable; that’s when the tears burst.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t fall into the guilt trap of wondering what I could have done differently. Like I'd done once before.
A friend of mine killed himself in high school. We'd fought over a girl, and for months afterward I assumed that was the reason. Eventually I "confessed" to his mom, who explained that he'd written dozens of pages describing all of his reasons -- and he hadn't mentioned my name once. A lot of my classmates felt the same internal blame, it turned out.
That's what suicide does to the living. And it's not fair.
Because of that experience, I knew that Ned’s demons were his own. Still, when you lose someone to suicide, you inevitably find yourself asking, Which signs did I miss? Why didn’t I tell them how much they meant to me?
Along with guilt, there’s rage. Hot, pulsing rage. And you feel abominable for it.
You want to go back in time and save them but also maybe clobber them. In the end, though, there’s only the void. And the love.
The anger fades because you think of the good times.
…like the time we got backstage at Warped Tour and kind of pretended to interview bands so we could hang out with them. (Seen above with the singer of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.)
…the time we were taping posters for Ned's own band to Brooklyn lampposts and a cop ticketed him like $150, and Ned took it in stride: "Well, they got me fair and square.”
…the time we tried to poison the rooster in the park that woke us up every morning, but only managed to get it drunk.
…the times we accepted each other's apologies fully (I made a cruel, I’m-going-to-hell-for-this joke about Ned’s girlfriend; after they split, he hooked up with a girl I had a crush on, which I'd learned isn't worth nuking a friendship over) and we never spoke of it again.
…all the times we were just a couple of ambitious oddball kids with impossible dreams that somehow came true, who believed in each other when neither of us could believe in ourselves.
So why did Ned Vizzini kill himself?
Near the end of “IKOAFS,” a friend asks Craig why he attempted suicide, to which he replies, “Because I wasn’t capable of dealing with the real world.” That’s maybe the only answer we’ll ever get.
Here’s the short version (which Ned's wife gave permission to include here): Ned was buying a house in L.A. and feared that he could never pay off the mortgage; it became an obsession.
“I am in escrow on a house,” Ned wrote in our final correspondence, a few weeks before he died. “Fingers crossed.”
“See, you're such an adult,” I replied, “I had to google what ‘escrow’ even means… Congrats!”
After reflecting on Ned’s death for thousands of hours, this is what feels closest to an explanation.
When success grows out of insecurity, as ours did, you never quite feel that you have it. Actually, the more you achieve, the less accomplished you feel, because even more is within reach.
Ned called this restlessness “the Driver,” which (he wrote) “just telescoped out, refining itself, grabbing at better and better targets.” After getting a New York Press column as a teen, “I moved on to a first book and then a second; but the Driver was never happy… the world exploded for me [but] the Driver was curious: What next?”
The Driver, which he said I also have, always wants more, and when you don’t appease it (because you can’t), it convinces you that your career is a fluke; that your talent is illusory; that you won’t get away with this scam forever; that you will starve the moment you stop producing, producing, producing.
For writers, the future is always a giant question mark. Only 11.5% of published authors can make a living from writing now versus 40% in 2005. You must keep generating ideas; they all must be winners.
Screenwriting is more glamorous but no different. When ABC canceled “Last Resort,” Ned took it hard. He didn’t know where he’d find work next; it was a scramble. He landed on the staff of NBC’s “Believe,” which got canceled earlier this year. How do you sign a three-decade mortgage when you don’t know where you’ll be in three months?
“These giant media companies, they want to stick robot tentacles into your brain and suck out all the ideas,” Ned said on the first day I met him. “Until there’s nothing left.”
But the truth is, it may all come down to biology.
For those of us lucky enough to have naturally balanced neurochemistry, suicide may seem like a loss of willpower — giving up, running away, abandoning responsibilities — but for people struggling with depression and other mental health issues, it can feel more like a gravitational pull. We need to understand that, but it doesn’t make anything inevitable.
In his speeches to students, Ned was adamant that feeling suicidal is a genuine medical emergency. Call 911, it’s OK. Call 1-800-273-TALK.
Or just call a friend who'll listen. Please.
So what about that premonition a year ago? What will I tell Ned’s son — the real victim here — about his dad someday?
This: Ned caused intense suffering with his death, but alleviated far more with his life. Through every teenager he saved — whatever they accomplish, whatever they create, whatever happiness they find and nurture in this world — he lives on. And of course, through you.
This testament from a year ago says it all:
“I am not the first young person to write, today, about how ‘It’s Kind Of A Funny Story’ kept me breathing during some of the darkest moments of my adolescence. I will not be the last. This is Ned’s legacy: he tossed a bright, orange-and-white ring to us drowning kids and pleaded with us to stay afloat. And we read his words, and we understood, and we eventually made our way to shore.”
Every day for the rest of my life I’ll remember my wonderful friend because he jumped, but his readers — including millions of them not yet born — will remember him because he soared.
If you ever feel suicidal, there is no shame whatsoever in seeking help. Here's the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I can’t say it as eloquently as Ned did, but you are more loved than you know. No one would be better off without you.