Monday, December 12, 2011

True to Life

Big thanks to everyone who has sent thoughts or thumbs-up about my latest piece on TNB, which you can find here if you haven't read it yet and would like to. I fretted over that essay, more so than I realized until after I finally finished it and it posted to the website. It was easy to write in the sense that I was plucking low-hanging fruit, and difficult for the obvious reasons: I was telling secrets on myself and aiming to tell them honestly, but more than that, I had to spend much of those two weeks putting my head back in a place my head didn't particularly enjoy being. Still, it wasn't the subject matter that made me anxious, it was the question of whether or not I would manage to do it the sort of justice I felt it deserved. Overall, I think it came out alright, which is a good thing because there's a hell of a lot more to that story and that's where I'm going next. Put your seatbelts on, kids, it's a roadtrip.

Memoir is a funny thing. I've written more than three-hundred pages of interrelated stories about the slow death waltz that was 2009-10. All the stories spring from events that actually transpired, then diverge into fiction from there. So while the central narrative was born from real life, it is, ultimately, a work of fiction, and if it's ever published, that is how I will present it: as a made-up tale. Much of what I'm writing now, though, is the factual account of those events. They are the same stories, but they come with the qualification of their author telling you these things actually happened, more or less in the way I'm presenting them (don't ever take memoir purely literally: memory is inherently flawed, subject as it is to the influences of time and shifting perspective). I could write both of these books, parallel novel and memoir, and even if I managed to pull off the objectives of each separate work as close to perfectly as possible, I guarantee the memoir would be much more widely read. My friend Snuggles, who knows about such things, mentioned recently that fiction at our local public library out-circulates non-fiction, and that surprised more than a few of us. Later it occurred to me that there's almost certainly a distinction to be drawn: I'm willing to bet genre fiction makes up the bulk of the fiction that flies off the library shelves. In other words, what we interchangeably refer to as either realistic fiction or literary fiction is probably not what most readers are choosing. When a person reads a James Patterson or a Linda Lael Miller, there is absolutely no pretense that what you're reading is a "true" story. There's a strange sort of comfort in that knowledge, right? Conversely, when we read a story that seems like it could very well have happened, we begin to imagine the story's author actually having lived those experiences and, knowing the words "A NOVEL" are splashed across the cover, a lot of readers grow at least slightly less comfortable. It's a strange phenomenon.

Several years ago I wrote a story about a family whose circumstances change drastically and suddenly. It's a rather large family, four children, many mouths to feed. The father in the story is basically a good person but is flawed in a number of ways, including that he is perpetually underemployed, in part because he tends to butt heads with authority figures. One day he makes a fatal miscalculation: he takes something from the building supply company where he works, something he has determined will not be missed because it has, he believes, already mistakenly been accounted for. It is a keg of roofing nails, something for which he has no real use. But the feeling of getting away with a minor coup is irresistible, and so he puts the keg in the back of his truck and takes it home. He has, of course, been set up, and he ends up losing his job.

A few months go by, the family survives reasonably well on the mother's income (she works at the shirt factory in town), but when the father's unemployment runs out and he still has found no work, they're evicted from their rented duplex and move, all six of them, into a tin-can trailer built in 1949, thirty-three feet long and six feet wide with no electricity or running water. The mother cooks their meals on a Coleman camp stove. They illuminate the trailer at night with lanterns and candles, and after dark light the way to the outhouse beyond the pine-black treeline with flashlights. It is a crude life, but particularly by contrast to the relatively comfortable life they'd had in their other home. The story is told from the perspective of the younger son, who is an insomniac and an eavesdropper, which is why he has access to details he shouldn't really know. He begins to dream of something awful happening to his parents, with the result being that he would be transported from that miserable existence to go live with another family that lives in a house with lights and plumbing and soft mattresses. But nothing happens and nothing changes and, in 1976, the year of this country's Bicentennial celebration, that young boy begins to develop the condition that will come to define his life: profound depression.

It was a pretty good story, if a bit amateurish in the execution. Oh, and the other thing about that story is that it all actually happened. My father lost his job when I was six, and a few months later we had to move to a secluded piece of land my grandparents gave us, into a 1949 M-System mobile home that had seen way better days by the time we first occupied it in 1976. The front room was a cramped living- and dining-room and kitchen. There was a hallway down the center, with a built-in full-sized bed on the left and lots of tight, narrow closets and drawers and cabinets and cubbies. At either end of that center section were pocket doors, and beyond the pocket door toward the back of the trailer was a small room in which my father and his friend Kenny built, from cheap two-by-fours and plywood, two perpendicular sets of bunkbeds. We rolled out sleeping bags on the plywood, and that's where my brother and two sisters and I slept (my younger brother would come along a couple years later, his bassinet propped in the only empty corner of the room). Technically (as the schematic and description in the attached link indicate) there was a small bathroom in that back section of the trailer, but we had no running water, so that was more or less a moot point. For water, we would rinse out plastic milk jugs and cart them a quarter mile down the road to my aunt's house, where we'd fill them from her taps and lug them home. There were stretches when we had only one vehicle, which my father had to take to work (by then he was tending the town dump), and so the water lugging had to be done on foot, an arduous process because, of course, a family of six goes through a fair amount of water. In my memory, there were four-foot snowdrifts every time we made a water run. Eventually poles were sunk and power was run up the hill to our hovel, and at some point we had a well drilled, although for at least a year all we had was a hand pump propped on top of the well -- so still no running water.

We left the hill for a little over a year, moved back into town to a rented house. I don't know how that happened or why it didn't last and we found ourselves once again living in the little trailer up on the hill. Very gradually a twenty-two by twenty-four foot two-story shack was framed up, and one cold day in mid-winter uncles and neighbors and friends descended upon our hill, with hammers and saws and tool belts and ladders, and they spent that miserably frigid day sheathing the house, putting a roof on it, getting it slightly closer to habitable. I suspect it was spring by the time we actually moved into the tarpaper shack, but I can't be sure because it's hard to pinpoint marginal or incremental improvements in your life. Honestly, we had a bit more room when we moved into the shack, but for the most part it still sucked.

Those are all details, though, the raw material that we all crave. The story, ultimately, is about a boy's growing sense of shame and disappointment: shame because he really does spend much of his time dreaming of being taken away from all this (even to the point of wishing ill on his parents), and disappointment in the fact that nothing he does (he's a remarkably bright student, roundly praised for his wicked smarts) appears to change anything for the better, which creates an unhealthy level of skepticism in this kid -- me. And one day in the sixth grade, with all of this having gone on more than long enough, I sat up in Mrs. Welch's history class and for no good reason realized nothing mattered, nothing was ever going to change, nothing would ever get better. None of which is true, of course, but it was how I felt, based on what I'd experienced. And as with so many monumental changes in a person's life, gradually and then very suddenly I became the person I am today. The good news, though, is that I have an outstanding sense of humor. Pull my finger and find out.

So ask yourself: which of these stories would you want to read? The one that I tell you I made up, or the one I tell you I lived?

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