Announcement: tonight (October 27) at 6:30 my best bud, fellow local native and favorite writer, Ron Currie, will be reading from his forthcoming novel at our beloved (and newly renovated: thank you, Sarah Anne Sugden) Waterville Public Library. If you're in or near Waterville tonight, get there, you won't be disappointed. His Q&A is a veritable S&M of T&A -- by which I mean he nails it. Plus he's honest and super hot -- old, bald and white notwithstanding.
Speaking of honesty . . .
Well, first of all I want to say thank you to everyone who has taken time out of what I know are busy days to read my little ramblings. There's a feature that allows me limited access to the readership of this blog. I know what percentage of you use Macs vs. PCs, how many are on Androids and Blackberrys and iPads. I know I have one follower in New Zealand (hey Justine -- how goes the WOOFing?) and one in Germany (am I the blogging equivalent of Hasselhoff? because that would be awesome). Last night I peeked at the stats and found we'd surpassed a number I'd had in my head, and all I can say is, thanks. Ultimately there's only one thing a writer can and should do: write it, whatever it is. I mean, of course there's a lot more that goes into writing it: write it well, write it honestly, write it with care. But do that, and then if you're fortunate enough to find some readers, say thank you. Sincerely, kids, my gratitude far exceeds the words I have to express it.
On to honesty. Yesterday I wrote about something with which I am not entirely comfortable, and something I know makes the people who care about me uncomfortable: being broke and hungry. The people closest to me (and I'm fortunate to be able to count a remarkable number in that category) have watched me struggle in this way for almost three years now, and I know that it is depressing, discouraging, occasionally infuriating. They are generous people, and at times they have each and every one stepped up to carry me in one fashion or another. They have taken turns giving me a fish, knowing full well that I was long ago taught to fish, and at times I'm sure they've thought to themselves (as well they should), "Fish, goddammit!" And I do fish, for a while, and we are all greatly relieved. Then I go back to the Cave, tap the keys for ten, twelve, fourteen hours, picking away at my catch in that underlying biological-imperative way we sustain ourselves through necessity rather than any particular passion for what we're consuming (our passions being indivisible from the other concurrent pursuit). When at last my head emerges from the fog of writing and I find on my plate nothing but a pile of already thoroughly sucked bones, I gaze around the room, more than a little chagrined that I've forgotten the way back to the stream.
These are all details, the point is this: I didn't write about that so that anyone would feel sorry for me or worry about me. Don't and please don't. I wrote about it precisely because it is uncomfortable. I wrote about it because it is one of my discomfiting, embarrassing, shameful truths: this is part of what I've done to myself, and it is something of which no one should ever be proud. I'm almost forty-three years old. I have a daughter who adores me. Three years ago I had sixty-large in the bank, I owned a house, I picked up tabs and floated loans. Now I live in a windowless cave, I eat potted meat, and I only see my daughter a couple hours a week, for lunch, when I have the money to pay for it (which last weekend I didn't, and this weekend I may not). It's appalling. It's despicable. And it's the truth.
So why am I telling you this? Why am I outing my bad self here for dozens upon dozens of people to see?
Because if you can't be honest with yourself, how can you ever expect to be honest in your writing? If character is what we do when no one is watching, then the measure of a writer must have something to do with the space that exists between what our readers believe of us and what we know ourselves to be. Which is not to say that a writer must forge an intimate bond with his readers, replete with excruciating details about the author's life history (unless of course the writer is Irish). But a writer must, above all else, be credible, and that credibility must be earned. What is more satisfying than when a writer makes an entirely unexpected choice in a narrative, the thing nobody saw coming? We like surprises, they thrill and delight us. What we don't like is being left feeling even a little bit incredulous. Who among us who have sat in writing workshops has not heard this answer in response to a reader's reservations about a dubious detail: "But that's how it actually happened." Well, tough shit, pal, because I don't believe it for a second.
The notion that absolute truth makes for compelling narrative is surprisingly hard to dislodge once it takes hold, and I would argue that, in this era of reality television and best-selling memoirs, the roots have found bedrock. We are cannibalistic voyeurs, devouring each other's "true" stories with feral eyes and blood-soaked lips. We've developed such a taste for the salty forbidden flesh of other people's secret lives, we've forgotten to ask ourselves the most fundamental question: Why should I care? Well, fuck it, I'll ask: Why should any of us care? Answer: We shouldn't. Unless it's honest.
A few weeks ago I sat down to revise a story I'd written months before, a story that is in large part based on some things that sort of actually happened. There was a scene in the original version in which the two characters pass a motel aptly named "Lovely's," and they take note of it, make a joke, but don't stop. There was something about the integrity of events as they happened in real life that, as I wrote that early draft, I found myself clinging to: the girl and I did not get a room in a motel, not once, ever. Nothing ever passed between us that could have been construed as lurid or unkind to anyone who deserved better, i.e., she didn't cheat on her boyfriend with me, and I didn't ask her to. I wrote that scene as though I was telling it to a friend, sticking to the facts because, after all, the facts presented us in the light in which I wanted us both, in the real world, to be seen. But that wasn't true to the narrative, which was really about how the relationship between these two characters had mutated into something neither could control or define any longer. It was an elaborate game of chicken, equally enticing to both characters, and when I realized that and saw this gargantuan missed opportunity, I rewrote that scene, made the young woman steer them boldly, precipitously toward the motel parking lot. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice because, in the course of the larger narrative, it helps to establish how high the stakes of this game of chicken prove to be.
It's informative to note that, in the course of discussing the actual relationship that spawned that story (and well over three-hundred pages of other related stories), the sorts of questions I've fielded go something like this: Seriously, you didn't get a room at the motel? Really, you never slept with her? If "seriously" and "really" precede the questions about your actual life stories, rest assured, nobody will bother to ask those questions of your fictional stories -- they simply won't read them. And they shouldn't.
Now, you may be asking yourself how I can speak about telling the truth in one breath, and then describe rewriting a scene so that it doesn't tell the truth. It's because what I wanted in that moment in real life was two contradictory things: I both wanted her to go to a motel with me, and I wanted us to be some version of better than that. This is what we call conflict. What I want for those two characters is that they earn, through their actions, what they appear to feel for each other, as well as the price they both will pay for their affection. The only way for me to do that in a way that felt genuine in the narrative was to be straight with myself about who these characters are, what they want, why they make their choices, and why I care about them. Ultimately, it turns out I care about them, about the story that binds them, because of the nature of the conflict that exists between them. I don't know a thing about that conflict unless I look at it honestly, and I can't do that unless I'm honest with myself about who I am, what I want, why I make the choices I do, etc. Because they may be characters on a page, but somebody has to drive the bus, and in the end that gig falls to me. I damn sure better know which one's the gas and which one's the brake. And because brakes sometimes fail, I'd better have something in mind for when the bus starts hurtling toward a cliff. I like to think I'm getting there. Honestly, I know I am. Thanks again for getting on the bus.