Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Never Tell a Writer Your Secrets

Before I go deep, here's something: please check out this link from The Nervous Breakdown, read some cool writing, and cast your vote for the best posts and interviews of the year. I know I've been saying this over and over again, but it's for real, gang, this site is loaded with good, good stuff. Drop me an email if you're looking for recommendations, I have a few favorites I can point you toward, but honestly, if you just poke around, I guarantee you'll find much to enjoy. And please do vote, give these writers some nods. Thanks.

And speaking of TNB, this morning I finally managed to polish off an essay I'd been working on for two weeks. It's a very different sort of piece than those I've written for TNB to date, all of which have been entirely tongue in cheek good fun. This one was not much fun to write, although my objective was to find the humor where it exists and let it do its thing. I wrote the first fifteen-hundred words of the essay a couple days before Thanksgiving, on the first anniversary of the day I was carted off to the looney bin. The words were coming so fast, I had every expectation of wrapping it up and submitting it for review before I went to bed that night. This morning a little before six, two weeks to the day after I started it, I finally tapped out the last few words, proofed the hell out of it, and sent it off. I hope I did a good job.

One of the refrains I hear most often from readers of the blog is that they appreciate my willingness to write very personal stories. That's a double-edged sword, of course, because any individual's personal stories are going to touch on the private territory of the other people in his or her life. Judgment and discretion matter in life, certainly, but the truth is, when you write, it's pretty much all fair game. People tell me their secrets. I don't ask them to, I don't dig, I just listen. I carry a few secrets I expect I'll never touch in my writing, but the great majority of them, in some fashion or another, will probably find their way into the work. That's my thing: I write about the shit people do. A few months back, a friend of mine heard through a mutual acquaintance that I had written a story about something he'd done, and based on what that acquaintance told him, he was none too pleased. I was a little peeved about the situation, mostly because the acquaintance was talking out of her sour-grapes ass, but also because that story wasn't really about my friend or what he did, it was about the experience of those who were affected by what he'd done. The story in question is a very small piece of a larger narrative in which the main character does some things that put his friends in a similar but in some ways much worse position, and that little story that my friend objected to (without having read it) presages those events in what I consider to be a meaningful way. I offered to let my friend read the story and (remember, I was already irritated) I told him to feel free to let me know what he objected to, and I would be sure to let him know whether I gave a shit. To his credit (and not surprisingly -- he's a smart, thoughtful person) he read the story and appreciated it. Take that, Sour-Grapes Ass. For the record, I'm still not sure whether I would have given a shit if he had objected -- I know I didn't give a shit when Sour-Grapes Ass begged me to pull a story she felt cut too close to the bone of her personal life. The irony is that the story she opposed was almost entirely imagined. I must have a pretty good imagination. Not to put too fine a point on it, but even if the book itself never sees the light of day, I'll get that one story published if it kills me. I'm a dick like that sometimes.

I realize that sounds like I'm being spiteful, and in small measure I definitely am, but the larger point is this: it ceases to be exclusively your story the moment you tell it to me. It becomes less and less your story the more time I spend with it because as it floats around in my head, and as I start tapping the keys, it becomes infused with elements that exist entirely outside the realm of what was once your story. There's a rule of thumb I'll offer up for what it's worth: don't ever tell anything to a writer. In fact, don't even associate with writers because, whether you tell us things or not, we'll gather more than enough useful information just hovering on the periphery of your cocktail party, or observing you from across the restaurant, or catching a vague glimpse of your life through an upstairs window as we pass by in a car. It's what we do: we observe and report. We imagine what we can't know for certain, and we connect events both real and fabricated in order to tell those characters' stories.

Fair's fair, I say, so in case anyone feels unreasonably maligned or thinks I'd ever let myself off the same hook, here goes: last November I spent a few days on the psych ward at St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston because I'd made it abundantly clear to my friends that I wanted to kill myself. I'd given up. I'd lost the ability to value the very many things that make my life worth living. The doctor who examined me at the emergency room determined that I was severely depressed, and she made the call that I should be in the hospital. Shortly after dawn the next morning they stuffed me in an ambulance and drove me to Lewiston. By the end of that long, sad day I decided that was the last place in the world to get myself out of the rabbit hole, and so I spent the next two days conning the doctors into believing I was out of the woods (already), and they let me go. My friends Hank and Snuggles took me in, and I spent the next six weeks simultaneously wishing I was dead and doggedly determined that I wasn't going to repay their kindness by offing myself in their house. It was never easy, but without something as immediate and significant as my dear friends' best interests to focus on, I would not have made it. In the midst of that stretch, two days after Christmas, I woke up and started writing an entirely new story. It seems like nearly every evening for the next four weeks I would come out of my room and regale Hank and Snugs with the news of what I'd just written. Their unbridled enthusiasm and encouragement buoyed me like nothing you could possibly imagine, unless you use heroin regularly. In seventy days I had a first draft of a book, and that felt magnificent, but more than that, it's a year or so later, and not only am I still here, but I plan to be here for a long time, as long as I don't get hit by a bus, in which case, shit happens.

So that's some of my story. And now it's also yours, see? Do with it what you will.