I’ve probably told part of this before, but I’ve decided to string it all together here, because otherwise I’m just telling it to myself over and over and that starts to feel compulsive.
I remember sitting at dinner one night with my stepfamily when someone noticed that I hadn’t uttered a word for most of the meal, and someone else said, “Watch what you say, it’ll go in her book.” I was probably twelve. And I wasn’t writing in my head, I was just too shy to speak up. Certainly there were stories that could be told, but I had no interest in telling them. I wanted to tell mysteries or stories of heroic journeys of epic proportions, not tales of domestic quirks.
Fast forward to the last few years, and the ever-growing chorus of people who have said, “You should write about [that thing we're not going to identify here].” My answer is always no. “It might help you,” they say. “Or someone else.” That line only strengthens my resolve. I’m not in this to “help” me or anyone else, as heartless as that may sound.
But then two things happened. Someone I didn’t know, a near stranger, suggested that I think about writing the thing I swear I won’t write about. Just hang it up somewhere in my mind, she said, and let it do its weird work, like a billboard you pass every day for a year, see if it changed my thinking. That very same day I met a woman who told me she couldn’t write anything else until she wrote this one particular set of stories, but she couldn’t write them because they were too painful.
“So change the stories,” I said, probably too quickly, as if it were easy. She said no, and declared that she hated writing, and our conversation ended soon after that. And while we had opportunities to speak later, neither one of us seemed to take them. The conversation stayed with me, though, in that I’m sure I never want to be that person who simply says no. Then again, I’m always willing to change the story. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if that’s the problem.
Coupled with that question, I started thinking about that whole “write the book you’d want to read” idea. So I started paying attention to the books I choose–which books I love, and which books I avoid–and slowly, I’ve decided to put my head down and read the books that scare me (literally scare me), in addition to identifying that I like a sweeping seafaring epic once in a while. It’s data collection.
And because I’m someone who hates to admit I’ve said no to anything without at least trying it (except for stuff like bungee jumping and caving–I have my limits), I started to write the stuff the Greek chorus keeps urging me to write. What few people seem to hear all the way is that to write that stuff depresses me so severely that I get angry about it, and it throws me off for days, and I see no reason to do that to myself. It’s not a productive kind of anguish. But I did it anyway, because I came up with this theory: If there’s broccoli in the fridge and you need to make dinner, you don’t close the door and order out. You find something to do with the broccoli (unless it’s rotten, which is a different metaphor). You see, I really can’t stand the characters I write. They’re wussy. They don’t have real problems, and they seem to fade into the background rather than charge ahead. What if the reason for that is that I’ve been, creatively speaking, ordering out all this time? What if there’s something there, in the metaphorical fridge, that I refuse to make use of?
So I wrote. Angry, depressed, embarrassed and petulant, I wrote it out. Some of it. A tiny bit. And it sucked. I mean, it made me feel horrible and it was also unreadable. Delightfully, it’s so bad that no one will ever mistake it as something someone should read. However…however…There’s apparently something productive about being repulsed, because in the last four days I’ve written drafts of two stories that might not be half bad. They may even have–or at least hint at–that quality I’m convinced is always missing from my work. Do they tell the stories people have asked me to tell? Nope. Or maybe a bit, but beneath the surface, a line here and there, which is what fiction is supposed to be–the story first, hopefully done in a way that’s smart enough to raise it up a smidge higher than the thing itself so everyone can see it, not just me.
But so what? Who cares? Why do it? Because a few weeks ago I was flushed with the thrill of having written and written and written until I hit 75 pages and then the inevitable happened. I looked at my main character and thought, “I wouldn’t talk to her if I was standing in line at the bank.” She’s the same drip I’ve been writing for fifteen years (feel free to take a moment to psychoanalyze me here–I’ll wait). So I stopped. The story was going nowhere, as quietly feared and predicted in the back of my mind, and I’m sick of that. Those 75 pages need help–it’s not all crap–but there’s work to be done off to the side in order to get ready to go in there and make it come closer to what it could be.
There’s one more thing: several years ago, before Boston finished the Big Dig, the project that submerged the elevated highway that ran though the city, my dad was friends with an artist who rented a studio in a building that was pressed right up against the expressway. During open studios one year, I noticed something, and I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but this is what I’ve told myself about it. In one of the studios in the front of the building there were all these canvases covered in brown and gray diagonal lines, and since the paintings were set up near the window, you could see the artist had been painting his view of the exit ramp to the northbound side of Route 93. They were strange and a little scary, and it took me a while to figure out where they’d come from. I also remember sculptures made with hubcaps and exhaust pipes and windshield wipers that had fallen off along the highway and on to the street below. These artists took what they had–or rather, what they got–and made it into something else, something someone could enjoy, or just absorb somehow. They’d taken something ugly, something broken, something they maybe wished was different or wasn’t there at all, and turned it into something new.
Well, this is awkward.
So there I was the other morning, more certain than ever that the right thing to do was give up this thing, do something with more purpose. “Enough goofing around, Hope,” is what I said to myself. In the weeks leading up to that post, I’d written five others that were stupid, three that went nowhere and a list that was a truer manifestation of “phoning it in” than anything I’d done since college. Deleted ‘em all. Didn’t post ‘em. I must be through here, I thought. Then I wrote that bit about being done.
Not an hour later did I start writing something in my head. Not anything too bright, mind you. Nothing that had to be written, but there it was, taking up space in my brain, little bits of it shoving their way into conversations with live humans. It was like testing a stand-up routine on unwitting victims. It was a little pathetic, like that uncle you humor at Thanksgiving and count the seconds until he’s gone.
People have said all along that this doesn’t need to be some earth-shattering, mind-blowing treatise on Beauty and Truth, and hopefully I haven’t implied that that’s what I’m after. While I’m still not too comfortable with the amorphous quality of this place I’ve created, it seems it has its uses, if only to free up space in my head and not annoy innocent people. So I’m going to take that discomfort and see what else I can do with it. Who knows what’ll show up here.
I will never, ever do this again, the bailing and then reappearing 72 hours later. If I thought my last post was hard, this is excruciating. If I decide this is over some time in the future, I’ll just slink off into the void.
If you bothered to read this, thanks. Again. In the words of the folks at this nifty site, “Who said forever is better?”