When I was about nine I became convinced that if I wished hard enough, or said my prayers right, Donny and Marie would be waiting in my closet when I woke up the next morning. I loved Donny and Marie. I loved the outfits, the skates, the terrible hair, the awful jokes. I loved their smiles. Regardless, it didn’t take long for me to figure out this was a ridiculous thing to spend my time on. First of all, we lived in a condo; my closet was small, there was no way they’d fit in there. Yes, that was my first point of doubt. Second–as if there needed to be a second–we lived in Massachusetts, and not in Boston, but way out in the suburbs, off a highway that was off a highway and then way down a road. And all the houses looked the same. They weren’t coming; I knew that. But I looked every morning and was always a little disappointed, even though right before I opened the door I’d think the nine year-old version of “What the hell am I going to do if there’s two grown people hiding in my closet? What kind of maniac does that?” For obvious reasons, I avoided telling this story to anyone until I was about 35.
Skip ahead. That’s all you need to know about that. It will come in handy later.
Yesterday, I got on a train at 7:30am and made my way to the Brooklyn Book Festival. I saw a lot of writers. A LOT. I sat through five hours of readings, panels, and Q and A’s. I came home with a whole new list of books I need to read. I’ve since emailed more writers I’ve never met. I politely ate something called a pupusa, and did so with a fork, while being rained on without either a coat or an umbrella. Then I bought “artisan” ice cream from a truck that had the most beautifully illustrated menu I’ve ever seen. It turns out I miss public transportation and busy sidewalks. By 3:45 I was fried, but there were two things that stuck with me.
First, Steve Almond read a piece about how his wife discovered Metallica when she was a kid and how she became obsessed with the song “Fade to Black” and how she eventually went from being a straight A student to a kid her parents didn’t recognize. I don’t know the song, and knowing now that it’s about a guy deciding to kill himself, I’m choosing to hold off, because ultimately that’s not my point and I also don’t feel like getting freaked out. What is the point is that as I was listening to him read, I got sort of lost in the fascination I always have with kids who felt like they could rebel to that extent. I never had that courage, or whatever someone would choose to call it. I can count the number of times I’ve raised my voice to my mother on one hand, and I never once yelled at my father, although they gave me plenty of good reasons to scream like a wild-eyed maniac at the top of my lungs.
I did run away once. Sort of. The summer before my senior year of high school, my dad and my stepmother had an argument that had, for some reason, moved out into the driveway. We were all out there, whichever of my step-siblings were home, and somehow we were all outside. It was a scary night, and at one point I was pacing and I paced all the way to the top of the driveway and realized no one had noticed, so I just kept walking. I walked to the T station near my house. It was nearly midnight, and I called a friend collect who lived at the end of the line, since the train was free in that direction. When I got to her house, the first thing I did was call home. My dad demanded to know where I was and I begged him to stop asking and just accept that I was okay, but I think I eventually told him. I couldn’t do it, just take off. I couldn’t run the risk of coming back the next day and finding out that they were done wondering where I’d gone.
My point is, there’s a part of me that wonders if I’d missed anything by never really telling my parents to shove it. Most people would say no, and in a hundred ways they’d be right, but there’s a way they’re wrong, too. I know it whenever I’ve had that feeling like I want to scream at the top of my lungs and curl up in a ball at the same time and I stand perfectly still because I can’t do both at once. That energy has to go someplace. Where?
Here’s the second thing that stuck with me. I was in a reading with Steven Millhauser and Cristina Garcia and Peter Straub, and they all got to talking about “realism”. Millhauser sounded miffed at the term. I’m paraphrasing here, but they all started talking about what constitutes realism and reality and asking why reality had to be defined in such restrictive terms. I thought of how I used to write what I considered realism, but yesterday I wondered, what if it was just a lack of imagination? One of the things that used to frustrate me about writing fiction is that everyone sounded the same. I wrote about the same conventional people doing the same conventional things with the same perfectly reasonable neuroses; I couldn’t get beyond essentially reporting what I saw. I got bored. I gave up.
So yesterday I wondered where my “Donny and Marie” side went. Of course part of me knows where it went. It went wherever things go that get you made fun of. For me, when I was nine, there was a lot to squeeze into that space, and frankly not all of it got archived, nor will it. As much as people to this day shake their heads at whatever kooky, out-left-field things come out of my mouth, I don’t mind being considered a little nuts. But I don’t write that way, or I haven’t. In fact, the way I write here is weirder than anything I bothered to write when I had the time and freedom to play. What the hell was stopping me? Or a better question would be, why didn’t I even know how to start? It’s not as if I forgot how to try to will famous people to surprise me by sneaking into my closets…
The other day I wrote about signing up to do The Sketchbook Project, which I’m completely unequipped for, but I’m doing it anyway because I’m too curious not to. It’s all connected, the festival and the sketchbook thing, and I don’t really care how, I just want to see what I do with it all. I don’t plan on running away, but I want to know what happens when you decide to do the thing you’re not known for doing. At this point, after writing all this business about dismembering Dressy Bessy and now C-list celebrities of the 1970′s, I feel a duty to myself, and to you poor people who have been reading this, to do something with it, to take it somewhere. All that energy has to go someplace. Where?