Tuesday, March 11, 2008

careful, or you'll wind up in my novel

This past Christmas, my sister presented me w/ a sweatshirt bearing the words of this post's title . And although it's not something I would wear in public (too cheesy), I love it.

Since I learned to put words together on a page, I have been writing about what I know, or what I have witnessed. The very first story I wrote (to my memory, at least) was in the first grade. My teacher showed me a picture and asked me to make up a story about it. The picture was of a boy reaching for a cookie jar. I remember writing that the boy had come home from school and wanted a snack, but the cookie jar was out of his reach. There was no one to help him-- his sibs were at school, his mother was at work, and his father was "busy giving a guitar lesson" (I even remember spelling "gitar," instinctively knowing it was misspelled, but not being able to determine the missing letter). Resourcefully, the boy grabbed a chair, climbed to the counter, and retrieved his reward.

I can only imagine how revealing this must have been to my teacher. I essentially had absorbed my surroundings: my mother was working (a rarity to have a working mother in those days, especially a mother of seven); my father, who was out of work at the time, tried to pull some much needed income by teaching guitar to local parishioners; and my older brothers and sisters were absorbed in their own lives. I suppose that when you grow up in a large family, everyone, at some point or another, is bound to feel neglected. Of course, I didn't convey feelings of neglect, nor was I old enough to know how much my father hated having to give those lessons, and how close we were to losing our house. Nevertheless, that was life in my house in 1976. That's what I saw. I must have been particularly pleased at the resolution of the boy's resourcefulness and boldness to climb the chair, unafraid of the struggle, defying the danger and warnings from mom. And it's a theme that's particularly meaningful to me today, unmarried and living alone at 38: resourcefulness in the face of fending for yourself when no one else is around.

I've been doing it ever since--writing what I know, that is-- and have rarely been afraid to expose the truth in all its vulnerablity and nakedness, and sometimes ugliness, too. I put it out on the table. In my nonfiction, I am not afraid to write about the drain of spirit that comes from loving someone who does not love me back. I am not afraid to write about longing. I am not afraid to write about how, when the twin towers came down, it was the loss of the buildings I mourned because the loss of humanity was too magnificent and powerful and overwhelming to mourn. I am not afraid to write about the hypocrisy of some Catholic priests; about the possibility of forgiving terrorists; about the love I have for my grandmother; about being a Yankee fan in Red Sox nation (and thank God that's over with!). The personal essay is a powerful force.

It happens in my fiction, too. I give credit to fantasy and science fiction writers who are able to imagine and then write about worlds and beings that do not look or sound or act familiar. The closest I ever came to making something up was when I wrote a parody of The Three Bears in sixth grade. I seem to remember the bears playing poker and eating pizza and being wise-asses (come to think of it, it was also my first attempt at writing comedy. And maybe the pizza-eating wise-asses were my brothers in disguise...). For the longest time I didn't write fiction because I didn't think I knew how. I didn't know how to have an imagination that went beyond the boundaries of my Long Island, Beatle-loving, music-playing, big Italian family world.

And so, when in 1999 I got the first spark of an idea for a novel, I told myself that I couldn't write it, and continued to tell myself that until I started reading more fiction, and also started to think about writers like Nora Ephron and Woody Allen, whose work I enjoyed. When I finally decided to give my idea (which had grown consdierably since the '99 seedling), I decided to write it for me, and on the title page, I typed a quote that had been attributed to Toni Morrison: I wrote the book I wanted to read. And so, I began using what I knew as the starting point, the comfrot zone, if you will. 30-something writing teacher. Lived in MA and moved back to LI. Brothers (not as many of 'em) are working musicians. In time, the characters and settings took on lives of their own. And the truths I was telling was in response to things I had either witnessed or simply needed to be told.

I remember when my dear friend and reader of my first novel thought I was writing about my real-life relationship w/ his cousin. Even the names were similar. "Not so," I said. "I knew this guy (meaning the character), including his name, long before I knew your cousin." And yet, there are one or two lines that the character says that came straight out of the cousin's mouth, and my protagonist's response was, in actuality, mine. I used it because it worked in the story. I used it because I knew and understood it. I used it because it was true.

But that's not to say that every character or setting or situation is based on someone or somplace or something I actually know. That main character in my novel is a completely fabricated guy. Yeah, he happened to say the same thing my real-life friend said one time, but that's the only thing that was "real" about him. The mother in my two novels is nothing like my real mother. Other times, my characters are composites of two or three people I know. Sometimes they're even inspired by other fictional characters.

So, where's the fine line? Am I writing fiction, or am I writing creative (very creative) nonfiction? I argue that I'm writing fiction in the way that my very first story about the boy and the cookie jar was fiction. As a writer, I am a witness. As a writer, I have a truth that needs to be told. As a fiction writer, I use a combination of what I know and what I imagine to tell that truth. As a nonfiction writer, the stories of the past become recontextualized for the truths of the present.

And, let's face it: I have absolute power.
In fiction, I can have the relationship I wanted to have with this guy. In fiction, I can be rich, I can travel, I can be six feet tall, I can eat as much chocolate as I want, live wherever I want, meet whomever I want, and be whomever I want to be. I can make fun of my own quirks and annoying habits (which I often do), and my protagonists can be w/out my insecurities. So long as I'm honoring the truth in the process. So long as I tell the story that wants or needs to be told. And maybe I should use a capital T for truth. Maybe I should refer to Picasso: Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.

That's what I'm talkin' about, baby. That's what it's really all about.

In the meantime, watch out, for one day you may find yourself reading my book, only to realize the scene with the guy sitting in the coffeeshop drinking his latte bears a striking resemblance to the Starbucks we used to go to, and the guy looks a little like you... Or you may read a personal essay about the day we went to the beach together, and re-live it in a whole new way.

No comments: