Sunday, April 14, 2013

True confessions: is fiction really fiction?

So how much of "me" is in these stories? My three readers want to know (or not). Sometimes, *I* want to know, myself.

It's hard to unwind, unplait the strands of what actually happened (which is sometimes hard enough to decipher) and what was woven and knitted up to fill the gaps and holes. But it's never made up out of whole cloth. How can anyone write except through their own perceptions? These strenuous denials by authors who insist NONE of their real life ever spills over into their work are pure bullshit.

I think it's the rushing groundwater of emotion that always floods through, the rampaging cascades that dominate all our lives, whether we want to admit it or not. My work is emotionally driven, and sometimes I think the fiction I've presented here is nothing but "reaction", a character squirming and writhing and squirting squid ink in distress. (And that's another thing. What is a story? A story is something going wrong. If everything went right in a story it would be a crashing bore, and not even a story because nothing would happen. Is the same true in what we so chucklingly call "real life"?)

I've always had the impulse, even the need to "make story", but it's rare that I can keep my careening emotions and hairtrigger reactions out of it. The first novel I tried to write - it makes me wince now - I guess I thought it was publishable because I sent it to 65 publishers, and nobody would give me the time of day. Most didn't even read the manuscript but hated the outline so much that they immediately fired off a form rejection, with all the force of that cow being fired over the castle wall in Monty Python's Holy Grail. I finally understand why (I read about half a page of it recently and mentally barfed), but what scares me is that at the time I was SURE it was great and was going to get published and make me famous.

It was too much about me, probably, my wretched reactions, though the characters were either totally manufactured or heavily disguised. Each character narrated their part in first person, a technique which is as deadly as a ferret latching on to your jugular. So: failure, but other things came of it. A very wise writer once said to me, "When you're sending out your first novel, make sure you're writing your second one." This was advice that saved my life.

When I wrote Better than Life, I wasn't in it, not really, but so many of my ancestors were: they were given a twist of course, but the essence was there, all these half-cracked Irish people feuding and drinking and generally carrying on. And it worked. Took a while to sell it, but someone wanted it. What happened? Did it improve the novel's chances that I wasn't "in it"? 

I have had the experience of becoming so desperately in thrall to writing a novel that I felt like I was being dragged behind a wild horse. This was exhilarating and frightening, and though there were (I suppose) some good ideas in it, I reread it now and shudder a bit. What was happening to me then? I wasn't eating or sleeping much, and my thoughts sometimes became very peculiar. Strangely enough, I do not believe I am in that one at all, not even remotely. It's all about people living in the Downtown Eastside, and I've never been near those circumstances. Nor did I show up in the next one, The Glass Character, though I think I identify with the main character (who is not, after all, Harold Lloyd, but a woman named Muriel Ashford who is so obsessed with him that nowadays we might say she was stalking him). 

The emotions, the blissful agonies of obsession are things I know too, too well. I have lived over half my life in my imagination. I don't know why this is and it isn't enjoyable and it isn't even "creative", unless we're talking about Dylan Thomas' frightening view of creativity:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
drives my green age
That blasts the roots of trees
is my destroyer

Yes, and other things: reading about the wretched genius Oscar Levant (speaking of obsessions - we WERE speaking of obsessions, weren't we?), I came across a couple of quotes that I've filed away with the good ones: "What makes you, unmakes you," playwright George S. Kaufman stated, and Clifford Odets, victim of an Orson-Wellesian too-early success, added this thought: "Success is the jinni (genie) that kills."

Yes. Gives you three wishes, grants them, then utterly destroys you. Or is it this way? It's granting the wishes that kills you, like someone poor and illiterate winning 6-49. Or is it the wishing itself, the scrambling around for something "better" and never being satisfied with what you have? Is it the human agony of always wanting? Of consuming, of eating and buying and taking in and taking in, hungry, hungry, always hungry? Why can't we rest, why can't we just be? All this meditation crap is just playing at stillness. We'd have to stop breathing to really be still. 

So we are left with the maelstrom, the bucking and heaving, the scrambling and never having, as years pour through our hands and the ground dies under our feet.


  1. Trying to make sense of it, isn't that what poetry and fiction are? Trying to capture, interpret and manipulate facts to form truth as we know, or at least sense it at a particular moment?

  2. In a sense, writers try to play God, rearranging or even creating reality. Are they so discontent that they have to remake the real? God, what a fucked-up bunch they are, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas - greatness seems to lead to destruction. Yet in our society, being "famous" is held out as the ultimate goal.