Sing Your Life/Spill Your Guts
I have been journaling since 1986, when a certainty that I was not long for this world made me want to leave a footprint. But what I have brought forth for public consumption has always been fiction that bears little or no resemblance to my own life. Sure, my protagonists tend to hang out at coffeehouses like I do, and it’s true that if I love a woman in one of my stories I’ll make her a vegetarian who listens to music that I like– this has been true enough that I have thought it would be fun to deviate from this, to dress someone I need to love in clothes I cannot stand.
But those are just details. The characters themselves, and their stories, have come from outside of myself, from the muse.
Now, since writing the last words of Story Girl in summer, I have been working less than feverishly on something memoirish. Specifically, I have been writing about my college experience, and especially my 5th year as an undergrad, which I have in recent years stopped calling my second senior year in favor of my libertine year.
Writing about my own life has presented difficulties, though perhaps not the difficulties one might imagine. I am not reluctant to write about my mistakes, or my alcoholism, or promiscuity. Instead, the difficulties arise from these facts:
First, when thinking about the entire experience as a story, I see it from the way it felt the day I left college to come back to Arizona. I tend to aim for positive catharsis when writing stories, and that is not the way that it felt the day I left Virginia. I cannot tell the five years I spent there from today’s perspective– it only feels genuine to me when I feel it the way it felt when I walked away from it. That’s the point of view I want to tell it from. Over the years, approaching this task and turning away from it, it has always been because I didn’t like the sound of my own voice in talking about something that, in spite of being filled with friends and shenanigans, was deadly sad, almost too much to survive.
Second, when writing fiction, telling lies, it is easier to be in a moment with one’s characters. Writing Libertine, as I have been calling it, I am recalling a distant time period rather than creating one. And the tendency is to characterize instead of specify. As an example, I have found myself saying it was a beautiful spring instead of describing the very day the characters are acting in. I have struggled also with the tendency to describe characters as if I am afraid it’s my last chance to remember them rather than letting them be revealed in story. It probably boils down to my needing to be immersed in moments and use what has been my reliable talent of knowing what to show the reader.
So, knowing now that I want to tell the story from the point of view of the airplane seat flying away from it, and that I need to be in moments rather than gazing upon a five year stretch from a distance, how do I spare myself hearing my own melancholy voice? My solution was to approach myself from the point of view of others. Instead of the work being told by one voice, it is told by many, beginning with the jug-eared Greyhound employee who met me at the bus station when I first arrived. Trying to imagine how I looked to people that I encountered, and loved, gives me the same opportunity to be honest or delude myself that telling the story strictly from my own point of view does, but it forces me to consider how I appeared to others. And that brings an awareness that notions of self are composed of how we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we imagine others see us. The exercise of considering all three of these has been the most satisfying part of working on this. It may be the part that has most resembled the mystery of a work of fiction being revealed to the writer.
Ultimately I think this project needs to be presented as a work of fiction, because of the major liberties taken in expressing the points of view of others. And to be satisfying to myself, it needs to read like a novel. It certainly will be a greater job of editing than what I am accustomed to– deciding what is important in a much bigger body of experience, like building a car from parts found in a vast junkyard.
Working on novels sometimes feels like Christmas morning when you wake early to take a leak– the muse has come during the night, and you can’t wait to see what she has brought you and your protagonist. This memoirish thing has felt more like a chore that will not go away, but it has been well received at writer’s groups, and I hope that the finished product has some resemblance to beauty.