Monday, December 22, 2008
Words Just Get in the Way
"I saw a historical fiction book today and thought of you," She told me once. "But I didn't buy it for you. Figured that if you cared, you'd go out and read about the actual history." This, I think, came at about the same time She told me I didn't read enough fiction. Maybe it didn't. For all it matters, though, it came at the same time She questioned whether or not I was really all that interested in writing. I talked about it a lot, She said. But I rarely seemed to actually write anything. I think about this sometimes, now that I am becoming the person she thought I should be. I'm coming to love fiction. I used to read some of it. Christopher Moore, sci-fi, the occasional book that caught my eye. I tried to read Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full once and couldn't get past the dense, poorly chosen, self-important prose to see anything resembling a point. Every once in a while, ironically enough, I did read historical fiction. I've always enjoyed Rutherford's sprawling histroical epics and counted Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth among my favorites long before Oprah's Book Club brought special edition paperback copies to the shelves of Barnes & Noble for $24.95. Now, though, I'm experiencing fiction, perhaps truly for the first time. Craig Ferguson's Between the Bridge and the River, Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller, Anne Ursu's The Disapparation of James. Just yesterday I finished Kit Whitfield's Benighted (Bareback, for my many overseas readers) and began digging in to Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed. It's no coincidence that as I read more and more fiction, good fiction, written by thoughtful, creative writers who are truly seeking to understand their world, my love of writing is reawakening, increasing exponentially. I want to tell Her, let Her understand. I don't even want Her to realize what's happened and come back. Or, I guess, take me back, since She kept pushing and pushing until finally I let her push me away. I think the thing that haunted me is that I finally stopped fighting and went away at the moment she stopped pushing. Or maybe that's just my imagination, my need to paint myself as the guilty party, that tendency I have to recognize my self-righteousness at doing what I have to do and assume that because I'm an ass, that means I was wrong. Maybe I just want to remember her as better than she was so I can pretend that the two years I spent trying to convince her that I was worthy of her time were well spent. The truth is, though, that we can't get back the past. Nobody should know this better than me. And time now spent chasing after it is wasted just as unforgiveably as the time that's already been thrown. The thing is, more than anything else, I wanted Her to be my Muse. I think She makes a better Muse now that she's miles away, hiding behind a curtain of silence. She gave me the old, "It's not you, it's me," speech once. It's strange, but I believed her then, or, at least, I believed she wanted it to be so. Even now, when it would cost me nothing to believe she was a lying, self-serving bitch and it might actually make letting all those memories go, I believe she meant what she said. I think she always thought I should be better than I was. I think when she questioned whether or not I was actually a writer, when she chided me for not reading enough fiction, it was her way of trying to help me see what I should be. As long as I was focused on being a good historian, I was never going to grow as a writer. Up until recently I wrote almost exclusively like a historian. I detailed in long-winded sentences all of the specifics of the situation. I cited all of my sources. I tried to put every thought, every sentence, every breath in to proper context. I hid my words behind the words of others. I didn't think they could stand on their own. They needed a prop, a bigger, more respected name to latch on to, to lend gravitas and importance. I still do it to some extent. It's why so many of these posts hinge on song lyrics. But my words increasingly stand on their own. As I construct sentences, paragraphs, and stories I see them getting tighter, quicker, more even. I see myself kicking the scaffolding away, taking on faith that I can communicate, that my audience will understand, that I don't have to make sure every word is perfect, every idea properly cited and defended. She used to accuse me of not fighting fair. This is a common complaint that women have about men, but in this case she had a point. If we disagreed my general strategy was to unleash a torrent of words. I remembered almost everything and what wasn't memory was usually a believable story. I pummeled her with words, with citations, with justifications, with everything short of what I should have said. "I'm wrong." "I'm sorry." Or "You've hurt me." "I forgive you." Some words have to stand on their own. Admissions of guilt, offers of absolution. These are overwhelmed and deadened when combined with long, self-righteous justifications. It's funny, too, because while she was giving me the old, "It's not you, it's me," I was thinking the same thing. It wasn't her, it was me. I wasn't good enough, no matter how hard I tried. I was in love with this idea of things being difficult. It was, I guess, an easy excuse, more words to hide behind. When I wrote I used to do so with an eye towards writing the great American novel. Or, at least, a best seller. I secretly believed that I wasn't about to come up with anything good enough to be a great American novel. I was also afraid of those little letters that come from publishers and agents, the ones that say, "Sorry, not right now." I held on to writing as that thing that I was good at, but don't you dare try to challenge me. I wasn't much of a writer when she was around. I hated writing. I hated it for what it took from me. I hated it for what it refused to give me. Now, as the memories begin to fade, as time continues its march, I turn to writing. As a historian I catalog the past. As a storyteller I create the future. I turn the memories over, study them, hold them in my hands. And then I release them, one by one, knowing that they're never really gone, just fading in to the background, becoming a part of the mosaic of pain and joy that is the wellspring of all good art. I don't try any more. I don't push. I let the words come to me. And they come, like old friends who moved and came back. That's what writing is, that's what friendship is. Falling in love with difficulty simply creates difficulty. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. After two years I was on the precipice. I was beginning to hate her for what she took from me. I was beginning to hate her for what she did not, could not, give me. I wonder what she would make of me now, surrounded by fiction, hearing words echo in my mind, coming up with plots and characters and stories faster than I could possibly write them down. Would she turn me away, would she still say, "It's not you, it's me?" Would she be proud? Would she be horrified at the direction some of my stories have taken? Would she be amused that now, in a weird, twisted way, she has actually become my Muse? Would I, ultimately, have the strength to say what needs to be said, and this time let the words stand on their own? "Thank you." "I'm sorry." "I forgive you." "I love you." And, ultimately "Good bye." Live well. Be happy. Love. Be loved. I only wish for you the world of good.