I’m contemplating a murder. I can see it: the body, and two teenagers. And part of me is concerned that as a writer, I’m becoming ghoulish, and part of me is intrigued by this notion. In Alice Munro’s short stories, the characters are frequently informed by violence, but the violence is usually outside the scope of the story—it happens off-stage.
I don’t have any interest in writing thrillers. I think I’m much more interested in character-motivated stories. Distilled and human—my characters are people I would hang out with—flawed and seeking. So, why the murder? I’m not entirely sure I can do it, which is appealing. And I’m scared of it, scared of having to walk that path to wherever it leads. My fear, I think, is the thing that is most compelling to me, and the thing that in the end, will press me forward.
Joss Whedon (I’m a major fan of this brilliant guy — creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.) said that conviction is what makes evil different. Conviction is why fringe groups are so dangerous: they cannot see the other side. This is interesting to me because I’ve been thinking, lately, about obsession. I struggle with obsession. I can’t play video games because I used to play non–stop for two days—all through the night, calling in sick for work—until I’d beaten the game. I don’t have a television, because I’ll watch Law & Order marathons and forego sleep. I used to play sports this way too. An entire weekend of beach volleyball. I write like this as well—forgetting to eat or talk to humans.
My family is like this about their hobbies (and their religion). Cycling, and house projects, and knitting, whatever it is, we’ll do it to the exclusion of everything else, until we’ve exhausted the entire endeavor and must find the next thing to do to the exclusion of everything else. It may be about intensity, or anyway, intensity is an element of it. But I think obsession also has to do with seeking, with the search for fulfillment. Obsession is part of the endeavor, a piece of the experience, and the high. Obsession is part of what gives the experience so much worth, what separates it from little old ladies collecting knickknacks.
And it may be that I’m actually talking about passion. But have named it obsession because I’m troubled. Troubled by this restlessness within me. Troubled by my sudden desire for something new to immerse myself in.
I used to burn everything. Photographs, letters, any memento from a relationship, once that relationship was over. I had to use lighter fluid a couple of times because the clothes wouldn’t catch fire.
For a while, after graduate school, people had a reprieve. They wrote so beautifully that I couldn’t bring myself to burn their letters. Two years ago, I read through the stack and one group of them had been written to a girl who never existed. Not the girl I used to be, but some girl I never was. They didn’t even warrant burning, but were torn to pieces instead.
However, on going through my files this weekend, I realized I have every draft of my thesis, and my first novel. Dozens and dozens of variations for a single poem. I have versions on floppy, and versions on CD, and paper copies. I have boxes of my own work, but no love letters.
I’m of severals minds about this. I know my relationships happened, and what they meant, the same way I know that I went to San Gimignano on a painfully beautiful day when I was twenty-one. I don’t need a record of my past to remember it. But that isn’t necessarily the point, memory.
The truth is, documentation is harsh. My reflections now are kinder to my past lovers, because no record exists to contradict the past as I write it. Don’t you see? Now we might be anything.
I’m at the point in the writing where the end of the novel is in every sentence–its inevitability, its weight and tragedy. It’s so blissful when you’re puzzling through this stuff, when you untangle the major threads, and the twists, and the climax, and have sorted the beast out. But then, when you must write their happiness, when you must make it honest and vulnerable and give it depth and humanity, knowing all along that you will tear it from them, well, then it gets tough.
If it didn’t feel real, it wouldn’t move you. It wouldn’t feel real, if it weren’t. I love and grieve for them. Like any mother, I want to spare them their suffering, but the writer, that nefarious creature, will have her spoils.
The narrative perspective for the new novel I’m writing is third person limited, which means I’m writing from the perspective of (in this particular case) three different characters. The narration is filtered through one of their perspectives at any given time. At present, I don’t go into anyone else’s perspective.
I am beginning to feel though, that the book might really be third person omniscient. In which case, the narration can move into any character’s perspective, and can even narrate things that the characters can’t possibly know (e.g. Thomas and Jordan pulled into traffic while three streets away a drunk driver ran a red light and floored the accelerator).
Perspective is a fascinating topic for writers. We love to tell you who cheats (Jane Austen) and whose dynamic narrational choices create unique opportunities previously unexplored (Ian McEwan). “The Jane Austen Book Club” would not have been the clever, layered story it became if it had been told in third person omniscient, or even first person singular. Why are the Sherlock Holmes stories narrated from Watson’s viewpoint? Because he’s an idiot who has to have everything explained to him, so the reader gets to be smarter than Watson, but surprised by Holmes.
Perspective. I might need to broaden mine.Read More
I like my heroes dirty. Just imagine how insufferable Christ would have been if he hadn’t hung out with hookers and tax agents. Prometheus chained to a rock for sneaking fire to mortals. Lyra abandoning her daemon Pan at the riverbank in the underworld. Stephen Maturin doping himself with laudanum and cocaine. Sacrifice means less if it costs nothing. I am a sucker for imperfect salvation.
I get my definition of lesbianism from Jesus at the Last Supper: This body broken for you. Take, eat you all of it.
Hey man, whatever you say.
I keep thinking of Eve and the snake, and that first delicious bite of apple, tart and dark with knowledge.Read More
How many fist fights have you had? I mean, real, honest, fist fights, not just pushing. The kind of fist fights where you realize that the human head is really hard. I have one of those Irish tempers so I’ve had some sprawling scraps. I’ve had adrenaline burn through my esophagus; I’ve been shaking and sick with it. I’ve been thrown into any number of potted plants.
One might ask what the point was? What did those fistfights ever get me? Were they productive?
Not strictly productive, no. No land grab, no score of resources or access rights. I’m not even sure they were a show of strength entirely. After all, I didn’t always win. So what was the point? I don’t think there was a point. I think they were an experience, each of them, like sexual conquests, daring and volatile. I think they were a proof that I was alive with wildness. Untamed, and sometimes, beyond my own or anyone else’s control.
Am I rationalizing violence? Of course. This skin is a costume I’m still adjusting to. Like any teenager, I was always seeking evidence of my own existence. Nothing quite as immediate and visceral as blood on your knuckles.
I’ve been in, and led, book groups for years, and one of the most difficult criticisms for me, is when a reader doesn’t like a character and decides that’s synonymous with not liking the book, as though one must like the character (or approve of the character) or the story fails. I’m drawn to characters I have to work to like; they feel more real to me.
I’m thinking of Susan and Maud in “Fingersmith” or Lyra in “The Golden Compass”—they’re complicated, and ambiguous, and dangerous, and they appeal to me for those very reasons. Is it fair to say that I like darkness—that I’m drawn to bad girls? Not entirely, but I’m curious about the struggle to be good. Most of us are neither heroes nor villains, but something in between. The way we deal with that struggle is the most fascinating thing about us, the thing that literature, in particular, explores so beautifully.
Storytelling is a perversion. No matter which character is speaking, to some extent, she is expressing my point of view. All my angles still emanate from my own perspective. My narrator is my witness, and not the other way round.
In life we lend so much credibility to our witnesses. My ex was amazing while I was sick: patient and supportive and nurturing. A witness to my illness and my recovery. How often do we mark the periods of our lives by whoever was with us as we went through them? Our witnesses are like music in that way: specific to a time and place in our journey.
I know your struggle because I have seen it. I have watched your growth. I have listened to your story and I am your witness. We share this experience of living, you and I.
gods and girls
Some writers out there must enjoy the godlike power of creating characters and the worlds they inhabit, and revel in the ability to control every aspect of those worlds, characters, plots. I, on the other hand, am completely undone by my characters’ struggles.
I keep hoping for them to make better choices, to suffer less, to attain a bit more happiness. My characters, I think, are often just a standin for my own dilemma. Last night I wrote a scene and cried my way through it, distraught and exhausted and weak, just like my character. Maybe the pros are better at distancing themselves from their work. Maybe they remain objective and amused—or so firmly in control of their work that the boundary of self is never breached. I only know I’m not there. I am more like the body they inhabit than the creator.
Jack Gilbert wrote: “What we feel most has no name but cinnamon, amber, archer, horses and birds.” I’ve been feeling that line today. Oh, the failure of language. The inability of words. I think sometimes how much easier if we just sensed one another like predators in the dark.
But I’ve also been thinking that we develop a code for love, words that represent all those concepts for which description is inaccurate. Crocodile of desire, for instance. My heart is a pitcher: tipped to your mouth. Always between us the memory of lemons. Is it possible, then, to speak only in pictures? To remove context and futile explanation, to balloon language into metaphor: Your mouth like summer, I run, barefoot now, toward your kiss.
You can almost feel Gilbert wanting to end that line earlier: “What we feel most has no name.” What we feel most. And so, poems: If I were a painter, how would I invent you? What color could ever capture the red red of your hair, or the startling gleam of your eyes? How could I shade the lithe and slender grace of your body? Or your mouth — my god your mouth — a place of forgetting.
So to abandon light and color for language, I find there are no words. Nothing to describe the slide of your skin, or the rest of your body against mine. Your name in my mouth is an incantation. Between us is a crocodile of desire. I am alight when I look at you. If it is true that we met god in a garden would that account for this notion of fruit trees when I am with you? There is memory in our cells of leaves and lemons. My love, your voice is a tether; bind to me.
This is a heady rush like shots of whiskey. And you are working to support the arch of her back, the delicate line of her throat. There is unraveling here, as with all mysteries, and an ache of memory. You know in that shuddering instant before she turns, that you are new and old and saved and lost and hers. Certainly hers. Marked, like all of us, flung from the garden.
The girl is a butterfly
You’re studying the girl as though she were a butterfly. Writing down the musculature and wingspan, sketching the antenna and colors, charting the flight pattern and region in your field guide as though you’d discovered a new species. You observe unobtrusively. And the more you watch, the more apparent the patterns become: the proclivity for a certain flower, the skills employed to evade predators, mating.
In fact, you want to believe that the throbbing flicker of this creature in between your thumb and forefinger is your discovery, previously unknown, and unknowable. You want to believe yourself scientific, a researcher. What, after all, is your objective, but the furtherance of knowledge?