Tuesday, April 16, 2013

You Don't Know Who I Really Am

I am misunderstood a lot. I'm used to it. My tone is sometimes drier, or more sarcastic than people expect. People who don't know me are often surprised that I have children. You're a mom? they gasp. Sometimes, it's hard to know me. I keep stuff in. I'm not always open with my feelings. My mom has always said that if something happened to me -- a divorce, lost job, etc -- she would know maybe six months later. Probably, this is a trait that I got from my dad. He was good at keeping up appearances. Worried that anyone would notice if something was not just right. He had a public persona, and a private persona, and probably a hidden persona too. He used to tell us, You don't know who I really am. 

My point here, is that I'm used to it. For years, a lot of my family, and many of my friends have not
quite known me. In particular, my family has assumed that I write about my brother -- without really taking into consideration that most fiction writers don't write about anyone. What we do is more complicated than that -- it's a pastiche of many things, many people, many traits, bits of conversations overheard, the weird things that happen to people, or the bad decisions they make.

Bad decisions make good stories.  Right? I'm used to it.

But this week, I experienced something new, or something I guess maybe I haven't in a long time: another writer misunderstood my work.

Look, I hate fictional bean counting. It makes me squeamish -- that constant looking for where you might be in a story. It's self-destructive, to the person doing the looking, and it's hurtful to the writer.  Of course I've included details from things I've seen or heard or experienced. How could I not? In fact, I like to think that that exactly what makes me a writer: I notice everything. I'll notice if you have freckles in your eyelids. If you have one green fingernail. If your voice cracks like you have indigestion, or if you have a slightly wandering eye. Everything. And I remember most things too. Conversations, smells, colors. It doesn't matter what I get wrong. If your bathroom was yellow and I remember it as pink, in my story, it's pink, because it's real to me.

People either love it, or they hate it. I don't know how many assholes in bars have said to me, You should write about me. I've had an interesting life. People hear you're a writer, they have suddenly have shit to say to you. Or not. The flip side is Don't you dare put that in a story. 

But I'm not putting anyone in a story. Only pieces. Shards. Tiny slivers of ghosts.

What I'm talking about is craft. The process. Creation. It's like pulling threads from a thousand different raveling blankets and making a rug.

In college, a professor told me that Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher used to argue about who
would get to steal the conversation they'd heard at a party. And after all, it was lovely Oscar Wilde who said, Good writers borrow, great writers steal.

The story in question is one that I think of as here. In my own backyard. The location is never named, but as I've gotten used to this town, it shows up more in my work. Another story, Flood, takes place right on our street, in a house we considered buying, but really, they could be anywhere. In any upstate NY town, or in Washington State, near my mom. There's something desolate about the rural roads, about the trailers, about a cemetery underneath pines.

Am I stealing? I'm listening. I'm always listening, watching, tasting. And the only way you can stop me is to stay away from me. Maybe that's a decision for some, but I hope not. I don't think of myself as a threat, or even a thief. Only a writer.

P.S. THIS is what you get when you google image search "sexy writer." Right. On.