May 04, 2007

Writer Without a Story: The End of Something

A man and a woman, or whatever combination you like, are sitting sipping mochas in the sleekest café in town. A conversation is in progress:

“My mother – “

“My father –“

“My ex-husband – “

“My ex-wife – “

“My childhood – “

“That’s so weird! My childhood too!”

“And those people I work with – “

“I know what you mean.”

“This is so great! We’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes and I feel like I know you.”

“I feel that too.”

This is known as making a connection. We sit knee to knee and validate each other’s stories. Each other’s myths, projections, illusions. And so we make a pact. We vow to love, honor, and cherish each other’s stories until we find a more rapt audience.

This is what I don’t want to do anymore. It’s particularly relevant for me at this point because I’m starting to date after a long marriage. Very fine people, too. I’m still playing the game, loving to swap stories, and more than ever, loving to listen.

You can’t banish your stories. We carry them – no, they carry us – through life. And maybe “I won’t settle for guarding the stories” is an additional story. But you can at least notice.

Notice how you can love someone whose story doesn’t fit yours. You can love them just for having a story, no matter what it is. And love them for starting to leave the story behind despite how long they’ve sheltered it. Together you might watch your stories pass through your minds, watch them jump from mind to mind, and smilingly wave to them as they move across the screen and into the wings.

What would a relationship look like if it wasn't based on the partners' validating each other's stories? Maybe two people listening closely to reality. Maybe deep silence.

One of the things I learned at the School was that I can love people without regard to how much I think they resemble or complement me. During partner work, I deliberately tried to find people I wouldn’t have chosen at first sight, people much older or younger than me, people I considered too beautiful or too plain, gays and lesbians, and people I had disliked at first sight for one shallow reason or another. Not only did I in every case find them to be wonderfully interesting and to make as much connection with me as anyone else did, but in many cases I found that the less like mine their life experiences had been the more I warmed to their souls, and in a strange way, the more I identified with them. I was finding what was underneath and what was constant. (I should make clear that I’m not ordinarily an opposites-attract kind of person. The people I’m attracted to, either sexually as friends, have been the ones I’ve felt were most like me.) They were me in other costumes.

There was a brief moment of remorse, even horror, in this: the remorse of seeing that all the things I disliked about others were projections of what I feared or disliked in myself. The horror of seeing that many of the people I had been friends with or fought with throughout my life had been hallucinations. The remorse was quickly drowned by joy – a novel experience in itself.

Yes, to spout a cliché, I found my joy at the School. For the past three weeks I’ve been going around grinning to myself, smiling at strangers, saying the extra thank you, carrying on the conversation for an extra moment, and importantly, doing the thing I want to: doing what my first impulse tells me, not overriding it with a second impulse.

There are beautiful parts of yourself you’ve kept hidden all your life simply because other people, who were hiding things of their own, belittled yours. Or only because you imagined they did. It wasn’t so bad for the things you knew you were hiding; they were a secret treasure, a glowing jewel in a cave, which you could retreat to and sit near for light and warmth. But some you hadn’t known were there at all, till you stumbled over them in the dark.

As you find them, the insincerity leaves your voice. Maybe because deep in the cave, the things you stumble into hurt more.

I’m a writer. If I don’t have stories, what can I write? If I don’t want to sustain others’ stories or my own, what characters can I write about? Who would I be if my writing weren’t a theater for the drama of grandiosity versus shame: How good is it, is it good enough, will they accept it, it’s great! I’m great!, it’s too good for them, oh no I was fooling myself and it’s terrible.…

Those characters of mine: just projections of me, a decades-long exercise in self-therapy of the most inefficient sort. Had I ever really created a character or a story? What would happen if I renounced the ratchety, whining machinery of “creative writing,” if I renounced characterization, the endless round of reincarnation of my culture’s types? What if I just waited for something to arise from the dark well?

As Katie says, Who knows? But here: as my characters become more unlike me, they need me more. If I’m writing a disguised version of myself, or a composite of two people I know, I’m not creating anything that doesn’t already exist more fully in real life. But if I’m truly creating a character, someone entirely new, then that person only exists in me. I am his birthplace, his native soil; I’m the only one who can bring him to life. Whether he ever makes it into the outside world or not, he exists as long as he’s in here. I watch him pass across the stage, and we wave, and he thanks me for the only life he’ll ever have. And I thank him for helping me be more people than I ever knew.

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