Saturday, May 22, 2010

Based on a True Story

I'm trying something new. I'm writing an essay.

The essay is actually a take-off of one of my posts here, that odd little bit I wrote about how I should have married Michael Jackson. For the purposes of this blog, I tried to narrow the focus to something writing-related; I had just finished my book and, as a result, I was suffering from a sort of free-fall. It can feel that way, can't it? We writers need a project. Now. If I don't have a place to blast away this manic writing-energy, I'll spin off into fantasies that are utterly bizarre even for fantasies. I mean, Michael Jackson? When I was eight, I wanted to marry John Schneider. At twelve, Kirk Cameron; Johnny Depp at twenty. And at thirty-five, this wobbly, emaciated, eccentric (to put it kindly), and frail person: half-little boy, half-icon. Both awe-inspiring and pathetic. A man who had had so much plastic surgery his nose was dissolving away by the end.His own sister called him a pedophile. This larger-than-life tragifigure, a generous philanthropist, a gifted artist, and one of the most magnificent entertainers of our time. A damaged soul.

Anyway, the essay. With my fiction, I've rarely been able to draw a clear line between my own life experiences and the events in my stories. My characters are composites, my settings are hugely embellished versions of real-life places I know, and my plots are (usually) entirely concocted. Sure, I use plenty of autobiographical info. for the details, but at least on the surface, the work is not about me. In fact my goal, as a fiction-writer is to get out of the way of the story.

But, now, with my essay I can unapologetically focus on myself. I can ramble on about my odd obsessions and pontificate on what all this MJ-obsession might mean. Is it related to my childhood? My relationship with my father? Does it have something to do with how tragedy and magic and regret and ambition have played out in my own life? Is it because I really do love to dance? I can self-diagnose, self-obsess, self-deprecate, self-pity. I can sit by the pond and bend forward, gazing deeply into my neuroses. Admire them, love them, throw rocks at them.

Yet, of course, all this self-stuff is inherently risky in a way fiction-writing isn't: it's me. No hiding behind a hypothetical father-daughter relationship, no variables, no alternate realities. The tough truths I expose--to myself and to others--are about me. The character squirming there on the page--oh, crap--that's me.

And I still have to worry about the reader. It always comes back to the reader. If I keep the essay so narrow that it never rises up to meet the reader, or, in the very least, to offer the reader a way into the story--then all I have is a diary entry. And, an uninteresting one at that. Even I get tired of myself. Writing is dialogue with the world, even if you do it all alone.

PS. I knew I had to write about Michael Jackson because my response to his death was just way too much. I was painting my kitchen and crying. I watched Thriller on youtube, showed my kids a video of MJ's very first moonwalk. The very first time I spoke with my agent on the phone--when he called to offer representation--I babbled on and on about Michael Jackson. (My agent, btw, is incredibly gracious and very, very patient with me. After I launched into my wreckless babbling, he didn't even try to rescind his offer. Instead, he chuckled good-naturedly and changed the subject.) Anyway, I figured it was time to write it out and be done with it. So much of this writing-thing is about that, writing it out. Anybody know what I'm talking about?


Richard said...

I love this! I had a similar reaction to the death of MJ. However, mine was more internal. I was in a state of disbelief. Was the king of pop really dead? I had this nagging feeling of void that told me he was, but I still wanted it to all be a mistake! I'm young, but I grew up on his music. I remember the moon walk, Thriller, Billie Jean, and all the rest!

Thank you for sharing this blog. It is so helpful to those of us who are up and coming writers! Keep writing, I can't wait to read more!


Kathy Waller said...

I like the images of the essay rising up to meet the reader and offering him a way in. They imply an active reader seeking to be part of dialogue.

Is the imagined reader enough to satisfy the writer? Or is some kind of publication necessary?

Susan Woodring said...

Wow, Richard! So nice to hear from you! Thank you for your comment and your encouragement. So glad you're taking the writing-plunge. Must have been your 8th-grade English teacher who first inspired you. :)
(For anyone who's reading this who isn't Richard--he was actually a member of my very first class. Ah. That was a million years ago...)

Susan Woodring said...

Kathy, that's such a good question. I think yes and no. There's an essay by Andre Dubus where he discusses the writing habits of his friend, Richard Yates. They are discussing how very difficult it is to make a living as a writer and about how different grants and so forth keep them going for a while--including some really prestigious ones--and Richard says, "All I really want are readers." I think that's true for most writers. I do think that ultimately, no, the idea of a reader is not enough, but I also think that publication in and of itself is not enough, either. I think I'm more aware of the reader--as an idea or an eventual reality-- though, when I'm working on nonfiction. Since it's about me, it's going to be me--my motivations, my actions, my words--that the reader is considering from this readerly, out-there space. I am seeking connection as a writer and as an ordinary person, spilling my guts.

Jessie Carty said...

I think writing essays can be such a powerful experience, to truly write something out but you are right about how draining they are, how much truth you end up pulling up that you didn't even realize was there! But go for it! I just revised one that has been turned down several times about my experience with Layaway. Everyone says - I Like it - but it isn't a fit. ARGH!

Susannah said...

Excellent piece, Susan!

Here's what struck me so much I was taking notes: "Get out of the way of the story...story rise up & meet the reader, offer the reader a way in...writing is dialogue with the response was just way too much...write it out and be done w/ it..."

Getting out of the way of the story is so hard! Especially because the story - for me anyway - is always, on some level, something I'm still responding to. The work then becomes what is it I'm still responding to? Why? Why would anyone else care? Where's the story that will give the reader a way to care about this thing that's struggling to get free??

And then I it just me who thinks like this? Am I a little nutty here?

My primary sounding board (that precious man I share my life with) sometimes does think I'm a little nutty, & that I "think waaaaay too much." What a relief to know I'm not alone in some psychic wilderness! ;)

Susan Woodring said...

Jessie, your comment reminds me of a Mary Karr interview I read some time ago. She was speaking of the process of writing her memoir, the Liars' Club, and she said that it was so exhausting, dealing with all those childhood memories, that she would write for like an hour and a half and then fall down on the ground and sleep for eight hours. It just takes so much from you.

Good luck with your fiction piece. Your determination and drive inspire me.

Susan Woodring said...

Susannah, I know EXACTLY what you mean. I never really feel like I have any idea what I'm writing about until I get all the way through the first draft, and even then, as you say, I'm still responding to it as I go--discovering the story all the way through several, several drafts. I think this is a sign you've hit upon something really extraordinary. This is part of what makes writing so hard: you're frantic to nail down this thing that is un-nail-downable. But, that's where the energy is. Writing from this manic space is what brings out the good stuff. I promise. Keep on!!

Susannah said...

As I said above...Thank you for your bold encouragement here. I so appreciate what you've said!

Jessie Carty said...

Thanks Susan! I have read Mary Karr's first two memoirs and "The Liar's Club" had to be difficult to write, in particular, but if it can help people then I'll keep trying.

My latest attempt at a short story seems to be babbling along and is now at 3200 words. What!

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