Thursday, February 03, 2005


Dowsing around blogland, I find people and prose that speak to me, including Annette at thinking out loud ( ), who left behind a therapist role and finds herself, unaccountably, blog-stilled.

A old boyfriend M used to say to me, “If you don’t know what to do, sit down,” and as little as I trust many of his theories, this one, I think is sound. “Don’t just flail around,” he counsels, “wait for inspiration, think about what logically comes next, focus on what you want, and then act.”

I quoted old M to Annette over at thinking out loud and suggested that fiction might be a new arena for her, and then I realized that the advice was really for myself. Not quite sure where the idea came from, but suddenly there it was. The NaNoWriMo experience intrigued me, and I am warily circling round the concept, the very idea that I might start something new. Plots abound. All I need for plot I can get from mythology or from Shakespeare. (“That Shakespeare dude, he wasn’t much…all he did was string together a buncha quotes.” This from the radio talk shows of my youth, who also connived to convince themselves that the so-called moon shots just went “over there in East Alabama…I know that place, I been there.” )

There are a lot of places I know, even if I never have been there. That is the very fabric of fiction.

I have been reading David Mamet’s South of the Northeast Kingdom, which is mostly not even essays, just impressions of this amazing few hundred square miles that we call Vermont. Although my assessments of Mamet range from ambivalent (Glengarry Glen Ross, House of Cards) to approving (Writing in Restaurants and this current volume), my strongest association is to an evening in New York at the 92d Street Y, when Mamet and Horton Foote laid out the difference between writing for stage and screen.

They used as an example the way the different media might evoke impatience, time passing all too slowly. On stage, an actor might stride onstage, look at his watch, look at it again, shake it, tap it, stride up and down. In film, a broad panorama might give way to a man’s face, impatient, then a quick shot of a wrist turned ever so quickly. I was blown away, not by the obvious differences in approach, but by their straightforward assertion that writing is a craft, that it can be learned and practiced, and that fiction is a mechanical tool we use to convey truth.

Annette has a special story. As a therapist, she was been given the gift of her patients’ stories, and now that she is full up on stories, she is right to pause and consider what her next life stage might be. Those stories are a sacred trust, not meant to be regurgitated for gawkers. It may be that she needs to close the lid on that box and move on to something completely new, trusting her psyche to leave behind or refine whatever is there in its own time. I have to admit, I am in awe of the trust that she must have inspired working with people. She helped many, I am sure, but it is surely also true that each of Annette's patients made to her an offering of themselves. A professional exchange, yes, but also deeply personal.

Like any other former patient, I would be nervous if I thought that the anxious, even tortured, stuff of my personal journey was feedstock for someone else’s art. But deep embedded in those stories are strands of heroism, of love and loss, of hope and striving, of tragedy, and those transcendent morsels want to find expression in new tales with new listeners who will carry the spark into new acts of daily heroism. Any writer of stories inherently if not absolutely true carries the human spark of imagination and inspiration into the future.

If Annette had been my therapist and she started to write fiction, I would be anxiously scanning her work, afraid I would find petty details of my history, afraid I might not find evidence that I was one of the brave, creative ones that really touched her heart and spirit. No, if Annette decides to write fiction, maybe best do it under cover of a pseudonym. But this isn’t really about Annette; it is really about me, here in the ultimate me-land of blogdom.

We each have our own story, and it is an important part of our life work to tell it honestly and with compassion. Even that most personal story is fiction, since we can only imagine the secret hearts of even those closest to us. We owe it to ourselves to keep looking for our personal truth, neither beating our breasts nor raising our arms in victory, but honestly. We owe others the courtesy of recognizing that however much we care for them, their stories are not ours. Like the visitor at Town Meeting, we may be invited to comment, but we don’t have a vote. We owe others the courtesy of recognizing that our versions of their stories are fiction, always, even when we are trying to get to the truth. We owe others the cushion of saying to them, "I could be wrong." We owe ourselves the hard discipline of recognizing that we likely are wrong most of the time about other people's stories.

I suspect I have stories to tell. I have often had an inkling that writing would overtake me in middle age. And more and more, I suspect the stories I need to write are absolute fiction, stories of people I have never met, but fiction with a stone foundation of truth. Time will tell if this inkling unfolds into reality, or if it is just illusion born of two glasses of wine and avoidance of the State of the Union address.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Dear Karen

Is there any better evidence of your own exquisite skills as a writer than this very posting? The yearning is there, the rigor of perspective is there and so is that most elusive thing, the art. I think there's a neon sign flashing outside your window. And yet that's still too urban an image. As is yours about something that is overtaking you. That sounds like a bus on a freeway. I'd say this is more like the buds on the cherry tree that are beginning to explode into their white fire. Another side of you, and a kind of redemption, don't you think? There is no middle age for writers.