Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Just because it's fiction doesn't mean it's not real...

All writing is personal. And sometimes the best writing feels awful. I cut my teeth on personal narrative, though I didn't know that's what it was called at the time. I've written lots of fiction too, way more than the occasional short stories published in rather obscure literary journals. I even have a novel in a box, where it will probably live forever. Once I became accustomed to "letting it all hang out" with my writing, I needed fiction less and less often. 

A longtime friend and I have a running joke that came from the movie Postcards from the Edge (based on a book by Carrie Fisher). Whenever we have an experience that causes extreme public or social embarrassment, we shake it off with "it twirled up." In this scene, the daughter accuses the mother of inappropriate behavior. Her response? "IT TWIRLED UP."

When I coach writing clients who are working on personal narrative or memoir (or blogs), I often tell them that hitting "send" or "publish" for the first time is going to feel terrible. It's going to feel like your skirt blew up in public and everyone saw your panties. You'll feel exposed and vulnerable. And then you'll get used to it, eventually.

In the past few years, I've written more fiction than I did in college intensives. More than the novel in a box. It was a panacea for feeling like I lost my sense of humor, the tongue-in-cheek voice I had taken for granted for so long. Shit wasn't funny anymore and I had no distance. A therapist suggested I write about everything, but do it in the third person. So I did. And it made me remember why I started writing fiction in the first place. 

With personal narrative, especially humor, hyperbole is acceptable and expected. But it's still oops-it-twirled-up honest. Fiction gave me the freedom to tell the story any way I wanted to, to end it any way I wanted to, and the distance I needed so that it wouldn't make me sad. I've heard other fiction writers say that their work has no basis in their own lives, that it's entirely made up, and I believe them. Sort of. I have fiction writer friends who openly admit their stories are thinly disguised events from their lives. Joan Didion's fiction was (though she's better known for memoir). So was Nora Ephron's, Heartburn in particular. 

In the spirit of twirling up, for every writer I've ever encouraged to push "send," I'm going to share a cringe-worthy (at least to me) snippet of a short story that was published several years ago in a now defunct literary journal. The story is called "Running Away." 
Following suddenly interested in running father to country club track. Watching him on the pay phone from a distance. Healthy, running 5Ks and marathons and away. From my mother, with her quiet cancer. From four daughters with their female neediness. Running away from same, same, same houses on a military base where class mattered less than rank. His poor farming family. An Irish mob of a family in a tiny New York town across the Saint Lawrence River from Kingston Ontario. From dirt and poverty. Weekday mornings in his officers uniform, snapping his collar, snapping at females and poodles and leaving behind a sickeningly sweet cologne cloud.

Weekends, already getting fat at age nine, I put shorts and sneakers on. Followed him out of the house in the early dawn. Ran several yards behind him, knowing he saw me and only that he didn't order me to return home. Running to catch up. Running the miles around the houses on base until he stopped. In the lot of the officer's club. There was a pay phone outside. He held up his hand, motioned for me to turn back, left me behind until he was out of earshot, picking up the phone, cradling the receiver with his back to me. I wait. Stretch. I know. I know everything.
I would prefer this story die with it's out of print, never digitized publisher. It's awkward and weird and I think I was 22 or 23 when I wrote it. But fiction? Sure. Why not? From the age of 11, when my biological father left my mother the day after Christmas to move in with his girlfriend and start a new and improved family, I told people my father was dead. That I never knew him (this is true, and he might actually be dead now because I haven't had contact in years). It was easier than the complicated truth, that he left our family while my mother had just begun treatment for cervical cancer, that the only thing that saved us is that he was in the military and thus forced to pay child support. That he wanted nothing more to do with us. This fiction was the part of me that admitted the hurt and the guilt of knowing just how long before the leaving that the moving on began. 

This is a story I will never be able to tell as my own narrative, but it can still be told. It is not something I still grieve over. I've had a lot of good experiences in my life with men, fathers of friends, that showed me that men can love their daughters even though mine didn't. My "daddy issues" are no worse than most. I stopped trying to replace him a long time ago, around the time this story was published, maybe even because it was published. 

Writing is how I choose to heal, whether the words are truth or revisionist history. I could have made the story end in a different way, made my father a different man. I could write it three more times and have three different trajectories. But I don't have to because it's out there and it doesn't matter anymore. All of this is to say: I hope you get to know what it feels like, even just once, to let it twirl up. 


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