Thursday, December 15, 2005

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius

This is the title of a one-time best-selling book. It sounds quite self-conscious from the few descriptions I read, from the title to the characters critiquing the narrative they're participating in. Notwithstanding, I would give it a try if I had not read Sheila's December 14 post. I simply don't need to bother, because now I know what heartbreaking genius looks like.

Read it all, as the man says. Afterward you may better understand the confession below.

I've told tales for as long as I can remember. My first "real" story is a dreadful mishmosh of Star Wars and the Hobbit, with cruel witches, heroic captians, and planets whipping merrily through space shooting rays at each other. I was six.

No-one else knows for sure what my first-grade teacher thought of the exercise. In miniature, I was as painstaking as Lucas or Tolkein - I included a copyright and index (the entire story is probably 150 words, mind), and invented something called a light-year decade. I wanted it to be the best book ever.

Flash-forward three years. Now I'm writing longhand, cursive, in any wire-bound notebook I can find. Of this, nothing has been saved, but I do vividly remember one story: My childhood friend Raun and I are playing football in my front yard when a sudden gust dumps a pile of autumn leaves on us; we discover that they are not just golden-colored, but actual gold. From there, 9-year-old logic takes over. What do you do with gold leaves? Too heavy to carry, too hard to pile and jump in. Where does gold go, anyway, after it wafts to the ground? Duh - it goes to Fort Knox.

There's no antagonist, and plot holes the size of the Chrysler Building - why would Mom and Dad have the Pentagon on speed dial? (Was there even speed dial yet?) Oh, of course they took the call. Naturally, they came right over. And so we were off, escorted by a general (or George C Scott dressed like one), trailed by more cops than the final fifteen minutes of Blues Brothers. I don't remember the rest, but I do remember how I felt writing it. One thought rode below every detail and supported everything I tried to put into it: tell the truth. If it didn't make sense I rewrote until it did. Now, it stands out like a stoplight in a cornfield: the cheerful benevolence of all concerned. Happiness made sense; there were no exploiting adults, no shadowy conspiracies, no suspicion or subterfuge.

Off and on through grade school and high school, I wrote about anything in whatever manner would occur to me: prose, poems, sports, sci-fi, parody. Then I made a terrible mistake while taking creative writing courses in college. I decided that I had to Mean Something. Everyone else seemed to. Good writing was apparently just like eating your vegetables - no good unless you learned something, or if you enjoyed it. So I wrote a dreadful morality play that nonetheless earned great praise from most of my peers and the teacher. (I said the Right Things, God help me.) I paid a good deal of attention to the construction of the story, including all the things a good story should have - foreshadowing, character arc, flawed heroes, rich descriptives. Unfortunately I succeeded. I hit all the right notes, never realizing that together they played no tune.

Over that winter's break, my father passed away. I scored my best grades the next semester, probably to keep myself numb. Next fall I had my next writing course, and turned in a better story - for a moment, I recaptured the desire to get it right, to truthfully explore the terror and guilt of loss, and succeeded well enough to earn a double-edged gift in reply from my professor: "You have a mastery of the narrative voice. I'm not sure you have the right voice for your narrator, but it runs the whole story without a false note." That's some high-proof hooch to pass to a 20 year-old writer, and it went clean to my head. Should have been enough to ruin me for good and all, too, but God stepped in with a double-edged gift of His own. I got the chicken pox and was forced to withdraw for the semester.

Eventually I lost the writing for a while. I was seeing someone, and was so deeply serious about it that I never allowed myself to notice that she was increasingly less serious. Eventually she broke it off by telling me that she had been seeing someone else. It was a toxic stew. That betrayal, and guilt for my own failure and inattentiveness, and crippling emptiness, combined with something that had been growing in me through my writing - as I increased in skill and craft, I lost the small secret that turns the writing into an actual tale. I immediately applied this mistake to my pain and began writing "to heal." I sent back all her letters to me - "I won't be needing them anymore," I said. I burned the wallet photo I had of her. They were all symbolic works, and all kept me from the trouble of actually dealing with anything important. Who needs life when you can act like you're alive? I could go long stretches like the ideal Christian Man I had to be, lest others know my true, dark self. I began to enjoy the idea of having a true, dark self that nobody really knew. I tossed layer upon layer on myself until the whole structure tottered.

For a few years I did many of the things on this list, knowing it would make me (and others) miserable. I wanted punishment. Just dying would have let me off the hook, and I was determined to pay my own price in full. But it was stupid. After a while despair was, in its own twisted sense, fun, an indulgence. I was a tragic figure who would thus be able to make a great biography after I finally crossed from the stage, with the laments of my grateful public to ease my passing. In effect, I was offering play money to discharge a real debt, and God met irony with irony - I wound up costing some of my dearest friends real hardship while I indulged in fantasy suffering. I still hadn't gone through it, until one of these friends casually mentioned that his wife knew my ex. Married now, you know, with a kid.

"Good for her!" I said, because that's what you should say. But those were the words that finally wrote myself into a corner I could not escape on my own. I was led out by Christ. I don't know if there was any other answer for me. I fear that I would have fulfilled my selfish wishes, and condemned myself to something that death could not cure; and I still work on it now. That's how it goes. Suffering is harder than analyzing the suffering, just as telling the substance of the story is harder than the actual craft of writing. Both are, I hope, coming along.

That's what I thought about when I read Sheila's post. It brought me back to those days in a moment. I saw myself knock on her door, ready to finally tell her everything. (More acting, I'm afraid, though at the time I didn't know it.) And when she answered, with the familiar look of welcome and anticipation, I was ready for my close-up - but she broke from character. She saw that it was me, and in an instant her face just folded. I was the moment she hoped she wouldn't have to endure, and she was resigning herself to it. It was worse than hatred, worse than a shout or a slap. It was so shocking that I have never before or since been so helpless. My mouth became so dry that I physically couldn't talk properly. Oh, I tried anyway, in such a fog that, when she finally shut the door on me, I rather stupidly walked into it, assuming that I must be allowed in. And under its influence I drove home utterly convinced that I was fine, that I was wronged but above retaliation. (I retaliated against myself instead.)

Sheila wrote for herself, not me, and if it's a subtle trap to apply it to myself, fine. I'm caught. Her post kicks the leaves away from the snare and leaves it plain. It was what I needed to hear, perhaps as much as she needed to say it. I can't thank her enough.

One of the side effects of the attitude of my earlier life is that, whenever I see well-done writing, I immediately think of two things - first, that it's good, and second, that if I were only more dedicated, I could match that standard. But I never enjoyed anything anymore; along with the power to move I lost the power to be moved. I was like a man who thought he loved food because he knew how to cook. For the first time in a long time, reading Sheila's post, I rejoiced that it was written, that a marvelous work was done.

It may be said, in reply, that I've had some pretty good posts of my own lately, and I hope that's true, because I want to do well. But you'll notice that a good many of them are simply inspired by other posts. It didn't occur to me, until I read Sheila, that I had this post inside me. I never put my list into words until a syndicated columnist prodded me. Many of my stories-in-progress were prompted by dissatisfaction of ones I'd read - I wanted to see them done right. You could say that's a step gained, the recovery of my desire to tell the truth. I hope that's it. But it also says that there's something I lost between 9 and 33 that I haven't fully recovered, the internal spark that had me writing at every odd moment, bringing my own work to life instead of needing a jolt from others. It's the difference between Frankenstein and his monster. I've largely escaped the doom I sought, but what did it cost me? Whatever else happens I don't want to write "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." I want to describe what that nine-year-old boy saw when he looked at the world.

(By the bye, a "light-year decade" is 20 years long, and the witch tries to put Captain Michael, our dashing hero, to sleep for that length. It about worked, too, but the good people helped end the curse early. "What happened to me?" he asked when he came to. Thanks for telling me, Sheila. And thank you, good people all.)

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