Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Writing on Writing, Part Eleven

An article in the March 1 edition of The American Prospect by Elizabeth Benedict got me to thinking about writers and writing. It also got me thinking about the foundation of where I come from as a writer and what forms my expression in words.

Eleventh in a Series

(Part One)

(Part Two)

(Part Three)

(Part Four)

(Part Five)

(Part Six)

(Part Seven)

(Part Eight)

(Part Nine)

(Part Ten)

I remember once years ago showing one of my plays to a colleague in grad school – I think it was Dark Twist. He read it, handed it back and sighed, “It’s so you.” Although I don’t think he meant it that way, I took it as a compliment and was flattered.

There’s no such thing as “true fiction.” All the characters I create are me or an aspect of me, and if I model them on people I know, it’s as if they’re being seen through my eyes. Even the women sound like me, I suppose, although I must say that I have been accused – fairly – that I don’t write stories with a lot of female characters. I don’t know why that is; perhaps it’s because I don’t have a lot of “issues” with women and it’s tough to write interesting characters if you get along well with them.

One thing I’ve learned as I write is that we human beings spend a lot of our adult lives making up and making amends for the slights and traumas of childhood. Writing is a wonderful way to change history. I was a geeky, scrawny teenager with terrible grades, so Bobby is strong, good-looking, and a B+ student. He makes friends easily; I did not. But I also gave him some struggles that I never had. He has a distant relationship with his parents; I am close to mine. And Bobby is, by the age of twenty, on the way to being an alcoholic. I don’t drink, but that’s because I’ve seen the effect it has on others and I’d rather not take the chance. He’s me, just as is Richard, the narrator of Bobby’s story, or Lee in The Hunter and the sequel The Purer, Brighter Years, Paul in Dark Twist, and Donny in Can’t Live Without You. They’re just different facets of the same person. Is there some deep psychological purpose in exploring all these different people with unique personalities and quirks? Is there some kind of multiple-personality disorder going on, or is it just a healthy form of artistic expression and exploration? Hell if I know; I’m just the writer.

Why do writers feel the need to change history? And what makes them think that anyone else could possibly care to read about their personal lives and the little mundanities that go with it? Is it all just a big ego trip?

I don’t presume to speak for other writers. For me all I know is that there is something that is completed when I write a story. It is as if the struggle to get thoughts from my head through to the keyboard and into some coherent form on a page or a dance of electrons resolves and reshapes whatever it was that compelled me to tell the story in the first place. The characters that populate the story are my messengers and metaphors. (I have a friend – a fellow playwright and set designer – who describes actors as “props with feet.”) As I said in the previous installment, it really doesn’t matter to me whether or not the story is published or the play is produced. To me the act of completion is in the telling in my own words, not in having to tell the world. I save that for blogging.