Last Monday afternoon, I was at my favorite seat in the Haymarket, innocently drinking my large dark roast with soy milk and Splenda, when I came to a realization. It was about my novel. Now, my novel isn't something that I spend a lot of time talking about, so I'll apologize if the territory is unfamilliar. But since you all seem to be perfectly okay with my revealing WAY too much information at times, let me introduce you all to the idea.
I'm writing a novel. That's it. (If you ask me about it, I'll likely tell you, "you know, it's the Great American one.")
Anyways- the realization. Well, there were a couple of realizations, to be fair. The first realization is that the novel will never be finished if I can't come up with some sort of structure for it. (I know. Duh.) I'm not a big believer in outlines, so I basically have an enormous list of chapters that I've written, and chapters that I wish to write. As I was looking them over, I realized that the "chapters that I've written" list centers on all of my wonderful, eccentric, peripheral characters, and when I looked at the list of "chapters to be written," nearly all of them concern my protagonist, Ilsa.
Ilsa scares the fuck out of me. She grew up overweight and unhappy, then was struck with a mysterious illness, which turns out to be just about the worst case of Hodgkin's Disease EVER, and spends the rest of the book recovering.
She's the one they're all going to say is me.
But she's not. And the painful thing, the reason she scares me so, is that when I visit the pain that she goes through, I will be revisiting all of the awful stuff that I've been through, that I try my best to just forget about. Still, the circumstances of her life may mirror my own, but she is a completely different person. I will argue this with anyone, any time.
Realization number two: no one is going to buy that argument.
Which is fine with me, and something I just have to accept as a writer. Often times, when I say that I'm writing a book, people assume that it's going to be an autobiography, a memoir for the ages, recounting all my dramas, medical and otherwise. This is something that I will never, EVER do. Not just because it would be terribly torturous to re-live endless stem cell transplants and near-death experiences, but because I know that it would be full of lies.
"Lies?" you ask. Yes, lies. Untruths, exaggeration, hyperbole- whatever you'd like to call it. I've caught myself before, saying that I've been sick for ten years (more like 5), spent months in the hospital (3 weeks at most), and had several brushes with death (only one major). Why did I say these things? Probably because that's how it felt. And it's not my intention at all to exaggerate, just my instinct. But is it the truth? Absolutely not.
Which brings me to something that's been bothering me. Now, I'm not one of those current event bloggers, (and maybe it's not even a current event anymore), but I need to talk about James Frey.
I haven't read the book. I've heard that the writing is incredible. And I've heard that he is a liar, an exaggerator, a teller of untruths. This bothers me immensely, and I feel as though I am one of the few people in the world who has any sympathy for him. His book, his memoir, is his personal history, as he sees and feels it. Is his exagggeration in telling the story of his near life-long struggle with a horrible disease any different than mine would be? Apparently, James Frey only spent one night in jail, not months, as he said. I was only in the hospital for three weeks, not months, as I said. Would I be hung out to dry the way that he has been? If I told you I was in the hospital for months, and you found out that it was only three weeks, would you call me a liar?
You'd probably just shrug it off and say, "Oh, it must have felt like months." That's how I feel toward James Frey. 'That's what it must have felt like.' And this is his memoir, HIS truth. How dare I judge his struggle? A personal history is the truth as seen by its author. And just because his disease is alcoholism and drug addiction, he is judged more harshly. His disease was no less self-inflicted than my disease was. The problem with his situation is mostly in the way society views addiction, which is sad, and the thing that makes me feel sick to my stomach when some self-righteous person on television tears into him. All I can do is watch him and think- that could very well be me.
Okay, now someone please kick the soap box out from under me.
Anyways...I realized that it was the writing of Ilsa's story that I had been avoiding, and I then delved into one of the most difficult parts of her story. It was a small beginning, but a beginning nonetheless. I felt good that I had done it, but it was a VERY hard thing to do.
Of course, I know that nothing good comes easy, especially for those of us who seem to catch all of the bad breaks. When you get a potentially fatal disease, you spend a lot of time thinking about the things you'd leave behind. And to be completely honest, my novel is the only thing that I really worry about, besides my friends and family.
I know it sounds like one of those stupid, pretentious writer things to say, but my characters are living people. Whether they exist in some parallel dimension or simply in my head, they only seem to communicate their stories through me. Even Ilsa, who is so like me that it sometimes hurts.
But the hurt is the thing that needs to be pushed through, and I guess that I've just got to apply the methods that I've learned to push through the physical pain to the mental bullshit.
And whether I get hit by a bus on the way to work tomorrow or die peacefully in my sleep at 127, I want to leave my characters safely in this world. And my own story can be distorted, they can all take Ilsa, slap my name on her, and assume that she is me. Because even though that's not reality, it may become more real with time, until no one remembers the difference- the truth.
Whatever that is.