An untitled article in which I confess that, apparently, I like to lie in bed late at night and think about Christopher Moore… and I’m not sure that isn’t as creepy as it sounds.
I’ve mentioned this before, but while I’ve been trying to figure out this story idea and get up the nerve to actually write it, I’ve been reading some Etgar Keret who, as I’ve said, has been exactly what I needed to read style-wise but not I was looking for in terms of content. It’s also been an excuse to read more Christopher Moore, as if anyone has ever needed convincing to do that. For anyone not familiar with Christopher Moore, the simplest way to describe his writing is to say he’s the American Douglas Adams, but that may be oversimplifying things. However, for anyone not familiar with Douglas Adams, I must politely ask you to fuck off.
Moore is hilarious and absurd but no less a great and gifted storyteller for that, and completely right about everything while being utterly tragic and sad and really just perfect in so many ways all at once. I may be man-crushing a bit. Or is it… author-crushing?
It’s in his humor and absurdity that he truly hits his stride in the sense that he uncovers a truth about life or some fundamental, universal and completely overlooked fact of existing in this ridiculous world in such a way that, while not expecting the moment to come from him (because he’s a funny man, he can’t be sad and real), and not expecting it to be delivered as it is, he makes even an insignificant line or description stand out to you. Because in dealing with the funny or the absurd, and these comic characters, his imagination is able to look at the simplest things in a fresh way. A way someone focused on writing realistic (depressing, cold, boring) literary fiction never would.
As a reader, that moment creeps up on you while you read and uncover the words and the world and his meaning and what he’s really saying to you. As a writer, should you like to believe yourself to be one, you die a little inside because this guy just described something beautifully—more beautiful and true and original then your talentless-serious-literary-fiction-ass could.
“They stopped when he spoke. One of them hissed—not the hiss of a cat, a long, steady tone—more like the hiss of air escaping the rubber raft that is all that lies between you and a dark sea full of sharks, the hiss of your life leaking out at the seams.”
Well, maybe I’m being a little hard on myself, and maybe that isn’t even that great a line. It’s late, I should get some rest. I couldn’t sleep and this is what came out. And really… No, you know what? That was perfect. The way he said it and when he said it and just everything—everything about it. I needed that. I needed that reminder…
As a writer, it is necessary to channel your emotions into your characters who cannot convincingly exist until you do. As a human being who should value maintaining their sanity, however, you have to recognize when to let go of those insecurities and regrets that are holding you back.
I have spent my fair share of time in bars, enough that I feel at home in them. I’m ok sitting alone at a bar, having a drink by myself. Now, I can’t walk through a grocery store without being terrified of who might be looking at me, but sitting at a bar—not even writing or reading or looking something up, but just having a quiet moment to myself and my pint—I’m comfortable doing.
As a writer, of course, I’m in love with bars and the idea of bars as they relate to writing—and specifically, to the author. There’s the classic image of the author who’s soul is inescapably tied to the words he bleeds onto the page. He sits behind the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts at the corner booth made of dark wood and ancient, weathered deep burgundy leather; the author’s home away from home, intended not only to allow him to sit back and view the comings and goings and general inebriated happenings but to sit at the center of a spirited evening complete with life-changing drunken philosophical debates on those occasions he is joined by friends or friendly rival authors, and of course the alcohol which is as constant as the notebooks and ceaselessly shuffled and rearranged pages of notes and unfinished plots and tales put on hold until the proper hero or villain or motivation can be discovered.
But that is the idea. It has to be just an idea. That is the romantic side to writing I’m not sure exists anymore (if it ever did) and is not one that can be realistically maintained. And not just because you’re no longer allowed to smoke in bars.
Because what is the reality of that lifestyle? Beyond the ultimate financial impossibility of sustaining it, this lifestyle is cirrhosis, lung cancer, and the inability to walk out into direct sunlight without immediately bursting into flames.
I suppose the same could be said for the average unfulfilling, fluorescent light-drenched cubicle job that’s available today.
There’s also the forgetting.
There are the details you miss and the stories that are gone because you flushed them out of your soul with too many drinks. There is always the lingering feeling that there was a story. At some point that night, you heard a line or a fragment of some recollection, and you were so excited—that is the opening line; that would be the perfect short story; there is the perfect starting point for this character. Perfect. Perfect and it’s gone. Sure, in reality it wasn’t perfect. You were drunk. But it could have been a start. It isn’t even that now.
The forgetting leads to the regret, that two-faced demon of the drunk, the devil on each shoulder that will poke at you and whisper in your ear incessantly for days afterwards. You regret what you’ve forgotten and you regret what you remember, as that comes back to you only in glimpses and flashes with the fuller details you need to survive lost in the fumes.
Perhaps this is the power of that romantic image of the solitary author drinking himself into the shadows. There he is in a corner booth of some ancient tavern, lost behind the smoke and the booze and the stacks of shuffling unfinished lives he is the master of. You don’t see that he is now too scared to send those lives out into the world.
He has bought into this as well. He lets this unattainable standard of “the writer” cloud what could be, instead of trying simply and honestly to live up the standard of what he can be. Instead, he tries to drink away the insecurities, the doubt, and the fear and drown himself in the caricaturist image of what an author should look like.
It doesn’t wash away those anxieties. The false hope of a light buzz after a drink or two will give way to the sloppiness of drinks three through 4 AM, and clouds the careful eye that would make a writer that recorder of human nature he needs to be; it blurs and obscures the unique minuteness of life he prides himself on noticing.
For that he is rewarded with regret for having squandered another opportunity, and with this misstep he deems himself forever unworthy of any rewards, be it the inspiration, the recognition, the camaraderie of achievement.
That is the power of this image. It serves as one more excuse for him to hide behind, one more reason he doesn’t live up to this profession, this calling. He doesn’t sit there to tap into a vein of inspiration or serve as a social focal point, as he tries to so hard to convince himself he does. Instead he sits there to hide behind the regrets he can barely remember but never give up, and fade away into the myth of the great writer that only exists in his egotistical imagination, the myth of his potential.
So rather than take a chance, he’ll take a drink. At least he knows where that will lead.
In a story I’ve yet to finish to my satisfaction, I named a character Kevin. Didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. He was mentioned only once, and his exact role, his actions were never explicitly said. What happened between him and the narrator of this story was alluded to, and sure, anyone could figure out what had happened between them. But he—that name—was only mentioned once. He wasn’t a real character, I suppose, is what I mean to say. His actions were the character; how he influenced the trajectory of these characters’ back-story, that was important, that was the character. Kevin was the fog of a nightmare that these characters were trying so desperately to run from. But he wasn’t a character. His name didn’t matter to me.
It didn’t matter until I accidentally started writing a prequel of sorts to that story which made the Kevin character the third of a three-pronged attack on the main character’s sanity. It started to matter then because one of my closest friends is named Kevin. That makes me uncomfortable. Do other writers have this reaction? Do they have rules against naming particular characters a certain name? Do other writers refuse to use their mother’s or sister’s name for a love interest? Or their best friend’s name for a rapist?
This wasn’t supposed to be a character. So why not just change the name? What does it matter? Well, the problem now is that I’ve spent months working on both of these stories, and beyond what’s committed to paper there’s a hidden story for them all, a back-story that’s developed and played out in my head whether or not I’m actively writing these characters. This back-story is as real for me as anything taking place in the so-called “real world,” despite my realization that I’m making it up as I go along. This is why all writers are that special kind of crazy that makes us all so endearing and delightfully morose; we’re creatures of two worlds. And sometimes we lose track of which one is real.
Which is why this Kevin thing is making me really uncomfortable. But as I get ready to post the next part of my ongoing accidental story through Wattpad, I’ve realized there’s nothing I can do. Not after this long. Like I said, it’s been months. For months this guy’s name has been Kevin. This Kevin is a son of a bitch, he’s obnoxious, he’s entitled. He has no idea that what he did to this girl was a crime, or that he should be punished.
Looking at a character after this long, thinking about their name, is like seeing their name spelled out in front of me as part of a photo-mosaic puzzle that I’ve put together. In each letter is a thousand images and ideas and snapshots of what this character has done, what they’ve experienced, who they’ve interacted with and how they’ve come to exist in this small little story, this slice of their life that I’m writing. It’s all there now, it’s all put together to spell out their name. I don’t know how to change that, no matter how much I want to.