Hello from California ? where the sun really does shine every day. It's a little overwhelming for someone from dark New York, where we've been between seasons since mid-November. I'm on the road for The Mistress's Daughter
, my memoir, and what I can tell you is this: the book is entirely true, unlike other recent memoirs
, and I am really worried that we've lost track of the difference between fiction and non-fiction, or to be more specific, truth and lies.
Whether it's folks writing memoirs and recalling things that never happened to them or politicians mis-speaking and putting themselves at events where they never were, it's a problem. We need a refresher course that goes back to Pinocchio and the nose. Instead of "talk to the hand," how about "speak to the schnoz."
But seriously, when I'm writing fiction, I'm working from my imagination. Spending time in the world of the imaginary has become increasingly uncomfortable for many people ? I've especially noticed this when I'm teaching fiction writing. We've become a "fact based" culture in part because we're afraid to dream, to explore and to muck around in the mind's eye. I suspect that the attachment to what we believe is real is a fear of losing touch with reality ? but that break has already happened. There is a serious fracture in this country, when it comes to fantasy/reality and our hopes and dreams. Look at our lives, our ways of communicating, we IM, we text, we can't walk or drive without being on our cell phones, and yet are we really in touch, are we building meaningful and long lasting relationships? Look at our government; is this a government, "for the people, by the people," acting in OUR best interests? Look at the economy ? it's been run like a reality TV show blurring fact and fantasy; yes, you can have your dream house with no money down. The sub-prime mortgage crisis ? which is only the tip of the iceberg ? is a wake up call: if you are going to live in reality, you're going to have to live in REALITY and deal with how painful it is and the fact that you can't have your dream house. We all have an enormous amount of hard work in front of us in order to get things back on track.
And speaking of back on track ? back to the memoir ? since it's not like I'm running for office. Wherever I go, people ask if writing The Mistress's Daughter was therapeutic, cathartic, or in any way a relief. My answer ? only if you're someone who thinks of vomiting as a positive experience. Seriously, folks, it was incredibly painful. The Mistress's Daughter took me almost 10 years to write. I spent years exploring one of the most painful events of my life, trying to find language for a primitive emotional experience that happened long before I had access to language. When I was growing up, people believed that children had no memory for events that happened under the age of five and that taking an infant from its biological mother and giving it to another mother was something the child would never remember. Now we know for fact that when an infant is separated from its biological mother ? whether to be given up for adoption or for other reasons, like needing medical treatment ? the infant experiences that separation as trauma. We also know that we store early experience physically ? i.e. cellular memory ? and that infants grieve. Much of the work of writing the memoir was trying to find a way of talking about these things and working to create a book that would have meaning for others. In the end, the goal for whatever I write is that it has meaning for others.
As for the larger question of why does one write and who does one write for ? well here's a little something I wrote about that.
÷ ÷ ÷
When I say I am a writer, the question most often asked is ? who do you write for? Those asking seem to be thinking magazine, newspaper, back of the cereal box. It doesn't occur to them that among us lurk men and women who work from the imagination, who call castle-building, wool-gathering, ruminative reverie a day's work. That said, who do we write for ? agent, editor, critic, you the reader or, perhaps even better yet ? the mysterious and mythical muse?
We write because we are compelled to write ? we have no choice. If we don't write we feel ill ? flu-like symptoms appear within hours and can progress to a dangerous, creeping paralysis ? writer's block. Writing is an attempt to make contact. Not only do we write to relieve ourselves of some invisible pressure, we write to be known ? not in the People magazine sense of the word, but rather profoundly understood. The contradiction is that to do this we withdraw, we spend years alone typing, we go inside ourselves in order to write our way out. Dredging our souls, we offer ourselves up, each time peeling the layers back further and further. A writer friend jokes that when she writes a book, she exposes herself as much as possible and then passes the finished product around like amateur porno photographs, asking ? what do you think of me this time?
To be able to call fiction writing one's work is to have the best job in the world. One is able to crawl through a series of subjects as journalist, scientist, actor, psychologist, ventriloquist. To travel through time and pull from the ether that which never was, to create out of type characters that are believable, to use language to move, transport, titillate, inspire, entertain, to be like a mental magician ? all that while wearing pajamas and not brushing our hair. The page is generous, it is forgiving, it is blank. Like the analyst's couch ? it accepts, it listens.
How does one write? The creative process was brilliantly described by turn of the century mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincare as having four stages: a period of hard/fruitless labor, an incubation period during which the unconscious mind gets to work, a moment of illumination or inspiration in which the new/original work is done, and a process of verification (more exacting in mathematics than literature.) And while talent can't be taught, creativity can be inspired. The classic Greek definition of a muse is a female of divine proportion whose sole purpose is to inspire great art in a man. The modern writer creates for that most perfect person, the ideal reader, the person who always understands you, knows you more deeply than you know yourself ? in essence we write for the dog. There are people who pass through our lives, people we fall in love with, who ignite us to be the better versions of ourselves, ones who make us smarter, funnier, more creative. Though at best it might be considered an unhealthy or co-dependent relationship, we write to get the muse's attention ? to win the muse and hopefully the Pulitzer Prize. Writing is a romance, a seduction, the author creates tension to lure the reader in, testing the reader to see how far he or she is willing to go, what the limits of believability are, what the limits of the writers powers are.
That said, unfortunately, the writer/muse relationship is also not what it used to be. I recently e-mailed my muse asking if she'd like to sign up again for a new book. She said yes. I wrote back saying that before I could agree to take her on again, we'd have to discuss the fee ? it needed to increase. There seemed to be some confusion ? I thought she should be paying me for the privilege of being my muse and conversely she thought she should be paid for her musing. Needless to say, work on my new book has stalled, pending resolution of the Muse issue (just kidding!). In addition to personal muses there are industry muses; I've often had incredibly illuminating talks with my agent before and during the writing of a book ? conversations which cracked the subject matter open, which had me scribbling on tablecloths desperate to document the epiphanic moment. And then there is the editor: As a child I read numerous biographies which charted the relationships of authors to various Maxwell Perkins types ? father figures who would make a loan, send an author off for a year abroad, evidence concern for the writer's well-being, who didn't sweat the due date, the advance already paid, etc. There are still plenty of wonderful editors, but their job has shifted from artistic hand-holding to the trafficking of the manuscript through the production process. And while many remain lovers of craft, appreciative of the finely honed sentence and the play of language, today's author, much like a can of soup, needs to be established as a brand, a marketable entity. Books are no longer published ? they are launched. And like great ships of long ago, they are sent off by nervous civilians who stand on shore watching ? waving to the captain/author ? waiting to see if they will either float or take on water, sinking unmemorably to the bottom of the remainder bin.