Back when I lived in my first apartment– half of the only house in a trailer park in Cadillac, Michigan. I read a book of poetry by Erica Jong. Only one poem stuck with me, and then only parts of it. The title “You Whom I Wish to Reach by Writing” and the last line, “I write to you and someone else always answers.” It turns out even those things I remembered a bit wrong.
I remembered it because I related strongly to it. I had not yet started writing professionally. I was, however, an avid journaler and I had the notion of writing a novel about a failed relationship that was haunting me at the time. (More on that later.)
The poem (or the idea of it) came back to me the other day as I was reading about social media and context collapse. (See the previous entry). The experience of writing with one audience in mind and having someone else answer is not reserved for poets or professional writers any more. I imagine everyone has had the experience of posting something on Facebook and having the last person on earth you expected to hear from chime in.
What is interesting to me today is how infrequently I have the experience with my creative writing. I no longer “hope to reach” a particular individual when I tell a story. There was a time, for example, sitting in that apartment in Cadillac, when I did. In my twenties I used writing as a way to soothe my hurt feelings. Maybe I couldn’t make a particular relationship work, but one thing I could always do was express my feelings about it very well in writing.
It took me much longer to learn when not to.
In my twenties I imagined the novel I was going to write, a barely fictionalized version of my life. I would write it. He would read it, and he would understand the depth of my emotions and how I had been hurt. He would form a new image of me. (The idea that his own version of history would contradict mine and that I would probably not win him over by airing my version of events in public somehow failed to register with me.) In any case, I would write the book and I would have the last word.
This notion was motivating. It did drive me to complete my first novel a few years later (about a different someone I hoped to reach by writing). The novel, if I do say so myself, was horrible. Really, really dreadful. I have often given God a prayer of thanks that self-publishing was not easy in those days. Only that saved me from humiliation because I was convinced I had written something great. I went back to that novel recently to see if there were bits I could salvage for other projects and I found about four paragraphs that I might use someday.
Maybe someone else can make something meaningful out of this energy, this “yes, I’m speaking to you” mindset. Maybe Erica Jong can. I never could.
It was only when I completely moved away from myself and the events of my life as a subject that I was able to write any fiction worth reading. My first published novel, Angel, was from the point of view of a male Christian minister. By standing at a distance I gave myself more permission to control the narrative, to tell the story in a way that resonated most strongly. I was not hindered by what had happened in life or how I had reacted. Entirely fictional people gave me the space to explore the real conflicts and emotions of living in the world.
There are autobiographical elements to everything I write. I often use a setting with which I am familiar. I worked in a church office and know that world. In Identity Theft I have been on the road as the character of Ollie/Blast is and I have worked as the low man on the totem pole in a musician’s office (and in other entertainment tour offices) as Ethan does. Of course I have the experience of trying to carry on relationships mostly over the internet, as Candi does. But none of my experience directly translates into the story. There is no “you” whom I hoped to reach by writing it, except for you, dear reader. And that, I have found, is the only way that it works. At least for me.