Last night we watched part of the new Chris Rock comedy special. Let me say, first of all, that the man is funny as heck. We were laughing hard. He had a lot to say about Obama that was not only funny but astute and telling. He’s also smart–he can read the audience and respond to that “uh-oh” feeling that comes from listening to edgy humor that takes no prisoners.
Angie and I were talking this morning about the part where Chris Rock said that if Obama were president, Black people could stop giving their kids the “you can be anything you want to be” speech every morning before they leave the house. He said, White people don’t give their kids that speech, because it’s obvious. This led Angie and me to discuss (not for the first time) the fact that we are raising two little white boys. They could be president, even in the old days (and let’s hope they are nearly over) when only little white boys could grow up to be president. Then we talked about whether having two lesbian moms would be enough of a handicap to prevent them from being president, and whether Clinton’s (Bill, that is) single mom and alcoholic step-dad were equivalent to having lesbian mothers. I said no; Angie said yes.
This is what we do with our free time while the boys are with their babysitter.
Then we go to the library, sit at the long wooden tables, and get to work. Around us, the economy is tanking, and taking us with it for the ride, I suppose, but we are all paid up on our library fines and have a clean slate when it comes to borrowing all the wealth in this bank of books. Wee-ha!
Just for the record, my mother did give me that speech, since I was a little white (half-Jewish) kid, but also a girl, and it wasn’t so obvious that I could be anything I wanted to be. Except as a reader.
Yeah–there’s the tie in to fiction: the gateway to success for those not wedded too closely to reality. Funnily enough, this is also exactly what most people–interviewers, say, or even readers–refuse to understand fully about writing fiction: characters can be invented out of the thick swirl of internal and external experience, out of the “what if” musings that run rampant in junior high kids like I was, for example, out of that feeling that who you actually are is a quirky twist of fate rather than a destiny, that you might as easily have arrived over there, in that body, in that life.
There but for fortune, we say, but is the fortune always good? I guess this is another confession: every time I hear a piece of someone else’s life, I zip into it and feel around for the fit. I overhear someone say that she’d finished her dissertation after twelve years. First thought: I should get a PhD. Someone writes to me from Kansas City with a look at living in a place that doesn’t value questioning over hierarchy as he feels the Bay Area does, but in an aside he mentions the lower cost of living. First thought: We could buy a house in Kansas City.
In life, I’m a bit of a push-over, then; indecisive and open to all manner of possibilities. My therapist seems to think (it’s hard to be sure between his nodding and questions and my own projections) that this has to do with my fear of committing to one life trajectory, since a single trajectory inevitably ends. Whereas Zeno’s paradox assures us that if we are jumping point to point, halfway to halfway to halfway again, we will never reach the end. In life, this is kind of weak, I suppose. But for the fiction writer, this same waffling, wafting search is like pumping iron for the imagination. I. Could. Be. Anything.
Sure, I can’t be everything. In life, I may only be able to be a handful of things (and some people might succeed in amending the constitution of the state just to prevent one of those things, so Vote No on Prop. 8). But there are lives ahead of me as a writer.
Borges said it better in “Everything and Nothing,” a piece out of Labyrinths which my father read aloud to me one day in what was then his living room and is now mine (speaking of changes . . .). My father had this sonorous voice, hushed in reverence to its own power, and when he read this I felt deeply understood. Which is not to compare myself to Shakespeare or Borges, but only to toss my headpiece in with the rest of the writers, to say, I live by my greatest weakness, which is that I cannot pick one life for good.
I am in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, typing on the computer, while my mother-in-law cooks dinner and Angie kisses the boys’ little feet. This sentence, I suppose, is what strikes fear in the hearts of the out-of-state Mormons who are flooding the supporters of Proposition 8 with funds–25 million dollars so far, to be exact. Somehow, my having a mother-in-law (cooking dinner) and a father-in-law (out hunting!) and a spouse (female and monitoring two boys opening kitchen cabinets) and two sons (exploring Grandpa and Nana’s house) shakes the very foundations of their marriages. All marriages. Except, I guess, my own.
And it is National Coming Out Day.
When I graduated from my M.F.A. program, Ian McKellen (Sir Ian to you) gave the commencement address. (Is that what it is called? Angie and my mother-in-law and I cannot quite agree.) Anyway, he had come out relatively recently, given his age (this was in the mid-nineties and he’s sixty-nine now. You do the math; this is a blog about writing). And he said, Come out, in every way that you can. And support your gay and lesbian family members so that they can come out. There I was, with my whole New York family–cousins of my father who, like my father, were born in the 1920s–and they were being extolled by a world-famous, brilliant actor to come out and to support me in coming out. It was splendid.
If I was worth my salt as a blogger, I would find and scan the photograph of Sir Ian and me (and my partner at the time) on the steps of the School of the Arts. But I am a writer, so I will just tell you that I wore a blue flowered dress, and Sir Ian and my former partner wore suits, and behind us bricks lead up to the stone steps and huge glass doors, and my lipstick is a bit overly bright red, but I am twenty-five and the world owes me a living.
Well, no. That was my father: when, at twenty-one, he graduated from medical school, he sat back at his commencement ceremony and thought, “Now the world owes me a living.” When I earned my M.F.A. in writing, I had no such illusions. But I will venture to say that the world owes me some civil rights.
Here are a couple of things I want to say to people who oppose my right to marry on the basis that it somehow threatens their own marriages or notion of marriage: if homosexuality cannot be stamped out by death, the threat of death, ostracization, beatings, derision, exclusion, legal and religious persecution, an absence of representation, and so forth, I really don’t think heterosexuality is in grave danger from gay marriage. And if your kid sees my family and learns something new is possible, the life saved may be your kid’s.
Meanwhile, if you are a writer (or a reader or, really, anyone): come out, in any way necessary for you. Be vivid. Be quirky. Be honest. Be strange. Admit that you want to write. Admit that you love this particular book or that particular song. Confess your joy at sitting in the park with someone who makes you laugh. You know that your capacity for love, like mine, extends beyond the bounds of what you’ve been taught or offered, that it is an enormous force that can create sonnets and children and some very awkward voice mail messages. Say so.
Happy Coming Out Day!
In my post, “I Could Write a Great Novel If Only I Had a Story to Tell,” I neglected my own favorite kind of plot trigger: secrets. It’s funny, but writers do seem to revisit a certain theme. Michelle Richmond (at least in her last two gripping books) seems to write about the consequences of losing people for the people who feel responsible for their loss. In The Year of Fog, the young step-daughter-to-be is lost by the fiancée when she disappears from Ocean Beach while they are together. In No One You Know, the sister of a young woman who was murdered years before searches for answers about what happened that night, spurred on by a meeting with the man who was the sister’s lover, another character caught in the ramifications of loss.
My own work tends to gravitate toward secrets–what we don’t know that we don’t know. I am gripped by the idea that something there, but hidden, unknown, has a strong impact–even on the ignorant participants in the situation. In Shy Girl, Shy Mallon’s mother has hidden her identity as a Jew and her past as a holocaust survivor. Lots of people doubted the veracity of this story when I began to write it, because of course we hear from the people who are not hiding, those who believe that remembering is our only hope, our strongest activism. But in fact, there are many secret histories like Mrs. Mallon’s. Survivors who learned a different lesson: that safety lies in remaining below the radar, out of view.
My own father told me about coming to Berkeley (U.C.) at the behest of a friend and colleague. Ten years later, they each “confessed” to each other that they were Jewish. Each of my father’s first two wives (neither is my mother) claimed that my father didn’t tell them he was Jewish before they were married. This meant that he did not bring them to meet his parents. I asked him about this once and he said, “I didn’t want to give my father a heart attack.” When I was officially converted to Judaism, the Rabbi took my parents and my father’s Jewish fiancée (whom he never did marry) and me into a little office before the Mikvah and said, “Your mother is not Jewish. Today we are going to remedy that mistake.” I only nodded, but I knew it was no mistake.
Years later, when I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, I finally understood my father in a new way. I wrote a piece called Portnoy’s Daughters, about my sisters and me. The point is, something that is hidden has an impact even if the situation looks the same as one in which that something isn’t there at all.
In any case, secrets are a good spur toward plot. What are the open secrets in your family? What about the ones you wonder about but for which you have no answers? What secrets have you been told or stumbled upon by accident? What secrets do you hold that no one else knows but you?
This week, we had a trial run with a babysitter for our boys. You see, other grandparents, a very busy but loving aunt and uncle, and a cousin who’s left the state for college, we have not really left the boys with anybody. For seventeen months. Now that Angie is my technical person and business advisor as well as my co-parent, it’s gotten completely crazy around here. So we are checking out having the boys go play, for three mornings a week, with a woman in the neighborhood and her eighteen-month-old little girl.
The woman is very nice and calm, an obviously loving mother. We visited with her in her house for a couple hours, met her husband, talked to a friend and neighbor of hers. All that. She’s in graduate school getting her doctoral degree in Psychology.
So then we made a plan to meet at a little Tot Lot near the Albany YMCA, and we all hung out for a while there before she took our boys and her daughter off to baby gym at the Y. As we stood watching her walk away, pushing the boys in their double stroller, her daughter strapped to her back, I thought . . .
What if the whole thing was a set-up? What if the friend she called and the man claiming to be her husband (who was obviously the father of her baby, but I didn’t think like that in this moment) and this nice-seeming woman were all part of some baby-trafficking ring, and the whole rigmarole was an elaborate set-up?
At the end of the morning, we met up again at the Tot Lot. The boys were happy and worn-out from playing. They were yards further down the potty-training line simply from watching her daughter use the potty regularly, and I had worked on my NaNoWriMo book pitch (for the class I am teaching).
But I realized that I am fully capable of concocting the most complicated plots, accounting for all the elements of reality that add up to something normal, ordinary, and making them align into something overblown, terrifying and, well, gripping . . .
One of my very talented clients told me about meeting a woman who had just come back from Africa. The woman began talking about her trip, and my client was not all that intrigued, but then it turned out that their luggage had been lost and they had to go into deepest Africa with only the barest, most inappropriate clothing, and then . . . I don’t remember the story now, but the point was that hearing a story without a plot is like watching someone’s slideshow about their vacation, replete with their commentary: “Oh, oh, that was the tour guide and right over there is the hut we stayed in, just behind that tree . . . ” Now, if the photographer is amazing . . . you might enjoy the show. Otherwise, you’re going to be hungry for story–happy when things start to go wrong for the erstwhile travelers. And if the photographer is amazing and there’s a story–you’re just where you want to be.
So tap into your own paranoia and build yourself a really great plot. Think about your “what if . . . ?” scenarios when the stakes are as high as they can be.
Fiction is a training camp for those of us who are engaged in the risky business of life. It’s where we learn about relationships, meaning, and how to survive the worst and keep going. When my father was dying, I read Ann Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. I’d heard about it before, but I’d been a little turned off by the grim opening situation: the main character’s boyfriend dives off a pier and breaks his neck, becoming paralyzed from the neck down (as I recall). But now, surrounded as I was by hospital routine and near-death calls, the book didn’t seem depressing to me. Like a hand reaching through the darkness, it showed me the way to stumble along. If Packer had decided that it was too traumatic to have someone get that seriously hurt (especially when his girlfriend was already unhappy and wanting to leave their long relationship, despite being engaged), the book might have been about a group of friends who enjoy a yearly picnic by a lake. But it wouldn’t have been published, and it wouldn’t have had anything to offer to me as I commuted to the place where my father lay trying not to die.