(First published by Beyond the Margins (www.beyondthemargins.com), June 26, 2013)
The countdown to launch has begun – your first novel! – and everyone around you, from your hair-stylist to your therapist to your Zumba instructor, is hopped up and ready. Your kids are actually telling you how proud they are of you(!), and people you haven’t seen since childhood are suddenly friend-ing you on Facebook. The principal from your old high school just called: he’d like you to come give next year’s commencement address.
And your parents! Oh, God, your parents are kvelling. The Amazon page is up. They’ve pre-ordered 30 copies and invited both the family Rabbi and Great Aunt Ida to the launch. Their daughter, the poet, has finally written something their friends will actually read! It’s everything an author could hope for: the buzz, the goodwill, the respect from friends and colleagues far and wide – that sense of having finally reached some long-elusive station in life…
“So, there’s this little scene on page 45,” you stammer.
Your father says he knows the owner of a local TV station.
“You know, the book may not be for everyone.”
He smiles, hard and bright. “We’ve scheduled a small party for you at the club.”
“I mean, there’s some serious… sex in it.”
Still with the smile, but just a heartbeat too long.
So. There’s sex and then there’s sex. We all know this. There’s the quiet grazing of a moonlit breast and then there’s the—
Well, we don’t have to go there.
But the point is, many of us do go there, at least in our novels, and it’s often so counter to what our friends and loved ones may be expecting from us that dread can appropriately be added to the long list of pre-debut emotions. But isn’t that what story-telling is all about? – that freedom to imagine ourselves into anything, or anyone, or any situation. It affords us the opportunity to expand our own physical/emotional boundaries, combine one truth with another, take the measure of what we are and what we know and jumble it all up like so many Sunday casseroles. Take your sexual inhibitions, add a little of his passive-aggressiveness and her flat feet, throw in my tattoo. Toss them all together and what you come up with is someone authentically other, behaving – and canoodling – in ways that only this new individual can behave.
Admittedly, it’s hard for readers not to impose their own knowledge of a writer on the reading of his/her work. How many people are able to read Sylvia Plath without bringing her tragic life-story to the task? And the closer the relationship with the writer, the trickier it gets. When the writer happens to be you and the readers some of your nearest and dearest, the dynamic can be downright explosive. There will be those who automatically equate your narrator’s voice with your own and those who see themselves in what you’ve written. Still others may feel scandalized by your character’s behaviors or hurt by their words. Imagine, for example, that you’ve chosen to read a passage about a character’s nasty break-up with her husband and your newly (messily) divorced neighbor happens to be at your reading. Or your main character has an affair with his hot-looking sister-in-law and your hot-looking sister-in-law’s husband shows up?
I’m just sayin’. There’s plenty of room for simmering indignation. People will take umbrage at things you never even imagined could be offensive. Your agent will quietly bristle at the way you describe the inner workings of the publishing world. Your neighbor will take offense at the ugly living room furniture you describe, recognizing it – correctly or incorrectly – as her own. Your sister will assume that all the emotional dysfunction you’ve heaped on the fictional sister in your book is your way of getting back at her for being the free-loader in the family.
Your husband may want a divorce.
The thing is: fiction liberates us to be NOT who-we-are. Or to be who we might be if only our hair was red or our mother was an opera star or the chickens were dying of swollen head syndrome…if our guilt wasn’t crippling or our cancer had metastasized…if our father was Haitian or our house was condemned or our sinuses blocked. In other words, fiction invites us to step away from our earthbound selves and take flight – in the bedroom or on the soccer field or at the top of the Empire State Building. And while there’s no way to side-step all of the misunderstandings and misapprehensions that may arise, it’s helpful to remember that nobody but you – and sometimes not even you – will ever know for sure just whose bad breath has been paired with whose overbearing boss.
So go ahead – read that sex scene. Read it loud and clear. Read it ’til you blush and your audience starts to look at their shoes. But when the Q&A comes around, do yourself a favor. Ask yourself your own first question – How do I come up with my characters? – and then answer it!
(First published by Beyond the Margins (www.beyondthemargins.com), May 15, 2013)
Shortly after I started writing poetry, in my mid-40’s, an editor looking at my work asked me what it felt like, to write a poem. At the time it seemed like some kind of test. I was not a student of poetry, and he was clearly looking for a certain kind of response. But I answered in the only way I knew how: “Like falling backwards off a cliff,” I said. The words formed themselves, much as the poems I’d been writing had: a rush, breathless and terrifying, something that happened to me rather than by me, something I couldn’t stop and couldn’t see coming, like the end. And when I finally landed after all that free-falling, I’d find the thing I didn’t know I was looking for in the first place. Not just the poem but the answer to the poem, the final puzzle piece.
This, for me, has always been the ecstasy of writing. I write because it is the way I come to know who I am, where I am in the context of my experience. It is my portal of entry, my journey down under. In post-Freudian psychology, connections abound between the underworld and the subconscious, that domain of the psyche that lies beneath the surface. The Ancient Greeks believed that our very dreams ascended from this lower region, even though that world itself was off-limits: the portals were secret – hidden deep in caverns and lakes – the descent itself arduous and forbidding. Hercules did it, but then he was Hercules. As writers, our own downward paths can also be hard to find, bedeviled and fraught. Often we follow them at significant emotional and psychological costs. But they are our way in, our route to what James Hillman would call our “authentic selves.” And while the descent is both terror and rapture, the completion then becomes the resolution of the two, a kind of deep knowing that brings its own deep satisfaction. It is a funny kind of paradox: in order to know, we must walk into the unknown.
And up until a few months ago these were the places I’d go. Just about every day I’d sit back in my chair and stare out at the trees and wait for something to happen. It didn’t matter what was out there; I wasn’t really looking. I’d film my eyes, wait for the thing to slide slantwise into view. That was all it took, really – that quiet, the stillness. Those first few accidental words. And once they’d found me I was off, tripping down the ladder of the poem like water down a sudden, steep outcropping of rock.
But lately the trees out my window have receded. In their place I see only my own reflection. With a first novel and two poetry collections out this year, I have been trying to do what writers also do these days – the other work. At the suggestion of my publicist, I am on Facebook and Goodreads, tumbling and tweeting, trying to “connect” with “friends” I don’t even know. I have “followers” – a term which never fails to crack me up – and for the most part I have no idea who they are or how they found me or why they’re tracking me in the first place. (One recent follower on twitter is listed as “Redhead. Massage therapist. Healer.”) I don’t know what Pinterest is, but somehow I have a feeling that somebody’s going to fill me in. These things are important, I am told, and I am smart enough to understand that what I saw fit to put out into the world deserves the chance to find its readership. Yes, I write for myself, but yes, I also write to communicate. The words emerge with some unspecified “other” in mind – some distal ear at the end of the connection.
But here’s the hitch: I am not this other person. I do not like social media. I don’t like how it makes me feel (oily) or how it makes me act (manic). I don’t like that when I’m “in it” I exist wholly on the surface of things, or that my sense of my own being has somehow gotten tangled up with endless threads of following and being followed, friend-ing and being friend-ed. I am patently ashamed of all the checking I now do: checking my email, checking my Facebook, my Twitter, my Goodreads; the activity on my author page. I have found that there is a grotesquely addictive quality to these rituals, as though with each “Like” or “ReTweet” or “Share” I garner, microquantities of high-grade narcotics are somehow dripped into the feel-good section of my brain. Twitter, of course, is the most addling and addictive of all. It makes the world both so big and so trivial you could drown in all that truncated verbage.
I hate that when the first real spring day happened just a week or two ago, I never even set foot outside.
But perhaps worst of all, I feel the need to apologize to my friends and colleagues for taking up their i-space, wasting their time with endless iterations of “Here I am!” I want them to know that living on this other side shortens my attention span and steals my stillness, dashes any hope of slipping down into my own private underworld. But I also want them to know that writing is my job, that I see it that way, that I do it with diligence and with ardor, that I wake up every morning and sit in my chair and put words onto page and that for many, many (many) years, I’ve earned virtually nothing for it. That my husband has had to shoulder the load because this thing I do does nothing to pay the bills. That publicity may be the seedy underside of writing, but if we believe in what we write – believe that it matters in some way to someone – we have no choice in this bewildering world of publishing but to push it out there. That this is not what we are – not even what most of us are remotely comfortable with – but that it is the other half of the job.
So these days, I rarely stare out my windows or fall backwards off cliffs. For the time being I am not looking to be transported, and I worry sometimes I may not even know how anymore once this is all over. The trees are still there, dressing up and down as the seasons change, but they will have to wait a while longer. I have not stopped loving them. I have only learned that every once in awhile I must make certain offerings to them. And I feel hopeful that after a year or so of this, they will open their arms – and welcome me back.
I am Kim Triedman, and I am a blogging virgin.
You’ll have to bear with me. I’m inclined to take this a little slow at first. Put on a little Al Green maybe, even a glass of wine to calm the nerves. The year is young. We’re just on the right side of winter. There’s plenty of time yet to get down to the nitty gritty…
The fact is, this is not what I’m supposed to be doing. This is not who I am. I am a writer, and like many of you out there, I could argue that my passions are being subverted. Certainly I am submitting to peer pressure of the highest order, putting the right side of my brain on sabbatical to humor the left. Compromising myself for the sake of the almighty…….book? It doesn’t take much squinting to see myself lemming-like: joining the ever-ballooning ranks of the newly-published, spinning blog entries like so much cotton candy, filling my head with that quick, nasty sugar-high of immediate gratification.
Now here’s the place where I could blame my publicist. (And maybe I will…just for a minute…I mean, Twitter?? Platform?? Reaching out to my audience??) But truth be told, this is not where I want to go with this. My publicist, Sharon Bially, is nothing but smart and savvy, and I am nothing but glad to have her save me from most of what she spends her days doing exceptionally well on my behalf. I appreciate the learning curve I’m not having to scale on my own by virtue of her instincts and know-how. And in some dark place I have to admit that I signed onto this unholy task when I wrote that first word I wanted someone someday to read. When I conjured up a whole world from one childhood summer. When the first page of my novel insisted itself onto the page. When a poem fell like a perfect plum into my lap. If you’re a writer, you can fill in your own blanks – that moment when you realize that you’re throwing your voice out there into the world…in search of someone to hear it.
So no, I’m going to stop complaining about the fact that I have no time to sit on my front stoop and hear my voices anymore (that sounds more alarming than it is!). And I’m going to stop ranting about facebook and twitter and visibility and reach and target audience and just being that person I don’t want to be. I’m going to try and be gracious now and appreciate the blessing of my forthcoming books.
I’m going to do up my hair and gloss my lips and break out the hooker heels.
I’m going to write a blog.