Monday, October 11, 2010

The Translation of Years

Have you ever sat down with an old friend and reminiced about an event you both witnessed years before and each of you remember different things? According to the You are Not So Smart blog, you can even have memories planted so that you believe you experienced an event you were never at.

Having written two novels for which the premise was rooted in events of my own teenage life, I can concur that this is true. The premise of Novel #1 started from a brief relationship (a 5 week one), that I was in when I was 18. [As an aside, and if you go to the link, I can tell you that he was the guy who was spouting off to me about how many kids he wanted to have and when we could get married -- all this in the first couple weeks of our relationship.] More specifically, the novel premise was: "What if I'd had the guts to let the air of his tires when he wanted to drive home drunk?"

I did a lot of journaling when I was a teenager from about the ages of 13 to 21 and then nothing for many years until I began exploring the state of my own marriage. Before I even started writing my first book I had three different versions of that teen relationship accessible to me in various forms. I had the original semi-daily "live" journals from when I was actually in the relationship and going through the the recovery from that breakup. I also had a version of the novel itself that I began writing about a year after that relationship ended. And then I had the memories that still lived in my, then, 34-year old head.

It wouldn't be hard to rank which of the three versions of the story of this relationship were the closest to what actually happened. The least accurate would be my 34-year old memories which would be tainted with 16 years of life and everything I've learnt (which, trust me, isn't much) about relationships in the time in between. The most accurate would be the ones written "live" at the time of the experience. (This is why when you experience a crime or a traumatic event that could bring you to court, it is advised that you write a journal of the event within days of the situation occurring.) Somewhere in between would be that version of the novel I wrote a year after the relationship.

My 34-year old self thought I remembered quite clearly how that relationship ended. It ended with him telling me I was too insecure and how he didn't need to talk to his girlfriend every day. And I carried those words with me for 16 years.

What my journals told me was that my friends had been feeding me unflattering stories about things his buddy was apparently saying about him. Stories he denied and his friend denied telling. He believed his friend, and I couldn't imagine why mine would lie to me.  He told me he didn't like or trust my friends and he didn't want anything to do with them. When I re-read the "live" version, I remembered this contribution to the break-up. But it was a whole other story line angle that I had completely blocked from my memory. Perhaps it is an evolutionary built-in coping mechanism for dealing with pain to forget the parts of the story that are the hardest to deal with.

As much as I try and be honest with myself, I am not always so.

In the midst of starting today's blog I was also carrying on a chat with an old friend from high school. He asked what I was blogging about and I told him it was a little bit about writing, a little bit about my marriage, and a lot about how you alter your memories to suit your purpose. Because leaving a marriage or any relationship requires that to some degree. There is usually a lot of legitimate bad stuff and negativity to weed through, but tucked in the cracks and empty spaces there is always still a little bit of good. You have to alter your memories a bit to target in on the bad stuff so you can have the courage to go through with ending it. Everything about the other person becomes tainted to justify your hostility. You are biased against him (her). You never loved him (her) to begin with and s/he was never that important a person to you and how you landed in this relationship and got married to begin with is baffling. Eventually you hit that point where even the way he unloads the dishwasher is a slight against you.

You choose the evidence that supports your opinion and disregard evidence that refutes your opinion. Kinda like how extremists twist portions of the Bible to justify suicide bombings and terrorism. Irrational to you, but totally rational to those who believe it.

And in our chat my friend pointed out: some evidence is only evidence because you think it is.

Yes, true. I am guilty of this. You hyper-inflate small things to add them to the pile of badness. Like that belief that every time you call his cell phone and he doesn't answer, he's probably sitting over beer with his buddy looking at the call display and cracking jokes about what a nag you are. No. He probably just didn't hear it. That's the kind of "evidence" I'll write about in my journal feeling very upset and irate about and then weeks-months-years later look back and wonder what the big deal was. I don't know. Maybe at the time the offence earned my irateness, but something got lost in the translations of years.

It is a good position to be in when writing a novel, having three different versions of a story to draw from. When I wrote Novel #1, I put the three versions together and mixed it in with some stuff that I knew I made up. Mixed in with a few more things that were going on in my present day life,  and, Voila, I had a nice piece of pure fiction. I don't remember very clearly anymore what parts are real and what parts are made up. The people who inspired particular characters wouldn't even recognize themselves.

Which was a good thing. Because as soon as I finished the novel and started waking up to the condition of my much neglected marriage it became blatantly obvious that my lead male character, who I thought was based on my teenage boyfriend, was actually my husband in disguise. The whole disastrous relationship I created in the novel was actually one giant metaphor for my disastrous marriage and a subconscious search for the "right person" (whatever that means. I'm still figuring that out). I now can open up the book on pretty much any page and see all the subliminal messages.

I wrote a brief summary of the history of how writing my book affected my marriage to a friend a few months after it was finished.
I started writing my book in September and I felt my marriage slipping away from me by October and I'm not sure if it was slipping away from me because I was neglecting it with the time I spent writing or if it was slipping away because of how I was changing inside. Writing made me feel more alive than I have in years. And he took no notice of what I was doing. Had no curiosities about that. He didn't complain though which is support on some level. Or did he not complain because he was relieved I was out of his hair? Who knows. Then I told him what I was doing in December and I asked him to read it (and that was opening the door as wide as I could to let him in on this) and he never did. And that's when I really got alarmed. I told Laurie in April when I went to Brandon about some of this stuff and I told him that this book was more important than my marriage. And he wasn't appalled by that at tall. Another writer I know, his first wife once told him that she would never speak to him again if he ever published ANY of what he wrote. Good God -- he went ahead and published anyway. Writing is an addiction there is no doubt about it. It is a very powerful addiction. Could I ever find someone who is willing to live with that? I read the acknowledgement sections of books, especially if it is a first novel, and these writers always thank their husbands or their wives for their understanding and support and "everything, everything" as one put it, and I could never write that. I'd be lying if I did. 
Of course now, 4 years after I wrote the above paragraph I can see how unfair I was probably being to the X. About writing, I was as self-protective as a turtle walking around with her head under her shell. Hiding my writing from my husband wasn't necessarily just a result of me fearing his ridicule or facing his perpetual disinterest in all things me. Not talking about writing in my marriage was purely a culmination of a life time of not talking about writing with anyone. I'd always thought I had to hide who I was. I was hiding who I was in my marriage too. 

When I finished writing that book and went through the mentorship I was unstoppable. I could do anything. In the same email that the above excerpt comes from -- I did re-read the whole thing looking for that passage (I reminded myself of a few things I had forgotten) -- I also told my friend that I strongly believed that this book was going to bring changes for me, -- positive changes that had nothing to do with fame and fortune. I didn't expect glory. I had confidence I didn't know I had. I felt beautiful and I felt strong and I know it showed. I was feeling things I hadn't felt in years. I felt alive.

And then I decided I was so invincible that I could jump off an emotional cliff and live to tell about it.

My second novel was also built from a premise that came out of my real life. "What happens when a bunch of kids go on a band trip and one of them is in a state of perpetual heartbreak?" This is how I remember my teen life, being in a state of perpetual heartbreak. But in three words it is a book about heartbreak, suicide, and bullying. And it is a good book. Or it will be when I finally get the courage to dig into draft 4.

But I was writing a lead character that was heartbroken because I was feeling heartbroken in my real life.  So there are no subliminal messages here. I was fully aware of where my despair and confusion was coming from when I wrote it. That lead character was a hard head to be inside. My head was a hard head to be inside. At many moments I wasn't sure if I was writing the book based on my present life or if the book was dictating my present life. The line between the emotional worlds of me and my character were very much blurred.  I wrote this book in this state and I haven't fully left it.

I finished my first book at the top of the cliff and then I jumped (or was I shoved?).  I'm still clamouring my way back up. It's a tired old shtick. Heartbreak shouldn't define me.

And this is what stops me from writing fiction right now. I've had an idea in my head for a long time. I acknowledge I am a semi-autobiographical writer and I know it is time for me to leave my teen world behind and be an adult in my writing. What will come out of me next? What subconscious message will eat me alive during the writing process?

I don't know.

I'm terrified.


Elspeth Cross said...

I think I'm blessed with a bad memory, with the exception of remembering other people's names. Most of the bad things fade; sometimes the good things shift in my mind from the actual events to the way I prefer to remember them. But in either case, I look back and smile.

A lot of writing is somewhat autobiographical. Terrified or not - start writing and see what comes out! :)

Kim said...

And given you are writing smutty romance... that confession terrifies me too! lol. ;-)

I think it is good that the bad stuff fades. Obviously if it takes a long time for the bad parts to fade then they are being dwelled on too much or they were really really bad??

Yes. I need to write. This is all in prep. Acknowleged what you are scared of and then let it go.

Elspeth Cross said...

Somewhat! SOMEWHAT! :)