Non-fictional Fiction (Writing Stories About Girls Who Aren't Your Wife)

I have this ending that I wrote a good fifteen years ago.  The ending is so much better than the short story that it's attached to I almost believe that it was written by someone else.  And for years, I've been trying to figure out how to to rescue it.

It's a universal ending.  It's about a guy who realizes that the girl he's been sleeping with is more than that.  The writing is delicate and strikes just the right note of sentimentality.  I've gotten compliments on this ending, despite the festering wound that was the 20 odd pages that proceeded it.

Recently, I found myself writing a short story that was based upon the life I was living fifteen years ago.  And, not surprisingly, it matched up perfectly to the ending.  I just finished the first draft, or at least the first draft that I'm willing to pass along to my editor.

My editor is my wife, Nicole.  And that's where it gets weird for me.

Because I didn't know Nicole fifteen years ago, and this new story is ostensibly a love story about a girl who isn't my wife.  And it's written in the first person.  And a lot of what happens is lifted directly from my life.

I don't think I've given Nicole such a story in a long, long time.  I gave her "Unrequited" when we started dating and she liked it a lot.  I gave it to her friends and they all assumed she was who I based the main character on, even though I wrote it years before I met her.

I've written a few things here and there that featured women (seriously, I basically write love stories), but they were always stand ins for Nicole.  I mean, they were pretty obvious stand ins for Nicole.

Over the last few years, it hasn't even been an issue.  I wrote a non-fiction book that is just chock full of Nicole.  I wrote a YA book that is clearly not about me in any way, shape, or form.  So it's been some time since I gave Nicole a story to read that blurred that line between fiction and reality.

 Here's the thing: if you're going to write a love story in the first person, you need to believe that the narrator is in love, or at least has the potential for that.  And the narrator in this story is potentially in love with a woman who is not my wife.  Then again, this is a story that takes place before I met her.

Nicole has no problems with this. But I feel weird giving it to her.

This is the problem with my obsession with metafiction: no one else cares.  Nicole is going to read this as a story that takes place during a time before I met her, narrated by a guy who sounds an awful lot like me, but clearly isn't because, hey, look at that, I did not marry this fictional character.  And while I would be unable to separate my feelings while reviewing such a story, Nicole will do just fine.

For me, it's a big deal.  My life and my fictional life are so intertwined that it sometimes gets tricky, or at least feels messy.

But I suppose this is why I'm a writer and not married to one.

I've said too much.

If you will indulge me for just a minute, I am going to briefly mention something about the television show Gossip Girl, but you should be used to that from me by now.

I rather unabashedly enjoyed Gossip Girl.  It had two things going for it from the start: it was produced by OC/Chuck creator Josh Schwartz, and the voice over (from the titular character) was done by Kristen "Veronica Mars" Bell.  So I was on board right off the bat.

Now, it seems like I would have jumped ship pretty quickly, given the target demographic of the show was probably thirteen year old girls.  But a) I have a weird love of teen melodrama and b) my enjoyment of a show is generally determined by whether or not there is a character I can vicariously live through, see also: Chuck, Buffy, et al.  In the case of Gossip Girl, it was Dan Humphries, a teenager who fancies himself a writer.

All ridiculousness aside, there was an actual storyline about writing that struck a chord in me.  Long story short, Dan wrote a book that was fiction, but was very clearly about himself and his friends.  And he said a few not so flattering things about the people in his life.  He had to defend himself over and over again, generally going to the "I changed things for the story" argument which, I think, is a legitimate one, given how often I do that myself.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how much writers share about their own lives, and the self-imposed ceiling on such things.  Take a book like Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis, for example. It's easy to see just how much of it is autobiographical, to the point that you wonder how people in Ellis' family reacted when it was published.

Here's the funny thing about writing: they say truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is often more upsetting.  I wrote an entire book of non-fiction and, aside from a few spots here and there, none of the people in that book were upset with any part of it.  Yet had I taken artistic license with any of it, twisted it to serve my purposes and slapped a "fiction" label on it, I would bet fat stacks of cash that those same people would be incredibly upset.

The problem, of course, is that it's hard to separate fact from fiction when the fiction hits so close to home.

This all got me thinking about how I censor myself.  There is a ceiling for my honesty, a ceiling on how directly I'm willing to address people I know.  I'm am very aware of who will end up reading my work, or at least who could end up reading my work.  I'm aware of how what I write might upset the people in my life.

I wonder if that is diminishing what I produce.  I know that there are aspects of my life that are worth writing about that I have never even considered putting down on paper for fear of the fall out.  There's a clear disconnect between what every day people consider polite conversation and what writers consider fodder for stories.  That is to say, writers consider everything fodder for stories.

There's an episode of Californication where Hank Moody finds out his dad died.  In the flashbacks, we see that he and his dad never got along, and that they eventually almost quit talking completely because his dad was so upset about the fictional father figures Hank wrote about.  He assumed (probably correctly) that every father figure in all of Hank's stories were based on him...even though all of Hank's stories were works of fiction.

People always do that.

I wrote a book about a decade ago and in that book is a married couple.  My parents assumed that the married couple were two particular friends of mine who were, at that time, the only friends in my life that were married.  Those characters weren't my friends; the thought never even crossed my mind.  But my parents filled in that blank for themselves.

The glamorous version of a writer is the one who is estranged from his or her family and who doesn't have any close friends that have been around for more than a few years, or at the very least not from before the writer became famous.  This is because the writer has cut all ties with his or her past, and is thus free to write about those people or analogs for those people when ever she or he wants.  Being an honest writer means being free from the influence of others.

But that's not really possible, is it?

Or maybe it's just not possible for me.

Years and years ago I shared some short stories with my parents.  I was living in Los Angeles at the time and they were (and are) back in Ohio, so the added distance made me feel okay with giving them some of my work.  Besides, I figured if my end goal was to get these things published, they'd end up reading them, anyway.

Months and months later my parents sent me a letter (an attachment to an e-mail, actually) where they expressed concern with some things I said in one of my stories.  They didn't mention it specifically, but I have no doubts they were referring to a story in which the main character has sex with his then girlfriend and certain things happen, certain things that seem kind of specific to both myself and another person who had been in my life.

I acknowledged their concerns, but I was a bit put off, not because they were worried about the content of one of my stories, but because months had gone by, which meant they didn't really think these stories were going to get out any time soon to reflect poorly on me or anyone else in my life.

Funny enough, that story has long since died on the vine.

My father tends to assume that 90% of what I write is true.  My mother seems to assume that at least 50% of it is true.  They're both overshooting.  Generally speaking, my writing takes a small grain of my life and grows it into a field.  Perhaps 10% of my fiction really happened.

Still, I do wonder if the fact that there's a limit to what I'll write about might be holding me back.  But I also wonder if any of the things I don't write about are actually worth the real impact it would have on my life.

We can claim that we write for ourselves all we want, but in the end that's never entirely true -- at least not for most of us.

I Hate Short Stories

Every second I stare at this bookshelf is another second that I won't spend sleeping.

Nicole is an avid night reader and it's rubbed off on me.  When I finish a book, I tend to wait until bed time to figure out what I'm going to read next.  And that was my dilemma tonight.

I have a lot of unread books.  It is ridiculous that I keep buying books given how many unread books I have, but I suppose that explains how I got into this mess.  Over the course of the next month I will only get more.

One of the books waiting for me is short story collection.  Since I do, in theory, write short stories and I did, in practice, go to graduate school to learn how to write them, I try to read as many as I can.  I subscribe to a few literary journals (chock full o' short stories) and I buy various collections like this one.

But I'm having a hard time finding the motivation to open it up, and I think it's because I might actually hate short stories.

I've realized that short stories are the most pretentious of literary formats.  There is a very specific window for a good short story, a very specific line that has to be walked, which makes a good short story extremely hard to write.  What's worse is that everyone writing short stories knows this, and the simple fact that they do know it makes it all the more pretentious.

The problem is that short stories can easily go one way or the other: too much or not enough.  Too much and it destroys the point of the format.  And, unlike poetry which is smart enough to engage the audience to the point where they are filling in any blanks, short stories that are too vague fail at what they're doing.  Poetry, at least, has a certain clarity to its vagueness.  Short stories do not.

There's a code, some kind of combination of chromosomes that make up a good short story and the slightest mistake here or there can ruin the entire line.  One bad sentence can sink a short story.

Even worse, short stories exist in their own, self-perpetuating reality.  The majority of people reading short stories are people who write short stories.  The majority of people who edit literary magazines are also people who write short stories.  The people teaching short stories are, yet again, the people who are writing short stories.  Aside from Playboy and the New Yorker, the only people who actually seem to care about short stories are the ones who are writing them, and I can't imagine I'm the only one in that group who periodically hates them.

Why are they so problematic?  They're supposed to be easier to write than, say, a novel, right?  They are shorter after all.  But that's the problem.  Because they're shorter, every single word matters.  Think about that.  This is a format that is taunting a group of people who are already, by and large, neurotic to write something in which every single word can be scrutinized over and over again.  Short stories are the finger print on a glass sliding door.  They're the tall book in a row of short books on your book shelf.  They are an endless well of doubt and revision.

So why does anyone write them, particularly if no one reads them?  Is it the challenge?  Is it the fact that so many writers take classes on writing at some point, and those classes place emphasis on the short story?  Because we are trained that we only have a few months to complete a story?  Because books are for the masses, the plebes, and literary journals filled with short stories are for the chosen few?

And then there's the larger issue: why doesn't anyone read them?  Even if the format wasn't determined to destroy itself by maintaining some bizarre standards of readership, why are people choosing much, much longer books over short stories?  Record companies are able to make money producing nothing but compilations.  Why doesn't this theory also apply towards short story anthologies?

The simplest answer I can give is this: stopping.  It would seem odd that someone would be more likely to commit to a three hundred page novel than a fifteen page short story.  But that's the case.  It's the case because the reader wants to be in control, at least to a certain extent.  And with a novel, you can pick and choose where you stop and where you start.  Yes, there are those who prefer to stop at chapter breaks, but there's no sense of urgency to get to that chapter break, there's no feeling that you'll lose something if you don't get that far.  A novel is so long that you aren't going to read it in one sitting, so you don't worry about whether or not reading it in multiple sittings will ruin the experience.

The same cannot be said for short stories.  A short story demands it be read in one sitting.  For that matter, it demands you pay close attention to it.  A short story is difficult reading.  Sure, it can be extremely rewarding reading for that very fact, but it still requires effort, it requires flexing brain muscles that most people aren't interested in flexing while they read.  Reading short stories is work.

Perhaps that's the main problem: short stories have been examined and scrutinized to the point that they no longer contain the simple joys of reading, the simple joys of writing.  You can examine a novel to death, too, but ultimately it's so large and wide reaching that people are going to take from it what they want.  For that matter, the market for novels is much larger.  A book about wizards and a book about spies and a book about war and a book about politics can all co-exist, can all find space on a bookshelf at a store, while short stories seem so limited, or, at the very least, segregated by genre.

Hyperbole aside, I do like writing short stories, at least initially.  The constant examination that comes after the first few drafts, however, tends to suck all the joy away.

But I recently submitted a short story to a contest that is, in my not remotely objective opinion, the best short story I've ever written (a claim supported at least somewhat by my wife, who is actually a harsh critic).  The high I felt after "finishing" it was incredible, and I guess it's the reason why lunatics continue to write in this abused format.  Because reading it and writing short stories isn't for everyone, and doing either makes us feel special.

It also makes us pretentious and crazy.

I just want you to tell me how awesome I am

I would guess that most people, in general, surround themselves with a bubble.  It's probably a bigger bubble for those who are self-conscious or who engage in any kind of activity in which they're offering up a piece of themselves to complete strangers.  But, let's face facts, we're all looking for validation in some form or another, so at some point we have to let the bubble go.

I'm not great about sharing my writing.

Part of that might come from my time in grad school.  A big chunk of what you do as a graduate student in creative writing is share your work with your class.  The vast majority of the feedback you got in those two years came in workshops.

Run and go watch the beginning of Wonder Boys real quick.  Go on, it will take two minutes.  Back?  What you just watched (assuming you own Wonder Boys, as it's not available streaming anywhere online, even for money) is a pretty accurate depiction of what a creative writing workshop is like.  Generally speaking, none of the people in the workshop are very good writers, thus being in the workshop, which makes the feedback they give suspect right off the bat.

Everyone in a workshop wants to seem smart, so everyone in a workshop tries to do that by making really amazing, incredibly critical points about your work.  Half the time, the points aren't even particularly valid, but they just keep digging, trying to find something that will make them look good in front of the professor.

Even worse, we're all writers, so we all suffer from the same fragile egos.  If you hand us something that's genuinely good, it destroys us, because what we've turned in is shit in comparison.  So we hate you.  And we're not good at hiding our hate.

It kind of surprising that anyone who goes through workshops ever shows their work to anyone ever again.

The workshop is a good example of the difficulties with getting good feedback.  Getting feedback in general has never been easier.  The internet is awash in writing communities that you can join and share your work with.  It's awash with these communities because it's awash with people who want to write books, and they are very eager to get their work read, so they're very eager to read yours.

The problem, then, is figuring out how valuable that feedback is.

It's a lot like trying to find something to read among self-published books.  These days, anyone can self-publish.  Even money is no longer an obstacle -- talent certainly isn't.  I don't say that to be mean, but absolutely anyone can publish a book if they want to, but we all know that everyone can't write.  Most people can't even fashion an e-mail correctly.

When it comes to my work, my wife, Nicole, is the only one who reads all of it.  She's a fantastic editor, who, beyond all other things, possesses a sense of story.  That may sound obvious, I know, but you'd be surprised at how difficult it can be to just tell a story.  Writers want to write.  They want to pull out every trick in that writing box and go to town, but that often gets in the way of telling the story.  My wife sees right through that shit and she calls me on it.

I've yet to really delve into the online world of peer editing.  It's entirely for the reasons above, not to mention the fact that I can't imagine having time to read some one's book, which is something I'd have to do to be fair.

I did, however, fork over ducats to have a published author read a few chapters of Master of the House*.  I realize that things like this are generally frowned upon by the writing community, but at least this way I knew what I was getting and who was giving it to me.

Even then, though, I have to take his feedback with a grain of salt.  As the aforementioned writer said, "So please follow your own muse, though I do hope that you will find these comments helpful."  In the end, the most important feedback is the kind I give myself.  Because in the end, that might be all I'm left with.

* It was excellent feedback, I should add.  It's also done wonders for my confidence, which might be the most important thing I could get out of it. 

Endings

I'm not going to go into a diatribe about the difficulty of writing really good endings.  I will say that perhaps the first great ending of a story I ever really noticed was Ann Beattie's "The Burning House."  Go track it down, if you've never read it.

My current obsession with endings has manifested itself in two ways: a bizarre new fascination with things that have finished and a desire to use the few good endings I've ever written for new stories.

The most recent example of the former is all the time I've spent re-watching the recently ended Gossip Girl television show (I will spare you from going into further details on that).  But it started before that.  I've been going through this period of reading complete comic book story arcs, things as ridiculous as the Spider-man Clone Saga and Batman: Knightfall.  I really the enjoy the idea of being able to read a complete work and form an opinion based upon the whole.  I also like to think about the important moments where the story went wrong, or the moments where it went very right, and what it all meant by the end.

To my mind, I've probably written less than half a dozen good endings.  I think the vast majority of them are okay.  I think the entire final chapter of "I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At" is some of the best writing I've ever produced.  I like the end of "Unrequited," but it's been so long since I read it, I'm not sure if the writing still holds up.  The ending of "Gateway Drug" is probably too cute for its own good and the ending of "Weight," in hindsight, is ordinary.

I currently have two endings that I think are right up there with the best work I've ever done.  I actually got complimented on one of them, when it was attached to a short story that really wasn't good enough to have such a solid ending.  I've mostly left it alone over the years, instead trying to salvage the other one, which is attached to a short story that at least has the potential to be worthy of its ending.

I've come to realize that the latter one might actually work on its own as a short short.  I've never really written a short short before, so I find this pretty exciting, and isn't that what we want from our writing?  It also alleviates the pressure of having to improve the story that comes before it so that it's even remotely close to the quality of the ending.

The former one is the less problematic of the two, if only because it's a fairly universal ending.  It's a romantic ending, about a man realizing that the woman he's been sleeping with is actually more than that.  Basically, it lent itself to a story about girls and denial and that kind of thing, which is right in my wheelhouse.

Here's the weird thing: I attached the ending to a new short story that takes place during the same time in which I wrote the aforementioned ending.  Okay, I know that sounds like post-modernism run amok, but, trust me, it makes sense.  But I wrote this story now, and it's basically a story of "me" being with some girl who isn't my wife (although she's not technically anyone at all, since it's a complete work of fiction).  That's a little weird.  I don't think I've ever given her anything to read before that involved a love interest that wasn't, on some level, her.

It's also bizarre because I'm going back to a certain time of my life and writing about it from the future, when the ending I'm building this story around was written at that time.  The question now is whether my obvious hindsight will be obvious to the reader.

Great endings are hard to come by, so I have to take advantage of them when they come along.

What's Important 1: Twitter Tortures Me

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of pieces on "What's Important." They got a decent amount of traffic on my old blog, so I've decided to re-run them on my new site.

The main appeal of Twitter, for me, is to get a glimpse into the life I wish I was leading.

The vast majority of the people I follow on Twitter are storytellers of some type, be they writers or artists, and I would say that the vast majority of them do so for a living, or at least manage to get by doing little else.  And those people often Tweet about what they're doing at any given moment, and it doesn't usually involve sitting in a cubicle, putting together Excel sheets of information they have no real interest in.

Over the course of any given day (and night), most of these creators will drop comments about what they're currently working, what their process is like, if they're going to make their deadline, when the next meeting is, etc.  It's like getting a glimpse into heaven.

Of course it's not real, I know.  The beauty of social media is that we can present only the aspects of ourselves we choose to allow the world to see, and with Twitter that's particularly myopic.  It's a 140 character window.

Most of the time I use these glimpses as motivation.  That's the life I want, I'd say.  That should be me, Tweeting about it's 9 AM and I'm sitting down to answer publishing related e-mails while drinking my coffee.  I should be editing and proofing and researching throughout the day and cranking out new pages through the night.  I should be part of a mutual admiration society with writers whose work I enjoy.

Lately, it's been equals part motivating and depressing.  My life seems to be settling into a mold and that mold seems inflexible.

Before I go any further, you should go read this brilliant piece by David Ferguson over on the Onion.  It was published on Wednesday, about a week after I'd started putting this blog post together, and it nails exactly where my mind is at these days.

Back?

One of the things you kind of learn as you get older is that there are fewer and fewer of us out there.  By "us," I'm referring to the people in Ferguson's piece, people who have figured out what it is they love to do and who are only able to do the aforementioned thing at night and on the weekends.  That's a hard row to hoe, and over time enough distractions pop up to make giving up that life not just easy, but preferable.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, either.  But it does suggest a certain extremism in place when it comes to "doing what you love."  At a certain point, it becomes all or nothing.  It's a simple matter of time.  There are only so many hours in the day, and, whether we like it or not, we only have so much energy.  What we have to do will almost always trump what we want to do because what we have to do keeps us alive.

That's where I'm at these days.  I'm getting older and my life is getting fuller, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  But it's making me anxious about doing the thing that I love.

Eleven years ago, I quit being in bands.  Even back then, I realized that I didn't have time to play guitar in a rock n' roll band and give my writing the attention it deserved -- at least not while working a full time job.  I referred to as crossing a river, and I could only take so many things will me to the other side, and the Marshall half stack just wasn't going to fit on my boat.

I doubt I'll ever stop writing, I just worry about the day when I get two hours once a week to do it, or when I have to choose between spending time with my wife and sitting at my computer.

As unrealistic as it is, I want that Twitter life, and until I have it, it will always torture me.