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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why We Write

Once a thing is known, it can never be unknown.  It can only be forgotten…It is wiser, in every circumstance to forget, to cultivate the art of forgetting.  To remember is to face the enemy.  The truth lies in remembering. 
Anita Brookner, from Look at Me

I'm pretty sure I'm remembering it correctly, that my childhood yearning to become a writer re-appeared years later as a lofty desire to write great fiction when I declared my major as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.  But I stopped short.  Apart from a clichéd ending to a passionate co-ed romance, I really felt I had no life experience upon which to tap the arsenal of a writer's imagination. Or so I thought.

And as many typical slacking twenty-somethings trying to chart their course in life, I never summoned the discipline to write every day, to write anyway, to write on every scrap available to me at every free turn.  That is, apart from all the compulsory writing that comes from being a liberal arts student. Even after college, I couldn't seem to get my writing act together, this despite the fact that I entered the field of publishing successfully right out of college, and ended up in New York fairly quickly as an acquisitions editor with a major publishing house, Macmillan.  I was reading and evaluating other people's writing all day, (not fiction, but college business books) but I couldn't summon the wherewithal to get my own writing underway.

Whenever I sat down to write, nothing good ever seemed to come of it.  I felt like that recovering reprobate who has a brilliant epiphany late in the dorm one night, and awakens the next day to find some lame over-written result on a cocktail napkin that seemed uniquely brilliant at the time, and in the light of day is exposed as anything but revelatory.

So what changed for me?

Life happened. And life happened suddenly and unexpectedly and tragically.  Life steered itself off course in an unexpected direction, and veered instantly way past my meager imagination. Strangely, in the span of an instant, the truth in my life became more telling than any fiction I could have created or crafted.  That's the way truth often reveals itself: it suddenly becomes infinitely far stranger, and at turns, uglier and more absorbing than any fiction.

Writers were tagging along with cops through the cities of Detroit, Los Angeles and Toledo to capture the noir feeling of an urban crime scene.  Suddenly, I didn't need to do that.  I had my own crime scene to sort out. 

Because right in the middle of my mildly interesting middle class life I woke up in the middle of my worst nightmare. Instantly, I was no longer a bystander on the sidelines of life, I had a ringside seat.   Unfortunately, no one really looks to garner that center seat in a horror story that promises no chapter breaks from the live action.

But there I was, one minute kissing my wife Kay goodbye, as I headed off to the airport to attend a sales conference.  I had spent a good part of that day at a baby shower my parents hosted for our first-born, who was a mere three months away.  The next minute I was in Minneapolis, returning to my hotel from dinner.  Only as soon as I entered my room, I realized something was horribly wrong.

I knew it the instant I walked into the room.  The red light on the hotel phone was blinking.

There was a message for me. But who could possibly have known I was even here? It had to be Kay.  And Kay never called me on the road.  Not ever. As it turned out, nothing in my sometimes over-reaching imagination could have prepared me for the ultimate discoveries that followed from that phone call.  Or the media circus that attempted to tell the story, albeit from the vantage point of those interested in the headline, the sound bite, and the gripping, gruesome page-turning details.

Years later I would find myself writing about the murder in my family that day.  For some time, the words were as pained and difficult to write as the story itself.  And while there is certainly a strong argument to be made for writing as catharsis, I was driven now in a different way to write, to keep writing.

Sometimes we are compelled to write because we have no choice.  Despite the difficulty of the task at hand, we must create a record of something we've learned through life's hard lessons is worth preserving.  We are honor bound, and nothing including an agent's misgivings or an editor's rejection will hinder us, short of finishing the job.

My story began to take form as memoir.  There is no way I could take liberties with the bold bare facts.  Rough and brazen, it is a story I became obsessed about writing. Adversity didn't inspire virtue, it simply revealed it.  


Given the difficulty in re-examining the painful forensic evidence and facts, and re-visiting the stomach turning events of the day, I wasn't sure I could answer that question, much less give it the justice only good writing could.  Finally, the answer came while I was in a writer's workshop with novelist and UM professor, Laura Kaschiscke.  I had been leading classmates and readers along the path of that day's events throughout our semester of work shopping. On the last day of class, convinced that by leaving out any foreshadowing of the murder, I could create for my readers the same experience that befell me, my main character, I was ready to share what actually happened that day.

So that last night of class, last among my peers, I read the passage that revealed what I had such difficulty talking about, much less writing about.  I began with a scene that opened in my grandma Vicki's kitchen.  I was sitting at her table, and she was going on about how hard it is for people to get along, all the fighting, violence and misunderstanding.  "We need to just bury them hatchets. Let bygones be bygones," she said in her blunt-spoken broken English. Weeks of earlier passages I had shared with the class revealed Vicki as a character akin to an immigrant version of Edith Bunker from the All in the Family series, with similar housedresses and a Polish accent.  From their reviews, it was clear many classmates were developing a strong affection for Vicki’s character as weeks of readings followed; her baffling simplicity, her brazen honesty and forthrightness.

On this evening, I took a turn with my readers, and led them from that simple scene in the kitchen to a passage called, The Witness Statement.

I did not write the statement.  It is a small, but stunning piece of writing that looms large.  The Witness Statement captures the unedited confession of a 14-year-old boy who admits to having murdered Vicki after a romantic encounter gone horribly wrong.  The class was stunned, beyond the graphic description told in the oddly candid, cryptic voice of a teenager.  Students finally began to speak, at first haltingly.  Several cried.  One student, in particular, felt betrayed.  She had come to love Vicki, revealed in my earlier pieces, and was having a hard time reconciling that portrait of Vicki, with the woman whom she had just heard had led on her killer, and was complicit in her own murder.

I couldn’t have been more stunned.  I never imagined a more startling example of how powerful writing can be.  The fact that The Witness Statement betrayed a false fashioning of the facts was clearly lost on this student.  The student took something as fact solely because it had been written: that somehow my 85-year-old Polish grandmother had seduced a 14-year-old boy into killing her as their "misguided romance" unraveled.  Wow. 

Leaving class that day, it felt as if my private horror would continue forever, until I realized my writing had been summoned for a higher purpose.  I simply needed to tell it right.  After all, Vicki was more than just my grandmother, she was my komuschka, and more, a companion and friend, a pani from the old country, a friend and komuschka to her friends, and all these words meant everything to the story yet to be told.

My relationship with Vicki provided a cogent formula for writing not as catharsis, not as vengeance for wrongful deeds committed, but rather as testament to truth and something far more everlasting than life. It was not a chronicle of Vicki’s rape and murder, but a story about who I had become because of her. 

I remembered Vicki's words, spoken only weeks before her murder.  "Bury them hatchets. Let bygones be bygones." In a final irony, I was now haunted by the compulsion to capture in words how Vicki would have viewed her own murder in that small frame house in the old neighborhood, through the lives of those she loved.  If I face another thousand rejections on my way to publishing My Last Dance with Vicki, it won't matter.  The Witness Statement serves as but one part of the story. 

Ultimately, we are redeemed in life by the women who love us. The rest of this story, by virtue of my written words, must necessarily follow. 

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