I have a minor David Sedaris addiction. I adore his voice (both written and spoken), but most of all, I admire how he filters through the minutiae of life to get to the essential elements while still understanding the bigger story and his own role in it. His writing inspires me to take on different views of my own life stories.
When it comes to storytelling, it is easy to cherry pick the details that will portray a person or scene in a certain light. Exhibit A: “He was at the checkout when suddenly everyone else in line started to yell at him.” Sprinkle in a few new facts and voila! – the story changes completely: “He elbowed his way past the old woman, knocking her into to magazine rack. Immediately everyone else in line started to yell at him.” Now he’s the asshole.
This may seem obvious, but if you’ve been retelling the same choice bits and pieces of a story for years, it can be fascinating to take a step back and look at the big picture. Enter Crazy Candice*.
Candice was my housemate for approximately one and a half years when I was in my mid-twenties. I have not had another housemate since. This is no coincidence.
For fifteen years, I’ve told stories about Candice’s wild mood swings and her resistance-bordering-on-compulsion to throwing things away, from rotten food to broken furniture. I’ve recounted the time when, an hour after I’d thrown an ant-infested box of sugar into the garbage, she’d pulled it back out, explaining that it was fine now that all the ants had moved on. Or the time she brought home the two-legged stool. For fifteen years, Candice has been a reliable subject of humor and dinner party stories. But it was only when I decided to write about her that I began to think of her as more than a string of funny stories about my “crazy” former housemate**.
Just a few days go, I began to write down everything I remember about her. The collection of broken pottery pieces. The stash of American Spirit cigarettes in the kitchen. The chronic psoriasis on her arms and legs. The boyfriend sixteen years her senior, and the identical twin sister who was four minutes older yet looked ten years younger. The more I write, the more I remember. And the more I am starting to see Candice as a complex person with both good and not so good qualities. Yes, she was prone to emotional outbursts and weeping jags, but she could also be friendly and outgoing, and knew most of the neighbors by name. She’d rescued her dog from the side of a Florida highway and her cat from an abandoned house. She had a green thumb, and sang while she cooked.
Seeing Candice as a whole person doesn’t change the fact that she was difficult to live with, but it does make me feel more compassion for her. And it makes her a much more interesting “character”. David Sedaris would be proud.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cherry picking the funniest parts of a story when I’m telling it at a party or over drinks with friends. But as a writer, it is my duty not to define someone by sound bite. Which is what I will now endeavor to do.
*Not her actual name.
**Okay, I’m not a total jerk. I did have some sympathy for her. True, her quirky behavior perplexed me, and her mood swings and passive aggressive tendencies were often downright distressing. But even in the thick of it, I could see that she was struggling with the fact that her life was not going the way she had planned.