The epic romantic or confessional letters of novels past were replaced by telephone calls in the early 20th century, emails in the 1990s, and texting in the 2000s. These days, pretty much every novel that takes place in modern day Western civilization includes a series of text conversations, and I’ve been crafting a few of these exchanges for a brand new writing project.
Text exchanges, both fictional and real, are rife with complications. Sarcasm doesn’t always translate well even with the aid of an winky emoji, and the most heartfelt declaration can come across as mean-spirited or dismissive. Often times, we are forced to read between the lines, to (mis)interpret at will and hope we understand the other person’s true intentions.
I had a questionable text exchange of my own about two weeks ago. I was hiking with my dog in one of my favorite spots, Redwood Regional Park, when my phone buzzed four times in about thirty seconds. I generally avoid technology when I’m trying to enjoy the woods, but the rapid fire texts made me wonder if there was an emergency.
The first two texts were from two different friends, coincidentally checking in at the same time. The next two texts were from a phone number I didn’t recognize. I will refrain from comment and simply share the transcript as is:
And once again, he disappeared into the ether. Sorta makes you nostalgic for the days of the handwritten letter. I’m pretty sure that letter would have never made it to the post office.
One of the first rules of the Internet is Never Read the Comments, especially when it comes to something you have written. As most of us have witnessed first hand, there’s something about the relative anonymity of the comments section that transforms people into hate-spewing cretins. People routinely misinterpret – often willfully it seems – each others’ words and then clamber up onto their virtual soapboxes to preach their version of the gospel. Or call you a goddamn stupid motherf*cking a$$hole licker. Or, you know, whatever.
But sometimes it’s impossible to resist reading the comments.
A few months ago, I wrote a story for xojane.com* about the time I spotted an old flame making balloon animals at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. This guy had 1) broken my delicate eighteen-year-old heart, and 2) once been a moody and pretentious aspiring filmmaker, so there was some satisfaction in seeing him surrounded by sugar high children. My story received hundreds of comments, ranging from amusement to solidarity to irritation. Some accused me of pettiness and insensitivity. One commenter was outraged that I was picking on balloon artists.
Over the last two years, I have written and recorded a number of short pieces for the Perspectives segment of my local public radio station. This experience has taught me that even public radio listeners can be over-reactive, albeit while using more polite language. My tribute to my former-hunter-now-elderly cat inspired a heated exchange between an angry bird lover and a defensive cat supporter. When KQED aired my analogy on the nature of prejudice and race relations, let’s just say I was grateful not to get any death threats. Two weeks ago, I was at the station to record my latest piece about staving off a panic attack at 13,000 ft, and the segment editor joked, “I’m sure the commenters will come up with something. Perhaps self-indulgent?” We laughed and I prepared myself for whatever would come.
In this day and age when it seems that everyone has a righteous opinion on just about everything, what does it say that my piece did not receive a single comment, good or bad? To most creative types, the worst reaction to our work is indifference. While I have received positive feedback from friends and acquaintances, I admit that I am somewhat distressed that my writing failed to inspire even one listener to indignation.
I really ought to stop checking the comments section. Seeing that “0 Comments” is breaking my heart.
*For the record, the bordering-on-cheesy heading and subhead were not mine.
Over the holiday break, I finished the third draft of my novel. And by “finished”, I mean forced myself to turn off the computer and walk away. This week, I will distribute the manuscript to my beta readers, who will then spend the next six to eight weeks reading it and preparing responses that I desperately hope will be lovely pairings of accolades and useful notes for improvement.
And in the meantime, I will spend my free time doing…what?
Possible answers include: finish watching Game of Thrones, start watching Mad Men, crack open one of the unread novels piled up on my nightstand, put away the Christmas decorations, repaint the hallway, do more yoga, plan a vacation, and clean out my closets. And so many others.
I can also use this opportunity to…write something else. For instance, that essay about the all genders bathroom sign. Or about my hoarder former housemate. Or the really funny story about the time I saw the guy who broke my 18-year-old heart (Spoiler Alert!) making balloon animals at Ghiradeli Square. Or I could begin to revise the forsaken first draft ‘tween novel I cranked out and set aside two years ago.
Or I can pick a few items from each list. Where to begin…
(As I have just now finished writing this blog post, I will reward myself with the new episode of Downton Abbey. Cheerio!)
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.
We all have our go-to stories, the ones we love to tell at dinner parties or over drinks with friends. The time you came across porn on a co-worker’s computer. That time in college when you got drunk and passed out in the laundry room. I have several of my own favorite stories, ranging from awkward blind dates to the roommate who routinely ate spoiled food. While these experiences were somewhat horrifying at the time (i.e. the therapist who referred to his clients as “whiners”, the ever-present smell of my roommate’s rotting produce in the refrigerator), they are some of my favorite stories to tell.
But what about the stories we can’t laugh off, even years later?
I recently came across a call for submissions for personal essays on the theme “It Left Me Speechless”. It sounded like a fun challenge and a good introduction to a possible new writing venue, and almost at once, I thought of the perfect story. The problem was that even thinking about delving into the emotional details of this perfect story made my stomach squirm.
For several days, I tried but failed to find inspiration in a series of lighter but much less compelling experiences. By its very definition, a personal essay is, well…personal. It reveals the writer’s innermost thoughts, feelings, vulnerabilities. Sharing our intimate selves with others is part of what makes us human. But it’s also scary as hell. And the requisite self-examination that goes into the effort is often even more terrifying.
So, about that “perfect” story that I am compelled to tell but afraid to face…well, I will say this much: I had a minor nervous breakdown. Not the straightjacket-and-padded-cell kind we usually associate with the term. I remained a generally productive member of society, went to work, fed myself, bathed regularly. But I was broken.
It started off as what should have been a relatively routine break-up. We weren’t a good fit, we wanted different things, etc. But for months afterward, I was plagued by anxiety. I awoke every morning to the crushing realization that I was still alive. My mind was a churning cesspool, and I was afraid of my own toxic thoughts. I didn’t vacuum my apartment for over six weeks because I couldn’t stand to be alone with my brain while the sound of the vacuum drowned out all other external noise. I started smoking again because I needed to do something with my hands. I also started running because I had so much nervous energy, and I couldn’t bear to sit still.
In short, I was a mess.
While I am well over the guy, it seems I am still not quite over the aftermath. And perhaps really digging in to write this piece would help me to resolve that. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence shows that people who write out their feelings tend to be happier, to feel more resolved with their problems. This is of course a form of therapy. Perhaps the best thing I could do for myself is to look my demons in the eyes.
Can you only write about something once you’ve resolved it? Or is writing about it part of the process? And once you’ve written about it, how do you know when to share it with others and when to file it safely away under “Emotional Word Vomit – Do Not Disclose”?
I don’t know the answers. I may discover them by plunging in headfirst, but only if I can find the guts.