Love Story

I just started a book my mom got me for Mother’s Day.  (The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write).  And I mean just.  But I’m already hooked…

As Robert Stone states, with blazing simplicity: “Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread.  We cannot imagine ourselves without it, because the self is a story.”  Amen.

It’s true — the universe would survive without decent writing, much as it did for a trillion or so years before writing was born.  And it’s true that the vast majority of people on earth will continue to live full, eventful lives without the benefit of Jane Austen or W. S. Merwin.  But by this reasoning, you could also argue that almost nothing matters.  (Or, rather, you could argue that if you knew how to write well.)  People can live without basketball, domestic pets and real butter, too.  If the question is simply one of literal survival in its ultimate sense, eating twigs in the wilderness or Pringles in front of the Xbox, we can survive with almost nothing, we’ve demonstrated that.  For those who want to live in a deeper, funnier, wilder, more troubled, more colorful, more interesting way, a way in which not only writing matters but also beauty, memory, politics, family, and everything else, put on your reading glasses and turn the page.  Your people have something to tell you…

– Jon Raymond

So ends the best introduction in a book I’ve ever read.  It left me both sure this writing thing is where my heart lies and convinced that I should stop trying to write at all, because I will never reach the level of artistry Jon Raymond clearly possesses.  He did his job perfectly: made me eager to read the book immediately, wishing I had the whole day to dig in, while also arguing a larger point with dexterity.  With technical accuracy, humor and logic.  I wish I could quote the entire piece.  But that would be illegal.

How can I add to this?  Not with any better argument in favor of the written word.  But perhaps with my own story to back it up.  A personal tale to defend the artistic genre that I love.  A story to promote the importance of story.  That’s all I can offer.  And so I do:

In my third year of college I enrolled in Fiction Writing I, along with my good friend Marc (who, because he had a harder time getting a story onto paper than onto film was taking it for the second time).  He wasn’t a great writer, but he knew great writing.  I was nervous.  I had been writing since I could remember.  Little poems, songs, stories, a scintillating screenplay for a puppet show when I was in grade school.  Then more poems, songs and a Poe-like short story (that in retrospect was reeeeeally similar to Psycho) for my high school Gothic Lit. class.  Then tons of essays in college.  TONS.  All of which were boring to write and probably also to read.  About other people’s writing, or historical events and their relevance to the present, or why Nietzsche was wrong.

But I hadn’t written fiction that bore my soul since I was little, when I didn’t care who knew what was in there.  I was old enough now to know people might mock.  Might not like what they saw.  And to worry that my writing might actually be terrible.

And Marc was in my class.

My Marc.  My secret future husband.  If my first short story was bad, he wouldn’t know what a hidden jewel I was.  Wouldn’t see me as I longed to be seen: as, duh, this beautiful, intelligent artiste.  Right in front of his eyes all this time.  The pressure was on.

So I went home and did my thing.  Saw a photograph in my American History textbook that sparked my imagination and began.  Hunkered down in my dorm room with pen and paper (yes, actual pen and paper, back in the olden days of 1995 when computers lived in the computer lab).  I got in the zone.  Threw in some historical details.  Scratched out entire paragraphs.  Wrestled with the words until I was happy with my story, or out of time.

Our class workshopped everyone’s stories, a few each class period, so we had to read them in advance in order to give each person feedback.  My day had come, and I was terrified.  I got up, dressed, walked down to the dorm cafeteria.  Knowing I would likely see Marc – his curly ponytail bopping around the cereal dispensers, the sight of which always made my stomach turn with excitement/anxiety.  And there it was.  I watched where he sat.  Got my daily dose of LIFE with milk and headed to the booth, heart pounding.  And when I turned the corner to sit, and he saw me, he stopped talking to his friend and looked at me.  For a long time.  Longer than necessary to acknowledge my presence.  Longer than anyone looks at anyone unless they are seeing them differently than usual.  Maybe for the first time.  I just about peed my pants.  I didn’t know what he was going to say – maybe he didn’t know how to tell me it was awful.  But then he smiled and I burst inside.  I stayed cool, don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t want him knowing how desperately I wanted him to love my story.  But he did.  And it was the beginning.  I had been right in front of him all this time, but now, to him, I was a writer.

And that, my friends, is just one of the love stories I can tell you about my relationship with the written word.  It’s in my bones and has worked its way out my whole life long.  I may not be as good as Jon Raymond, but I will defend this art form until I physically cannot.  By writing.  Plain and simple.  It matters in the world.

Now to read the rest of that book…

Referee

My friend recently said that she wished she and her husband had a referee.  Which echoed my thoughts about my own marriage.  Someone to mediate between two opposing sides and objectively point out each one’s offenses. Marc and I could use that, as I suspect all couples, toddlers and warring nations could.  As long as the referee wasn’t paid to throw the game.

That’s what counseling is, I suppose.  Or should be.  An outside opinion of how this sport of marriage is played.  A third party to point out when and how we go wrong.  Preferably without a whistle.  Or a coach who can show us a game plan and give us strategies to win against all obstacles.  Help us work as a team.  I could use both.  Because though I long for a sense of solidarity in my marriage, I find my natural state of selfishness creeping in and smashing the very idea to bits.  Daily.

Here’s the thing:  I love my husband.  He’s my best friend.  He’s the person I want to hang out with nearly all the time: funny, smart, kind, generous.  He loves movies.  Me too.  He likes great music.  What a coincidence.  He cracks me up, the importance of which cannot be overstated.  He’s faithful.  He loves his children.  He makes me eggs every morning.  “What’s not to love?,” you may ask.  “Well, it’s complicated,” is my answer.  And that’s the problem.  It’s the problem in every marriage, in every human relationship.  People are complicated – a big tangled mess.  I’m a lot of great things, but I’m a big mess, too.  So big mess + big mess = bigger tangled mess that is hard to get a comb through sometimes.

There are certainly times when things are smooth.  The conditioner has been liberally applied and love reigns.  But boy, there are times when it doesn’t.  Days when I wake up fully committed to my own desires, unwilling to sacrifice.  As there are for Marc.  And when those days happen to be on the same day?  Ugh.  Somebody get a referee.

My son and I were talking recently about a friend whose parents may soon be getting a divorce, and his heart was broken for him.  It made me wonder how he perceived Marc’s and my marriage.  The kids will say “You guys always fight,” which of course isn’t true, but to their young minds it must feel as such.  Which breaks my heart.  “You know how Dad and I argue sometimes?,” I asked.  Nod.  “Well, that’s because when you really love someone, if they hurt your feelings it really hurts.  Like, Arghhh!  I LOVE you. Why did you DO that?  Or sometimes you just disagree, strongly, and you can’t figure out how to agree.  So you argue.  And you work and work to resolve it.  It’s hard.  And we’re people, so we’re bound to have conflict sometimes.”  (Being the son of a writer and an ex-literacy-program-director, my son has known about “conflict” since he was in-utero).  He got it.  And when I asked him why he was upset about his friend, to help him talk it out, he said to my great relief “Because he doesn’t have a good family like we do.”  Oh hallelujah.  He hasn’t been too scarred by our fights.  And he might even be prepared to have arguments with his own wife someday.  Because it’s inevitable.  Mess + mess.  I just wish I could give him a referee as a wedding gift.

If only.  I’m picturing a little guy with a striped shirt who lives at your house, up on a shelf.  He’s inanimate when things are fine, but as soon as the voices are raised or sniping begins he awakens, jumps down, grows to adult-height and intercedes.  It’s kind of a creepy image, but I’d be willing to accept some creepiness to stop Marc from losing it over my pile of papers in the kitchen.  Or me over “someone” putting the water bottles away by clearly throwing them on the shelf.  Or the bigger stuff.  The tangled messes we’ve been trying to comb through since the day we got hitched so many years ago.  But, since that little creepy guy doesn’t exist, I will have to trod through.  Get some counseling periodically, as I recommend for every married person.  Try to get perspective when the water bottles are askew and not to react so strongly when my pile is criticized.  Take a breath and remember: we’re on a team.  He’s my team.  My friend.  My partner for life.

And he’s funny sometimes.  Always remember he’s funny.