I tell lies.
Whole packs of them.
Mostly to myself, but I don’t think that in the least softens the crime. Because once I start to believe them, they get passed off on other people as truths.
And then it just gets worse from there.
But I don’t count fiction among my lies.
Fiction, you’ll be glad to know, keeps me honest.
Or at least, more honest than I would be if left to my own devices.
I didn’t appreciate this until the spring I was 30. It was April, and I’d just received a critique from a short story writer. He’d read the first 12 pages of my novel, and he had many good things to say. Pacing and plot setup, good. Subtext, beautiful. Language and sentences, spot-on.
But he also delivered one terrible, devastating truth: I don’t feel anything. Your characters don’t seem to feel anything, either. There’s no emotion here.
I pushed away from the computer. I pulled on my trench coat, knotted the belt, and locked my front door behind me. I had to take a walk.
I headed west. Down through the spring evening, under the budding leaves. I walked along Denny Way. I passed the tulips just in bloom beneath the Space Needle, yellow and bulbous as pears, cutting down to Alaskan Way and the silver water. And then I stepped out of the city and into the Olympic Sculpture Park.
At last, with a view of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, I could breathe.
I could think.
And he was right. I’d known it all along. Something about my writing was thin. Dead and dried-up as autumn leaves. My characters didn’t feel anything.
And I knew, as I crossed onto the grass, cold with dew, and stared over the water gleaming with sunset–I knew it was because I didn’t allow myself to feel anything.
And if I refused to feel, my characters couldn’t, either.
They couldn’t help it. It wasn’t their fault.
But why? I asked myself as I took the gravel path down to the pier. Why am I so afraid to feel?
Because to feel was to acknowledge my loneliness in my marriage, my dread of the larger world, my doubt in my ability to survive there, and the old anger from the past. All of it.
But that night, as the sun went down and the temperature fell, as I stuffed my hands in my pockets, I realized I couldn’t cut that kind of deal. I couldn’t tell myself to feel some things and not others. I couldn’t write a story that contained all the terror and elation and rage and hope and passion of my history if I allowed some feelings, and not others.
It just doesn’t work that way.
You have to feel all of it.
It would be three more months before I moved out. Before I settled into an attic room north of the city and gave it a go. Seeing if I could survive my own feelings.
But my life changed that night. And when, many weeks later, those budding leaves unfurled and drooped, velvet and silver-green on the trees, I plucked a leaf. Ran my fingertip along the green spine. And I cried. That was when I knew I would be okay.
Not okay, in that I’d feel all right. Or that it wouldn’t kill me. Or that I would be happy.
Okay–in that I would get to live. Finally, fully live.
And it was so beautiful. So goddamn fucking beautiful to be alive and to feel anything at all. Even the pain. Because it’s sure proof that I’m alive. And sure proof that I’m being honest in the living of it.
Honest enough, I can hope, to write something that is true.