I used to write nonfiction.
I wrote pretty good nonfiction. Memoir mostly. That shtick can work if you’re eighteen. Everything’s new, so it’s no great challenge to describe mundane epiphanies with pure, sparkling language.
Shortly after 9/11, I started writing about politics. Those pieces weren’t good. I would classify them as rants. Course, I was young.
I stopped writing for a while. I realized I was only ranting – about my job, the president, the vice-president, war, the upcoming election. Nothing I had to say twinkled. The endeavor had devolved into an exercise, and I was bored.
I didn’t intend to quit. I just stopped.
Four or five years later, I picked it up again. I still don’t know why. I guess I was bored again.
I still wrote nonfiction. I thought I couldn’t write anything else, despite the unknown known that I fantasized compulsively and had imagined, lived, and discarded a thousand stories without giving a single breath of them permanence.
We had a subscription to Playboy back then. I really did read the articles. In fact, I read every issue cover to cover, including the fiction. I was sitting on the john one day, reading a James Ellroy memoir. He described the moment he knew he wanted to write fiction and how he went about it, by making up stories habitually and simply writing them down. I thought, “I can do that.”
A month later, once the project had taken over my life and given it new meaning, I realized just how desperate I’d felt without it.
One quote from that article still echoes through my head. “That first book was the blueprint for the rest of my life, but I didn’t know it then.” It’s been a while, so I’m probably paraphrasing. Sincerest apologies, Mr. Ellroy.
I don’t know if that statement is true for everyone. I don’t know if it’s true for me. I do know this: making shit up is just as cathartic as spilling the honest to Bob truth.
The first draft of Bleeding Gut Blues is novella-length at best. I still have the terrible habit of writing sentences in sequence when I’m excited, most of the book read like this, I used a million commas and forgot about periods or the word “and.”
The book and I endured at least two dozen drafts, and I forced myself to relive the story with every edit, adding new details and life until the final pass. I knew it needed it, and I wanted it to be perfect.
Endless revising yielded perpetual reflection – on the city bus, before sleep, while my hands played old songs they could handle on their own. I began to spot themes relevant to my own life that I never intended to include.
Of all the revelations, only one was helpful in the long-term. I can’t survive without a project, something that’s mine to shape. Bands are fun as hell, but playing music with others is about creating something as a group, a sound that builds organically as a result of three to five sets of inclinations and personal taste. I love participating in that process, but it isn’t enough.
The release found through performance is physical and emotional. The musician screams, jumps, sings, all the while listening, waiting for cues, and surfing the rest of the sound. After it’s over, he’s spent and exhilarated at the same time. Adrenaline rules the remainder of the night.
In almost a decade, I’ve never played a set that caused me to reevaluate jack. Make out with girls, get drunk, fall asleep in the back of a pickup, sure, but examine humanity’s pitfalls? Never.
Both arts relieve tension and provide intangible rewards. If you practice playing music, your fingers will become more dexterous, your ear will evolve, and you will become a better musician. If you practice writing, you’ll forget how to speak, but you’ll become a better writer, and in the process, you will change.
Fiction can be a foil or a mirror. In either case, it’s an intimate escape for the reader and the writer, and the desired destination is telling.
These days, I don’t have a lot of passion for writing memoir. It feels like setting up a camera at a traffic light versus building a collage. A traffic camera details all and maybe, once in a while, will stumble across an automated “Golden Moment.” Collage, unrelated realities combined to form an alternate, is limitless.
Whether reading or writing, I stare at fiction like a collage. I tear apart the details comprising the whole and examine the mold growing underneath. None of us humans are truly unique, so if the work isn’t atrocious, I’m bound to catch sight of myself in whatever fungus the author is substituting for Elmer’s. Invariably, my mind is altered, and epiphanies pop as easily as when the world was a brand new picture book in tiny hands.
As much as I need and love to escape into fantasy, the beautiful drug that it is, fiction also supplies the distance necessary to evaluate without bias. Even if my addiction wanes, that is the reason I should write it.