All these stories are about beginnings, all meet-cutes. But any of us who has been married, or been in a relationship, knows the beginning is just that, a beginning. The assumption, or the Hollywood ending, or the fairy tale ending, is that once the initial conflict has been smoothed over or sorted out, then love and a blissful life together just happen. But, like I said, many of us know that’s not even close to how it works in real life. The beginning is often the easiest. That’s when the attraction is strong because it is sating something that was missing. But what happens once that initial burst of attraction and satisfaction passes and day-to-day life becomes the routine? Then what? Then the truth about whether two people are not just compatible, but ready to be in a relationship comes out. Is there a way to write about that that is sexy? That has some intensity to it?
I escaped from the city for a night to a friend’s house upstate. I was texting with a different friend who asked, “Is that a rich person’s place?”
I was taken aback. What did they mean by that? Where is the line between a rich person and a regular person? Then I realized. This is how I answered:
“The short answer is yes.”
“The longer answer is, from what I can tell, being a rich person is a lot like being an alcoholic. Everyone else knows that’s what you are, but you don’t know it, you don’t feel like one, and you always feel like there’s somebody else who is richer than you, who is a REAL rich person.”
It seems to me that somehow the label “rich person” carries baggage. Like somehow if you are labeled as such, then your hard work doesn’t feel hard, or your pain hurts less than other people’s pain.
Anyway, I wouldn’t know, because I am definitely NOT a rich person.
In order to write the way I want to write, and to put those words out into the world, not hoard them, not hide them, I need permission. I want to write about emotions and experiences, physical experiences, sensual experiences, not just ideas. I want to tell stories about characters who are lusty. Characters who drive too fast, who take risks, who gobble their dessert instead of savoring each bite. Characters who have sex. I have an internal voice, a strong voice, that denies me permission. This voice tells me to be careful about what I publish, to not risk giving the wrong impression, to not risk offending anyone.
Up until now, occasionally I would seek out someone to give me permission to do something not careful, not safe, not boring. Because of the way my mind works, there are certain people from whom I would accept advice and encouragement to take risks, to have adventures, to live less carefully. But only occasionally. Here’s the thing I have figured out: I need to give myself permission. I need to take MY word for it.
I find myself asking how do I find that permissive voice? But when I ask the question in those words, I’ve already lost the game. By asking that way, I’m saying I don’t know, and I’m waiting for the answer to come to me, when the truth is I already do know. I give myself permission not by asking about finding the right voice, but by daring. By being fucking uncomfortable. By writing words that make me cringe, make me curl up in a ball on the couch and feel embarrassed and ashamed and worried I’m going to get in trouble. By telling stories I want to live inside of, stories about characters who take risks and live messy, screwed-up lives, but characters who I am rooting for, who I love and hate. Stories and characters who make me feel.
And then when those words and those stories are out there in the world, and people are reading them, learning to live with the discomfort that generates. Learning to trade the comfort of safety and invisibility for the exhilaration of exposure.
I couldn’t step up today. I sat down to write at least three times and could not find the courage to write something honest. I wanted to write something trite, something easy, something safe, which is the same as hiding. At least three times today I went to sleep and then woke up later from a dream that disturbed me. Dreams that I was so relieved were only dreams. Dreams that I wanted to extract myself from and be back in my safe, comfortable apartment. In my safe, comfortable life. I am appalled at the way I am hiding in my safe, comfortable life.
In 1320, Dante finished the The Divine Comedy, which describes his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His guide through the first two parts is Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid. At the beginning of the story, Dante, age 35, meets the ghost of Virgil after going astray in the dark forest of sin. I love this part of the story because I feel like it mirrors what I experienced when I was 40. I felt broken and lost after my marriage ended in divorce and I met a therapist who showed me the way to this world’s version of paradise by walking through my version of hell. I frequently think of her as being my own personal Virgil.
Here is the description of that meeting in Dante’s words, edited for brevity by me:
Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.
And as I fell to my soul’s ruin, a presence
gathered before me on the discolored air,
the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence.
At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
“Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man.” And it replied:
“Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, sub Julio, and bred
in Rome under Augustus in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises’ noble son
who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you–why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy
which is the seat and first cause of man’s bliss?”
“And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?” My voice grew tremulous:
“See there, immortal sage, the beast I flee.
For my soul’s salvation, I beg you, guard me from her,
for she has struck a mortal tremor through me.”
And he replied, seeing my soul in tears:
“He must go by another way who would escape
this wilderness, for that mad beast that fleers
before you there, suffers no man to pass.
She tracks down all, kills all, and knows no glut,
but, feeding, she grows hungrier than she was.
Therefore, for your own good, I think it well
you follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you forth through an eternal place.
There you shall see the ancient spirits tried
in endless pain, and hear their lamentation
as each bemoans the second death of souls.
Next you shall see upon a burning mountain
souls in fire and yet content in fire,
knowing that whensoever it may be
they yet will mount into the blessed choir.
And I to him: “Poet, by that God to you unknown,
lead me this way. Beyond this present ill
and worse to dread, lead me to Peter’s gate
and be my guide through the sad halls of Hell.”
And he then: “Follow.” And he moved ahead
in silence, and I followed where he led.
I suppose it was bound to come to this, sooner or later. I had hoped this blog would be primarily fiction, and not just a lengthier version of the kind of extemporaneous thinking I post on Facebook, but here we are.
Last night I posted about the coast of Maine and the ocean, and then I wrote a very short story set on those rocks. I left it up on the blog for about 12 hours and then took it down because I felt too exposed. Well, that doesn’t totally cover it completely. What I was so uncomfortable with is that I took a deeply personal, intense experience and used it in my writing, but I used it in a piece that felt ever-so-slightly like a throwaway piece that I was posting just so I had put a piece of fiction out there into the world. And that did not feel OK — like I want to hold on to that particular experience and only use it for special occasions. I don’t want to lessen the emotional power of it by overusing it, because the emotionality of it is so easily accessible.
Is it really possible to toss out a piece of quick fiction, day after day? I mean without repeating the same story over and over just dressed up differently. And not just imagining the stories, and writing them, but actually publishing them, even if only for this microscopic audience. Maybe I need to go back to the prompts from the writing class I took previously.
I was at a wedding on the coast of Maine in May of 2013. I was happy to be there, but at times the pressure to be social, to make polite conversation, felt suffocating. I was delighted to discover that if I wandered away from the celebration into the fog, I was quickly on the rocks at the shoreline. I was dying to sit down on the surprisingly sturdy bench placed there, but to do so would have meant instantly soaking the seat of my dress clothes. It felt daft to be in such a wild place in such fussy clothes, but one has to take such opportunities as they present themselves. The fog formed into droplets on my eyelashes and felt like a kiss.
Being next to the ocean has always simultaneously drawn out of my heart a longing and an excitement. The fog only increases the sense of mystery and anticipation, like some delicious adventure could be hiding just out of sight. The ocean is never completely still. Not only is it always moving, it is always moving vigorously and decisively. If you sample a drop of water with your tongue, there is no wondering if maybe the water is salty. If only all of life could be so alive, so aggressive, so definite.
There is a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “The Birth of Venus.” I saw it a handful of times before they took it down and replaced it with something less memorable. I also photographed it. And then I took the photos home and looked at them and looked at them and looked at them some more. At one point I noticed something I thought was somewhat odd. At first glance, the female subject appears to have her eyes closed, but on closer inspection, her eyes, or maybe it’s just one eye, is open, just barely. There is something about this that hooked me, and maybe I find the slightest bit unsettling.
One of the things I love about art museums is I can gaze at the female figures, whether painted or sculpted, for as much and as long as I like. I can drink them in, trace every curve, every line, over and over again with my eyes, with my imagination. With my heart. My gaze is sanctioned. That is the very purpose of an art museum. But, like I said, Venus watching me is ever-so-slightly unsettling. But no, that’s not quite it. It feels to me that she is enjoying me studying her figure, her extravagant locks, her goddess’ beauty. That she wants to be admired and wants to watch me admiring her. Perhaps this is my projection, but it is hugely comforting to me. Rather than being the perpetrator of the much-vilified “male gaze,” I am a participant in a game of desire, my desire for feminine beauty, and her desire to be seen and admired. And that’s more honest than I care to be.