Darin Strauss’ Half a Life is an intensely personal experience. The raw and relentless prose made me turn within and question who I am. Not that I have had the same experience as Strauss – who accidentally ran over a girl when he was a teenager – but that I have moments in my life that make me shudder, make me turn back and wonder who that was that went through that. Where is that person in the me that is now?No one who encountered me in classrooms, at a frat party, the campus center, noticed the fierce inner battles I’d fought to make the different Darins into a Darin that friends could recognize.
The rawness of his prose is reminiscent of Joan Didion’s devastating The Year of Magical Thinking.
It is especially clear in the delicate descriptions of every moment, every thought, always returning to the same thing, someone who is gone.
I remember the first time after the accident my name was called in the class, the feel of pause and hush in the room, like deer scenting something strange. Everyone’s ears and tails flicked.
Strauss’ story is a compelling narrative, a personal journey that won’t leave you alone, that prods your memories and makes you think. Relationships are physics. Time transforms things – it has to, because the change from me to we means clearing away the fortifications you’ve put up around your old personality.
In the spirit of the internet’s ever-spiraling plummet toward complete and utter meaninglessness, I offer my Five Things To Look At Instead of Being Thoughtful or Productive.
MFA Programs for Creative Writing all require a 20-30 page writing sample; this is the key to the application. And so I am editing a chapter from my bad side for the purpose.
We drove through the iron and brick gate, past the soccer fields and distant trees to a long quadrangle, yellow brick buildings going down the sides like a prison. An old man and woman stood on the wide concrete steps of the white-pillared building at the end.
“Good afternoon, Headmaster Hostler.” Nani looked like a corpse in her fresh lipstick.
Headmaster Hostler was badly shaped, fat in his stomach and legs, and then pinched up at his shoulders and face; it made his blazer come out like a dress. “Thank you so much for coming, Mrs. Keynes. You’ve met my wife, Mrs. Hostler?”
“Welcome to St. Augustine’s.” Mrs. Hostler shook Nani’s hand.
Headmaster Hostler bent down to me, his thin hair hung over his giant forehead in thick greasy lines. “Perseverare Conantur.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
“Perseverare Conantur.” Mrs. Hostler indicated the gold cursive writing above the doorway. “Do you know what that means?”
She had a tight face, her skin bright and gluey. “And what does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Endeavor,” I repeated.
“Yes, Mrs. Hostler.”
“Quite a responsibility, isn’t it, Miss Bocklin?”
“Yes, Mrs. Hostler.”
“We are sure you are up to the challenge.”
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to be an actual writer, whether it’s using the right words, or it’s a sensibility or a devotion to craft or just being in the right place at the right time. I mean, I know it isn’t just writing. I’ve been doing that for over 30 years and I have yet to feel the part. I do sometimes tell people that I’m a writer, but not the customs agents because I don’t make money doing it, with the exception of a brief stint as a sports columnist and my current job writing copy about toilets.I know that writing means something to me. I have a clear sense of me when I write. It’s just me and the words coming out of my head, a long wavering stream that I sometimes catch, and feel clear when I do. And so I’m writing. I know that I’m doing that.
I just don’t know about the being a writer part. I doubt my ability to be as open as Richard Blanco or as honest as Darin Strauss.I doubt my cleverness, wit and sense of denouement. But more than anything I doubt being able to enunciate what it is I doubt without trying to make it sound too much like what I think I should and then I’ve just missed the point.I have been told that I have an ear for dialogue and that I seem dedicated to my work. I’ve also been told that part of my problem is that my narrative tends to be too fast-moving, a frantic thing that doesn’t breathe and therefore is opaque.But still…I know that my writing makes sense to me – even these few words; it gives me solace, a moment where life isn’t just chaos and missteps. That’s why I’m trying to do it, so that it’s not me just chasing words, but crafting and binding and offering my thoughts on that. I’m attending conferences and workshops and orientation meetings for MFA programs. I’ve even thought of growing a beard.
But I’m still not so sure. I have my doubts that, even after whatever comes next, I’ll even be a writer then, that I’ll feel like I should, or I’ll even want to because it seems that maybe there’s nothing like just chasing words, nothing as pure as that. At least that’s what I tell myself.
They take turns singing, or seeming to sing; there are no intelligible words, just murmuring beneath the din. The sound builds, seems to get louder – although nothing like their 2008 tour – pauses and starts again, a certain blissed-out monotony, chaotic but not, that wears everything down, until it’s just one long thing, only stopping to breath, all of this until the last song, You Made Me Realise. This final, drawn-out moment goes straight in, vibrates against the organs and veins and fights your heart rate until you feel like you’ve been initiated into a murderous cult. And then they leave, and that’s that.