As advised by Darin Strauss at a writer’s conference, “Characters must be memorable, surprising and move within their essence. Most of all, they need to have their uniqueness made clear.”“When you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.” (From J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye)
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.
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.
1. Reflect on a photograph:The camera was given to me at Christmas. I took a picture of my brother in front of the garage. It wasn’t centered, not even close. He stared back, bored, his mittened hands awkwardly together, waiting for me. It was a nothing moment, taken badly, now something with little to say. I wonder where the other pictures are. Why only that one? There must have been another dozen or so. At least. Were they also of my brother and the garage? The garden? What about the dog? Where are my parents?
2. Write about a place and time – an indelible moment – with extraordinary and ordinary aspects.
Richard was shirtless, his sweaty chest barreling over his grey black shorts. His girlfriend was behind him in the corner, completely naked, just her high heels and a glass of wine in her hand. “She’s a nudist,” Jerome said. “Can you believe it?”
“It’s freezing outside.”
“I know.” His face was glowing, stretched like elastic. “It’s the kind of thing that only happens on MTV.”
3. Write a piece that starts with “The last time I saw _____ was _____.”
The last time I saw my cousin was on the park bench at Emerald Lake. He was red-faced, laughing, a bottle of Kokanee in his hand. “They’re everywhere! Holy shit!”
They raced back and forth, dotting the burrowed ground, chasing each other to get nuts from the people, darting back, vanishing like they were never there.“It’s a Golden-mantle Ground Squirrel.” I had my glossy guide, The Field Guide for the Flora and Fauna of Western Canada, clutched in my hand.
“The Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel!” He spilled beer in a foamy glob at the one nearest. “There you go, tiger. You’ll like that.”
4. Choose the thing that you are most afraid of and write about that.
I can’t move my head. Not even my shoulders. I am pinned, dead still, between the boards, a bright side light on my face and neck. I am in a flat horrible space, my eyes wide, stuck inside this coffin in the ground. Stuck there, panicking. I can’t even raise my hands properly. I have no control. I am completely helpless, trapped by monsters, people I don’t know, who have left me here to die, to be tortured in my final hours and think nothing of it. I close my hands to make it go away, but it is still there. I can’t get out. I want to scream but I can’t even do that. I am stuck in the horrible silent box with not even myself.