The Story I Was Asked Not to Write
For a long time, I didn't need to worry about such things. I wrote for myself, for pleasure, for companionship and comfort, in the absolute freedom of anonymity. Writing began for me as a side-effect of illness, something to pass the time, the silver lining my mother saw so clearly that, over time, I came to see it as well.
On January 1st, 1988, I made a New Year's resolution to try writing seriously, for two uninterrupted hours three times a week. I was twenty-three years old. That fall, I'd returned to Maine in a motorized wheelchair, completed my coursework in anthropology, and met the man I'd eventually marry. We rented an apartment in Portland, where he worked doing lay-out for a weekly sales flyer; I was unemployed. Nights, we lay awake fretting over money, talking about what we wanted to do with our lives and how to shape that hazy vision into substance. It was Jake who first suggested I try writing something longer than the stories and poems I'd shown him. Most were about growing up Catholic; all reflected my concern about the effects of traditional Catholicism on the lives of women in general and rural women in particular.
"Maybe," he said in his soft-spoken way, "you could reach more people with novels."
Had I not become ill, I doubt I could have kept still long enough to finish reading a novel, much less attempt writing one. In my past life, I'd never been much of a student. Instead of reading, I played the piano. I went hiking and cross country skiing; I went rock-climbing and winter camping; I studied jazz dance and classical ballet.
"It's like living with a ferret," a room-mate once complained.
Yet, it also seems inevitable that, regardless of circumstance, I would have eventually bumbled my way into writing something. I'm the sort of person who always comes up with the perfect thing I should have said several hours after a conversation has taken place, usually during the middle of the night as I play the scene back, revising it, revising it, until everything makes sense in a way it never could in life. In life, I forget important names and anniversaries, the location of restaurants, the titles of books I've just read. In life, I am the sort of person who needs to have jokes explained, who hears that a duck has walked into a bar and embraces that image, satisfied. Writing is a way of creating the punch line I have missed, inventing the name I can't remember. Writing is both the necessary map, and the X on that map that tells me where I am. When I write, I give myself the last, resonant word, and everybody listens. If a duck walks into a bar, that bar belongs to me.
The resulting narrative, when I'm successful, is far more truthful than its factual roots, and this – rather than any betrayal of confidences – is what gets me in trouble with members of my extended family, with casual acquaintances and not-so-good friends. "(continued)" people ask after reading something which, in my mind, has nothing to do with them. Or else: "How did you know about that?" I'd written several books before I understood that it wasn't my scant use of facts they were reacting to. It was how I had claimed the last, definitive word on those facts. It was how those facts had been shaped into a story all their own, with tidy motivations, logical developments, resonant closures. It was the way those facts had been illuminated with meaning.