By Marian Palaia
Here is a thing I have been known to tell beginning fiction students: Write about someone who is not you. I tell them this because I am trying to get them to use their imaginations. I am trying to head off the production of another batch of more or less true “short stories” about break-ups, disloyal friends, summers in Paris or Stockholm, winter breaks in Cancun. Of course when you — most of you, of us, straight-out-of-high-school freshmen — are young, and have had our hearts broken, found out our best friends are not who we thought they were, or traveled to Mexico or Europe for the first time, the number of experiences we have had, against which to compare these, is limited. Because it is, these experiences shine exceptionally bright. I totally get this part, but it’s my job to push my students past their limits (as writers). They do not always go willingly.
When I ask students to try to imagine being someone else, whose stories might be more interesting and more complex than the ones they tend to gravitate to, it sounds simple enough, but it isn’t, because they have already been told, over and over, Write what you know. At face value, this is usually taken to mean, Write true stories, starring you. Also, as Willa Cather had it, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” And while I don’t disagree with this theory (though it might be a bit of an exaggeration), because there is much in each of our lives that is unique, I do believe it takes most writers a long time to recognize what parts are worth mining, what is most rare and distinctive about their stories. So they write about their trips to Paris, because trips to Paris are what is different to them. Because their lives have been normal, fairly uninteresting, for all they, so far, know.
So I try to explain what “write what you know” means to me. But it’s hard. Maybe because it is a moving target, and it means different things at different times. Maybe it is the DNA sequencing of a tiger, and maybe it is what you know on an emotional level to be true. In the latter case, you might find the proper combination of words and formation of imagery that what your reader experiences is exactly what you were after. Or maybe you won’t know what you’re after, which is not only fine, it is good, so long as you are writing what you know in your heart to be true. Another moving target, but moving targets come with the territory.
A middle ground is one I roamed often in my early writing years (like, 20 of them). It was more or less a schizophrenic place, where I did make things up, but at the same time felt beholden, too often, to adhere to the verifiable truth. My life has been other than ordinary (whatever that is, I know), in that my trajectory was pretty much all over the place, in that there was zero track-able trajectory at all — there was just me, launching myself, mostly blindly, into whatever space was in front of me at the time. Without going into too much detail, for many years I thought writing short stories meant tacking pretty endings onto true stories of fucked-up-ness. Or not pretty, but ways I wished things had turned out, things I wish I had done. Gotten a gun, for example, and shot the bad guy — the real guy, a poker player, who thought breaking into my house to beat me up was the best way to get me to come back to him — and driven off into the mountains with the good guy (the nonexistent one, the perfect boyfriend all the girls in workshop fell in love with) and the cat (also fictional, but the story needed something furry, as a foil) and the pint of Jim Beam (based on a true story lasting years). Etcetera.
For a long time I thought the fucked-up-ness was the story, and this mindset prevented me from creating anything that was more than a series of “punk westerns” (as my workshop mates in Montana called them). Eventually I ran out of punk western stories, and sort of grew up, or maybe it was the other way around. In my forties I embarked for a while upon a “normal” existence (job, benefits, bureaucracy, house, dog, alcoholic boyfriend), and when, after five or six years, it threatened to do me in (I really suck at bureaucracy, and boyfriends), I went back to school, at 54, to get my MFA. And even though I had “grown up,” I still felt beholden to writing old truths, until I took a nonfiction class, which gave me a place to put my real stories, which opened up a vast landscape of lying, which is what fiction writers are meant to do. Problem solved, as in, not exactly.
The first piece of what turned out, 12 years later, to be my first novel, The Given World, begins, “So that was me, going on 18, not too tall, no tits to speak of, brown hair to my ass, parted in the middle and brushed intermittently, worn just far enough out of my eyes so I could see, but my peripheral vision was not what it could have been.” That was me. She/I worked in a gas station, drove a ’67 Mustang convertible which looked like it had been through a war, dreamed of becoming a diesel mechanic (and perhaps joining the Army to do it), smoked copious amounts of dope but didn’t handle being stoned very well, and was more than a little crazy. Heard voices, really. Drove and drove, in search of, on the run from, imagining total wreckage at every turn. That kind of crazy. My kind.
Fast forward to the MFA, the nonfiction workshop, the addition to the story of more stories about this girl, who became Riley, who became (so the real-life story goes) less and less me and more and more herself. As she became more and more herself, the book became a whole lot better, until it became a novel about a girl who was not me. Whew. Except. At least half the book is still me. On the “write what you know” emotional and psychic level, a lot more than half. What goes around comes around.
Horror writer Stephen Graham Jones, in a recent interview with Indian Country Today, uses hypothetical vampire cats to talk about his experience:
. . . the trick is, whatever you write, you invest your whole self in it. So what I have to do when I write about vampire cats in space or whatever is find the story in there that’s actually me, dealing with my dad or with women or something like that. And once you have that emotional core, that dynamo spinning, it just makes the cats in space come alive in a good way.
That spinning dynamo is key (vampire cats, metaphorically, a little less so), and an incredibly difficult thing to teach. Lorrie Moore was my first MFA teacher. She told me, in essence, to write the hard stuff, the stuff that hurts. I believed her, and found that I could write “painful”, without soft landings or happy endings, and I began to, because I was ready. Because I had already gotten all the punk westerns I had in me out of the way. I just needed someone to tell me. And since I do not write horror, or any sort of speculative fiction, instead of vampire cats I had real people — real messed up people — and my relationship to them. A few of those who were closest to me had died by the time I wrote the book (a few others are now hanging on by a thread). My version of cats in space was to bring them back to life, which was a gift, but which also required digging my heart open with a dull implement, like a spoon. I did what Lorrie said. I am very attached to these characters, who were and are my people, and very protective of them, as it turns out. I wasn’t exactly prepared for this.
When I read about my book (newspaper and blog reviews, Amazon, Goodreads, etc.), I often encounter acceptance and understanding of these not-so-imaginary characters (“me” included), and I think, “Yay! Somebody got it.” Less often, but still often enough, Riley’s choice of traveling companions and her inability to get her shit together, in a linear fashion, are a huge source of frustration for readers. At first I was surprised by this, not to mention hurt by what some folks said. I have been advised by more experienced writers to not even read my Amazon and Goodreads reviews. (They say they don’t, and I believe, like, two of them, though it does become much less of an obsession as time goes on.) The easy thing to do would be to decide that these frustrated readers have clearly never had anything bad happen to them, and therefore do not have the perspective necessary to understand Riley and her posse of misfits. That would be the easy thing. But.
I have come to accept, not because I wanted to, but because I have had to, that if the problem is not some reviewers’ un-empathetic (my take, on my worst days) impatience with Riley, some of it must be with my stubborn insistence on telling a mostly relentless series of dark truths, to the point that a lot of readers want nothing more than to be let up, relieved, and released from them. I cannot express how hard this acceptance has been. I’m not even sure yet it has been acceptance. But I do get it, as much as, being me, I can.
Here is a connection, though, which is not completely tangential: a thing I have at times given some thought to, but had not applied directly to my work, but was reminded of recently, at an event at which three writers — all women — spoke about writing, and publishing, and being female in the world of books. They talked about Claire Vaye Watkins’s excellent Tin House essay on pandering, which is (loosely) about women writing what they know men will accept, because it is written, however consciously or unconsciously, to hew to a male aesthetic. They talked about “likable” characters, and whether or not female characters, written by females, are expected to be likable, whereas male characters, written by males, can be anything they damn well please. And it hit me: “Right? There it is.” Riley is not likable throughout much of the book. She is not meant to be likable; nor was I trying to write a character whose nature was to be disliked. Likability was the last thing on my mind as I was writing. Fuck likable. People are complex and messy and they do stupid things. Sometimes they do stupid things over and over for long periods of time, trying to sort it all out — three steps forward, two steps back, or two forward and three back. That. Is. Life. That is male life, and it is female life and it is non-binary life. It is what we all share. One would hope.
If I got to choose, I would say the book that The Given World most closely resembles, in structure, subject, trajectory, is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I loved when it came out, and still love after many reads. (I even have the movie poster.) I do not claim to be the writer Johnson is, or was then, but my writing is not, either, what seems to bug some readers about my book. What bugs them is its disjointedness, its main character’s inability or refusal to walk a straight line. I started wondering, so I looked at some reviews of Johnson’s book, and I don’t know if “gratified” is the right word for my reaction to what I found, but it might be. What I found was that readers (percentage-wise, as Jesus’ Son has many more reviews), found our main characters and our story-telling styles equally aggravating. The terms “hot mess,” “lost,” “disjointed,” “not inspiring,” and “broken” are very familiar to me, and would be to Johnson if he read his Goodreads reviews (which I doubt he does, with absolutely no evidence to back me).
One person’s take on Jesus’ Son, pretty much representative of both our one- and two-star reviews:
“Don’t waste your money on this book! If you want to read about drug use and wasted lives, feel free. (Angry at the book club member who picked this book over Tenth of December.)”
I know of at least one book club member who is in similar trouble for recommending The Given World, for exactly the same reason. Long story short, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is, when you are ready to go digging at your heart with a spoon, disregard the advice (from that exhausted teacher) at the beginning of this piece, about your story maybe not being the best one to tell. Your story is the best one to tell. It may take you a while to find it, but if you work at it long enough, you will. And maybe I was too relentless with mine, because I was telling a story I had to get out of me, because I had been carrying it around for so long. It is dark. It is bruising. It is fucked-up-ness piled on tenderness piled on more fucked-up-ness, leading to something that looks something like redemption might look after it has been buried in a pile of refuse under a pile of rocks for a very long time. It is still my story, in more ways than one. And despite its relentlessness, I don’t know, if given the chance, that I would write it any other way.
This essay was previously published on Medium on April 5, 2016.
Marian Palaia is, according to her website, a “writer, wanderer, shit disturber.” Her debut novel, The Given World, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2015. It made the longlist for the PEN/Bingham First Novel Prize, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick and an Indie Next selection. Born in Riverside, California, Palaia currently resides in San Francisco and Missoula, Montana. To support her writing habit, Marian has been a teacher, a bartender, a truck driver, “chip girl” in a poker room, and the littlest logger in Lincoln, Montana, where she and Ted Kazynski were neighbors, sort of.
Of The Given World, Lorrie Moore said, “Marian Palaia has assembled a collection of restive seekers and beautifully told their stories of love and lovelessness, home and homelessness, with an emphasis on both makeshift and enduring ideas of family. It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world. She is a strong, soulful, and deeply gifted writer.”