Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On writing: the place between reality and imagination

I recently had an exchange with another Lucky Press author, Madeline Sharples, whose memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, I had the pleasure of reviewing.  I said something to the effect that there is an interesting distance between what inspires us to write and the writing process itself.  She, sadly, lost her eldest son, Paul, to suicide.  This event was the impetus for her choice to write through the unspeakable anquish to produce a memoir with the hope that sharing her trial could help someone else work through his or her own trial.  I shared with her (and I'm elaborating upon the feelings I had) that there is something cold, maybe clinical about writing a review of such a work as hers.  Here is a woman who lost her son, HER SON, and here I am, an academic, dissecting her thoughts and words to produce an analytical response.  I felt like a medical examiner. 
Perhaps there is no other way to respond.  If anything, this is something to consider at length.
My continual struggle to impart the love of literature to my students, I think, has at its core the dilemma of getting my students to respond emotively to the works.  Understanding the components of "good" literature, recalling plot structures, character motivations, and the like can never be the full breadth of what it is to appreciate literature.  One has to laugh, cry, feel anxious -- in a word, empathize -- with the characters.  The ability of a work to do this is the measure of its status as "literature" and not just some clever words on a page.
My book, All the Bad Things, is loosely based on a true story (as, I suppose, most works borrow heavily from real life).  If I could have any wish granted regarding my book, it would be that readers empathize with Robbie Toe -- feel with him the cold, hard jail floor, the angry looks, the fear, the bewilderment.  If my book is able to do this, then what it will accomplish is, in essence, a parlaying of the initial reality that was the inspiration to the reader.  In other words, there is the event or inspiration (reality), the creative retelling of that reality, and, in the end, the reader experiencing that same reality through the author.  If I am able to recreate the reality for the reader, even if I have only ten readers, then I will consider this work a success.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How many Robbie Toes have we all known?

I remember when I was in junior high school, there was this older boy we all called Peachy King.  My few friends and I thought he was the cat's meow because he had a mustache -- hence, "peach" -- but we were the only ones.  He was tormented daily.  It wasn't that he was slow or odd; it was something different, something I could not then nor can I now place my finger on.  He was a bully's target, one who is just born to stand out in that regard.

We were in the locker room, changing out of our gym clothes when some of the older, more developed boys stormed in carrying Peachy King by the arms and legs.  I remember how red his face was, how he was crying for them to stop.  The bullies laughed like devils.  They ended up trying to cram him into a container that was used to store sundry gym equipment.  Peachy King held on for dear life, his legs sticking straight up out of the container like two crossed straws.  The kids finally relented and left him there crying.  He was crammed in pretty good.  It took us a while to pry him out.  It took me years to forgive myself for being nothing more than an afraid bystander.

I have known Robbie Toe.  I grew up with him, watched him eat alone in the cafeteria, looked away with everyone else when he was pelted with peas.  Robbie Toe was shunned, ignored in dark corners at school dances.  Robbie Toe wore the same Dollar Store clothes almost every day.  I have seen the light go out of Robbie Toe's eyes, perhaps the last light among us all as we fell headlong from the simplicity of childhood into the torments of adolescence.  Robbie Toe was both the last boy and the first man.  Loneliness is never so sharply felt than by someone who could never figure out why his only purpose was to be the butt of someone's joke.

Perhaps this is why the ending of ALL THE BAD THINGS must be what it is.