A fellow blogger whom I like VERY much really liked a post I put up a few days ago about my friend, Wes Kennedy. She said I should post such things rather than responding to the often abysmal daily prompt. I’ll admit, I didn’t like that much. There have been — and are — so many people throughout my life telling me their opinion about what I should do that I don’t take it very well, especially regarding a completely elective activity like writing a WordPress blog. I responded — perhaps curtly, can’t say — that the daily prompt had occasionally put me in front of a good story that I did not know to tell until I was “prompted.” Sometimes I dislike the daily prompt, but I figure it’s a completely voluntary activity that I can choose to write or not, as I wish. Most of the time I do write it and sometimes I bitch about it. However, the good stories I wouldn’t have written make it worth my time to persist with it.
Many people write their memoirs. I guess when you get to be a certain age (I’m a certain age) it’s a natural impulse. I don’t want to, actually, and there’s a good reason.
Back in the day I call my writer apprenticeship period (it’s always a writer apprenticeship period) when I was learning to write dialogue (I know that now. I didn’t know that then), I wrote stories from my life. I actually thought they were stories. Once I wrote a story about a few hours I spent with my friend Madhu and his cigarettes. I showed it to him and he said, “This isn’t a story. You’ve just written down our conversation. Don’t you have an imagination?” I was taken back. I’d put effort into that story which was — yes — our conversation, but controlled and structured so it had a plot line. I extrapolated a story from a rather random series of marginally interesting events to create a character — three, actually, now that I think about it.
But it was not imaginative work. After that, I thought a lot about what I as a writer really wanted to do. I didn’t have an answer ready, but I knew that I did have an imagination and that somewhere, somehow, it would be engaged by something. It was engaged in 1997 (finally!) by the little leper church at Gfenn, Switzerland. That kind of writing was what I wanted to do.
Much of my own experience and life will go into anything I write. Sometimes here I write memoir. However, I don’t really want to focus on my own life in in my writing. Moments from my life, perhaps, but as a whole my life is incomprehensible to me in many ways and much of the past is also very painful. For myself, I want there to be a difference between art and therapy. If some of the knowledge and the pain of my family history and my own bad choices go into imaginative work, then great. It should. I would like to be a crucible rather than a confessional.
This is not to say I think memoir is bad or invalid. I think it’s very important. It’s just not where I — right now — want to go.
In case you’re curious, here’s the story my friend Madhu critiqued so mercilessly and helpfully so long ago. It’s part of a memoir/story I ended up writing about the 13 cigarettes I’ve smoked in my life.
Madhu sits on the step outside my office, a lighted cigarette in his right hand, the next one waiting in his left. I laugh, making Madhu look up. “Where the fuck were you? I’ve been waiting almost two minutes!” he shrieks.
He looks like a prince from a Moghul painting, complete with black, wrap-around eyes, a plump physique and small hands.
“You up to two at once?” Hot, cooling streamers curl above his head.
“Let’s get some coffee,” he jams the lit smoke into the side of the concrete step where he sits.
In the outdoor cafe, Madhu continues in this way, puffing a smoke between gulps of hot coffee. “I called you last night to go to the new Woody Allen movie. I had passes.”
“You didn’t leave a message.”
“Well, if you weren’t home, you couldn’t go. I called at like 5:30.”
“Always leave a message,” I tell him. “If I’m outside, I never hear the phone, but I can hear my voice on the message machine.”
“You were there?”
“Yeah, I was there.”
“How was your weekend?” He takes another long drag on his third cigarette and he’s lighting a new one from the living flames of the old. “Are you going to see that guy again?”
“You’re a masochist.”
“He can’t hurt me.”
“I didn’t know that. I thought he was hurting you. Well, I guess you’re REALLY not interested any more.”
“Well, you might as well have a cigarette. Sooner or later you’re going to smoke one with me. I feel stupid sitting here chain-smoking all by myself.”
He shakes a Benson/Hedges out of a gold pack. I put it between my lips. “I wish I had lipstick. I find it aesthetically pleasing to leave little red-rimmed butts in my coffee dregs.”
“I hate lipstick on women.”
“Only on women?”
“Yes, but I like it on cigarette butts.”
I fumble around in my purse, hoping to find a tube of lipstick.
“I’m having dinner with him on Friday.”
“Why? You tell me he makes you feel like shit. Why do you want to have dinner with someone who makes you feel like shit?”
“I could stand him up.”
“You won’t do that. You’re not just a gargantuan brain, you know. You have that squishy, sentimental side, that slimy spot of feeling. I got a nickname for you,” he says, inhaling.
“Cerberus. You know who that is?”
“It’s the dog who guards the mouth of hell.”
“It means ‘brain’ because that’s all you are.”
“What are you?” I ask him, wondering what orifice of Hades he imagines himself entrusted with.
“A slug. I told you before.”
“No, come on. If I’m Cerberus, you have to be someone.”
“I thought about it. I’m Charon. I bring the dead to you. God you look funny when you smoke.”
“I know. I don’t know what to do. I’m getting ashes all over the place.”
“Wow. Look at HER!” Across the cafeteria is a petite blond wearing a white T-shirt, faded jeans, motorcycle boots, a black leather jacket, carrying a helmet. “Aesthetic appeal!” says Madhu.
Suddenly she’s standing beside our table, looking at Madhu’s cigarettes.
“I’ve been looking all over for a light.” She cocks one hip, and leans back at an interesting angle, one tit higher than the other, challenging and provocative.
“Here. I have a book of matches. You want it?” Madhu digs around in his book bag, all cynicism gone.
“Give it to me, and I’ll be your best friend.” Madhu is flustered. He lifts the book of matches up to her as an offering. She takes it and walks back to her table.
“I always carry matches in case my lighter breaks,” Madhu inhales. “Shit. I shouldn’t have given her those matches! If I hadn’t, she’d come back again for another light. Damn!”
“Smoking IS a habit and habits ARE dependable.” I grin.
“What’s he afraid of?”
Ah. He’s turned the conversation back to me. “Me, I guess. There’s nothing else there.”
“You should be compassionate, Martha. You can’t make butter with a toothpick.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m smoking as fast as I can.” Warm strange squiggles fly around inside my head, a half-nauseous buzz.
“Hold it in, dammit! I don’t want to see you sitting there like a chimney!”
“I am holding it in dammit!”
“Yeah. All you do is this.” He puffs. “It should be hurting you, right here.”
“It isn’t hurting me.”
“I forgot. Considering the men you spend your time with, how would you know it hurts?”
Fwippht. “What men? There are no men.”
“Blow a ring.”
“I can’t blow a ring.”
“Have another one.”
“No. One’s enough.”
“I have to stop. You know when I had bronchitis? The doctor found a spot on my lung.”
“That’s great. And here you want me to have another one? You’re telling me it should hurt?”
“You know you want it, you fucking hypocrite.” He shakes one loose from the pack.
“Hypocrite, OK, but with spotless lungs.”
“But you should worry about your soul, not your body.”
I wave the smokes away. He lights another one with his “real” lighter (Zippo!). He sucks the first “hit” deep inside, then closes his eyes. A motorcycle roars off in the distance.