Critics and pretentious types frequently compare Ernest Hemingway’s writing to the paintings of Paul Cézanne. I don’t know exactly where the comparisons originated, but then again, I don’t particularly care. When Cézanne painted a landscape, he would not gussy it up with impressionistic flourishes like Monet or Renoir. He would paint exactly what he saw, only better. If a tree on a hill blocked the view of a beautiful cathedral, he would move the tree to another hill so he could add the cathedral to the landscape. Same tree, same realistic approach, but moved for obvious aesthetic reasons. In much the same way, Hemingway would alter the generally realistic details of the world around him into prosaic banality (BURN!).
Right now, I am working on the first draft of a novel that Cézanne-izes the details of my own life for reasons more dramatic than aesthetic. I spent 80% of my life a script reader hunched over a computer screen at home, eyes glazed, thick belly protruding over the desktop. Once I started working for the company I’ve anonymized as Murdstone & Grinby (and will continue to do so, because I have no intention of saying anything nice about my experiences with the company), Tarini became my eyes and ears within its hallowed office walls. She would call every few days with the latest gossip or bitch session, and I would listen with a mixture of sympathy and amusement.
I know it’s more dramatic to put myself in the room during the tenser moments at Murdstone & Grinby. Nothing is less exciting than reading a novel about a guy who does nothing but read, beat off, and beat off while reading. Maybe having him as a fly on the wall while obnoxious men say stupid things won’t be much more exciting, but I happen to think it will make the proceedings less tedious.
I’ve also shifted the majority of my “big” relationships to the period in my life after college, even though the majority of them occurred during college. Why go into that at all? Part of the purpose of writing this is to come to terms with various decisions I’ve made (both good and bad), and my frequently unsuccessful love life plays a key role in how I’ve come to live my life. Yet, again, it’s more dramatic to come home to a woman hurling objects at me than to read a script and say, “Gee, that story sure reminded me of someone I dated five years ago.” Part of the exploration of myself, and script-reading in general, is to show how experiences in my life color the way I’ll react to a screenplay. No matter how hard I try to remain objective, story analysis is ultimately subjective.
Writing this novel frightens me. I’m rarely a fan of what I call “autobiography with changed names.” The only book of that ilk that I’ve found tolerable is Post Office by Charles Bukowski, which has, not surprisingly, informed the structure of this novel. Short stories of this type often fare better with me, but overall, I prefer to read (and write) a story that comes from a place of honest emotion within an entirely fictitious narrative. That’s just me, so if you disagree, that’s fine. Enjoy. I don’t give a fuck.
I don’t know why I don’t like reading such things, and I don’t care enough to ponder it. I can, however, explain exactly why I don’t like writing such stories: crippling fear.
In general, I’m not a person who is tapped into his emotions. When I write, I take a moment of emotional truth — that either I experienced directly or that I witnessed and can empathize with — and try to spin a fanciful, often comedic scenario around it. The ability to convert pain into humor allows me some semblance of control over the pain — I can own it by mocking it, the circumstances surrounding it, or the people involved in creating it (myself and/or others).
It’s more than that, though. Much as I try to tell myself I’m working through the pain by turning it into fiction and lording over it like a vengeful, sarcastic god, the reality is that I can keep the pain at a distance. I don’t have to force myself to relive an experience or really process it, because I can tell myself, “This thing that happened to me isn’t the same thing I’m writing. I’m writing a fictional story about fictional characters going through something I can relate to, but which is very much removed from my own experience.”
I can’t do that with this new novel. I’ve Cézanne-ized the structure, but everything that happens in it is 100% true. It’s probably a healthy process to grapple with these old feelings and come to a better understanding about myself and others I’ve known in my life. That doesn’t make it easy, though. My momentum surges when I’m writing about the day-to-day minutiae of working as an intern (I haven’t gotten to the officially sanctioned “paid script reader” portion of the novel yet), but when I have to confront something more emotionally difficult… I don’t stop writing, which is good, but I do find it more challenging to get through.
I think I’ll come out on the other side a better person and a better writer. I’ll also have a full-length novel showing what an awful person I frequently am. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.
Posted by D. B. Bates on April 18, 2011 7:32 PM