Friday, February 13, 2015

The Facts Were More Romantic Than the Fiction

(Here are the facts about what I've been doing other than blogging, bill reading, and Twittering, lately...a long reflection on The Writing Process and Why I Mostly Prefer Nonfiction These Days, with a bit of comedy and romance as a bonus.)

When I was growing up, being a writer seemed to mean writing a novel. So I wrote novels, put them aside, and planned to revise and publish them when I was forty or fifty or so and knew enough about life to judge them.

Now that I'm old enough, I think the first novel manuscript I've revisited might have potential for online publication in blog form. It's not like anything you've seen here on my blog. It's speculative fiction; I beg readers' indulgence about the science-fiction cliche of portals through the fourth dimension, because (a) speculative fiction is about characters more than either science or fantasy, and (b) on the other side of those portals I did use a good bit of real science...some of which (like instant messages on "comsets") has become mundane now but was speculative when written, and some of which remains speculative.

Live Journal has a substantial audience who will pay for sf, so I'd considered letting LJ crowdfund the thing. Then I heard about a grant for sf by working-class women writers. If your income would qualify you for federal handouts, the grant committee said, you're qualified to submit something you've written for consideration. The grant's not huge, but it would fund the e-publication of the blog-novel, which might, if people liked it, help me sell a shorter, tighter-plotted novel. And buy a lot of rabies shots.

What I had written recently that other people have liked, that I find satisfactory, and that I could download in seconds, was "The Terrible Term Paper." But it's not sf; it's fictionalized fact. Hadn't I written any speculative fiction? a member of the grant committee wrote back.

I had, but none of it was Internet-accessible. Rather than frustrate myself by trying to retype something fast into the slow computer I was using, I went ahead and wrote a new short story that spins off from a few lines in my long rambly novel; the slow computer processes words about as fast as I can actually write them, which is about one-quarter as fast as I type from a manuscript.

It's about one of the characters in the novel who refused to be part of a group blog when I considered writing the novel that way. Early in the story where she's first mentioned, this character, Julie, is seventeen and so fed up with her home and school that she just walks away. The protagonist of the novel is at this point a freshman at an American college; she was molested (not raped) as a child, and she's interested in Julie because nobody's worried about Julie being raped. Her friends and relatives miss her and worry about their relationship with her. Rape as we usually think of it is not possible in her world. I'd always thought Julie's road trip ought to be a story of its own. I'd never written that story.

So how would the story go? One reason why I'd never written it was that I'd thought it might reflect some road trip experience I'd had, and my road trip experience had not actually been anything Julie might have had. About the most interesting thing that happened to me while travelling was an overnight Greyhound ride in which I was the one who felt guided (in answer to a quick silent prayer) to rescue the poor soul who I knew had been trying to pick my pocket, and that set off a sort of chain reaction I've observed two other times on Greyhounds, where everybody on the bus really tries to be kind and people actually begin to bond with each other. Usually, of course, everybody tries to ignore the other passengers on a Greyhound. But no Greyhound bus experience, good or bad, could have happened to Julie; mass transportation is not part of her world.

Nevertheless, when the character Paul is not trying to pick Julie's pocket (as she suspects) but to figure out who she is, that was the image in my mind.

I already knew that romance was not going to be part of Julie's story. She's seventeen; part of what she's trying to get away from is that her mother's self-indulgence has caused Julie and a distant relative of hers to have a half sister in common, and another part is that she's never going to marry the boy on whom she's had a crush, and as a result of these things she's planning a life of celibacy. (It won't suit her, and she will eventually find a man to marry--in another ten years or so.)

So, if Julie's part of the story is asexual, but the story is to interest mainstream rather than exclusively "Ace" readers, somebody gets married at the end. Paul, of course. His relationship to Julie is sort of uncle/niece because he's not only older, but involved with a girlfriend who's been hesitating to make up her mind.

But that's background, and what is Julie actually doing in this story? Julie's world provides plenty of opportunities for young, restless people to burn off their surplus energy. She likes that; all characters have something in common with their authors, and what Julie has in common with me is a preference to spend days clearing ditches rather than sitting idly about. She's getting a bit of breathing space, of course. She's learning something about Life.

From Paul's mother, of course. Who is Paul's mother, what is she? Well...in their country people normally live in the place where their ancestors lived. Nobody is marketing travel as a pleasure or a lifestyle. In fact newcomers in towns are distrusted, and unless they have acceptable reasons for visiting the town, like taking a class or doing a job, they're usually told they can do odd jobs or sell things in the market for one day, but they have to be on their way at sundown. People who choose to travel extensively are therefore likely to be the kind of homeless people who would rather work than beg for whatever they need. That's what Mrs. Tinsmith has in common with her author.

I've blogged about living on an income far below what U.S. citizens consider "poverty" or "hardship" level, starting shortly before I started blogging here. In real life I don't like to be the one to bring it up. Often enough I have to tell a friend I can't do something. "Why not?" "I can't afford it." "You shouldn't have to do without XYZ! There must be something you can do!"

Nobody has to sell me on the idea of taking a boring low-paid part-time job. I did, after all, choose a college that preached this idea so rigorously as to require all students to do boring low-paid part-time jobs while taking classes, and all teachers to do those jobs a few days every year. And writing, even though it's what I enjoy most, is sedentary work; after a few days' writing I crave exercise.

When the Target Plaza was about to open, in Kingsport, a few years ago, Target sponsored a job fair. I went in and told two corporate managers the absolute truth--that I was a writer who wanted to get paid to exercise my arms and rest my brain, that I wanted to walk to work and wear red T-shirts, and that I could stock shelves as well as any teenager of my size and better than some. Neither manager seemed able to absorb this information either by hearing it or by reading it. First they looked at my age, then they looked at my body type; the male wanted to offer me a management job, the female didn't; they didn't even consider honesty. How I hate bigotry. Bigotry has been a primary reason why, although I've taken jobs as a construction helper, health aide, and charwoman in the past ten lean years, and done those jobs as long as they lasted, offers of that kind of work have been few and far between. Middle-aged Americans like to see each other as either "successful in careers" or useless. Many Americans can and do mop floors and mow lawns at age eighty or even ninety; very few get paid to do those things after thirty.

Friends tend to be uncomfortable with this reality. I tend to interpret most of the things they're likely to say, next, in this conversation, as feeble efforts at comedy. And at least "You could still make money on a street corner" or "Have you ever considered robbing a bank?" are jokes that credit me with some energy and talent, which is much less offensive than "Surely you qualify for some kind of federal handout money."

One thing that's allowed me to keep some of these people as friends has been reading Susan Cain's Quiet, which cites research showing that extroverts just naturally don't develop consciences as sensitive as introverts have, so although they can learn that the idea of welfare-cheating is repugnant to me they can't really feel it, just as, although some people can learn that others see a certain shirt as bright green rather than dark greenish gray, they can't really see it. No brain is perfect; nobody should blame anybody else for the defects in their brain wiring. I'm no more likely to ask these people for Christian counsel than I would be to ask a blind person for fashion advice. If I were a nicer person I'd be as patient with extroverts as I am with blind people.

Then there are a few things I've talked myself into accepting as compromises. If Google started paying me, the way Amazon hasn't done, would I recommend that readers buy e-books from Google Play, rather than steering you toward real books from Amazon? It's possible.

What about taking a lift to the grocery store with that friend...the one casual acquaintances might describe as "the tall blonde who looks a bit like Farrah Fawcett in her prime." She does, too, and she obviously gets a kick out of being seen with her daughter's schoolmates, acting as if she were the one who'd been in our classes...and by now we're lucky to be as well preserved as she is (she's only nineteen years older). I've been known to say, "I wasn't planning to go to the store."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm out of money."

"Pick out what you need, and I'll pay."

Well...a fair exchange is taking place. I've received payment for acting on stage, so why not take payment for being part of an amateur act? What's wrong with being mistaken for your daughter? It's not as if she were lying about it to anyone who really cared which of them they're looking at. Most people who don't know them are satisfied just to look at either the mother or the daughter.

But the word "need" piques me. The Tall Blonde once explained that she was emphasizing "need" in contrast to the "Let's pump some money into this little town and buy enough canned goods for the next six months" approach to shopping, which my husband and I used to take when we came in from Washington, and which some people in Gate City take when they drive up to places like Norton or Jonesville. Fair enough. It's just my writerly fixation on words that makes me think: What, if anything, do I "need"? To survive? Why do I "need" to survive?

The question is not whether I subjectively enjoy being alive, which on the whole I do. The question is whether there's any objective need for a middle-aged widow to remain alive, in a desperately overcrowded world where even highly skilled workers aren't finding enough work to go around. Obviously there's not. I've certainly not been idle; if the work I've done since my husband died had been bad work, but there had been some need for me to do something else, someone would have communicated that need to me by now; if there were any objective need for me to do what I've done, then I would have been paid enough for it to shop as often (and as extravagantly) as this friend does. Therefore, the objective evidence is that there's no more agreed-upon, verifiable need for me to buy food than there is for me to buy a new book or an insanely overpriced designer flowerpot.

Mrs. Tinsmith is kind to Julie. Julie is a well-brought-up rich girl. Mrs. Tinsmith is a middle-aged widow who feels about "need" the same way I do, although her world is less crowded. So although their relationship is very different from my relationship to the Tall Blonde, they have this tension, and working it out became what the story of "The Sundowners" is about. What does Mrs. Tinsmith need from Julie? She needs something all right, and she gets it, but it's not money.

And of course, although it takes place after the end of the story, Mrs. Tinsmith will remarry. Her society would accept her being only the housekeeper to that old man, if she were. I'm their author and I say they're not that "old" yet. They could have a real marriage, they should, and they will.

So I wrote "The Sundowners" in a tone as close as possible to the tone of "The Terrible Term Paper," e-mailed it out, and felt that I'd run out of words and couldn't even Twitter for a day or two. I did other things while the verbal part of my brain recharged. One thing I did was notice how much easier it is to write nonfiction than it is to write decent fiction...just as I've often observed how much more likely I am to enjoy any other writer's nonfiction book than his or her novel.

Neither of those was the reason why I shifted away from writing fiction in my twenties, though. Nor was it even that people occasionally paid me to write nonfiction. It was that I'd begun to feel that the law of attraction was operating when I made up stories. When I wrote about things that had already happened I didn't notice any strange coincidences, but when I made up things that might happen but hadn't happened, somehow that intuitive part of my brain seemed to be steering me in the direction of things that were going to happen.

Whether that's actually true, whether I just formed a superstitious belief about it...as an adult I've not wanted to write about anything really bad happening to a major character. They suffer losses and injuries and even disabilities, but none of the rapes, murders, insanity, or other horrors some writers seem to think make a first novel interesting. Those things haven't happened to people I know well; I don't want to steer myself even in the direction of bonding with people to whom they've happened. In real life I'm not a Positive Thinker, but in fiction I'd just as soon steer myself toward situations that are bearable, if not always pleasant.

And so...once again, after sending out "The Sundowners," I was invited to go to the grocery store with the Tall Blonde. Not that she even needed groceries, nor did I; this time she really had something to giggle about with a "girl friend."

She's getting married.

Valentines Day and their anniversary, together...there'll be no way he can forget that!

Happy Valentines Day to both of you, and many more.