Tuesday, 14 November, 2006
It’s All Fiction, Anyway…
The other day I attended a truly great party. Why the qualifying language? Too many parties lately seem to be little more than a mind-numbing gathering of narcissists with little better to do than try to impress each other with their most recent accomplishments, or rapacious pseudo-raconteurs obsessed with their recent acquisitions. I guess I don’t get invited to the right parties often. Maybe this says something about me, but never mind that. This one was actually fun. Good folks, good food, good wine, and some interesting conversation.
I managed to stumble my way into a passionate discussion about life paths, which, after an extended prologue, turned to that dismaying topic of what people do for a living. “What do you do?” I don’t like that question, and never have. I suppose they don’t want to know that I play guitar, pet my dogs, smoke pipes, make and exhibit black and white photographs, ride mountain bikes, fence, restore sport cars, listen to music, cook, eat, spend time with people I like. What do I do for a living? Ah. That’s always what they want to know. That’s often what defines a person in our society.
“I blend pipe tobacco.” Glazed looks. When I say this, especially here in California, I usually get the feeling that the word “Pariah” has been tattooed on my forehead in neon ink, or that I should turn around to show the “Merchant of Death – Please Kick Me” sign that has suddenly found itself stapled to my backside. Better to move on.
“I’m a student.” Puzzled expressions that someone in his 40s is a student. A student of what, I’m sure they instantly wondered. Good question. A student of everything, I suppose, but that wouldn’t satisfy anyone. A copout never does. I suppose their puzzlement is at least somewhat warranted. What IS a guy my age doing in school? Shouldn’t I be making a living, ice-picking my way up the corporate ladder, bringing up kids, driving an SUV? Acquiring things so I can impress people at parties? Shouldn’t I be done with the silliness of school? Gads, what if they ask what school I attend, what I’m studying, why anyone would want to study THAT? Recover. Fast. A quick parry and riposte.
“I’m a writer.” Touché. NOW they seemed interested. Why this would interest people, I’ll never understand. It seems that every third person you meet is a writer. Big deal.
“Do you write fiction or nonfiction?”
I don’t really understand the need for this distinction. I write. What else matters? I considered saying, “The alphabet, in various salubrious combinations, along with little dots of punctuation on occasion. But, mostly the alphabet.” That would surely bring more glassy eyes gazing my direction, but really staring at the wall behind me. I chose to sail a different tack.
“It’s all fiction, really. Isn’t it?” The eyes indicated that I had apparently spoken some great and profound truth, though I was really only being glib, buying a second or two, trying to cover up the fact that I really don’t make much money writing, that I feel a little self-conscious calling myself a writer, and that I’d have to go back to discussing blending pipe tobacco, and light up the neon “pariah” sign if this didn’t go the right way.
A friend of mine, whose father sculpts beautiful things in stone and bronze, once said, “Dad’s not really an artist. He doesn’t ever sell anything.” Those damnable words echo in my head every time I attempt to convince editors or the world – or, myself, really – that I’m a writer. Sure, I sell a little, but probably not nearly enough, under my friend’s rules, to call myself a writer. The words echo, and I have to find a way to silence them. But, isn’t a writer just someone who writes? I didn’t say, after all, that I was an author. That’s a very different bag of cats. Fortunately, I didn’t say I was a poet. Poets never make any money, but we write poetry because it’s what poets do. I’d probably have been requested to recite some “Owl and the Pussycat” rhyme to satisfy curious ears.
With the ball back in my court, though, I had to play it, or feign some sudden and dramatic illness; the back of a pallid hand pressed flaccidly against a sweaty brow, eyelids fluttering, and a good case of the vapors. Hardly my style. I hadn’t had nearly enough wine to pull off a convincing performance.
“Whatever we write, whatever stories we tell are colored by our own subjective perception and faulty memories of our illusions of reality, and are therefore fiction. Really, the recording of objective reality wouldn’t be all that interesting, would it? So, isn’t it all fiction in a way?” Apparently, I’d had enough wine, after all.
A fellow at the end of the table, an educator of some sort, piqued up. “How very true! I’d never really looked at it that way, but of course, you’re right. What is reality, after all, beyond our perception of it?” We’d all had enough wine, it seems.We’d paddled into the puddles of platitudes.
I had dodged the bullet, though. I’d turned the conversation toward something more philosophical, less personal, and could avert any further discussion about what I “do.” It was a pleasant direction to steer things, after all.
We ended up wandering down metaphysical pathways for quite some time, our thoughts and tongues being well oiled by the endless supply of some excellent Pinot Noir, and some delightful cigars, ingeniously lit with the still glowing coals from the BBQ.
Next time this question arises, and I know it will, I may be slightly bolder. Or, I’ll just say that I’m a bum. They’ll assume, or even know I’m a writer, and the topic will slide toward something more comfortable for all involved. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?