Monday, February 2, 2009

A Change in Theme

When I was in grad school, I was accused of writing about sex. Sex, sex, sex. That's how the boys boiled it down. "When are you going to stop writing about sex," they would say, "and move on to something important?"

But what I was writing wasn't sex. I was writing about relationships and friendships. I was writing about the strange, impossible things that keep us linked even when we shouldn't be. Never once did anything I wrote contain a bodice-shredding scene you'd find in a romance novel. I never had to resort to generating cutesy names for the words penis or vagina. I never had to heed the advice given here.

In all the pages of my thesis, there are only two sex scenes, and they are so fleeting, so distanced, there is nothing romance novel-y about them. Here's the first:

He keeps kissing me. We kiss and kiss and kiss, and I try so hard to listen to myself, to listen and hear if I am saying rightrightrightright somewhere deep inside, some place so far down I haven't paid attention before.

"I love you," he says. He keeps saying it until I can no longer see anything but him. Around us the kitchen melts. Lights flare out. Things I know to be constant and real--toaster, breadbox--are figments of my imagination. He is the only thing there.

That's it. Two paragraphs of a sixteen page story.

And here's the second:

You let him bend you backward. You are a comma, a curve, an impossible mathematical equation. You push back against him and make him take it all back, take everything back, even if it's just for this moment, this second, this sigh. You touch his shoulders, taste the salt at the base of his neck and forgive him his faults, his impossibilities. You are ready to give you things you want, things you've always seen for yourself. He is jagged, irregular, ever-changing, uncontainable. He does not fit. He is not enough. He is too much. He is what you've always feared for yourself.

One paragraph in a twelve page story.

Still, the boys--never once a girl--kept asking, "When are you going to stop with all that nonsense?" One of my peers even stopped me outside workshop and asked me why I was so obsessed with boning.

But I wasn't obsessed with sex, with boning, with writing steamy Harlequin scenes. I was obsessed with relationships and love, with family, with illness. Two stories in my thesis are about cancer. One is about a mother whose children get a nasty case of ringworm. One is about a doctor who's lost his confidence and ability to diagnose.

In those stories, I was writing about relationships--tricky ones--and that's what made a few of the boys uncomfortable. I was writing about mothers and daughters, best friends, coworkers. I was writing about how relationships change when the people in them are faced with death.

Still, somehow I was Sex Girl, and I finally gave up fighting the label. If that's how they wanted to pigeon-hole me, fine. So be it. I'd take it and keep writing what I wanted to write.

But ever since I moved to Maine, there's been a very pronounced shift in my writing, in my theme, in my obsession. Whereas before I was obsessed with the broad idea of relationship and all the strange things that led us to them, kept us in them, and yanked us from them, now I was starting stories that kept asking this question: Why are we so cruel to each other?

I began to write more about the things we do to cut one another down, even when we love the people we are attacking, hurting, embarrassing. Why do a husband and wife tear at each other after the death of their child? Why does a mother say I told you so after her daughter gives birth to a child with severe birth defects? Why do we hurt our friends after all the years we've been close?

Why do we act like such fools?

The last few months have not been easy for me--and it seems like things keep getting harder and worse--and every day I wake up I am faced with that essential question again and again and again: why are we so cruel to each other? What good does it do? Why can't we stop it?

And I thought all the writing I've done and all the writing I've been trying to do lately would help me get closer to understanding it--at least form some sort of basic idea--but, really, that hasn't happened. What has happened is this: I understand it less and less. I have no idea why we act this way, why we have this desire to hurt the people who have loved us.

And maybe that is what has made me so sad lately, what has made me so tired and irritable. I can't find an answer. I can't find understanding. And that is the writer's job--to shed light, to make sense of the human condition, to say this is what it is like to live; this is what it means to be alive.

I wish I understood it. But I'm here to say that this theme, this new question, is going to be hanging over my head for a long, long time--possibly (probably) forever--and that I'm going to try, try, try to figure it out.


belle said...
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Jason said...

And that is the writer's job--to shed light, to make sense of the human condition, to say this is what it is like to live; this is what it means to be alive.

I agree with you that this is the writer's job--as long as that job entails finding an answer and not the answer. I keep derailing myself by lamenting not having found the answer yet, rather than trying to make my answer real to the reader.

Nathan said...

I think for a lot of the guys in grad school at that time--given age, demeanor, maturity, and persepectives on writing--relationships=sex. And on the other hand, your writing had a big curve from the beginning of the program to the end and you were getting a lot more thematic mileage out your stories by the end.

I've come to realize that people do make judgements about us based on what we write about; if you write about sex and relationships, you're the sex girl, if you write about family drama, you are the family writer, if you write about childhood trauma, you're neuroses girl, if you if you write about dark stuff you're psycho boy.

Is this fair? Probably not, especially because it feels so reductive and even dismissive. But I think all we can do is tell the stories that excite us and fascinate us, the stories that we think need to be told and writethem the best we can.