Betty Duffy

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Anything was NOT possible.

“On nights like that, every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” --Raymond Chandler

Writers say that when the Santa Ana winds blow in Los Angeles, anything can happen, or when a single girl, age 22 picks up and moves to New York, anything can happen. So many stories have begun on the premise that the world consists of limitless possibility, I have a sense that my failure to write well in my earlier years was based on an opposing premise: Anything was not possible.

Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but even if I’d been raised in the seventies and eighties on self-esteem in a can and freedom music, I have never, not for one minute believed the phrase “Anything was possible” to be true. Anything was not possible, because I was born in Indiana, to parents who were born in Indiana, and who became Catholic before I reached the age of reason.

I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That” about the time she spent in New York as a young woman. She planned to stay only six months, but stayed for eight years. She writes:

“I never felt poor; I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it. I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name “Debbi Lynn” or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100 call girl, and none of it would matter.”

Even when I was at my most adventurous and rootless times of life I always had parameters, parameters that perhaps shifted here and there, but parameters no less, like that I would never, ever wear a tube top. I was born with that knowledge, and catered to it throughout the years when I might actually have had the figure for it.

Because not only was anything not possible, if anything did happen, there was a very good possibility that that anything would be a sin, and I would not knowingly commit, nor allow someone I loved (a carefully considered fictional heroine who bore great resemblance to myself, for instance) to commit a grave one. Anything was downright dangerous, soul and body, and being from Indiana, and a small town at that, anything was not altogether available.

Perhaps if I’d not gone to a Midwestern University, if I’d strayed a little farther and left Indiana a little younger, possibilities might have made themselves known to me. But as it was, when I sat down to become a writer, and I opened the pages of the diary begun when I was eleven, I knew that I needed to acquire at least one or two wounds, for the sake of the art. Not bad wounds; shallow wounds, just something to get the blood flowing a bit. And I sought my wounds in the most economical way possible: I, after eighteen years of virginal scar-free life, got myself an older boyfriend.

But this is not the story of that boy. This is the story of my first story, my first failed novel that still sits in the drawer by my bed, and calls out to me once every two or three years, “I’m still here, I’m still bad, but I’m finished. I’m the first thing you ever finished and I know, for that reason alone, you’ll never stop loving me.” That boy, my first older boyfriend, he was chapter one.

England was chapter two.

When I went to England, it was for six months, but I was fractionally rebellious, and stayed six months and one day (no eight year stay for me). I was still kicked out of my flat at the appointed time, and left to find a place for me and my bags to stay for the night. When I mentioned my predicament to my wealthy socialist friend, he suggested I get a hotel, but I did not have the feeling, like Didion, that I could always make money, so a hotel even a hostel, was really too expensive. I did what rootless single American girls do in such a situation, and went to the bar until I found a place to spend the night. It was like hailing a cab. A girl can always find a bed, and yet sleeping with my host was not a part of my equation, and I was pretty good or just damn lucky at choosing the right host in order not to upset the equation. Anything could not just happen after all.

I was on my way to chapter three, in Rome, where the equation would be balanced; Jesus could take root, and I would return home to Indiana with my childhood faith reinstated as I always knew it would be. Novel complete. The wayward daughter has returned.

Other people have not lived such relatively tidy lives. And other novels have not been so constricted in their possibilities by the facts of the author’s life and faith. The novel goes into a tidy drawer, and I pull it out every now and then and wonder why the book doesn’t work, even though it’s not possible for me to change it. That’s how it was. That’s how the story goes, and how it always will. The wayward daughter has returned and the story is complete.

Matthew Lickona wrote for First Things, “the naked portrayal of religious belief carries with it the power and even the tendency to kill the story,” which is probably why my story died right where it should have begun. In the meantime, a few years have passed and I have five children, and sometimes I ask myself how in the hell that happened—because it was not in the book to have five children in ten years. And how did my life become so untidy?

Moral being that having faith as a subtle baseline throughout a story rather than a grand kaboom at the end, allows the story to go anywhere, maybe even into seedier barrooms than the wayward child would have touched with her tidy little pinky. Because we all know what’s going to happen when the rootless single American girl walks into a bar, but when a Catholic mother of five goes to the pub? Goodness, anything could happen.


Darwin said...

This ties in very much with the thought process that goes on for me whenever I contemplate writing fiction again. I'd furiously typed out stories (and even a couple novels) throughout high school and early college, but I was an inveterate genre reader and writer, and so everything had to be science fiction, fantasy, or a mystery. At a certain point, I realized that even while I had moved on to reading mostly mainstream and pre-20th century fiction, I simply could not seem to construct a story which didn't get its major plot or thematic elements from some sort of situation (the future, magic, a crime to solve) about which I had to admit that I had no experience. So I stopped writing, resolving to come back to it when I had experienced enough life to understand people better.

And yet with the passage of time, the only thing I seem to have added to my ability to think about writing is an interest in historical fiction.

Of course, all of these genres (SF, fantasy, mystery, historical) provide enough interest that the author feels able to tell a story about comparatively ordinary people. In this sense, it seems like a sort of fictional training wheels to me.

It keeps gnawing at the back of my mind: Is it possible to write a non-genre novel about people like the ones I know? People who live in suburbs and work at desk jobs and have lots of kids and drive minivans and go to church every weekend?

Part of me feels like there's something wrong with one's life if it's not possible to write an interesting story about the sort of life one lives -- and yet given that story is founded on conflict, perhaps it's just as well.

karyn said...

I had a childhood that provided fodder for a novel, I suppose. Later, I created some "adventures" that would have provided more fodder, if I was a writer. But I feel like I have actually had way more interesting "philosophical" adventures (??) since I have settled down, had kids, and converted to Catholicism. I actually kind of like that "anything is not possible" for me now - I actually like that there are parameters, but maybe because I've lived without them and it felt scary and out of control. Then again, I don't know if all of this would be different if I was a writer...

wifemotherexpletive said...

it is true. i'd be much more interested, at this point in my life, to read about what happens to that Catholic mother of five, when she steps off home base, than i would about that single hepless american girl...
the adventure is within and bringing it to with-out...

BettyDuffy said...

I always think of the Russians, for instance, as being historical even though Tolstoy was definitely writing in his time about things that his contemporaries probably thought were rather banal. For every fictional drawing room conversation, there was probably a real life counter part that was slightly less fluid than the one he reimagined.

I think we could definitely write novels about people in mini-vans just going about their lives. I've got a few conflicts in mind that I could share with you--maybe you would have the wherewithal to put them on paper.

Have you or the Mrs. read "Lizzie's War" by Tim Farrington? My sister and I talk frequently about how it's the kind of book we'd like to write.

Karyn, Today I'm going to agree that having anything not be possible is preferable to the alternative. I think even from a writer's perspective, the statis allows the work to take place. For me, the challenge, as always, has been imagining infinite possibilities when my lifestyle doesn't actually provide them. And also the fear of taking a character someplace that is out of control--to imagine something about which I don't have any experience, and that may be difficult or uncomfortable to allow, even for a fictional character.

WME, I too would rather read about the latter, which nags me to write the book I would like to read. But I keep writing a blog instead. Oh well--this is what I'm meant to write, for now, I suppose.

Peter and Nancy said...

Someone give me a good criticism: "You have to be willing to let bad things happen to your characters." I had more than a few bumpy rides by the time I was 15, and it makes me too protective of others in life and in my writing.

Dauvit Balfour said...

I've often wondered how to create that subtle foundation of faith. The thought of writing explicitly "Christian" fiction has always seemed... amateurish, poseurish... something like that. I've always been drawn more to stories about real people whose faith runs as a current through the tale, but how to create those people and that current is something I have yet to master. The morality play is cheap, but easy to replicate.

It doesn't help that I grew up in suburban north Georgia and now live in Indiana. I've traveled a bit and acquired a few wounds here and there, but they don't seem to be enough, or else I am not seeing them rightly.

Sometimes I think I've made all the right choices, even in my adventures and my cutting, and no one wants to read about a kid, student, or man who has made all the right choices (not that I have, but on paper it looks that way).

Maybe I'll drop it all and move to Montana to raise dental floss. Or Mexico.

Hope said...

I have always been drawn to stories where the people are refreshingly human. That's all I'm looking for. When I read of someone else being human I heave a huge sigh of relief that I'm not alone on this planet.

I am rewriting a novel right now and am scared shitless really. It feels like driving a car that doesn't have power steering. Very hard to navigate.

My writing instructor says that when one is alone with their art they must be fearless. I feel like I am full of fear and shutting my eyes and jumping off a cliff every darn day. The first draft was safe and malleable (is that a word?) This second draft feels like a rebellious child that I am forever wrestling with.

rachel said...

Oh, this makes me sad. I did things in reverse; the "wild years" were lived in reference to a very strict set of rules and parameters, both self-imposed and faith-based. I had some good times but never felt like I participated in my life beyond feelings of guilt while desiring and longing for something more.

Maybe perversely, since losing my faith I have finally felt permission to accept my humanity and embrace my eventual mortality/transition into nothingness-- truly dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

Only looking back at my carefully controlled self can I recognize how likely it was that anything could have happened. How much easier is it to derail an ego with such a purpose... the call to be in this world but not of it?

I count this deliverance as my greatest stroke of luck, something that on the wings of chaos has delivered me into a place of safety and acceptance in my life with no greater tragedy than a lingering sorrow that my youth was not better spent in pursuit of transient pleasure.

I am also a huge Didion fan and spent the last decade of my life breathing in the strange settling of the Santa Anas. They are an unexplainable force of nature and remained constant through my search and pull to center.

Though my center has not held, I am profoundly grateful that at the most dangerous time in my life, "anything" could have, but did not, happen.

Marie said...

I'm guessing you've read Flannery O'Connor's takes on putting religion explicitly into fiction? I think hers is a great model there, terribly God fiction and terribly religion fiction and horrifically Catholic but ne'er a priest in the lot, I think.

I do think I get the idea of something completed being unopenable. That book is done, isn't it? No going back and killing your darlings. But how about a sequel?

Good last line, by the way.