So, today, strangely enough, I’m going to write something about my writing...which I normally never do. I can’t recall who, but I think someone once said that if a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, then a writer who writes about writing is a raging egomaniac.
It seems I’m about to be a raging egomaniac. Ah well. So be it.
Anyway, I had an odd metafictive moment the other day. I don’t write fiction much. Mostly I do non-fiction, and, of that, I usually do very short, very personal essays. But, believe it or not, I got into this game doing fiction--short stories, novels, the whole bit. I’ve even had a few stories published, though not tons of ‘em.
But, I’ve been thinking of trying my hand at fiction again. In particular, I’ve wanted to write a series of short stories set in a little seaside community, based partly on South Padre Island, where my parents had a house for many years. It’s always struck me as an interesting place, and somewhat improbable. It is the sort of community where Winter Texans, local eccentrics, up and coming real-estate people, hotel managers, and, in the spring, teaming hordes of college students, somehow manage to co-exist.
I even had a general pattern worked out. The stories would be sort of modeled on Giovannino Guareschi’s tales of Don Camillo. If you’ve not read the stories, then I should provide some background. Don Camillo is a priest a small Italian town shortly after World War II. His best frenemy is Peppone, the town’s mayor and also head of the local Communist party. They spend a lot of time sparring, sometimes literally (Don Camillo is a very muscular Christian), but, in their hearts, they feel deeply for one another, and they frequently if covertly save each other’s bacon.
The stories are really rather sweet, and calming, and I recommend them in an age of pandemic and political instability.
But, getting back to my own attempts at fiction…
I set out to do the first story. Actually, it wasn’t so much a story as an introduction. The narrator, who we will learn later is a former trade press journalist, now retired, and wondering what to do with his life (yes, of course, that’s moi), explains the town, and how it is built, and who lives there, and how, eventually, due to climate change, global warming, and melting ice caps, the town itself will vanish beneath the sea, one with Atlantis and Port Royal.
I did the piece. Then, I made the mistake of reading it.
In a word, ouch!
I’ve read worse stuff. I think. Once or twice. But I can’t remember exactly when.
It was awful. Just awful. I put it aside, and, for the moment, that will be the end of my Don Camillo-like excursion into cozy fiction.
I then tried to analyze my failure. Why had it gone so wrong, so quickly? After a bit, I came to an uncomfortable conclusion. To wit, it wasn’t working because I don’t really know South Padre Island that well. I’ve only been there for vacations. I’ve never actually lived there for any length of time. I’ve met residents, including some fabulous eccentrics who’d make great characters in a book. But I don’t really know them. I don’t understand what motivates them. I don’t know what frightens them, or gives them joy, or pain. For me they are indistinct, gray as twilight cats, and as incomprehensible.
For me to write about those men and women would be at best presumptuous, and at worst, ridiculous. I would set out to provide portraits and insightful sketches, and return with only cartoons, cliches, and stereotypes.
What to do about it? Well, if I really want to write those stories, I would have to move to SPI for a year -- at least a year! -- and actually get to know people there. (The great irony is, of course, that often fiction requires more research, or, at least, more understanding than non-fiction. But that’s a story for another day.)
Until then, I fear the project is a no-go. I’ll let you know when, if ever, I can return to it.
However, there is another, more worrisome aspect to all this. To wit: I find I cannot write about SPI because I don’t know SPI. Could it be that I no longer do fiction because, I frankly do not know and do not understand People? People in general? Period?
I fear there is some real possibility of that. And, were it true, ‘twould explain much, and not just about my failures in fiction.
But, I console myself. If I do not understand people, then at least I am of the vast majority. Judging from news and personal experience, only a vanishing few of us can really claim to do so…
And even they screw up more often than not.
More about Don Camillo, and why he is out of my league.
One of the pretty conceits of the stories is that Don Camillo talks to God. Of course, we all can do that. But, where the rest of us mostly mumble at the wall in Church or Temple and wonder if we’re wasting breath, he gets an answer. I mean, he can hear Christ speaking to him from the cross. Such is his innocence that it never occurs to him that there is anything unusual in this.
I’m embarrassed to say that I was actually planning on having a Don Camillo figure in the tales. My particular Don Camillo was to be a woman, the pastor of a church on the island, and a progressive, caring individual. I must confess she was lifted, partly, from the BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, except that the Vicar is short and round, whereas my clergy-person would be tall and thin.
Also, she -- like Don Camillo -- would have had a special relationship with God, maybe even including little chats. This was because my character would have been partly based on a real pastor I know. She has has temporal lobe epilepsy, fortunately now under control, and today she only rarely has an episode. But, when she does, she is one of those happy few who feels herself to be genuinely in the presence of the divine.
This fascinates me, partly because I have a...shall we say?...tense relationship with church and religion. And I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to really feel you are in the company of the Wholly Other. (If you’re interested, I did a short video discussing this very thing. You can see it on my Vimeo page, here: https://vimeo.com/263434993)
But, fairly quickly, I realized I really couldn’t write about her. It would feel as if I were exploiting her unique reality. While it is true that all fictional characters are based to a certain extent on real people the writer knows, still...this seemed a bit disrespectful. I would be using her very real, and (to her) very important personal experiences in too lighthearted a manner.
I’m not too sure about God. But, of this I’m certain. If there is a Supreme Power In the Universe...who can create whole galaxies in the wink of an eye...and who seems fully capable of commanding floods, lightening bolts, plagues, famine, and fire from heaven...
I’d just as soon not piss off anyone He’s got on speed dial.
So, anyway, I’ll let you know if I ever do move to SPI and do gather enough background to do a decent story about the place. In the meantime, though, if I really want to do humane fiction about a community which shares hopes and dreams, tears and laughter, I should look to join one closer to home.
In fact, there’s one already at hand, isn’t there? One that I don’t have to join. One of which I am already a member.
Specifically, those of us under siege by Covid-19, tormented by fools in high places, and trying to stay sane in quarantine.
Ah, but there’s the rub. That community is nearly universal. We’re all there.
How do you find, and tell, stories which are unique and interesting...
When we all already know those stories, have lived them, and are...dear Heaven!...bored to tears of every last God Damned one of ‘em?
Onward and upward.
This really does look like me, or half of it does. I'm on the right. Uh, that would be your left, wouldn't it? Ah, well. Whatever. I'm the guy.