Monday, July 28, 2008

In the Absence of Fiction

ferris wheel

See, Annemarie and I have a running joke about hipster love stories. The joke is a story, too. It makes us cringe, it goes like this: the stories she writes (the ones I write, too) are filled with solemn and whimsical characters, collections of nouns. Their names are curious, their habits surprising. Their vocations—clown, amusement park ticket-taker, diorama-builder, writer of technical guides—are disappointing, but rich. Richer than the people are, sometimes. The hollowness of these characters swallows the screen. And the stories stay on the screen, no matter how earnestly we intend to write them on typewriters. Or print them into tiny manuals.

Annemarie is better at this than I am. She writes stories; she's going to school to write stories. The last hipster love story I wrote, I wrote almost a year ago. It was dark, and in Russian: a shut-in called Antony. In love with imaginary women; ignoring his pet turtle. And, gone mad. The imaginary girls lived on the screen. This was not a surprise.

Why are these insides hollow? For a while, I thought it was about dialogue—or, the lack thereof. I've never been good at writing dialogue. In high school, I wrote a seven-minute short film. It should have been easy; effortless. I knew early on that the girl in the story was me. (Confounded by repetition, the dullness of testing hypotheses.) My friend Anthony shot the entire film, all seven minutes of it, with zero dialogue. I had written the story; I just didn't know what to say. The solution, in the end, was a clumsy voice-over. And if the film was saved, it was saved by its honesty. Because the only way I could fill the character's outlines, unmute the silences, was to fill her thoughts with my thoughts.

The interior dialogue emerged. Weakly, it prevailed.

Thinking about everything, I'm starting to be sure that the absence of these interior dialogues is dulling us. It's hard for me to write fiction anymore, because I don't think in conscious fiction: I think in the secret fiction of self-writing. I wrote, a while ago, about the built landscapes of our online identities. Everything that's there—every photograph, every favorite record—is there because someone put it there. We can mine these landscapes for meaning, but we have to make that meaning up.

Because: these constellations of nouns, adjectives, likes and dislikes? They are missing the story underneath. They are missing the interior world. And it's not just that I stopped writing fiction. It's that I stopped reading it. This world—the real one that's distorted online—is too immediate. It's urgent, and constant. It demands attention. I need to know what's going on with my own cast of characters, and the cast is always growing. The news never stops. And when it does, I disbelieve.

(Clicking: refresh, refresh.)

Fiction is a way of, finally, knowing what others are thinking. That's what it's good for: peeking into the interior worlds of others, finding clues on how to arrange your own. The noise of the internet is starting to devastate me. Bright, happy bragging, or charming self-deprecation, or thinly-veiled despair: they're interchangeable, they're everywhere. On Twitter, especially, we're treated to only hints of what lies underneath. The interior stories are opaque. And we never have the time, or patience, to make them transparent.

The few times I've tried, I've been blown away by the sincerity out there that's waiting to escape. Tried, I mean, to make my own interior dialogues transparent. No shining words, no exclamation points: when I think, I think slowly and carefully. Like an audible sigh, the stories come rushing out; rushing in. A few days ago, I read the words of one Merlin Mann (after reading the strong words of Jack Shedd, too, thanks to Nirav). Merlin urged these authors of accident (these bloggers, you know) to think hard about who they want to delight.

You will make tradeoffs, he said. The long posts will never be looked on kindly by lovers of quick fixes, short lists. Those, though, aren't the people I want to write for. The people I want to write for are the ones who long for fiction without even knowing it. Those, too, who miss the glass windows into other people's lives—the windows that stories used to give them—because those were the windows that reflected their own lives back.

Those people have been surfacing, lately, and I want to say: thank you. Your letters and notes give me windows, too. And I would like a room full of windows, glass windows, and the rooms would be all in a row, and we would live in them, side by side. We would, sometimes, open the blinds.


Nirav said...

Gorgeous. Response:

jason Gingold said...

see what happens. you hook me with one little paper and now i have to respond to everything.

interesting thoughts here. i think fiction can either be viewed as an escape or as a reflection. the power of people's words on twitter allows us to fill in the missing character pieces (however inaccurately) based on attitudes and comments (strong, weak, critical, celebratory). what fascinates me is questioning the persona. does bravery of thought come out in our online identities, thus skewing our real selves? OR, does having an online identity make it easier to be truthful because we don't have to make our comments to someone else's face, look in their eyes?

either way, creating or filling in the story of our nonfictional, online communities is very similar to the way a good piece of fiction gives you just enough to go on, but asks you to provide the details.

thoughtful. curious. inspired (again).

Annemarie said...




heartbreaking work of staggering something

we should talk!

me, i'm trying to unplug for this very reason but there are so many reasons to be plugged...

i love you

love you


love you

i love you so much,

partly for saying things here that i wouldn't know how to say

mostly just for being you

Ian said...

Some very fine thoughts. I just happened upon your site today (isn't it funny how "blog" seems like such a dirty word sometimes?), and am impressed with what I have read thus far. I am certainly looking forward to reading more of your work. Be well.


spork said...

have also struggled with this aspect of shortform txt communication. i miss writing emails with story in them. i miss... telling my stories? we should talk soon. <3

(need to figure out this gmail/blogger account thing better, for now leave me anon for quench purposes.)

Spencer Miles Kimball said...

I figured since you read mine (are the only one) I should probably read yours. Excellent, but made me sad. The fictions we fill others with lack a certain cooperation on their part, because they have their own fictions of themselves. Anyway, very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across your site today, and have been loving it! Thanks for the beautiful and entertaining writing.

Portable City said...

" I don't think in conscious fiction: I think in the secret fiction of self-writing."

My god, that's what's so wrong with my life. I can't stop thinking about myself.

Thank you!