Monday, September 30, 2013

Yes, You Can

I feel like every couple of years I get involved with a conversation like the one I'm about to tell you. This conversation is usually with someone I don't know very well, and this conversation is generally with someone I already like. This conversation happens after we've swapped outlandish stories.

I love the outlandish stories because, well, they're outlandish. For my part, I was telling my new friends Chris and Roxxi “my favorite lithium story,” It's funny because I introduce it like that but the truth be told, I have only this one lithium story. Now, two things before I go further: first, my grandfather, Frank Aiello was a storyteller and I have always wanted to have people listening and laughing at my stories like he did. And two, I have or I will use most of my life experiences as fodder for the fiction I have or will write. The lithium story, however, is fun to tell at the right times but it will probably never make it to the paper. Well, I guess I'm alluding to it now.

So, the punchline of the story, “I didn't know that they were still prescribing lithium,” I said. “Oh yeah,” Chris said. “They'll give it to you now.”

A little while later, enter Mark Dragotta. Everyone knows Mark Dragotta. If you do not, you should. So here comes Mark. Chris says, “Since I got both writers here, you have to hear this.”

And those are the words that spark the conversation that seems to pop up every couple of years.

I like Chris. I like Chris a lot. He and I have similar views on the world. We're close in age. We have similar sensibilities. That says a great deal, I think. And along with all of this, Chris, like Mark, or like me, has had interesting experiences along the way. In many ways, this is a criteria for prospective friends. I like interesting people who have lived lives. So here we were, Chris and Mark and I.

Chris begins to tell us about his late teenaged years. He tells us about this epic hitchhiking trip all over the United States with a friend of his. He tells us about the people he met, and the shading circumstances of the road trip's purpose. He explains that what we need to do (Mark and me) is write a series of short stories. He gives us the premise. He nearly explains how to do it. Mark and I stay silent. I know if I have had this conversation every so often, I know Mark has had it too. All we do is listen to Chris.

During all of this, I think I'm hearing more than Chris thinks he's telling me. At one point he mentions the friend, who has either just died, or has died in such recent times that it's still close under the surface. I know how old Chris is now, and he tells me how old he was during this crazy road trip. Half of his life has gone by since these misadventures with a dear, now dead friend. And he's trying to tell Mark and me how to write this story.

Neither Mark, nor I will write this story. There's now way. This is Chris's story.

It was not the right time, nor the right place, not last night anyway, to tell Chris you can write this story. I mean hell, there are all the right elements to it: youthful rebellion, travel, drugs, and now half a lifetime interceding adding a dead friend. The one person he had as a connection to that time is now gone. If there is a question of “why now?” as there should be, I think it's fairly obvious.

I realize that not everyone is a writer. I think everyone should be. I think that all it really takes is the inclination, the time, add a good reading list and practice, practice, practice. Can anyone become Michael Chabon? No, chances are you won't win the Pulitzer Prize, or even get published. But when I have these conversations with people, I don't think the Pulitzer Prize or a New York Times Bestseller is what they're after.

Rather, what I think they're after is to see their story on a page. I think what they're after is to have their story told. Why? Because I think people who have experiences like Chris believe (and I believe it too) that others can learn something from them. And if nothing more, it's important enough to share.

I think Chris can write this story.

This is the way I would directed him:

Read. A few suggestions I have off the cuff: Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Denis Johnson's Jesus's Son; John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and perhaps everything or anything by Jim Carroll and Augusten Burroughs. I think there is so much value in reading similar or similarly set stories. The case with these writers and these books is simple enough, road trips, drugs, returning home, etc. All expect the latter these are writers of fiction. Although the work of Johnson and Carroll are thinly disguised works of fiction. I'm constantly delighted by Augusten Burroughs, he writes memoir.

Write. There is no real recipe here. I imagine that a road trip as the one Chris has told me about can have plenty of ways to organize it. It can be organized chronologically, or by location. It can be organized by experiences going from the easy to the tough. It can be told in any way. But this is not going to help Chris write his story. When I say write, I mean just that, write. Do it daily. One small scene at a time. One small vignette at a time. But this needs to happen daily. Daily. One hour, twelve hours, twenty minutes. Whatever, daily. In this way, over time, there will be a mountain of material. And then, then, the actual organization of it will become obvious.

Don't be discouraged. Writing is not easy. But it gets easier. Readers are critical. But they are not nearly as critical as the writer is when it comes to our work. It's tedious. But fuck me, life is tedious. The first word is the toughest. The first page is the toughest. But it gets easier.

Fiction or Memoir?

Good question. I'm inclined to say fiction. I think there are more truths, universal or whatnot in fiction. Fiction writers have the privilege to add, juxtapose or make composite: characters, scenes, locations, etc. Read Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is not a work of fiction, but you cannot say what is real and what is journalism. I bring it up because in his story, Thompson has laid two different events (that happened several months apart) into one story. Perhaps I should add Fear and Loathing to Chris's reading list.

There are good aspects to memoir too. My work at Umbrella Factory Magazine has soured me on memoir somewhat. But I loved The Film Club, Stop-time and Running with Scissors. These are great books, these are great stories and they're wonderfully written. The case with David Gilmour's The Film Club we not only get the story at hand, the writer and his son working through tough times, but we get some great film history and information.

Where to from here?

One word at a time. One page at a time.

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