MacBride Writers' Conference
Good morning. Today I'll be speaking about point of view. Deciding who tells the story and how it gets told is the writer's most important decision. There are countless ways to tell the same story, as many ways as there are people in this room and more. By offering examples of various points of view, I'll illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of these different options. Time permitting, I'll take questions afterward.
COLLECTIVE FIRST PERSON: we
We were all young back then, or so it seemed to us. If there were old people—"old" meaning anyone older than us—at the MacBride Writers' Conference in 1996, we didn't notice. We were busy with ourselves, and no world existed beyond us, our egos, our writing, our dreams and hopes, our gossip. Some of us were on working scholarship to the conference as waiters, and some of us earned scholarships because our poetry was published in a literary journal deemed important, and some of us—though we were so, so young—had published our first book, which was the holy grail: publish a book. Those people were luckiest of all, coming to the writers' conference on a fellowship, which was the golden ticket. None of us paid. Paying was what regular people did, not us.
We were obnoxious, toting bottles of crummy red wine into dinner and toasting ourselves in loud voices, clustering at the back of the room during craft lectures to lean and whisper in each other's ears. We mocked the famous poets who taught us, their voices lilting in mind-numbing sing-song as they read their famous poems. We cock-teased the wrinkly, bad-bald, über-letch fiction writers and faked shock when they assumed they would get to fuck us. In workshop, we pontificated on theories of narrative distance and rolled our eyes when the lady from Pasadena who wore the "Book Power" T-shirt raised her hand, and we sighed gustily when our teacher quoted that turd, Hemingway. We organized an invitation-only séance to channel poet James Merrill, and some of us knew tarot, and each of us, when confronting the cards, asked, "Will I be a famous writer?" and a lot of us didn't like what was revealed, though we pretended not to care and called tarot "stupid." Still, a lot of us tossed restlessly that night, not sleeping, as we pondered what we had heard, but we confided our fears in no one and guzzled coffee at breakfast to reacquire our perky sheen. We were jealous when the visiting literary agent didn't want to meet with all of us, and we were confused when the visiting photographer posed only some of us for headshots, as if they had predetermined who would "make it" and who wouldn't. We applauded crazily at our own readings, and those of us with books inscribed them effusively, weaving lavish compliments with inside jokes, swearing to remember this summer forever, as if signing high school yearbooks. We sat together at dinner, and always saved seats, and later, when it was someone else from the conference—someone who paid to be there—who wrote the New York Times bestseller that was made into an Oscar-winning movie, we felt betrayed. It was supposed to be us.
We were ambitious. We all knew the story about the professor stumbling into the first workshop half-drunk and his sneering pronouncement to the group of twelve grad students at the table: "You know how many of you will get a book published? ONE. One of you," and hearing that, we secretly thought, "I'm the one," and then the teacher said, "If you're not thinking 'I'm the one,' you don't have the balls to make it," and we claimed this happened in our MFA program. We tossed names—Faulkner! Nabokov!— like confetti, as if their brilliance would rain down upon us, and we name-dropped professors and books we'd read and books we'd heard of and which writers wrote us letters of rec. We knew people who knew the real writers of our day: Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson, Edwidge Danticat, Thom Jones, Tim O'Brien, Dorothy Allison, Cormac McCarthy, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Gary Soto. Some of us defended Sylvia Plath, and some of us defended Ted Hughes, but we all had opinions.
We slept with each other: gay-gay, hetero-hetero, gay-experimenting. Sean and Louise. Jon and John. Jon and Paul. John and Carolynne. Carolynne and Randy. Randy and Louise. Louise and Sean again. Sean and Elena. Elena and Dimitri. Dimitri and Louise. Jon and Sal. Annie and Katrina. Vanessa and Michael. Even Michael and Louise. It was possible that Louise slept with all of us, or would have if the conference hadn't ended.
It was a merry-go-round, a kaleidoscope, a whirligig, a dervishy time. Our hearts were stomped, our feelings hurt; we murmured spiteful stories about each other; we babbled the dark-of-the-night secrets we'd sworn to take to the grave; we sussed out weaknesses and exploited them, at the conference and later, last week or yesterday. We kept in touch or we didn't, but we never forgot each other, and we hugged gaudily when our paths crossed, exclaiming how much we loved the book/poem/story/essay that had just come out, though we'd only skimmed the reviews or scrutinized the acknowledgements, waiting for our own name, as torrents of bitter thoughts flooded our animal-brains: it should have been our work getting this blink of attention. Although, to be fair, we helped: we published each other in journals we edited and offered constructively-meant insight on drafts sent to us and made necessary but noncommittal introductions to our agents and cut-and-pasted letters of rec for teaching jobs and fellowships. We were friends but we all understood ourselves to be stampeding in a giant horse race; the MacBride Writers' Conference was our starting gate.
And yet. Amidst all that:
Some of us fell in love. Some of us broke off engagements to be together, and some of us filled a U-Haul with books and framed Rothko posters and a futon and drove from San Francisco to Washington, DC, to be together. Some of us got married. Some of us were married for thirteen years, and then some of us who were married died suddenly when we were too young to do that sort of thing. Some of us died, or, rather, one of us did: Michael.
Ironically—or is it only coincidentally; "ironically" being one of those over-used, improperly-used words that we over- and improperly used back then?—this tragedy happened five weeks before some of us were scheduled to return to the MacBride Writers' Conference, invited to teach for the first time. Some of us were looking forward to delivering a craft lecture at the famous lectern, leading a workshop, reading from our newest novel, and living the life of a "famous writer" for two weeks. Our color headshot appeared in the brochure.
We could have said no. We could have stayed home. But that's not the kind of people we were.
THIRD PERSON, LIMITED: she; generally accepted as the default POV
Vanessa stood, waiting, by a large window that faced the tarmac. A fly buzzed, flinging itself against the glass, and she thought of Emily Dickinson's fly— "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died"—and wondered if that would make a good joke later: "You know what would be a great name for a band of poets?" she might say. "Emily Dickinson's Fly." But the words sounded dumb in her head, as they all had lately. She hadn't written anything good in forever, and she decided last week she hated her novel-in-progress, so she pressed the delete key. Two hundred pages. As for the recently published novel, that sucked, too. A dour chronicle of post-apocalyptic women—again. They all sucked. How fun to be plunged now into this writing conference.
This airport was smaller than DCA in Washington, served primarily by puddle jumpers like the one she had disembarked from. Vanessa brought one large suitcase and a laptop she carried on. She barely remembered what she had thrown into the suitcase because she packed at five in the morning, in about fifteen minutes, just before the cab arrived—she wasn't sure she was coming on this trip until the last minute, changing her mind back and forth like a ball batted in a long, dull tennis match.
But here she was.
Someone driving a van was supposed to pick her up, rather, the first group of them, faculty and staff and honored visitors and scholarship waiters, all descending upon this tiny New England airport within a two-hour framework.
The director of the conference had been sympathetic about Michael, saying she could back out, she could teach next summer instead, and it didn't matter that her photo had been in the ads. It didn't matter because no one signed up for her workshop, she wondered, or because the director wanted to be accommodating? This conversation was three weeks after Michael died, and she couldn't trust anyone. Being pitied irritated her, so she acted brusque and curt, which turned people nicer—more goddamn pity—darkening her mood. So she started keeping away from people altogether, even the virtual kind, shutting down her social networking accounts one after the other, then canceling her cell phone, deleting her blog, and cutting her land line. There was something pleasantly rebellious about dropping out. About raw silence.
That the director was being sweet made her meaner. "I'll be fine," she snapped. "I want the distraction. I want to be there."
He paused a beat too long, and she realized that he was afraid she would be the distraction. That she might panic or break down or change her mind at the last minute, leaving him in the lurch in some vexing way, or that she would run around bawling, making the people who paid uncomfortable. He was one of those older, manly poets, a brash, lumbering guy who would have made a beeline for Sylvia Plath, except that Sylvia would have been bored with him in twenty minutes.
Vanessa recognized the woman with the pixie cap of red hair from the brochure, amemoirist with a book about food, not the traditional eating disorders but also not anything pleasant about food, something disturbing and splashy that got her interviewed on NPR and The Daily Show. Vanessa hadn't read it. Nevertheless, to drag herself out of her own stupid mind, she waved and called: "Joy?"
The woman with the red hair spun several times, as if she didn't know where her name came from, until finally she placed Vanessa. She smiled brightly, then immediately her face crumpled into sad confusion. She knows, Vanessa thought, of course everyone knows. What had she expected? She was The Widow.
Vanessa kept a grim smile attached to her own face as she walked to where Joy stood next to a potted plant. "I'm Vanessa Connally."
"Joy Ruby-Vargha." They shook hands, Joy clinging to Vanessa's too long, too tightly.
Don't you dare hug me, Vanessa thought, and when she got her hand back, she stepped back, beyond Joy's natural reach. Bitch, she added in her head, startled by this anger. Of course everyone knew the details of her sad story, every writer in America, and every writer who was coming to this conference. They pitied her, with her inconveniently dead husband.
"Congratulations on your new book," Vanessa said. "You must be excited about all the attention it's getting."
"Thanks," Joy said. Her eyes stayed lasered on Vanessa.
Vanessa said, "Yes, I'm the one whose husband died. That's me."
Joy's cheeks flushed. "I'm sorry," she said. "You must think I'm so rude."
"We can just have a normal conversation," Vanessa said. "We can just be normal. Okay?" It came out as a command.
"Sure." Joy took in a deep breath. "I've never been here. I guess I'm nervous. You hear so many stories about this conference."
"Most of them not true." Vanessa felt immediately drained by Joy's way of speaking, as if she were permitted more syllables than other people and insisted on using each one of them, even in short sentences. And then, behind Joy, she spotted another woman, potentially more draining, and she gasped slightly, but enough that Joy twisted to look.
"Louise Philips! She's amazing!" Joy babbled. "I love her work! That fearless prose, she's so brave!"
Down girl, Vanessa almost said.
Louise gripped a Styrofoam cup in one hand and tugged behind her several leopard print duffels precariously balanced on a zebra-striped hard suitcase with wheels. She was at least six feet tall and sinewy; she had been Michigan state high jump champion, a "fun fact" she still included in her author bio. Also, it was a cliché, but her dark hair truly was a mane—it flowed and rippled and Louise constantly flung it back and flung it forward; it was as good as an extra appendage. The joke was that if Louise's head were shaved she'd be unable to speak. She and Louise had been in the same fiction workshop at the conference in 1996; at the time, Vanessa's first novel had just come out, and Louise had published a fifty-page roman a clef about her MFA instructor in the Best American Short Stories—reprinted from an obscure literary journal (her first publication)— that eventually was made into an HBO movie (and resulted in the professor being denied tenure). A couple of years ago, Louise married a trendy indie film star; they'd been written up in the "Vows" column of the Times' "Sunday Styles." Vanessa still remembered the story Louise workshopped with the class in 1996, about a CIA spy living in a suburban neighborhood who began leaving a slimy trail when he walked, like a snail, until, after being forced to retire, he jumped off the Memorial Bridge, turning the Potomac River silver. Vanessa had written a careful critique that she considered encouraging while basically suggesting that the whole thing be scrapped. "Who do you think you are, Kafka?" she stopped herself from writing. The class pretty much ripped apart the story. But the teacher passed it to his editor at The New Yorker, where it was published, along with a full page photo of Louise posing barefoot next to a dry fountain filled with autumn leaves. Right after that she got a two-book deal for a collection of stories and a novel. The novel made it to the bestseller list—at least only up to number eight and only for two weeks.
"This is ridiculous," Louise called, not explaining what was ridiculous as she expertly threaded her stack of luggage through Joy and Vanessa's battered black suitcases and computer bags. She released the handle of her suitcase and thrust the Styrofoam cup into Joy's hand and locked Vanessa in a hug before she could react. "I was so sorry to hear," she murmured in Vanessa's ear, "and you're such a good soldier to come," the words tickling and buzzing; like Emily Dickinson's fly, Vanessa thought. She didn't even like Louise, and something in her wanted to say so, directly, putting an end to this uncomfortable sympathy.
"'With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz –,'" Vanessa said out loud, meaning only to think the words. Louise stepped back; she appeared not to hear, though that was hardly possible. One hand remained pressed on Vanessa's arm.
Joy extended her arm for a handshake, but Louise was still staring at Vanessa and made no sign of acknowledging Joy.
"Sorrow becomes you," Louise said. "You look saintly. Beautiful."
"A dead husband isn't a Vogue beauty tip," Vanessa said.
Joy soldiered on: "I'm Joy Ruby-Vargha, and I loved Where We Are When We're Lost. I teach it to all my undergrads. Such a tour de force, that story in particular, the way you pretend to blur fact and fiction, and how you explode boundaries. So uncomfortable for the reader!"
Of course. Of everything that Louise had written, writers mentioned that book first, always. It was that title story. Inescapable. Famous, if a story can be such a thing.
"I'm going to take care of you," Louise said to Vanessa. Louise often ignored what people said. There was a well-circulated story about Louise's editor demanding she cut a three-line epilogue to the novel, and Louise added instead, ballooning the epilogue to forty pages, hardly an epilogue, though that's what it was called in the table of contents. The reviewer in the Times loved it.
"I don't want to be taken care of," Vanessa said.
Louise's eyes were a startling, deep blue, very dramatic with that black hair. She might be hated for those eyes alone. "You know you do." She spoke with such authority that Vanessa almost nodded.
"This cup is hot," Joy said.
"It's coffee," Louise remarked, but she didn't reach for it. Then she spoke as if Joy had asked a question: "We go way back."
"Louise knows all my secrets," Vanessa said.
Louise smiled slightly and pulled a silver flask from a side pocket of one of the leopard bags. She unscrewed the top slowly and took a quick slug.
"Sounds dangerous," Joy said, pushing herself into the conversation. She shifted the cup to her other hand, and Vanessa was amused she wouldn't simply set it on the floor. That was how everyone started: going out of their way to do exactly what Louise wanted.
"Vanessa is a notorious liar," Louise said. "All fiction writers lie, but Vanessa especially. Don't believe one word she says. I doubt her name is really Vanessa."
"Actually, Vanessa is my middle name," Vanessa said, startled that Louise would remember that tiny detail all these years later.
"What'd I tell you?" Louise took another go at her flask then capped it and tucked it into her duffel.
"Do you remember my first name?" Vanessa asked.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Vanessa didn't know what Louise was thinking, but she was remembering Louise was the one who flipped the tarot cards, telling her unhappiness would be a fog shadowing her life. Mostly she remembered Louise slept with Michael on that night he and Vanessa were feuding about whose fault it was they got lost hiking in the woods, missing the conference director's reading; people said he remarked on their absence from the podium, not-jokingly calling it "career suicide." Louise had come up to her at breakfast the next morning and made a little checkmark in the air with her pinkie, then sashayed away. Michael denied and denied—"you know what she's like," and he twirled circles with his index finger around his temple—and so for years, Vanessa chose to believe him. Then she found out the whole truth when Louise published her famous story, the "tour de force" Joy had gushed over. She had called the man in the story "Michael," with quotation marks. It shouldn't have been a surprise—Louise had slept with plenty of people during those two weeks—and yet it was. Michael apologized, and she said she forgave him for the years of lying and for all the rest of it, but she knew he didn't believe her, and he was right not to: She didn't believe herself. Now he was dead.
Joy looked from one to the other and shifted the coffee to her other hand. "I don't get it," she said to Louise. "Is this one of those games?"
Louise finally turned and looked at Joy. "You're a perky little America's sweetheart, aren't you? Damn."
Joy's cheeks flushed bright pink and she sucked in her breath sharply. She set the Styrofoam cup on the floor and wiped the front and back of both hands on her skirt. Vanessa wanted to feel sorry for her, but Joy probably should hear she was too perky. And it suited Vanessa if Louise made enemies quickly.
"This should be a fun two weeks," Vanessa said, keeping her voice neutral. "So much to catch up on."
"It's terrible about Michael," Louise said. "Did I already say that?"
"You sent that gorgeous peace lily," Vanessa said. "Thank you."
An over-sized, leafy eyesore Vanessa hauled to the curb. Too much responsibility, she told herself, watching through the blinds to see if neighbors might take it in. The next morning the garbage collectors swept it away.
Then Louise said, "I suppose you'll be writing about this one day. That's what we do as writers, isn't it, write about all the bad things that happen to us?"
That's what you do, Vanessa thought, that's what you did, but she smiled casually. Her face was going to collapse. What a thing to say, even for Louise, who would say anything. "Maybe," she said. "Maybe not. It just all feels pretty awful right now." She crossed her arms. "We really don't have to keep talking about it."
Louise said, "It's your one story. Like Updike and Rabbit. Roth and Zuckerman. Richard Ford and Frank Bascombe. Vanessa and Michael."
She longed to demand that Louise never speak his name again, but she concentrated on her careless smile as she said, "But it's not a story. It's what happened."
"Stop it," Vanessa said sharply, the smile punctured.
Louise laughed, a silly trill. "Oh, you. You know I'm saying what's already in your head."
Vanessa's shoulders tightened as she glared at Louise. Goddamnit, Louise was right. But those thoughts shouldn't be in her head, not now, so soon—not ever. Goddamnit. She said, "Just don't say that again. It's rude and hateful."
Joy interrupted: "I think that's us," and she pointed. A girl with a sunburned nose, holding a clipboard, called and waved, coming to herd the three of them to another corner of the waiting area, where several men clustered around an elderly man in an airport wheelchair. The three women silently collected their luggage, rolling and shuffling, Louise knocking over the Styrofoam cup, which slowly bled coffee onto the carpeted floor. Vanessa couldn't be sure if this was accidental or Louise's way of leaving her mark behind, and she shivered.
NARRATIVE EXPOSITION: not a true point of view, but can provide background, especially in longer works; also useful when writing the first draft to gain insight into characters and their motivations, assuming the material is deleted later. (An inability to convey necessary information naturally through the POV character may suggest the author should reconsider POV choice.)
Vanessa Connally and Louise Phillips met at the MacBride Writers' Conference in 1996. Both women were roughly the same age—mid-twenties—and both were considered attractive, Louise in a dark, dramatic, high-maintenance way, and Vanessa in a golden, girl-next-door, let's-go-on-a-picnic way. There were some who found Vanessa to be cold, perhaps calculating. She was noticeably friendliest to people who might be in position to do her favors. She over-complimented, with an air of forced sincerity, and claimed too many things were "fabulous" to be trusted entirely.
On the other hand, Louise came across as exceedingly friendly, conversing with an array of people, from the housekeeping staff up to the visiting Nobel laureate. She was often found cozied on a porch swing or tucked into the window seat in the lobby, head bent close to her companion's, asking questions, prodding for more information, swearing the same terrible thing sort of had once happened to her. She was a wonderful confidante, so it wasn't until later that her conversational partner realized that Louise hadn't shared much of her own life as she listened to those precious secrets peeling back. It was a sick feeling much, much later to see those same secrets laced through Louise's novels or short stories. Still, she was getting her work published, and that was something.
OMNISCIENT: all-knowing, all-seeing "voice of God"; unfashionable in contemporary literature though Zadie Smith's White Teeth offers a welcome counterpoint.
There comes a moment when every party could tip either way, and now is that moment for this party. It's two AM, and the food's been gone for several hours—not that there was much: two bags of honey mustard pretzels, hummus and carrots for vegetarians, and a large bag of truck stop beef jerky, presented ironically, of course, but consumed nevertheless. It's BYOB, the only kind of party the MacBride Writers' Conference throws. The skunky beer, the clutter of cheap vodka, and the single bottle of show-offy single-malt scotch are well below the halfway point; the ice is dripping into a puddle that no one thinks to mop up. Supplies are dwindling, and it's the first night, so people can claim jet lag as a legitimate excuse to retreat to bed, ignoring the truth: they're old and tired and can't party the way they imagine they used to. Or—tip the other way, and this becomes the night where The Thing That Everyone Talks About happens, the Thing that, once missed, is forever missed—an irretrievable loss no matter what other Things might arise later in the conference. No one dares miss The Thing.
And so the party tips: toward the more interesting, riskier possibilities, into the sort of party where people dribble more warm, cheap vodka into plastic glasses, and the owner of the fancy scotch sees his bottle stormed by a cluster of bearded young men who don't care that he has two poetry books published by a top university press and a third coming out in October that will win the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The music from someone's iPod pumps louder, and so does the thrum of conversation about Emily Dickinson, villanelles, the best phở in Brooklyn, what was really behind that New York Times hatchet job on Jonathan Franzen. (No, no—that's a joke. Even in fiction, The New York Times critics are incapable of giving Jonathan Franzen a hatchet job. But the fact that they won't, that Franzen seems to live comfortably in their pockets, arises in the bitter exchange between the two novelists huddled by the stone fireplace.)
A young woman shrieks, "Everybody dance," and curious gazes slide her direction, as she stumbles awkwardly through the main room, knocking into poets and playwrights, her long hair flashing and flailing until she collapses onto the overstuffed couch that has remained in that exact spot for the last twenty years.
Vanessa watches the girl while maintaining a tedious discussion about the craft cocktail scene with an eager young man. It was on that couch that she and Michael first met in 1996; there was nowhere to sit and her feet hurt, so she flopped down on his lap because he was cute.
We were that way, Louise says, sidling up to her. Louise is a sidler, and a slipper-inner of snarky comments, and a sneak. Vanessa never liked her, even back in those days when they were as young as the dancing girl who is now splashing vodka on her neck and pulse points. She had been Michael's friend, not that he liked her all that much either. He couldn't even remember why he slept with her, which made Vanessa angrier. "Don't you remember that huge fight we had in the woods?" Vanessa had asked, and he pressed his palm to his temple, said, "What woods?"
Once upon a time, Vanessa says. She introduces Louise to the man she's been talking to, calling him the wrong name—which turns out to be his dreaded brother-in-law's name—and either that's all very funny or they're all very drunk. This could be the Thing between Vanessa and this man, calling him the name of the dreaded brother-in-law for the entire conference, each time with a laugh. He would take that, as he perceives Vanessa as higher in the writer hierarchy; he is merely a waiter-writer, and she is a faculty-writer, a real writer, a writer with books. He loves her work, he assured her earlier, striving to sound sincere, since he hasn't actually read her work but has been meaning to.
Louise says to the young man, Don't mind us, we're grumps. She barely hears herself speak; she's thinking about how thin Vanessa is, how Michael's death has turned her ethereal and mysterious, lighter somehow. Like an angel. Like a fucking angel. She hates the trite word and mentally flicks it away. Vanessa has always unnerved her. Louise isn't supposed to be here; the director invited her last-minute and she surprised herself by saying yes: only because the director begged, telling her that he needed her for back-up if Vanessa flamed out. He was convinced she'd show up then run off, he told Louise, remember, she met Michael here. I remember, Louise assured him, clucking with false sympathy before agreeing to be a special guest for a big fee. The director sent her the manuscripts for the workshop Vanessa is supposed to lead, but Louise didn't mark them up, knowing nothing will keep Vanessa from her class because Vanessa relies on students to reflect her own brilliance back on herself.
Michael's death has shocked her. He was only forty-one. But in her mind he felt younger, the lanky boy she'd known at twenty-five, with that earnest way of grabbing your arm when he spoke about something he thought was important. It was sort of sexy. He had such dark, velvety eyes. Without those eyes, she might have stayed hands off. Or not. She was a mess back then, needing buckets of attention. Thank God for a decade of therapy. That's one of her phrases, said with a snort, indicating that it's not as though she considers herself cured.
The young man is yammering and Louise interrupts: You know what this party needs?
She is lucky—or is it skill?—to have the knack of speaking at those mysterious moments when a crowd falls into a deep and significant silence, so the entire room hears her.
She smiles deeply, thrilling in the attention and in the nervous twitches flitting across Vanessa's face. This party needs a GAME, Louise announces.
And so the party tips; so the games begin; and so our story lands upon the precipice of The Thing That Everyone Will Be Talking About. Who isn't glad to have stayed; who's worried now about cheap vodka hangovers?
SECOND PERSON: you; may be perceived as cheap gimmickry, often used in emotionally distancing experimentation with form, narrative, etc. Employ cautiously. Do not use in MFA workshop pieces.
You are not the kind of person who likes to play games. When forced, you strategize ways to lose quickly: Don't buy Monopoly property. Three-letter words in Scrabble. Slap down the cards and fold. But Louise doesn't play games where a person immediately knows how to win or lose, or even games where it's clear who has won or lost. Louise is tricky. You long to run and hide in your bed, to smile in a bemused way at the gossipy stories of tonight while immersed in the safety of tomorrow, to murmur understanding words as things sort out in the light of day, in the aftermath.
Louise likes aftermaths.
But when you turn to escape, Louise clutches your upper arm. Tightly. She's strong. "Don't go," Louise says, in that way she has. "For me? Please." Oh that masterful please. Is it so obvious to everyone that even now you long to please people, or obvious just to her? Or is she the one you long to please?
You nod, cursing your weakness. Already, you suspect what the game will be. No. You know.
Louise efficiently herds people into a circle, a whiff of exclusivity ruling out the fringes of the party. "It's the perfect game for writers like us," Louise says. She glances around, locking eyes, creating a bond, drawing the group more tightly together.
Like us. You wish you were one-tenth as masterful. There's her hand on your arm again, a lighter touch. You're reminded instantly of Michael but push the thought away. The group of a dozen or so rustles and whispers and titters nervously, weight shifting from leg to leg. You stand perfectly still. You will not let her sense your anxiety.
"Two lies and a truth," Louise announces. "We go around the circle, and everyone tells two lies and a truth, and we guess the one true thing."
There's a palpable sigh of disappointment tinged with relief: so, clothing will remain on. This game is a standby at corporate retreats, slumber parties, and awkward Thanksgiving gatherings. It's unworthy of this historic writers' conference. Nor is it worthy of Louise. But there's more here than meets the eye. For example, you've played it as two truths and a lie; trust Louise, the liar, to twist the game to her benefit.
Louise smiles, almost as if she knows what you're thinking. "People have probably played this before, so just to make it interesting, fifty bucks to anyone who beats me. Not that anyone can beat me . . . I've never lost this in my whole life."
Laughs, grumblings, smack talk; Joy rolls her eyes and shakes her head, rallying her new-found acolytes of non-fiction writers. You have no acolytes. You're still in a bubble. This game should be a piece of cake, but it won't be. You could find a strategy for losing, but you won't. You want Louise's fifty bucks. You want to beat Louise. I've never lost this in my whole life. A strange thing to brag about, an annoying thing to brag about.
There's the conference director, slouching across the circle from you. You expect him to smile or stage whisper or lift an eyebrow, but, like you, he remains impossibly still and impassive, as if the two of you are locked in a staring contest. You want to look away but don't because you want to win this, and do, when he drops his eyes and shifts. First you think, Michael will laugh when I tell him, and then you think, Michael is dead, Michael is dead, and those three words loop—Michael is dead—even as Louise speaks in an organizational voice, even as a doe-eyed young poet launches into a story about her father's foot getting chopped off in a combine on the Fourth of July, which you recognize as a lie. The Fourth of July sounds desperate, an obvious detail, though many think that story is the one truth, afraid to challenge a maimed father. That's a trick to winning, knowing that no one will challenge a story that's tragic. You think these things and chortle with the group even as words spin their web: Michael is dead, Michael is dead . . .
"Next!" Louise says, fanning herself with a fifty-dollar bill she's slid out of her bra. It's the man who loathes his brother-in-law, and like the doe-eyed poet, he plays too broadly, going for the laugh: His grandfather ran a still in Virginia is the truth, and the lies are that he has an identical twin brother named Elvis Rothstein, and that he trained his black Lab to give blowjobs, which makes everyone groan in disgust. You're glad he's not in your workshop.
More stories—as a child, seeing Picasso sip coffee in a café in France (true); choking a pet snake by feeding it a possum (lie); playing Santa Claus in a mall (true); French-kissing George Clooney (true)—and they blur into a cry for attention; whose true stories are the wildest, the craziest—playing with an uncle's pet tiger cub; butchering a hog; traveling with Doctors Without Borders; a mother and father who were babies in the same delivery room born on the same day who met twenty years later; eating dog meat kebabs in China. You've nailed each for what it is, even with your floaty mind. No one cares about the art of the lie at this point. They insist on impressing with the truth. See me! Look at me! Look at who I am! Look at who I want you to think I am! Louise has folded that fifty-dollar bill into a narrow strip wound tightly around her ring finger. She's nailing them too.
Not surprisingly, the conference director is good at this game: almost everyone believes his first lie because it is odd and simple, that he eats uncooked spaghetti noodles when he sleepwalks. He speaks persuasively about their crunch. His second lie starts out, "I grew up on a butterfly ranch," and you understand immediately that he simply relishes the idea of a butterfly ranch, but he's convincing, explaining that the butterflies were raised for wedding ceremonies, featured in bridal magazines, and so several people are fooled into thinking that's the truth. Only you and Louise and the doe-eyed poet recognize his single-sentence truth: "I'm deathly afraid of spiders." The group laughs, and he's pissed. That's the problem with revealing true truths. They make people uncomfortable. The truth should be grand and exotic, but mostly it isn't. Mostly it's uncomfortable.
Your turn. Because you're standing next to Louise, you go second to last. "Watch out," Louise says, amping up the room, "she's good." A flashy smile. The game is getting tiresome, so Louise talks faster. "But not as good as me," and she unscrolls the folded-up fifty. "All yours if you top the master."
"Number one," you say, as if Louise has not spoken. You notch your voice lower, forcing everyone to lean in close. You pull in a long breath, holding it before letting it slip away quietly. You speak: "When my husband died, exactly at the time of the car accident his voice exploded through my head, telling me how much he loved me, even though I was asleep and he was alone on a highway ten miles away."
Stiff-edged silence, as you expected. Invoking the dead husband means no one dares call that a lie, though it is. But people want to believe; it's a familiar myth they wish to be true: if it's not true, it should be. Connections to the dead are popular. The doe-eyed poet looks weepy or drunk or both. The conference director stares again in that fixed way. You suspect he's thinking, Here's the breakdown. Or maybe he's thinking, Who tells something that personal to a party of drunk strangers? Or maybe he spotted a super-scary spider. You continue:
"Number two," you say. "After he died, I had a recurring dream every night, just before dawn. Michael stands in front of me, staring into my eyes as if he's desperate to tell me something. But he can't speak, and I can't move to touch him, and he can't touch me, and I say nothing. We just stare at each other as if across an abyss, and then I wake up." Another familiar story of the bereaved. Another lie.
The doe-eyed poet sniffles, swipes her cheek. People watch their feet, rebalance their weight. The whole room seems perfectly silent, though it's not. But you would swear you hear your own heart beat, your blood pulsing through your veins, the cells inside your body multiplying and dying at a rapid pace, skin cells shedding and drifting away. You listen for a moment to Louise breathing beside you.
"Number three," you say. "Number three is this: When my husband died, I didn't tell anyone but I was relieved. He was an alcoholic, the secret kind, and he was depressed, the secret kind of that, too, and speaking honestly: I was tired of dealing with him. I was drained. We were seriously talking about splitting up, and I had privately met with a lawyer. We loved each other in the beginning and all through the middle. But at the end . . . I'd say we hadn't loved each other, really loved each other, for—not for a long time. He might have driven that pick-up off the side of the road on purpose. At least he wasn't drunk. For once, the asshole wasn't drunk at the wrong time."
No no no! You do not say this, of course. You do not. You will never say this despite it being the one true thing, despite thinking of yourself in the emotionally safe and gimmicky distance of the second person. Never. What you really say is: "Number three is this: When my husband died, I lost my best friend. And the world lost a remarkable, gifted poet. I'm piecing together the book manuscript he was working on, which he called The Ghost Child, and I'll look to you—this community he loved—to support my efforts to carry forth his words, his true legacy to the world. We've lost Michael, but we all know his art can—and will—live on. That's what he would want."
Oh, the relief! Happy ending! With a rainbow! And a unicorn posed pertly next to the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow! This is exactly the story that everyone wants, and considerate you, giving it to them. You've turned Michael into the person they want to remember, and so what if they didn't know him? Poof, you created a new Michael. Poof, a new you, The Brave Widow. Tentative smiles ripple the group—eyes are wiped, sniffles dried—and tension dissipates like air leaking from a balloon. Michael's death felt awkward and annoying, but now, that Michael is gone, replaced by a man with a half-finished poetry book, like most of the people in the room. And you're another plucky survivor of the Game of Life. This is what you have created, that Dr. Frankenstein thrill you recognize from when you were writing.
Louise does not say, "Which is the truth?" as she has after everyone else's turn. Instead, Louise announces, quite loudly, "Fuck you, you're a lying cheater."
There's a collective gasp, murmured protests, a tightening: of the circle, of crossed arms, of lips. The room turns rigid and too-close. Even the excluded people stare. The director says, "Okay, Louise, okay," as if speaking to a child. His eyes fix on her. "I think . . ." but his voice trails off as if he isn't sure what he thinks, what anyone could or should think.
You extend one flat, upraised palm—kind of a Jesus gesture of forgiveness, a Brave Widow moment—but what you say is, "I'll take that fifty bucks, thank you," and there's another collective gasp. You wonder who is more hated right now, you or Louise, and you don't care. You gave them the stories they wanted; does it matter why? She smirks, setting the money in your hand. The bill is slightly sticky. You don't need fifty dollars; you've been told that the check for thirty thousand dollars of life insurance finally will be wire transferred to your bank on Monday.
"No one's ever beat me," she says.
"Meet the new boss," you say. You like feeling cocky.
Louise yanks you into an uncomfortable, showy hug meant to suggest more rainbows and unicorns, and you're brash: "Go, Louise. Your turn now." A few vague murmurs are enough to encourage her, so she steps back, gathering in a deep breath: "Okay. First, I ate acorns when I was a kid. My mom and I gathered them from the neighbor's yard, and then she roasted them in the oven and ran them through the blender into powder and baked bread. Actually delicious."
"They're poisonous," whispers the man with the bad brother-in-law, Mr. Blowjob Dog. The know-it-all. Acorns are not poisonous for people, and you guess this story is true. You remember a chapter in one of Louise's novels where a little boy eats acorns because he's afraid to go to the grocery store with his mother. You immediately googled "acorns poisonous" because you wanted to catch Louise being wrong.
Louise says, "Next, is that my cat was on David Letterman's 'Stupid Pet Tricks' because I taught her how to crack open eggs." Everyone should know that's true because she links to the YouTube clip on her website.
"Finally," Louise says, "the last thing is that ages ago, back when I was at this conference the first time in 1996, I didn't have my diaphragm one night and I got pregnant by Vanessa's dead husband Michael—though he wasn't her husband then and she didn't know and he didn't know until later—and I told him I got an abortion but I didn't really. I had a little girl, and after two weeks, I hated being a mom, I couldn't deal with a baby, and so a really nice couple adopted her and a little while later, I got an 'inheritance' of twelve thousand dollars that paid for me to move to New York. That's where my story, 'Where We Are When We're Lost,' came from—not from the dream I had while dozing on the Metro in Paris on my way to Jim Morrison's grave, like I say in the interviews."
No no no! No, she doesn't really say that. But she could. This is true. Michael told you. Michael was the man who was "Michael" in the story. This is true, and Michael told you nine years after you got married, seventeen years after you got together, which adds up to four years ago when you found out. Recent, still. You had read Louise's famous story in The New Yorker. "Look," you said, "the man is named 'Michael,'" and, "Look," he said, "there's something I have to tell you." The two of you were eating tuna salad when he said this, and you gagged. You saw her finger cutting the air, that check mark. You don't eat tuna salad anymore. Louise knows you know this. You never thought the money was true and neither did Michael, but maybe it is, maybe that's how disgusting Louise might be.
No no no!
She really does say this. She really does say this, and everyone laughs in a horrified way because she says it in a fast, pleading voice like a little kid repeating a fabulously dirty joke she doesn't get. Everyone laughs because they have all read her famous story, they have read the interviews about the famous story: the story about the story. Now there is this story on top of those stories. This new story cannot also be true.
But when they look at you not laughing, they fall silent, confused and nervous, like sheep being herded toward a cliff by a malevolent border collie. There are too many stories, suddenly. Suddenly no one knows what story to believe. The director opens his mouth as if he wants to say something but once again doesn't know what to say, or maybe he wants to puke. But you can't worry about him.
You scrunch up the fifty dollar bill into a tiny wad and hold on tightly. There are several things you could do right now. Laugh. You could choose to laugh.
"Which is the truth?" Louise demands of the group.
You choose to throw that wadded up bill in Louise's face and then spin and push your way through the party, hurrying into the dark night outside as people call your name. You hear pity, and you run from it. You hear the truth.
INTERIOR MONOLOGUE: fully inhabiting one mind and its thought processes; often erroneously viewed as interchangeable with "stream of consciousness"; use sparingly, if at all.
Don't look at the clock, don't, don't. Christ. 4:12. Goddamn doctor, one more refill would've been okay. Over-the-counter crap. The Ghost Child. Melodramatic title. Like her titles are anything, "Where We Are When We're Lost." Pillow-smell, like a wet Band-Aid. "A fly buzzed"—a moth at night. If Emily wrote the poem at night, would've been "a moth fluttered." Fluttered—buzzed—buzzed—fluttered. Buzzed, yes. Oh, Emily. If he hadn't found her. If we had our own baby. If. Told him not to look. Michael is dead, Michael is dead. The Ghost Child, and the real ghost child, Emily, named for her grandmother, not the poet. Not everyone thinks about poets. He found her. Michael found his baby, found Emily. "Where We Are When We're Lost." Where we fucking are is standing in front of a tiny fucking gravestone in Portland. That shortcut growing up, cutting through the cemetery to walk to Mercer pool summers in Iowa, baby graves along the fence. Don't walk on those, tiptoe over. Tiny. Lonely. Sad. We shut up, squabbles silenced. Picking dandelions to arrange on the sad baby graves. What those parents thought, a dozen dried-up dandelions on their kid's grave. Sure, they visit years later, forever, now, still. Their child. Emily. A name Michael would pick if he were asked, if he had known. "Emily." Father to a dead child. No wonder he. Supposed to be a teenager, cheerleader, mean girl, nerd, slut, drama queen, jock, smarty-pants—his eyes, that gap-toothed smile. Who believes in heaven? If he listened to me . . . don't look, I said, I said, don't look don't don't, no . . . no. If he didn't want to make it right. If he hadn't told me. If Louise. If. Damn it, who thinks a kid is dead? (And who is relieved when she is, relieved?) Eight years old, and a tiny gravestone. Michael is dead. I didn't wish for that. (That, or for her to be—) Just—maybe, just— (Yes, you did.) Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, us fucking sinners like me, now and at the hour of our death, amen. Shit. (Sinners and suicides go to hell and cannot be buried in consecrated ground.) The clock—don't look. There's a clock in every book someone said. Okay, here's my clock. Here's the ticking. "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME." Eliot. [sic] In your own fucking head you think, "[sic]" because you know the line exactly. Goddamnit. Always the writing, always words. Just once to escape! (Fuck.) Agent all, keep notes, she'll shop the memoir. The Ghost Wife. Didion was a best-seller, Joyce Carol Oates excerpted in The New Yorker—no. No. No. Shouldn't. Never wish for it. (But you did.) Never wish for anything. (You did.) Except sleep. It's okay to wish for sleep. (I'm a fucking sinner. Fuck.) (Everything could have been different.) If.
FIRST PERSON: I; primarily used in conjunction with a unique voice or the "unreliable narrator"; beginning writers should avoid this POV as its simplicity is deceptive.
That next morning I hunched in a corner of the dining hall, my hand curled around a cup of bad coffee, and people got the idea and left me alone. Louise didn't show for breakfast, not when I was there anyway, which was fine by me. With nothing scheduled until the welcome reception before dinner—the students would be arriving throughout the day—I wandered outside to an Adirondack chair in a sunny field overlooking the pond. With a book in one hand, my computer in the other, I cultivated an aura of "writer at work," ready to stave off anyone who approached. What a joke; I hated every word I wrote the past four years, even the published ones. Delete, delete. My computer was mostly a bookmark of cute cats. But for a good long while, I sat undisturbed, airport shuttle vans and cars coming and going amidst a pleasant blur of distant commotion: crunching gravel, the bang of the main hall's screen door, grunts of luggage shepherded about, jokes and greetings, hugs and handshakes, laughter. It was the sort of scene where it was easy to imagine Michael emerging. "Hey you," he would say, not buying my "writer at work" pose, knowing I was anxious for the right company. "Hey you," I'd say back, but then what? We were barely speaking in the end, fuck you about as likely as hey you.
The field—tinged golden already in August—was infused by sunlight. Grasses bent and whispered in an invisible breeze. I resolved not to drink tonight, or not to drink more than one drink. Dragonflies flitted and darted, their wings latching glints of light. I tried to think only of the things in front of me. Ripples on the pond. A group of attractive young men on the far side, bare-chested, smoking and lazing on a scrap of smooth shoreline. Something unmoving on the close bank that could be a turtle or a stump.
Sometime after lunch (I didn't go; I barely ate anymore—only when people were watching), the director joined me, lugging over the chair that I had dragged ten yards away from mine. He wore shorts with too many pockets and a light blue windbreaker that had a damp-looking stain down the front. He sat down and slapped both his thighs. His legs seemed extraordinarily hairy. He pulled a slim paperback out of one of his many pockets and opened it widely, cracking the spine a bit.
He wasn't actually reading—but then neither was I. We sat for a minute or two, staring blankly at our books, and finally he said, "I hope being here isn't too hard for you."
He said, "You shouldn't mind Louise."
"I don't," I said.
"You know," he said, "I was in love with her."
"We're not playing the game anymore," I said, trying to laugh and failing utterly. "But I suppose that sounds like the truth." It wasn't exactly a secret that Louise always had a string of men, so this wasn't a surprise.
"I guess you remember that was about a year after my second wife died."
Suicide, I remembered. So sad. There was a line in my book that I kept staring at for no reason: "Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now." The Things They Carried. Tim O'Brien. The words felt like a different language, but one I understood slightly, like something once studied in high school. Michael meant to read this book because I told him he would like it. Now I was rereading it as if to compensate.
"Michael was a good man."
"He was," I said.
"Though it's never that simple, is it?" he said. "'A good man.' Whatever that means."
"What you call someone when he's dead."
He grunted, maybe in agreement, maybe not. "That's what I'm hoping. But I don't know."
"Of course you are," I said—a reflex, the expected reassurance, the EZ suck-up to the man who hired me to teach at the conference. "Here, I'll say it when you're alive: you're a damn good man." Once I heard myself, I was ashamed; my voice sounded artificial, like too-sweet flavor syrup.
His eyes were fixed steadily on the open page of his book. Poetry. I saw short lines and white space. I wondered if the words on a page of poetry felt lonelier than the words in a novel. Or maybe they felt more precious. I could think about that all day, hours of only that in my mind so as not to think about anything else.
Finally, he said, "You met here, didn't you?"
I nodded again. I felt sweaty and nervous and I suddenly had to pee. There was pressure to decipher a hidden meaning in his words, a message he intended that I couldn't hear. I crossed my legs, uncrossed them. Nothing was comfortable.
"And we all played Louise's game," he said. "That night in 1996. Remember? Michael spooked everyone by describing his uncle's exorcism. Remember that? We all knew he was bullshitting, but what a great story. The eyes rolling like pitted olives in a drunk's martini. Remember?"
"Did we?" I said. "Did he say that? Sounds like him."
"And you told us—" He paused, flipped his book for a quick glance at the back cover, then continued: "You told us your mother committed suicide when you were six. You woke up and she was in your bed."
"You've got quite the memory."
"A lie, you said."
"Of course it was, all of it." I pressed one finger to the bridge of my nose, wondering if I should have put on sunscreen—not that I had any.
"But I think you were telling the truth," the director said. "I'm pretty sure you were."
I laughed. I swear there was an echo. "Then you were the only one," I said.
"And Michael," he said.
"Michael," I repeated.
"He also thought it was true. That's what I remember."
I studied his face, pretending I wasn't. A gleam cut through his eyes that might have been only a tricky bit of light. "Why would you say that?" I tried laughing again. "Why would you say that now?"
"The hardest thing when they're gone," he started. A long pause. I wondered if he would finish. Just when I was about to ask him, he continued: "The hardest thing when they're gone is that they never actually leave. I loved her," he said. "I really loved her," and he stood up, shoved his book in his pocket and wandered away.
As I listened to his footsteps crush the grass, I realized that I didn't know if the her was Louise or the wife who had committed suicide or both or even someone else.
My mood was disjointed after that, his words running through my head like a toy train circling a single track. Yet I continued to sit, as if waiting for something more, until the light started to settle and it was time to head back and get ready for the cocktail party.
When I returned to my room to change into whichever baggy black dress I had dropped into my suitcase at five in the morning (only yesterday!), there was a folded note thumb tacked to my door that I yanked free. I didn't have to read it to know who it was from, so I crumpled it—like the fifty dollar bill—and, setting down my computer and book, I turned the knob, but there was a slight cough, and then there was Louise, rounding a corner in the hallway. "Going to aim that at me?" she asked, keeping her voice light.
"I like your skirt," I said quickly. I didn't—a zebra print; too short, too tight, and too expensive, for here, for her—but it was the sort of thing one might wear wanting attention, so I played along. Plus, she had scared the shit out of me, showing up abruptly. I wondered if she'd staked herself out, waiting for me.
"This old thing?" she said. Ironically, sardonically, sarcastically. I was never one for adverbs tagging dialogue—red penning them in my students' work—but her voice had an edge that wasn't easy to define. When unable to define things, I threw words at the problem. Mockingly, acerbically, derisively. Scornfully, disdainfully, contemptuously. That's about it without clicking on the thesaurus function.
"Yes," I said. "That old thing."
She seemed startled, then rallied and said, "Did you read it?" She pointed at the note. Her fingernails were painted blood-red, a different color than they'd been yesterday, and looked professionally done. Had she spent the day getting a manicure?
I smoothed the note and read out loud: "I loved him too—many of us did, you know. Yours is the greatest loss, but we've all lost something special. xo Lou-Lou," which is what we had called her in 1996, or maybe it was what she had called herself. I couldn't remember, only that seeing it there on paper made my stomach lurch, and I balled up the note again.
Two women emerged from a room at the end of the hall—scarves, shawls, jangling bracelets, striped tights—and they walked past us, jingling and clicking—one wore spurs on her cowboy boots, and the other was in tap shoes. Everyone was an overly-studied individual here. Look at who I want you to think I am! It was exhausting. I was exhausted.
Once they were out of earshot, Louise shook back her big wad of hair. "You know, I didn't know what happened to that baby. I never wanted to know." She sounded angry. "Giving her up was the hardest thing I ever did, and the worst thing. The worst thing I've done in my life."
That famous story, "Where We Are When We're Lost," was about a woman giving up a baby ("Michael's" baby) for adoption and secretly taking money. A more realistic style than Louise was known for, it filled twenty-five New Yorker pages. There were letters to the editor about it, which there never were about the stories, and it made the list for the forthcoming Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Students of the future would write papers and wrestle with MLA citations for Louise's story. Everyone read it. I read it. Michael read it. "Michael." When Michael told me about Louise, he said, "I didn't know there was a real baby. I would have done something. I would have done right. Do you think maybe it's not too late?" I suppose that's being "a good man." I was the one who told him—well, to stay out of it. That weren't our lives fine just the way they were, already complicated enough? That diving into all that would open us to the darkest kind of pain.
"I told him not to involve you," I said. "To stay out of the whole thing, actually. And I'm sure her parents didn't think that your giving her up was 'the worst thing in your life.' I'm sure her parents loved her." I had almost accidentally said, Loved her to death.
My door was half open, and I could see inside to my unmade bed, the rumpled sheets, the pillow that smelled so much like a wet Band-Aid that I squirted expensive French perfume on it when I couldn't sleep. The room looked shadowy and quiet.
"Anyway," I said. "Last night. That was wrong. Maybe that was the worst thing you ever did."
"They didn't believe a word of it," she said. "They knew the cat thing was true, which it was. So they just think I'm a bitch."
"You shouldn't have said it, not even to be a bitch," I said.
"It's a game," she said. "Everyone was lying all over the place. Like you."
"Why do you play it?"
She shrugged. "What people lie about is revealing." She looked me straight in the eye and paused. Like you. I steeled myself. But she said, "The father wasn't Michael. It was—" Here she named the director of the conference. That year we were all there, that year we met, was his first as the director of the famous writers' conference. "He doesn't know." She sighed. "I swear to you. I swear."
It was as if my whole body abruptly gaped, every soft spot exposed: No one would lie about such a thing. Only a liar. "I don't believe you," I said softly.
"I don't believe me either most of the time." She looked unhappy. She looked as though she might be thinking about crying, which was different than actually crying, of course.
I couldn't believe her. Believing her would change everything. But really, believing her would change nothing:
Michael? Still dead.
Emily? Still dead.
If what she said now was true, what would be different? Would it be the director's heart crushed to learn that his unknown daughter was buried in a tiny grave on a hillside in Portland? Would it be the director plummeting through a dark and dangerous sorrow, wallowing in emptiness, drinking, shopping gun shows? Would he stop writing, putting down two lines in a year? Would his wife wish him dead? Would he die? Would the director die because of Louise's careless words? This ghost child would never be his; the ghost child stayed all mine, and the guilt. Louise's words didn't matter one iota. I hoped all of that was packed into the furious stare I gave Louise, but of course it wasn't. It couldn't possibly be.
I could choose not to believe Louise, but I would wonder. I would doubt.
Drifting through the open window at the end of the hallway: excited voices, footsteps on gravel, a whoop. Writers and wannabe writers gathering for the party, for gossip, name-dropping, sucking up, for the stories and the booze and the boozy truth.
"What you did is . . . a sin," I said. Not the right word, but there was no right word.
"Then I guess this is confession," she said.
"I'll never forgive you," I said. "Or myself."
"Write about it."
"I said stop saying that. We're talking about a real, dead person," I said, "someone who was alive but now isn't. Not some character in one of your idiotic New Yorker stories." Childishly, I threw the note at her but missed, and it sailed beyond her shoulder, hitting the wall before dropping to the floor. She bent and picked it up, slipped it into the waistband of her tiny skirt, an action that both irritated me and made me sad.
After a moment, I said, "I'm not like you." Now I was about to cry. I took in a long breath. I wasn't like her. I didn't want to write about this. I didn't know how I could tell this story or why I would.
She was calm. "Writers don't choose their material. It comes to them."
Something our workshop teacher had drilled into us back in 1996. Something I parroted to my own students, in interviews about writing, in conversation, even at the party last night. As one of my writing teachers once said, writers don't choose their material. It comes to them . . .
Louise said, "Bet you've written up some notes."
I shook my head no, and she smirked at my transparent lie. She said, "I know what happened is for real, which is horrible and I'm so sorry. But also, it's a story. It simply is. What happens—no matter how painful—it's material for people like us. You know that. You chose it when you became a writer."
I shook my head again, harder, like an obstinate child.
"Suit yourself. But if you're not careful, I'll tell the story," Louise said. She spoke lightly, but a chill zipped my spine. She would.
Louise turned, then turned back, studying me as if memorizing my face in a peculiar way. Then she said, "Michael knew. When he contacted me about wanting to find her, I told him he wasn't the father. I told him who was. I think I would know when I've got a diaphragm in and when I don't. So Michael knew what the truth was. He just refused to believe it. He wanted that girl, because—" She suddenly looked up at the ceiling. Her neck was luminously pale and didn't seem to belong to the rest of her body.
"Finish," I demanded. "Because what?"
"Because," she said. "I don't need to say it."
"Because I didn't want one." I spoke clearly but couldn't finish. "Because . . ."
She looked me full on with shimmering eyes. "Oh, Vanessa," she whispered. "No, no. Not that, not about that. I'm sorry."
"Don't you pity me," I said. "Or hug me. I don't even like you. I never did." I poked one foot at my computer case, tipping it over. I thought of those two hundred pages I'd deleted, how very easy it had been. All those books of mine about post-apocalyptic women, each one sneakily and only about my mother, and however many words I dumped on the page she didn't come back to explain herself.
Louise tugged at the hem of her zebra skirt. "I know," she said. "We're too much the same. Like God made us and threw us together, with Her crazy sense of humor."
There was a silence between us that lasted forever.
I lifted my computer case, jostling the strap up onto my shoulder, settled the book against the crook of my arm. Looking like that, I could have been any bright-eyed MFA student.
"The truth is overrated," I said, suddenly believing the statement utterly.
She said, "At least maybe try to get paid more than fifty bucks for it."
Retreat. I walked through the door to my room and pushed it shut behind me. I knew she was expecting me to slam it, so I closed it quietly and gently. The unexpected action is preferable, the surprising yet inevitable ending. Something else that teacher taught us in 1996.
DOCUMENT: Not a classic point-of-view, but a useful technique on occasion; examples include letters, a diary, or directly addressing the reader in speech. A means of playing with form or bending conventional rules of narrative.
Excerpt of transcript:
MacBride Writers' Conference schedule, Wednesday
9:00 AM – 10:30 AM
Creative nonfiction craft lecture: "The Perfect Imperfection of Memory"
Joy Ruby-Vargha, author of The Food Diaries
The Goodwin Theatre
Good morning. What an honor for me to open the conference with the very first craft talk. Wow! This is totally that thing you dream about when you're hunched on a ratty couch in your studio apartment, eating ramen noodles for the sixth day in a row, getting email rejections from literary journals you've never heard of, haha.
I chose as my topic the imperfection of memory, and before we dive into the examples of the text—which I hope you all read!—I want to talk for a minute about writing in general, sort of to set the tone for the rest of my lecture. I like to describe myself as a "writer of stories," which means that even though I write memoir—real stories from my real life—I recognize that what I write is shaped and shifted by my mind. It's not the absolute truth. The absolute truth doesn't exist. We have only our own individual truths, and even though we might swear in a court of law on a bible that we're telling the absolute truth, we're limited to telling only the truth we know.
One reason we can't get to that absolute truth is because the act of telling the story changes the story. Once I write the words on the page, that's when the truth changes from "what happened" to "what happened in the story." "The story" exists separately, alongside the actual event. And "the story" is ultimately more powerful than the event itself. Yes.
Crazy, right? But human brains are hard-wired for stories and narrative. On the handout, you'll see links to recent studies in neuroscience about that, and a book I totally recommend, The Storytelling Animal. Very exciting stuff.
So while we want to remain true to our best memory of the events, once you write down that you were wearing a red dress, that red dress imprints on the mind, so much so that if you come across a photo and discover you were actually wearing a blue skirt and white blouse, you'll resist. The story puts you in a red dress. The story is what you believe, not the photo. And the story—the act of telling—has transformed your blue skirt into a red dress.
Haha—I probably should have worn a red dress today! But I bet that if you were to think of this talk years from now—not that you have to, haha—it just may be that you'll remember me in a red dress. And if you do, you'll be proving my point exactly: story creates truth. Truth is powerless before the story.
And who tells stories? We do. Writers. That's what we do. Create the truth, even when we're making shit up. I love my job, I do!
Picasso said, "Art is the lie that tells the truth." It's where we create our lives— first by living them, and secondly by telling others what happened, writers do, yes, but even people making dinner conversation by talking about what happened today at their boring jobs. They're shaping their lives via story; they're turning their lives into art. Story can make the unbearable bearable; it can deliver the message that dares not be spoken directly. That's what fairy tales were before Disney got hold of them, you know, stories to explain those dark undercurrents roiling the subconscious: I wish Mommy was dead, I want to fuck Daddy. God, could I go on about the role of fairy tales. But back to my main point:
Writing something down, speaking, telling the story—that subversive act of trying to capture time—that alters what has happened. You all heard of those famous studies about how observing something influences the observed object, right? It's on the handout. So I'm saying that whatever truth there was to our story is lost once we put the words on paper.
But I stand here as a memoirist, as a goddess of "this really happened," to say, so what? We've lost the truth, but we've gained the story. And, seriously, for an artist, that's barely a trade-off. The story is what there is, and the story is what remains. The story becomes the truth, and the story is the only thing that has half a chance of outlasting us. The story matters. The story. You and I—each of us in this room—like it or not, we're the walking dead the minute we're born, marching lockstep toward our own ends. But the word. Art. The story. That shit outlasts us all.
Don't laugh, don't be all "ironic" and "I live in Brooklyn."
Orpheus returned from the underworld and my God, he had a hell of a tale to tell—we're still telling it, aren't we? And so do you have a hell of a tale to tell. So do all of us. That's why we're writers. To shape our lives into stories. To take what happened and make it matter. To find the words to create the myth, yes, and to find the words to create the truth. All we have to do, as they say, is open up a vein.
OBJECTIVE: an absence of point of view, perfect neutrality as if a camera is watching and recording the events as they unfold; see Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants."
The woman in a wide-brimmed hat and oversized sunglasses sits alone, in an Adirondack chair in a field of long meadow grass. The sun is on the verge of setting and the clouds in the sky are tinged pink and purple. A small pond ripples steadily, evenly. The woman picks up her black pen and opens a small, leather-bound notebook. She chews on the pen cap with her left molars. Then she places the tip of the pen on the first line of the first page of the empty notebook. She begins to write, seldom lifting her pen off the paper. The page fills with words.
Golden light spills carelessly, illuminating some of the grasses into vibrant green, leaving others locked in shadow. Wind picks up, rustling and bending the grass tips, and she writes faster, the pen sinking more deeply into the paper, the ballpoint scratching slightly.
She flips over the page and does not write on the back, but continues at the top of a fresh, white piece of paper. She keeps writing, she keeps writing.
When the sun is low and her arms prickle with goose bumps, she turns back the pages she's written until she gets to the first page and at the top she prints "The Ghost Child" in strong, firm letters and underlines it once, twice.
She does not write down her name, and there is no one here to speak it, so in the objective point of view, with the camera's eye, it is not possible to know who this woman is. It is only a woman, writing a story.
Okay, so I wanted to leave time for your questions, but we're running over. Probably the main thing to remember about point of view—if you remember one thing from this lecture—is that the story belongs to the voice telling it. That's where the control is. If you're the one telling the story, the story is yours. Control is yours. Like having the keys to the car. So it's simple: always be the one telling the story.
Because you all know what happens next: Along come the readers, with their interpretations and symbols and opinions and assumptions and questions needing answers. They really fuck it up for us.