The Secrets in the Book

It turns out there are also drawings which can make people dislike you. Drawings that make people think you are dirty or stupid or lame. One by one most kids I knew quit drawing and never drew again. It left behind too much evidence.

Lynda Barry, What It Is

We’re pretty good learners. We learn the things that will make the people around us happy, and we learn to do those things more reliably and more often. We learn how to read new people more quickly, so that we don’t get ourselves in trouble. We learn how to make them happy almost as soon as we know them. (Or at least we learn how to not make them unhappy, which feels the same most of the time.)

We spend a lot of time in schools, thirteen years or seventeen years or twenty-five years or whole careers, and we learn to do the things that the other people in that system appreciate. Just as importantly, we learn to not do some other things.

Now that I don’t live in that world any more, I’ve spent the last six years writing. Writing every day. Of course, I wrote every day before, too. I wrote emails and analytical studies, I wrote accreditation reports and peer-reviewed journal articles and funding proposals. I wrote nearly as much then as I do now, just different stuff, stuff designed to make those people happy. Or at least to not make them unhappy, which felt the same most of the time.

Without that culture’s happiness on my mind so much, I’m able to write a greater variety of things. That leaves me responsible for choosing what to write. I don’t have to follow their templates, the nine chapters of the accreditation report or the problem statement-lit review-methods-findings-implications sequence of the journal article. So every word, every character, every line of dialogue and every decision… all up to me.

Writers do nothing but leave evidence behind us. Evidence of the things that interest us enough to spend months investigating.

And we still want to make people happy, but sometimes we write things that can make them unhappy. It turns out that there are stories you can write that will make people dislike you, too. They can be stories we’re enormously proud of on their own terms, stories that speak to us profoundly, but they can make other people think that we’re dirty or stupid or lame.

We hide those. We learn which stories are safe to share, and which must be concealed. We learn which levers to press to deliver the pellets of happiness to our readers, and which levers must never be pressed lest we dispense the shock. We experimenters are also the subjects of our own experiments, learning to modulate our work to gain approval, or to avoid disapproval.

What secrets do your stories hold? Which secrets do you dare to reveal?

As I work in the coming months to make my stories visible, I’ll confront that question a dozen times a day: Which stories? All of those characters and families are equally deserving of visitors, of welcoming readers to their world. I’m proud to know them all. Would readers recoil from some of them? Would my friends think less of me?

Part of the problem comes because I write realist stories set in recognizable places. I’m not very interested in what one of my characters called “an adventure trilogy about billionaire vampire spies who ride dragons into battle with medieval sorcerer knights.” I’m more interested in the guy who runs the pool room in a small Michigan city, or the woman who runs the laundromat in southern Missouri, or the radio DJ who finally decides that he’s heard pop music for far too long, or the man who has to decide how to make himself vulnerable in a new relationship. And the recognizable similarities between the World 1 of the stories and the World 2 of our daily lives causes people to be confused, causes them to think that the writer must actually be writing descriptively about himself or about his friends. One of my stories begins with this disclaimer:

  1. This is a work of fiction. No real persons are represented here, except for the musicians and artists and brands that these imagined characters might appreciate. All names of persons, employers and job titles, restaurants visited and so on, have been invented. The cities of Saigon and Sunnyvale probably exist, along with Stanford University, but none of the people or things described therein.
  2. This is a work of fiction. It exists in a world somewhat like our own, but really, not quite. Do not take it fully as a literal guide to your own behavior. Inspiration, perhaps.
  3. This is a work of fiction. Anne Rice writes about vampires, but nobody ever thinks to ask her whether she is one.

But disclaimers aside, I think that a lot of people will make the correspondence between what my characters do, and want, and what therefore I must do, or want. I think my commitment to realism invites that confusion.

I live in a small place, and a lot of people know me. Gossip and speculation are normal modes of communication here, as they are in many places. And if some of my neighbors read some of my stories, they’d invent their own, about me and about my own family, about the kind of people we must be to have ideas like that come into my head. So I have to weigh that, have to carry those secrets. Maybe to the grave. Maybe beyond.

Truth and freedom are principles. Kindness is sometimes a choice to leave those principles behind in favor of the needs and sensibilities of others. And kindness has a cost, or else it wouldn’t really be kindness at all.