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I was talking with a friend about a problem in my book that concerns an unreliable narrator. It turns out that casting a useful unreliable narrator is tricky business, even if that character is a small part of the book. At each step along the way the writer need to know why she's saying what she's saying, and what the other characters believe and don't believe, what the reader believes and doesn't believe. Did the narrator get the facts wrong from the get-go, did she process them wrong because of a narcissistic bend in her machine or other personality issue, or is she fully aware she's manipulating? Does the unreliable narrator believe her own bullshit?
Tricky business. And it's a headtrip, because now I'm looking at real narratives -- Facebook statuses and blog posts, for example -- with this new brain photoediting filter on, and whoa. It's a tilt-a-wheel out there!
It's like you are sitting in Starbucks and across the office building lobby you see your friend exit an elevator that contained three business guys and a red-headed dude carrying a small snake in a plastic terrarium. She greets you, exclaiming "Wow, I am so weirded out! I was alone in the elevator with a clown wearing a massive boa constrictor around his neck, and he actually tried to hit on me. This building is so creepy!"
The other day I was remembering this guy Peter I worked with years ago. We worked for a small outdoor sports magazine, and he was a key ad sales guy. He was a manic, hopped-up compulsive liar, and it made him a kick ass salesman. His boss John used to love to get him going, for sport, at a lunch table or just randomly during the day. He would ask him follow questions to goad on the impossible stories of women, outdoor adventures or heroic daily events staring Peter the Great, but the questions always felt sincere, not like truth traps. I guess John was a great liar, too. Salesmen. It was a beautiful dance that was my favorite part of any given day, even though as editorial we would try to act all church-and-state above it. Once at an office awards (motivation!) ceremony John gave Peter a certificate of a tree with the slogan "Peter would rather climb up a tall tree to tell a lie than stand on the ground to tell the truth." The room grew silent. I cringed. Peter looked so proud though, beamed while receiving it and said, "No, really, you deserve this, John!" He really sold it, too. Like I said, he was a great salesman.
We started telling stories to teach each other about the hunt, right? To transfer knowledge about which berries are toxic. But sometimes there will be this lady at the fire ring going on and on about these brand new berries she found and bravely tested all on her own, and you and the other berry pickers, fresh from the same feast, look at each other wondering whether to laugh at the absurdity, admire her mythmaking or to take it as a sign that those berries you all ate weren't so harmless after all.
1. The ones where you are sure you are wasting your money.
I'm not really sure what to talk about today. Things are really pretty good.
So do you want to talk about that?
2. On THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS
Navigate your psyche
Climb on THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS
Raft rivers of emotions
Give your id this magic potion
It's a wacky, wild ride!
On THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS
Strap your cortex right to the chair
Who's afraid of Virginia Sair?
On THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS
3. The one where you think you are giving the therapist context to a story but it ends up being you narrating a long rant about this other person and how you wish she would get a ticket from the Therapy Police to work on her long list of diagnosable patterns (!) and then it dawns on you that you are spending good money on her problems and now she REALLY owes you and, oh... this is turning into a session about boundaries, isn't it? It's really about me after all? Again? Well, dang!
4. Oh, hey there, Me. How YOU doin'? Say hi to your mother for me.
5. The Genogram Visit. Which turns me into the opposite of Bob Ross directing a befuddled witness sketch artist. Okay, you're going to need to add some more zigzag lines over here. Okay, now add more red. More red. More hostile! More jaggedy! Blue too! Okay, now some squares. Unhappy zigzags! What's the symbol for "memory like a katana plus random and inappropriate holiday dinner discussions?" More of that!
6. Relationship Counseling
7. The ones that are like being really hurt by your lawnmower or a car wreck, but you aren't hurt as bad as you would think because your body is actually pretty strong and it turns out you know when to duck and weave, but still it's painful and needs to be checked so you end up in the ER kinda shaky and shocky. A kind nurse gives you something to take and silently offers you in a heated blanket that is so amazing you wonder why you don't have a blanket heater in your house instead of a coffee table or that ridiculous hutch that really needs to go. Then you realize you do have a blanket heater, sort of. You have a clothes dryer, it could work, you could heat blankets anytime you want, and it's a revelation! She tells you to just hold tight to your friend's hand for a few minutes until everything evens out. And miraculously, it does.
I stopped by my friend's house to hang out for a little bit. Neither of us really had much time today, but we decided we'd squeeze in a glass of wine and a short visit. She has a great porch overlooking a wild expanse of backwoods.
She told me recent rains blew out a small sinkhole in her backyard. That happens down here. The ocean's sandy world underneath the borrowed dirt of Florida collapses and bam, you've got a massive messy pit instead of land. She's been shoulder-deep into some life struggles, so she talked about the sinkhole as a cosmic message, a symbol of all that we don't know and all that can give way beneath us.
Deep, man, I say.
So deep, she says.
She tells me to tell her a fairytale so I tell her I've created a new television show concept. Half hour, fairly low budget, just a few cameras and a simple stage. A band. Regulars plus a few guest stars.
The entire show is exactly like the last few minutes of Saturday Night Live. You have the vague sense that a group of people did something hard but fun together for a week, and now it's over, and you get to see them hug and sway. Celebrate. Awkwardly play out the politics of avoidance and fake-pat-hugs. Notice who shifts their bodies to subtly avoid someone. Watch what their mouths do when they are between hugs, how the left corner of their lips draw in a bit when they are lost standing there waiting for a turn with Justin Timberlake. With that drummer from that band. Zing in with the eye contact that is so knowing and real it might be between a grandmother and her favorite or between two feral dogs.
The band plays for a new group. And repeat. She says we can call the show Coda. Or maybe just Closing Segment. I don't know; I'll let the networks handle all of those details.
I think I'm fascinated with goodbyes because I suck at them. I stay until the movie credits finish. I stay until the catering staff is desperate to collect their glassware. I stay way past a sensible end to a job or affair. I tell her when I was a child I used to cry when I had to leave my grandparents' house or the park or A&W. It's an in-the-moment thing, I think. I like to know the end of the story, whether the story is banal or baroque, mine or not mine. Let's see this through, I think, let's see where this goes.
She says, no, I think you usually leave way too early. You love goodbyes. That's why you'd make that show.
Both of us might be right. I reminded her she absolutely had to get that thing checked, the thing she thought two weeks ago might be a lump. She said it was gone, that she must have been mistaken. I told her I'd take her in myself if she didn't get a medical appointment this week. Then that was all of the time we had. We hugged goodbye. I didn't want to leave, but I did.