Writers: The World’s Sorriest Sociopaths
Picture me, if you can, in a college classroom for the first time since dropping out. Yes, I’m there voluntarily, and no, not to vandalize it: thanks to someone’s misconception that I am a successful writer, I’ve been asked to do a Q&A with an undergraduate creative writing class. How long will it take them figure out I’m an impostor?
Because I have a secret: I’ve stopped writing. I haven’t written a word in three months, and I have no idea how to start again. I’m terrified even to try.
This paralysis began in November, when I got a phone call from a friend of my parents’. I never answer my phone, so he left a message: “I read your novel,” he said. “Call me back when you get this. I want to talk to you about it.”
He’d read my novel? How had he gotten a copy, when it was very much unpublished and even my family hadn’t seen it yet? And then I remembered I’d actually sent it to him myself, a year ago. I had just finished it — all 450 pages of it! — and when you’re in that state, you should really avoid driving or operating heavy machinery or answering e-mails from family friends that say, “I hear you wrote a novel! When do I get to see it?” I’d sent him a copy on the spot.
Talking on the phone, like driving a car or waking up before noon, is one of those things I’ve arranged my whole life specifically to avoid ever having to do. But I supposed I could make an exception for this dear family friend, who had known me since I was born and had gone to the trouble to read my novel. I called him back.
“Frankie,” he said, without even a perfunctory how-are-you-how’s-the-weather-out-there, “I’m going to be blunt.”
Wait, no! I thought, alarmed. Please don’t be blunt! I never asked you to be blunt! “The draft you read—” I began.
He talked over me. “I don’t know what issues you were working through in writing this thing,” he said. “But now that you’ve written it, you’ve clearly worked through them, so do us all a favor and don’t inflict them on the rest of us. Especially not your family. How could you do this to them?”
My skin had gone all prickly and my brain felt cold. “What are you talking about?”
“Are you kidding me?” And then he went scorched-earth — recapping the events of the novel, but using the names of my family members instead of the characters’ names. “The scene with your aunt as a kid, with three fingers in her vagina? Your mom and your uncle FUCKING IN THE FUCKING PLAZA?” Before long he was shouting; I had to hold my phone away from my ear. “Your grandfather’s bisexual threesome with his sister? Well, maybe that last one really happened, who knows, I wouldn’t put it past them — but what the fuck was with that whole blacklisting subplot? YOUR GRANDFATHER DID NOT NAME NAMES!”
“I know that,” I cried. Up till that moment I’d just been listening in shock — when you put it that way, my novel sounded like a 450-page Aristocrats joke — but I had to defend the blacklisting subplot. “He wasn’t a Hollywood director, either! The character is a Hollywood director who named names in the fifties, like Elia Kazan! He’s not supposed to be—”
“And, my God,” he interrupted, “what happened between you and your aunt to make you hate her so much? You depict her as this violent, neurotic, oversexed, sadomasochistic witch!”
“Are you talking about the Judy character? Judy is based on…well, me. None of it is supposed to be my family! It’s just fiction!”
“No,” he said. “Nothing is ever just fiction. Not for you. Frankie,” he said — and now he spoke almost tenderly, as if he had to euthanize my dog — “I think you should put this away.”
Later, whenever I told this story to friends, they would immediately ask: “Did you cry?” But I wasn’t even close to tears. It was more like the real me had floated somewhere outside my body so I wouldn’t have to be present for this phone call, leaving my empty body to deal with the problem on its own. From wherever it was floating, the real me heard my body reply in a small, strangled voice.
“Okay,” it said. “I will.”
But he wouldn’t stop. “I mean, your family’s always been so supportive of you, and then you have to go and stab them in the back like this? They’re going to be crushed!”
“You’re right,” I said. “I’ll put it in a drawer. I’ll set it on fire. I’ll call up the agents who have it and tell them to shred it. Actually” — I was desperate — “I was never even planning to publish it anyway! It was a writing exercise! It was always just a writing exercise!”
“—or, if you must publish it, wait till everyone in your family is dead. Or wait till you’re dead. Do it posthumously.”
“Yes, thank you,” I kept saying, “you’re absolutely right,” until I had all but deleted the novel from my hard drive in my zeal to prove to him that I was really going to abandon it.
The call did eventually end. “Don’t worry,” he said kindly, “I’ll keep this a secret. If your family asks me about it, I’ll just tell them it was unpublishable because the writing was so bad.”
“Thank you,” I said again, and as soon as I hung up I fell into paroxysms of sobs so howlingly wretched that I think I woke the baby in the apartment downstairs.
Was he right? Would my family really be heartbroken by my novel? But I loved my family. Why would I hurt them like that? What was wrong with me? How could I keep writing if this was the cost? I must be some kind of sociopath. But how could I be a sociopath if I felt so bad about it? But feeling bad about it didn’t make it any less evil, did it?
Since that night, I haven’t even been able to open a new Word document.
And yet right now these freshmen are looking at me like I’m an authority figure, like I have some kind of wisdom to impart to them. Just act like you know what you’re doing, I tell myself, and they’ll fall for it.
The first question comes from a very pretty girl in a green sweater. Later today, we’ll be workshopping an essay she wrote, a wickedly funny piece about her family. I’ve read it in advance and it is good; she is so talented it’s frightening. I want to encourage her, so I hope she asks me an easy question.
“I notice you write about real people a lot,” she says shyly. “Do they ever read what you write about them? How do you avoid offending them?”
The fact is — there’s no getting around it — when her family reads her essay, it will probably upset them. I wish to God it weren’t so; I wish there were a secret way to write as brilliantly as she does without hurting anyone. If I had it, I would give it to her right now.
I feel a slight déja vu, and later today, I’ll realize why — this happened once before, in a different classroom, with me in the opposite role. When I was around her age, a senior in high school, my English class brought in some successful journalist as a guest speaker. I have no memory of who he was or what he said or anything else about him, because at the time I was consumed with my own troubles: about half the class was angry at me.
(“I had a blog in high school,” I tell the freshmen during the Q&A, after one of them lobs me the how-did-you-get-so-good-at-writing softball. “I was such an asshole back then — I was always blogging about people I knew, and getting into trouble over it. Have any of you guys ever blogged?” Blank stares all around. “Some of my friends have Tumblrs,” one girl offers, and I feel about a hundred years old.)
The journalist did a Q&A, too, and as was my habit back then, I seized the opportunity to make myself the center of attention. I raised my hand and asked: “Have you ever gotten into trouble with people after writing about them?”
The journalist considered my question.
“Once,” he said, “I wrote an article about Uzbekistan, and I used an Uzbekistani friend of mine as a source. He asked me to keep him anonymous, and I tried to do that, but I guess I left in too many details, because the Uzbekistani authorities figured out who he was.”
“And they tortured him.”
The end, apparently. He moved on to the next kid’s question.
Huh? What was that all about? Was it a warning? But a warning against what? It clearly hadn’t led him to give up journalism. Was it some sort of sick boast? I doubted it — he certainly didn’t seem to feel good about it. How was I supposed to interpret this story?
I had no idea, so all I took away from it was: at least I’d never gotten anyone tortured. At least not yet. At least not as far as I knew.
However, I won’t remember this incident until it’s too late. Right now, all I can do is look apologetically at the girl in the green sweater and say, “I don’t have an answer to that question. Maybe you just have to be a little bit of a sociopath.”
Hours later, I will suddenly flash back to the Uzbekistani torture story, and I’ll understand it at last: there was no point to the journalist’s story, because he didn’t know the answer to the question, either. He was as conflicted as I was, just as I’m now still as conflicted as the girl in the green sweater. We are, the three of us, linked in torment: we may be sociopaths, but we’re the sorriest sociopaths in the world.
Realizing this, I’ll think of the girl in the green sweater with something like love. I won’t regret the non-answer I gave her, but I’ll silently add one more thing: Pass it along.
And then I’ll go home and start to write.
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