How fact and fiction create fire and friction, especially if you like making stories up about yourself and don’t necessarily know where one ends and the other begins.
At some point in my several trajectories of trying to reinvent myself (or avoid myself, however, you want to look at that) I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to write letters for a living? Sit there, and fire them off. All kinds, to all kinds of people. Probably something I thought of while watching the original Miracle on 34th Street for the tenth time, the one where a dump truck full of letters is used to prove the existence of Santa Claus.
Sometimes I do fall back into a vaguely annoying habit of reaching out with a gripe, usually to imply something like “What’s happening to our world if I can’t rely on [insert something that used to be better here] anymore?” I don’t do it with malice, but more with a sense of curiosity and hope. Still, it’s obnoxious.
Recently, I had such a moment while reading the sayings printed on the tea bag tags of Yogi tea. They just seemed to need some something more — details, surprises, more zing. So I wrote a little note to ask why their editing couldn’t be bumped up a notch. (Because as I’ve probably said before somewhere, I’ve dreamed about live fortune cookie editing. Hanging out in a restaurant and wandering from table to table padding a fortune, replacing a word or two, maybe slipping in a preposterous phrase that upside-downs things and makes people smile. Superficial but sweet. The kind of thing you’d see in a rom-com, only the editing wouldn’t be so clever or swift. In real time, I would flop sometimes and people would be thoroughly unimpressed and I’d go home and beat myself up.)
Anyway, probably about three months later, I got a response from Yogi, a very good response, the only response they could write, and one that shut me up. They said they used the words of their Yogi Bhajan on the tea bag tags. They couldn’t just make stuff up, or edit to suit. It was the simple truth, delivered simply. And…. scene. *
Really, the bottom line was the sayings were fine — it was me that was lacking, pitching myself into escapism and someone else’s promise of greener grass right there on the flip side of a tea bag. Complaining about fortunes? Sure, maybe to a friend because you just got, “If it seems the fates are against you today, they probably are.” But actually sending a letter? Am I serious? Sometimes I think I’m trying to sneak into a rom-com myself, sneak into a scene that a cracks open into a full-on movie.
Let’s go back to that sentence about making stories up about myself and others and life. In Dreaming of La Sal, this first attempt at writing a novel, there are so many autobiographical elements, it’s odd to read them. Kind of like laughing when you whack your elbow. I hadn’t learned that you could just make stuff up completely, or crank up the volume, or give an airy diaphanous character life, for example, by a simple gesture that nailed everything about him or her and set that character into motion. I was still in the baby shoes of walking a character into existence. (I still wear those shoes, actually, but have a better sense of their tread.)
Years later, I learned you could actually insert fiction into reality and make of life something a lot more plastic than you thought it was. At some point in my brief career as a novelist, I experienced the effects of such active drilling into the deep mantle of imagination — which was that some things that I wrote about came to pass. It was the weirdest feeling, visualizing a scene, and then seeing some version of it play out right before my eyes.
So even if I had the view that I was just fantasizing, writing slim romantic flings that showed a little pain and lots of tidy bow-tying at the end, it was cool how stuff just happened, went from my head to the page to the stage. One of the great mysteries I have encountered. Manifesting, they call it today, but usually we don’t manifest fiction right through the solid oak front door.
It’s incredibly liberating to make up stories. We make them up about ourselves all the time, in our heads, like pros. We make them up daily about other people, thinking we know what makes them tick, judging, superimposing, extrapolating on them, as well. It’s a great skill, just not used for its highest good. What if we thought the best of people and heightened each person into the heroic figure he or she actually was? What a thought!
In our early days, I used to send my husband, Peter, quotes that I’d make up but ascribe to famous people. It was so incredibly delicious to get away with it, to meld a real historical figure with something I had coming out of their mouths. It got harder and harder to get away with crying Virginia Woolf — but it made me savor where these worlds of fact and fiction run together like — well, like wolves, as a matter of fact, kicking up dust and sparkles as they pick up speed.