It was in the dark days (or was it the light days?) before I had begun the wily wearing of a cape (became a writer, fully) I was written about. I thought I had been. I was sure. Almost sure.
Which felt, to me, like being drawn and quartered before I had even drawn a picture of myself in my head. Which felt like a torturing because I had always thought—I was wonderfully, naturally, unpublishably, invisible.
In short, I was in my beginning-coat of invisibility, a writer’s magic phase before they become a writer who is read. (Though that—if achieved—is, strangely, yet another invisible cape.)
I was written about by a science fiction writer. (Or perhaps I was not.) How could I prove I was? And if I was: what would I receive for my clear observation it was me—in his most recent piece of science fiction? The annoying aspect of it was, to me, it was done so expertly, smoothly, adroitly—if it was me—only I would recognize me, as me. I surely needed to prove I’d seen, recognized myself!
She had no name, which felt, to me, as if she had put to death. I, if it was me, had been reduced, with terrible accuracy, to an evanescence of American, female, desperate need: the young woman whose sole need was love and admiration and, not given it, would lose her mind: who without the deep draughts of the love from men immortalized in the tales of gods and goddesses, classical antiquity, would rather waste away: a study of a woman who would rather die than be lightly ignored or endured as most human beings cheerfully are, cheerfully half-engaged with all that goes on around them. In other words, someone who must feel as adored as—Helen, or Penelope.
It was a flattering and unflattering portrait; I was mocked, and I was made exemplary, at once. Making me (if it was me) a trapped and tortured figure—who never was rescued in the book, but was left over and over to wither, or perish, each withering a sign of American pointlessness, hopelessness, doomed to what the modern economist Steiglitz calls classic and ever-increasing American “deaths of despair.”
I went to his small, tomblike office in the vast, mostly underground Humanities building on a Thursday morning.
“That’s me in your story,” I said suddenly, as he handed back the book I’d asked him to autograph. “That’s me.” I could not name her. Because she was the only female character in the book who had noname. How evasive and irritating, I thought, that I, she, did not have a name: all at the easier to make her a plot device, an example of misery, in the abstract, to allow me to be used, as a device, in his story.
His graying eyebrows, in a somewhat fatherly, pitying way, lifted in mild confusion: a way to delay a response, or a substitute for response?
Now I am the age he was then (he is dead), I know he could not, of course, admit it was me even if it was me; nor, per writer’s creed, could he admit it was not me if it wasn’t. Because she only truly existed in the story. And he, additionally, as a pitying and older human being, could not with any conscience inflict upon me his stupid and dreamy and irritable student the burden of it not being me, or the burden of it being me. I was possibly a future writer; I should be able—if I wanted to—to believe, or hope, a published character might be me.
A very egotistical person’s hope. But being completely ego-dominated, and, in equal portion, somehow egoless, are the most important qualities for a writer-to-be.
Surely being a character in someone’s creative work, is both luck—really a strike of lightning anointing you and freezing you—and abysmal non-luck (why me?). It’s, in short, visiting the evasive but true fortune-teller: the kind only destiny can bring you, credible because fate brought you there, and this fortune-teller can’t be bought. Something about you, the temperature of that day, the tilt of years, the color you wore one day, or your need/worthiness (“destiny shining on your forehead like a star”?—as Pushkin wrote) might have brought you to sharp, sudden illumination here, via this fortune-teller, this writer, you have stumbled upon, and who has stumbled, somehow, upon you.
The word seer has been ruined by a now-ruined department store name. Was a seer, once, only a supporting voice for a king or a kingdom? Was a seer trustworthy? Or a minion of someone else, a ruler, political forces, a publishing contract? Is a novelist in any way a seer? Which countries like America, with no kings or queens, must have, for order?
I remember the tumble of books in this writer’s office—all slanting and falling as if those books were wanting to follow water, in that dry and ordinary and terribly windowless office (all the staff and professors were buried this way in that terrible and over-modern building, classrooms only on the upper floor, above, having windows). The professors toiled underground, like ants, till they came up the dark windowless stairs to teach, go out to lunch, or to go home. A strange tomb: their only consolations must have been their books, which each, in that windowlessness, must have felt like lit windows, opened.
He was a good science fiction writer; I admired him. (Most science fiction is bad. His was not.) If they were good, as he was, they made you feel small and bright and grateful, just to be near them; they, saints of anywhere-elsewhere, had given up on most of the present world, forming some weirdly necessary future though that future was never really to be, but written anyway, knowing all the blackness of hope. (That character I wanted or needed to be me could have been named The Folly of Hope: looking back now, I see she might have been what becomes of someone who should have been a writer but never became one: a depiction of a someone who fell into deeper and deeper despair instead of clarifying and musicalizing that despair and becoming a writer. )
No wonder I saw myself. But she, the character, could be all American women who were young and lost and sad and directionless. Through most of college, we all were her. He’d composed an everywoman student in the trance of writing.
And that writing trance, for a writer, rules: a real writer does not edit to suit his audience.
She was me, I realized later, because I wanted her (it) to be me, because I was composed of anger and despair. And, secretly, didn’t I wish myself the safety of being a character in a creative work? Three dimensions or two dimensions, there they stayed, never changing, a vision revisitable but not revisable. Set in clay/stone/paper/glowing screen.
He was paternal, and of course I had a small crush on him; but proof it was small was that more than his face I remember the way the books in his tiny trap of an office looked. Books on shelves look best arranged like The Golden Gate Bridge, tall at each end, then dipping low at middle. But none of that. They were as if the Nile was pouring through and grabbing followers. To hell with books, said their lack or arrangement: onward. Tune of an active writer is the tune of a river, too. And surely a statement about how temporary and forgotten almost every book will become, and every summoned character in them.
I left his office both happy and unhappy, no doubt flummoxed most of all by my envy of a writer’s strange and remote power/mystery, the cloak he or she wears. Forty years later, I realize his pondering and startled silence was one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given: that lifted-eyebrow silence! A statement about the futility and wishfulness of writing, made of a fabric which alternates between opacity and nothing, lightness and the weight of enormous stones.
Even if it was me, myself, in the story, he owed no explanation. To anyone. I was, or I wasn’t, and it didn’t matter. I, like everyone else, was in the gallery, was only a reader, audience. It had all happened in the shifting theater of his brain, and he had shared. Don’t blame the messenger; don’t blame the seer or the fortune-teller. Don’t stack a book too carefully; don’t take it too much to heart. They’re to be replaced, to be ruined, to be added to, improved upon, as if a garden being slowly built over centuries.
And is there anyone who doesn’t long to be a character in a story? Preserved in one?
We all should dream that, he was saying, by saying nothing. And every time I write I’ve brought a lantern. Down into the tombs. See the friezes? Look quickly. Before it’s gone. And I’m gone. If you’re in my Egypt, I’ve postponed your departure from this world—but only very slightly. Be somewhat grateful. At least a little bit.
I had to, in a writerly way, imagine that little speech above. After his death.
And such a speech, imagined, makes you a writer.
Rebecca Pyle’s brain is twins: painter and writer. Recently her artwork is in JuxtaProse, Gris-Gris, Rappahannock Review, Madison Review, Gulf Stream; lately, her written work is in Kleksograph, Terrain.org, Gargoyle magazine, Common Ground Review, and Guesthouse. (Guesthouse has just nominated her short story ‘White as Clouds’ for a Pushcart Prize). Rebecca Pyle lives in Utah, not far from the Great Salt Lake. See her overfull blog/website rebeccapyleartist.com.