Essay by Laurie Weisz
Writing to Appease My Inner Saints and Demons
I was not a timid and respectful kid. That universal dictum of childhood, “Stop arguing with me,” was the lullaby of my upbringing. Arguing is, and always has been, the language of my soul. Individual points of view wade in and out, like toddlers splashing through a shallow pool.
If I’m ever asked to think for myself? Forget it. I house a cacophony of miniature personalities who never learned to raise their hand in school. They argue, agree, dismiss, commit obtuse blunders, and rudely ignore one another. They are a nation of buttinskis, as mobile and freeform as Casper the ghost in the comic books I feasted on in the ‘60s. The only thing they have ever agreed on is the roving, ambiguous truth of fiction.
If I am at a party, communing with Democrats, William F. Buckley elbows his way in. With his taut profile, Yale twang, and snarky humor, he interrupts the mawkish sincerity of the politically correct. He flings words like “usurpatory” and assails the conformity of an inverted John Birch Society, where savvy technolemmings quote NPR. I didn’t invite him, but he arrives anyway, in his rumpled charcoal suit, martini in hand.
Similarly, an impassioned environmentalist, a nonprofit board member, dressed head to toe in Nordstrom’s Boho chic, tells me about donating significant amounts of money to preserve an endangered animal habitat. My expression endorses her cause, but in another corner of my brain, an overworked social worker, sweating in her New York office, clears her throat.
“For Christ’s sake,” she says. “Take a look at children with AIDS. The bulging stomachs of people starving all over the world. Raising money to refresh the goddamn grasslands, provide more doodads to the Met, or assist the Junior League in anything they find crucial? Nauseating.” She snorts and swivels back to her bulging files.
When I was very young, I watched the old Tarzan movies on TV, although I saw myself growing up to be Tarzan, not Jane. Life in the jungle was divine. There were monkeys and swinging vines, simplicity and heroism. A primal existence, sans bedtimes, babysitters, and tasteless wholegrain snacks.
The only part I could neither understand nor stomach was Tarzan diving blindly into the jungle river. Although we had a black-and-white TV, the water looked like mint jelly, dark with plant life and snakes.
This kind of unsettling river drives my fiction. If I open my eyes under water, vaguely unpleasant, half-understood experiences, bouts of betrayal and revenge, confused memories, and personal embarrassments look back at me with unfocused, gelatinous eyes. They graze me with wobbly fins. They will swim forever in that watery hinterland of nightmare and regrets.
The river is not all tortured. Little vignettes of flamboyant color dawdle in the current. Hope and beauty, like exotic species, insist on documentation.
As a writer, I have little instinct for plot and movement. I have trouble both in translating my river angst into a story (less Virginia Wolfe, more Count of Monte Cristo) and in getting my boisterous cast of characters on the road. They tend to sit around, like actors in a sitcom, waiting for their weekly script to arrive. Even if the language in a story works, it works like an attractive diorama.
Once, in a fiction workshop, the teacher stopped the other students as they were commenting on my piece. “What’s wrong with this story?” she asked. Silence. “What’s impossibly wrong with this story?” She looked around the room and sighed. “Absolutely nothing happens.”
René Thom could have written an equation for the success of a plot, the James Salter or Alice Munro theorem of resonant physics. It would begin with characters of depth and drop in the equivalent of a pebble to puncture the conceit of their facades. The concentric ripples would move outward, a conflation of consternation, illumination, and a suggestion of the big picture.
My New York social worker, christened Janet, made her way into a story called “Teaching Howard to Silkscreen.” She climbed out of my cowardly persona looking like an urban portrait on a Hopper canvas: sweaty and discouraged, in an oversized sweater and an unflattering skirt.
Janet taught at a school for teens going nowhere. Howard, her student—a squat kid with near-albino hair and a blank, puffy face—hosed down hundreds of dollars worth of photo paper in the school darkroom. As a young kid, Howard’s stepfather chained him in the backyard, right next to the dog, when he acted out. Janet defends him at a staff meeting. “We can’t punish this kid like a normal teenager and expect him to reimburse us,” she snorts to the other teachers. “Let’s see what the rest of you would act like if you stepped the hell out of his upbringing.”
Bill Buckley? His persona leaked into a polo scion who lost his 23-year-old son to a cocaine overdose.
At the Palm Beach funeral, he stares at his son’s girlfriend. Her hair is the color of black light; her rose tattoos and fluorescent skin glow like an alien in the moneyed, bronzed congregation. A small piece of barbed wire rotates in his heart.
The half-life of our characters is a hearty, tangled path. To deftly align the proclivities of a character with the big ticking universe—and to entertain a reader along the way—is about as close as I get to religion.
As a person, I don’t believe in much. As a writer, I believe in alchemy and magic, channeling, and an evanescent frequency that flickers and surges, like a ship’s communication traveling across dark water. This voice is the gift of another hemisphere, a portable universe, free with your computer, or typewriter, or a quaint old pen.
- "Seven Caricatures" by Franceso Melzi, 1515; public domain
- "Five Caricature Heads" by Leonardo da Vinci, after 1490; public domain
Laurie Weisz is a contributing writer at Talking Writing.
"At 11 p.m., when my son has finally relinquished my laptop, I sit down at the kitchen table. It is like going back into the ocean: the intimacy, the fluctuations, the rightful home for wayward mental images. The other side of a phantom tollbooth, where colloidal shafts of reality, hoisted by crane, bump and settle in places they never were, but actually belong. Another kingdom altogether." — "The Phantom Tollbooth"