They say you write what you know.
Well, maybe not you specifically, but I know I’m guilty.
I can’t help turning my life into stories. There I am, walking along, minding my own business, when I realize I’m narrating what I’m doing. But instead of carrying a bag of groceries into my condo, maybe I’m a World War II nurse with an armful of gauze and blankets for my patients. Or maybe the phone rings in the middle of the night. It’s someone dialing the wrong number, but I can’t help wondering, What if that had been the call that no one wants to receive, that something terrible happened to a loved one?
Years ago, that very situation happened, and instead of going back to sleep, I lay awake all night, constructing a new story. I built it around what might have happened. Since the catalyst was something that actually happened to me, it was hard not to give the main character some of my own attributes. Sure, I made her older, gave her a different job, changed her appearance, let her live in my dream house, but to take it from a theoretical “what if” to the story I’d imagined, the main character turned out a lot like me.
I decided to workshop my story, and according to the class rules, I was not allowed to say one word during the reading or subsequent critique. I’d been through the process several times before, so I was over how unnerving it feels to have my story alternately praised and criticized with me sitting right there, helpless to answer any questions or defend myself.
My fellow workshoppers started talking about the character. She was too needy, they said, and there was no way she could be A and B, when she was so obviously P and Q, as well as Y and Z. She was conflicted—how on Earth could a person like her exist? Part of me wanted to laugh, and another part was dying to defend her—because I was A,B, P, Q, Y, Z, and every letter in between. Of course she was real because she was mostly me! But I certainly wasn’t needy. . . they’d gotten that part wrong. (Gulp—am I needy?)
Since then, when other English majors I know complain about how they hate math or just can’t get organized or don’t understand other kinds of artists, I smile and remember that I shouldn’t be able to do those things either. After all, my type of personality isn’t supposed to exist. But somehow I got creativity and organizational skills from both parents, a talent for spotting typos a mile away from my mother, and a math brain from my father (and his mother before him). If asked about my favorite pastimes, I’d be hard-pressed to put my top four in order of importance, but alphabetically, they are as follows: bookkeeping, reading, singing, and writing. Yep, that was bookkeeping on the list. I also love editing (sometimes I have more fun editing something I’ve written than actually writing it to begin with), but I lump that in with writing.
It makes me think that, while I don’t know any other Sarah Cotchaleovitches, certainly there are other “conflicted” personalities out there. Come on, admit it—you are, too, aren’t you?