“How do you decide what to write about?” a girl in the front row of my writing class asked John Crowley. “You could tell an infinite number of stories.” If only she could have seen the look on my face. I shared her uncertainty, but instead of losing myself in a garden of forking paths, I imagined myself at the entryway, paralyzed by another question: How do you come up with anything at all?
Back when my world seemed made up of mischievous fairies, long-lost princesses and cackling sailors, my parents would lie down next to me each night and read from the slender storybooks that lined my shelves. The one I remember best involved a beautiful young woman who emerges from cut-open lemons, but disappears unless she is given water immediately. Sometimes, I would ask for something new. Out would come some fantastic tale that, when my father was narrating, usually involved various kinds of dwarves. When my parent started to nod off in the dark and stopped talking, I elbowed them roughly and demanded, in my absurdly high-pitched voice, that they finish. I was soon well-equipped to invent thrilling plots for my collection of Beanie Baby friends.
By the time I had outgrown my pink polka-dotted turtleneck, I was writing some of my stories down. My third-grade writing book, which sits on my mother’s shelf, includes a truly awful tale about a girl being saved from a jellyfish by her valiant dog, and a sap-fest featuring my own version of Cyrano de Bergerac. The one from fifth grade includes a melodramatic poem about an elephant in the sunset and a pitiful figure clinging to the last threads of life before he is consumed by illness; at 10, I sought depth. My ninth-grade teacher once noted that he never assigned fiction because the one time he did — and here his face contorted in disgust — the results were horrendous. Hardly any fiction assignments followed, and I graduated with a short story about a girl named Lilah who struggles to fall asleep in much the way I did (I took “write what you know” quite literally), and a superhero story with a disappearing cat, a one-page mimicry of a scene in Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and a not-so-subtle reference to Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (the search for depth continues). If anyone asks where the original is, please reply that it’s gone with the let’s-hear-it-for-the-bullshit wind.
Nonfiction was my haven. I was never a diligent diarist, but the personal essays I wrote for school let me speak plainly, to write about the things I thought I knew and the thoughts I knew I had. Teachers would sit, pen in hand, and read the narratives about my summer travels, journalistic insecurities and failed romantic endeavors, and their encouraging comments suggested genuine interest. Not once did I have to search for something less real, a story almost-but-not-quite based on dreams or pulled from the nebulous land of invention. There was a comfort in having the material ready in front of me and simply being expected to shape it. The task was not to replicate reality but to present a version with a storyline.
Sitting in “Intro to Creative Writing” this semester, I look at the other students in the room and wonder how much of themselves they place in their fiction. I wonder whether their dialogues are based on conversations they have sort of had and whether their characters’ thoughts are based on their own. I squirm and look down at times, feeling as though I know their secrets, even though they have never shared them with me.
We were told to write about an unspoken central tension, so I lay on the couch and asked my suitemate what people avoid discussing (she: sex changes), then brought it up at a dinner with a friend (he: girl gets her period? girlfriend has a mustache?). I thought of abusive parents, life-ruining cancer and scandalous affairs before beating myself up for sounding like a Hallmark movie. The task, it seemed, was to create an untruthful reality, an elusive other dimension in which events that might have happened, but never did, play out. But without the absurdity of talking gnomes, I was not afforded impossibilities; there needed to be something inherently familiar in the setup of the room, the movement of the characters and the words that emerged, though I had never witnessed the scene I was describing.
When I painstakingly reached the end of my required one page, I brought it quietly to a friend and asked what she thought the plot was. “Woman goes on vacation”? Wrong. Woman leaves husband. Rewrite. I sat under the fluorescent lighting in my library computer room for three hours, until long after everyone had gone to bed, and tried again. I rearranged sentences, picked through paragraphs and wondered about the implications of the word “oh.” No matter how much I love curling up under the covers with a novel, fiction confounds me. Alone in a room with a single virtual page, I felt dangerously helpless. Yet there’s something thrilling about seeing how far you can get, how vivid a sad young man can become by the end of a page. For now, I wait to see what the professor says when he hands back my juvenile attempts. Chances are I’ll be back in the computer room soon, thinking of lemon-tree girls, ugly dwarves and the unsaid things nestled in those personal essays; from there, I hope, the fiction will come.