During the week of final exams I re-reread Stephen King’s On Writing, which I’ll be teaching in the spring. The book is a good’un on both technical and practical levels, but what caught my attention this time around were the paragraphs in King’s “CV” section, in which he talks about a number of formative experiences with his characteristic candor. The segment includes what for me is a heartening reassurance: that for some people (like King and myself) the past is a half-remembered landscape, not a long, linear list of perfect recollections. Some are more perfect than others, of course–King describes the lancing of his eardrum as a boy with unflinching clarity–but many of the sights can only be seen through a fog. With all that said, King perceives in his writing some meditative, expressive, and perhaps restorative work. Without getting too gruesome, I’ll meditate myself on that topic today.
I received a couple of kindly missives from readers about my post from a little while back, the one in which I reference my unwillingness to attend weddings. Their supposition was that I was perpetrating foolery–surely I’d relent if invited to one. Au contraire, mes frères et soeurs. By way of explanation, let me offer you a glimpse of my Shamescape.
Imagine for a moment a giant, awkward bald man attending his first adult wedding as a best man. He is asked to deliver the best man’s toast and, since he has no understanding of the genre (only of toasts in principle), he fucks it up. Flash forward several years, when he attends the wedding of two sweet-natured, well-to-do friends. Living on student loans, he attends in the finest clothes he owns, which are the shabbiest of all at the church in the ballroom, a conspicuous fact of which he becomes increasingly conscious as the evening wears on. Let’s slide forward a few more years to another wedding, one at which he was asked to read a passage. Though he leaves with plenty of time on the clock, and though he is only a passenger, not the driver, he arrives quite late, fouling what should have been a flawless day for the bride and the groom. I’m offering only glimpses here, as you might imagine; I could give you 10,000 words on the toast, the clothes, and the tardiness without breaking a sweat.
Do I have any fond memories of such affairs? One or two, I think, and perhaps I’ll dredge them up some other time. But the moral of the story is that, given such experience, I associate weddings primarily with shame and humiliation, a keen awareness of my many deficiencies as a social creature. Are these feelings entirely rational? Nope, but they sure as hell are real.
What we do with such feelings is a complicated bit of business; much depends on the viability of the choices we might make and the sophistication of our processing. Let’s make another quick trip to Shameville. I recall receiving an “Unsatisfactory” on my very first report card and, keener that I was, I essayed to address it. I can recall with unusual vividness a painstaking effort to outline an apple with a red rim so thick that I couldn’t possibly color outside the lines. This prompted my impatient father (God rest his surly soul) to snap at me. “You’d best get inlining,” he snarled. The consequence of those events? I’ve forsaken artistic endeavor altogether–I don’t draw, I don’t paint, I don’t even doodle. Those gates are barred to me, though I’m the one who barred them.
Were I a visual artist, I might be able to transform all the ugly stuff into something lovely. I work with words, however, and that work involves a kind of peripheral processing that King describes very well with all the benefit of retrospect. Misery, for example, is an outgrowth of and response to of his drug use. It’s not a personification, dramatization, or anything quite so simple. It’s a transformation and articulation, a creative act rather than an adaptive or allegorical one. We can visit sites on the Shamescape at different times, in different lights, with different eyes and refurbish or repurpose whatever we find–whatever we’re willing and able to claim. It’s pretty heady stuff when you think about it.
And with writing we get the chance to come back again and again until we get the words we want in the spots they belong. Some things, unlike sites on the Shamescape, we can change.