Utopian fantasies flooded my creative life before Thomas More’s “Utopia” was assigned to me as an English major. It turns out, though, that utopia as a concept and Utopia as a place are leagues more complicated than simply thinking up perfect realities, especially for someone studying this in an academic context. Nobody, it seems, knows why More wrote “Utopia,” and gosh darn, we would apparently really like to know!
Did More believe in Utopia, with all its anti-English whims? Or was he arguing against Utopia, flaunting its inherent absurdity? Was fiction his protection or his platform or both? What was his intention, asks English professor after English professor to bleary-eyed classes, and we, with our bleary eyes, intimate an answer to an unanswerable inquiry. Nobody knows, but we can give guessing our best shot. That’s basically what it means to study literature — right?
If I’m being honest, sometimes I get tired of making something more out of the end product than what it already is. I get tired of reading into it. And before the end product, when I’m writing my own fiction, I fear having my writing being read into too much. The thought of someone asking a class why they think I wrote something? Absolutely terrifying.
The working title of the first short story I ever wrote for a fiction workshop was “Utopia,” for little reason other than a gut feeling. Right before the deadline, I ended up frantically changing the title. I worried about what a title like “Utopia” might suggest to a class reading about a girl whose ability to bring back the dead extends to her own life, as she is revived after a suicide attempt.
The thought of someone asking a class why they think I wrote something? Absolutely terrifying.
When it comes to writing and my personal relationship with it, I’m in the camp of Julio Cortázar, the Argentine writer who called writing “a kind of exorcism.” Good for More if he really was trying to push some kind of political agenda — and personally I think he was trying to push some kind of political agenda, and no I don’t feel like elaborating — but for me, fiction writing has only ever been about release. I don’t think about the themes and motifs; I don’t think about sociopolitical agendas.
“The person who writes this story,” wrote Cortázar, meaning the person who writes a story that successfully pulls readers out of reality, “has an even more attenuating experience, because his return to a more tolerable condition depends on his ability to transfer the obsession.”
In elementary school I once told my mother, a lifelong opponent of the horror genre who bemoans having a horror fanatic for a daughter, that my goal was to someday write the scariest book ever written. After some years and change have passed, I’d say I’m much more humble: I’m not trying to earn a superlative, but I still find myself pouring death and agony out in spades with my words.
During the actual process of writing, however, I spend so much time worrying that someone will understand the end product of my fiction as a cry for help, when in actuality the process is the very reason I stay sane. Don’t you see, I want to scream, that this is me transferring my obsessions, that I’ve spent so much time being afraid of the world and my maladies that transferring it to the fictional page is the only way to take control of it?
Maybe I’m being irrational. I’ve pored through Shirley Jackson and Mary Downing Hahn and Dean Koontz’s bibliographies, and never once have I been concerned about their emotional well-being; all I’ve felt is gratitude that they’re out here writing these stories that terrify me so much.
I said I’m in the Cortázar camp. I am, but I can be in two camps, and so I’m also in Donna Tartt’s: “But who am I to give lessons? There are no real messages in my fiction. The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”
If writing is an exorcism, possession must precede it.
When it comes down to it, I just want to tell stories. My workshop professor last semester asked me where I start, what that first inkling of a story is for me. It was extraordinarily easy to give her an immediate answer, even though I’d never been asked that before. My stories, I told her, start with characters and how I want them to interact.
If writing is an exorcism, possession must precede it. At both opportune and inopportune times, either prompted or unprompted (but mostly unprompted), I become a literal mouthpiece for my characters, mumbling exchanges between two or more characters to myself by way of planning. Sooner or later I get to the writing stage, and if I feel like it — which is rarely — I might even get to the outline stage before that. But always, without fail, my stories start with an imagined interaction that I quite literally speak into existence before doing any of the writing at all.
Why was it so important for me to tell a story about a girl who can bring back the dead but also struggles with suicidal ideation? To some extent I know why these obsessions — these obsessions with death, with despair, with mental illness, with general gloominess — are the obsessions I have to transfer. Ultimately, though, my lived experiences are only part of the equation, and the rest of it is something that lives in the same darkness with which my writing is aesthetically concerned. There is no choosing when it comes to writing. Not for me, and probably not for any writer.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter why any story becomes so critically important for me to tell that I spin the words wildly and wildly until relief comes, until I’ve performed an exorcism. If I tell a story, and if that story pulls someone out of reality for just a moment — I think that’s enough, isn’t it? But maybe don’t read too much into anything I said here, either.