Image by Ruth Gee
A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing my new novel about a character who can’t smell, or if I should rewrite the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.
“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”
“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”
“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”
“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a—”
“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.
“Did you lose your marriage or did you and Victor fall more in love? What really happened?”
“Well, I guess I learned—”
“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”
“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”
“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.
As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic.
Should I tell the Bali story?
More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.
Could I tell the Bali story?
I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for NOVEL IDEAS.
I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for work? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? Are you afraid of heights? Do you believe in God?
I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.
By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.
But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d have to be the main character.
I wouldn’t be able to invent a supporting cast. I’d need to write honestly about real people.
And forget about fashioning dramatic scenes out of thin air. Memoir dictates that I deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.
I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH and promise to be faithful.
Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking an IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d need to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.
So, I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered up a few double lattes. I reminisced with it. Read over myriad emails. Forced my mind to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.
I gazed deeply into my own navel.
And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.
I lied to the Bali idea, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a stay-at-home soccer mom who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.
Writing a domestic drama set in small-town Vermont felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers who’d broken into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, lying, scheming, writing, talking, eating.
After I sent it to my (now new) agent, I returned to the café where I found the Bali idea still sitting where I’d left it.
“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”
“No worries,” it replied with a huge smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It straightened up in the chair, shoulders back, poised for action.
“Ready?” it asked, holding out its hand to me.
“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.
More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.
And I’m really glad I did.
11 thoughts on “Facing My Own Character: When a Fiction Writer Turns to Memoir”
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I like reading about the process. The way we skirt around the one thing that is so right, until we walk right up and shake it’s hand.
Beautifully said. Thank you for the comment.
Not as glad as I was that you wrote it.
You need to go somewhere else now! X
You’re right: where shall I go? (And thank you.)
TORONTO—I thought we agreed on this…
I cannot even imagine making myself the center of my stories, and yet, are we not already at the center of them?
Brave girl you are — can’t wait to read it!
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we sure are the centre. But it is really tough to see ourselves that way up close enough to live in our bodies and from a distance enough to write about it.
I think that’s why I needed years to pass. I get now why C. Strayed waited so long to tell her wonderful tale. When it JUST happens, there’s no way to get perspective. You know from which I speak. I can tell…
Brave? I don’t think so but thank you for thinking that. In fact, keep thinking that.
Great piece Lisa. This dialogue with the book, how it waits for us to be ready, wrestling with the truth of being our own central character…yes to all of it. The path of every memoirist. Oh, but then the gratitude, right? Congratulations on your release. I’ll be ordering today and posting about it on my #memoiraholic social. Best wishes.