April 23 2010
They say staring at walls is a “fine art,” and maybe it is. Most days, when someone asks me what I’ve been up to, I reply, “nothing.” Or “not much.” Or “what have I been up to? Can’t quite remember. Getting old, I guess.”
If you write all day long like I do when I’m working on a book, answering questions about how you spend your time can end up making you sound like you need serious therapy. Do you say, “Well, I made sure someone got pregnant during a drunken Beer Pong party and then arranged for her to have an abortion?” What about, “I gave a guy an apparent heart attack and put a cell phone in his hand so that he could call the paramedics, who came as fast as they could, strapped on an oxygen mask, and carried him away?”
Some years ago, I worked with several Chinese college students who were trying to improve their conversational English. One of them told me that, for the first few months he was in the US, whenever people asked him how he was doing, he attempted to answer honestly. “I’m having a terrible day because I’m homesick,” he would say. Or “My jaw and the roof of my mouth hurt, and my throat is sore. English is very hard for me.” People looked at him funny, and he didn’t quite know why. He thought maybe he had mangled the language so badly that no one could understand him.
Then, one day it occurred to him that “How’re ya’ doin’?” didn’t really merit an honest reply. People didn’t really want to know his innermost feelings. They were simply filling the empty space between running into him in the hallway and making it to class before the bell rang.
“It was a relief,” he said. “I don’t much like talking about myself anyhow.”
I understand what he means. I’ve always felt rather lucky to be writing fiction. My books are all about me. I’m every single one of my characters, and I’m not. They’re me in disguise. What a relief. Oprah will never be able to chastise me, like she did James Frey, for lying. After all, I only make up stories. They’re true in their own way and true to me and my experience—bound by the need to make sense in their own terms but not by “the absolute truth,” whatever that is.