In a sign that my new book is now truly taking up the prime real estate in my head, psyche, and study, today I finally took down the stuff that accumulated up on the wall as I wrote The Half Brother: quotations, images, desperate notes to myself. They’re all reminders of the path this novel took, all well-worn life jackets that saved me over and over. Of course I’ll save them. But before they disappear into a file drawer, I thought I’d share a few.
On a full piece of paper, nicely aged now because some rain came in once from the skylight overhead:
I have longed to move away but am afraid;
Some life, yet unspent, might explode
Out of the old lie burning on the ground,
And, crackling into air, leave me half-blind.
For a long time I thought I’d use this as an epigraph for The Half Brother; even when I changed my mind, it served as a guidepost. (There’s an interesting piece about this poem here. Thomas was a brilliant modern romantic who felt too much, an actual literary celebrity in his day who refused to be categorized, continually drunk on language, felled by liquor. He’s not currently very fashionable; as Wikipedia notes, “He remains popular with the public, who find his work accessible.”)
On that same piece of paper I’ve got “the old lie” circled, and notes under it (in case you can’t read my writing):
[hidden to avoid spoilers]
being made in God’s image: being able to believe that
the lie that he is worthless? (Chas)
For good measure, there’s also an index card that repeats much of the above.
There’s a postcard of the labyrinth at Chartres.
There’s a card devoted to Charlie, my protagonist, who used to be Charles before I fell in love with him myself and realized he was Charlie:
I don’t remember making that card or taping it up where I’d see it every day, but I imagine I did it in a moment of both despair and resolve, trying to convince myself I really did know this character, that he was of a piece. I needed something to pin down his outline, his essence.
And there’s this, from the Times, yellowed now.
The piece is about “people who had suddenly discovered that their life, as they knew it, was based on a long-term falsehood”–people who find out their parents weren’t who they said they were, for instance, or that their spouses have been in long-term affairs.
The new information disrupts their sense of their own past, undermining the veracity of their personal history….It’s as if they are constantly reviewing their past lives on a dual screen: the life they experienced on one side and the new “true” version on the other….Lack of control over their destiny makes people queasy.
Of course, none of us has control over our destiny, and that truth haunts us all, and drives us in ways fiction is continually trying to depict and understand.
The article came out when I was nearly finished with the book, and it hit me with a jolt of recognition, and then near-euphoria: this was Charlie. I was getting him, my dearest, damaged boy, at least partially right.
Fels’ essay also features the centrality of story: “Creating a coherent narrative of one’s life has long been seen as a central goal of psychotherapy.” The crucial word there, though, is created. We put characters, events, memories together to make our stories. Whether they are “true” or not is another matter. We assume, of course, that they are; but as Charlie says to May:
“There’s a funny southern expression,” I said….“When they tell you not to lie they say, ‘Don’t tell stories.’”
She nodded. She didn’t smile. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve heard that before.”