One of my best friends in high school was the strangest mix of bone-deep laziness and inflated ambition. When we graduated he got applications to just two colleges: a semi-decent state school, and MIT. He only finished one application – guess which. He slept all day and stayed up all night and the infrequent times our schedules overlapped, we sat in Denny’s and talked philosophy. Half the time he infuriated me and half the time I was in love with him. I haven’t talked to him in years, but I wrote a story inspired by him for my thesis. It was one of my advisor’s favorites.
I recently started a job as English faculty for a community college in Terre Haute, Indiana. Last week, I overheard a man talking to one of my new colleagues. He was youngish, maybe early twenties, with dull eyes and a round white face. He was nervous and bouncing his knee. As I walked by their table I heard him say:
“I’m not like anybody else.”
My colleague nodded.
“I got big plans,” he said. “I got drive.”
When I got to my car, I pulled out my notebook to jot down the scene. Too perfect: a community college applicant in rural Indiana desperately declaring he’s got drive, even if his immediate circumstances would say otherwise. Then I stopped. I realized – I had written that scene before. I know that guy because I have written that guy, saying those exact words, in countless stories that I am now shilling out to respectable journals like a beggar down to his last dirty watch. I offer and plead, do you like it? Do you want it? Because I’ve got more. I’ve got thousands more like him caught in these pages.
When I get the “so what do you write about?” question, I always say I write stories about the Midwest. I pride myself on being able to pinpoint the cultural idiosyncrasies and behavioral anomalies that I believe set my native region apart. When I first moved out west, I wrote in a letter to a friend that Michigan and its folk had become like a neatly shuffled deck of cards. With so many miles and mountains between us I felt I could see the people and places from my childhood much more clearly. So clearly, in fact, I could distill them down and move them around like chess pieces into actual stories, instead of jumbled memories and barroom anecdotes. Hardened into narrative, the experiences took on lives of their own. I wrote those stories and it felt good. Like growth.
But now I’m back in the middle land, confronted with those distillations in the flesh and terrified I may have gotten them wrong all this time. I saw this man and heard him declare himself different, unique and with ambition never before seen in this high land by the river. He thinks he is different and in his own mind he is. How is he to know that he has already starred in a million stories, all predicated on the fact that everything about him, from his torn jeans to baby face to inflated sense of self, is not unique? How is he to know that, to one writer’s mind at least, he is the Midwest Incarnate?
The exploitation of real life subjects is our most complicated tool. From a safe arm’s length of 2,000 miles, I took this man and doctored him up and presented him as art, for art’s sake but really my own: to be patted on the head and told that I “have a strong sense of place” and that I “have good characterization.” And who would be the wiser?
The Germans have a word, unheimlich, meaning “strange” or “unfamiliar.” The negation of the root word – heim, which roughly means home – gives a connotation of something that should be familiar, but isn’t. Like going back to your childhood bedroom and finding it unrecognizable because your parents have rented it out to a nebbish graduate student.
I need a word for the opposite – when something decidedly unfamiliar, this state I’ve never lived in and town I couldn’t even pronounce until last week, feels instantly familiar. An unexpected, perhaps unwanted, sense of belonging. Seeing ghosts in places you thought not haunted. A few years ago I could have come up with a decent translation myself, but I have lost the German language like so many other things, including, perhaps, my comfortable distance from the people I’ve been writing about these last few years.
It’s a privilege to see one of your own characters come to life – but uncomfortable and beautifully challenging the recognition, or more so the remembering, that he has been there all along.