While thumbing through You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe—a novel about a writer, George Webber, who dreams of literary success and achieves it—I read this: “Every author’s first book is important. It means the world to him.”
Immediately intrigued, I read on and discovered this passage:
A man learns a great deal about life from writing and publishing a book. When Webber wrote his, he had ripped off a mask that his home town had always worn, but he had not quite understood that he was doing it. Only after it was printed and published did he fully realize the fact. All he had meant and hoped to do was to tell the truth about his life as he had known it.
Wow! The page I’d flipped to (282) was crammed with sentiments that really resonated with me, especially these two paragraphs:
He was to become convinced as he grew older that if one wants to write a book that has any interest or any value whatever, he has got to write it out of the experience of life. A writer, like everyone else, must use what he has to use. He can’t use something that he hasn’t got. If he tries to—and many writers have tried it—what he writes is no good. Everybody knows that.
So Webber had drawn upon the experience of his own life. He had written about his home town, about his family and the people he had known there. And he had done it in a manner of naked directness and reality that was rather rare in books. That was really what caused the trouble.
I’m not Thomas Wolfe (or nowhere near his achievements as a writer), but I can say that after my book was published last summer, the people closest to me began to act very differently around me.
In a social environment of familiar people, I was no longer “the guy writing a book.” I was “the guy who wrote about our lives.” These labels, I quickly realized, have very different meanings attached to them. The relaxed, jovial disposition my friends normally had in my presence was, after the publication of Isn’t It Pretty To Think So?, twisted into a more cautiously erect one—as if I were a reporter on the scene investigating a contentious issue.
“So are you going to write about tonight?” a friend might say, only half joking.
“Don’t make me look stupid,” another friend might say, again only half joking.
It is true that I wrote a novel based on my own experiences, but I never once wrote a true depiction of someone I know; all my characters were bits and pieces of everyone I’ve ever met, and all the people I’ve ever wanted to meet. Like George Webber, I cared about one thing: to create the truest, most honest depiction of the world I knew at the time. And I was so wrapped up in that challenge that I didn’t realize what it could do to my relationships (family, friends, old co-workers).
And now, after some reflection, I’m confronting the possibility that I’ve never really revealed much of myself to any of my “friends.” Do any of us? I’d be willing to bet that those who do, have much fewer friends that those who do not. Honesty and openness seem to have an adverse effect on popularity. But we don’t write to be popular; we write because we have to.
And whether one person reads your stuff or a million people do, if you write something “in a manner of naked directness and reality,” your world will change. But I think this is a good thing. To me, it’s worth it.
There’s this interesting idea that we make art to feel less alone in the world. Perhaps it should be that we make art to feel better about being so alone in the world.