Monday, May 3, 2004

Remembering Eli

I don't know how many of you have ever tried to write a novel in your misspent youth but if you have, you'll have to agree with me that unless you possess the imagination of a frickin (and I do mean to use that word specifically) genius, your novel was most likely too highly biographical. Someone once told me that someone said that all first novels suffer from self-indulgence, and who am I to argue? After all, when I stayed up all day and night writing my pretentious little 265 page novel back in 1989 I really didn't start off thinking that was what I was doing.

For the first time ever I recently read a portion of my 15-year-old novel aloud to a group of people. The cause was the final installment of the creative non-fiction writing class I took this spring at the Loft. My voice wavered but my blue-eyed classmate later reassured me that my classmates' silence afterwards was probably based on all that I had read before wasn't quite so open, quite so heart-splittingly staight-forward.

The weird thing about all how everything put together sooner or later falls apart about this particular episode is that that same blue-eyed classmate was the one who went with me to the last movie I've gone to, The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and upon leaving the theater we discussed the previous Charlie Kaufman movie, Adaptation, which she hadn't seen yet, and I hadn't liked when I did see it.

Weeks later after she watched Adaptation she forwarded me an article interpreting that odd little movie and the article made me want to see it again. So I did. And this time I quite enjoyed it as I tried to remember what exactly made me not like it in the first place. I remember not liking the ending (the last third of the movie really) that seemed a little obvious in sledgehammering home the clever point of what it all was about: that the filmmakers didn't want to turn the story into something typically Hollywood but they didn't know what else they could ultimately do.

The second time around (which ironically was the name of my novel) I noticed that there were some uncomfortable similarities to my experience of writing a novel that might have made me not like Adaptation when I first saw it. The movie features a wonderful Nicholas Cage performance in the two lead roles, twin brother writers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. One brother (Charlie who is the real life screenwriter of the movie) is a neurotic, putzy guy who fears all there is to life. Donald is quite the opposite- seemingly a hack writer- he has the virtue of knowing that life isn't about who we fall in love with, it's about how we choose to fall in love with them.

The theatrical trailer to Adaptation describes the characters in the plot as such: Charlie writes the way he lives- with difficulty. Donald lives the way he writes- with foolish abandon. The movie is supposed to be an adaptation of the real life writer Susan Orlean's novel The Orchid Thief and Orlean is portrayed in the movie by Meryl Streep. The fictional(?) Orlean character is described in the trailer as being able to write about life but being unable to live it.

So there I was in 1989 not knowing quite what I was doing. In the middle of this mixed up confusion I realized I was fulfilling my life's dream of writing a novel. But then I really realized I didn't know what I was doing. So as I re-wrote the mess I put down on paper I decided to address the obvious weaknesses of the whole thing by incorporating them into the storyline. Thus I created a second lead character- another side of me trying to write a novel within a novel. Like the movie Mozart one character's each and every written word was a result of much sweat and toil while the other had everything come naturally to him to the point he didn't really care to notice it.

Fifteen years is a micro-second of time in the process of losing one's soul or at the very least one's ability to absorb the emotions from one's soul. The act of writing it all down or seeing it all appear later in a totally unrelated movie that gets inside and just won't let go, doesn't mean that anyone has figured the darn thing out. People think they know you when they really don't. People read you but what they see is the already existing meaning of a limited vocabulary. If your life's pursuit has always really been about finding a new word to describe an existing feeling, then something is terribly wrong.

No comments: