If You Show Me Yours, I'll Show You Mine
I want to start with a teacher story, for two reasons. The first, in the spirit of your theme of lifelong learning, is that I have never lost the value of one of my earliest lessons -- sucking up to teachers. The second reason is that this teacher story is really the start of my story, as a writer.
On several occasions recently I've had the pleasure of speaking to groups of teachers and librarians. I was surprised -- though I don't know why I should have been -- at the recurrence of the following question: Was there a certain someone, a teacher, who stands out in my memory having made a difference? Was there some one, or more than one, person whose special effort contributed to my development as a writer?
The answer, initially, was no. Not because there was no such person, but because she was not standing out properly in my memory. Then, these teachers forced me to come up with the real answer. Not the way they used to have to force me to come up with answers (whew), but simply by getting me back there, back into school, thinking about it.
And there she was. Her name was, and is, Sister Elizabeth Brennan. As soon as I remembered her, I was grateful. Grateful for being made to recall her, and for what she had done for me.
Sister Elizabeth taught me English in the seventh grade at Blessed Sacrament (I know, it sounds like I'm making it up) in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. But that's just a job description. What she did, was she told us all to write. She told us to write stories. She told us to be funny, to be dramatic, to be honest, to lie, to create a story out of nothing or to create a story out of facts or to, what the hell, mix 'em. I don't recall Sister Elizabeth ever dwelling very much on the mechanics of writing, even though I'm sure she was as exacting about that as she was about everything. What I remember -- vividly now -- was that she asked for expression.
This, to me, was a revelation. Nobody before had ever really asked for my story, my stuff, my inside dreams and dramas. And somehow, the way she asked for it, everything else was out of the way, barriers were broken down, and I wanted to give it up. I recall writing brilliantly back then, much better than I do now, hilarious and chilling and moving short stories that changed the world. You know, sort of. Anyway, it was possible because Sister Elizabeth Brennan broke it open for me, broke me open. (In a moment, I will put this miracle in better perspective.)
I tell this story, as I said, for the sucking-up value, but also as general repayment. To add my voice to those who say that what one teacher does in one class one year will be remembered. I remembered, even before I remembered. This one person's work made a direct impact on what I became, and if I met more like her before and especially after seventh grade, I would have travelled a much smoother path to who I am now.
(Post script. I wrote to Sister Elizabeth to tell her the above. I did my research, found her in New Jersey -- how hard could that be, right, guessing that a nun might be in New Jersey? -- and she wrote back immediately. She has graded me well on the "Good Boy" scale, but she hasn't actually read the books I sent her yet. So, the story could well change from here.)
I'll show you mine. That's the deal, isn't it? If I'm writing, and I'm writing realistic fiction, I have to come up with the goods. Otherwise, what am I doing? So I have made a commitment, in my work, that when I write I'm going to write as hard and as tough and as raw as I can about real emotions. My emotions included.
This is not who I am, so this style of self-revelation does not come easily. I come from a system in which a guy does not go around gushing about his feelings. Certain things always seemed okay to me, while others definitely were not. The "Not" list was way longer: Do not cry, do not say you are sad or hurt or in love or scared or lonely. The great spectrum of emotions, in fact, is pretty well all on the "not" list. Except anger, of course. Anger, rage, those are guy things, not what we want to see all the time, mind you, but we do understand.
This is who I was as a kid. When my father died, my mother told me about it. I accepted the news, sucked it up. I did not crack. I excused myself to the bathroom where I cried helplessly -- though silently -- for what seems to me now to have been hours. Trying, trying to blot the tears, to dam it all up, to get it together before I would come out. But it just kept seeping out of me, the tears without the sobbing, because somewhere in there my body knew what it was supposed to do even if my mind wouldn't buy it. I was five years and four days old.
I don't know where I got this "Little Man" nonsense. I don't remember being taught it or force-fed it by anyone. My mother, a very young widow with seven children, was an uncommonly strong woman, but I don't recall her ever inhibiting my expression. Probably, I combined my mother's example with Johnny West's example, and made my own incomplete version of the model man. I don't know.
What I do know is that it cost me. I was -- at five, at ten, at fifteen, at twenty-five -- a guy who did not have a grip on his emotions. I just never worked them out, never got comfortable with the whole emotional side of things. So I hid from it, avoided it, denied it, suppressed it, bludgeoned it. I wasn't giving up any parts of the inside me, my hidden, protected, important stuff, to anybody.
This caused me to have a prolonged adolescence, shallow relationships, paranoia about honesty, and a propensity for black moods and self abuse. In short, I cannot recommend this behavioral style.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have eventually stumbled my way into writing. It is because of this mode of expression that I have been able to make sense of so much that never made sense before. I have an access to myself now -- not because I'm in therapy, which I'm not, but because I'm in writing -- that I can feel safe in breaking my life's events down to their barest components and offering them up for discussion.
So I spend my whole professional life doing what I had spent my entire prior life fighting: I'm giving it up. I'm showing you, the reader, mine, and at the same time I believe you are showing me yours. Your bruises, your scary thoughts, your best jokes, your perversions. If we're in the book together, we are showing each other.
It is only now coming clear to me, as I constantly speak about the work, that so far the most emotionally autobiographical book I've written is Iceman. The surface of the book, the hockey and the funeral home material, is entirely fictional. But what's going on with Eric, the struggling against himself to define himself, the misplaced rage, the bottling up and then exploding, that stuff was my stuff. And while my case was extreme, I believe the system I dysfunctioned within is very much a part of many teenagers' lives. My goal is to do my part to dismantle this system, by exposing it.
A second thing I've discovered only after looking back at the work: It's all about identity. I never set out to write about any one thing more than any other. In fact, I see each of my books as being very different from the others. However, I do see a thread running through there, something I cannot seem to leave alone, and that thread is the search for identity.
I ask myself all the time, and my readers simultaneously: Who am I? What, if any, impact do I have on the world? Who do I want to be? Is it okay, what I want to be? And who says so, anyway?
Who says so. That's the killer. Because it seems that a lot of people want to decide for you. (It still happens to me today. "Sports Novelist." "Boys' Novelist." We have a need to categorize, and while I'm grateful for the boys and sports fans who may be drawn to my books, I can't help hoping that the work is more universal than that.) Starting with our parents, our older siblings, our teachers and coaches. Then leading on to Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone and Shaq and Robert James Waller telling us through words or ACTIONS, or just by posing for the camera, what a man or a woman really is.
Role models are fine, and useful, but they're just so damnably limited. There is a not-so-subtle value attached to the selection process. We have already made our statement when we pay somebody a zillion dollars to stand up there and reflect back down on us just what we think perfection is. Stallone doesn't make the statement, he has nothing to say. We make the statement by putting him up there.
It's the sameness, and the artificiality, of our icons that hurt.
There aren't a lot of flute players up there on the American Marquee. You don't see James Galway saying, "I'm going to Disneyland."
But there are a lot of flute players out there reading. And artists, and scientists, and just plain individuals who want to relate. This is what we can do, we who are privileged to write for a living, who are further privileged to write for teenagers. We can just trot out the tales. Because in books you find such an infinitely greater variety of styles and characters and thoughts than is available any place else, that eventually every reader will find himself validated. That is life. Beverly Hills 90210 is not.
Which is why -- completely aside from any personal gain -- I press my publisher to get the books out there wherever they can. Because it takes a whole lot of small novels to equal the impact of one Wesley-and-Woody action buddy flick.
My method, for getting at what I'm trying to get at, is to write it all the way. I get as deep into the lives I write as I can, and I report what I find there whether I like it or not. Once, when I spoke at a school for emotionally troubled kids, a student stood up and pointed at me, smiling. "Everybody you write about is weird!" he said.
Everybody. Is weird. I liked that reading. I thanked him, then took it further. "So are you," I said. "And so is everybody else in the room. The difference is that a novelist has taken the people in the books, and has opened them up for your inspection. Under there, under the carefully groomed surface, is the stuff that keeps each of us from being just another person. It is the stuff that makes us 'weird' in your version. It is the stuff that makes us special in mine." I am convinced that every last one of us has some version of the weird stuff under there, that nobody's life would stand up under novelistic scrutiny, and that hauling it out for public consumption can only make us seem less freakish to each other over time.
There have been a couple of occasions when I've been questioned about my version of literary excavation, about not the topic, but the degree. The first was in reference to the scene in Shadow Boxer when the boys watch the video of their father taking a brutal beating in the ring. The question was: Don't you think that's enough? I mean, we get it, so couldn't you make the scene less savage?
I didn't even have to think about it. That scene absolutely had to hurt as much as I could make it hurt. The experience I was trying to deliver was that of a child witnessing a strange man beating his father to a pulp. This is not gratuitous. This is what the child of every boxer eventually has to see. It struck me as the most shattering of all possible experiences for a kid, and if it didn't hurt -- bad -- to read it, then I wasn't delivering the emotional experience I was trying to deliver. I still don't know if I did enough to deliver that scene.
A second, similar query came up when I was treating the subject of hazing in Slot Machine. Same question: Isn't that enough, already? We get it, so can't you back off?
Of course not. This is precisely the story the novelist is here to tell. Not the CNN headline news blip, hazing is a bad thing. That's just the passing story when a kid drowns in an accident every few years. No, the novelist is there to tell the story that goes on year after year after year, about the thousands of kids who didn't drown but had their heads held under water until they almost drowned. About the private, methodical, sadistic humiliations that reduce human life to much less than what it ought to be. That is the real story, the one we need to tell. And if you say "Stop now, we get it," then clearly, you do not get it.
So the hazing victim, the broken-hearted witness to violence, the kid who cannot emote, the ugly kid, the flute player, the slow kid, the freak, the gimp, the wicked child, all who don't meet the criteria of mass media wonderfulness -- these are the people we write stories to, for, and about. Because the test of that wonderfulness is bogus, and one way or another most of us fail it.
The test is a fraud. We don't have to take it. As long as we talk about it, we are empowered.
Let's talk about it.
Author of Shadow Boxer and Slot Machine, Chris Lynch made this presentation at the 1995 ALAN Workshop. His latest novel, Mick, is reviewed in this issue's "Clip and Files."
Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Lynch, Chris. (1996).If you show me yours, I'll show you mine.The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 1, 7-9.