Saturday, October 3, 2015

failures as a human and putting it in writing

Writers are supposed to be like comedians in that anything bad that happens to us or any shortcomings in ourselves are supposed to be seen as almost fortunate: they give us something to write about. Louis CK does a bit about how he's just waiting for his kids to get old so he can commit suicide, but in the meantime, he's masturbating a lot and letting his body go, and we laugh because it's really funny. It is. It shouldn't be, but it is.

I've quoted that line by Charles Baxter about hell being story-friendly so often by now the four people who read this blog are probably sick of hearing it from me, but writers are told that when we see weakness in ourselves, we should see it as grist for writing. It's a fortunate failure, allowing us to convert our personal failures into something universal. It's like we got caught eating candy in class, and the teacher said "Did you bring enough for everyone?" only to find that by some Jesus-and-the-fishes miracle, you actually do have enough for everyone.

I guess hooray for everyone, then, except that it still leaves you, the writer, failing as a human. I'm thinking of a specific example. Last night, I was at a small party. A soiree, really. Not that many people, but all really smart people. Some I was meeting for the first time in person, but I knew them from correspondence as highly intelligent folks.

I'm not a big drinker, but I drank a lot. That's not the failure part. The failure is that one guy crossed over, in my mind, the line between funny comments about race (and maybe gender, too? I can't remember. I was kind of drunk) and stuff he just shouldn't have said. I'm of the opinion that you should be able to say whatever's on your mind about race, but you should always say something you would say in mixed company. If you'd say that line with someone of that race in the room, then by all means, say it, however edgy it might be. If it fails, I'll support you for the effort. But we were a gathering of privileged white males.

It wasn't close to the most prejudiced line I've heard, but I think it was out of bounds. But I really just failed to speak up. There were a lot of reasons. I was intimidated as (in my mind) the dumbest guy in the room, I was having a good time and didn't want to bring it all down, it wasn't my house or party, and I didn't want to ruin it for the host, and probably some good old-fashioned moral cowardice. Also, I was drunk. Don't know if I mentioned that. He was probably drunk, too.

My lame attempt to shame him was to bring up my close relationship with specific black people. I think I was trying to intimate, rather than explicitly say, "Hey, man. That last bit wasn't cool." I think my point eluded him. Not surprising; I wasn't anywhere near direct enough.

A fiction workshop would be happy about this and want me to get to work immediately on some kind of vignette about it. The four men, the cigar smoke, the pool table, the one word that made my head snap. (Not THE word.) I should show by actions, dialogue, dress, demeanor, and so on why person one felt it was okay to say such a thing, and why person two (me) didn't lodge the proper protest.

On the one hand, this makes sense to do this. This is the kind of role playing people in ethics training do all the time. You're the dumbest in a group of four people at someone else's party, and a guy you've just met, who is enjoying telling a pretty good story, gratuitously inserts an ethnic off-color line. What do you do?

The problem with these scenarios is that nobody really has time in real life to think of what to do. What's the perfect thing to say? How do I convey that this person has violated what I think is decency in his speech without moralizing? How can I be convincing? I don't want to just lodge a protest to make my own linguistic predilections clear. I want to convert. I can't stop being an evangelical, I guess.

Furthermore, I wonder if writers actually become better people by writing about their failures. If a comedian continues to get laughs from her screw-ups, isn't it a temptation to keep screwing up? You could even justify it as "staying true to who you are" or some bullshit. Amy Schumer's character in Trainwreck finally gets her shit together, but that's the moment when we stop watching the movie. What if the movie continued on from that great final scene, but she's not as interesting from then on? This is what I think the temptation is in writing: to embrace too deeply your own flaws, rather than set to fixing them, because they give you grist for stories.

Ultimately, I don't want to be someone who fails to be brave on a thousand small moral battlegrounds. I want to be someone who does the right thing. Does writing help me to get there? Or does it just offer me a means to forgive myself, or to fix my flaws by proxy rather than doing the hard work of fixing myself for real?

So that this blog entry doesn't become the only thing I do about last night, I'm going to at least e-mail him about what I thought. It's not much, but it's better than letting it go forever.

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