Married To An Author In Search Of A Character

bks

From Teacher To Businessman To Author

After a career that encompassed teaching at the university level, working as an assistant marketing manager of a bank, managing a corporate division of marketing research at what was then the world’s largest retailer and then serving as second in command at an independent agency, and running the business side of my psychiatric group practice, Julie ostensibly left the official US Bureau of Labor-listed, OSHA-regulated, bring home a paycheck occupational world to focus on taking care of her health, spend more time with the progeny, and resume the viewing of daytime TV soaps she had suspended two or three decades earlier.

This plan survived intact for fully 20 minutes after being put into operation, at which time she took up writing fiction and, before long, had published stories in respected journals (i.e., publications that compensate writers with extra copies of that month’s issue rather than cash), performed readings on NPR’s This American Life, and won both the Glimmer Train New Writer Award and a Pushcart Prize – which writers, their families, and the press inevitably and automatically transform to the preferred “prestigious Pushcart Prize.”

And, I was an enthusiastic supporter of Julie’s writing.

Beyond applauding her work, I encouraged her, for example, to attend writing seminars lasting one to two weeks while I stayed home with the urchins.

I also rode herd on the offspring while she spent every Sunday afternoon at a workshop held in a Hyde Park tavern for almost two years.

One of my Christmas gifts to her was a one week escape from the perpetual interruption that was our family home to a nearby hotel to finish revisions on the first draft of her novel. On her return from a workshop, I surprised her with an office where our guest room had once been.

Now, none of this was beyond what Julie deserved, and throughout our lives together, she certainly made more sacrifices for me than I could have ever repaid. I just want to clarify that, all in all, I was on the side of the angels, or at least those angels with a taste for well written fiction.

From Love Of Her Life To Convenient Character

Nonetheless, in Julie’s stories I most often turned up as the embodiment of one undesirable trait or another or, with even more potential for humiliation (and not that fun, kinky sort of humiliation), one of several tools at her disposal by which to advance the plot. If Julie felt, for example, that one more coincidence would push her story over the border of believability into Thomas Hardy territory or she wanted to avoid invoking a clumsy instance of deus ex machina, then I – or, more accurately, my representation – was her go-to guy.

Despite an unbroken record of being cast as, well, let’s call them flawed characters in her work, I maintained the hope that I would come out looking like a hero in the next of her stories. That never happened.

It was nothing personal. It was just that Julie, like most writers, subscribed to the premise that her own life, the lives of others, and civilization in general are little more than a handy repository of somewhat tawdry but otherwise serviceable raw material from which characters and plots can be formed.1

I once read a New York Times review of Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art – Some Thoughts on Writing that included this pertinent quote from the book,

It’s not a good idea to try to put your wife into your novel. Not your latest wife, anyway.

Oh Norman, you are such a caution. Mailer’s penchant for well-rehearsed pith & vinegar sound bites aside, the cautionary note he sounds is valid — but almost universally ignored by writers, including Mailer and Julie.

My heartfelt, albeit glib take on this state of affairs was this incomplete essay, aborted when Julie fell ill for the last time, that was to have been a gift to her.

You Don’t Know Me

You don’t know about me, without you have read one of Julia’s2 short stories, but that ain’t no matter. Those stories was made by Julia, my wife, and she told the truth, mainly, but no matter.3

I just want to give you my side of things. I also tell the truth, mainly.

Madam, I’m Adam4 – at least in the universe Julia created. Adam, my fiction-grounded homunculus is a strange beast that so resembles its carbon-based predecessor that the minor variations between the two may strike the reader as only an innocent attempt to protect the innocent (or, more likely, enliven the dull) but this maneuver is all the more treacherous for its seeming guilelessness and its almost undetectable nature. This nearly perfect or, at least, “good enough” congruence of fictional me and biological me has created a peculiar variation of Gresham’s Law (originally, “Bad coinage drives out good”) in which the fraudulent creature — the left-handed isomer, the doppelganger, the cloned sheep — displaces the genuine. More about this later.

First, Adam5 is an approximation but, since Julia is neither a hack nor a doe-eyed sophomore in her first creative writing class, not an exact anagram of my real name.

No doubt the allusion intended is to the Adam of Garden of Eden notoriety, but I invariably respond to that name by envisioning Adam, Ben Cartwright’s eldest son on the venerable TV series Bonanza.

Adam Cartwright was smart, good-looking, and stylishly dressed, possessing a suaveness and insight sorely lacking in his younger siblings, the unfortunately named but nonetheless beloved Hoss and the immature, impetuous, and naive but even more beloved Little Joe. Adam also appeared to be no more than five years younger than Ben, his reputed father, but that’s another essay.

Adam, you may recall, departed the Ponderosa for university life in that seat of all things civilized, “back East,” never to return. My personal supposition is that he’s an ABD6 at the University of Chicago where he has just finished buffing that penultimate revision of his doctoral dissertation. Without direct access to Julia’s thought processes, I cannot absolutely rule out some other ur-Adam (e.g., Adam Smith, Adam Ant, Adam West), but I’m still pulling for the Cartwright boy.

Second, Adam seems to share my behavioral history (Correlation=0.87) so it is a short leap to the assumption that the same motivations compel these actions for both of us. Yet, Adam is most often driven by intrapsychic forces that can be accurately characterized as narcissistic and morally pusillanimous while I hold that my drives are, if not noble, certainly more benign than Adam’s.

I suppose I could label the similarity between Adam’s behavior and my own a statistically unlikely but not especially momentous coincidence but for the fact that shrinks like me are all too fond of saying, “There are no coincidences.” It begins to look as though I may am supplying the petard, but hich Julia is doing the hoisting.

Finally, Julia’s Adam (and, by default, mine) is most well known to those folks who maniacally read short fiction pieces from one or another of that muster of peculiar publications known as literary journals, those of Julia’s colleagues subjected to an even more roughly limned Adam as they listen to and comment on various drafts Julia may present the workshops, retreats, writers’ colonies, and seminars she attends, and the listening audience of her National Public Radio readings.7,8 These are not, I’ve found, the sort of folks most appreciative of my literary representative’s particular charms, which, in any case, appear to be an acquired taste.

Adam’s characterologic flaws notwithstanding, I hold these readers accountable for a significant portion of the problem. In conversations between readers and author to which I’ve been privy, there are frequent enough comments connoting polite disbelief that Adam, who typically serves as the protagonist’s husband, could possibly be so witty, so bright, so (and here I quote an anonymous patient wise beyond her diagnosis) “hilarious to live with.”

These same readers apparently experience no cognitive dissonance, ponder no enigma, note no paradox in regard to Adam’s constricted emotional core, his inability to reach out to others, or his blithe dismissal of his wife’s feelings as she suffers, variously, from a horrid first marriage, an ungrateful daughter, cancer, the requisite lack of recognition in her work, and the obligatory meddling mother. Those negative qualities in Adam you folks (and you know who you are) can envision; the funny, clever, downright delightful stuff – not so much.

While Adam is typically featured as supporting cast in these gigs, Julia has once tapped him for a more central role. In that story, Adam is an accountant, a profession which traditionally identifies one as, what shall I call it …, really really dull.9 Of course, that may be secondary to the fact that ol’ Adam is, in this story, dead. Not “dies in the story,” or “is dying in the story,” not emotionally dead, not spiritually dead, not even tragically dead – just dead by the time the story opens. Moreover, Adam has been categorized as an accountant and killed off solely as a plot device to provide the widow and kids the opportunity to more fully grasp the understanding of the universe and to more or less bravely carry on with life. One has to admit that Adam is a team player.

And that brings up another thing. Given Adam’s utility (not everyone can lay down that perfect sacrifice bunt), why isn’t Adam’s archetype on salary? How did authors arrange it that we poor souls they trap in this literary Bermuda Triangle not only automatically sign on to be characters in and provide local color for fictional pieces but do so for free? Why are we who labor in the vineyard deemed ineligible for wages, let alone benefits and perks? Is there no Emancipation Proclamation or, at least, a minimum wage provision for literary objects? Those who pose for painters are paid and justly so. I would maintain that providing the ore that is refined into Adam subjects me to far more exposure than a Rubenesque model risks posing nude for an artist. Moreover, it is not trivial that these men and women who enter into such modeling contracts typically do so voluntarily. I do not recall that our marriage vows10 included a stipulation surrendering access to my life to further the art of fiction. Perhaps writers have read too much into Pirandello’s title, Six Characters in Search of an Author, and now believe that such attentions are a benefit and a favor to those about whom they write.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to work oneself into much of a lather about the nefarious economic manipulations of the writers with whom I’m familiar. From my observations, writers, at least writers of non-blockbusters, operate in a universe governed by these immutable axioms:

  • Success is defined exclusively by publication – and publication is valid if and only if it is funded by someone else. Being published by a vanity press, unless it belongs to Vanity Fair, does not meet criteria for success, regardless of sales numbers or profits.
  • Rejection letters are not created equal. From Axiom #1, it would seem to follow that no rejection letter from a publisher could be considered a success. Nonetheless, the variations of rejection letters do define a spectrum which ranges, on the negative side, from devastating along an asymptote to the opposite end of the scale, which, at its extreme point approximates affirmation. After much study, I have derived a few principles that explicate the operations of rejection letters. Form rejection letters, for example, are bad, and the more terse, the worse. A handwritten missive, in contrast, even when scrawled on a form letter, is inevitably interpreted as immoderately encouraging. This includes messages that suggest the author consider whether the nobility of honest, manual labor might not be preferable to the inevitable disappointments of a third-rate writer. I suppose that a writer might have trouble finding the silver lining of a handwritten phrase equivalent to “You are a no-talent bum whose work evokes in me the sense of gagging on maggots,” but anything less concrete is likely to be seen as a compliment of the first order. A rejection letter which laments, however hypocritically, that the current submission cannot be currently used is treasured. Those rejection notes which, in addition, request that the author submit future efforts are frequently framed and given places of prominence adjacent to that picture of Jesus with the eyes that follow you wherever you go in the room.
  • The author must be true to his/her art, resisting mightily and noisily the temptation to write to the publisher’s overt or covert prejudices.
  • Publications that sell well trump those that don’t sell well; published works that win prizes trump published works that sell well but don’t win prizes.
  • It is a given to writers that
    (a) Decision-makers in publishing who are idiots devoid of empathy, literary sensibility, or even the rudiments of humanity, and who live in the past or, somewhat less often, in Ivory Towers.
    (b) The last confirmed sighting of a representative of the once-populous species known as the discerning book-buying public was in upstate New York on March 17, 1955.
    (c) The remaining customers are either governed by the dictates of the Barnes & Noble/Borders/Amazon cabal or by a compulsive need to buy books with covers in colors that coordinate with the living room couch.
    (d) He or she (the writer) could churn out best-selling books if he or she were willing to sell out and produce sensationalist page-turners about serial killers with a few self-help aphorisms and maybe a recipe or two thrown in.
    (e) Members of committees that award prizes for writing are biased by nationality, racial lines, personality clashes, and, most likely, sexual perversities.

So – the success a writer has in the activity most central to his/her life is a function of an irrational system that proscribes adaptation to the demands of that same system. One could argue this is common to all artistic endeavors. To be a great chef, for example, one must be true to ones culinary core but appease food critics. The difference is that a chef is at least allowed to fund his/her own restaurant and appeal directly to the customers. Authors who fund their own publication have, by definition, already lost.

Consequently, it is a bit of a stretch for me to characterize writers as wily connivers who take advantage of those of us who contribute characters to their stories. This does not mean these authors do not take advantage of us; it just means they are not especially wily or conniving.

Perhaps we could emulate professional athletes and take the case to arbitration. By my calculations, if I won, I would likely be rewarded approximately 6% of Julia’s take, which translates into about $6.33 in hard cash and a box or two of complimentary issues of obscure literary journals – if I got a piece of the gross. If, instead, it were 6% of profits, my share would be a bill of $20,000-$30,000 to cover costs and lost wages.

Also see Leonard Cohen talks about having “exploited relationships”

sep3

Julie Showalter

Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.

Note: Originally posted April 3, 2006 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

__________________

  1. Any reasonable and thoughtful individual realizes, of course, that the actual raison d’etre of life is to serve as random content for psychoanalytic sessions. []
  2. Julia is a pseudonym; her real name is Julie ________. The easiest way to reach her is via e-mail: [email protected]. Some might argue that Julia affords suboptimal protection for an author whose actual name is Julie; others, those more sympathetic to the plight of those who serve as models for an author’s characters, might respond that changing the name of the main character of quasi-biographical revelations from Aaron to Adam affords even less protection. Of course, still others might point out that the content of this footnote makes this argument moot. []
  3. For those of you who haven’t had much to do with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn since it was required reading for that sophomore English class in high school, I’m subtly letting you know that this is a fairly clever takeoff on the first lines of that book, which in the original are “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” []
  4. Just a warning; I’m one of those still amused by palindromes. One of my patients persists in the belief that this penchant is the sole reason I prescribe her Xanax instead of Klonopin. []
  5. the notion of selecting a character’s name calls to mind a wonderful and surprisingly useful phrase from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, “… listen, Colonel Bat Guano, if that is your real name …” []
  6. All But Dissertation []
  7. One such NPR fan is a Hollywood actress who plays a supporting role on a moderately successful sitcom; one would hope she might be sympathetic to the plight of Adam as the dispensable side-kick (“Tonto, go into town and get beat up” “OK, Kemo Savvy”), but my hunch is that rather than identify with Adam, she views him as an insensitive dolt. []
  8. Julia, by the way, has also developed a dynamite imitation of the NPR show’s host, a performance that has become popular on the writing workshop circuit. []
  9. Notwithstanding the fact that our own accountant is pretty interesting, spending a significant portion of his time, for example, as a member of a rather famous and successful professional racing team, I’m pretty certain that “accountant” in this story is used as the equivalent of “dead long before he was buried.” []
  10. Our wedding vows, incidentally, are a central feature in yet another story in which Adam’s performance is, all too predictably, shameful. []

Leave a Reply