Writers on Writing #89: Jason M. Jones
Barcelona—In flagrante delicto
1. You plan to write a novel called Barcelona. The idea comes late at night while you’re listening to a Rufus Wainwright song. The song seems to be about a man who goes to Barcelona to die. You’ve been to the city, and you’re moved by the idea of death juxtaposed with the warmth and beauty of this Spanish metropolis. You picture a middle-aged man in a suit with a cape, haunting its corridors late at night. You listen to the song over and over. “Crazy me don’t think there’s pain/in Barcelona.” You can hardly sleep, excited by the idea. 2. You begin with: “A thin man, who has come to choose this city for no other reason than that its name radiates warmth, emerged from the underground into Las Ramblas, the bright nighttime sheen of this celebratory street suspended momentarily by rainfall.” You like the alliteration. The sentence rolls off your tongue. It’s a good opening, one you think will grab a reader’s interest. You continue plugging along with the first chapter, but it’s this first line that sticks in your mind. Already, you’re dreaming of critical raves, movie deals, who’ll direct or be cast to play your characters. Scorsese. He likes music. He could take an interest. But you can’t imagine the actor. Your character is middle-age, and Hollywood likes young actors. Maybe a stage actor, though you don’t know any stage actors, so it sullies the fantasy. 3. Still, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Writing your book is the first order of business, and you’ve only figured out the opening. That thin man, who is he? You aren’t sure. You go back to the song, the novel’s spark. The song is by Rufus Wainwright, and Rufus Wainwright is gay, so you make the character gay. He’s a gay man who’s gone to Barcelona to die. So he’s dying of AIDS. But no, that’s trite. A gay man dying of AIDS. Yet, maybe you can do something new with it, play with conventions, subvert stereotypes. But if you’re not gay, can you write a gay character? Write what you know. That’s what writing teachers say. But your life is ordinary. The last thing you want is to write about yourself. 4. “…who has come to choose this city…” Why don’t you just say, “who chose”? It’s more concise. You revise. “A thin man, who has come to choose chose this city for no other reason than that its name radiates warmth, emerged from the underground into Las Ramblas…” Then you keep the rest. You still like the nighttime celebratory sheen part of it. It sounds lyrical when read aloud. Sonorous. 5. Your new girlfriend Maggie knows you’re a writer, and she’s supportive. She works in the same bookstore as your roommate, buys you books with her employee discount, and listens to you ramble as you work out the novel’s story. Being a writer isn’t the first thing you broadcast when you meet people, but friends know it’s your dream. A writer writes, and you don’t need to posture like you’re a writer since you’re doing it. You sit at your desk each night and type, and acting a certain way to let people know you’re a writer would be pretentious. Then again, you worry it’s pretentious to worry about pretention, and you worry that worrying interferes with writing. It’s going slow now. The first chapter was easy. The second lacks focus. You’ve created a character, but who is he and what does he want? 6.Character sketch: Mephisto—the thin man; haunted by his past; adopts pseudonym from Faust to hide identity; no real name (e.g., Dostoevsky’s underground man); formerly an opera singer of some notoriety who never achieved the fame he strove for; feels he has no control over anything but the setting of his death; wanders and observes and meets people; has brief interactions that invoke reflections on how he got here (e.g., Mann’s Death in Venice). 7. Epigraph: “The experiences of a man who lives alone and in silence are both vaguer and more penetrating than those of people in society; his thoughts are heavier, more odd, and touched always with melancholy. Images and observations which could easily be disposed of by a glance, a smile, an exchange of opinion, will occupy him unbearably, sink into the silence, grow full of meaning, become life, adventure, emotion. Loneliness brings forth what is original, daringly and shockingly beautiful: the poetic.” [Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. Kenneth Burke (New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 1970), 18.] 8. What an awesome epigraph! 9. You met Maggie in the bookstore while visiting your roommate. You walked by the counter and noticed this pixie of a girl with big brown eyes, a hipster fairytale princess. She looks likes Michelle Williams crossed with a younger version of Dianne Wiest, circa Hannah and Her Sisters. “Who’s that?” you asked your roommate. “That’s Maggie,” she said. “All the guys want to know about her.” 10. “Am I a writer?” 11. For the past year, you’ve been working part-time as a proofreader for a medical publisher—irregular hours and no benefits. You make enough to cover meals and rent, but not much more. It isn’t that you aren’t trying for full-time work. You’ve been going on interviews, but the economy’s bad, and there’s competition from other new graduates. You worry a downturn might reduce your meager pay to the point where you can’t keep up with rent. Each time you go for an interview and don’t get the job, you feel worthless, like you’ll never find your place in the world. You also worry about what you’ll do if you get sick without insurance. Each passage you proofread illuminates some new affliction you might suffer from—cancers and brain diseases. You check for discolored moles and lumps on your testicles, and panic each time your heart beats a bit weird. You worry any moment you could die of an aneurysm, and writing this novel is the only thing that keeps you grounded, makes you feel your life has purpose. 12. For research, you study Stonewall, the riots, marches. You read about the beginning of AIDS, Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On. You watch documentaries on the disease. You meet an older gay man in your neighborhood who lived through this and interview him. Then you see Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and you’re both riveted and devastated. It’s exactly what you want to write. You need to rethink things. If it can’t be this amazing, it has to be different, cover new ground. Your hopes are diminished. You know you’ll never have that kind of ownership over the material. Still, you won’t give up. You’re too invested to abandon the project despite these reservations. 13. Of all the guys who ask about Maggie, you’re the one she ends up with. It happened over the Christmas Holiday. Maggie’s from Florida but couldn’t get off work to fly home, so your roommate invited her to stay at your apartment. She got sick with the flu and you took care of her—made her food, ran to the store for medicine. She started to stay on the spare sofa in your bedroom, and after she recovered, you kissed her. You’d spent all your time together that week, and she felt it too. On New Year’s, after going to a friend’s party, you and Maggie slept together for the first time. She was only the second girl you’d made love with, and it was wonderful, but afterward, she cried. She was concerned you’d lose interest now that you’d gotten what you wanted, but you held her and reassured her you wanted her, not just sex. You realized you love her, pictured waking up next to her every day for the rest of your life. 14. To go forward, you have to go back. You begin chapter two with Mephisto heading for Parc Güell where he encounters street musicians. Since his diagnosis, M. has given up on music, but the sound of singing takes him back. He’s a child in elementary school, auditioning for the choir. It’s a Catholic school, and a nun has each child sing alone. The boy discovers he has talent, or rather, the nun discovers this. He doesn’t think his mother will let him be in the choir, but the nun says she’ll try to convince her. He goes home and tiptoes around. He’s wondering if the nun called when his mother announces she’ll let him participate. He’s overjoyed. They have a yard, and the boy goes there and sings. He wonders what the nun heard, how it sounds to others. He isn’t sure, but he’s glad his voice makes people happy. The art gives him hope, purpose. 15. Wait. Is it cliché for M. to have a strict mother? Is it overdone? Does it point to nurture over nature as the reason for his sexuality? Will readers dismiss it, question its veracity? 16. You have another job interview—the first since you and Maggie started dating. It’s for a production assistant position with an academic publisher, and you get your suit on and practice answering questions. Still, you feel unprepared. They ask questions you don’t anticipate. “If you described your work habits in the form of an animal, what animal would you be and why?” You wonder if they expect you to take this question seriously. Would they have more respect for you if you laughed and called them out on how ridiculous it is? “I guess I’d have to say a hyena.” “Wow, we’ve never had a hyena before. Why?” “Well, at my current job, I scavenge for work. I have to walk around asking the editors if they have anything for me to do. Then I clean up other people’s messes, live off their scraps.” The two women glance at each other. You can tell you’re bombing. They don’t see you as a viable candidate but a psychopath. Hyena? Really? What were you thinking? When you get out, Maggie’s waiting with a bottle of Jameson. She gives you a card, inside of which she’s sketched a checklist. □ Got the job, woohoo! Let’s get drunk and celebrate. □ Didn’t get the job. Screw it! Let’s drown our sorrows in whiskey. You won’t find out until Friday, but you appreciate the gesture. It’s typical of Maggie’s sweetness. But even this gesture can’t erase the embarrassment of choosing hyena. 17. You don’t get the job. 18. You spent five days in Barcelona while studying abroad in college. It was mid-October but still warm enough for the beach, and starting chapter three, you have M. head to the sea where he’ll meet a young opera fan he connects with. You need to give him grounding in the city, someone to show him around, but mostly, you want to spend time at the beach, return to memories of when you were there. It seemed so easy then. You hopped a train with friends and went to different cities whenever classes let out for the weekend. You still consider it the best experience of your life, the one you reflect on when things get tough. You have M. see the things you saw—Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, but for now, he’s at the beach, toes covered in sand, salt water washing up over his feet, respite from what ails him. 19. A week or two after the hyena interview, your boss at the medical publisher calls you into her office. “We’re going to have to cut back your hours.” Her voice is soft, there’s no conflict in the tone, but she seems nervous. “Anything over thirty is considered full-time, and yours is a part-time position.” The truth is, working full-speed only provides 15 hours of work but you stretch that to 32 and you’re worried they’ve discovered this. “So how much can I work?” “At most 25.” You start to calculate. 25x10=250x4=$1000/month. 30% for taxes. That’s $700. Rent’s $350, gas $30, electric $50, the transit pass you need to get to the office $75. On a good month, this leaves $195 for food, or just around $6.50/day. Plenty of people survive on less, but living paycheck-to-paycheck wreaks havoc on your nerves. Some weeks you can only eek out 15 hours. You go to your company’s website to confirm what she said and realize their real reason for cutting your time—policy requires they provide full-time employees with benefits. This infuriates you. You can’t wait to find regular employment and tell them what they can do with their Mickey Mouse bullshit. 20. “Not since Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.” – Francine Prose, New York Times Book Review, Notable Book; “Read it, and you’ll feel altered, chastened—seared in the fire of something new." – Washington Post; “Comedy and pathos are braided together with extraordinary skill in a haunting debut…riveting intensity and originality.” – (Starred) Kirkus Reviews. 21. Fuck that guy. 22. Maggie buys you Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and you’re stuck on the first four pages. Not the first four pages of story, but the first four pages of blurbs. You’ve read critical blurbs before. But they’ve never bothered you this much. Maybe it’s because Foer is only two years older than you, and they’re talking about him like film critics talk about Orson Welles. Or maybe it’s because you only worked ten hours this week and have no cash to take Maggie out and this other guy from the bookstore has been flirting and moving in on her under the guise of “friendship.” Maybe it’s because you’ve had two canker sores this past month, and you’re worried it’s indicative of some greater issue you can’t get checked out because you don’t have health insurance. Or maybe it’s because your own writing on former-masterpiece-turned-jumbled-mess Barcelona has ground to a halt while you second, third, and fourth guess every choice you make. It doesn’t matter. You don’t stop to analyze. You just feel rage growing with each effusive endorsement of Foer’s talent. “It’s bullshit,” you say. Maggie’s in the room, listening to music, while you leaf through the gift. “It’s hype. You can’t really tell how good it is. You might decide you hate it, ‘cause everyone loves it. But then, if you love it, do you love it ‘cause you really love it, or do you love it ‘cause critics say you should?” You stand and pace. “I’d prefer to read it without these.” You rip the first four pages out, grab Maggie’s lighter from the desk, and set them ablaze. She stares, dumbfounded, as you hold the flaming bundle in your hand. It was impulse. You didn’t have a plan, and you zone out as the pages curl toward your fingers. You try to keep cool as you search for a place to stash them, shifting focus from the trashcan to the window. Maggie looks confused. It’s likely she’s wondering what set you off, why you’d react like this, if it’s her fault. You’re not sure if it hurts or scares her or both. But there isn’t time to reflect. You walk to the bathroom and drop the pages in the tub. 23. An hour later, you’re both laughing like this was a joke. You both know it wasn’t. 24. You write more of M.’s history, his first love, his first kiss with his best friend David and David’s subsequent rejection. From the literature, it seems archetypal to have this happen near water (i.e., Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room), since the boys are naked, glistening. At the summer’s end, he leaves for New York to study voice and meets a Chinese girl who’s studying opera too. They become friends and she pursues him. Hu-Tieh, you call her. It means Butterfly in Mandarin. And even though Puccini’s Butterfly was Japanese, you have them reenact parts of that tale. They go on a date to see opera at the Met. They make love, and though it’s pleasurable, it doesn’t feel right to M. He misses David, considers writing a letter but doesn’t. He meets one of Hu-Tieh’s friends, a boy who can sense M.’s true desires. He and the boy become involved. His sexual identity awakens just in time for the plague that hits that city in the early-80s, but he’s lucky enough to avoid it. By the late-90s he’s in love, in a monogamous relationship, but his lover betrays him, infects him. M. survives the war, only to fall in its aftermath. 25. Statistically speaking, the virus isn’t easy to contract. Around one million people in the U.S. have it. With a population of three hundred eleven million, that’s 0.7%. Of course, you can’t tell who has it without testing. But 0.7% makes your chances of contracting it slim-to-none, and they decrease further with condom use. To contract it, you’d have to be oblivious to how it spreads or a moron. So this makes you a moron. 26. By March, you and Maggie have stopped using protection. You’re not sure how you made this decision. One night, you got drunk and started fooling around. You slid inside her without protection, and she didn’t object. Now it’s a regular thing. You’re both guilty of negligence. You don’t talk about it. You’ve only had one lover and she’s had six. You’ve exchanged sexual histories, but you never ask if she’s been tested. You figure you love each other. If you’ve made a bad choice and end up infected, you’ll get through it together. But this isn’t likely, right? Statistically speaking… 27. You have your third canker sore in two months. You’re at a bar with a friend, and as you drink, you tongue it. The pain reminds you you’ve made a bad choice. You tell your friend: “I’ve had three canker sores in the past two months, man. What could it be? I mean, you think it’s an STD? I mean, it’s not AIDS, right? I mean, could I have AIDS?” “It’s either that or herpes, you filthy motherfucker.” 28. Are you becoming your character? Risking yourself to empathize? Did you stop using protection to put yourself in a position to identify with him? 29. You don’t actually know anything’s wrong, but you worry you might be dying regardless. You go back and forth. You have it, you don’t. You think of her six other lovers, one of whom you met, some grimy douche with a “Death or Glory” tattoo. You throw yourself into your novel to cope. If you’re going to die, you want to leave something behind. But nothing’s working there. The flashbacks are solid, but the parts that take place in Barcelona are flat. The characters he meets won’t come to life. Your descriptions of the city come off sounding more like a guidebook than skilled prose. It might as well take place anywhere. It might as well be chronological, but you’d lose the essence of reflection, your character’s creating meaning by examining past mistakes. You find yourself devoting more time to writing his past than his present, and your writing’s never better than when you write yourself into him—his first love affair; his insecurities about whether the other person loves him; his worries this person will betray him. He calls himself Mephisto because he’s lost control of his life. Mephisto plays the trickster in Faust, the puppet master; he controls the flow of the action. Your character wishes he could be like that. 30. In your downtime, you research the sores. Their exact cause is unknown. It could mean you’re using the wrong brand of toothpaste or have too much citric acid in your diet. Then again, it says stress is a major factor, but that wouldn’t apply to you now, would it? 31. Cold sores and cankers are separate afflictions. While cold sores are caused by herpes, cankers aren’t. Ergo, it isn’t herpes. 32. By summer, Maggie is spending more time with her coworker Dick than you’re comfortable with. It’s obvious he’s attracted to her, and if he weren’t living with his girlfriend of six years, you’re certain he’d make a move. You’re not sure how to react. You’d like it if Maggie recognized how much it bothers you, but she seems oblivious. “We’re just friends” she assures you whenever she comes home from the bar, tipsy and smelling of cigarettes, and you wonder if she’s really this naïve. Instead of saying, “Maggie, it bothers me,” you resort to mind games. When you have company over, everyone hangs out in your roommate’s room, and you retreat to your own to see if she follows, timing how long it takes her to come see what’s wrong. If you want to sleep with her and she’s not in the mood, you take it as a sign she doesn’t love you. And although you hate yourself for it, you sulk. When she asks what’s wrong, you shrug. You’re not enough of an ass to admit what’s upsetting you, but you’re enough of an ass to be an ass about it. 33. Novel? What novel? 34.Character sketch: Dick—32, ten years older than Maggie; lives with girlfriend K. who’s studying for a doctorate in Comparative Religion; collects action figures, comic books; hangs out in bars with kids in their early 20s; smokes; drinks despite diabetes; wears a chinstrap beard that looks like dirt because the hair won’t grow thick enough; wants to sleep with your girlfriend; takes the “nice guy” tack of lamenting how sad he is that he and K. are drifting apart; deserves a swift kick to the gonads (e.g., Tim Robbins’s ponytailed, patchouli-stinking interloper in High Fidelity). 35. Canker sores can also imply a compromised immune system. 36. You’re losing your shit, but you don’t explode until Maggie returns from a mid-summer trip to Florida. You meet her at the airport, take her luggage. She’s tan and beautiful and once you get back to your apartment, you make love. The separation has reinforced how much you care for her. You’ve saved to take her to dinner that night, but she tells you she promised Dick they’d hang out. “What the fuck!” you shout. She looks at you like she doesn’t understand the problem. “It’s a group thing,” she says. “We’ll all go out together.” But now you’re shouting like a lunatic. “You ever think your boyfriend might want to spend the night alone with you after he hasn’t seen you for a week?” “I’ll cancel,” she says. “No. Never mind.” Dick’s been hanging around, waiting for you to screw up, and you’ve finally obliged. 37. If she’s sleeping with Dick, she’d stop sleeping with you, right? She’d use protection? And what about Dick. Is he clean? Does he have his shots? 38. The end begins right as you land a new job. There’s an editor slot at the same company in the same department where you had your hyena interview. You don’t realize it’s unusual to apply a second time after they’ve turned you down once, and the two women who interviewed you before don’t recognize you. On one hand, this implies you’re not memorable. On the other, your rehearsed answers sound fresh. “If you described your work habits in the form of an animal, what animal would you be and why?” “I’d be a zoobidijoop.” “I’ve never heard of that. What’s a zoobidijoop?” “Don’t know. I made it up on the spot. I can think on my feet and improvise.” They glance at each other and smile and bring you in to see the president. “Haven’t I seen you before?” “I interviewed in May.” “Why would you come back a second time if I didn’t hire you the first.” You gamble. You’ve been cautious every interview, and it’s gotten you nowhere. You maintain confidence, look him in the eye, and say, “You made a mistake. I’ve giving you a chance to correct it.” 39. You start in September. You have health insurance from day one. You don’t have AIDS or herpes or any STDs. 40. Maggie mentions spending time apart. You recognize this has nothing to do with Dick and everything to do with your behavior. “Is it over?” you ask. “No, I just want to figure things out.” You take this as a sign you can win her back. Dick’s girlfriend K. is pregnant, so you think he’s out of the picture. Now that your health is clear and you’re making steady money, you can focus on her. She still stays at your place, though most nights she sleeps on the couch. You no longer lose control and burn the pages of books or fret over sores, but she still spends a lot of time with Dick. 41. When K. miscarries and Dick breaks up with her, you realize you and Maggie are done too. Dick can pursue her now without any qualms. You try to shame him: “Who would date a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend right after a miscarriage?” “They were drifting apart,” Maggie says. “Yeah, and we invaded Iraq ‘cause Saddam has WMDs.” 42. You were screwed from the get-go. You weren’t ready for love, not with her. When you hear they’re dating, you’re nauseated, depressed. You hit bottle hard, listen to sad-sack music. 43. Amidst the commotion, your novel got side-tracked. You pick it up again. You feel you know real hurt, true betrayal. You play the wounded lover, and infuse M. with all your frustrations. You blame yourself, you blame her. If she hadn’t spent all that time with Dick, if you’d felt more secure. The novel’s great, the novel’s bad. You’re not sure. You send the first chapters to your brother, hoping for approval. He recently come out as gay, and his sanction would help. He reads them and sends a critique. “It’s okay,” he says. “Some parts are good. But I’d change that first sentence. It doesn’t hold my interest.” You comb his words. You’re defeated, deflated. The novel’s bad and you should stop, focus your efforts elsewhere, begin again, pretend you’re someone new, somewhere else, starting your life over. 44. You decide to finish the novel anyway.
Jason M. Jones is a writer and editor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The Southeast Review and The Normal School. For more, please visit www.jasonmjones.net.