Fake News

My last semester in college, I took a creative non-fiction workshop on Wednesday nights in a class of all women, taught by a woman scarcely older than I was at the time. There was some odd symmetry to it. I started college at a Women’s College. I finished in a classroom without men.

I had a hard time taking the class seriously. I joked a lot, which was at odds with my earnest classmates, all of whom younger than I and most afflicted with a taste for what was then called emo. They wrote stories about beautiful angular boyfriends that cried and how veganism made them beautiful angular girlfriends and the perfect beauty of a butterfly wing beating in tempo with an Ani DiFranco on a summer morning during an internship at an organic farm. I wrote stories about shoplifting bodice rippers from Lord’s Drug Store when I was nine (true) and how when I was twelve, I got fired from cat-sitting for the famous child psychiatrist next door by inviting all the boys in the neighborhood over to play with his extremely cool vintage collectible pinball machine (also true). I felt like a drunken elephant harrumphing around a china shop full of  exquisitely damaged porcelain figurines. This was not uncommon. Conventional femininity is a lot about being delicate and whenever I tried to perform it, I usually just ended up tripping over myself, tumbling down a grand staircase and destroying something priceless.

I had not, as they say on TV, come to make friends. I’d arrived at the conclusion of an endless, contentious and frequently abysmal college career. The writing class was literally my very last class. When I got around to submitting for the last workshop, I decided to write, in particular, about how college had been, about the lowest moment of my horrific undergraduate career.

At the time of the class, I vastly preferred writing fiction. I’d written a mostly awful gothic novel about homeless punk rock kids, family pressures, and Gilded Age ruins in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d won a literary award in college for a stream-of-consciousness short story I wrote about doing crystal meth at boarding school, which was hilariously cliché, and everyone believed was autobiographical. It wasn’t. I considered Creative Non-Fiction a euphemism for literate “truth” that blanched at first sight of a fact-checker and a cynical marketing ploy to sell mediocre autobiographical novels. I’d received plenty of criticism in the class thus far for my failure to delve deep into the endlessly gentle, endlessly suffering thing that a girl at my former college had tattooed on her arm after misunderstanding TS Eliot’s “Preludes” (or perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats”). They wanted misery and they wanted it to be beautiful and sexy. They refused to believe that anything as banal and petty as I ran away from home because my dad wouldn’t pay for boarding school could possibly be true. Which was both deeply weird and weirdly flattering.

So, the story I turned in was about 70% fiction. It took place in my actual old apartment. It described a bar I did go to. It mentioned songs that existed in the world—songs I liked, even. And I had certainly felt the way I described myself in the story–empty, lonely, impossibly depressed, deploying a lot of gallows humor to create (ironic?) distance between myself and crushing despair. The plot line, however, followed an entirely invented evening of various self-destructive behaviors and a boozy, low-lit sexual encounter with a flatteringly scruffy amalgamation of several dudes I knew, all dialed up to a solid 11.5 on the Nan Goldin-style beautifully/seedy meter. It made a better story than the reality of chastely contemplating suicide over a Cook-Out Tray in the Piedmont Triad. And if I were truly  not vulnerable and tragic and real enough for my professor or classmates, I would happily serve them up a whole pile of horseshit in their preferred scent profile.

I had plenty of practice making things up. I’d spent much of my young life lying through  my teeth. Sometimes this would start with something simple. A polite white lie. A bit of gilt on the lily. The sort of fanciful exaggeration my family–a rogue’s gallery of writers, politicians, peddlers, socialites, and bullshit artists of the first degree–might call  a melon ball.  An offhand anecdote, spurred by an attempt to enliven a conversation. A false admission so I might better fit in or seem cool. You can make a lot of friends nodding along about a neglectful punk rock boyfriend in California ,even if you’ve never had a neglectful boyfriend in California, even if you’ve never had a boyfriend at all, even if you’ve never been to California, and 99.9% of the time, no one asks follow-up questions, because most people, especially young people, are mostly just waiting for their turn to talk about themselves. Sometimes the tales transformed with time into things that required complicated infrastructure and timelines and character sheets. They were cinematic, evocative with scenes so richly imagined I could describe the scent of the air, the way the ground felt under my feet.

Eventually, I grew out of the lies and tired of the care and maintenance they required. Sometime around the bottom of the abyss, on a night very much like the night I’d fictionalized for non-fiction class, I realized I’d reached the limits of invention. I no longer took any pleasure from the ersatz versions of my life and I couldn’t get any of the old razzle-dazzle to work on my actual lived circumstances. Human beings are, after all, annoyingly unreceptive to authorial intent. I could neither imagine my way out of unhappiness nor make art out of  the boring, irrational, endless days of sitting up until five am listening to the same five songs waiting for a different final verse.

I stopped lying when I was depressed  because  I had to stop telling people I was cool and fine if I were going to make it.The whole time I’d assumed, eventually, they’d call me on my shit. They didn’t. People have their own shit. They don’t want to work out your inconsistencies or analyze your word choices. They generally prefer a good tale to boring truth, as evidenced by the whole world over the past few years, as evidenced by my creative non-fiction class.

If I’d had the slightest concern at being called out for making up my assignment, I needn’t have. My fake evening having fake sex with fake guy were the only parts of the story that rang true to my classmates. They lauded me for the brutal truth of my descriptions of the sexual encounter, the heartbreaking honesty of my richly-imagined conversations, my precise recounting of the laundry list of self-destructive behaviors I never actually partook in. Very brave, my professor said, if only the parts where you describe your state of mind were so honest. And then she went on to describe the actual true parts as too remote, too dry, too full of ironic distance. This doesn’t feel like something written by a person who has been depressed. You write about pain like a vapid hipster.

I think I just rolled my eyes and said something pretty close to exactly oh well, whatever, nevermind. She gave me a B in the class, the lowest grade I’d ever received in a writing workshop. I didn’t care. I graduated.  I believed—and perhaps still do– the only way I could write really honestly about anything, was to do so through fiction.

Seventeen years after my non-fiction creative writing workshop, I find myself writing a lot more creative non-fiction than fiction. Not just stories, but statuses and posts and blogs and tweets. Social media wasn’t a thing when I was in creative non-fiction workshop. I couldn’t have foreseen a world in which I’d feel obliged to curate a multimedia memoir installation all the time and every day in order to maintain a professional reputation and register my presence as A Person in The World. Facebook and Instagram and the rest offer truth in the most soft-focus, Colbertian sense. There’s certainly risk of a call-out—the internet gives those inclined all the tools they need for fact-checking—but who has the inclination or the time to call out everybody. A fellow memoirist recently told me, on the sly, as I was hemming and hawing over my lack of material for a theme-based submission call, that a good non-fiction piece really only needs to be about 70% true.

 I wasn’t shocked about that. I even couldn’t be depressed about it. A 70% true story in 2018 looks pretty good, right?[1] I wanted to look at him and say, the reason I stopped writing non-fiction for so long is that best-received story I wrote when I was young was only about 30% true and no one called me out on it. I didn’t. I was sure it wouldn’t have surprised him.

Truth rarely makes for satisfying narrative. We forget our epiphanies when we have them (sometimes because they’re dumb). Our intuition fails. Our will rarely rallies against distraction, let alone catastrophe. Suffering does not necessarily make us stronger. We’re undone by small tragedies far more often than we triumph over the large ones. We resist change. We don’t get rid of things, and when we do, we tend to pick, if not the wrong things, then the easiest to throw away. For many of us, life is an excruciating re-watch of a movie in which the protagonist continually makes all the wrong choices. And even as we yell passionately from the other side don’t open that door, don’t have that drink, don’t text that guy, don’t stay at that job, don’t let people treat you like that, she, or rather we go on, doing the stupid thing over and over again.

People like a snappy ending, a triumphant conclusion, a real sense you’ve overcome, you’ve survived, that you’re stronger, better, wiser.  I’m not always good at those.  I try to cleave to what happened, to what I remember, even if what happened was unsatisfying, banal, and without the requisite uplift. The best thing I can offer is silly, irrelevant anecdotes that end only with the promise that I’m still alive and as long as I am there will certainly be more of the same sort  silly, irrelevant anecdotes. They’re usually true, even if they’re rarely dramatic or beautiful.

Sometimes, in flashes, they’re  even a little bit honest.

 

 

[1] I mean, have you looked at Politifact recently?

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A Brief Word on Melon Balls

After college, my little sister planned events at a historic mansion in the state capitol. The house sat at the center of a lush city park in the center of a once-shabby, since-gentrified historic neighborhood blocks from the Governor’s Mansion, the capitol building itself, and the shiny, unmemorable skyscrapers familiar to any city with a banking presence and a hankering to call itself New South. Local preservation groups had, over the years, collected a village worth of historic buildings—an old chapel, a clapboard store front, a cottage that had been the birthplace of the second-worst American president named Andrew–and moved them onto the property

Sometimes I would drive out and meet my sister at event conclusion and walk around with her in the damp, green, while she turned off lights and checked the locks on centuries-old doors. My reward was usually a beer at a nearby pub, or an invite to a fundraising gala held on property, despite not having any funds or any way to raise them. I’d show up in a pink satin dress, drink out of a champagne fountain, and run around barefoot in the grass  when the event was upstaged by a thunderstorm, fetching umbrellas for rain-shy dowagers.

The house itself was a more modest version of what you imagine when I say southern mansion which is true of much aptly describes most of the antebellum architecture here in the Vale of Humility. It was also quite haunted, if you believed the stories. My sister ushered paranormalist video crews, of both huckster and credulous persuasions, around the mansion and listened as they recounted their otherworldly encounters.

The haunting came on an otherwise, innocent, sunny afternoon, at another white table-cloth and tiered pastry tray event. As my sister completed her last minute tasks in the parlor, she gave a look to the food the caterers had supplied. The brie room was temperature. The fruit plate, perfectly arranged. But then as she turned to walk away, a single melon ball rose from the plate and levitated across the room. My sister was gobsmacked, and fled the scene before the cursed fruit could find its final rest.

My sister’s best friend at the time was skeptical at the recounting. And after numerous queries, it emerged that the melon ball had perhaps not so much floated as rolled off the  tray, a likely victim of gravity and clumsy caterer handling. My sister’s friend gave her a hard time about it, and henceforth shorthanded that variety of good-story-serving hyperbole, common to our family as  A Melon Ball.

 

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A Thief’s Journal

To begin with, I didn’t steal The Shirt. I got it for Christmas from my Nana, which meant my mother bought it and signed Nana’s name to the card, because lord, shopping takes so much out of you and just go ahead and add that to my account, honey.

The Shirt itself was nothing to write home about. It was silver and velvet and fitted with one of those non-functional, Liliputian-scaled breast pockets that were a thing for about a minute and a half in 1994.  It came from the Gap because, again, 1994, and in those days none of us would have been caught dead in khakis but we’d tacitly agreed it was okay to shop there, because we were doing so ironically or post-ironically and our middle class mothers needed a place to buy Christmas gifts because they were worried we might catch something terrible, like lockjaw or poverty, from thrift-shopping.

I don’t know the exact count on how many people got The Shirt for Christmas that year, but I’m guessing it was a fair number of us, even among the admittedly miniscule student body at my women-only liberal arts college in Virginia. I didn’t think too hard on it, most because by February, I’d basically stopped wearing anything I didn’t pull out of a dollar box at the Salvation army, and so I was surprised when I opened my campus mailbox around Valentine’s Day and found a letter informing me, in police-report style terms that I had been accused of stealing a silver velvet t-shirt, size large, from the dorm laundry room by a girl on the first floor I knew only by her enthusiasm for tie-dyed Dartmouth t-shirts. She reported that I’d been seen wearing something similar “in what looked like several sizes too small and looking very guilty” around campus. I’d appeared to her suspicious, unreliable, weird. Not like the other girls.

That part was probably true. I was fat, as she’d so kindly pointed out. I had purple hair. I didn’t really hang out with my classmates.  I was in the process of trying to transfer. Not like the other girls was my mantra, my raison d’etre. The only thing I had in common with her at all was a silver t-shirt, owned by thousands of girls and probably a few gender-non-conforming dudes.

I figured I’d clear it up in a jiffy. After all, I hadn’t done it. I went to Dartmouth T-shirt’s dorm room. Her roommate opened the door and promptly shut in my face with a she doesn’t want to talk to you until Honor Court, thief. I called my mother. She was livid. She told me to go to the Dean’s Office, which I did. He told me he’d already heard from my mother, my grandmother and the manager of The Gap at the Asheville Mall. Receipts had been faxed. He said I was very lucky to have such a charming mother but none of it mattered because I would be judged by a jury of my peers. They would decide whether I appeared innocent or if I were guilty. They would determine how I should be punished, if I should be allowed to continue as a student at Women’s College or be expelled. “That’s how honor court works. Your friends and classmates decide”

I didn’t have many friends on campus. I said so.  He told me I should be more social, that it would be a shame to squander the opportunity to befriend so many bright young women. He smiled, in this greasy, invidious, limp mustache in a Confederate uniform way, as if to say, you brought this on yourself, weirdo. If you’d just go to an ice cream social like a nice southern girl and learn to ride a pony or something, none of of this would have ever happened to you

I’d never wanted to go to Women’s College. Everyone knew that. Probably even the Dean knew that. But I had no intention of getting expelled either. I’ve always been a solid You can’t fire me, I quit sort of person. I’d survived three years of high school with little more than a few demerits for dress code violation. If I was going down, it ought to be for open rebellion against an oppressive regime or actual commandeering-a-ship-on-the-high-seas piracy, or, like, maybe stealing the horses from my debutante classmates, selling them on the black market, and using the money to pay tuition at a college I actually wanted to attend.

My few campus friends came up with all sorts of interesting small acts of defiance. My downtown friends–mostly boys, and thus truly ambivalent about Women’s School as concept—were bolder. My favorite notion was that  I should find a Steve McQueen type to steal the Dean’s Beemer and maybe drive it into the Chancellor’s swimming pool.  I didn’t know any Steve McQueen types. I had a crush on a red-headed townie that liked weird funny novels. I was pretty sure he didn’t like me back though. Not in that way. Certainly in no way that would lend itself to futile and dangerous grand gestures

But they were all convinced I was innocent. I didn’t feel exactly innocent. I felt, actually, like I’d been busted with the right charge, but the wrong crime. Because I was a thief, just not a thief of silver velvet t-shirts. Instead, I took diner mugs and ashtrays, candles, hymnals, and unattended holy books, the Sunday Times that was still delivered weekly to the professor on sabbatical, dog-eared, mass market romance novels from beach houses and bed and breakfast bookshelves, gas station toilet paper, bank pens, motel towels, drinking glasses, motel ice buckets, Kleenex, dining hall hot sauce, three or four bottles of terrible Chardonnay from an alumni weekend fundraiser, a tray of cubed cheddar cheese and grapes from the same event, cigarette lighters, a semi-functional table lamp left on the  sidewalk outside the admissions office, a broken garden statue from the lawn beside the chapel, a fishbowl full of brightly colored condoms from the university infirmary and a globe sized half-shattered disco-ball left under the Donations sign at a local Goodwill after hours. And that’s to say nothing the stories I was encouraged to steal and weave into fiction in writing workshop. Or other people’s experiences which I pilfered and remade into my own in order to make myself seem less like the total loser nerd virgin that I was at age 18.

Ironically, my friends at women’s college were far more brazen and adept at theft than I was. They could leave Thalhimer’s with a season’s worth of unpaid-for cashmere sweaters under their college logo-ed anorak and confidently stroll into a Virginia convenience store in broad daylight, clearly stuff two bottles of wine and a carton of cigarettes into their shirt and walk outside without as much as a second glance from the cashier. I lacked their audacity. I didn’t have their looks, their confidence or their resources to finagle my way out of getting actually, seriously busted. And sometimes I struggled the square the morality, like, you’re shoplifting five dollar earrings while wearing pearls, right? What gives? But I didn’t say anything, because what did I know? I was, after all, a lying total loser nerd virgin.  And shockingly, they still wanted to be my friend.

The day of my honor court trial my mother took off work and drove to Virginia. She came with my aunt and my grandmother. I put on my nice, non-dollar-box- clothes and brushed my hair. My friends sat around me in the dim of the Administration lobby after hours. We made small talk, bolstered by the occasional—everything will be fine. I watched the yellow plane of light shine under the conference room door and wondered if they’d started without me.

I want to say we sat there for hours, but in reality, it was maybe ten minutes before a few women, upperclassmen, emerged from the room. The dean followed and announced that my accusers had bailed on honor court and as such, the entire proceeding would be canceled and charges against me dropped.  He coughed awkward, gave a little oh, the capricious whims of silly women! shrug and hoped we weren’t terribly inconvenienced.

My mother was furious. My friends relieved. And I don’t know how I was. I stood there in the slant light of the dim lobby, watching those shiny haired girls wander off giggling down the stairs, clearly relieved at not having to sit through another lame honor court, thinking my peers, those girls count as my peers, thinking, they could have expelled me, thinking, is this karma for the cheese tray?

 “You don’t belong here,” said my mother, on the way out of the administration office. “As soon as this school year is over, I promise that you don’t have to come back.”

 I’d spent seven months in Virginia in a state of petulant, overgrown adolescent rage mostly built on disappointment that I could not, for reasons entirely beyond my control be where I wanted or who I wanted to be.  I talked shit about the school for stupid reasons. I catalogued all the reasons I thought I didn’t belong there without ever really believing I really didn’t belong there. And with that thought came the first earth-shifting, discombobulating tremor of what if I don’t belong anywhere at all?

The morning after the mistrial, I found a copy of “The Thief’s Journal” by Jean Genet outside my door

“I think maybe the universe is trying to send you a message,” said one of my friends, when I asked if she’d left it.

“That I should plan a heist?”

“That you should steal away from this place, before someone tries to say you did.”

Three weeks later, at the end of the semester, I left Women’s College for good.

And yeah, I took couple rolls of toilet paper for the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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