Picked up an engaging book on life and writing at an estate sale a few weeks ago. I had never heard of Lynn Freed, much less read one of her five novels or her award-winning short story collection The Curse of the Appropriate Man (a title, by the way, I desperately wish I'd thought of), but I was immediately drawn to the picture on the front cover of her collection of essays Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home. An attractive and proper, if rather stiff-looking, young girl in a starched, green dress holds a small, leather suitcase. She stands just inside the door of, what I gather, is her home. In a minute, I imagine she will leave her home and enter "the world," where many a splendid and exciting and joyful and rotten thing will happen to her and where "experience" may wrinkle her properly-ironed dress and give her much "life" about which to write.
The second thing that drew me to Freed's book was its subtitle: Life on the Page. I heard this phrase awhile back, on an NPR program. I forget the author who was being interviewed (though I know it was a guy) or the interviewer (maybe Terri Gross, host of Fresh Air), but whatever the circumstances, the phrase "life on the page" was uttered and I fell in love with it. I couldn't get it out of my mind. I wanted to rename my blog "Life on the Page" but couldn't figure out how to transport all my old posts into a new blog or change the web address without losing everything, so I let it go.
But this phrase has stayed with me. There are a few other phrases I keep with me, pulling them out when I need a boost of inspiration: "writing the vivid and continuous dream" (John Gardner), "To write simply is as difficult as to be good." (W. Somerset Maugham), the first lines of books I love. And from that day, I starting carrying this phrase with me, "life on the page," just a little nugget to admire, to contemplate, to wrestle with . . . and here it was again.
So I bought (rescued) Freed's book from the estate sale, where, clearly, no one else could ever appreciate the slim collection of essays the way that I could. Later that day, while waiting for my boyfriend's granddaughter to finish swimming practice, I devoured Freed's memoir, unable to be satisfied by beginning with page one and reading through to the end, in a logical order. Like a box of chocolates, I dove in, reading snippets from different chapters, tasting a paragraph or to, searching for the goodies I knew awaited me inside. And Freed did not disappoint. I haven't finished the whole book (box of chocolates) yet. I've been saving a bit back for a day when I really need it. But I have a little taste I'd like to share, a morsel of sweetness to enjoy, from a chapter on using one's family history and life experience in one's writing:
The role of ruthlessness itself--the sort of pathological ruthlessness that even the mildest of writers can reveal when having to choose between truth and decency--this, I would say, is primary. It involves not only the obvious indecencies, the revelation of bathroom habits and petty adulteries, but, more than this, the revelation, through the story, through the characters in the story, of the human condition itself--its sadness, its absurdity, its loneliness, its familiarity. Is there a safe and decent way to accomplish this? I don't think so. If it is done right, someone will get hurt.
'Everything we write,' said Adrienne Rich, 'will be used against us, or against those we love.'
'Everything you do is deliberately designed to cause your father and me as much hurt as possible,' complained Doris Lessing's mother.
'When I wrote Martha Quest,' wrote Lessing herself, 'I was being a novelist and not a chronicler. But if the novel is not the literal truth, then it is true in atmosphere, feeling, more "true" than this record.'
In a battle of competing truths, fiction, if it is done right, will always win over what fondly passes for fact. Of course it will. It is life on the page. It has made order out of chaos, sense out of the senseless. It has given shape to lives that, without the intervention of the writer, had only the shape of chronology to them--that is to say, one long line.
What a tasty, little nibble of goodness that bit is.