Why I Write Fiction Or How To Make A Spectacle Of Yourself
I used to write poetry. I also used to wear glasses, or, to be precise, I used to not wear glasses. Pathologically insecure, I compounded my isolation by refusing to wear glasses because I thought they made me look bookish. Of course, I was bookish, but I did not want to appear bookish. In my neurotic self-imposed myopia, I set about further damaging my eyesight, reading books undercover by flashlight, rebelling against the ten o’clock lights out rule in my dormitory.
I inhabited a dangerous phantasmagorical world in which sweatshirts draped over ladderback chairs transmogrified into night beasts. Daytime tables lurched into my hips. Astigmatic walls transformed themselves into arches. My eyesight which could transmute the inanimate world into a writhing, looming, swerving, crawling world of form and color could also take the fun out of funhouse mirrors. In Art History class, El Greco’s hallucinatory figures contracted into conventional proportions; I could not understand what the fuss was all about.
Without my glasses, I did not see the world as others saw it. At parties, I waited for people to recognize me. They rarely did. Thinking me snobbish or dim-witted or lost in a maze of my own corner-turning, wall-groping thoughts, my peers wisely ignored me at mixers, figuring that through either deliberate pruning or natural dispensation, I clung to walls like ivy. While waiting for someone to peel me off the walls, I discovered patience. With time to fill, I retreated into that fibrillating tiny maze of my own thinking, and there poems discovered me.
As a former unsuccessful and near-sighted poet, I cannot speak for accomplished, clear-sighted poets. But I can speak for myself. Poems happened. While I hugged walls and blurry figures wove madras plaids of color on the dance floors of my adolescence, poems occurred. I lived in a world of “seems not is” because I could not see except in my interior world.
Sometimes poems manifested, unfolding into my seclusion entire pages my hunt-and-peck would later transcribe. I did not feel as if I had summoned the poems; I felt as if they had summoned me. Living in a visionary world in which radiators unpleated like noiseless accordions to bruise a passing thigh, a world in which trees lost their branches instead of leaves and became brown funicular smudges against the latest horizon of glazed snow or eye-smarting spring green, I made peace with the fantastic. The fantastic was ordinary, and I turned inward where I navigated through words and phrases, bumping into the occasional adjective. I understood the world like a dirty sock understands the hamper – from the inside out. Turned inside out, I waited for the outside to come in. Sometimes it did – in the shape of teenage boys’ faces which, nearer, became clearer, or in the shape of poems which printed themselves in my high school literary magazine, or in the shape of my teachers’ lectures. I always sat in the front row to squint at the chalked scansion, the plot diagrams, the page assignments. Had I continued to write poetry, I might have discovered the seriousness of apprenticeship, the years of craftsmanship the art demanded.
Instead I went to college. I bought my first pair of contact lenses, and I discovered that there is a there there. Tables and radiators became themselves. The dancers of my adolescence became people with plaid flannel shirts. The walls recovered their architectural integrity. El Greco’s figures elongated. I continued to read books, but I also began to read faces, the eyeroll, the averted glance or the grin that explained others to me as well as my effect on others – not always a pretty sight.