First, thanks to all of you who visit Conversations with Dio. I don’t post here that often. I know readers like regular updates for sites they follow, so I appreciate your interest all the more.
You probably know my more active site is The Jeffersonian, also at WordPress. It’s about politics. I’ve reserved Conversations with Dio for everything else. I try to stay true to the site’s subtitle, Reflections about life and other things we like to think about. That subtitle covers a lot, so I suppose I shouldn’t worry about what I write into these posts.
My problem lately is that I’d like to write some fiction. At least, it’s fiction compared to my normal output. The working title of the book is Zodiac Ultra. I don’t even want to call it a book, as my last book, Infamy, took so long to write. To undertake a whole book may feel like an unwelcome commitment, like climbing a mountain when you’re already tired. Here’s how motivation to write Zodiac Ultra gestated.
A friend of mine asked me to tell her story. I ought to unpack that sentence, as it suggests a few things that aren’t true. I haven’t seen my friend – let me call her Mary – since high school. I did not know her well then. She was in my circle, limited as it was, because she dated someone I did know well: a lifetime friend who manages to maintain relationships no matter what else he’s doing. Everyone who knows him is fortunate that way. He’s the neighborhood gentleman who keeps everyone in touch, except he does it across the whole country.
So our mutual friend from high school – Jonathan for this post – contacted me a few years ago about a book called Project Artichoke, by David Silvey. The book and its author became an important part of Mary’s life about the same time I moved to Boston, in the late nineties. Jonathan suggested I contact Mary to talk about the book, and about how the book’s story came to be part of her story.
So I talked with Mary on the phone. She told me things that, years and decades ago, I would have dismissed, or at least would have questioned skeptically. Jonathan, however, correctly anticipated my interest in Mary’s experience and knowledge. He expected that due to the research and thinking I had done for Infamy, I would not dismiss Mary’s account as too fantastical to be true.
Nevertheless, I declined to pursue the project. I had five good reasons: (1) an unhappy job that absorbed a lot of energy, (2) the need to finish Infamy, (3) depressing, gruesome subject matter for the new project, (4) concern for Mary’s safety, and (5) my family’s sense of security. Now the job and Infamy are past, so I’m left with the subject matter and security. My brilliant, but in the event, not so practical idea was that if I told the story as fiction – true crime if you like – I could manage these remaining issues.
That seems like a great plan, except I don’t know how to write fiction. I say to myself, “Well, you can learn – you’ve learned how to do other things before,” but writing is an unusual craft that way. I don’t like the term writer’s block, perhaps because I just don’t suffer from it. The idea seems like something you might cook up to explain lack of productivity, or simple procrastination. But the creative process is inexplicable, and I recognize that you can block up creative work if you’re not careful. If you try to write fiction when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, you may accomplish just that.
So I start to think about what tools to use, how to get a feel for the plot, scenes required to tell the story properly, and so on. It’s not a simple, straightforward account. It involves David Silvey’s life experience, CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, the Zodiac killer, Bobby Kennedy’s assassin, and Mary’s life experience years later. That’s five interrelated, complicated narrative lines to manage. How do you do that in a form that’s entirely new to you?
Then I think, what if you just tell the story, but change the names? In fact, you only have to change one name – the name of your friend from high school. If you change her name, and you don’t involve yourself with documentary research, you can manage doubts about security. That leaves the depressing, gruesome subject matter. How do you manage that when you stay on the non-fiction side of storytelling? You can minimize it, or face it straight up, or just place it in context within a much larger story. That’s what Rowling did in the Harry Potter series, and her story was for children!
In line with unhappy stories, the last thing I wanted to mention today concerns a book I just finished. It’s called The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, by Donald Wolfe. Its conclusion, based on a great deal of solid investigation and reasoning, is so fantastic that you think: forget Artichoke, I want to tell Bobby Kennedy’s story during the 1960s. We are talking about Dantesque legends of the fall here.
Bobby’s story is the story of America shortly after mid-century. The Kennedy brothers’ deaths within five years of each other mark the beginning of the end for the American project, the passage from a rising, morally ambiguous republic to corrupt empire. Who doesn’t want to hear that history, all the more compelling for me because I came of age during that time?
For all that, I’m confident that if I tell the Artichoke story in a way that feels comfortable, readers will comprehend it. I can’t tell what will happen as the story takes shape in front of me, but I’ll tell you, that’s why I like to write to begin with. If you like to explore, and you can’t or won’t venture into the wider world so easily, inner explorations that occur as you write may take you places even more remarkable. The destinations may prove more memorable as well, and perhaps more consequential.