a conversation with myself

 

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Life, the Website: On Writing a Public Diary

Maddie

(Originally written on 2/12/2000 with a postscript on 11/3/03. I do believe that creating this website transformed my life.)

December, 1998: So there I was in the Amazon jungle, in a long boat on the Rio Napo, speeding between Nowhere and Nowhere Else. My arm was swollen with the sting of a nameless angry insect.

For days, rain had pounded our tiny enclave. When the generator was running the six of us — strangers — sat in a small circle of light swilling the Chilean wine that some cultured Fitzcarraldo thought would go well with insanity. When the generator cut off, we lay naked and sweating under mosquito netting, willing ourselves to dream of cool breezes. Was this my Heart of Darkness? As our boat plowed against the current and the rain blew against my face, what struggle consumed my soul?

I know, Susan. You were whining to yourself about work, at an institution a thousand miles away. No one appreciates you. No one will ever recognize your contribution. You thought you were leading a revolution but all you wound up with was a big chaotic mess. It might be sorted out if you continued to work 80 hours a week but will it ever make a difference?

It was true. Like all the great heart of darkness stories, my enemy wasn't the pitiless jungle but my own pitiful life.

Okay, Susan, enough melodrama. Get specific.

Before the jungle, Jim and I had been in Quito. So much of the art we saw revolved around trying to define "our village" and "our people." Who are we and how do we relate to one another? It was all over… in folk painting sold on street corners and in classy collages on display in museums and sold in private galleries. We loved it. We located Oswaldo Viteri, one of Ecuador's few internationally known artists, and spent an afternoon talking to him and his daughter about the creation of Ecuadorian art by a people who were neither European nor indio — the mestizaje… a new people.

I felt so bland, so colorless. I wanted to paint my village, either full of figures telling their own stories or abstractly like a Tibetan mandala. But every time I thought about it, the center held nothing but my place of employment. Except for Jim, my family would have to drift somewhere on the edges. And my friends… what friends? They'd all gone away except for those relationships that were all tangled up with work. My village was a pretty empty place.

Blah, blah, blah. So you were a boring, empty shell. You cultivated a face so bland that  you had an existential crisis in the middle of the jungle and no one noticed. So you went home and decided to impose your crisis on a billion internet users, right?

No, no, no. I decided to keep my private journal as a way of controlling my negativity. What I really wanted was to pour myself back into writing international thrillers — an escape. It wasn't till I did an internet search on journal-writing tips that I discovered people were bold enough to keep diaries online. The idea attached itself to my psyche like a blood-sucking lamprey. It was insane, it was angry, it was self-destructive… it was my Sheltering Sky, Kit losing herself in the desert to be ravaged by a handsome Bedouin, no turning back.

But first…?

But first I had to find all the pieces of Me. My last creative moment had been when I sent off the final revision a novel to my agent in September 1995. I had labored over versions of it since 1988. Mad in Pursuit.

There'd been other titles along the waySmugglers' Road, Karakoram — but for the last revision I went searching for something with more punch and better pedigree. A Shakespeare sonnet from high school English worked its way to the surface: The expense of spirit in a waste of shame. I found the poem. Yes. My characters chased each other all over Asia, perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame, savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust. And then the phrase Mad in pursuit… I had my title.

So when I began to pull all my writing fragments together after Ecuador I printed out the novel and fell in love with my characters all over again. Mad in Pursuit: a perfect domain name. Yes, that clinched it. I was madinpursuit — of course I'd go online with my life. There was no other choice. And I would disguise myself as "Maddie."

I'll tell the people how you became "Maddie." It was, ha-ha, a logical play on words. But then haven't you thrilled to the idea that you look a tiny bit like Cybill Shepard, who played Maddie Hayes on your old favorite "Moonlighting"? Admit it, you aging vainglorious darling.

Okay, okay, I still wanted to be larger than my life. I didn't care if I had to create someone totally new. And why not lie? It was my village to create, with all my artistic energy. You were there to be impressed. I could write a novel pretending it was an online journal. A great idea: take one of my travel diaries and post it one entry at a time, as if it were live, but instead of traveling with a sweet compatible man my online persona would be traveling with a troublesome husband who'd get into trouble on the side and be secretly chased by a vengeful predator, with whom my persona would have an affair — a pedestrian diary slowly turning to terror. Nice idea but I got all tangled up in the point-of-view issues.

I was making it all too complicated for myself. Besides, I didn't know jack about putting a web site up and figured I better just get some content out there. My design was done in black and white and I was terrified of graphics (didn't know a .gif from a .jpg). But there I was… out there, on the edge, exposed. I meditated upon my hit counter.

And nobody came.

Groan. Another damn learning experience. Another damn invitation into the heart of darkness. Why can't I ever be an overnight success? Why can't I be a natural?

But of course you were doing this for yourself so it didn't matter, right?

Yes, I was "doing it for myself" but ...what's the point of being exposed if no one's watching? (Question: if a person takes off her clothes in the forest and no one's looking, is she naked?) Being anonymous didn't help. No circle of friends and family could give me an initial boost or form a core of loyal readers.

As I review this history I realize that I always wanted to create art. Just building a pretty repository for my day-to-day observations wouldn't satisfy for very long. Gushing out my emotions might be good therapy but it was poor art. There had to be some kind of forward momentum. I understood — whether I talked in artistic language or marketing language — that my site needed character and dramatic tension. It had to move from the whining and ranting to making something new happen.

Yes, I needed a character, but the character I needed to develop was not a fictional, fantasy person… it was ME.

continued>>>

IN A NUTSHELL

born: 1948
mate: yes
kids: no

...

As our boat plowed against the current and the rain blew against my face, what struggle consumed my soul?

ANOTHER STORY

I started writing my first novel in fifth grade when we moved to a new neighborhood and I didn't have any friends. It was my own rendition of Nancy Drew, the free spirit who solved mysteries.

I wrote in pencil on 3/4-size loose-leaf pages, held together with chrome rings, between covers decorated with wallpaper samples. I wrote through fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, gradually gaining readers among my new friends -- readers who looked forward to new chapters and endured my endless revisions.

I did illustrations too and commissioned one of my more talented girlfriends to do some.

My manuscript went with me everywhere. From adults I only remember a sort of mild disapproval. My father read it once and used the word "rambling" but mostly they all just thought I spent too much time alone and didn't play enough. There was only one woman who spoke with me seriously about it. Her name was Bernice Walsh. We met at a picnic. I had done my required swimming in the mud-bottom lake and had settled on a lawn chair to write. Bernice joined me and spoke to me like I was an adult and she clearly respected my endeavor. I loved Bernice forever.

I wrote and I wrote. By the time I got into high school my manuscript was 304 pages. During the first week of English, Sister Cathlin began to teach us the elements of a story: plot, theme, characters. Beginning, middle, end. To my horror, I discovered my writing was all wrong. I hadn't known any of the rules.

So I pitched my manuscript into the trash.

***

updated 12.11.05