You are writing a story

by Sam Kriss

You are writing a story.

You’ve always felt that there was something inside you that you couldn’t quite express when talking with other people; while you knew, intellectually, of course, that your insight was in no way substantially different from that of anyone else, while you knew that we are all faced by the same existential questions and that our only difference lies in the way we react to them, while you’ve read enough to be certain that other people have felt exactly the same way as you throughout history, still you’ve always been aware of that chasm between yourself and others, you’ve always been troubled by that nagging feeling that however kind they were and however much you loved them they didn’t really get it. What was worse was that you didn’t even quite get it yourself; all you had for certain was a generalised sense of unease and a fascination with the fact of your own subjectivity; your psychiatrist told you that it was neurosis, as if it was something wrong with your self and not with everything around you, but you couldn’t explain to his satisfaction what the real problem was, so you decided to write it down, because you know that the pen in your hand is the only perfect listener and because you know that what you want to say needs to be reflected on in solitude; you decided to write it as a story because you’ve always loved stories, and because you’re certain that if you can project your problem onto a character you might be able to open up enough distance to be able to understand it properly; you know that there are plenty of literary devices that can help you do this. You knew better than to write in a coffee shop or in a bar, because people who write stories there care less about the stories themselves and more about the fact that they are seen to be writing a story. You write in silence, because you don’t want any emotion from your music to seep into the writing. You write with a pen and paper, because you dislike the hum of your computer’s fan and you know how tempting it is to let a quick spot of research spin out into hours wandering listlessly around the Internet. You set up your writing space: you have in front of you a notebook, two packs of cigarettes, an ashtray, and a small glass of whiskey. You are ready. You begin.

To begin with. A whiteness. Not the white of an empty page. There’s something there already. A swirling mist. Buried in it are shapes. Half-visible forms. Like faces in the clouds. The spectres of things yet to come. The murky forms of all the stories you could write. One long wispy curve could be the serpentine arch of a dragon’s neck or the Ponte di Rialto or the streamlined swoop of a spaceship. In the depths of the mist there are faint flashes of colour. The speckled brown of a war story. The lurid purple of a boilerplate romance. You pull out a good handful of this primordial matter and shape it into a human form. Your character. It stands there on its empty plane, drooping, bipedal, without form and void. You’ll need to sculpt it a little. You yank the hair from her head, pull it down to just short of her shoulders. It’s brown. Her eyes are brown too. The nose – you could play with that for a while, there are so many fun shapes to choose from, but for now you don’t get too excited. It’s crooked enough to have some character but not so much as to be obtrusive. Her face isn’t age-weathered, not exactly, but it’s not a young woman’s either – she’s thirty, perhaps. Still there’s her skin. Right now it’s a kind of shimmering iridescence, it changes tone depending on what angle you look at her from, but she can’t walk around like that, it’d be distracting. You settle on a vague olive shade for now. You can adjust it later, if you need to. She’d need other stuff, too, if she were to be an actual human being, she’d need some subcutaneous tissue, an endocrine system, for instance, and a network of lymphatic ducts, but she’s not an actual human being, just a character, and if you were to cut into her you’d see that below the surface she’s rubbery and skin-coloured all the way through, like putty. If she scrapes her knee she’ll bleed a little, but that’ll just be you telling the stuff to well up at the wound; there are no veins under her skin, unless you decide that one of them should get blocked with atheromas or become varicose. Surveying your creation you notice that she looks uncannily like yourself. Never mind. You give her a name different to your own: Jessica. You pick up your pen and start to write her into the world.

Your story is to discuss matters of consequence: at first you write sentences peppered with semicolons like bullet-holes in the walls of a mosque under siege; clotted with similes that bump up against one another other like passengers on the metro; tumultuous adjectives flow from the seething nib of your fecund pen; your knowingly obscure references proliferate with Tiamat’s fervour. As you go on your verbiage tends towards the sesquipedalian: the orogenic forces of your metaphors grindingly produce lofty and cragged peaks of prose, their higher reaches crowned with the glaciers of your profundity, shining coldly in the crystalline skies that sparkle above the low clouds of the mundane world. In the scabrous lower passes that cling perilously between sheer rock-faces and tenebrous chasms your characters cling terrified to any available purchase, buffeted by your pomposity’s screeching winds, lost and terrified. Jessica is beset on all sides by a cruel and vicious world: the avalanches of personal misfortune are forever threatened by a persistent creaking that emanates from the snowy echelons above, the ground under her feet is perpetually prone to suddenly give way to an abyssal void. There are also mountain lions on the prowl, although you haven’t quite worked out what they’re meant to symbolise yet.

You’re starting to think that this might be bullshit. You’re discussing your character’s place in the real world, after all. You change tack and introduce an everyday scene with words as squat and as squalid as the buildings they describe. On the high street the pavement is speckled with pigeon shit and chewing gum. Half the shop-fronts are boarded up, their faces as obscure and forbidding as the street patois you scatter into your description of the chavs hanging outside an abandoned supermarket, sharing a zoot, indifferently observing the daily life of their endz. A flaking piss-stain hangs like a limp noose down the side wall of McGowan’s Irish Pub, running parallel to the door to Jessica’s squalid bedsit. The stink of ammonia hangs in a sharp fug over your narrative. It’s there in the short vowels and curt demotic language you use as you have Jessica heave her sorry arse out of bed on a windswept Thursday morning. Jessica gropes for the light-switch, but nothing happens when she flicks it. She’s not really surprised: the pile of letters from the electricity company lies by his front door, as obtrusive and unwelcome as a mound of dog turds.

As you search for ways to torment your character, you remember the various small injustices that have befallen you – parking tickets, that promotion that went to the slimy creep at your office when you obviously deserved it, being hassled by police when you had only had one drink and were quite clearly fit to drive. You remember acrimonious breakups and the long periods of alcoholism and loneliness that had followed them. You remember the first time you fell in love – unrequited, of course – and the exquisite agony of seeing his face across a crowded room, happily chatting away at someone else. And, as you probe further and further back, the half-formed memories come out in a viscous flow: you remember the chilly shock of being pulled from the womb, you remember your omnicidal rage as an infant, you remember learning that you could shout words to get what you wanted, you remember the savage terror of the playground when you were a child.

The five-year-old Jessica was gangly and unathletic, with a speech impediment and a crooked smile. She wasn’t like the other kids, and they knew it far better than she did. She wanted to run and shout and play with them, but instead she ran right up against a wall of blank hostility. It was instinctual, of course; they couldn’t have justified it any more clearly than she, but it was there. The actual violence was sporadic but horrifying: one time she brought in a prized toy to school, clutching it tightly to her chest and grinning. One of the others – she couldn’t remember which, they never appeared as individuals – pulled it away from her and pushed her to the ground. She grazed her knee, and cried for a little while, and then stopped; only afterwards did she find a head being kicked across the tarmac surface by an indifferent wind, a trail of cotton stuffing flowing from its neck like the tail of a comet. Then she was inconsolable. Girls can be cruel.

Far worse than the violence was the isolation: the long hours spent hovering on the edges of everything, looking in, hearing a hundred simultaneous conversations scrambled into an amorphous mess of vowels, watching indistinct shapes run at each other while she stayed constantly static. The callousness of the outside world became too much for her, and before long she’d retreated to the school library. It was run by a middle-aged woman who wore colourful sweaters and hoop earrings. She was kind, and let her spend her break times there, drawing abstract pictures in black and grey crayons – at the time the librarian was also going through a protracted and increasingly vicious custody battle; of course Jessica didn’t know or care about that. Eventually it was suggested that with so many books around she might take the opportunity to read a couple of them. At first she was hesitant. She liked to build things: apart from the looping geometric shapes she drew in strict monochrome, she created fantastic landscapes in her imagination, complete with castles bristling with turrets and riddled with secret passages, dark forests where strange creatures slithered inbetween dappled columns of fulvously crepuscular light, vast underwater realms where she could float in restful solitude. Reading seemed far too passive. But she indulged her, if only out of a nascent sense of duty. She read grudgingly at first, then with increasing hunger. She found stories that could transport her away from her surroundings far more profoundly than her own imagination and words so perfectly placed that they had her shivering with aesthetic bliss. By the time she was eleven she was grappling with War and Peace. She never made it past the halfway mark, but for a few months her mind echoed with the clattering of hooves and the crack of cannon and the tapping of shoes on tiled floors. Of course, after a few years she started to emerge from her solitude, and when she read it wasn’t so much to escape the horror of her daily existence as for the sheer pleasure of it. But there was always a part of her that wasn’t quite there. She was never fully engaged with the world around her. There was always something about it that didn’t seem quite right.

Your hand starts to shake as you write, and you find yourself wondering why. None of this really matters, and none of this is really relevant, because it isn’t really yourself that you’re writing. After all, you are only writing a story.