Lots of writers incorporate real experiences from their own lives into their stories. Examples include Torch by Cheryl Strayed, How to Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Strayed incorporated her own mother’s early death from cancer into her first novel; several other details–such as Northern Minnesota as the setting–also mirror the author’s own life. Like Harper Lee, Mockingbird’s main character, Scout, grew up in rural Alabama with a lawyer father. She also based the character of Dill of real childhood friend Truman Capote. Melville used his own whaling experience to inform his epic novel. Although drawn from actual events, these novels are clearly fiction–the main plots and/or important details deliberately vary from what actually took place. I recently came across several books that take a whole new approach: taking events from the lives of historical people whom the author did not know personally and presenting it as fiction.
I first heard about Frog Music by Emma Donoghue through Goodreads. A friend gave it a glowing review, so I decided to add the novel to my “to-read” list. When I found myself dangerously close to finishing Frog Music, I decided to wander the shelves of the public library in search of my next conquest. I ended up with two–Radioactive by Lauren Redniss and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. I chose Radioactive mainly because of its bright colors. One glance told me it was a biography of Marie and Pierre Curie in picture-book form–I was instantly hooked. Z had popped up on my Goodreads Recommendations after I had read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and a friend had placed it on her own “to-read” list. When the title jumped out at me from a real-life library shelf, I decided to take it as a sign and read the book.
Frog Music is a historical novel which explores the murder of Jenny Bonnet near San Francisco in 1876. Bonnet, a quirky individual infamous for wearing pants, is shot to death through a window by an unknown party in the opening pages. The reader then follows Jenny’s friend Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer/prostitute who really likes her job, as she tries to move forward by finding Jenny’s killer as well as Blanche’s own missing son. In the meantime, Blanche (and the reader) keeps getting pulled back to her memories of Jenny and the events that ultimately lead to her death. I was entranced by the dual journey as well as the many songs from the era which are sprinkled throughout the novel. I thought the plot was very fantastical and inventive–a trio who ran away from the circus, a woman who wears a suit even though her occupation is catching frogs, baby farms! It wasn’t until I’d actually finished the novel and moved on to the Author’s Notes that I realized this was based on a real historical event. I was shocked. To be fair, many important details–such as the identity of Jenny’s killer–are imagined by the author, but the broad facts and almost all the characters in the story are actual circumstances of the case and people whose names came up when Donoghue was researching Bonnet.
Although Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout is essentially a picture-book, I wouldn’t say it’s meant for children; it is just that the narrative is related as much through art as it is through words. Much of this artwork was created through a process called cyanotype which evokes x-rays and radioactive elements (both of which play a part in the tale). I delighted in the story of love in the midst of scientific discovery as well. Redniss precludes her narrative with a disclaimer :
I think this is brilliant–Lauren Redniss is simultaneously proving that she’s done her research–she knows what she’s talking about–and admitting, that although this story is made up almost entirely of plain facts, it is still merely Redniss’s version of events rather than a “true” biography.
I was not expecting to like Z very much. Hemingway’s description of Zelda Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast had prejudiced me against her. The concept itself also seemed a little presumptuous to me–it’s one thing to speculate about the particulars of a long ago murder or to present someone’s life as a tragic picture-book fairy tale. It’s a completely different thing to follow the in-and-outs of a real-life person for 20+ years–to write as if you know the inner most thoughts, hopes, and fears of a woman who spent much of her adult life in the limelight. I mostly decided to read the novel simply because Fate seemed to demand it. I would like to take this moment to thank Fate; I am so glad I read this book. I understand that Therese Anne Fowler has no way of knowing what Zelda was actually thinking when she met Scott Fitzgerald, or relocated to New York or Paris, or gave birth to her only child. Therese Anne Fowler couldn’t possibly know what was going through Zelda’s mind when she decided to become a prima ballerina at 27 or when she was first admitted to a mental institution or diagnosed (many now believe incorrectly diagnosed) of schizophrenia. And yet, I believe her. Reading a novel for me is all about suspending my disbelief–if you can convenience me that, within the rules of your written universe, everything you tell me is possible and even logical, then the battle for my love is already half won. Therese Anne Fowler was able to convince me for 375 pages that I was privy to what Zelda Fitzgerald née Sayre was feeling and thinking at different points throughout her very eventful life. Fowler obviously conducted just as much research as Donoghue or Redniss and it showed in the fullness of her fictionalized Zelda.
The funny thing is, I didn’t mean to read 3 “real life as fiction” books in a row. It just sort of happened. I love stumbling into unforeseen connections like that; it’s what makes wandering so rewarding–if you are willing to keep an open mind, who knows what you may discover?
I’m currently working my way through Rags and Bones, an anthology of short stories written by various authors and edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt. Each contributing author was asked to take one of his or her favorite stories, strip it down to the essence—the rags and bones—and use that to write a new story. To date I have read reimaginations of “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, “The Man who would be King” by Ruyard Kipling, and “Sleeping Beauty”. Actually, I’m not 100 percent sure if that last one was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White—Neil Gaiman employs both characters in “The Sleeper and the Spindle”.
One story in particular caught my interest—“The Cold Corner” by Tim Pratt, a distant cousin of “The Jolly Corner” by Henry James. Both stories explore a darker side of my theory that our experiences shape who we are. Instead of focusing on the current person, both James and Pratt focus on the “ghosts” left behind by the decisions we didn’t make and the experiences we never had.
“The Jolly Corner” follows 56-year-old Spencer Brydon as he returns to his childhood home [read “mansion”] in New York City after having spent 33 years abroad. Once home, Brydon begins renovating the larger of his two (yes, two) family mansions into an apartment building. Brydon finds, much to his surprise, that he is actually pretty good at this. He becomes reacquainted with childhood friend Alice Staverton and wonders aloud what he would have been like had he chosen to remain in New York City and become a business man rather than seeing the world. Alice hints that she knows exactly what would have happened—she has seen him in her dreams, but won’t give Brydon details. Brydon becomes obsessed with the idea of who he might have been and begins prowling the Jolly Corner—the smaller boyhood mansion which is not being renovated—at night in an attempt to catch his other self. I won’t give away the ending here, but “The Jolly Corner” is in the public domain and can be downloaded or read online for free.
“The Cold Corner” takes a different approach. Tim Pratt wrote about his adaptation, “It seemed to me that, if it were possible to meet the ghosts of our possible lives, there wouldn’t be just one ghost—there would be dozens, scores, maybe hundreds, sharing some essential qualities, but radically different in other aspects” (Rags & Bones 113). Terry “TJ” Brydon is a “six-foot-three, former-high-school-football-playing, Southern-food-specializing [bisexual] chef” who returns to his small North Carolina hometown after placing fourth (a.k.a. losing) a popular reality TV cooking show in California (Rags & Bones 90). Once home, Terry finds himself face-to-face with himself not just once, but three separate times. Each apparition is slightly different from the “real” Terry—one has a beer belly, one is dressed in a flannel lumberjack shirt, and one has a wife and baby. The third apparition directs Terry to a bar called TJ’s Place. Terry does so and finds a building full of himself: pool player TJs, former pro-footballer TJs, carpenter TJs, even a meth head TJ. Terry finally gets an explanation from the bartender—yet another TJ: this is a place where all the variations of Terry “TJ” Brydon get together, compare notes, and discuss the versions who are either dead are have moved too far away. Get your hands on a copy of Rags and Bones to find out what happens next.
I found the idea of ghost selves intriguing. It also got me to thinking—what would I be like if I had grown up in a different town or attended a different college? What if I had not joined the AmeriCorps or decided to move to Green Bay? How many ghosts of me are there? How many more are to come with choices I make in the future?
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!
Logon to a job website. Search for recent jobs. Find one with potential. Scroll down to “requirements”: 3-5 years of experience. *sigh*
Other times I seem to find the perfect entry-level position. I send them my application and wait. I dream peacefully of a more certain future. I wait. I find more jobs with less potential. I apply to a few. I check my email multiple times a day just to see if that perfect employer wants to set up an interview. I receive “not selected to proceed” notifications from other potential jobs, but no matter, because the possibility of that perfect position is still alive. I keep waiting. I don’t apply to anything for a week or two, because really what’s the point? Then one day, about a month after I applied, an email pops up in my inbox. “Thank you for your interest in our company; however the position has been filled.” Disbelief. Disappointment. Realization that of course I didn’t get an interview—I applied to that job ages ago. The next few days pass in a haze of frenzied job searching. I apply to jobs that I don’t really even want because I don’t know what else to do.
So it made for a nice change when a potential employer actually contacted me. My online resume had hit buzz words on some HR search engine and he sent me an email. A new position had opened up at his company. It wasn’t exactly close to home, but it wasn’t that far away either. It would mean some commuting, but that wouldn’t be so bad. What kind of job was this, anyway? A marketing job. Marketing—maybe it was writing commercials, designing billboards, maintain social media—I could do that. I decided to accept their request for an interview. I felt powerful, valuable, worthy.
I walked into the lobby for my interview and found myself in a room full of well-dressed people. “Are you here for the job interview?” asked the woman seated behind a small desk in the corner. The interview? “Yes, I am,” I replied. “Okay. Find a seat and fill this out.” She handed me personality assessment. There weren’t actually any seats to be found in that lobby, at least not any that didn’t have someone in a suit-jacket filling out a personality assessment. There had to be about 20 people in that little room. What kind of interview is this? I filled out the paperwork and handed it back to the receptionist.
After a few minutes, we were herded into a small conference room and debriefed: this business sold life insurance and was looking for a few new salespeople. This would involve travelling to private homes and selling policies to people in their own living rooms. Umm…what? I am not a salesperson. I do not like forcing people to make decisions. I am also very good at getting lost, so asking me to drive around to unknown locations probably wasn’t a good idea. Why am I here? The current employees finished with their presentations and opened the floor for questions. Then they let us go saying, “We will call you sometime this evening if you are chosen for a private interview. I crowded out the door with the rest and drove off with one thing on my mind: I do not want this job.
I did not get a phone call that afternoon. I wondered if they would call those who were not chosen to let them know. I did not get a phone call the next morning. Maybe they would send me a rejection email. I’ve received lots of those. That afternoon, however, my phone rang: I had been chosen for a private interview, could I come in tomorrow? Yes, I could. The internal argument started once I hung up the phone. You don’t want this job. But the job wanted me. You aren’t a salesperson. They thought I was. Maybe they were right. You have no experience with this. I had no experience with anything. Why not give this opportunity a chance?
The next morning I chose a professional-looking outfit, straightened my hair, and even dabbed on some makeup. I drove back to the life insurance office and walked into a much emptier lobby. I was told that of all the people who had filled out the personality assessments, I was one of three who had made it this far. That’s pretty cool. Perhaps I was valuable.
I was led into a small office where I was interviewed by a balding man in a dark suit. I have since forgotten the majority of the questions he asked me, but one stood out: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What drives you? I don’t know. That’s why I am writing blog: I am lost, at least for now. I do not know what exactly I want out of life or what I want to do with it. I do not know who I want to be. I skirted the question, but my interviewer kept coming back to it. Finally, I told him I was motivated by what I do not know. The search for who I am and who I am becoming is my reason for being. I get out of bed in the morning because I want to see what little discoveries are in store for that day. Also, if I stayed in bed all day I would be bored out of my mind.
My interviewer did not like that answer, “But what drives you?” he repeated. That’s when it hit me: he’s going for someone who wants to make money. The ideal candidate would be someone who could be relied on to make sales simply for the commissions. I am not that person. I am not right for this job and I definitely do not want it. I told my interviewer that I was driven by the desire to make my parents proud of me. He nodded. It wasn’t the answer he wanted, but it would do. He had discovered what he needed to know. A few minutes later, he walked me out to the lobby. I thanked him for his time and strolled out the door, never to be heard from (or contacted) again.
I’m glad, now, that I did go to that interview. Not because I wanted the job, but because it made me realize what I didn’t what and who I don’t want to be and sometimes that is just as important.
I am 25 today, and I’m not sure what that means.
When you turn 14, you’re officially allowed to get a job. (At least, you live in Wisconsin.) At 16, you get a license and maybe a car. At 18, you become an adult—whatever that means. You can vote and get a tattoo and (in Michigan) you can get into the casinos. When you’re 20, you are no longer a teen. At 21, you can legally drink alcohol. But what is 25? Is it just a number?
When it comes to anniversaries, 25 is big. More than big—it’s silver. I don’t feel silver—not shiny, not expensive. I believe I am valuable in my own way, but that’s just an opinion.
Maybe I’m looking at this wrong. Maybe I should be looking at my best friend. She too is 25 today. She is not my twin, we are not related. We have been best friends since we were 7 years and 10 months old. Today, she has no college degree, some debt, a fiancée, and a child. I have a B.A., a small mountain of debt, no significant other. I don’t even have a full time job. But what does any of that mean, anyway?
And maybe that’s too narrow of a focus. There are lots of people who are 25. Taylor Swift, Jordin Sparks, Daniel Radcliffe, Chris Brown, Hayden Panettiere, Liam Hemsworth, and Mathew Lewis are all 25. Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson, and Chris Colfer will all be 25 before the year is over. But that’s still too narrow of a focus because all those people are ridiculously famous.
Today I am 25. I have 364 days to answer that question. Wish me luck.
“There is not Nature versus Nurture. Nature versus Nurture is stupid. Really it’s Nature AND Nurture working together,” so said my college genetics professor. In truth, I hated genetics class—the subject material was so microscopic and complicated that I just couldn’t get my head around it. My professor explained that in high school, we learn just enough about genetics to make us “stupid” regarding the subject. (She REALLY liked that word.) I passed, in the end, but I swore never again would I take another “microscope class”. The whole Nature + Nurture thing actually made sense to me though. Even after graduation, I’ve thought about it a lot.
The way I see it, Nature is a combination of your physical self and your personality. It is the part of you that cannot be controlled. For example, I am 5’2” high. I LITERALLY have a different perspective from someone who is, say 6’2”. When I say “personality,” I mean how you inherently react—like fight or flight. I would describe myself as a “by-the-book rebel,” in other words, I follow the rules, but I strive to do so in my own way. Ella from Ella Enchanted is my hero. My classmates all thought of me as a goody-two-shoes, but my teachers didn’t see me that way. On my sixth grade report card, my teacher described me as “belligerent” and when on to say I had my “own mind—good and bad thing”. I did have my own mind. My classmates thought I was a “good girl” because I did my homework and didn’t party. I saw myself as a quiet rebel because I did the exact opposite of everyone else. Even though I’m now in my twenties, that drive to be my own unique self hasn’t gone away.
My definition of Nurture is your environment—the place you live, the people you interact with, the things you read or watch or listen to, the way you spend each day. I grew up in a small tourist town in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Our population would double from June to August when the summer people would relocate to their cabins Up North. For a long time, I was a waitress at a year-round resort. It was through this job that I learned to cut a pineapple, clean a bathroom, properly make a bed, and interact with customers. I went to college in the small Iowa town where my father grew up. This meant that even though I was technically on my own for the first time, I was actually surrounded by more family than I had left behind. After college, I returned Up North and became an AmeriCorps member for a school on a nearby Ojibwe reservation. I had thought, before my AmeriCorps experience, that I knew about Ojibwe culture. After one day at the school, I realized that I was completely mistaken. This epiphany opened my eyes and allowed me to become an eager learner.
Who I am today is not who I was in the sixth grade, or when I graduated high school, or even after I had finally earned my bachelor’s degree. Every single experience I’ve ever had has been filtered through my eyes and my ears, my heart and my soul. Someone with the exact same life experiences as me would not coalesce into the same person I am. I know this because I am the oldest of four children and even though we grew up in the same environment, we are each our own person. Sure we share similarities, but we are not identical. And so, even though I only ever half-understood anything my genetics professor said, I do agree with her that Nature and Nurture are both factors in the “making” of an individual. Moreover, because each day is different and brings with it new experiences, I believe that who we are is constantly changing. I am not exactly who I was yesterday. I am not yet quite who I will be tomorrow. All I can do is experience each day and discover who I will become.