Every year when I do #Nanowrimo, I spend more time thinking about random shit than writing. I’m not promoting procrastination, but I do find writing allows for some serious introspection, so I figure I might as well blog my way through this year’s National Novel Writing Month.
Last year I worked on writing 50,000 words of my next novel, The Trust Pill. I didn’t finish the book, but I did make some headway. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between the two main characters, McKenzie and Jack. One was born rich, while the other was born broke and struggled to become successful. I guess she’s the person I always thought I would be, except that I never became successful at anything except making sarcastic comments. Sadly there’s no money in that. (But WHY NOT???)
Money is the thing that’s always been just out of my grasp, the thing that has always eluded me. Please don’t give me any platitudes about how money doesn’t matter, because I will lose respect for you instantly. That’s easy to say when you have enough of it. It’s easy to say when you’re broke but really good at self-delusion. It is not something I can ever say. I know that money matters. I saw my family ripped apart over a feud about a stolen inheritance. I’ve watched relatives throw each other under the bus for money. I’ve seen elderly relatives abused by caretakers who just wanted to take their cash. I spent my childhood listening to my parents scream at each other about whose fault it was we were broke. I couldn’t have friends over, because my parents didn’t want anyone to see how our house was falling apart on the inside.
I think that’s how I learned to associate shame with money, or rather the lack of money. Although my parents also told me being poor was nothing to be ashamed of, they also didn’t want anyone to see the inside of our house with the hideous seventies carpet and the broken doors and the splintered holes in the surviving doors where the knobs were supposed to be. I remember once arguing with my mom because she refused to mail a letter to my pen pal (back in the nineties we still exchanged letters by snail mail) because I described our house as “green with peeling paint.” But our house did have peeling paint, and although she forced me to erase that bit, I felt the censorship was wrong, and still do to this day. So anyway, guess which one of those mixed messages about shame and money actually stuck? Yeah, that’s right, actions speak louder than words.
Today I refuse to not write something because it makes people uncomfortable. I will always associate lack of money with shame, but I will not try to hide it. I own my shame. I own my failure to build a successful career. I won’t apologize for it. I’m not proud of it, and I fucking hate it, but I won’t pretend it’s some embarrassing secret.
I believe we all do our best writing when we write about the things that make us uncomfortable, make us feel ashamed, the things we want to hide. So I didn’t avoid that when I was writing the character of McKenzie in my book. When we meet her, she’s a successful advertising executive, but she did not grow up with money, and she sort of resents Jack because he did. When she attends a swanky party, she sees only the contrast between the expensive china there and the cheap, scratched plastic plates of her childhood. She silently judges all the people who have never had to work for their money. Meanwhile, Jack feels sorry for himself because he believes everyone is after his money.
This also came in handy when I was writing Fail to the Chief. Although my book features politicians competing on a reality show to find the next American President, it also features a lot of real people with real problems, as the candidates are forced to work in real jobs. I used my own experiences working in retail, which is one of the most humiliating and degrading jobs around, if you think about it. You’re forced to smile and be nice to people who are assholes to you for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON, and not only do you have to be nice to these asshats, you get paid very, very, very little for it. Compounding my embarrassment was the fact that I had to do this shitty job even after working my ass off at not one but two shitty, low-paying jobs to pay for not one but two college diplomas. That’s right, I was a college graduate smiling and resisting the urge to slap stupid people in a store all day for $10.25/hr. That anger, frustration, and humiliation comes through in several scenes in Fail to the Chief, where candidates work in retail/customer service jobs and learn what life is really like for their coworkers.
How do your personal experiences shape your writing? Do you write about things you feel ashamed of? Do you strive to write about things that make you uncomfortable?
W. T. Fallon is the author of Fail to the Chief, a political satire in which the presidential election is carried out via reality show, which is almost as bizarre and far-fetched as our current reality.