Why do authors write stories? There are a lot of reasons people write, and I can’t speak for everyone, but I think we make up stories to tell ourselves the truth.
When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t let me have friends over because they didn’t want anyone to see how badly our house was falling apart inside—like the splintered holes where the doorknobs were supposed to be, or the hole in the wall where the air conditioner fell out the window because the wood below it had rotted away, and the only carpenter they could afford couldn’t fix it for more than a year. Not that it looked that great outside, with the peeling paint and rotting wood and corpses of old cars decaying on the lawn, but we couldn’t really stop anyone from seeing that shit if they drove by. I was supposed to tell anyone who saw the house from the outside that we were “in the process of remodeling.” Hey, I learned some big words at the age of three thanks to that.
We were “in the process of remodeling” for eighteen fucking years and never remodeled anything. Oh, my parents started a few times, but they never had the money to finish. Ironically, my parents were also always telling me not having money was nothing to be ashamed of, but they were always trying to hide it, so guess which one of those mixed messages actually stuck?
So anyway, they didn’t want me to spend too much time at my friends’ houses either, because then they’d feel obligated to invite the friends over, so basically I just spent a lot of time alone, and that is how I started making up stories—which I still do, as a writer. Anyway, my parents thought this pen pal program—back in the nineties snail mail was still more popular than email—was a great option because I could be friends with someone who would never want to see our house. So one day my pen pal wrote me this letter describing her home because, I don’t know, that must have seemed interesting to her at that point, and she asked what mine looked like, so I told her. She told me what the outside of her house looked like, so I described mine, and I believe the phrase I used was, “The paint is peeling.” Well, it WAS peeling.
Well, my mom got pissed and insisted I erase that line or change it. I asked her why, since she always said lying was bad. She said it wasn’t lying, just leaving out details no one needed to know. Maybe she was hoping I’d pursue a career in politics. Anyway, she refused to mail the letter until I changed it to “The paint is green.”
To this day, I am still mad about that edit. It was my truth to tell, and maybe if she hadn’t made such a big deal about it, I would not have such a strong sense of shame about my lack of money today. Maybe I wouldn’t cringe every time I spend a dollar. Maybe I wouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to replace the holey running socks I’ve been wearing for three years. Maybe I wouldn’t feel like such a failure because I don’t have any money, despite spending most of my adult life in the pursuit of the green stuff. (And don’t fucking tell me money doesn’t matter, unless you know what it feels like to be told you can’t have friends over because your house is falling apart inside. Also, here’s another article on why money does matter, and you will never convince me otherwise.)
Shame, however, does not mean a desire to hide things. To me, the only thing worse than feeling ashamed is having to hide something because you feel ashamed. I’m not saying I’m proud of my lack of money or that it makes me happy, because that “you don’t need money to be happy thing” is bullshit. (Seriously, there have been scientific studies proving people are happier when they make $75,000 than when they make less, although there is no additional benefit to making more than $75k. This makes sense, because when you don’t have to spend every waking second trying to figure out how to pay your fucking bills, I bet you can concentrate on things that might make you happy. I mean, I don’t know what that feels like, but I bet it’s pretty fucking sweet.)
But as much as I hate being broke, I don’t want to lie about it. Somehow that makes the whole thing more shameful and embarrassing. I’m not going to pretend to have money I don’t have. If I can’t afford it, I will say so. And I do. All day. And it gets old, seriously fucking old, but I know I would feel worse if I spent my time lying and making excuses that didn’t involve lack of money. I am who I am, and that is a broke-ass failure who lives with her parents, runs in socks that have had holes for three years, and can fit her whole tongue through the space between her upper and lower front teeth because braces weren’t affordable either. If you don’t like me for that, there’s the fucking door. Watch out for the splinters where the knob should be on your way out.
But back to the writing. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve come to realize when I write fiction I’m really just trying to tell my truths about real things. I lost my job last year. It was the only job I’d ever had in my adult life that paid like I was a two-time college graduate and not a kindergarten dropout. No, it wasn’t the $75,000 a year that would have allowed me to concentrate on things that would make me happy. It was $37,000 a year, which might sound like nothing to you, but to someone who previously only made about $17K a year, it was like winning the fucking lottery. Finally, I could get my own place instead of the humiliation of living with my parents.
But then I did the stupid thing and decided to pay off my car note first so I could be out of debt. I wanted to be free of bills, and I wanted to avoid paying some of the interest on a three-year note, so I paid extra every month. Then I was finally going to get my own apartment. I didn’t care if it was only one room, at least I’d be able to live there ALONE. That was all that mattered.
I made my last car payment, and a week later I was abruptly fired and replaced with a ten-dollar-an-hour intern. The supervisor who fired me said I did nothing wrong and they were just “reorganizing and going in a different direction,” then she turned around and told the unemployment office I was fired for poor performance, screwing me out of the pathetic $170 a week I might have gotten (after paying in for years, I might add).
I had never felt more like a failure in my life, and I’ve pretty much felt like a failure my whole fucking life, since the day I had to start lying to people about why the paint was peeling on my fucking house. I was angry and depressed and hated my miserable life, stuck living with my parents in the middle of nowhere. Was I ashamed? Sure, but I still didn’t want to hide it. I wanted to tell my truths.
I had been working on this book about the presidential election as a reality show, and I realized I suddenly had the free time to finish it. But it wasn’t just about making fun of Donald Trump and other rich morons/politicians. Yes, there are a lot of jokes about politicians in my book, Fail to the Chief, and I did imagine an alternate world in which the president is elected by reality show. But there’s a lot of truth in that book, too, and not just the truths of dumb, useless rich people getting elected over and over again. I make fun of those people, but this isn’t their story.
Instead, this is the story of people like me whose truth is being broke fucking sucks. There’s the guy who tells an anti-minimum-wage-hike politician about the struggles of working three minimum wage jobs as a college graduate. That guy was telling one of my truths, which is that a college degree is more often a ticket into poverty than out of it these days. The rich politician hears this story and announces he’s solved the unemployment problem in his state because a guy who can barely afford ramen noodles has three jobs. Another one of my truths—dumb rich people never get it.
Then there’s the personality-less guy at the unemployment office who tells people to call another state office and “someone who’s doing absolutely nothing will help you.” Yeah, that was someone I met at the real-life unemployment office. Another truth—I get to pay taxes to pay his salary. And the salaries of those people sitting around doing nothing.
And then there’s the bazillionaire with zero political experience who offends everyone imaginable and still somehow gets votes. Another truth, although this one isn’t just mine—it belongs to everyone not-rich who hashad to watch a useless rich moron get everything handed to him on a silver platter: It is better to be rich than smart, useful, skilled, or ethical.
My books and short stories are fiction, but I write them to tell a million truths. I may not be able to change any of my truths, but I can acknowledge them, and I won’t pretend they don’t suck. What truths do you try to tell when you write?
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.