A year or two ago, I wrote a story called “The Black Tiles on Split Road.” It was originally called something else at the time. Something with the color green. The story was about this man struggling with his alcoholism and anxieties about fatherhood. He is outside mowing the yard on a Sunday morning when he finds out that his youngest daughter has been involved in an accident at the church. After reading this story aloud, a man came up to me and told me all about his childhood mowing yards with his father and how the smell of cut grass made him feel sick too. He said his father had recently died and that “The Black Tiles on Split Road” had connected with him. He didn’t cry, but his voice had that edge to it. When he finished telling me about the funeral, he paused, then said, “Thank you. It feels good not be alone with it anymore.”
At the time, I couldn’t tell him what I was really thinking. I had never mowed yards as a child for money or had an abusive father. I had never struggled with putting a parent in a nursing home or keeping up the maintenance on a house of my own. I didn’t have children or a wife. I had never been divorced or had an accident at a church as a child. Very little in that story had happened to me, or someone I knew. I simply wrote it down.
Conversations like this have occurred several times over the years. It happened again this past weekend at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival when a woman naturally assumed that I was married after a reading and told me that she didn’t like her husband’s teeth very much either.
I wouldn’t call my stories lies necessarily. They might not be true in a traditional sense, but they contain some grain of truth. A less empirical one. Maybe a distorted version of myself who has been persistently collecting voices and images and fear. If my stories are any good at all, then they relay some type of vulnerability or inner life about myself. The nature of truth that I pursue in writing fiction is occasionally a truth more readily adopted by the reader than by me. I think my writing reveals a collective, essential version of myself.
In my stories, I have been a number of people. I have written my way into characters— a sailor, a widow, a moonshiner, a nine-year-old boy, a jazz musician, a speaker of tongues, a gay bartender, a bus driver, a Johnny Cash impersonator, an angel— people whose lives I have never lived, but I believe in escaping the self when writing fiction. I think this fallacy about the empirical truth in fiction comes from the idea of “writing what you know.” I often feel like the more immersed I become in a story the closer I am to becoming like everybody else.
Though it might seem wildly cliché, I feel like I am layering masks onto myself, and beneath each mask is my face or some version of it. I imagine my body in front of my desk with the window’s white light pouring over me while I perform this intricate balancing act of metal and wood and carved plastic others piled on top of my cheek bones as I stare with my eyes barely open into the back of where another person’s eyes should be with my neck hurting, arms outstretched, and masks curving upward into the room like the smoke of a prayer’s candle, and then there’s me somewhere beneath it all forgetting for a moment the person I saw in the narrow reflection earlier that morning who sat down with a cup of coffee in front of a legal pad at some point thinking about words and those who have died. Sometimes, it’s just harder to recognize me.