URGH, WRITING: I only tell the truth – the dangers of non-fiction

Elf-You-Sit-on-a-Throne-of-Lies

 

As a fiction writer, having any sort of commitment to the truth is the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, in my stories, generally I have no regard for the inherent truth of anything – from gravity to medicine to the eternal building blocks of the universe. I am quite happy to disregard all of them. It’s kind of my thing.

As a creative non-fiction writer, I have managed to almost entirely circumvent the issue of ‘truth’ by only writing stories about myself. This probably comes from a place of utter vanity, but I prefer to think that because it is my experiences, I can therefore use myself as a protagonist and focus on my ‘voice’ as the medium for both the comedy and any meaning that manages to seep in accidentally. But even that method, as self-centred and safe as it was, ran into an issue when my story included comments made by a dear friend’s parents. I was not only publishing the story on this site, but I was also reading it at Story Club, to a room which I knew included some mutual friends. The story in question is called Animal Cruelty. At first I felt that the story, even involving someone else’s parents and house and experiences was still MY story – it happened to me, it was through the (unreliable) narration of my memory, why did I have to ask permission to use it?

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt uncomfortable with the idea of someone I care about turning on the internet with their morning cup of coffee, whistling jauntily and then reading a snarky blog post about his own family and then spilling his coffee or something.  That would be devastating. Or having it get back to him through other friends. It didn’t seem polite. So, in the end I ran it past him and everything seemed dandy. Certainly I felt more confident about presenting it, and felt like maybe I was sharing a story. He might be nursing a giant grudge in secret, but on the outside, he seems fine, and I suppose that’s all we can hope for in the end.

As some of you might remember, I am trying to get a project off the ground where I travel around the world and visit all the delightful weirdos I used to play on the internet with when I was a teenager. I pitched it for last year’s SOYA, which I was a finalist in, most due to the sterling effort of everyone I know getting involved and expressing enthusiasm for the project. Anyway, I’m still working hard at getting this project off the ground, writing grant applications and the like (and I will be going for SOYA again this year, be warned, I will once again be doing my best puppy dog eyes so everyone can help me get this novel to happen). One of the few actual steps forward I have made is getting a series of flash fictions published by Seizure as part of their Alt-Txt initiative. Each of these flash fictions is a quick profile on some of the people I hope to be featuring in my book. They should be coming out in fits and bursts soon.

Anyway – after I finished my first draft of these, I realised that while I was focusing on MY interaction with these people, the things I knew about them, how I saw them, how we i-met, how we e-interacted, I discovered that some of the stories I’d touched on were definitely not mine to tell. In three noticeable pieces, they were not simply just stories I had no claim to – they were deeply personal experiences of horror and pain.

A quick disclaimer – 90% of these stories are just silly and funny, but it was the leftover 10% that I started to have issues with.

Srsly silly, I'm also doing 'art' to match each story. This is one.

Srsly silly, I’m also doing ‘art’ to match each story. This is one.

It became quickly apparent that I couldn’t post these stories on the internet – the place where these people live – without first consulting the subjects of them, and letting them read it. It was honestly a terrifying experience. Even though I was completely prepared to let them have veto on the stories for any reason whatseover, not even just if they objected to what I was saying about them,  even if they just thought I was shit at sentence structure, it still highlighted the fact that I was taking liberties with someone else’s life. Taking their experiences, their entire being and then having the hide to transform it into something to read and digest. Why on earth would I be qualified to do that?

Luckily, while I was having a genuine freakout about this, I asked all the wonderful writers I know on Facebook how they dealt with this feeling of responsibility. I was quickly reassured that the only thing I could do was run it past the subjects of the piece – and that some people actually make a habit of not doing that. I also realised that a lot of people I know routinely write about incredibly tricky interactions – troublesome family interactions, ex-partners, current significant others.

It was the first time I’ve felt in a position of responsibility as a writer. As a producer or creative director of projects, sure, I’ve had huge degrees of responsibility to other people. But as a writer, writing about the things I write, the only person I had to worry about displeasing is myself, and I shed any dignity or embarrassment years ago. One of my fiction pieces, which was fairly widely circulated, including in newspapers, was about a family at a funeral. It just so happened that it was re-published shortly after my grandfathers funeral. Even though the dead person in this story was a grandma, my grandfather’s side of the family decided the story was about them, and also decided it wasn’t a flattering depiction and therefore decided to get offended. I think non-writers constantly look for themselves in the writing of people they know. And I think as writers we all know that inspiration rarely works in a A+B= C scenario. It’s quite likely there was some of that family somewhere in my fictional depiction. However – considering it was originally published a year before my grandfather’s death, I felt quite safe in ignoring this particularly brand of self-entitled butt-hurt, unless they suspected I could foretell the future and was using that ability for literary gain.

The majority of the subjects of the Alt-Txt project (People I’ve Never Met from Places That Don’t Exist) were completely fine with the stories I’d written about them. In some cases, the sensitive topic I was bringing up allowed us to have a bit of an air-clearing chat, mostly about the ‘follies of youth’. I realised that through writing about these experiences, some which I’ve held to my chest for over a decade as something unresolved, has allowed me to tick them off in a sense, to put a full-stop at the end of that particular life experience. One particular subject, whose profile included an immensely difficult time of their life, decided that I should know the details about what actually happened to them, and not just what I vaguely remembered or had perhaps heard from other sources. What became immediately obvious is that their story was not adequately being told my me, was not being given justice. They didn’t mind that I was attempting – they just wanted my attempt to have all the information that it needed to work.

My responsibility to their story quickly told me that a flash fiction was not the place to attempt to tell the entirety of it. This was something that will have to wait for the novel, I think. There was also the issue of how someone is represented by something as transient as a mico-non-fiction. Does something that happened TO them have to be included in something so small? Is it an essential part of them? All I can do is provide a snap-shot, a preview of a person in this project. Thematically for this work – internet pieces about the internet – it fits. And does shying away from something more difficult to tell mean that I am simply being a coward, that I am whitewashing their life? I’ve endeavoured to make a compromise, and will be sending the final draft later today to see what they think.

I think as a writer, I have to be aware of the increased responsibility I have in telling a story that isn’t mine, and that all I can endeavour to do is write it as well as I can, and be as transparent as possible with the people it directly affects. I think that’s what is expected of me. I think there is still danger present, but perhaps with increased risk comes an increased reward, and I might be telling stories that deserve to be told. Maybe. I miss writing about SASSY HAWKS.

CURRICULUM WORSTAE #6: SPRUIKER

doritos

I’d been rostered to work on the opening night of one of my plays even though I’d put in for leave months earlier, and I had to kick up a fuss. It’s not just because I wanted to see my play and sit in the audience with fear sweat running down my back, it’s probably because we were so low budget that I was also fulfilling the role of being a human strut for the stage or I had to stand there shining my phone as a stage light, something like that.

Anyway, because of the fuss I kicked, it somehow got around the airport that I was an actor, because the idea of a playwright was too difficult for them to get their heads around, which is actually pretty fair, because playwrights are pretty ridiculous things, like Puffins or overly ornate hats.

A new manager with fire in his breath and misplaced enthusiasm in his shiny shoes came up to me one day and said ‘Hey, you’re an actor, how do you feel about walking around the store with a microphone and spruiking our special deals?’
I said I didn’t feel like doing that at all, because I was currently involved in a very elaborate daydream about zombie-elfs. He then rephrased and said ‘Here take take this microphone because you have to do this.’

I tried my best to tell him that while I am a confident speaker, I have no control over what comes out of my mouth, that my brain was well lubricated slip-and-slide, where the thoughts would go barreling down with absolutely no concern about what lay at the end, whether soft paddling pool or misplaced family grandmother. But he ignored my warnings, because I think he didn’t know what a slip-and-slide was.

‘Hi, look at our booze’ I mumbled, desperately trying not to make eye contact with the hordes of customers I walked through. My voice echoed all through the store, clashing with announcements of late flights and boarding gates. ‘Umm, you’re flying in a plane, right? That’s pretty… terrifying. Why don’t you buy two bottles of Tanqueray for $42? That might help.’

‘Hey you, what are you buying? Bundaberg Rum? Why? Do you want a memory card? What about this… I don’t know what it is.’

‘Hey, look this is two litres of vodka, if you drank that all at once you’d probably die! I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure you’d die.’ My manager looked at me across the store and shook his head violently.

‘I mean, maybe you wouldn’t, but you’d probably have to go to hospital. I went to hospital with alcohol poisoning once, ha ha ha I was drinking Johnny Walker Black in an army barracks can you believe it, and an ambulance man slapped me! Right in the face! Johnny Walker, ladies and gentlemen, which by the way, totally has 20% off, so that’s cool.’

After that I didn’t have to spruik because I’d actually broken the law by talking about unsafe drinking practices, but it was a pretty fun day.

CURRICULUM WORSTAE #2: FLO RIDA

Coffee

At one point when I worked at the airport we had a new manager. The airport seemed to go through a thousand managers a week, who would come in with big ideas, big dreams and big shoes and throw them out there like glitter, only to watch them sink beneath the pond-like indifference of the staff they managed. This new manager was no different – energetic, firm, qualified. She lasted about a month. But on this day she took me away from my weird collection desk, where I did a weird, semi-unexplainable job, and told me to fill in at the perfumes register. I told her I didn’t know anything about perfume, and she told me patiently that I was just going to be processing sales.

Within a few minutes of taking my place behind the fragrant cash register, a weird hush swept through the store. People were giving furtive looks to a group of people walking slowly through check in, girls running back and forth, customers openly staring. I didn’t really notice any of this, because as per usual, I was deep in thought about elven languages and magical gems.

I was interrupted by a really, really enormous person in a suit, who said to me ‘Yo, wheres your Chanel at?’

I told him I would show him, and only when I reached the stand, did I realise that there was another similarly large gentleman, and a person with baggy pants, who I thought looked like a rapper, which may have been an example of racial profiling, except that in my defence, it was true, it was the rapper Flo Rida.

Flo Rida picked a bottle of Chanel No.5, and then pointed to a bottle of the Homme Sport.
‘Can I try this on?’ he asked me.
‘Yeah sure’ I said, before walking away.

Later on the Chanel assistant told everyone how cool I’d acted when serving Flo Rida, but then I told her that I didn’t know who Flo Rida was, which meant that I was the opposite of cool. I didn’t know I was serving someone famous. I am just a really bad salesperson.

I told this story many years later, and it was only at that moment that I realised his name was spelled like the US state ‘Florida’. To this day, I don’t know any of his songs. I often think fondly of Flo Rida.

Animal Cruelty

This story was originally read at Confession Booth, which was an absolutely hilarious and wonderful night and you should go. ALSO, I read it again at Story Club with a host of talented, talented people. Thanks for having me!

The cars were packed with case after case of cheap beer, rolled up mattresses, cans of beans and a lonely, holy coffee plunger. But before our caravan of courage could even disembark, the word arrived via text message that actually, our host didn’t want a horde of undergrads descending on her parents beach house, in a decision that can only be described as poorly timed and eminently understandable.

It was in this moment that the classic ‘Sliding Doors’ scenario was established. On the one hand, we could simply unpack the cars, go to our respective homes and listen to Bright Eyes albums, or whatever it was we did in 2004. Or we could, as our friend Mike generously suggested, go and stay in his parent’s vacant house in the middle of suburbia for a week, an option which took the concept of beach house holiday, and subtracted the words beach and holiday. Imagine the scene – Gwyneth Paltrow standing on the platform, deciding whether or not to enter the sliding doors of the train. That song by Aqua comes on – if you can’t remember it, just substitute ‘Barbie Girl’ in your head, because that’s a song that deserves remembering. But instead of taking either option, Gwyneth repeatedly bludgeons her weird flat face against the trains ‘sliding doors’, blood splattering in large starbursts. Imagine that, and you’re halfway to understanding how bad the decision was when we said yes to Mike’s modest proposal.

Mike is like a beautiful hothouse flower, grown in a greenhouse made of cheese. That’s a weird way of saying that Mike is one of the loveliest, stand-up guys I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing and that also his family is fucking batshit insane and their house a manifestation of all that is wrong with them. Imagine former US President George Bush Senior riding a giant bald eagle and instead of arms he has flags bearing the star spangled banner, and instead of legs he has guns and also the eagle is carrying a collection of teapots shaped like Rosie O’Donnell’s skull, and you’ll just have discovered the inspiration for their interior decoration.

MIKES HOUSE

The other thing to remember about this house, is that nothing opens from any direction without the use of the master key. So you couldn’t open the door of the house from the inside, if you didn’t have the key. You couldn’t open any of the windows. You couldn’t open the sliding door to the balcony. There’s no way out. Drums, drums in the deep.

Somewhere over the next four nights, the terrible event to which I am confessing occurs. On its own, the deed seems inexplicable and unforgivable. But before I am tried by my jury of fashionable peers, I need to weave the story of other shitty things that happened, to maybe promote an understanding of why I did this thing. This terrible, terrible thing.

The first inkling that our thrilling urban getaway was less holiday and more horror-day (that’s a difficult pun to enunciate) was on the first night when we decided we should do a booze run. My mate Bob, not able to fit into the car, but still wanting to go along on the expedition, decides that he’ll just walk the two blocks or so to the local shops. Around four hours later, people start to realise that nobody has see Bob since that fateful moment. We call him, and through an inexplicable static, as if we are on walky-talkies, we hear him yelling that he is ‘lost in a swamp’. We are in Oatley, a suburb bordered by yet more suburbs. There are no swamps in the suburbs. It is known. Then, using logic usually reserved for horror films, we fan out in a drunken search party, separately exploring the side streets and mysterious cul-de-sacs of Oatley and greater Mortdale. The rest of the night was literally spent finding missing people, like the worlds stupidest game of Marco-Polo. At around 3am, I found a tennis court, and sitting under the bright lights was Bob, looking extremely relieved and also covered in a strange amount of mud.

It was during the days where the absence of beach or any activities besides drinking became noticeable. We played Pictionary and drank Bloody Marys, and also succumbed to a group panic attack when Mike went to buy lunch, and took the key with him, effectively locking us in the house. The cloud of cigarette smoke was so dense by that point, you could actually effectively duck underneath it and hold conversations with it. And that night, when we went to sleep, the house next door burnt down. We were woken by the sirens and the crackle of flames, but had to rouse Mike’s brother before we could open the door and check it all out. It was about 3am by this point, and when he opened the door, sitting on the stoop, illuminated by the burning building was our friend Anna, smoking a cigarette. To this day nobody knows how she got out of the house, or more importantly, how the house next door burnt down… But this is not my confession. I did not burn down that house. Anna may have. A fun fact: on the same night as the house fire, Mike drunkenly chose to come out of the closet to his older brother, meaning that it wasn’t only the next door neighbour’s earthly belongings that were going up in flames, it was perhaps also Mike’s parent’s expectations of an all-American, gridiron loving, vagina-frequenting son.

My confession, unfortunately, involves animal cruelty. I need to establish that I really like animals. I like dogs more than people. I like cats more than civil liberties. I like big cows more than big-faced titties. The other day I spent two hours diverting a stream of ants out of my house, using blu-tac and lumps of sugar. I would never knowingly hurt an animal. Unfortunately there are two allegations of animal cruelty made against me on the last night of our Oatley adventure.

Sensing that our enthusiasm was waning, and also we kind of all hated each other, on the last night instead of beer and other lay-varieties of alcohol, Mike broke out some bottles of tequila and also some genuine Czech absinthe. We drank the absinthe in the traditional style – dripped over sugar, passed over with a flame, and then shotted like frat boys. After the first shot, Bob immediately vomited. The rest of us pushed on. I have no real memory of anything else that happened that night, but two things definitely did occur. Like a sick cat, I took myself into the backyard, picked a palm tree and then spent the next hour hurling on it. After I was finished, I went inside and like a sick cat passed out on Mike’s cat’s bed. The crime scene is now set – for after we left the next morning, two shocking things were discovered by Mike’s parents, recently returned from the US.

The first was that their cat was now violently opposed to its bed. With great concern, Mike’s mum repeatedly threw the cat onto the bed, where it would proceed to freak out. After discovering from Mike that I had drunkenly slept on that very bed, Mike’s mum made the following accusation. That I had sexually molested her cat. Just like an episode of Law and Order: Wild Accusations Unit, she calmly reviewed all the evidence, and then jumped to the most disturbing and weird conclusion she could think of. This was not a joke suggestion – Mike’s mum was seriously convinced that I had done this. Ladies and gentlemen, I am so very happy to tell you that I really, really didn’t.

Then, and I say this with multiple levels of shame, when they went outside to check on the pet tortoise, all they found underneath its favourite palm tree was a disgusting pile of vomit with a tortoise underneath it. I had vomited on Stanley the Turtle, a sentence which can only be followed by a thorough hanging of the head. The only defence I can muster here is that I was not aware of the fact that I was vomiting on a tortoise. I am sure there are people in this world who seek to carry out the very action I am describing with a degree of foresight and intent, and those people are monsters – but I am not one of them. It was dark, and tortoises have chameleonic properties. But apart from the fact that I yakked in someone’s backyard and didn’t even clean up after myself – the story gets a lot grimmer. You see, apparently tortoises have a layer of natural varnish on their shell, which keeps it waterproof. A varnish that is incredibly susceptible to things like stomach acid, which it had spent the night marinating under. A series of events that meant that if that tortoise ever wanted to swim, it would actually die, having lost its waterproof layering. Which is the grim knowledge I’ve lived with for years – the fact that I’d doomed Stanley to an existence without swimming, which is probably like flying for tortoises. Or I’d killed him. That is,  until I decided to run this confession by Mike at a Game of Thrones themed dinner party, where he was dressed as a ravishing Catelyn Stark. I wanted to make sure he was fine with me bad mouthing his family, and by the light of roaring sconces, around a mouthful of honeyed goose, Mike told me that in fact Stanley was alive and well, which is exactly the most unexpected twist you could think of at a soirée devoted to Game of Thrones.

Rocks

Sand with pretensions.
THE SCORE:
Without rocks, the world would be a limp sack of extraneous plant matter and briny water, limply held together by my arch-nemesis gravity. If we could live in such a febrile world of gooey insubstantiality, I can only assume we would have evolved as giant jellyfish people who sting each other for fun because we don’t have music, literature or external genitals.
FUN FUN FUN.
You’ve all heard of the Rolling Stones? Kids used to like them in the 1960’s, before they gave in to the man and became our fathers, grandfathers and drunk uncles. Well, the Rolling Stones were actually four plucky stones who were powered by music and set off to educate the world about the wonders of geology through some seriously good guitar work. There’s a reason they call it Rock ‘n’ Roll, yeah? The Roll was actually a misspelt homage to Keith Richard’s love of bakeries.
Of course they never got around to singing any songs about igneous rocks, because they all fell in love with another type of rock, and dedicated their songs to it.
That rock was crack cocaine.
LACK OF STARS:
Before humans came along, the world was a utopia for rocks, stones and to a lesser extent, pebbles. Shale is the black sheep of the rock family and never thinks about anybody but itself. Rocks were free to roll around slowly, congregating in beautiful meadows and thinking deeply about the sunset or birds. Sometimes so many would gather in one place they would form a mountain.
But when humans got off there space ship, led by the ancient primordial ape- king that is Tom Cruise, they immediately shattered rocks peaceful existence, using them as tools of war and humiliation.
TAKE THAT, PENELOPE!
But this is nothing compared to the horror that occurred when rocks began to be used to make humans houses and were melted into a sludge to be our roads and concrete idols. Now rocks are just fragile shards of what they used to be, shattered remnants of a once proud race. Whereas rocks used to have the freedom to just sit and gather moss, now the most they can hope for is find useful work in a rockery, with a kind gardener who will occasionally wash off the all the dog piss with a hose. And as the stoic rock sits there with humanity plotting to use it and its kin for larger, more elaborate follies, it dreams of being a mountain…
THE SCORE:
3.5/5 stars. 3 stars because rocks are cool? 

Haircuts

A giant leap of faith into the maw of uncertainty. Well, it is if you’re a big princess like me.
THE STARS
I need to have trust with my hairdresser, because I basically feel like they are conducting radical face surgery on me. When I lived in Caringbah, I found this great hairdresser near by and was extremely happy to have been so lucky. Anyway, imagine my dislocation when one day I walk in, sit down and discover to my shock that the entire décor had changed, I didn’t recognise anybody and the person who ran the shop now was somebody I went to school with. How did this happen? Shouldn’t they let you know? Because I had simply called up and asked for a booking, I was fine. But what if it was a butchers or something?
LACK OF STARS
I’ve just come back from a haircut and I’m very pleased to announce that it went fine. Hooray. However, sometimes things don’t work so well.
The most extreme form of this was also the most radial manifestation of my sleepwalking. I don’t sleepwalk much – in fact, I don’t sleep much. My sister on the other hands is a somnolent power walker who is angry at everything and has a lot of things to do.
Anyway, I’m not sure about everything I did on this particular night – all I know is that I woke up in our bathroom holding my swiss army knife, my fringe in my hands and only wearing my boots which I’d recently bought.
GOOD MORNING!

So after panicking greatly, calling up my friend Anna and crying a whole bunch, I decided that maybe a professional might be able to fix up the ragged stumps of my hair. At that point in my life I didn’t really have a style, so much as an enormous head of hair, like Jim Morrison or a lions mane. Except not so classy. Losing the fringe made it incredibly bizarre. Mullets looked better informed than this did.
I was living in Sutherland at the time, and wandered up to the main street. There was a barber with a grumpy looking Nam’ vet style person and a ‘salon’ with a really bored, fat looking lady with a beautiful feathered perm. I decided she might be able to help me.
As I sat down in the chair, it suddenly occurred to me that my story of waking up naked and de-haired via utility knife might be too much for this lady to handle, and sure enough she asked me in brusque tones ‘what the fuck had happened here’.
Flourishing under pressure as per usual, I paused for a moment and said,
“Well, you know how it is…”
I truly doubted she knew how it was.
“I let my grandma cut my hair…”
This apparently wasn’t good enough, because she looked at me expectantly.
“She’s… blind.”
It certainly was a reason, anyway. After the woman had her way with my remaining locks, the result was certainly different. She’d managed to butcher the rest into what can only be described as Medieval pageboy or Roman scribe.
However as bad as this was, nothing compares to the sheer psychological breakdown I had after I visited the Wollongong University’s on-campus hairdressers. You can’t really explain how bad this hair was, as it didn’t even have enough form to be compared to anything. It was unique, it was formless, it was beyond the constraints of mere words. It came from another dimension. I rolled around my friends house, drinking straight from a bourbon bottle crying and sobbing and muttering incoherently, and if addressed would only respond ‘Now I’ll never be a teen model.’
Hair by Cthulu.
THE SCORE
3.5/5 stars