Friday, March 31, 2017

The Hero's Journey, From The South Side

"Ask me how I'm doing this. Or where I purchase my sunglasses.
The answer to both is"
I know I bemoan discussions of process and influences and derivation. I'll cop a plea to the charge of emotional avoidance. Thing is, folks wanna know, and I'd look like a jerk if I asked people to support my writing then expect that support to arrive from a safe distance. So I toss out the surface facts: I plot on long walks. I write dialogue in the shower. I cook a lot when I'm editing to ease frustration. Sometimes I'll offer something a bit more personal, like my beta readers are both academics because I never managed to go to college and I'm always worried I'll blow it out of ignorance. Thing is—and I'd bet my colleagues here at Criminal Minds have been able to feel this—while I may give a lot, and sometimes with a flourish, I hold back a lot more.

In advance of May 15, when A Negro and an Ofay reaches its publication date, I've been asked a lot of questions about my work, my habits, my process and so forth. I've had the opportunity to discuss so much about myself and how I managed to get here and the book I've arrived with. Each draft of my responses to interview questions is another look inside myself at things that I hadn't before considered. Or, frankly, I'm not certain I wanted to consider. Which brings us to this week's question: from where do I draw my ideas for stories? I'm willing to say, in all honesty, I get them from my hurts. If my output is vast, or prolific, well, that's the level of my hurts.

Back in the day, before all this debut novelist stuff started, I wrote a piece for Literary Orphans Journal about my father's suicide that occurred back in 1981 and the subsequent destruction of my family. I centered it in my life as an African American and how, culturally, we as a people are predisposed to judge and ostracize each other for falling to pains and pressures and challenges that are generally perceived as white folks' shit. Only after I sent my copy to the editor in chief had I been gripped by the fear of exposure. I held that story to myself, so closely and for so long. I told it to myself every morning as my personal narrative. After I surrendered it the lit world at large, I was mortified. I felt cold and had to sit down. I was tossing it, and myself, out into the light. Then a funny thing happened. Once I spent from the gold that was my non-fiction, I was able to rise in fiction. It all, literally and figuratively, started from there. That's how I'm here, sharing space with all of you now.

For a feature on me and A Negro and an Ofay, ForeWord Reviews asked "Why do you write mysteries and thrillers? Do you imagine yourself in these dangerous situations?" I had to ponder it for a long while. Shit, y'all. I've been in many of these dangerous situations. I've been shot at, robbed, involved in mob fights, pulled drunks off my mother, had guns and knives pulled on me by friends and loved ones. I've been orphaned. Divorced. Homeless. Brokenhearted. Felt shame. Misery. Resentment. Rage. There's also an interview for The Big Thrill. A couple of other outlets. A few panels. A bunch of cocktail party conversations. Sooo much talking, and not just about the definition of the word ofay (though everyone asks that, too.) To market this book so that it has a fighting chance, I have to share, and that means I've had to come to terms with the truth.

I use mystery and thriller writing to reconcile my own wild life.

What's more, I grew up telling my own story to myself in fantastic terms, reasoning my entire childhood as the hero's journey. I could be a Joseph Campbell case-study. I've gotten my sense of right and wrong from hardboiled fiction. WWMD: What Would Marlowe Do. I learned courage and purpose and valor from Marvel and DC Comics. For the longest time, when I was a kid, I imagined myself as Victor Mature, sometimes in Kiss of Death, or, when needed, Samson and Delilah. I've used archetypes and tropes to frame my own story, and it got me far enough beyond the mire of my youth until I could finally collapse on a couch in a therapist's office in Beverly Hills. Which is a long frickin' way from the south side of Chicago, y'all.

"Hey, girl. Let's stay in tonight and play Atari. I got that Yars' Revenge."

After that milestone, a little psychoanalysis and a lot of golf and meditation, I learned to loose my grip on my own internal narrative, leaving me with a capacity for storytelling that went unused until I decided to see myself, my hurts, my healing and my emergence from them as Elliot Caprice's story. I made him the orphan, the reluctant thug, the reformed civil servant. He could be for me the things I wanted to stop identifying with, such as the outcast, the misanthrope, the rebel, the provocateur. His dad died, just like mine. His mother left him to figure it all out for himself, as mine had done with me. He was raised by his Uncle Buster, who was stuck with him, same as the many folks who took me in and tried to help me when I was low and homeless. And, at some point, as long as I keep writing him, our stories are going to come closer and closer to intersecting. No. Not intersecting. Merging. So I'll be honest. The stuff that happens to my characters, in some way, whether actual or approximate, happened to me.

And there's a good chance that I'll reach a point where I'm writing about the things that I want to happen to me. Good things.

"Dammit. Why didn't I pee before I left the house?"

- dg


Susan C Shea said...

Danny, you've done it again: A wonderful post that digs a little deeper and looks a little harder. I have to say I avoided non-fiction prose for some of the same reasons, a fear of letting the words get too close to me. Mary Karr's searing memoir, The Liar's Club, struck me as the bravest thing in the world and way too close to my own family history for me to even read without feeling queasy. Write something like that? Not in my wildest dreams. So if you've let your experiences seep into your writing and you can put it out here for us to read, I salute you!

Paul D. Marks said...

Great post, Danny. And I'm sure it's hard to face the demons inside, but if it comes out in great fiction hopefully that's at least a little bit of a release.

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Pam Stack said...

As usual, your honesty frames and higlights your best prose. What a damn fine piece of writing.