by Elizabeth Cohen
I was not young to be looking for love, and not young either to be trying my hand at a new genre, fiction. But I did both in my fifties.
Or maybe they both came looking for me. This is what I cannot know.
“The problem with fiction is it has to be plausible,” Tom Wolfe famously wrote. “That’s not true with nonfiction.” Mark Twain, of course, offered two cents on the topic as well: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” There seems to be no end to the number of famous writers who have opined on the necessary true seeds of fiction.
I began writing my book of short stories, The Hypothetical Girl, three years ago at the same time as I began browsing Internet dating sites. While I wondered if there really was love to be found there, I was increasingly certain that there were stories to be found.
I became a hunter-gatherer in the fields of match.com and jdate. I went story-picking on okcupid.com and hit pay dirt. Something about all the lonely people summarizing themselves in a paragraph or a page played a tune I could not resist whistling back at. Eventually I stopped writing to people on the dating websites and started writing stories.
The weird part happened later, when so much of these stories came true. Not all of them, but bits and pieces, and eerie bits and pieces at that. I wrote about a woman who is stalked and a woman who meets a man who is a terrible liar. I wrote about a man who wants to adopt a child at 54. I wrote about men who disappear. I wrote about a woman who falls in love with a man because of his dog.
I met a man who was an artful liar, men who disappeared, a man who wanted to adopt a child and a woman who falls in love with a man’s love for his dog.
After a while I began to get unnerved. Like when I was writing about a woman with breast cancer. Would this be bad luck for me? And when I wrote about a woman who was raped. Was I playing with fire by writing such a story?
Then I wrote about a woman who disappeared. That one seemed the most ominous, especially as I was feeling very unfocused at the time, fuzzy at my edges.
I had told myself that I was not really looking for love online but rather stories. I am sure many writers experience what I did—the feeling that after a time their stories are writing them instead of vice versa. It has to do with a profound and deep belief in the power of words, a magical thinking about the importance and reality of what we write. Even when it is fiction.
In fact, one might argue that The Picture of Dorian Grey—Oscar Wilde’s novel about a man who ceases to age while a painting of him, stashed away, ages as he would—is about just this. In the novel, art becomes reality, while reality becomes artifice. You might say my life as a writer was the artifice, but my fiction about a girl who was dating online and having all sorts of experiences was becoming the truth.
The problem with writing directly from your life is that the two can cross over, they can braid, they can get terribly mixed up. Once I accidentally addressed a man on a date by the name of a character who was very full of himself (as was this man).
Then really eerie things began to happen. I met people who really had the same names as my characters. I wondered if I should avoid a man who resembled a man who had hurt a character in a story I had written. At this point I was downright spooked.
In creative writing classes, especially memoir— which is supposed to be the writing about life-truth—the chief obstacle my students struggle with is revelation. They are afraid that if they reveal truth their friends and families will become upset, they will create conflict and drama. Much of the time this actually stops them from completing projects—even when told that the work need never be seen by anyone but me.
I have thought often about why it is that writing truth is so hard, why the students are so scared and even paralyzed by it. What I have come to believe is that we live our lives inside of fictions. We are very good at hiding what would and could hurt. The act of writing truth pushes aside our pleasant and comfortable fictions, our masks.
How fascinating that writing fiction can become so revealing of truth, even predictive and prescient. I was gobsmacked by the experience. I still am.
A lot of writers are superstitious. Our practices reflect our quirks. Truman Capote, they say, would only write lying down. Ben Franklin only wrote in the bath. William Faulkner famously wrote only while drinking whisky. These may be apocryphal, but what is true is that writers are an odd lot. And we have a lot of anxieties on the whole. My superstition became the fear that I was writing things into being, writing situations and experiences into the world. That I had some magical writing-romance formula. I was writing and un-writing love.
How do writers know when their books are done? Another question for the ages. Many say that a book is never done, but merely abandoned.
I knew my book was done when I had written actual love into my actual life; and I really did take psychological credit for it.
Imperfect, ridiculous, difficult, and holy love. Right there, into my life. It happened similarly to a lot of the stories I had written, but not identically to any one.
Then, I wrote one more story. I wrote the true story of the real man I had met and had come to love. I wrote it like a coda. There was no more to say. The story was named: “Love, Really.”
The book was done.
Beginning writers are told to “write what you know.” In trying to do this, and do this well, I would like to suggest here that maybe we end up writing more than what we know. We write what we are, certainly, what we have been; and maybe we also write a little of what we will be.
I am a real woman, who sat down to write about imaginary women who became her. Or maybe, they were me all along. Possible narratives, possible truths, riding along in the sidecar of me. Maybe in writing, we bend time; we discover its elasticity.
I was not young to be looking for love and not young to be trying my hand at a new genre of writing; but I did. And in the end they each became each other, and then became a truth and fiction. Then they became a book, and my life. Going around reading from it is interesting: I feel like I am hawking me. My secret life. The life that wrote me.
Elizabeth Cohen is an assistant professor of English at Plattsburgh State University and the fiction editor of The Saranac Review. She is the author of four books of poetry, a memoir, The Family on Beartown Road and a book of short stories, The Hypothetical Girl. She lives in Plattsburgh, New York with her daughter Ava, their dog Samo, and way, way too many cats.