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Writing Truth in Reverse

Photo credit: Pierre at theunicyclist.com [1]
Photo credit: Pierre at theunicyclist.com

Writing the truth has always been a challenge for me. In college, I started out as a journalism major, but it was strongly suggested that I transfer into the fiction department as quickly as possible. Let’s just say I have a tendency to embellish that wiser minds quickly realized would make journalism a poor career choice.

So I became a fiction writer, and I’ve never been happier. But recently I was asked by friends to write a nonfiction piece describing an incident that reflects the emotional impact of a tragedy I’ve tried hard to erase from memory. Just the thought of the project made me sweat.

Several of us are writers, with various memories of that time. Our stories will be as different as our emotional responses were, which is exactly what they wanted. The assignment seemed simple enough:  Detail the times, the event, and a random memory that is somehow connected. Something true.

They had me until those last two words: something true.

I had great ambivalence about the project. Simultaneous and contradictory emotions pulled in equal and opposite directions and kept me up at night. But, because the cause was a good one, and since it would put me back in touch with old friends, I reluctantly said yes. And then I had a full-on panic attack.

The more I tried to begin, the more ambivalence I felt about the subject matter. For me, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. In the end, the truth was some place in between, in the seemingly random and mundane details of memory, which were the only memories I was able to summon.

My notes are skeletal at best, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

It was the ‘80s, and I was living in LA’s Laurel Canyon. Nightlife was just down the hill on Sunset: The Whiskey, the Roxy. It was the proverbial “sex and drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle. Anything was possible. By day, I worked at a sound-stage facility where anything possible was actually happening: from MTV videos, features, sitcoms, to porn and cartoons. Every Monday night I met with Bob McKee and nine other writers in his development group to workshop our screenplays.

My housemate, Russell, had just come out of the closet and was enjoying his equivalent of the same wild and happy life. I was renting the downstairs of his canyon home, with its hazy view of the distant downtown skyline, the smell of eucalyptus, and the night howls of coyotes. We shared a kitchen and a deck. It was during that time that I met the man I would marry.  Eventually, Gary and I moved to a bungalow in the hills of Los Feliz. It was indeed the best of times.

And then something happened. Russell was murdered.  Part hate crime, part lover’s quarrel, part revenge killing. All of the above were true. Or none of them were. We never really found out the real truth of what happened that day, never had the kind of closure such an event demands. What we did know was that Russell was beaten to death by the man who took my place in his house.

[pullquote]Russell was murdered.  Part hate crime, part lover’s quarrel, part revenge killing. All of the above were true. Or none of them were. We never really found out the real truth of what happened that day, never had the kind of closure such an event demands.[/pullquote]

The best of times quickly changed to the worst.

Or so I always thought. But, as I look back on it now, I realize that they didn’t. Not entirely. What I thought was one way or the other was actually both. I was simultaneously as happy as I’d ever been and as sad.

So, for the assignment, I had to find a memory that illustrated both. The only thing I remembered at first was the tremendous guilt I felt for moving out of the house. If I’d stayed, if I hadn’t moved on to my happy life, would Russell be alive? That was a memory of sorts, but it was a memory of an emotion, not an incident. And what I needed was an incident that demonstrated that emotion.

I can conjure only three clear incidents from the days after Russell died:

  1. Four friends sitting in a booth at Lucy’s El Adobe after the burial, not invited to the family’s gathering, instead sharing a pitcher of margaritas and not speaking to each other at all. Someone’s watch was on the table. It was 3 PM.
  2. Walking up the hill from my new house to the Griffith Park Observatory, carrying an aluminum lawn chair that Russell and I had bought together for our deck, and I’d inherited when I moved out. Sitting on the lawn in front of the observatory, looking at the lard colored sky, the haze that, up until that moment, I had always refused to acknowledge as smog. Twisting a previously broken ankle on my way back down the hill.
  3. Driving a friend’s old broken down Karmann Ghia that would only go in reverse all the way from the studio where we worked in Hollywood to her apartment in Santa Monica. A long drive on surface streets at any time but longer still when you can only move in reverse. We laughed, we cried, we almost got arrested.

I’m writing about the car. Partly because it’s more active. That there is dialogue and movement is helpful, but, more importantly, this memory reveals the truth of my experience. I was the one who had the crazy idea that we should back up all the way to Santa Monica instead of simply having the car towed. “We can do this!” I kept saying, over and over. This epic journey took us in reverse down Santa Monica Blvd., past the street that led to the house in Laurel Canyon, through the area they called Boys Town, near the clubs we’d all frequented, and close to my Monday night workshops in Westwood. As if by backing up, we could reverse it all. It was a difficult thing to do, and it took almost all day.  I never saw that car again. I remember my friend telling me it wasn’t worth fixing.

I haven’t yet finished the piece. But I’ll make the deadline and see my old friends again.  And maybe, after we all read our “true” memories, we’ll all finally have closure, which I realize now was the whole point of this exercise, this writer’s prompt.

Choosing this memory revealed something about my writing that I hadn’t realized. In one way or another, the theme of going back to go forward runs through all my fiction. I wonder if that will change.

Whether it’s fiction of nonfiction, how do you discover the truth in your writing? Is there a theme from your own life that runs through your work?

About Brunonia Barry [2]

Brunonia Barry [3] is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Lace Reader, The Map of True Places, and The Fifth Petal, chosen #1 of Strand Magazine’s Top 25 Books of 2017. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages and has been an Amazon Best of the Month and a People Magazine Pick. Barry was the first American author to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award and was a past recipient of Ragdale Artists’ Colony’s Strnad Invitational Fellowship as well as the winner of New England Book Festival’s award for Best Fiction. Her reviews and articles on writing have appeared in The London Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. Brunonia served as chairperson of the Salem Athenaeum’s Writers’ Committee, as Executive Director of the Salem Literary Festival, and as a member of Grub Street’s Development Committee. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband, Gary Ward, and their dog, Angel.