Autobiography and Fiction in Love on the Big Screen

With the first readers finishing up Love on the Big Screen, questions like this one have begun to roll in via Facebook, email, and text:  Did the Sunday meetings in underwear/helmets really happen?  Am I right that Moon is actually_________?  Isn’t The Dini based on______?   In other words, these readers want to know from me How much of your actual life is in Love on the Big Screen?

Let me start to answer this with something I wrote at the request of the publisher, Cherokee McGhee:   While many people I know would be able to claim they see parts of themselves in the characters I have written, they would also have to admit that I’ve told a lot of lies about them.  In this case, for me, if my book is some sort of fruit smoothie, then my life and all the shades of personalities I came across in college are all a bunch of different berries.  I’ve taken them all up as a part of a creative recipe, added a bunch of additional ingredients I either made up or collected in the years since my undergraduate graduation, and I threw all of that possibility into a giant writing blender and created my book.

 

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Bon Jovi

Me back in my "Billy" days rocking my Bon Jovi Concert t-shirt

My main problem with my own Smoothie Metaphor is that it is too violent; otherwise, I think it does the job.  Take for example my protagonist Zuke, whose last name is Zaucha.  The last name of one of my good college friends is Zaucha and we used to call him Zuke.  In choosing that sort of nickname, I am going for something I’ve experienced in my own life:  people who know me tend to call me Torg.  This happens even when I move, and I move often:  it’s like secret DNA social code that people call me “Torg.”  Unless my dad is around and then I’m Little Torg or Billy.

 

The personality of my friend Zaucha does not additionally seep into my protagonist.  As I recall, my friend did have a new car and he wouldn’t let us eat in it and he wouldn’t let us roll down the windows.  I also remember him keeping to the sidewalks to keep his sneakers clean.  Sure, I’d make fun of him for that, but his car and sneakers stayed immaculate long after mine had been “trashed.”  I gave that aspect of the real Zaucha’s personality to my character Moon.  Another friend of mine has emailed me and noted that he thinks Moon is a combination of himself and the guy with the last name Zaucha.  Writing this, I recall that I’ve often heard the writer Sedaris talking about this aspect of his writing.  That he is always thinking about what he will use and that his friends and family seem to try and watch themselves because they know they are likely to show up in the next book.  Recently, some people have started to point out to me when they say something clever and they suggest that maybe that should go in a future story.

Here are some similarities I have to my protagonist Zuke:  we were both English majors for non English-y reasons (me because my parents were English teachers and Zuke because he wants to be around “Glory,” we were both bench-warming college basketball players, and we both went to plays in Chicago where we were surprised by nude witches. Certainly we share exactly the same taste in movies.

What is very different about us is that Zuke learns his lessons much more quickly than me.  I think I’m still learning but it probably took me until around the age of 32 to pretty much get what Zuke gets at the close of Love on the Big Screen.  I certainly did not experience any “love storms” of the sort Zuke experiences in the book.  There were no balcony collapses in my ONU life but I’ve come to learn (I think) that there was one of those in ONU’s history.  Not sure if I repressed that or if it’s just coincidence.  I read once that Stephen King made up a pornographic cartoon magazine for The Green Mile and that later in his life someone sent him a copy of the publication that he made up.  I think if you can dream it up, it’s probably out there.  (and much more!)

A bit about the names and the nicknames.  Some names I’ve made up but most are from my life.  It was a common criticism of my work in just about every writing workshop I’ve been in that the nicknames were confusing.  Readers, what did you think?  However, I find that in my life, nicknames are everywhere and I list a lot of those in the book.  i.e. Charles Barkley was the Round Mound of Rebound or most of us have heard of the NY Yankee, A-Rod.  When people pick at your work, instead of editing it out, that might be something that can become MY STYLE.  Part of my style could be an affinity for nicknames.  I notice that Chekhov uses a  lot of them.

While revising Love on the Big Screen, I knew I had a novel-in-stories called Horseshoe (Zuke’s fictional hometown) and I had in mind that someday I wanted to write a modern-day tragedy that I was thinking about calling Knucklehead.  I knew this guy with the last name Nuckles, and obviously if a character is going to have a tragic fault, Knucklehead has some nice play in it to work with.  So I made up this guy Knucklehead in the revision thinking down the line of books I might write, and now I’ve got people identifying who they think Knucklehead is.  For example, I have him being the son of a school superintendent, and so now for every place I’ve ever attended or worked (this list is kind of long: at least nine schools) there are suggestions from each geographical area that they think they know who I’m writing about.  I guess writers of fiction always answer these sorts of questions? In Love on the Big Screen, I have Zuke hitting a last-second shot and the homecoming queen is waiting for him after the game.  Later, there’s another surprise in the form of a young lady.  None of this happened to me.  It represents what I’ve experienced about being a basketball player but as with the lessons of the novel for Zuke, my experience took much more time to unravel.

I’m glad to have the questions about the book, and it’s been fun to try and think where the ideas come from.  To understand, I think you have to work with language daily and experience the surprise of what occurs to you to write.  I lived a life and everything I’ve experienced is certainly fair game for any situation or character that I’m trying to create.  I’m sure some things creep from my mind to the page without me realizing their origins.  Maybe most of what I write is like that?  But to answer the question about the helmets and the underwear:  yes we did have matching boxer shorts with our nicknames embroidered on them. Yes they shrank and were obscenely tight.  Yep, you had to play naked if you missed but unlike the novel, I don’t remember there being any legitimate excuses.  If you missed, you were naked the next time.  We had Toys R Us-bought medieval helmets too small for our fat twenty-something heads, and something not in the book, we even borrowed hymnals from the dorm’s prayer chapel and sang ourselves an opening song.  That, I don’t think, was my idea.

“I might be a dork, but I’m a resourceful dork.” –from Junot Diaz’s “Wildwood”

One of my favorite "dorks." Possibly I didn't look so different as a youngster.

Here’s a strategy for writers or anyone who talks:  communicate in memorable phrases.   As sensible and obvious of a strategy as this might seem, it wasn’t something that occurred to me until the past year or two, that I ought to look for chances to write what some people might call a “golden line,” that I ought to try and make some sort of observation about what it is to live a life.

I don’t set out to write these golden lines.  When I write, I mostly try to put the subject ahead of an action verb and then I pack in as many images as I can.  By images, I mean something that might snag one of the senses the way a fishhook could pierce a nostril.   If it’s a short story, I’ve got myself a few characters (usually more than I should have allowed in), a situation, and I try to get to know the characters as I watch what they do and say.  What I’ve been noticing is that if I stay open to moments for memorable observation, once in awhile I can see where one might fit in.   In Diaz’s “Wildwood,” here are a few lines I won’t soon forget:

  • That’s white people for you.  They lose a cat and it’s an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon (372).
  • Happiness, when it comes, is stronger than all the jerk girls in Santo Domingo combined (379).

That I think of any text I encounter as a sort of teacher of writing is the result of my being in Dr. Allen Gee’s fiction workshop at Georgia College and State University.  He didn’t talk to me specifically about how books can be my teachers, but what he did do was direct us to texts and then ask us questions designed to get us to see what was on the page.   I spot several interesting lessons from the text-as-teacher, Diaz’s “Wildwood.”  For example (what follows is me attempting to write a short and memorable line):  If Junot Diaz’s story “Wildwood” is an English language Salad, then he’s doused it with a pretty massive helping of Spanish language dressing.” This isn’t at the present moment much of a lesson for me because I don’t speak any other languages.  It is, however, a lesson for my teacher self.  Why don’t my students (who often speak several languages) ever write sentences that make use of that part of their literacy identity?  It’s a feature of their writing that I’m more responsible for than them.  I think it’s my place to show them this sort of sentence is possible:  “Sick or not, dying or not, my mother wasn’t going to go down easy.  She wasn’t una pendeja.  I’d seen her slap grown men, push white police officers onto their asses, curse a whole group of bochincheras”  (367).

Wildwood, NJ

Junot Diaz is a simile super hero:

  • It went up in a flash, like gasoline, like a stupid hope… (367).
  • …the bruja feeling that comes singing out of my bones, that takes hold of me the way blood seizes cotton (377).

A tricky or problematic area of writing is figuring out who you are on the page, or who you are on the page in a certain piece of writing.  In the pages of “Wildwood,” I’m able to revisit some important lessons.  First off, I notice the allusions in the story, most of them references to pop culture.  It used to be when I wrote that it would occur to me to try and explain something by invoking a sports, musical, or cinematic metaphor, AND I’d shut that impulse down.   I’d flip my mental rolodex away from The Cutting Crew or Fletch, and head over into at least something as literary as Edgar Allen Poe or Edith Wharton.  Here’s a couple lines from “Wildwood” that remind me there’s no reason to stay in the imaginary literary canon:

  • “A punk chick.  That’s what I became.  A Siouxsie and the Banshees–loving punk chick” (362).
  • Right after invoking The Sound of Music, Diaz writes, “All my favorite books from that period were about runaways–Watership Down, The Incredible Journey, My Side of the Mountain–and when Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” came out I imagined it was me they were singing about” (365).

Diaz alludes to Bon Jovi and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

If you teach English or you’ve been taught English, or you’ve had an editor recently, I wonder how many times you’ve told somebody or been told by somebody that you must be consistent with point of view or verb tense.   I know “watch verb tense” or “inconsistent POV” is something I wrote on students’ papers back in the day when I was teaching writing without being a writer myself.   Often when tense or point of view is brought up, it is a relevant point of consideration, but there’s no Moses rule that states a writer can’t change verb tense of point of view.  Diaz’s story is a good example of what’s possible.  He beings his story by addressing the reader directly, using “you,” which to my way of thinking, makes the POV second person:  “…but then she called you again, louder, her I’m-not-fucking-around voice, and you mumbled irritably, Si senora” (360).  Before we get to the switch to first person, Diaz shows us how to make a narrative leap in time, a move that allows us to skip everything that is boring and irrelevant:  “Before the winter is out the doctors remove that breast you were kneading and its partner, along with the auxiliary lymph nodes”  (362).   We’re still in second person “you,” and as a writer, you only need the little phrase “Before the winter was out” to take the reader with you to what’s next.  There’s  no need to talk about the rest of the winter, all those days when all that was happening was that people were sitting around and watching television.  Then Diaz make the switch to first person:  “A punk chick.  That’s what I became.”  The story continues.  I know what’s going on.  I can’t stop reading.  I don’t close the book thrown off by a shift in pronoun use.

The Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories 2009

There’s a bunch in this story to see, but I’ll just share one last little lesson this story offers, a super easy one to at least consider:  when you start a piece of writing in a certain place, (mental, intellectual, geographical)  sometimes the best way to end it to return to that place.  Diaz begins, “It’s never the changes we want that change everything” (361).   Fifteen or so pages later, after the narrator’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer, after the narrator has run away, returned, and then been sort of shipped off to live with her grandmother, she tells us, “So much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart.”  Nothing has happened to the narrator that she ever would have wished for, but yet, she is different than she was.  If you’re lost for an ending, come back to your starting place.  What new is there to say?

Diaz, Junot. “Wildwood.” The Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories. Ed . Laura Furman. New York: Anchor Publishing, 2009. Print.