If I write a salacious story in the first person, will readers assume it's about me?


Garrison Keillor
October 6, 1998 8:58PM (UTC)

Dear Mr. Blue,

If a salacious story is told in the first person, does the reader
presume it's autobiographical? Can one claim author's license in
licentiousness? Of course, I am a libertine, but as an author
does that really matter? Must one associate the writer's life
experiences with the story? I'm a bit concerned for my mother,
not so much what she thinks as what others will think of her
child-raising abilities.

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Bend Over

Yes, the reader does. You can claim that those
panting, perspiring bodies writhing in the Wamsuttas are purely
an invention, and you can say so on the copyright page, but the
reader presumes that you've been there, done that. Especially if
the descriptions are really good and the dialogue sounds about
right. Then it reminds the reader of some of the reader's better
salacious moments. But nobody will think less of your mother for
your libertinism, nobody who your mother really cares about.
You're on your own, kid.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a journalist who spent four years abroad working on a
big nonfiction book project with my fianci, a photographer. We
pulled off some pretty amazing interviewing and travel feats, and
moved back to the States, got married, the book got delayed, my
husband turned out to be a pathological liar and cheater, our
marriage fell apart and now I am putting my life back together.
I feel that the book deserves to be written and I desperately
want to write the book, but I also need to get on with my life
and get the ex out of my head. Can I achieve this and still write
the book?

Wretched

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If you desperately want to write the book, then
you should do it. No doubt about it. Four years of your life was
a big investment, and you can't walk away from it because the
marriage broke up. The book is a concrete good thing, compared to
"getting on with my life," and you can use the first to speed you
forward in the second. Unfinished projects are rocks in our
pockets, especially when we know that they deserved completion:
They keep calling to us for years. Of course it will be awkward,
given your feelings about the guy, but keep a civil tongue, be a
pro, get the job done and bend over backwards to be kind to him,
no paybacks. Do the book, and you'll be better able to close the
door on the past and get on with living.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 29 and have recently met a boy, 22, and have become
smitten with him. He is in an advanced degree program for
philosophy and is precocious. Does age matter? I don't think
twice about seeing a man seven years my senior, though I have
to admit I easily tire of the mentoring that goes on. So shall I
fold this one up before it begins to take form?

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The Older Woman

I am so charmed by the thought of a 29-year-old as
Older Woman, I can't tell you. Yes, age does matter, I guess, but
beyond a certain point it matters less and less. That is, it
matters less how old you are than how many years you have left,
and not many of us know that for certain. A 50-year-old who is
taking good care of herself is younger than a 30-year-old who is
hellbent on destruction. But if you can be smitten with someone,
then age difference has already become a minor consideration. I
say, if you're smitten with the lad, smite him back, enjoy your
romance, and should you wish to get rid of him, start mentoring.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

It's been almost a year since I broke up with my college
sweetheart. She was my first love and first partner, and I was
hers. She says that she sees no future for us, but whenever we
are in the same city, we spend time together and usually end up
in bed together. We don't talk for months at a time and then
she'll call and I start thinking about her again. There are
plenty of women around who seem interesting, but I can't get past
the first or second date. I keep telling myself that I don't need
her anymore, but she keeps creeping back into my head. I have a good
life. She is not that special. So why am I so obsessed?

Distraught in D.C.

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Don't try to dismiss the old sweetheart from
your thoughts -- you can't -- but if you truly feel that this
is an obsession that does you no good, then avoid seeing her. You
don't have to see her if you don't want to. You don't have to be
nice to everyone who calls you on the phone either, especially if
this all is making you miserable. That's what I can't quite read
in your letter, whether you're hanging onto her as a marker or
whether you really love her and are protesting against it. If you
can't keep away from her city, can't keep from seeing her, can't
keep from going to bed with her, then I guess your next option is
marriage. It might save you both a lot of frustration.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a nerdy professor of computer science, married to a
lovely woman, living in a friendly college town filled with bike
lanes, the father of two of the loveliest little
girls on earth and yet I am filled with foreboding.

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I work happily and hard all day, and at night I dream horrid
dreams of abandonment. Almost every night, my beloved leaves me
and I awaken in a sweat at about 2 or 3 in the morning.

She is perplexed, and wants to help, but wonders how. What am I to do about these dreams?

Agonizing

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If you're at the point where this is painful to
you and seriously getting in your way, then go to a therapist of
your choice and see if counseling can help, or pharmaceuticals,
or whatever the therapist is dealing in. That's my advice. I'd
also suggest that when you waken at 2 or 3 filled with
foreboding, that you don't lie in bed and stew but get up and do
something, exercise, clean the bathroom, do the laundry. And it
might be helpful to give yourself a morning ritual that will be a
clear boundary between nighttime and daytime. These miseries
belong to the night; you live in the day. For example, every
morning upon arising you do your push-ups, take a shower, fix
breakfast for your daughters, talk to your wife about something
cheerful and walk to work listening to Bach on your Walkman. A
step-by-step conditioning exercise. I believe in the efficacy of
talking with a caring professional, and I also believe in tricking
oneself and finding distractions and in keeping busy. I mean,
there's a lot of weirdness and snarkiness in all of us even on
our good days, and we can't be always lying down and taking our
own temperatures. Sometimes you just need to get on a bike and
ride 20 miles.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a moderately successful writer who has gone through a couple of
divorces and a number of foolish flings, mad crushes, brief
passions, unsatisfactory dalliances, and now seem to have lost my
appetite for female company, except of a strictly platonic kind.
I keep thinking that I'm in some sort of restorative phase that
will pass in due course, but from time to time I become alarmed
at how little I am alarmed by my indifference -- which I know,
after all, to be a cancer of the soul. Should I be trying to
relight the flame, and if so, how?

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Alone and Slightly Worried

Your becoming alarmed at your lack of alarm is
perhaps the first signal that you're thinking about coming back
into circulation and having another fling. Meanwhile, enjoy your
indifference. It may not last long. Loss of appetite puts you in
a fine position to observe the crushes and dalliances of others,
and what other realm of behavior is so rich for a writer? If you
ask me, which you did, I'd say you should go to all the parties
you're invited to and hang out in bars and study the countless
little ways in which the available smell out each other and
circle and dally and intrigue and drive off competitors. Don't
relight your flame, it will be relit for you soon enough. You'll
see someone and converse and suddenly you won't be indifferent
anymore. Meanwhile, you're fine. In some form, indifference may
be a cancer of the soul, but a person cannot be open to all
possibilities at all times and remain sane. Sometimes we shut some
windows for our own preservation. You're OK, says me.

Dear Mr. Blue,

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I am a struggling, young freelance writer. I live with my
boyfriend who is really cool, very loving and supportive. A few
months ago, I met a bestselling author at a party who has a
reputation for helping young writers. The other day, he asked
me if I'd like to go have a beer with him sometime. Ideally,
I would like to form a mentor-type relationship with him, but I
am undeniably attracted to him, so, though I have no intention of
acting on it, I feel guilty at the thought of meeting for a beer.
I think my boyfriend picks up on my guilt because he seems
threatened by this situation. And to be perfectly honest, lately
I've caught myself fantasizing about this author, creating little
scenarios where he collapses at my feet, saying I'm the woman
he's waited for his entire life, etc. So, should I avoid this man
and miss out on a possibly beneficial professional relationship?
Or should I attempt to forge a platonic relationship from a
situation that is obviously charged with sexual tension?

Conflicted in New York

You have a great talent for creating drama -- I
mean, you've made this bottle of beer into an opera. I hope that
this sexual tension is finding its way into your work and giving
it some crackle. But I'd try to keep it out of your life. Go meet
the big cheese for a beer and ask your cool boyfriend along. Why
not? It's only a casual social moment. But if you're thinking of
having an affair with the cheese as a way of aggrandizing your
career, then face the fact that this is cynical and corrupt and
you're deceiving yourself and setting a bad precedent in your
life. Cynicism in a writer is not just bad faith, it's a critical
wound.

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Dear Mr. Blue,

When I was in college I met plenty of smart women at school, but
I was too shy to do anything about it. Now I'm 30 and I'm over
the shyness, but I never meet those women anymore. It seems like
all the single ones around town are not very interesting. Where
does a guy go to meet those smart women that were always around
in school? Maybe I should take a job in Europe or something.

Getting Later All the Time

The pool of smart women has been reduced since you
were in school, and if you're living in a smaller community, the
pool may simply be too small and you'll need to search beyond the
town limits. There are various ways of pursuing smart women, but
they all require you to step outside yourself and to offer your
values, your feelings, your soul, for inspection, and to be
honest, and at the same time, to want the glittering
possibilities of romance. Life can be so amazingly lit up by the
presence of The Woman, there is such sweetness in the sight of
her, such music, that of course you yearn for it, but smart women
are able to see past that music and glamour and get a glimpse of
the real you. So prepare to be read.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband has finally extricated himself from his job and is now
going to make his way as a writer. I know he is facing a lot of
fear and uncertainty. Is there any advice you can offer to help
smooth the path -- and is there anything I can do to help, too?

An Adoring Wife

The main thing you can do is not be too interested in
his career, not ask how it's going too often, not hover around
him offering to warm up his coffee. Writers need space. The best
thing you can do for him is to take care of yourself, attend to
your life, your work, your interests, and be a whole vital
healthy person when the two of you hook up in the evening, or
whenever you meet. Writing is a job, not so different from the
practice of dentistry as some writers like to make out: You go to
work in the morning, you do your work, you pay attention, you
close up shop when you've done all you can do. The heroism isn't
in the life itself, it's in the outcome, and there is absolutely
nothing you can do to affect that.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 50, I write fiction full time and I am hard to live with. I
whine and complain to myself and (I admit it) to my husband about
how hard it is and how depressed I am. I am hard to live with.
I am starting Prozac. Do you think my faults are typical or
untypical of most writers?

Ms. Whine

Writers tend not to whine to each other in a
serious way because it would only open the door for the other
writer to whine back, and nobody cares to listen to someone
else's problems at great length anyway. Especially when they're
as boring as a writer's are. I mean, the act of writing can be
awful hard and there are days when you can't put three paragraphs
together, but to complain about this is surely the depth of
tediousness. I should think it's miserable for you, too. I mean,
writers are entertainers at heart, shang shang a rang a lang
dang, and the first person you have to entertain is yourself,
sweetheart. You're 50, a mere child to me but a grownup girl, and
you maybe ought to be nicer to yourself. The writing that's so
hard -- put it away and write something that's fun to do. Give
yourself license to write extravagantly dumb stuff out of the
wilder side of your brain, maybe write a complaint to God that
reaches new heights of whinery. Good luck with the Prozac, too.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 29 years old, a journalist, which I like, but I feel I have a
book inside me and I really want to write it. My problem is I
can't seem to make up stuff, and while my life has had its
moments, it doesn't exactly have novel potential. How can I come
up with something compelling to write about?

Too Truthful for Fiction

So I guess we're talking nonfiction. A
burgeoning field, as newspapers get shallower and dumber and less
satisfying to read. To write a nonfiction book, you need to be
in the right place at the right time and catch a story in the
making that is complicated and inherently fascinating and
deserves to be treated at length. Crime, of course, is prime
material. And then comes disease. And then sex. Keep your eyes
open and be prepared to be compelled.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have trouble meeting a person who I would like to have an
intimate relationship with, and her me. It seems that those I
like do not like me "in that way" and those who are interested
in me I regard only as friends. When I think about what that
special person would be like, I get discouraged, because they
would not be the kind of person I would meet in a bar, or at a
singles club. I worry that we will never meet. Any advice?

Lost Between the Cracks

The search for the beloved is a cheerful enterprise,
so cheer up. She's out there, and she is a little discouraged
too, but her head is up in the air, she's sniffing, she's
thinking about you, and when you come across her, she'll give you
a curious smile that will encourage you to come closer.

Dear Mr. Blue,

How do I become naturally witty?

Bizarrely Brooklyn

You are. Trust me.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 34, dating two women, starting to feel strongly about both. I
want to get married in the next couple of years. (I have a
teenage daughter from a previous marriage.) Lisa is warm and
bouncy and shiny, and Denise is dry and witty. She can do the
Sunday New York Times crossword unassisted. Lisa is warmer and
scores high in the stepmom department. Denise nourishes the
creative writer in me. Lisa loves musical theater, which I can't
stand. My guess is that sex with each will be outstanding because
the attraction level is high for each. Any words of wisdom?

Norman in Oklahoma

What you don't mention is whether either of these fine women is
interested in you. That's an important consideration. Keep dating
a little longer and you may get some clues about that.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My girlfriend and I are both writers (she poetry, me fiction).
When she first showed me some of her poetry, I was blown away by
her talent, but lately, she says she is jealous of my writing,
that it's more interesting and original than hers (I don't agree,
nor do mutual friends). She hasn't written anything in the last
six months and says she doesn't know if she ever wants to again. I
want her to write and I don't want to pressure her, but am I doing
something wrong? How can I convince her to start writing again?

Worried in Boston

Whether your girlfriend is writing or not has
nothing to do with you or your writing, its interest, its
originality, and it is immature of her to put this guilt on you.
Her saying that she doesn't know if she ever wants to write again
is the height of immaturity. It deserves no comment from you at
all. So don't try to convince her of anything, or you will be
enlisted in a drama in which you don't get to say any good lines.
Her writing is purely none of your business, especially when she
has stated things in these terms. Be kind and loving to her and
let her writing take its own course and hope that she grows up.


Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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