Friday, September 13, 2013

flesh-and-blood zeitgeist

by Jean Roberta

When I'm trying to write about the flavour of a certain era or setting that I've lived in, I'm always tempted to describe the actual people who were there with me.

One of my earliest stories is "Storyteller's Tale," first written in the 1960s, when I was sixteen, and slightly revised many years later. It's a kind of condensed kunstlerroman, or a story about how I started thinking of myself as a writer. I had two younger sisters, and I used to tell them bedtime stories.

It was the era of the war in Vietnam, and my family had recently immigrated to Canada from the U.S. because my father had been hired to teach at the local university. My classmates in high school persistently asked me if I had an older brother (i.e. a motive to leave the U.S. to evade the draft). I was the oldest of three daughters, but in some sense, all the young male draft-dodgers who passed through our house seemed like my brothers. In the following story, the draft-dodger was actually the son of my father's former colleague, but I described him as my cousin to make his deliberate seductiveness seem even creepier than it seemed to me at the time.

The story-within-the-story is a variation of an allegedly true account of how one of my grandfathers (a small businessman and a politician) died of a heart attack in 1944, before I was even thought of. I've met him only in dreams.


There's something melodramatic about a moving day: furniture hangs suspended between big, sweaty movers and my parents screech tensely at each other like married birds. Boxes held together with Mama's saved string clog strategic doorways. My little sisters fight; the movers grunt; my father shouts with a cigarette between his lips; and I listen. But instead of moving all at once, we had been shifting boxes to the new house for several weeks. It was like living in a war zone during a short cease-fire.

The summer of 1967 would later be described as the Summer of Love, but it hardly seemed that way to me at the time. My cousin John arrived from Chicago as a draft-dodger when we were gradually moving from one end of Regina, Saskatchewan, to the other, when we needed him least. When I got home from school, I saw his black suitcase on the floor. Male voices in the living room were talking in the loud, urgent way my relatives do when they get together, having so much to say that they leap from topic to topic and back again. Mama was shouting into the phone: "He just arrived this morning." I breathed quietly several times, and went in.

There he was, flung carelessly on the sofa. He seemed wrapped in the warmth of June, while we were still recovering from our first winter in Canada. The seams of John's pants were strained beyond endurance, and he looked as though he would have grinned lewdly if he'd known I was thinking about them, cousin or not. We exchanged cliches.

"Did you come all by yourself?" I asked, watching him staring at the front of my sweater. He had a way of staring in a drawl. Obviously I didn’t need to inform him that I had become a young woman of sixteen since he had seen me last.

"I'm a big boy now." It was the same sexy, sleepy voice I remembered from last time. It was perfect in its way. He never stuttered and always looked you in the eyes when he spoke.

"Did you have a good trip?" I felt duty-bound as a hostess, tied obscenely to him like Joan of Arc tied to the stake.

"Sit down and I'll tell you about it," he purred, stretching. My father began to talk. I walked out of the room, my pleated plaid skirt flapping militarily about my knees like a bagpiper's kilt.

I felt uncomfortable in my girdle and stockings. Picking up a nearby brush, I sat at the kitchen table to brush my hair. This is a thing I always do to relieve tension, just as my father swears. We can't always be couth. The longer my hair grows, the more justified I feel in brushing it, and the older my father is, the louder he swears. He swears and I brush; and often the importance of a situation can be measured by the intensity with which we do it.

I ate a cookie and went upstairs, my stockings rasping against each other. They were a pair I had bought for 59 cents in Woolworth's and they were like steel wool. I remembered thinking there should have been a warning on the package, like, "Caution: the metal in this product subject to melting at high temperatures." The mesh pattern stood out in ridges on my legs. I was girdled, strapped in, pushed up, squeezed to an acceptable shape. I longed to run naked through a fountain.

I went to the public library. I always enjoy libraries; in the civilized quiet, I can read or think whatever I want to, without distractions. Sometimes I even have imaginary love affairs there, but with a sensitive young man, not with ape-men or incestuously with my cousin John. Leaving the library, I went to the record departments of several downtown stores, and then walked home.

For the next few days, I spent my afternoons out shopping or reading alone, reluctantly coming back to our half-empty house for supper. John often left too. One day Mama told me he had met a girl somewhere, and that she was taking him out in her car. I was interested, and somehow embarrassed when he galloped down the stairs in a different shirt. There was a honk from the street, the slamming of a door, and he was off.

"How would you like a story tonight?" I asked my little sisters, who were squirming in their seats. Unlike some children, they have a passion for home-made stories and home-made cookies. At ages ten and seven, they still seemed too young to know what was and was not hip. We withdrew to the overstuffed purple armchair.

"Tell us a true-life one!" shrieked Laurie. Her ordinary voice is a piercing shriek. When she's excited, it rises higher until it almost passes out of human hearing range.

"Certainly," I intoned.

"What's the name of this story? Make it spooky."

"How Uncle Cedric Died Sitting Up."


"Ssh," I began, and told them about our uncle who was known for his violent temper throughout Texas, and owned a cattle ranch. It seems he and a neighbor engaged in cock-fighting, and staged a fight between their favorite roosters, each man betting heavily that his would win. During the fight, Uncle sat down on rock because of the hot sun. After several hours, the other man's chicken was the only one left alive. Laughing, the neighbor approached our uncle with his hand outstretched for the bet money, but for once, Uncle Cedric was silent. He was dead of a heart attack at 48, sitting bolt upright.

"Why did he die?" whispered Anna.

"Because it made him so mad to lose," I answered.

"Ooh. Is that really a true story?" Laurie demanded in a surprisingly low voice.

"Well, we did have an Uncle Cedric who died." Mama was calling them to bed.


This story has remained unpublished. In some sense, it is still a virgin.

My sexually-explicit stories, of course, are in a whole other category. I started writing erotica with the intention of getting it published, if possible, so calls-for-submission that ask for "true" stories are problematic. Telling factually-accurate stories about my sex life seems like a very bad idea, especially since it has involved various other people, male and female. What to do?

I promised my Spouse several years ago that I wouldn't describe her as a character in an erotic story, so describing my current sex life is not on the agenda. However, I can describe ex-lovers who are no longer in my life. It helps if they never seemed highly literate (or interested in realistic fiction), and therefore I can reasonably hope that they never have and never will see themselves described (or caricatured) in print.

The woman I call "Gabrielle" in a story which appeared in First-Timers: Stories of Lesbian Awakening (Alyson Publications, 2006) was too tempting not to use for this purpose. And it does feel like exploitation. My qualms about consciously using a live person as source material fought with my desire to write something that would fit a particular call-for-submissions, and my desire to see my words in print won out. Here is the opening scene in "Gabrielle's Fountain." (The title refers to a g-spot orgasm, and the explanation of Gabrielle's ancestory is based on what she told me.)


Her ketchup-red hair, her laughing blue eyes and her healthy female curves gave off heat. Just being near her sent tingles up and down my spine.

Like animals craving each other’s warmth, the crowd was packed onto the dance floor of the gay bar. It was after the legal cut-off time for serving alcohol, but no one wanted to brave the dark and the cold, to stagger over the ice in the parking-lot to find cars which were mostly rusted, dented, and as unwilling to leave the premises as we were.

I liked to think I was a realist who could see what was under my nose. But I also liked to think I was a visionary who could see what was possible. I liked to visit the river town of Riel, Saskatchewan, because it seemed more fluid in several ways than my home town of Forgetville, the seat of a government which was officially and without sarcasm described as “provincial.”

Riel was named for a wild, possibly insane French-speaking halfbreed who had tried to establish his own nation on the Canadian prairie a hundred years before, in the 1880s, and who had been hanged in Forgetville as a traitor to the federal government and the British Crown. What dyke wouldn’t love the romance of that story? And what dyke could resist my wild red-haired girlfriend in Riel, especially after she bragged to me and her other drinking buddies about being the great-great-granddaughter of Riel’s second-in-command, Gabriel Dumont?

She called herself Gabrielle in the bar, although her large, Catholic family knew her by a different name. Her parents had bought her a small house a block away from theirs when she was a 21-year-old on welfare who refused to let them send her to college. By the time she was thirty, she had trained them to accept her parade of different jobs and different girlfriends, her tribe of Siamese cats who liked to fuck on the round oak table under her picture window that faced a major bus route, her vegetarian cooking, her trade in marijuana (grown in her backyard greenhouse), and even the naked revelers who attended her moonlit garden parties and wiccan rituals in summer.


So there it is: trace amounts of reality in two works of fiction. I'm sure that many of my imaginary characters have been inspired by people I've met in the real world, but they appear in stories as composites, changed beyond recognition (I hope) by the alchemy of imagination.

The next time I need to establish a zeitgeist, or the spirit of an age, I think I will use unreal characters in a real setting. It seems safer and more honourable than dragging people who have shared some of their lives with me into my imaginary world.



  1. It may be easier to write about people you disliked than about those you loved, or liked. "He had a way of staring in a drawl" is brilliant!

    I remember your Gabrielle story from First Timers, and I remember the struggle to to bring oneself to write about someone real.

  2. i really liked the excerpts.both very compelling pieces of fiction. i've been mulling over the idea that basing characters on real people in some way is somehow not honourable or exploitative. we all have to come to terms with our personal ethics & i can understand feeling uncomfortable with writing about people that one knows. i have accepted that i cannot really avoid at least gleaning an occasional characteristic or story snippet from people in my life. it happens sometimes without my being consciously aware of it. for each story i write, if i do realize that i'm using a detail from someone's life, i have to decide what to do about it on a story-by-story basis. if it isn't essential to the story, i won't use it, but if it is, i include it. sometimes i put away the story for several years or sometimes i don't let it be published at all. but i write what i need to write. not being a journalist i'm not trying to convey real events with accuracy. i feel a certain responsibility to look at shared experiences that we all have as humans or that many of us have. some of these experiences come from people i know. thanks for the post, Jean. it definitely gave me food for thought :)

  3. Sacchi and Amanda,

    Thanks for reading and commenting! You're right -- we're all inspired by real experience, usually involving other people, and we all have to figure out our own writer's code of ethics. And true enough, Sacchi, It feels much easier to write about someone I wouldn't mind offending. :)

  4. Re:
    I was the oldest of three daughters, but in some sense, all the young male draft-dodgers who passed through our house seemed like my brothers.

    Wow, Jean. Did you live in a 'safe house' in Canada? What a nifty set of folks to involve themselves in such an honorable service . Some of those U.S. boys with a conscience and some brains were provided a haven. I suppose?

  5. "I ate a cookie and went upstairs, my stockings rasping against each other. They were a pair I had bought for 59 cents in Woolworth's and they were like steel wool. I remembered thinking there should have been a warning on the package,"

    I remember stockings like that. The first story is so vivid, full of fabulous images. It certainly deserves to be published.

    I don't feel there's anything dishonorable in using aspects of real individuals in my fiction. We all do it to one another in any case, in our memories and in our fantasies. I like to think my exes would be flattered.

    In any case, given the distortions of individual perception and recollection, I'm not sure that it is possible to actually write a "true" story.

  6. “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
    -- Anne Lamott”

    I think writers can and of course do, create people and worlds from scratch, but there is nothing wrong with drawing from real life. I'm not even sure it's 100% possible not to.

    Agree with Lisbet: everything is to some degree a fiction.

  7. Thanks, everyone.

    Daddy X - I would like to write a book about my parents' involvement in the "underground railroad" of the 1960s/70s (until the amnesty of 1974) that brought draft-dodgers and some deserters to Canada. My parents have passed on, so I can't ask them for details any more, but I had the impression that they were part of a very informal but efficient organization that arranged to send us young men on a regular basis. They usually stayed in my family home for a few weeks and were then helped to find jobs, long-term shelter, continue their education, etc. Either the local Unitarian Fellowship was involved as a group, or individual Unitarians volunteered their time & skills.

  8. What wonderful example your parents gave you.


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