I was talking with a young lady recently about our community and the troubles it has seen. She was speaking with the kind of enthusiasm that requires some effort to interpret as admiration and not as sycophancy. She said, “You should write a book about this place.”
I told her no lie: “You’re the third one to say that to me this week, I think.”
“Really?” she asked, still very sweetly.
“Yes. I share little bits and pieces of my experiences with others. Some are my acquaintances here, you know, and some of them live far away. And the ones far away are usually the ones to tell me to write a book.”
“But I’m here, and I think you should.”
“What would I write about?”
“What you have to deal with.” She went into detail about some of the latest drama we both knew about. “Here at least you always got something interesting to tell people.”
I would never argue against that. If I wrote a book about my life, my daily life, my routine and its routine interruptions, I could easily pen a very interesting book. That is not because I am an interesting man or a skilled writer. Rather, this claim reflects a commonly held belief about this place and its denizens. Here one might—if only the eyes would not keep blinking with shock and tears—make observations that are universally interesting. But I am wary of the Interesting; of its position as a border, a middle-ground, between ignorance and knowing; of its ambiguity and amorality; of its confusing what is entertaining with what is upbuilding.
The young lady was right about how interesting the material for a book might be, but I told her, “I don’t want to write an ‘interesting’ book.” Of course, I said it to be provocative. Still, it was an honest expression.
“What you mean?”
“Bookstores are full of interesting books about places like this. We read them, feel like we know something or have learned something, and never get anything more than that. It’s like watching the news. Most of the time we watch the news, find something interesting, and don’t do anything. In the end, we’ve wasted a lot of time being interested. It’s like we’ve been busy for no reason.”
She looked perplexed. “I get what you’re saying, I think. I think it’s bad to do stuff for entertainment. Well, not bad. I mean, it’s bad to be entertained all the time.”
“I don’t want to write a book that will be read for entertainment. I don’t want to write a book that will play on what the reader already thinks he knows about this place. I don’t want to lead him along and leave him with a feeling that he understands something more at the end—because I also don’t think anyone can understand this place by reading about it.”
At this her eyes lit up. “Yeah! People think they know, they will think they know a lot, but they really have all these wrong ideas. What is it?—preconceived notions.”
“Right, yet it’s not a fault of theirs. I’ve stopped telling stories to most of my friends and family who aren’t here. Or I tell them in such a way that I focus more on what I was thinking and less on what was happening. When I used to tell stories or describe scenes here, I just knew that what they would hear was not what I was saying, and I couldn’t say what I wanted them to hear.” I paused for a moment. She was still smiling at me, but not blankly. She was listening very intently. “You know when we say, ‘You had to be there’?”
“Yeah. It’s like the words aren’t good enough. As if you can know who someone is by their Facebook profile, or something.” She chuckled at her own analogy. “The words make people think they know more when they only know what the words make them think. It’s like the words get in the way.”
“So I won’t write a book until I am able to write one that will be read for some other reason besides feeding a feeling of interest or a desire for entertainment. I don’t want a reader to come away thinking he knows something about me, or about this place, or about you or anyone else here. I want to write a book that will change the heart, but I think that’s difficult to do when the book makes the reader think the stories are about a particular time and place, a particularly interesting time and place.”
“I see it now. And now I see why you say you don’t like novels. But you should still write a book. I think it’s possible for your book to change a heart even if a lot of other people just find it interesting.”
“That,” I said after a moment’s pause, “is an excellent point.”