If I Were Proust

ProustMarcel Proust and I have several things in common. We’re both writers. We’re both over-writers–though I come nowhere near his graphomania. We like pastries–Madeleines, millefeuilles, whatever. And most of all, we enjoy spending much of our time reclined, though unlike Marcel, I have no servants and, thus, have to get out of bed every once in a while to fetch those pastries.

That said, having recently read through his answers to what has become known as The Proust Questionnaire, a series of questions that were meant to reveal a person’s character, I found myself wondering how writers I know might answer. Of course, Vanity Fair adopted a version of the questionnaire that it puts to celebrities every month. I know no real celebrities, but I do know many, many writers, especially here in Canada. So I intend to publish a series of their answers over the coming months, not only introducing their work, but their inclinations and aspirations, as determined by 31 questions–only slightly modified from the original ones that good old Marcel answered in 1890.

I will begin with myself, not only because I am the most readily available writer I know, but also because I’m still in bed as I type, which seems somehow appropriate.

1. Your favorite qualities in a man. Charming
Charm mixed with kindness. You sometimes get one or the other, but seldom both. Beware of free-standing charm.

2. Your favourite qualities in a woman.
Confidence and directness. I like a gal who can tell it like it is, without couching it in too much politeness or euphemism.

3. Your chief characteristic.
Open-mindedness. I am much more curious than judgemental. It helps in both writing and life.

4. What you appreciate the most in your friends.
Their intelligence and wit. Their ability to lend a sympathetic ear when necessary.

5. Your main fault.
Tendency to worry/be anxious. This may be the downside of an active imagination.

6. Your favourite occupation.beach
Sitting on the beach on a sunny day, staring at the waves and sky. Going into the water every now and then. I guess I was supposed to say writing…

7. Your idea of happiness.
A stretch of empty days that I can fill with whatever I please. If the weather is fine and the locale interesting, even better.

8. Your idea of misery.
A prison of responsibilities and obligations that you cannot escape, that sour the soul. Anything you don’t want to do but have to.

9. If not yourself, who would you be?
Lucinda Williams. At least for 3 days. But would she have to be me in the meanwhile? I wonder what she’d make of that.

10. Where would you like to live?
I like where I live now, but would love a life spent partially in exotic and tropical climes. Bora Bora, Fiji, somewhere with crystalline water, white sand and palm trees. I would take a Greek island in a pinch…

Star-Gazer-Lily11. Your favourite colour and flower.
Purple, of the deep variety. Any type of lily, but especially the tall Asian ones that smell like flowery butter.

12. Your favourite bird.
I’m partial to African Grey Parrots. I like a bird that can hold a conversation and make up its own vocabulary.

13. Your favourite prose authors.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Ford, Truman Capote.

14. Your favourite poets.
I’m going to say Ruth Stone for today. Poems ambushed her in fields!

15. Your favourite heroes in fiction.
Jose Buendia in 100 Years of Solitude, especially after he was tied to the tree. I also have a lot of affection for Dell in Richard Ford’s Canada.

16. Your favourite heroines in fiction.
I’m currently enamoured with Isabel Archer in Henry James Portrait of a Lady.

17. Your favourite painters and musicians.
So many, but here are a few: Otto Dix, Modigliani, Francis Bacon; Bach, Jack White, Psarantonis

18. Your heroes in real life.
Rebels, geniuses, whistleblowers, and anyone who helps without expectation of reward.

nunfun19. Your heroines in real life.
Nuns. I think nuns are awesome. And what I said about heroes.

20. What characters in history do you most dislike.
Pick any psycho/sociopathic dictator and insert name here. And Stephen Harper.

21. Your heroines in World history.
Hypatia, Catherine the Great, Mata Hari.

22. Your heroes in World history.
Democritus, William James, Carl Jung.

23. Your favourite food and drink.martini-fruit
Japanese and Italian, and, as always, very dry vodka martinis, preferably with berries in them.

24. Your favourite names.
I’m partial to mythological ones: Persephone, Ariadne, Telemachus, Achilles, etc. People still have these names in Greece.

25. What you hate the most.
Aggressive stupidity.

26. The natural talent you’d like to be gifted with.
Singing. I’d give my left arm to be able to sing. Opera especially, but anything really.

27. How you wish to die.
Suddenly, without warning. Would save me from worrying and suffering. But I hear drowning is nice too.

tropical bird28. What you wish to come back as.
I was once told it would be a lemur, but I would prefer to be a very pretty, tropical songbird.

29. What is your present state of mind.
Quiet, but anxious at the same time. Yes, it’s possible.

30. For what fault have you most toleration?
Sentimentality.

31. Your favourite motto?
Expectation is the root cause of all suffering.

I trust you all feel you know me a bit better now, and won’t use it against me.

Other People’s Secrets: The Stories I Won’t Tell

Once a week I volunteer at an active listening center, where I lend an ear to people in distress. In my eight months there I have spoken to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, with schizophrenia, with bipolar disorder, with borderline personality disorder, with depression, anxiety and paranoia. There also have been closet cross-dressers, frustrated poets, and at least one female masturbator, who kept me on the phone for 45 minutes–until she was done, I guess. Far from being depressing, I find it fascinating to talk to and listen to these people. I am a person addicted to stories, and their stories are more surprising, have more depth, pathos, strangeness and humor than most of the things I read. In other words, these people are the perfect characters, who willingly reveal themselves to me. But I am sworn to secrecy (one regular caller ends every conversation by asking me if our talk is confidential).

It is said that Dostoevsky stole the epitaph from his mother’s grave for a story. I have used incidents from my life, along with versions of the characters that have populated it for my stories and novels, and I have been called on it more than once. I have even abandoned a story more than once because it would probably get me into trouble. Dostoevsky’s mother was already dead, so he had nothing to answer for. As for the characters in my stories who recognize themselves, they are there because I am–my story couldn’t be told without them. But these anonymous callers are just passersby in my life, though I speak to a few of them at least once a week, know their first names in some cases, have heard the details of their life-altering story–the one that sent them to the hospital, that keeps them up at night, that no one else believes–more than once.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that every character has a secret that motivates or hinders him/her, and whether the writer reveals the secret in the story or not, he/she must always be aware of it. It is the secret that makes the character interesting, and the way it manifests that makes the story unique. My callers are dying to get their secret off their chests, to have it understood, untangled, justified, and most importantly, to not be judged for it. At the end of a good call, they will thank me profusely, bless me, tell me they love me or even adore me for the simple reason that I listened, responded, took interest, and possibly even helped them–at least in the moment. A bad phone call will end pretty much in the absolutely opposite manner, but luckily I don’t have too many of those. Unless someone is being pushy and disrespectful, I respect them enough to believe their distress, even if its cause is transparent to me. Carl Jung taught me long ago that psychological reality is that person’s reality. We all count on our brains to tell us what is real and how to react to it, and this is as true for person whose brain is not absolutely reliable.

When I teach literature, I give my students a list of hints that a character is unreliable, including explicit contradictions and other discrepancies in the narrative, contradictions between the narrator’s account of events and his/her explanations and interpretations of the same, and a high level of emotional involvement, including exclamations and repetitions. Many of my callers meet the criteria for unreliability, but that makes their stories no less fascinating. They are not stories, however, that I will be stealing for my own writerly purposes, not whole hog anyway. It would feel like I was stealing their souls. Perhaps a detail will eventually work itself into something I write, divorced from the person and his/her whole narrative. I do think the masturbator is fair game since she already used me for her own selfish purposes. But everyone else is too vulnerable, too beaten down and used by their families, their mental illness, the health system, by the world at large. Though some of their stories are heartbreaking, poignant, hilarious, I cannot become one more person who betrays them for my own benefit.

So they remain ephemeral, like the charming songs children make up while they are playing, to be felt, enjoyed in the moment, then forgotten. I do enjoy them immensely as they unfold over the line, and though I won’t forget them, I won’t repeat them either. They have nothing to do with me. They are not my stories to tell.