Monday, June 27, 2011

The Kinds of Friends Stories Are Written About

I don't think it's ironic or a coincidence that for the very first story I ever tried - a high school sports drama, written my senior year of high school in a Spiral Mead notebook - I used all my friends at the time as characters.   

I was very clever in this, of course.  I used all their real first names, but gave them TOTALLY fake last names, except sometimes I'd use the real first letter of their real last names for their fake last names as a fun hint to them when they read it someday, after it was of course published and turned into a worldwide bestselling teen sports drama about a high school basketball player who helps his small country high school team win the state championship, while winning his ex-girlfriend back, and of course helping his best friend overcome the impending divorce of his parents.  And also he helps a new, arrogant transfer - who has a gritty past, abused by an alcoholic father - understand the value of teamwork and friendship along the way.

Okay, stop laughing.  At the time, I was ardently following the most basic rule given every new writer, whether it's a good rule or not: write what you know.  As a typical high school senior who lived, breathed, and ate basketball, I wrote what I knew.

My freshman and sophomore years in college, I channeled my budding love of Sci Fi and embarked on a very cliqued, overdone and ham-handed science fiction/space opera epic.  This was my second novel, Part One of an epic new trilogy destined to be dubbed the "next Star Wars and Star Trek, all rolled into one!" (which should give you some hints as to its quality).  It weighed in at a hefty 186,000 words, and took me three years to write.

Again, I wrote my friends in as all the main characters, only this time I was even cleverer.  Instead of using their real first names, I just the used the first letter of their real first names, or in some cases didn't use their names at all, just used their physical traits: height, weight, hair color; and their personality traits.

After this manuscript received nothing but rejection letters when I sent it out my junior and senior years of college (a lot more major sci fi publishers accepted unsolicited manuscripts back then), I eventually abandoned science fiction when I discovered Stephen King's The Gunslinger.   

Around that time, my friends and I (a somewhat new group of friends, but the same that exists today) had this experience, so I embarked upon my third unpublished novel, this time influenced by something my friends and I did (although this can only be called half a novel, because I spent the next six years rewriting the first half).  

Eventually, I wrote this illustrated short story (original published in Morpheus Tales, Issue #1) and a piece of flash fiction entitled "Old Bassler House" for the anthology Northern Haunts.  

And I then I stopped writing about my friends and our experiences.  I came to the decision that I was too close to the matter, realizing a REALLY good rule, as phrased by award winning author Gary Braunbeck: "Fiction doesn't give a damn how it really happened."  

I wasn't so much trying to transcribe actual events into fiction, but was definitely trying to construct fictive doppelgangers of all my best friends, exact duplicates that didn't really serve the stories well, or correspond to reality very well, either.  They were idealized constructs that were cliqued and also not very interesting to read about.

Every writer has a specific hurdle to clear as they develop, and this was (still is) mine.  I've always been a sucker for those "buddy, coming of age" books - It, by Stephen King, Boy's Life, by Robert McCammon, Stand By Me (based on the novella The Body, by Stephen King).  

And, over the years, in trying to write about them (my friends) I've had to face the reality that I've idealized our friendship a little, while also facing the reality that slowly, inexorably, life has pulled us apart in very normal, mundane ways.

Five of the old gang met this weekend to celebrate the marriage of our last single guy. Took in a Yankees game in the city, went to dinner, hung out on a back porch  and told stories.  We all started hanging out the summer of 1993, I believe, after my freshman year in college.  

As these things usually happen, we all met by apparent chance: my best friend at the time started dating this girl who had two brothers.  So naturally, we started hanging out and traveling in groups.  He and this girl and one of her brothers and another friend - from two different schools - ran track together on their schools' combined track team.   

My friend's girlfriend's grandmother owned a cabin on a lake in Cooperstown, New York, and we probably spent every weekend or every other weekend for two summers up there, me a little less so because I lived farther away, and also played basketball for Broome Community College, so I had my own group of hoops buddies I split time with.

This lasted for several years.  Ancillary friends came and went, but the core remained.   My then best friend eventually broke up with his girlfriend, but by then our joint friendship had grown beyond that.  Even after folks started going their own separate ways - college, then work and their grown-up lives: one to Maryland, another to South Carolina and back again, one to Potsdam, then Albany, the sister eventually to Long Island when she married - we did our best to stay connected.

We've all grown and changed.  A lot.  And I've come to realize that, much as I dreamed when I started writing about my friends long ago, we weren't like the "losers club" from It or that small band of boys who embarked on a quest for manhood in The Stand.   But still, they were so much better in very real ways, and I've never, ever regretted a moment spent with these guys (and gals). 

And I should clarify: I was never the center of attention (not by design, anyway).  Most of the time, I just enjoyed being with them.  Fitting in.  Having someone to talk to.  I watched and observed them a lot.  Was a willing conspirator in tons of hi-jinks, but I can't say the planner or leader of our escapades.  But again, that concept is only one thing I'd idealized.  We had - have - no "leader of the gang".  We simply were and are, and that's good enough.

Our last number is getting married in a week.  More separations.  Divisions.  Just Time doing it's thing.   But hopefully we'll make the effort to stay connected, because now we've got tons of great things to add to the mix: new spouses, kids, new friends.  

And of course, I'm finally working on "that book" about "that house in the woods".  My friends are only shadows in this one, but hopefully I'll work up to that "buddy book" soon enough.  Until then, I have my friends - as far apart as we've grown - and that's enough for me.