Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Afraid to Commit

Self Inflicted - Katy Perry (mp3)
Driftwood - Travis (mp3)
One Little Victory - Rush (mp3)

My life has been filled with failures, and most of them haven't been nearly as painful as you'd think. In fact, most of my failures have been surprisingly pleasant. What I mean to say is, most of my failures haven't caused permanent damage. They're the kinds of failures that, when you look back on them months or years later, you find yourself grateful for having gone through it. You can convince yourself that, had you succeeded, you'd be a different and maybe less refined person.

It's been a decade since I failed colossally at writing a novel. That particular failure has left scars.

That this failure somehow hurts me more than any number of others that carry more weight in dozens of categories says a lot about me. It says:
  • I'm a whiner at heart;
  • I probably think I'm a better writer than I actually am;
  • I lack the obsessive gene necessary to complete such ambitious goals.
The story was inspired by my time as a novice journalist working in Warner Robins, Ga., a town that formed around the Air Force Base ("Air Logistics Center," to be accurate) there. The ways I found myself disillusioned by my job and, more importantly, the gravitational sway of power, were the lessons that cemented my conversion from someone of more conservative political views to a fairly liberal fella.

Crimes committed by airmen were routinely swept under the rug or kept out of the paper lest the base get a bad reputation. (Our paper had a contract to print various projects for the base, and the threat of losing those contracts, which were a big income stream, was powerful.) We even had one of our reporters fired for writing a column that criticized the base. No warning. No write-up. Just canned on the spot.

We had a call-in line -- not unlike what the Times Free Press and other papers now have -- where people could leave any messages they wanted with total anonymity. My first job every day was to transscribe those calls. Roughly half were racist, sexist, or other kinds of extreme hatred best offered behind the cloak of namelessness. It took me four months before I could work up the courage to remove them myself, not waiting on my editor to determine which ones were worth keeping. You can only type in certain words so many times before you can't live with yourself typing those words anymore.

I covered the police beat, mainly, and I gained tremendous respect for police officers and the people who worked behind the scenes processing papers, or people, or manning the phones. These folks weren't necessarily heroic or admirable, and they deserved as much criticism as teachers. Just because a job is underpaid and underappreciated doesn't mean the people in those jobs can't be criticized when they suck or get careless or calloused. Yet, in spite of the many screwed-up things I witnessed happening with the police, I still came away with more admiration than disillusionment.

I covered at least a half dozen murders. The most memorable one involved a botched drug deal where the dealer ended up hacking a married couple with a machete. The couple had been trading sex for drugs. This dealer and the couple would have all kinds of kinky sex and film it, and the dealer got copies of the tapes in exchange for heroin. The woman's father had been babysitting their young son that day, and the two of them were the ones who discovered the chopped bodies.

When I got to the scene, I was allowed to go to the doorway and look at the crime scene from a distance of some 30 feet.

All the talk about how the rap sheets these parents had, how drug-addled they had become, how awful they were as parents, none of it made those limbs and the blood that had splattered over walls and the floor any easier to comprehend. None of it made me able to grasp the notion of a boy barely in elementary school walking in on that scene.

I'd like to tell you I cried that night when I got back to my crappy little apartment, but I didn't. I couldn't. If it was possible, the scene was so emotionally overwhelming that my entire system shut down temporarily. I might not have cried, but I'm fairly certain I went a day or two without feeling happy, which for me is maybe even more dire a sign of trauma than tears.

There were good stories, too. The people with whom I worked were a crazy lot, and they'd make for one helluva sitcom if they didn't fit so many stereotypes so well. The photographer who constantly bragged about the women he slept with in his darkroom. The editor who was, quite simply, the ugliest man I've ever met. (Naturally he was from Alabama.) The local "bulldog" reporter who had been valedictorian of her class and found herself in her fifth year at this paper with nary a promotion or a raise. The old lifestyles woman with serious incontinence who hated computers and regularly shat in her seat loudly enough for the entire newsroom to act like we didn't hear it.

The city editor, who came onto the job a few months after I arrived, ended up sleeping on my couch for six months. What a hoot he was. When he wasn't busy being a useless ex-husband who operated more like a bad car salesman, he was a darn fine advisor on the world of newspapers and journalism, better in many ways than most professors, I suspect.

The county editor and reporter was in a miserable marriage and could have drunk Marion Ravenwood under the table. Her husband would have tried to bed Lassie if the dog had ever entered the city limits. He was the horniest, most non-selective philanderer I'd ever met.

And there were other characters. Frustrated TV reporters. The owner of the movie rental place who got to know me by name. The stripper who came back home with the city editor one night and then invited two of her friends over because she was convinced that the five of us could have one helluva great night of sex. Wile E. Coyote couldn't have run out of that apartment faster than I did.

The experience was so rich with possibility that I still can't to this day figure out why I failed so badly. The novel died in the water, so to speak, because I never finished it. But it deserved to be "put down." It was a wounded animal whose injuries I was not capable of healing, and to keep it alive for my own sake would only have needlessly extended its suffering.

A new idea has been gestating in me for the past six months, and I've been nursing it along in my head very carefully and slowly, hoping I can get everything in some semblance of order and direction before diving into the writing part.

But mostly I'm that pathetic jilted lover who's afraid of committing to another relationship for fear it will crash and burn like the first one.

"Self Inflicted" is from Katy Perry's album, which I don't own, but can be acquired through iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site. Same goes for the Travis album The Man Who, from which "Driftwood" comes, and Vapor Trails, home of Rush's "One Little Victory."

1 comment:

Daytimerush said...

What great characters! I can't figure out how that one died. Maybe they were too mature for you---you are just a teenager at heart!