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In tenth grade, I heard from some poet that real emotions were complicated, and since I was cheesy as hell, I believed it before I believed anything else—even the easy things, like that my parents actually loved me or skin and water were made of the same stuff. There’s a section in Sheila Heti’s "How Should A Person Be?" where she talks about personality as a social construct—how you can look like you have a soul—and while the rest of my fiction-writing class said “I remember thinking like that” I was thinking, I think like that now. I think I’ll live to 100. I’m less than a quarter of the way in this life thing. I think there’s a bit of poetry in everything, which means there are double meanings and mistakes, line breaks and metaphors. I’m too old to crave poetry. I’m too young to be fascinated. But I still want to know what it means for a phrase like “take care” to lilt the way it does. To understate or overstate.
The first time I took a fiction writing class, I was surprised by how many systems it took to make falseness believable, how many differences there were in being real and pretending to be real. I questioned anything that cut too perfectly, that ended with someone being just right. I hated characters that grew to be functional rather than deep, that were able to say how exactly they became better people. They were formulaic. They sang clichés.
I wanted characters that messed with darkness until they hardened, that hurt when they loved. I wanted my narrators unreliable. I wanted them to say they were happy when they weren’t and to beg, plead for your pity when they didn’t deserve it. I wanted my dialogue raw. I wanted monologues littered with the kind of brutal slang that did not care. I wanted lowercase instead of capitals and sentences longer than breath. I wanted language that ripped. I thought everything I wanted in a story illustrated complicated people that surrounded me. I thought I loved writing fiction because it was so real, because it felt like life.
The first thing my teacher told me was that there were differences between characters and real people. Characters wanted tangible things like money and girls named Sarah, while real people wanted fluffy things, like love or a purpose in the world. Characters thrived on making things as inconvenient as possible, on self-destructing until they fell to near nothing; real people self-preserved. Characters were placed in situations where the “why this/why now?” question was easy to answer; real people meandered pointlessly. This classical dichotomy: It made sense. The fake had to work harder to be real. They needed conflict, tragedy, complexity. They needed life more than the rest of us, the real people, did.
How do you reconcile the people in your head with the people in your life, the people of your memory with those of your present? What does it mean, to be interesting enough to have your own story? It’s no wonder that Heti, a young female writer, writes so much about how to construct yourself, when, in fiction, the fake “you” you’ve constructed seems more real, more purposeful, than the real you. But I wonder how much we fictionalize ourselves, how much we need to deceive ourselves in order to do so. How common, how practical it is to be the hero of your own story?
I learned in a neuroscience class that you don’t remember things; you remember remembering things. The music pounding sideways in your car. The break in your throat. You choose how to remember it. You choose the way it fits into yourself. And in this process, the memory becomes a little false, a little off. It seems more real than real. It works to make you feel. It works like fiction.
When my mother and my father and my sister drove to Massachusetts for the first time since Christmas, I saw Cambridge as the pretty town it is and the open iron gates cool and neutral as a close-to-touch promise. It was negative 25 degrees, and the night before, I told them to bring jackets on jackets on jackets, and while my sister laughed and said I was lying, I told her I wasn’t. They picked me up at four in the afternoon in our silver Acura. My mother and my father and my sister and I tried on conversations that fell through the restaurant’s swing, and when we left, it was too cold to talk. In their hotel room, I slept next to my mother. Her body firmed against mine before it smoothed, and I held her hand so each ridge tucked tight against mine. I wondered what it meant to touch, to know someone was real. The next day we waited in a bad Chinese restaurant for brunch. We tried conversation, but it was sloppy. My parents dropped me off at Widener Gate. “Take care!” my mother said when I opened the car door. “Take care!” I said back.
“Take care!” my English teacher said when she saw me at graduation, diploma in hand and ankles silver in heels.
“Take care!” one night stands in movies said to each other when they planned on leaving forever.
“Take care!” I said to subway acquaintances, dog owners, waiters that stuttered when reciting specials.
“Take care!” we said to those fleeting people, before the cute good-byes. But my mother said it to me too cheerfully to mean it. She said it in place of what she’d wanted to say.
I wanted to tell her about the Was and the Is in me. I wanted to say that it had taken me this long to realize that all this time I’d been listening and agreeing, listening and agreeing, that it had taken me this long to realize she was right. Yes, love can really be this simple. Oh yes, it really can.
Christina M. Qiu ’19 lives in Matthews Hall. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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