by Melissa Mesku
The best writing comes from when you’re just about over something, but not entirely out: when you have enough perspective that you’ve developed a new truth but are still embedded within the old one.
At least that’s what I said. I’d never had that thought before, never tested it, but I’m one of those advice-dispensing vigilantes that shoots from the hip, and I don’t even ask questions later. My best friend was in the middle of telling me a story about her visit to the tiny Guatemalan lady who operates an illegal electrolysis clinic in her kitchen. I was in the middle of listening which means I was already at the end, already seeing how she had casually yet masterfully weaved the details together, making the story rich, surprising, beautiful.
My best friend is one of my favorite writers, always has been. But she doesn’t write – hasn’t ever written – for an audience. She does not publish, has no interest to. She writes for herself. It’s so beautiful it’s maddening. Deriving benefit from my talents is impulse for me, my finger is always on the trigger. If you show me your talent I will point the gun at you, too.
When she was done, I told her she should write it just like she told it. Put a voice recorder on and transcribe it: just get it out there, use it. I had just taken a guest editorship at a small literary journal, and I reasoned with her that if she ever had an ounce of desire to publish that right now would be a really good opportunity to submit something. But then I hear myself talk and even I am bored. She doesn’t care about opportunities, I think. I hear her story, a little piece of alchemical gold she’d spun in conversation, and already I am trying to use it, to melt it down, weigh it, see how much it can be sold for. If I were her I’d take the gun from my hand and slap me with it.
Stories are always about becoming. The reader has to know what happened before before they can care about what happens after. We live our own lives this way, interested when it looks like things are developing, bored when they are not. More than anything this is why we hate barriers—they keep the story from moving forward. For my best friend, the biggest barrier in life is less than a millimeter wide, it is this tiny little hair on her upper lip, and this one, and this one, and this one. And these ones on the chin. The barrier is a defining factor in her life, and a thing she is slowly emerging from. The defining factor in my life is equally neurotic: I am consumed by the drive to take everything out of my soul and put it on paper. Both are equally impossible, for there is always one more hair to extract, always one more thing to pluck from my soul. We hold ourselves hostage like this. My story cannot progress because I’m stuck trying to tell stories, trying to extract my history, get it out there, use it. I’m a claim-jumping ghost haunting my old mine. Every story I’ve written is a fleck of gold I’m pawning from the past. I dedicate myself to developing my talents, to taking advantage of opportunities. I am becoming boring, the only thing left to become when you’re not becoming anything.
And so my desire to detonate the mine. To surprise myself, to shock myself out of the stasis I’ve mired myself in. But I’m still inside it. If I blow it up, I go down with it.
My best friend and I have the same tattoo, and then we have others. One of her others is a pistol and the words, “If a gun appears in a story…” It’s a principle called Chekhov’s gun, advice that the writer remove everything that has no relevance. For Chekhov, if you place a rifle in a story, it must be used; if not, it shouldn’t be there. She has placed that gun on her body, though neither of us is sure when she’ll use it. But here, in this story, I have already invoked it. It hasn’t yet gone off, and if it must, I don’t know when, nor toward whom it will be pointed. It’s OK as long as the story isn’t finished. But as you can see, it is about to end. I’m not outside the story enough to know how best to finish it off; I’m still stuck inside it, lacking perspective. So this cannot be a good story, but Chekhov’s gun will go off nonetheless. It fires when I realize that my stories, that all stories, have no relevance, that I will be able to move forward when I remove not just the stories but the need for stories, plucking them out like so many unwanted hairs.
Melissa Mesku is a writer and editor in New York City.