A few years ago I had the pleasure to interview Dennis Lehane, who told the story of how, in his early years of writing, he posted a note to himself above his desk where he worked that read, “Nobody Cares.” This meant both the hard-boiled truth that the world was largely indifferent to his little joys and struggles, but also the emancipating understanding that whether he failed or succeeded would not actually affect anyone else. Since nobody cared, he needn’t waste any energy worrying about what anyone thought about what he was doing.
I thought of this when my creative work began to draw exclusively from my own life, whether in memoir or in this space. I could be a slippery and uncooperative protagonist, stiffening suddenly as the Bill on the page seemed to become aware the literary camera. Ironically, this only made Protagonist Bill less sympathetic, an outcome that only further heightened his awareness of my narrative eye.
Until, that is, I remembered that nobody cared – or more specifically, nobody cared about me. If I have done my job as a writer correctly, the reader will care about my story’s protagonist – me, in this case – but not the me I am so often trying to protect. This is the me to whom I was referring when, as a young man, I sometimes complained, “Nobody cares about me.” Meaning, nobody cared that I was sad; nobody cared that I was frightened. And it was true. To care about my sadness in the way I believed others should would be to ask another to care about an illusion I had believed. To care about this illusion would only strengthen my belief in it, which in turn would only strengthen my sadness.
The opposite of an illusion is the truth, and this is what readers really care about. Stories, at their best, are dreams through which a reader can awaken from an illusion into the truth. Nothing matters but that awakening. The moment I believe that I matter more than the awakening, I begin protecting myself, and the story disappears into the nightmare I have spent my life trying to disbelieve.
Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
“A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.