Biting Ants and Dengue Fever: Facing My Own Character in Memoir
January 13, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Lisa Kusel
A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing the novel about a character who suffers from anosmia, or if I should rewrite the WWII book; the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.
“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”
“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”
“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”
“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a whiny b—”
“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.
“Did you lose your marriage? What really happened?”
“Well, I guess I learned—”
“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”
“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”
“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.
As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic.
Should I tell the Bali story?
More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.
Could I tell the Bali story?
I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for COOL IDEAS.
I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for a living? What are you reading right now? Do you believe in God?
I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.
By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.
But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d have to be the main character.
And forget about making shit up: I’d need to deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.
I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH.
Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking the IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d have to to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.
So I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered two double lattes. I reminisced with it. Tried to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.
I gazed deeply into my own navel.
And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.
I lied to the Bali IDEA, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.
Making up Love Lies Here felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers breaking into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.
After I finished it I returned to the café where I found the Bali IDEA still sitting where I’d left it.
“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”
“No worries,” it replied with an expectant smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.
“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.
More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.
And I’m really glad I did.
Lisa Kusel s the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. You can find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LisaKusel12 and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lisa_kusel/
Beautifully written! I recently read your book, Rash and love the creativity and humor in your writing. So, thank you for this piece. I enjoy reading about the “birth” process of each author’s story as I tend to relate to some aspect of it however small. So yes, the “giddy” feeling of coming up with a fictional story and the excitement of going wherever your mind takes you is pleasurable indeed. But, nonfiction writing can be scary as it takes us to a familiar inner world. And that world often times is damn scary. You’ve got to go kicking in the doors of your inner demons. It took me years of thinking about my memoir, Dancing Past Thieves before actually sitting down to write it. And, it’s not just your demons but other real people in the world that you are writing about.
Thank you Gillian Thorp. What a fabulous comment!!! And good luck with your book. VERY exciting.
Thank you kindly!!
Great piece. The waiting is so important. Virginia Woolf wrote of waiting for the well to fill.
Ooooh, yes. The well to fill. Lovely lovely. Thank you.
Lisa, I’m thrilled to have discovered your talented writing, and I’m looking forward to reading your memoir. While reading here of your dilemma over what to write next, I wondered if anyone would have known the definition of anosmia a year ago. Sadly, we know too much about it now.