Cheryl wants a story with no conflict.
She tells me this with conviction, slightly frustrated — if only she could remember what we’re talking about from one minute to the next. “I don’t understand why everything has to be so fraught with conflict. I mean, for real,” she declares, brow furrowed in puzzlement. Danielle is on stage, belting out the blues in the Burren back room, and it’s all about conflict. The blues are, in general. Somebody’s always down on his luck (man vs. himself), somebody’s been cheatin (man vs. man), or somebody’s cornbread is burnin (man vs. nature). As I’m musing over this idea, Cheryl slams her fist down on the broad wooden table, rattling the line of empty beer bottles. “Life is NOT high school literature class!” She is exasperated at this point, though still smiling slightly cause she’s digging the music.
Her eyes turn earnest and she leans forward suddenly, the key to the universe in her hands, eager to pass it on to me solemnly in this Sunday night barroom. I lean in to hear what she has to say.
“Does art really need conflict to be good?”
Funny, this Cheryl. I’ve known her for about six minutes. She latched onto me while I was mentally sorting through the day’s creative advances, including the birth of my new novel. How did she know what was on my mind? Every once in a while someone I’ve never met will suddenly approach me with no provocation and say something to me with such startling fervor — the words I’ve been dying to hear, or the words echoing my own self doubts — and for one second I’ll feel like I’m looking right into the eyes of God, and all I can say is, “I’m listening. I’m listening. You have my attention.”
I wrote a hefty portion of a novel the summer of 1999 called “August in Winter Hill.” It’s mostly done. It’s about being seventeen and setting the city on fire, and thinking you know everything, and discovering gorgeous treasures in the broken, the mundane, and the obvious. It’s about trip-hop and lemonade, city heat and Massive Attack, half-Asian bike messengers, pit bulls and wildflowers, pigeons and streets falling away into nothing. And it’s about the sensation of flying down Winter Hill at 2:35 in the morning on your Honda Elite scooter with someone you have just fallen in love with riding on the back, never wanting to pull over and let them off because of the burn of summer in your soul.
I think fewer than five people have read it. I made a poor choice of audience by giving it to the two people voted Least Likely to Enjoy a Fairy Tale. One of the first readers was this evil boy I went out with that summer. He was a writer, and I have since vowed never to date another writer. There is too much neurosis and ego there to support two people. We didn’t know what to do with each other. He wrote creepy erotic science fiction stories and was a manipulative freak and began suggesting that since I was so hesitant to let him read my newborn gem of a book, perhaps I hadn’t really written it at all. And I assured him I had, but he managed to wrest it out of me, and after dashing through it with his red pen, he looked at me and told me I was “childish.”
“It’s a love story.” I told him.
“It’s boring.” he said. “There’s no conflict. I keep waiting for something to happen.”
My defense was that I wanted to cut a little slice of a splendid time and place that should be able to stand on its own, like longform poetry — poems don’t need conflict to exist. Though I mulled over the possibility that he was right. I was impressionable at the time, and thought there might be some truth to his graceless criticism.
Of course, there were a few more people I allowed to read selected portions of the book, but since they liked it, I don’t remember what they had to say.
The last person to read it was a highly-scientific, relentlessly critical person whose opinion — at the time — I revered. He also got select chapters of the book out of me before I had recovered from the previous scathing review, before I felt ready to accept constructive criticism.
“Is this August for real?” he asked incredulously. “She’s too perfect. Those two together are annoying. And there’s no conflict.”
I see a pattern here.
So I decided two things. One, that no one else would read this book. Two, that I would infuse it with some scorching pain and scandal, some hard core conflict.
The conflict didn’t seem to fit. It felt awkward and pasted-on. I felt awful doing these mean things to my beloved characters.
“I’m sorry, August — maybe the coma was too much. But Joel thinks you’re boring.”
“Jason, I know. I know. You loved that bike. But what can I tell you? That’s life.”
“Yes, Aphrodite, you’re pregnant. And the father is a pit bull.”
The book died, and I buried it. It had good imagery, a neat idea involving Tarot cards, an excellent sound track, and perhaps unrealistic characters. So there you have it. Recently I was talking to a friend who wanted to read it, and for one second I entertained the idea of handing it over — but I think it’s time to let the dream go, and take the good parts and learn from them and bring them into my new project.
Bathrooms have always been my main source of epiphany, and I can’t explain why. Not even one place in particular in the bathroom. Just the clean (ideally) white porcelain and solitude, and the sound of running water. I get all my big ideas in the loo. And I was tossing around ideas to explore for my book, all centered securely around conflict. Because this damn book is going to have conflict. And I got it. All at once, in between the grapefruit shampoo and the new bar of Dove soap, during the shower song (Morphine’s “Buena”), the story came to me in its entirety, full of characters with comic book brightness, a dashing plot, a perfect setting, and undeniably valid conflict.
“I mean, what’s her problem?” Cheryl exclaims, her eyes shining. I lift up the corner of her 12″ Heffenweiser glass that is tilting steadily toward my lap. She turns her attention once more to Danielle on stage. “She’s beautiful. She’s successful. Why all this drama? See, as you get older, things aren’t as big of a deal any more. Not like in high school. Not like in college. God — when you’re 20, everything in the whole world is this gigantic painful struggle. Life chills out later on, you know?” She shakes her head. “Musicians create their own bullshit.”
Playing somewhat of the devil’s advocate, I toss out the age-old argument: “Maybe art needs conflict to be good. Maybe without conflict, there would be no art. Or at least, no interesting art.”
“No way. If someone wrote a book with no conflict, and that book could stand up on its own without it, that would be a good book. And I would read it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with no conflict.”
Should I let Cheryl in on my little secret?’
“I wrote a book with no conflict.”
She is shocked, amazed. She grabs both of my sleeves in her fists and shakes me. But I stop her before she gets too excited about it.
“The critics said it was boring.”
At this point, the friend I arrived with pulls me from the conversation and asks if I need to be rescued. But I smile and tell her I’m okay. This is entertaining. And despite her rampant inebriation and the occasional lemon brew spittle I’m enduring on my face, I’m hoping Cheryl is on to something.
“Nuh uh. I don’t believe it.” She begins searching frantically for something to write on, and finally surfaces from her enormously cluttered hippie bag with a torn handbill. She scrawls her number on the back. “Call me. I want to read it.”
I ask her if she has Internet access, because I’m rarely comfortable talking on the phone. Especially not with strangers. And certainly not about my boring book. So I put in a plug for my DiaryLand site. She doesn’t have a computer. This explains a few things.
We part ways that evening, Cheryl with newly-kindled hope for the possibilities of a literary future free from strife and hardship, free from adultery and car accidents, free from inter-racial love affairs and pregnant border collies who got it on the wrong side of the tracks. I leave slightly amused, wondering if this is some kind of message, and if so, what exactly to do with it.