Equipped with only a bottle of water and my crushable felt hat named “Stetson,” two of my closest friends and I set out on the moonlit trail towards the remains of an old pioneer sawmill at the end of Logan Canyon’s right-hand fork. It was the final night of a Supermoon that was the closest to Earth, and most prominently visible, in nearly a century. Having left my camera at home and my binoculars in the car, I sought to enjoy this gorgeous spectacle without fretting over the trappings of a hyper-connected and technology-obsessed existence back in town.
Each step I took through dim, grayscale wonderland; each raucous, gut-busting joke that floated back and forth on the cool evening breeze; each glance skyward at the surreally-oversized moon, melted away layers of anxiety that had been building up for weeks. Between school and work, every minute of my day was been spoken for and it was becoming exhausting. Even finding time for this little outing had required some serious manipulation of my calendar. Combined with the tasks of adjusting to becoming a new father, helping Kate around the house, and trying to break into the world of daddy-blogging, there weren’t enough hours in the day to finish everything I needed to do and still have time to decompress. I was really stressed out.
There were some other things that had been really bothering me lately, too. My depression and anxiety were becoming crippling, which meant controlling my temper had become a nearly impossible task. My grades were starting to tank under the pressure, and to top it off, a good friend and I had recently grown distant due to what I believed were some fundamental differences of opinion about a pretty serious issue. I knew a good majority of what I was feeling was a normal part of the ups and downs that life and relationships experience, but for some reason I just couldn’t shake it this time. Then, during an unrelated therapy session, my doctor suggested a novel idea. Why not take these things I am actually struggling with and write about them? Or in other words, why not stop being a hypocrite, and use my writing as the platform I was already professing to be using it as?
That was a potent question. I wanted to write about the struggles with my friend, my depression, my anger issues, and everything else that was holding me up, but these subjects seemed too real and too sacred, and I didn’t want to hurt or embarrass anyone– especially myself. I’d written letters I never sent as a form of therapy, but the letters never covered in-depth the things that hurt and nagged at me the most.
Yet, I knew writing about real experiences could be treacherous and leave things worse than when they started. I remembered reading recently that in the closing months of the summer of 1925, the aspiring author Ernest Hemingway furiously began to pen a bold, fictionalized airing of dirty laundry that would later become his first major novel: The Sun Also Rises (one of my favorite books). He’d struggled for months to come up with the perfect authentic story while simultaneously dealing with the aftermath from a messy trip to Pamplona with some friends months earlier that was nothing short of disastrous. One day it suddenly dawned on him that his perfect story, and the best way he could cope, were one and the same. His brutal recounting of the sordid love affairs, drunken shenanigans, and juvenile antics of his friends secured Hemingway a spot as a promising young writer of fiction but irreparably harmed those comrades he so audaciously exposed.
But to Hemingway, friends were nothing more than collateral damage– necessary casualties of the creative and therapeutic process. In all fairness, even Hemingway wasn’t safe from his own exposé. Revelations about his own undignified actions confessed via the story’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, doubtless drove wedges of resentment into his most intimate relationships. However, I was no Hemingway; I actually liked my friends.
Which is why, if I ever did choose to share my “therapeutic fiction”, I knew I should be careful. And besides, whether or not you view Hemingway’s treatment of events as clever or cavalier, the ethics and implications of his tactics should considered by any budding writer who desires to write about the people and things he cares about most. How do you divulge your darkest and most uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about yourself, your friends or your loved ones, in a way that fully addresses the depths of your emotions without leaving too many cuts and bruises? How do you construct a parable about the folly of a friend who has confided in you their foolishness without disclosing their secret? How do you confess your own grevious sins while retaining even a shred of dignity?
The short answer is you don’t. You can’t. Not completely, anyway, nor do I believe you should. If authenticity and meaning are your goals, you have to actually be authentic and honest. And sometimes, the truth hurts. It may make you look ugly and vulnerable, but it is that vulnerability that allows you to see your weaknesses and the weaknesses of others for what they are: strengths in utero. Opportunities to change. And that is where the true power of fiction comes in. It gives us the ability to use a lie to finally begin telling the truth; to stare deeply into the soft reflected light of the moon and understand what the sun actually looks like.