Two days ago, I watched Shane Salerno’s documentary on J.D. Salinger. Even now, I’m still processing it. Salinger saw and endured so many things that I would never have suspected, including hundreds of days as a WWII soldier, the sudden engagement of a girlfriend to another man, rejection, incredible levels of misunderstanding, and the harsh realities of fame.
Salerno seems to, either knowingly or unknowingly, attribute much of the odd quality of Salinger’s relationships with others (in particular: women, his own children, and the fanatical public) to his time at war, and after reading more of his work and reviewing the anecdotes told by various friends and acquaintances, I can only agree. Who knows what sort of man he would’ve become had he not witnessed first hand how savage humans could be to one another? And then conversely, not encountered (as he did) the utter ridiculousness of people living in a world at war as if said war were little more than a play put on by children, or some other thing far removed from their own lives/personal realities. As it stands, Salinger became a man inordinately attracted to innocence and seems to have spent most of his life in a cycle of chasing it, then mourning its loss, over and over again.
He started out wanting more than anything to write and, beyond that, to be published in The New Yorker, a publication which, even now, remains the Holy Grail of Fiction writing (I, too, tried my luck and was rejected — as expected). As a young man, Salinger sent story after story to them. All were refused. By way of explanation at the time, they said (in part): “It would’ve worked out better for us if Mr. Salinger had not strained so for cleverness. We think Mr. Salinger is a very talented young man, and wish to God you could get him to write simply and naturally.” His reaction (in the paraphrase of a former friend)?: “They want me to write an O. Henry type of short story. But I have to find my own voice and this is it, and they’ll catch up to me.” As a writer of strange fiction who has constantly had to contend with the beastly reality of literary trends and “marketability,” his stance on the issue is heroic and incredibly encouraging to me. I find myself wobbling back and forth between confidence in my abilities and a crippling self-doubt, which inevitably leads to me asking myself “Should I try to write stories that are more… ‘normal?'” “Normal” as in formulaic. As in, “you plug a plot in here, exposition here, character development here and here, climax here, and a resolution here.” That’s not the way I write. Those aren’t the kinds of stories I tell. But I wonder sometimes (and hate myself for doing it), should I try writing the way other people do?
I’m so glad I watched that documentary because it forced me to decide what my answers are to a lot of the questions that have been floating around in my head. Mainly, questions about an artist’s responsibility to their audience. Even after removing himself from society and hiding away, Salinger had people knocking on his door, leaving him notes, waiting around in the few areas he visited on the rare occasion that he left his house. They came to him asking questions about life. And not just life in general, but their lives — because they’d read Catcher in the Rye and it had spoke to them the way nothing else ever had. They thought, hoped, believed that he would understand them. Thought he had to because he’d written a character whose thoughts so closely mirrored their own. But writers aren’t sages. They’re not yogis or gurus. And he told one fan (who recounted his run-in with Salinger in the documentary) as much. Salinger basically told the guy that he poses questions in his writing that he doesn’t necessarily have answers to. And that, in my opinion, is all anyone creative does. They create because they WANT answers, not because they have them.
And if I’m to speak only for myself (and I probably should), I write to more fully understand other people. Every character I write has a piece of me in them, but they’re also wildly different from me and, therefore, make decisions I wouldn’t make. I start out asking myself what a person like the one I’ve created might do if presented with a particular scenario. Then I add other people with different traits into the mix. I wind them up, and I watch them go. I observe people everyday, and try to puzzle out how those people might think, or how a situation might make them feel. Total empathy is the goal. I write to help myself understand. And if it opens a reader’s eyes, too, so much the better.