This week I finished a draft of a short story that I intended to submit to The Nottingham Review for their Happiness themed issue. I spent some time thinking about what happiness was, what it means to me, where it comes from, where it goes, how you make it, how you lose it, and slowly those thoughts started to coalesce into a story. I wanted to write about the existential idea that the default setting of life is suffering, and how you have to work to make it better than that. I wanted to write about the little bubbles of happiness that emerge from the suffering, and how important it is to be aware enough to notice them while they are there. And I thought I had just the story to express the idea. It was a very personal story, based on some things that really happened to me and my wife.
I told her what I was planning to do and that she should read it before anyone and that if she wasn’t comfortable then I wouldn’t submit it. I wouldn’t show it to anyone. So I started to write it, this autofiction realist short story, and it went pretty well. The first half of the story turned out well. I don’t want to say it’s the best thing I have ever written, I don’t like that kind of hyperbole, but I think I wrote something that articulated what I was trying to say in an elegant but understated way. One line, the coup-de-gras of the scene, took a lot of work to get right. I wrote the same line over and over again in my notebook trying to get it just right, and finally finding the words. I was very happy with the first half of this short story. The second half needed a lot of work, but the first six hundred or so words were as close to what I wanted them to be as you could hope a first draft to manage. It laid itself bare, and that laying-bare of things is important to what I am trying to do with my writing.
I read it to my wife and she wasn’t okay with it. Too personal, too revealing, too close to the truth, too close to what really happened. She took the veto I had offered her and used it. I had half expected this, but I was extremely disappointed. I was so pleased with what I had written (the first half anyway) that I didn’t want to throw it away. I didn’t want those nicely sculpted six hundred words to go to waste. I wanted to use them. I wanted that little lump of my own personal truth to be out in the world.
I had tried to disguise the story a little, depersonalise it and muddle the details, but that doesn’t really work all that well. People who know the writer will often see either them or themselves in the writing, whether that was the intention or not. It would be hard to disentangle the fiction from the reality. It wouldn’t be hidden in plain sight. It would just be in plain sight.
I’m not proud to admit that I resisted the idea of not using this piece of writing. It felt important to me, to lay this thing out for the world to see, but I couldn’t get away from the guilt and the shame of what my need to use this piece of writing had done to my wife. It took me a day to get over it, apoligise and put that short story away for good. It shouldn’t have taken a day. It shouldn’t have taken any time at all.
I am selfish about writing because it is so important to me. I will close the door on everything to make sure I get the time I need. The cat gets about twenty minutes of sitting between me and the keyboard when I get home from work before she gets put out. You need to be selfish because otherwise it won’t ever get done. There will always be something important to do, someone will always be able to find a way to fill your time for you. But it doesn’t have to be neglectful. It doesn’t have to be monstrous. There is a balance to be had between what you need for yourself, and the other responsibilities you have to meet. Ultimately, I think I would rather be a good person than a good writer. I would rather be a successful husband than a successful writer. Maybe that’s a disadvantage, but it feels important to me. I don’t always get it right, of course. Sometimes it takes me a day to realise how much pain my artistic selfishness is causing. And all of this from a short story themed around happiness.