When I arrived at the gym yesterday, I parked the car next to the Big 5 Sporting Goods store’s huge garbage containers, located in my gym’s parking area. I felt embarrassed for the man I saw lurking behind the bins. He wore a baseball cap and tried to appear invisible as he rummaged through the trash. The image of him prowling there stayed with me, and I couldn’t help but think of it as a metaphor for writers.
Writers are garbage pickers. They dig in the dregs of daily life, as I’m doing here in writing this memoir, searching for stories they can embellish, selecting details from their family, friends, and acquaintance’s conversations/lives that illuminate the most elusive corners of our existence. I’m currently reading Joyce Carol Oates latest short story collection, Beautiful Days, and so many of the tales are anything but beautiful. In fact, one Amazon reviewer says, “The characters are unlike anyone that I know or would care to know. Very strange.”
Oates has clearly dug into the surface of our days to reveal what’s hidden from ordinary view. Her stories bring the reader close to situations and emotions we might otherwise avoid. There’s the teenager whose mother has kept him an emotional prisoner and refused to reveal his real father’s identity. When the father does turn up unexpectedly, it has a powerful and unexpected impact on the young man. Or the woman whose stepdaughter dies in a car crash. The stepmother feels the young woman’s death might have been avoided if the stepmother hadn’t ignored her phone call, made not long before the accident.
Each story confronts the reader with material we might prefer to toss in the garbage but refuses to be dismissed so easily. In other words, Oates (and many other writers) is exploring what the psychologist Carl Jung would call our shadow side, the parts of our personalities we’d prefer to ignore as they challenge our sense of who we are. But to have a truer picture of ourselves, we need to delve into that level. This is true individually and collectively, reminding me of a radio drama I loved as a kid: “The Shadow.” The introduction went as follows: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” And then we were off on another adventure into that world. Oates is doing something similar in the way she examines her characters’ secret, interior lives, as are so many serious writers.
Another work I’m currently reading, Sylvia Warner Townsend’s debut novel Lolly Willowes, reveals painful truths about urban and country life from her perspective early in the 20th Century when so many women were under their family’s (often male) domination. Lolly, in mid-life, finally breaks free from her brother and sister-in-law’s “care” and establishes a life for herself in a tiny country community where women seem more empowered. In scintillating prose, Sylvia Townsend Warner, a masterful garbage picker, unearths an unexpected aspect of female influence.
It’s true that garbage can get smelly, and our impulse is to conceal it—to bury it underground. But it’s also true that certain kinds of garbage can be effective compost, fertilizing the earth. Something similar happens when writers aren’t afraid to dig into the emotions and actions that are a big part of being human. It’s where our most enlightening stories originate!