The Trion Adventure
For many years I subscribed to the Virginia Quarterly
Review, to which Susie Mee was an occasional contributor. Back in the late nineties she published a
delightful essay about her childhood in
Now at the time I read the essay I was living in
There was a particular boy, Billy, can’t recall his last name right now, whom I wanted to talk with. He did a lot of fascinating things that ran parallel to things I did in my own childhood. The only specific I remember now, however, was something I never did. At about age eleven Billy found out that he had a little Indian blood in him so he started identifying himself as an Indian, learning Indian lore, trying to act like an Indian. He even went so far as to black his fair hair with shoe polish. He came up with a far fetched story to account for his blue eyes. I set finding and talking with this boy, who ought now to be a man about ten years my senior, in the center of my plans.
An equally fascinating character was the ballet man. He was a dark skinned Italian or Spaniard, I don’t recall which, who came to Trion in the forties and opened a ballet studio, to which many mothers sent their small daughters. I believe he married a local woman, a strange, lonely character who was herself a dancer. Ms Mee describes this man and woman as being so graceful on the floor that they gave one the sense that they were dancing a couple of inches above the floor, not contacting it at all as they swirled and swayed.
So off I went to Trion, on a Saturday morning nice and early, when, I hoped, I might find folks at home. And I spent the day talking with folks, trying to find folks, and searching a couple of graveyards for some of the people mentioned in the essay who, being elderly in the forties, presumably would have died by the nineties.
I succeeded in identifying the main places I had read about in the essay. I remember now just the “Big Friendly”, the commissary which sold everything from diapers to coffins. It was no longer standing, but someone showed me where it stood. I also found people who remembered some of the old folks in the essay, folks no longer living. But with the younger characters in the essay, I had less success.
The dance man had been young, but I knew I would not find him because the essay said he had left town and never been heard of again. There was another man I identified and whose house and office I found, but though I drove by those places several times I never found the man himself. Pity, because I was assured he carried much of the history of the place in his head.
The greatest disappointment was Billy. Apparently he must have left Trion when he was young, because his name did not ring a bell with anyone I talked with. And finding this man and getting to know him, as I said, had been at the center of my expectations.
The trip was still eminently worthwhile.
* * *
Now I knew that Susie Mee lived in
On Thursday about five o’clock the phone rang. I answered it. And Susie Mee was suddenly there, demanding to know the meaning of this bizarre letter I had written her! And what nefarious objective was I trying to achieve!
Bizarre? What was bizarre about it? Alas, in one of my vicious purges I seem to have erased that letter. I really wish I had it now. If a copy exists it would be on my old server, which is in storage. If I ever retrieve it I will see if I can find the letter to share with you. I wish I could see the letter now, to see if I find anything bizarre about it.
But back to the phone. Ms Mee was angry and I was intimidated. But I steadied myself and said, as calmly as I could, that the letter should just be taken at face value. That I had enjoyed her essay and enjoyed my field trip. That I had thought to bring the pleasure full circle by writing up my trip and sending the writeup to her.
Well, we chatted several minutes and she calmed down. She asked if I were a writer. When I said I was not, she said I had written a very good letter; and that since I had been kind enough to write to her, she would now have to write to me. We were both beginning to enjoy the conversation when Ms Mee said she had an appointment to keep and had to end the call.
* * *
The Virginia Quarterly generally identified fiction as such in its table of contents. Ms Mee’s entry had not been identified as fiction so I took it to be an essay; that is, “true” insofar as it described concrete persons, places, events.
As I found out over the phone, much of the detail was not “true”. Some of the central characters had never existed in fact. And the particular man I had made the trip to find—he was a composite of three kids Ms Mee had known, with a dash of fantasy thrown in.
And herein I learned a whole lot about writing.
Ms Mee had written an essay that was half fiction. But in the absence of a “fiction” label, it never occurred to me that what she wrote was anything other than literal fact. Such was her skill in writing. I had gone off looking for a boy who never existed, not in the flesh anyway, but who very much existed on the page. Such was her skill.
I am a computer programmer. Psychologically I am “obsessive-compulsive”. I have a passion for order and structure, for accuracy. I think concretely. I am good at using words precisely to describe hard, physical facts. These are the characteristics of a programmer. He manages a machine which has millions of transistors and billions of bits of data, and the state of each transistor and data bit must be just so if the machine is to work right.
In a few abortive attempts at writing “fiction”, this psychology got in my way. For me, anyway, and I know for many successful fiction writers, fiction is based on one’s experiences in fact. But I found myself blocked from turning fact into fiction for the simple reason that fiction was not “true”. If I altered a jot or a tittle I was erring, wrong, even lying. The program would not run if even one bit had the wrong state.
But Ms Mee was not writing a program. She was writing a story. And she had written her story so realistically that I took it to be literally true.
Over subsequent years my thoughts must have recurred to this Trion adventure at least once every month or two. It challenged what I meant by “truth”. And it brought me to see that if I am going to write “fiction”, or fictionalize reality as Ms Mee did, then “truth” is not going to be found in the literal content of a composition. Rather it is going to be found in the “story”. The story must be true and it must ring true. It must speak truly of human nature, of the way minds and souls work, of good and evil, of truth and falsity, of joy, pain, children, death. A story must move the heart. It need not be concerned with data.
I first applied this insight last year in writing El
camino a México, a book about my adventures in Mexico and on the way to
Mexico. My purpose in writing was to
give American readers some picture of what
So much did I learn from an essay, a letter, a telephone call.
* * *
There was just one little thing about Ms Mee’s essay that did not ring true. That was the matter of Billy blacking his hair with shoe polish. The essay presented it, or at least I understood it, as something he routinely did. But I knew that he could hardly have done it more than once—because it would have ruined clothing and bedding and his mother would have romped on him and put a stop to it. I scuffled with this even to the point of thinking perhaps he had no mother, and wondering why Ms Mee would not have commented on that circumstance. Such was the overall strength of the “essay” that even with this tipoff I never guessed that the “truth” I was reading was fiction.
© 2005 Joseph Mansfield