He was sitting at his desk daydreaming. In his mind, he could see himself sitting at a desk and writing. It wasn’t his desk. Maybe it was a desk from his past. Maybe a desk from his first marriage. There was a dog bed on the floor next to the desk—no dog. The floor was hard wood, made of the wide planks you see in colonial homes, and there was a stone fireplace with glowing embers. He imagined a cup of tea, and then suddenly there it was, next to his hand. He wrote with a ball point pen on a legal pad. He seemed to be taking dictation. There was an urgent voice in the writing. It spoke in short, clipped sentences. There was no dialogue.
The narrator of the piece he was writing in the daydream was named Simon. Simon was an aspiring fiction writer who had drawn inspiration from, and written in great detail about, his older sister’s descent into drug addiction and despair. While he was always pleased with the drama and the emotional arc of the scenes he had composed, he feared that if his sister were ever to read them, she would feel mortified and betrayed, and it would probably be too much for her fragile psyche to bear. Though he had rendered these scenes as fiction, changing all the characters’ names, and fabricating settings and situations to disguise the true story, he knew that anyone even remotely familiar with him and his family would recognize the autobiographical elements in an instant.
Simon’s sister was named Sarah, and he had idolized her as a child. In her first semester of college, Sarah had nearly died from an overdose of prescription pills. Simon was only ten when it happened. His parents had tried to shield him from all the mess, but he remembered seeing exactly what was happening. Even then, he felt like he understood the gravity of the situation. He disapproved of Sarah’s actions, but only in the way he might disapprove of his own foibles and flaws—his sloppy room, for instance, or his tendency to daydream at school. Sometimes, though, as he grew older, he identified so closely with his older sister that he felt her tribulations were somehow his, and that he was living through her experiences—some of them, at least—just as intensely as she was. He romanticized her despair, wept quietly in his room, imagined the ways in which his own life’s trajectory was bound for chaos and ruin. It was only a matter of time, he felt, before his sadness ruined him as it had ruined her. He wondered what his rock bottom would look like. Would he wander the streets, homeless and hungry and seeking out another high? Would he be institutionalized? Imprisoned? Perhaps Sarah, seeing what a mess he was making of his life, would finally overcome her own demons and focus her energies on helping him to recover. Could she somehow become his savior, in the same way that he always wished he could be hers? It was a feeling he would not be able to shake until, finally, in his mid-twenties, he would cut himself off entirely from his sister. After more than a decade of drug addiction, alcohol abuse, rehabilitation programs, incarcerations, promises, assurances, lies, and manipulations, it was finally time to separate himself from her negativity and self-destruction. She was his sister, he told himself, not his child.
And now it had been nearly ten years since he had spoken with her, yet whenever he sat down to write, she was all he could think about. He would inevitably draw from his memories of her as he constructed his sentences—the slow and steady cadences of her speaking voice, the shapeless thrift-store outfits she always wore, the way she could never finish telling a joke before collapsing into hysterical laughter, the sucking sound that her chest made when she cried. He did not want to write memoir, to expose his dirty little secrets for public consumption, but everything he wrote felt too close to the real thing. He called her Margaret, then Hilda, then Penelope, but it was always Sarah who shined through. He dressed her in overalls and gave her a club foot. Instead of a pill addict, he made her a glue sniffer. He turned himself into an older sister, or, in one draft, a sympathetic aunt. He killed off her father—their father—in a train accident, commuting to the city only months after she was born. This provided the seed for her troubles. It gave her something to ruminate on whenever she sat in a clinician’s office, a group session, or a jail cell. But no matter how he tried to cloak it, it was always apparent that he was simply rendering his sister on the page.
For a time, Simon tried to write about different characters and subjects altogether. He made some progress on a story about a woman who for years had been the caretaker for a rental property on coastal Maine. The story moved slowly. She had a husband with a heart condition. Her old high school friend contacted her out of the blue one summer. The owner of the general store near the beach had been the best friend of a boy whom she’d once loved, and who had died tragically in a car accident in his early twenties. But about fifty pages into the narrative, it struck Simon that the sadness of this woman was, again, the sadness of Sarah. She was neither drug-addicted nor suicidal, but, like Sarah, she kept directing herself into dead ends, failing to meet up with her old friend as she had promised, averting her eyes from the store manager’s friendly glances, and even quitting her position as caretaker under the false pretense that she had contracted a rare skin disease. This same thing happened when he tried to write a dystopian science fiction piece about humanoids with big, soft lavender ears whose world was gradually being transformed into a massive penal colony through a process of mind control and bodily fluid extraction. It didn’t take long for Sarah to rear her head in the form of a recalcitrant prisoner who lashed out at her family when they visited her on state holidays, and soon she began to dominate the narrative in a way that began to actually frighten Simon. She transitioned from a minor character to the story’s narrator/protagonist, appealing directly to the sympathies of the reader, propping herself up as an exemplar of authenticity and integrity even as she manipulated and betrayed those who loved and supported her most. She was willing, it seemed, to sacrifice everyone in pursuit of her selfish ends. It was as if Sarah were trying to communicate with Simon through his writing.
He switched gears again, this time creating a protagonist who wanted to write fiction but couldn’t help writing directly about his own experience, especially about an older brother, who had been consumed with substance abuse problems and depression for as long as he could remember. All of this new protagonist’s fiction ended up centering on characters that resembled his older brother, and he never felt comfortable sharing what he had written with anyone inside or outside his family. It was a predicament that, for a while, he felt he might be able to overcome, but as the months and years ticked by, he became increasingly convinced that he was helpless in the face of it. The protagonist’s problem was exacerbated by the fact that he was an assistant professor of English and Fiction Writing, and that his tenure and promotion were almost entirely dependent on the amount of fiction he could reliably produce and publish in the space of an ever-shrinking period of time. He stayed up late at night filling page after page with scenes from his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, all of which were preoccupied with the illumination of what he had come to see as the towering genius of his older brother, who had not only an encyclopedic knowledge of silent film, surf music, John Cassavetes, the Theater of Cruelty, early steam machines, Leslie Gore, eighteenth-century military percussion, and Evel Knievel, but also an uncanny ability to compose, arrange, perform, and produce at least five original songs per week, as well as a rare knack for writing one or two book-length manuscripts of poetry each season, and all of this in addition to his lifelong devotion to molding little animals in clay—mostly rabbits, squirrels, and ducks—all of which were depicted as intemperate, incontinent, chain-smoking, anemic, and debauched. The protagonist, after producing a book-length manuscript of thinly veiled autobiography that he knew he would never be able to share with his review committee at the college, never mind with a publisher, finally decided that life was not worth living. He climbed onto the roof of his two-story home and walked the perimeter, looking for the spot that could afford him the longest, deadliest leap. The north-facing side looked down onto the asphalt driveway, which was good, but he couldn’t tell if the height would be enough to kill him, or to simply maim him. After standing and thinking for a bit, he decided that if he walked up to the peak of the roof’s gable and then ran as fast as he could off of the edge, straight down into the asphalt, then he could probably build enough momentum to make a fatal leap. That is just what he did, and it worked.
He stopped scribbling on his legal pad. He couldn’t think of a way for Simon to reenter the story, and it irked him. It was the first time in a long time that he had felt blocked. He stared at the empty dog bed on the floor next to his desk, and it suddenly struck him that there was no dog. Then, just as suddenly, that there was no dog bed, no cup of tea, no stone fireplace, no legal pad.
He stood up and stretched his stiff back.