How a middle-aged man got in touch with his inner teenage girl.
In the fall of 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. Each day I joined hundreds of my fellow film and television writers to march, chant slogans, and carry signs in a long oval outside the gates of 20th Century Fox. While for many of my colleagues it was Sisyphean hell, I actually enjoyed it. The sky was blue, the banter superb, and the snack table fully stocked. Soon, I did not call it picketing anymore. It was “chocolate walking.”
Walking in circles gives a man plenty of time to think. When the strike began we had been told by our union leaders to lay down our pens — no writing allowed until we had a signed contract. This did not include prose, of course.
I had already published three novels, which had made me very little money but had reminded me that I had a soul.
I thought that this might be an ideal time to write another.
Trudging in the hot sun, I struggled to find a subject for my book. For some reason my mind returned again and again to a girl whom I will call Emma. I had been introduced to her at a party several years before. She was lanky and blonde with glistening blue eyes and a hungry smile. Her laugh was loud, her skin imperfect, and her wit quick. She was eighteen years old. The night we met, she went home with a friend of mine in his thirties. After a brief fling, they decided to remain friends.
Months later, I was invited to a barbecue at my friend’s house. When I stepped into the backyard, there was Emma, bobbing in the water, her eyes as blue as the pool’s bottom. We spent much of the afternoon chatting. Almost every word out of her mouth seemed part challenge and part invitation. But to what end? What exactly did she want from me? To this day, I am not sure why I made a date with her. It wasn’t sexual adventurism, I am fairly sure of that. I had nothing against dating younger women, but there were limits. I was old enough to be her father. Maybe like most bachelors of a certain age, I was, at bottom, lonely and hoped that her charm and energy would revive my spirits.
For the next few months, we hung out together about once a week, watching movies at my place. Sometimes she asked if she could lay her head on my chest. A few times we kissed. But we did not have sexual relations — not if you buy Bill Clinton’s definition. What we did have were long talks. Most took place late at night on the telephone. She would call, often drunk or high, to update me on her latest excitements: the gorgeous tourist she made out with in a club, the married Malibu couple that had begged her to sleep over, her best friend’s boyfriend on whom she had an unrequited crush, her own long-time boyfriend who raged at her for being such a slut. She sometimes asked me for advice, and I gave it, but we both knew she would ignore it. Often, as she spoke, I thought: “What am I doing? I am a grown man. Why am I even listening to this?”
Now here I was on the picket line, and I could hear Emma’s voice in my head as though it had been hours not years since we had last spoken. And soon her voice began to blend with the voices of certain high school girls I had tutored back in New York City — unloved, complicated girls to whom I had been as much as a therapist as a teacher. And to this chorus were added the voices of girls whose Myspace blogs I had stumbled across while promoting my last novel — ordinary girls betraying their own privacy for the amusement of strangers. From this cacophony emerged the voice of a singular girl, a character of my own creation, a promiscuous teenage blogger named Katie Kampenfelt.
Writing a literary novel from the point of view of a teenage girl is challenging enough, but when you are a middle-aged man it is downright terrifying. The prospect of spectacular failure is all too real. But as my heroine was talking a blue streak, how could I deny her? And so every morning I spent the four hours between dawn and when picketing began telling Katie’s story. As I worked, I imagined myself on a tightrope. I told myself “Don’t look back. Don’t look down. Keep walking.” Although there was little doubt in my mind that I would eventually fall to my death, I braved one step at a time until I reached the other side.
The first person I sent the manuscript to was, of course, Emma. She had not self-destructed as I had feared she might. She was in her final year at a top university. Her critique was all I could have wished for: “Yeah, that was me all right.”
When Vintage published the novel, entitled Undiscovered Gyrl, in the fall of 2009, it was reviewed by a dozen female book-bloggers. Not one of them ridiculed my act of ventriloquism. They expressed disbelief that a man had written it, but no disdain. In fact, in all the years since then, I have received only one email telling me that I got Katie all wrong. It was from a suburban dad, my age.
I never imagined during those seemingly wasted hours on the phone with Emma that they would one day be the inspiration for my most successful novel. Even more unimaginable to me was that I would also write and direct the movie version of the book. I have drawn three lessons from what happened. First, the sources of inspiration are mysterious. The best you can do is trust whatever instinct draws you toward a person or a place and to make sure you keep all your senses open to the experience. Second, when a character visits you full-born, even one strikingly different from yourself, hubris is not the audacity to think you can transmute it into art. It’s being so ungrateful that you do not attempt it. Third, if, as an artist or simply as a good man, you want to understand the opposite sex, the best way to do it — and I know this will sound outrageous — is to actually listen when women talk.
Photo credit: lauren rushing/flickr