Watson Loves Me

This illustration by Sidney Paget originally accompanied “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” which appeared in The Strand Magazine in December 1892. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Watson loves me. I know because he treats me so kindly, explains things so clearly, never sends a harsh word in my direction. I know because he’s willing to be vulnerable, to share his potentially embarrassing thoughts and feelings with me. He is a gentleman narrator; he is warm and welcoming; he takes me into his confidence; he expresses his love through the care he takes in his sentences.

But I also know he loves me because he loves Holmes. Watson fails over and over to make the correct deductions, but he keeps trying. Holmes treats him callously, but Watson understands that Holmes doesn’t mean to hurt his feelings; he accepts Holmes’s intentions to teach rather than getting upset at his friend’s unskilled delivery. He treats Holmes kindly, both in person and as a narrator. Even when he is assessing Holmes’s lack of knowledge about the solar system, Watson is kind.

I am unlovable in the same ways as Holmes: I am unstable and obsessive; I care only for my work; I am socially inept. (You may know me and disagree, and your view is probably more accurate, but this is what it feels like inside.) But Watson loves Holmes anyway, cares for him, lives with him joyfully (as much as possible—Holmes is annoying). And because this is fiction, everything Watson does for Holmes, he does for me, the reader.

When I am lonely and sad, when I need a kind hand on my shoulder, I turn to Watson. The Sherlock Holmes stories are often repetitive in their structure, with pages of summary and not much plot. I almost never read them anymore to find out what happens or to solve the mystery. I read them to spend time with Watson, to participate in a living relationship between narrator and reader, a relationship that is no less real than Holmes and Watson’s celebrated friendship, and no less real than a relationship between two non-fictional humans.

Why am I saying this? To tell you to write? Of course, yes! Write! Maybe you will write a character who becomes your reader’s true friend, or maybe you will write a story that lets your reader experience unconditional love. But I think there’s something else here, too.

There are other types of narrators, and they show us different ways we can be. Chuck Palahniuk’s narrator in Survivor hates the reader and shows it. Borges’s self-narrator in “The Aleph” is so journalistic that none of his emotions reach the reader at all. Walt Whitman’s narrator in Leaves of Grass makes love to the universe in a way that is practically obscene. These people show us different ways to live, as well as different ways to tell a story. Maybe I will never allow myself to be as exuberant as Whitman; maybe I will never write a narrator like his; but he shows me that it’s okay to feel that inside myself. A first person narrator expands our idea of human experience. It lets us see more ways of being human; it lets us accept parts of ourselves we might otherwise deny.

When I ask the question “How shall I live?” I always look to literature for the answer. Watson has shown me his answer, and that helps me find my own.

(The Cure For) Fiction Deficiency Syndrome

I’ve been reading stories from the Golden Age of science fiction (most recently “Tunesmith” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.), and it is like being hooked up to an IV.

Have you ever been pretty dehydrated and then gotten an IV? A few hours after I gave birth to my first child, I passed out. The doctors said I was dehydrated, and they gave me an IV. I had been feeling perfectly fine: tired, sure, and maybe a little thirsty. But after they pumped a liter of saline solution into my body, I realized that what I had judged as “fine” was actually pretty bad. Like, wrung-out rag, crawling through the desert bad. But I hadn’t noticed. That’s what Fiction Deficiency Syndrome is like.

You know what else it’s like? It’s like being locked in a windowless room by yourself for days or weeks, and it feels perfectly normal. But then when you read, it’s like suddenly a good friend shows up, and they bring a picnic and take you out in the sun. You spread a blanket under the trees and talk and eat, and maybe a couple of other friends show up, and their kids play in the background, and you lean against somebody’s chest and breathe in the sweet air, and you realize that this is what life is, not the windowless room.

So here I am, lying around under the trees with Llyod Biggle, Jr. and Poul Anderson (“Call Me Joe”), and I can see Theodore Sturgeon walking toward us and waving, because I have an anthology.

There’s plenty of room on this blanket, and we’ve still got almost a gallon of lemonade.

Why don’t you come join us?

What Is Fiction For?

During one of the most stressful times in my life, I spent a couple of hours every day reading Philip K. Dick novels. I did this for three or four months. Novels such as Martian Time-Slip and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said allowed me to spend time being insane, and I think that helped me be sane the rest of the time. I suppose this would be classified as “escape,” which is one of the uses of fiction that people often cite. I think of it more as “medicine” or “treatment,” but I guess I can accept “escape.” This is the only time I can think of that I’ve used fiction for something resembling escape.

My main use of fiction is the opposite of escape. It’s to wake up, to be here, to open myself to the wonder and beauty of life and this world. A story like “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” produces this effect and is also about it at the same time.

Another way I use fiction is to know what matters and to have an example of how to live. Janet Kagan’s “The Nutcracker Coup” shows me how to keep standing as myself in the face of hate. I read this story before I was much interested in “real life,” but later I also found the same strong and beautiful truth in the story of Rosa Parks’s “no” and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Fiction shows me how to live as my best self, to do what’s right, for all of us, even when it’s not what’s easy.

I also use fiction as a source of human relationships. I read The Plague to hang out with people whose company I enjoy; I read Sherlock Holmes to participate in the friendship I have with the narrator. Reading 1984, I experience unconditional love, something uncommon in non-fictional human relationships. What about Ender’s Game? My original use of this book was as an initiatory experience, a rite of passage. But I re-read it for many of the uses I’ve already mentioned. Most of the stories I love serve more than one of these uses, maybe all of them.

A final use of fiction is something that can come from any writing: a pure sensual experience. I read Julio Cortázar for his stories, but also for his language, to be flowed along by words, to be treated by a sentence as though it were a lover; it’s the same feeling as following somebody who really knows how to dance. I read Cortázar in Spanish, and sometimes I don’t know half the words, but I still enjoy it. Maybe enjoyment is the overarching use of fiction. Could that possibly be true? Could the world really be as loving as that? I will have to think about this and get back to you. I will have to write about it.

For now, it’s your turn. What do you use fiction for?

You Can Never Say Thank You

picture of birds on a wire

The first book I ever bought about how to be a writer was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I still have it, and I just looked inside the title page: it is a first edition. So I was lucky, because really you probably don’t need any other book on writing, ever, except for that book. I am rereading it yet again, and it’s as though she’s right there, speaking only to me, telling me just what I need to know right now, just like all the other times I’ve read it.

So, if somebody writes a book like that, even if it is non-fiction, it’s natural to get this urge to say thank you. And what that looks like for me is writing hundreds of unfinished letters inside my head, and rehearsing what I’d say if I ever met the author, revising it over and over, to try to convey how much her book has meant to me. And believing that if I could just say thank you that I would feel relief from this terrible debt of gratitude and be able to accept the gift of her book and go on with my life.

But here’s the thing: I met Anne Lamott last spring, and I got to talk to her twice: once just passing by in the bookstore where she was teaching, and once after I’d waited in line for 45 minutes to get her book signed. (Not the first edition! Can you believe I couldn’t find it? More on this another day.) And both times, I tried to say thank you. I did say, “Thank you.” I said, “Your book changed my life.” I said, “I got your book when it first came out.” I said, “I’ve reread it many times, and it always makes a difference for me.” I said the right things the first time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. I said them again the second time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. She was gracious and kind both times, but Anne Lamott is wise, and I got the feeling that maybe she knew I was attempting something futile. I know I did the right thing to try, but I left feeling worse than ever, because there was no way I could convey, even to the author, my experience of her book and how much it has meant to me. There was no way I could make her experience what I experience when I read her book, no way to make her feel the love she transmitted to me through her words. She wrote it; she is herself. She can’t read it as me. She can’t feel what I felt and experience how she changed me. I hope you understand what I mean, because I can’t say it any more ways.

So, while I was sitting outside the bookstore, bombed out on having totally failed to repay the debt of gratitude I felt I still owed, I thought of the title of this piece, and I realized the reason you can never say thank you. In order to repay your debt, you need the person to experience what you experienced. That is impossible, so you are out of luck.

Except.

Except that they did experience what you experienced. They read something else, by someone else, and they experienced it. And then they wrote the thing that passed that experience on to you. And therefore, the only way that you can ever repay this debt is by writing something that passes it on to the next person.  And then maybe they will try to say thank you and fail. And you can never know if what you wrote succeeded, because even when people say thank you, they can never convey their experience, and you will never experience it back from your own work. You have to have faith that what you write could touch someone. You have to try. There is no guarantee. But you owe the debt already, so you must try. It is the only way you might ever get the chance to say thank you.

Top 5 Authors I’m in Love With

portrait of Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


Sometimes when you read someone, you feel as though you have a personal relationship with them, like you’re spending time with them rather than reading something they wrote. You seek out more of their work, not so much to read it as to hang out with the author. Not all of these relationships feel like being in love, but here are my top 5 that do:

1. Bertrand Russell
2. David Lodge
3. Jonathan Franzen
4. John Watson (I know what you’re going to say, but this is my list.)
5. Mario Benedetti

Have you experienced this phenomenon? Who are your top 5?