Your Life as My Novel: The Ryan Dixon Line [BOOK WEEK]

I have a problem. And like most of my problems, I was the last one to know about it. In fact, I had considered this problem an attribute until last Saturday night when I was strolling through the outdoor shopping and dining district of Old Town Pasadena enjoying a fruitful, funny conversation with my companion Anne Hathaway.

(Ok, it wasn’t really Anne Hathaway, but since my actual companion wouldn’t appreciate having her name immortalized in this blogumn, I figured I’d pick a pseudonym that could bring in some extra search engine traffic.)

It was just after 10pm and suddenly every store front –from quaint coffee shops to high-end wine bars to Yogurtariums– transformed like some brick and mortar werewolf into make-shift night clubs with obligatory velvet ropes and roided-up door men hairier than Cerberus.

Turning onto a slightly more quiet side street, Anne Hathaway and I passed two women in their early 20s who were squeezed into club wear of such suffocating tightness that their female forms resembled nothing less than two freshly fed pythons. As I watched them wobbling forth in their sky-scraper heels like sailors after seven years at sea, I quickly concocted twin backstories featuring a whistle stop tour of heartbreaks, disappointments and diminished expectations.

“I feel bad for them. They seem just so desperate to impress,” I said in a tone of genuine pity as opposed to my usual snark attack.

“That’s really judgmental. How do you know they’re desperate and sad?”  Anne Hathaway snapped back.

In an effort to save face, I mumbled something to Anne Hathaway about how she was right and then asked her to reveal some plot spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises (Ka-ching! – Take that Google!)

And that is how I learned about my problem:  I treat real people like fictional characters.

A writer’s job is to create characters with fully born backstories and motivations (Yes, yes, I know, this is about as insightful as saying, “When it’s raining, carry an umbrella.”).  We take this sort of thing for granted now, but up until about 400 years ago Christian cultures believed that everything they did was dictated by God’s predestined plan. This belief system held the literature of the time in its vice grip; characters didn’t need internal dynamics if their actions were immutable.

Then the 19th Century brought about the dawn of literary realism and writers like Balzac and Flaubert began to fill the banal activities of the everyday with undercurrents of meaning. This excavation of the prosaic would eventually open the door to Freud and friends, all of whom ensured that never again would a cigar be just a cigar.

For someone with an addiction to layering everyone he meets with unwanted subtext, the 21st Century has presented twin additional horrors: email and texting (now the cigar might just be an auto-correct mistake).  There’s been a paper factory’s worth of writing devoted to the misunderstandings that can happen through email correspondence, so let’s focus on its even more sinister sister — the text message.

In Summa Theologica, the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas tackled, in less-flashy form, the now-famous question of how many angels could dance on the head of a needle (if you know the answer, please write it in the comments section below). Yet the microscopic levels of minutiae medieval theologians devoted to investigating such metaphysical questions pale in comparison to the semiotic depths to which I have descended to both compose and read even the simplest text. To let me wander a text message in search of true intention is to turn me into the Robert Langdon. I see hidden hatreds secreted within each ellipsis, rejection dwelling in the O of an LOL and confessions of longing stuffed into the gums of an emoticon smile.

Let’s return to those two club-going girls from Pasadena, shall we? My pity was evoked from the narrative I created for them. Their ill-fitting clothes begot a backstory filled with absentee parents, uninspiring teachers and heartbreaking boyfriends. Their future would be a parade of mediocre husbands, sad sack jobs and convict kids.

All the above could be true. But it could also just as easily be true that they were UCLA pre-med students with supportive parents and loving boyfriends who just didn’t wear high heels all that often and had gained some weight due to endless hours in the lab. Yet, the pity I felt for them was very real.

We love sports because it allows us to experience emotional highs and lows without the necessary effort and grey areas that accompany life events experienced first-hand (You remember the co-worker you had to betray to get the promotion; you now hate your ex-husband, but can’t forget about that wonderful trip to Europe). I realize now that my habit of “novelizing” people is no different than the excitement I feel when the Pittsburgh Steelers win or the heartbreak that accompanies the defeats (fuck you, Aaron Rodgers). Whether it’s being a football fan, riding a roller coaster or watching someone try to look cool for clubbing, I don’t have to put in any real work to earn my emotions, so the result is purely pleasurable.

In the end, I suppose if there is an upside to my problem, it’s this: I might be an emotional masturbator, but as as writer I can only hope that practice makes perfect.

Follow Ryan Dixon on Twitter @ryanbdixon or, better yet, buy a copy of his graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening. (If you do, he promises not to create a tragic fake backstory for you.)

featured image credit: wine me up