One student wrote, “This isn’t fiction,” on a chapter of Leftovers Again that I submitted to the class. Actually, it was, but it shattered me, as if I’d been caught telling the truth when I was supposed to be fabricating. But it was also true that sometimes it was difficult for me to distinguish the boundary between made-up stuff and pulling from my own experience—not in a psychotic way, but in a fiction-writer’s way. My professors told me to write what I knew, but too often it came off as disguised autobiography. I know it’s not just me; I’ve read plenty of memoirs presented as novels to protect the guilty and innocent. It’s when novels (chameleons) are labeled as memoirs (authentic) that people get pissy. I think in books and in so-called real life, people want a clear line between fact and fiction, which is, of course, not always that simple, especially when humor is involved. Where does humor fit into our lives, into our need to palliate our pain with a comical spin? In our pursuit of authenticity, do we still get to indulge in humor? Back then, I wanted to be known as a very humorous guy. Of course, people need to understand your humor and then think it’s funny. Sometimes it will hurt when they don’t get it or don’t appreciate it. Sometimes they will roll their eyes and accuse you of histrionics, hyperbole, or even lying. Sometimes instead of admiring you, they will think that you are mean or a jerk, when beneath your act, you know that you’re a pretty nice guy who just wants to be liked and respected. You certainly didn’t intend to irritate or turn off others. By “you,” I mean me.
Please keep in mind that all of this occurred before I became a psychologist. It’d be even more difficult today to tease apart so-called fiction from the deeper and sometimes subconscious motivations of the writer. Can we produce any fiction from a personal psychological vacuum? No, we still must pull from our own knowledge base. Can pure fiction even exist? Again, no. Wouldn’t it be better to call fiction “metaphor springing from our own consciousness, subconscious, and even our own unconscious?” Isn’t everything that emerges from us coming from an authentic place at some level, and isn’t it our job to recognize it in ourselves and, depending on how much we care, recognize it in others? And if you want to get spiritual about it, isn’t all matter and all action simply a metaphor for unseen things? These are the kinds of things I wonder about. But I’m OK with calling it “fiction” as everybody else does. What I’m really saying is that even when I was a chameleon, my colors weren’t pure fiction but shades of something deeper in me that I had determined would better meet my needs. I was deluded, of course, but not unusual.
Now I write the truth and have to challenge myself to omit the fiction, to omit the impression management. Suppose I misremember? We all forget and distort things. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Suppose I’m ashamed and wish to hide? From which angle shall I relate a memory? Which memory do I choose to share? To not share? If I don’t share a memory, is it a lie by omission? If this book is kept to an unintimidating four hundred pages or fewer, am I then disingenuous by omission? Obviously, I can’t tell everything; I must cherry-pick. Plus, you may have noticed a decidedly PG-13 approach to this book. What about my dating history, the possibilities for a single male in the posthippie/pre-AIDS era? Quite frankly, I appreciate the girls and women who gave me a chance, and although I’d be willing to embarrass myself, I certainly don’t wish to embarrass any of them, least of all my wife. We decide what our boundaries are, and I keep my dating history and my sexuality between my wife and myself.
No matter how I tell a story, there will be a point of view. Someone will remember things differently and call me a liar at worst, a fiction writer at best. Now I’m leery that someone will say, “This isn’t memoir, it’s fiction!” I think my confusion over where to set the boundary between fiction and memoir in my life was reflected in my novels.
Another student said my protagonist “whined.” That stung me even worse. I identified with the protagonist—the guy who psychosomaticized Huntington’s disease—and if my protagonist whined, then I supposed I whined, too. Remember, whining was not allowed in my family of origin; complaints went unheeded and the stuff of suffering was not even acknowledged as possible in our world view. So, I wrote my truth but disguised it as fiction. Only my protagonist whined, not me. I was still bummed, though; I still hadn’t learned that speaking my truth was good enough despite the critics.
I hysterically overreacted on my rewrites and made my protagonist “whine” less. But it only made him less sympathetic, less transparent or emotional. It prevented the reader from connecting and identifying with him, just as people who are less transparent and emotional in real life are less sympathetic or relatable. To clarify, I’m not talking about whining but about sharing our pain and struggles with safe, nonjudgmental people and celebrating our successes together.
We all play roles, depending on our duties at the time. Sometimes I call it wearing a hat, like when I go to work and wear my psychologist’s “hat.” But sometimes people become stuck in a role or color. Rigid chameleons remain one color even when it is appropriate to expand their role or move into a different role. Like the soldier who will not take off his uniform for a party, a rigid chameleon won’t be vulnerable and authentic even when it’s safe. Then his emotional intimacy needs aren’t met (and neither are ours in regard to him). He often feels lonely and defective, anxious, unloved, and depressed, but safe, like I was as an army corporal. Sometimes emotional safety is just not worth it when it means withering alone. By “alone” I mean nobody truly knowing us and accepting who we are.
Usually the people we think of as chameleons are the overly flexible kind. They morph into different colors too readily. They are too quick to change roles and masks, too quick to change personal boundaries to please others, and inattentive to their own moral compass and values. When we observe them over time and across different people, we note how phonily they behave. We feel deceived and react with anger or disgust. They cannot be fully trusted, and trust is the most important factor in relationships in general and for emotional intimacy in particular.
Some of the loneliest people I’ve met are chameleons, either rigid or flexible. They often have many friends and can even be popular, but the friendships are superficial, and so they are not deeply known. They feel lonely in a sea of humanity. They are often married, but even their spouses barely know them. The spouse is lonely as well because of the lack of connection with the chameleon. Sometimes the spouse sends the chameleon to talk to me. Some of the least lonely people have just one person in the world who knows them well and accepts them as they are. The more we defend against others’ judgment or overly seek to please others at the expense of our integrity, the more emotionally isolated we become.
We all began life tiny and helpless. We were nurtured into adulthood and gradually programmed to either increase our strength or disallow it. Almost everybody, regardless of age and size, sometimes feels small and inadequate because of the lingering feeling of being tiny and helpless. Because we feel it, we believe it. That’s emotional reasoning, and it can be very distorted. Many people say, “Trust your gut,” and that is very often good advice, but it’s also often bad advice. The feeling is real, but the thought attached to it is distorted. We should accept the feeling and challenge the thought. When we hide our feelings, thoughts, and past behavior, we cultivate shame. We then act like chameleons to fool everyone; we wish to convince them that we are not people to be rejected. To embrace what is real makes us vulnerable, but it’s intimate and endearing because we all feel it to varying degrees. It unites us and bonds us, which is a basic need.
My writing was a metaphor for how I ran my life during different chameleon manifestations. Sometimes, when I felt safe enough, I was intense, personal, and intimate—for example, in a letter to a loved one or a close buddy—which could be quite engaging. Other times, I changed to a color that I thought was preferred by the recipients, for example, writing for agents or editors, but was, in the final draft, too heavily edited, common, and boring. Sometimes I overwrote my prose to sound intelligent but, in retrospect, was pretentious and inauthentic. Sometimes I wrote psychedelic like my writing heroes—except I wasn’t a beat or a hippie. Sometimes I wrote outrageous and gonzo and angry, vibrant orange, but I wasn’t Hunter S. Thompson. Despite everything I’m telling you about the Chameleon Complex, as a young man I didn’t know it applied not only to how I presented myself personally but also to how I presented my writing, an extension of myself. Although I always worked to improve, my writing was academic and derivative, and I hadn’t yet gained the insight that readers wanted authenticity. This fact was always right in front of my face, both in my personal and writing lives, but in my late twenties, I hadn’t yet recognized it. It’s odd how things can be so obvious once we are aware of them, yet so obscure before awareness. All I knew at the time was that I needed to connect to other people and that I needed to write, because when I didn’t do those things I felt empty, alone, and purposeless.