I'm obsessed with assassins.
Also, from a quick check of my books, comics, dvds, magazine subscriptions and web traffic, I'm obsessed with fake humans/androids, cyborgs, media gossip, political news, gay for pay actors. Food and travel figure in there also, but I think assassins, perhaps, most of all.
A few years ago I became obsessed with mastering one of X-Box's most fiendishly difficult games, Ninja Gaiden Black. I'd just moved to Massachusetts, had a new job in a new town and was going through a bad break-up with a compulsive liar. I mastered the game play several times at increasing levels of difficulty, and was making my way through the arcade levels when I thought, Why am I doing this?
I set the controller down, my heart pounding, and I looked out the 2nd floor window of my apartment to the dark empty traffic circle just outside. It was late at night. I can't die like this, I told myself, and so the next morning, my friend Cathy's 13-year-old stepson Gareth received an X-Box and all of my games. And he went in a week from being a somewhat awkward boy to one of the most popular kids at his school.
That seemed like the best outcome.
But with the X-Box gone, looking around the living room, I saw I was still in an apartment full of killers. Mostly ninjas, but some others: The Talented Mr. Ripley and the Patricia Highsmith biography, Elektra, Ronin, Lone Wolf and Cub, even Lone Wolf and Cub 2100, and the literally named Path of the Assassin, which tells the story of the ninja Hattori Hanzo, who is the presiding spirit of... Kill Bill. Which was also to be found in my apartment.
I knew the conventional psychological reasons that boys play with guns and imagine themselves as deadly---you do it because you don't feel powerful. You take it on to puff yourself up, to feel some control over the world. And sometimes, in the games, you learn real self-confidence. As I saw with Gareth, the next time I went over and he asked me to play Halo with him. I laughed as I watched the once-shy kid I remembered fly a powered glider down a hallway full of armed and deadly aliens.
I figured it out while reading Battle Angel Alita, the story of a 200-year-old cyborg assassin amnesiac who literally has to fight in order to remember who she is---fighting triggers her memories. She looks like a mild-mannered Japanese school girl, but under her clothes is the armored body of a living weapon.
Why are you reading all this, I asked myself, as I let my copy of Battle Angel Alita fall to the floor by my bed.
The answer came back: Because you're trying to write about recovered memory.
But also, You just escaped from the life of a liar. And you don't feel safe.
As of this writing, I'm not yet writing a novel about a gay-for-pay actor/assassin/fake human involved in media gossip and political news, but as I write that, it sounds kind of amazing. I am, though, writing a story called The Last Ninja, another story called An Insincere House, about, you guessed it, compulsive liars, and the aforementioned essay on recovered memory.
Most of us don't have the capacity to admit our obsessions, much less see ourselves as others see us. And so there's an exercise I invented out of all of this that I use in writing classes now. Instead of asking them to list their obsessions, I ask them to list 5 media stories they're obsessed with, 5 brands they think are ubiquituous and annoying, the last 5 movies they saw, the last 5 books they read, 5 TV Shows they watch regularly, and the 5 most visited websites in their browser history. They don't have to tell me what they are---they just need to tell themselves. These lists tell you more about your obsessions than you will on your own. Whatever you won't admit to about yourself is right there. And that is exactly where you need to go. I have them keep the list and check again later. And to try to make something out of the elements there.
In the books we love, much of what we love about them is their capacity to say something we ourselves have thought but never said. That's what turns a writer into a hero for most of us. One way to think of literature is as a catalogue of rejected thoughts. When David Wojnarowicz wrote, in Close to the Knives, about wanting to reach escape velocity, about wanting to move at 7 miles a second, I remember thinking, Yes, and... I love you for that. I will love him as a writer forever for that one moment of revealing myself to myself. And so as writers, when we think about what we should work on next, I think we need, in a sense, to find out what we are already thinking about.
What would you let yourself know, if you could?
Take a look at your Google search history, say, for yesterday, and then check it against three months ago. And then a year ago. Is it what you remembered? What were you looking for? What, in that, is what you're trying to deny? Let yourself see it. Try to get a look at the person outside the lines you drew around yourself and what you agree to be. There's something that belongs to you that you left there. And you probably need it.