I’m taking a writing class with Gotham Writers’ Workshop right now, and one of the assignments was to create an imaginary bio for yourself. It was no holds barred, so I could have imagined myself as a legendary world traveller, universally admired academic, or much loved novelist and poet–all of which makes what I did end up writing somewhat puzzling:
I was born in a polluted city in southwest China, but that’s not what my birth certificate says. It gets the date wrong too. I was actually twenty-three when I was born. Of course, that wasn’t the first time. There was this other guy before, but he died that year. I was born once again in the same polluted city about twenty years later, right around the time the second guy passed on. That’s how it goes, isn’t it? I can’t remember those two very well anymore. They’ve been gone for quite a while now. But I do occasionally stumble across mementos they left behind, stuffed into chests in dusty attics or on a shelf in some over-junked closet that I never seem to need to open. I think the camping gear belonged to the second guy, and the first one clearly had a fondness for H.P. Lovecraft. It always feels strange to see the relics of a bygone age, nostalgic and confusing all at the same time. Who were those people after all?
You probably don’t need to know much about them. You’re never going to meet them. Still, it may help you to understand me if you understand that I wasn’t here first. I’m built on the ruins of the ones who went before me just like that city in southwest China is built on top of cities on top of cities—all the way back to the fourth century BCE—till you’d think everything had changed and there was nothing original left. But the eye that knows how to see can still find find the outline of the old city wall here or the site of the old salt market there, just like a good reader who spots the author hiding underneath all the words and all the craft.
At least, that was the idea in the Chinese literary tradition. They reasoned that nothing reveals more about a person’s character than what and how they write. If that’s true then surely no kind of writing betrays the author more than fiction: the lie that tells the truth. The very fact that you want to write it, the fact that you can, says volumes. And what you write, no matter how much you try to efface yourself, is always a window on your heart—if the reader really knows how to read—because that’s the only place good stories come from. So perhaps there’s nothing more for me to say, no need for further lies. Confucius said, “Look at the means he uses. Consider why he does so. Ask yourself where he would find peace. How can a person hide? How can a person hide?”