Charlotte, Sometimes

“It’s been said better before.”
Of course. It’s all been said better before.
If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start.
Better or worse is immaterial.
The thing is that it has to be said; by me, ontologically.
We each have to say it, to say it in our own way.
Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us.
Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about.
It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die.

-Madeleine L’Engle

the-cure-charlotte-sometimes-1981-3The song “Charlotte Sometimes” adhered to my noggin while I wrote Charlesgate. The antagonist’s name is Charlotte, and reminded me of the song, and so the tune meandered through my dreams at night and hummed in my brain all day long. Finally, I started humming for real. Then singing.

The latter caused my puppy to howl. My neighbors complained. I suppressed my voice and began having panic attacks. I ceased writing and stripped wallpaper instead, although not in a “Yellow Wallpaper” manner. I was renovating my condo at the time.

Okay, maybe there was a little Yellow Wallpaper in there. I was still having panic attacks while I peeled, and the wallpaper was, in fact, yellow. The song left my brain, even if Charlotte would not.the_yellow_wallpaper_by_jfrison

My antagonist, the dreaded pirate queen Charlotte de Berry, hammered at me, growing angrier by the day. She wanted out of my brain and onto the page.

I stopped peeling and sat in front of my laptop and a curious thing happened. The song, “Charlotte Sometimes,” leaked into my manuscript. Charlotte, the pirate, stopped threatening me and instead attacked my protagonist. Panic attacks ended. The wallpaper peeled itself. Well, that last bit is a lie. I still had to peel. But the song, and the anxiety, departed for good. My protagonist inherited both. The song became her favorite song and solved a plot problem.

“Charlotte Sometimes” was once my favorite song, too. That eerie melody, dark chords, and Robert Smith’s blurry, ghostlike voice and unintelligible lyrics articulated the secret Cathy-on-the-moors, moonstruck, graveyard haunting, thirteen year-old me that I couldn’t find anywhere in the suburbs where I lived. That song unlocked my imagination and formed a whole dreamscape in my head, a hidden country of my own. From that country, dozens of stories poured onto paper to make new realms.

Once upon a time, many years ago, “Charlotte Sometimes” was an isolated song, transmitted from the record player in my room to my ears. So I didn’t know about the book until last week when a fan emailed me: “Have you read Charlotte Sometimes? The song is an ode to the book and yours is an ode to the song. So cool!”

A quick jaunt to Wikipedia proved this to be true. A tale about time travel, split identity, and finally, an explanation for that awful Cure video that I saw once and quickly put out of my head because it failed to match the world in my head. Then, thanks to the fact that every song lyric in creation can now be found on the Internet, I finally learned the lyrics, thirty years later.fred and em

Usually a fan of cosmic connections, I wasn’t this time. No, no, this wasn’t cool. All magic dissipated and I felt an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness as a writer. “What’s the point?” I asked Frederick the Teapot and his new friend, Emily. Everywhere I look, everything has already been said, written, sung, expressed, usually much better than I could do.

In our quest to be unique, we only find that there is no such thing. No-one is special. No-one really has anything to say. Every one person’s story is just a human story. The song remains the same and there is really no point in singing it anymore, even to incite a puppy to howl.

I shut off the laptop and went into the real world. Lots of insects in the real world. Especially the mosquito variety. And wasps. And I don’t care what Avon insists, bug spray never smells good.

Back inside, I stayed unplugged. There was nothing to find there. No fulfillment. Only empty facts not tethered to anything of real meaning. A slew of personal blogs that told me what I already know. Opinions in the guise of news and identity-driven reactions to such news. Technology had nothing to offer at all anymore.

Fifteen years ago, I referenced Black Flag, Oompa Loompas, Carl Sagan, and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death in a paper about how the technological boom had taken over education. The tool had become the master. A Henry Rollins quote used in that paper, a portent then, seemed very true in my current unplugged state:

“They asked Bukowski in an interview: ‘Do you think there’s going to be more geniuses or less?’ He goes, ‘Less.’ ‘Why?’ He says, ‘Communication.’ There’s a brilliant point made. Turn on the TV and everyone is watching the same channel. Turn on the radio and everyone is hearing the same song. Everyone knows the same set of information.” (Henry Rollins, One From None)

tvpartyDiscovering the existence Charlotte Sometimes, the book, made me long for the days when I sat in my local Friendly’s, eating vanilla ice cream while sipping a hot cup of coffee, and bled stories from my head on a yellow lined notepad. The writing may have been great. Most likely, it was not. That didn’t matter. I was on my own channel. I was free.

Maybe it’s better to throw the TV away, disconnect from the Internet, and lock oneself in a tower, away from the downpour of exhausting data.

Yet, that book, Charlotte Sometimes, is the source of a song. Maybe it had been created in a tower, but it had been shared in the world. Without the book, The Cure wouldn’t have written that song. Without that song, my imagination would not have ignited. Isolation is not the answer.

In researching that same paper, a teacher gave me an example of her six-year old student who had never watched television. She learned world mythology when she learned how to read. Her peers had no knowledge of these myths, yet when they talked about X-Men plots, she had no trouble relating and participating in those conversations. She knew her sources and could skillfully maneuver within pop culture and find relevance, certain in her place in the world. All unplugged! No tower required!

The source of the downward spiral that drove me outdoors without bug spray was not the fact that another book existed with a Charlotte, sometimes, but the overall bombardment of media that I had allowed into my life at that time. Instead of writing, I’d been consuming social media in large volumes, mostly consisting of facts and opinions that were disconnected and irrelevant to reality around me.

When the fan mail arrived, instead of celebrating connections and enriching my mind by reading Charlotte Sometimes, I went for the instant gratification of Wikipedia. The fact that I can solve any minor mystery, squelch any creative impulse before the creative process can even begin is dangerous if technology ceases to be a tool and instead becomes a prison, yet another panic attack.

There will be no locked towers for me, but there will be more Friendly’s coffee and yellow pads in my future, so when I do visit the Internet, the focus will be on the underlying source, the humanity, rather than swimming through an endless river of un-tethered emotion and facts. That yellow pad will again tell my version of the story, the one that has already been told before.

After all, why keep breathing when there everyone else has already done so? There’s nothing special about breathing. Yet it is everything. Or, we die.



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