What four years of melancholia get you:
What four years of melancholia get you:
I made two collages today: one not so good, and then this one whilst listening to Passion Pit (hence the title/caption).
Ten years ago, I had an old boyfriend.
Old then as in significantly(?) older than me, and old now as in we aren’t and haven’t been together for something like eight or nine years. Nearly a decade. At this point we’ve been broken up and apart for longer than we were together, and yet here I am, eight or nine years later, talking about him.
I realized this morning that today is his birthday, and that by now he’d surely be 36 or 37 years old. Which, at my ripe age of 29, doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But when you think of me at 17 and him at 25, me at 18 and him at 26, me at 19 and him at 27, well, that’s a different story, isn’t it?
Here’s something I’ve never admitted out loud to anyone: because of that relationship, I fancied myself a Marguerite Duras. It helped that I was young and white. It helped that he was older and Asian. To be honest, I can’t remember which came first, Duras or my relationship. I have a distinct memory of buying the film version of The Lover and, in my own dumb teenage way, thinking, “Holy shit! My relationship is just like this one! Marguerite and I are basically the same person!”
(Side note: my relationship was nothing like the “elle” and “lui” in Duras’s novel. My delusions at 17 years of age just embarrass me and make me cringe hardcore to this very day.)
I know it’s because of the film that I purchased the translated version of The Lover. And it was also because of The Lover and my devotion to Mme. Duras (and, to be even more honest, the Beatles and their song “Michelle”) that I took French courses in college, because I wanted to read her works in her native language. But I can’t really be sure if that relationship also resulted from my love of Marguerite Duras, or if it was just crazy-coincidental timing. Maybe it would’ve happened no matter what I did or read or watched. Anymore, when I think of it, the phrase preyed upon pops into my head. And then I wave it off, thinking I’m being too harsh. After all, this was someone I loved and was willingly with for three years. But it creeps back again, asking me, “Well, but weren’t you preyed upon?”
At any rate, there was my romantic infatuation with my old boyfriend and my romantic infatuation with Marguerite Duras and The Lover. It was obsession, really, on all counts. Duras I am not ashamed of. I still adore her and I always will. (And not-so-secretly, I’ll always want to be her.) But old boyfriend? Well, I can’t really figure out anymore if I’m ashamed of that.
I used to be. I still can hardly write about it. I sort of tried to, my last semester of my Master’s degree. He wanted me to, years back, during one of the many times we broke up over something dramatic and ridiculous.
“I want you to write about me some day,” he said. I’m not even sure if he knew I wanted to be a writer then. I don’t think I’d ever said. But at any rate, he told me to write about him. “About us,” he’d said. And for years, because I was hurt and ashamed and angry, I never did. But now maybe I can, and maybe I will. I’ve gotten this far, haven’t I? Though I’m sure whatever tragi-romance he had worked up in his head all those years back is nothing like what I’d really write about him today.
The thing is, though, where do I find the courage to write the difficult thing? To write what I keep dodging and dancing around, the thing that I can see wriggling out between the lines, but nobody else can because I’m vague as hell and they can’t read my mind?
For the love of god, I’ve read Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir Tiger, Tiger. I’ve read Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss. I’ve read Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and Jill Christman’s Darkroom. (BE WARNED: all of these titles deal in varying degrees with sexual abuse.) I’ve read some pretty solemn and gruesome shit, these women who’ve just bled themselves onto the page, and I keep qualifying my own story with, “Well, I mean, nothing that bad happened to me. It’s not even on the same scale, in the same ballpark.” And yet, deep down, it still feels bad. It still shames, and it still hurts. But there is the hesitation, that fear that if I speak up about my old relationship, will my parents – who were kept in the dark for a large part of it – still love me? Will people look at me differently? Will they be able to look at me at all? Will anyone who knew me be able to recognize me?
I just don’t know. For a long time, I couldn’t recognize myself.
So where do I find that voice? Where does it exist? I’ve been taught in creative nonfiction workshops to separate the author from the narrator. They aren’t the same person, so don’t be fooled by the use of “I.” So how I can I separate me from myself? How do I stop getting in my own way? How do I stop myself from stopping what I need to write?
I’m hoping my upcoming tenure at Chatham will help get it out of me. I haven’t the slightest clue how to write it in an organized and thoughtful way. But I figure after eight or nine years of waiting, it’s time to try. It’s time to say what needs to be said.
Moving is simultaneously the worst and best thing ever.
Yesterday the boyfriend and I vacated our tiny studio in Shadyside and transferred our belongings into a spacious two bedroom/two bathroom apartment in a high-rise in Highland Park. Writing it out like that makes it sound so simple and concise, and yet nothing about yesterday could be described as such. We started at 7am, pulling stuff out into the hallway, lugging furniture down the front steps of the building to the UHaul, lifting boxes onto a dolly and wheeling them up the ramp of the truck. I never knew moving out of a studio apartment would require a 17-foot truck, but it DID, friends. How 17 feet of anything fit in that tiny place of ours will never cease to amaze me.
So from 7am until 9pm we were packing, loading, driving, parking, and unloading. And then loading the unloaded stuff onto a freight elevator. And unloading the elevator and dragging the stuff to our new place, where we shoved all of it into a huge pile it the middle of the living room and left it before collapsing into fitful sleep.
I hate packing to move. I really do. Unpacking is infinitely more fun, because you get to reorganize, re-imagine, re-decorate. But as organized as I like to think I am, when it comes to packing, everything usually winds up thrown together in an eleventh-hour, miscellaneous jumble. For the record, I do keep all my dishes/kitchen items together. I’m a pressed glass nerd. Huge. If anything happened to my precious Fire King collection, I’d cry. (And I have, when one of my jadeite dinner plates broke in half earlier this year.) Everything else, though, is pretty much a free-for-all.
Except the dishes.
And except, now, the writing materials.
I mentioned our new place has two bedrooms, the smaller of which is to function as a guest room for the occasional visitor(s), but most of the time will be my office. This afternoon, in spite of our horrendously sore and weary muscles, my fellow and I started to organize boxes and bags by room. We ended up getting a lot accomplished: our living room is set up, his office area is (mostly) set up, and the kitchen is probably 70% done. Earlier this evening I went into my office to survey the scene. My bookshelves and desk are still six hours away back home, so the rest of my stuff – books, knickknacks, papers – are still in their boxes. As much as I am itching to get it sorted out, I have to wait until I get the rest of my furniture next week.
But as I stood there, ankles and knees and hips aching from the effort, I realized that I have managed to fill two huge plastic tubs with notebooks and essays, various drafts of stories and poems, literature papers and my Master’s thesis in all its many forms. Drafts that have been conceived and abandoned, or conceived and re-organized and re-imagined. I have amassed two barely lift-able boxes of writing, most of it personal, lots of it painful, all of it laborious. That’s .. a little nuts. At least from my standpoint. Up until three years ago, I didn’t think I had the talent to write anything.
So now when I have what feels like my body weight in words? Well.
Let’s just say that in spite of the pain, writing is so worth the effort.
(*Disclaimer: This gets a little defensive of the nonfiction genre. I tried to not. But fuck it, I do what I want.)
Mid-month I finally got around to reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d been hearing wonderful things about it over the summer and fall of 2012, and my only regret is not picking it up before Oprah slapped her book club sticker on it. (I know, I know, a dumb reason to get uppity, but I’m weird about stuff like that. Hype around something often scares me away. [For the record, I think Oprah does a lot of positive things. I’m just not a fan of her book club.])
I’ve been going back and forth on the whole print vs. e-book; I have a Kindle Fire and a Kindle e-reader, the latter of which hasn’t seen much use since I got the Fire last year. But in June I picked up the paperback of Strayed’s book, determined to take notes in the margins while I read.
(Can you tell I sorely miss grad school? I gave myself homework!)
In the last year or so I’ve tried to be on Goodreads often, both to explore book recommendations and to archive the books I’ve read and own. I’ve also tried to be better about writing and posting reviews for the books I read, though I think to this day, after a year or more of being on Goodreads, I’ve only written two. One was for Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? The other: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.
For me to have written anything about these books instead of just assigning stars with a simple click of a mouse shows how invested I am in them. But while Bechdel’s reviews are largely glowing, Strayed’s are extremely varied.
Now, I’m fine with people not liking a book I enjoy. There are LOTS of books that others enjoy that I just cannot get into. (Take, for instance, the Twilight series, or [and this catches me lots of flak] The Life of Pi.) There have been several times that I’ve read a memoir or essay collection where my first compulsion was to judge the narrator, but even if as a whole I’m lukewarm on a book, I am still able to put that aside and dig something positive or thought-provoking from the experiences.
But the less-than-positive reviews on Goodreads for Wild really got to me. It wasn’t so much that there were people out there who didn’t share my affection for Strayed’s memoir. It was the vitriol some readers heaped upon the narrator, and, worse, the genre I hold so dearly. For example:
+ What kind of dimwit would decide to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail alone with zero backpacking experience? Apparently the same kind of dimwit who would try heroin just because the stranger she spent the night with happens to need a fix.
+ Her mom died and I feel super bad about that. But I couldnt really follow Cheryl on her journey because I just can’t connect with a half ass femme-Nazi.
+ Instead of being simply grateful that she had ever had such warmth, kindness and compassion at all, she instead behaves like a spoiled, pampered brat. Instead of being grateful that her exhusband Paul seems like a total saint, she writes about how lonely she is, how sad she is that she destroyed her marriage, etc. She’s lucky to have had Paul in her life, luckier that he’s willing to stay “best friends” with her after her hurtful actions.
Reading through some of the reviews, it was all I could do to not leap to narrator-Cheryl’s defense. In a way, though, I suppose I did, because I wrote a review of my own.
I had to wonder if I wasn’t just defensive of the book because I liked it. That I did want others to like it because I did. I wanted them to see in it what I saw, to put aside their personal feelings for the narrator and actually pay attention to the growth that happened on and off the pages of Wild. I think by attacking and judging the narrator for her actions, readers are completely missing the point of the journey. It’s not to excuse or forgive past transgressions: it’s to leave behind an identity the narrator never imagined for herself and find who she is supposed to be in the wake of unimaginable loss and grief.
I could’ve left it at that. And on my Goodreads review, I did.
But then I saw this:
+ A self-absorbed, ill-prepared woman, 26 years old, leaves her husband (a decent guy) for no good reason, mucks her life up even further with drugs and reckless sex, then engages in some vacuous navel-gazing on the Pacific Crest Trail.
And the response:
+ It’s supposed to be self-absorbed, that’s what a memoir is.
My invaluable experience during my creative writing MA left me banging my head against the wall. I take huge issue with this exchange. I tried to talk myself out of it; after all, memoir is self-absorbed in the sense that it is about the self in terms of thought, interest, and activity. But I have never encountered a situation where the connotation behind the term “self-absorbed” was positive. To call someone self-absorbed is, in my understanding, not a compliment.
So then I went back to my initial reaction, and I’m addressing it here.
In defense of the genre, memoir is not supposed to be self-absorbed (and, in case you didn’t get the memo, I don’t believe Wild is). Memoir is insightful, thought-provoking, and a way to not only make sense of our lives and the things that happen to us, but also to understand the truth of the world we live in. It’s not navel-gazing to want to do either of these things. It’s not self-absorbed to engage in the pursuit of self-knowledge. That the story happens to be centered around the narrator is inconsequential. Any story that could be told has already been written. But writing – good writing – takes the story that’s been told a thousand times and tells it in a different way. And memoir – good memoir – isn’t self-absorbed. Good memoir makes you think about your own life as you read, makes you wonder about the ways you’ve fallen off and scrambled for a new path, even as you’re reading about a woman watching helpless as one of her hiking boots bounces off the edge of a cliff and falls, never to be seen again, into the wilderness below.
Strayed is not the first woman to lose her mother at a young age, and she won’t be the last. But Strayed’s story is her own, and even though I had little in common with the narrator who was presented to me in Wild, I learned a lot from her emotional and physical travels. I felt for her and worried for her, I invested in her failures and triumphs, and to me, that makes Wild – and creative nonfiction – a success.
If memoir makes you angry, makes you accuse writers/narrators of navel-gazing and being self-absorbed, compels you to insult the writer/narrator for his or her decisions, then perhaps you aren’t paying attention. And perhaps you don’t belong in the genre.
As for me, I’m keeping my eyes wide open and devouring the genre one book at a time.
Growing up is a weird business.
This blog has existed for at least a year now, realistically two or so, and tonight I sat down to revamp the whole thing. I shucked off the old posts, updated some links, gave it a new look, and here we are, all green and balloons.
I am in a new city (Pittsburgh), packing up and getting ready to move into a new apartment, and, mid-August, will be starting a new degree at Chatham University. My now-deleted posts angsting over the MFA application process are distant memories: I’ve been accepted, and I’m three years away from achieving my MFA in Creative Writing.
As we all know, growth doesn’t happen quickly, or without its pains. Certainly I’ve suffered the aches that come with life’s transitions. In January this year I moved out of my parents’ house and in with my boyfriend six hours away, which wasn’t exactly pleasing to several members of my family. In doing so, I also moved away from my few but close friends – at least, the ones who hadn’t scattered before I got the chance. Living in a city with a significant other has been completely natural, and terrifying, and no big deal, and mind-bogglingly foreign, all at once. But through all the aches and pains, I love it here. I really do.
When I got my first “real” job after college, things still felt up in the air, like I had somehow missed a calling I hadn’t yet discovered. Then, in the summer of 2010, I took my first college-level creative writing course and my life changed forever. I knew I couldn’t go back to my “real” job ever again and feel even for one second the elation and joy I felt being a part of that summer creative writing course. I wanted to grab onto that feeling and never let it go, and I was finally at a point in my life where I had the courage to do so.
I’m anxious and eager to get back into academia; it’s the one place I feel productive, useful, and at home. Since finishing my MA in December 2012 I’ve been doing some reading and, sadly, very little writing. I need a jump-start. I can’t wait to see what experiences Chatham’s program will offer. And I can’t wait to get back to writing and updating this blog on a regular basis!
Pretty much since my teenage years – when I couldn’t wait to be 16, and then 18, and then 21 – I’ve felt like whatever I’ve been working toward would lead me to “the rest of my life,” that I’d eventually hit that magic age where adulthood begins, life opens up, the planets align, and everything feels right and normal. But the more time goes by, the more I realize I’ll always feel like I’m chasing after “the rest of my life,” and I’ll never hit that magic age. But with this path I’m on now – a nonfiction track in Chatham’s Creative Writing MFA program – I’ll happily chase it wherever it leads me.