Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
-Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
“I think you really really need to surrender to the fact that an essay requires a conclusion that is neat in a way that life is not,” my writing teacher said to me last year. I’ve been working with her for a while and she knows—I really really hate neat conclusions. To me, they seem like copouts. It’s taken me a long time to accept the true complexity of life and I desperately want my writing to reflect that. And when it doesn’t, I feel like I’ve failed as a writer.
A few months ago I submitted a piece about an old friendship of mine that seemed to have run its course. The editor accepted my first draft but wanted me to tighten up the ending. It was too vague, she said—which made perfect sense considering the fact that I was still ambivalent about the friendship and unsure of where we stood. I knew the general story arc: that we were best friends when we were young, that we had drifted as we grew up, and that time and thousands of miles between us had shifted things for us in a way that might not be reconcilable. I ended the rough draft on a vague note about how sometimes being an adult means not taking action, but rather letting relationships turn into whatever they’re supposed to be, and then bearing the uncertainty that comes with that. I believe that with all my heart.
Except that uncertainty is not usually what people want from their reading. Admittedly some people (and publications) are more comfortable than others with ambiguity, but generally speaking, readers (and thus editors) want some degree of resolution at the end of a piece of writing. If they wanted haziness they could just return to their own lives.
The fact is, storytelling is about making choices—it’s about choosing what to include and what to leave out. It’s about arranging the included events and facts in a particular sequence so that their meaning is accessible to the reader. Which means sometimes, telling a story is about providing a conclusion that might over-simplify a complicated issue fraught with doubt and confusion and conflict. Continue reading →
As you may or, more likely, may not have noticed, I’ve stepped away from my blog for the last few weeks. Life can just be so damn time-consuming sometimes. And the more wrapped up in my life I get, the less I seem to be able to appreciate what’s good about it–even if I’m busy with great big wonderful things (which is not always the case), I don’t leave myself time to enjoy it.
Generally speaking I’m not one for gratitude lists. I find them hokey and a little self-deceptive–in my mind, gratitude is like modesty or being cool: once you’re talking about it, you probably ain’t got it. Having said that, for someone like me who tends to fall on the darker side of things, a gratitude list every now and then is not a bad thing. As writer I needed a blog post and as a human I needed to shift my focus. Two birds and all that. I’ve tried to keep the hokeyness to a minimum. Please to enjoy my gratitude list:
Grandma pizza from Coppola’s in New Providence, N.J. (Truly one of the joys in my life.)
The Mr. Miyagi-like calm that I feel while painting the walls in my apartment.
My little watercolor painting that I bought for $5 in Vietnam, for which I chose the perfect frame.
My 2 nieces and nephew who took me to school for “Special Person’s Day.”
The timing of that day: when I was beside myself with fear and sadness, and absolutely needed an auditorium full of grade-schoolers who were given access to microphones and instruments, to drown out the noise in my head.
A meeting with a journalist last week that gave new direction to my writing.
Soft serve vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. (Some say boring, I say classic.)
The knowledge that there’s a difference between being needy and letting yourself need someone.
That I don’t try to write poetry anymore.
A best friend who makes me laugh until I literally can’t breathe, while creating the perfect collage of all my artwork over the couch in my living room.
My new perfect pixie cut.
Walking into my quiet apartment after a long, loud day of life, knowing that everything is just as I left it.
That Jon Snow rises from the dead naked.
The fact that as of right now, I am not permanently responsible for any children.
That sometimes I do know when to walk away.
The faith that surrendering to that which is stronger than me is not the same thing as being defeated.
That I got to swim in the Gulf of Thailand and see this:
That there was no social media when I was in high school.
The pain it takes to grow.
Don’t be ridiculous–that last one was just to see if you were paying attention.
That in between all the regret and grief, I can come back to the truth: that I’m better and more and further because of all the things that have broken me.
That moment just before you drift off into a late afternoon nap after a draining holiday dinner, and you see the cold fall sun through sheer white drapes, and everything is dim and blurry and quiet, and you catch yourself thinking, “maybe everything’s gonna be ok.”
Changes that I never could have seen coming.
My great thaw: the process by which I am becoming willing to be vulnerable and bear discomfort and accept my own humanity.
Costco frozen yogurt.
A day a few years ago: walking to my sister’s house from the train station just after it had rained, and noticing how beautiful it was–the metallic trees, the smell of fresh earth and mint and change. It was a time when I was desperately trying to change, but it was hard and grueling and I wasn’t sure if I could, and I certainly wasn’t in the habit of noticing beauty around me. But that day I did. I noticed it and then it occurred to me later that night that the noticing meant that I was, in fact, changing.
I’ve never been a particularly jealous girlfriend but I am a very jealous writer. When I see someone promoting a piece on Facebook or Twitter, I feel something a little bitter and slithery churn in me: “Not fair,” I think in my whiniest adolescent voice. My better self might know that it has nothing to do with fair, but that better self doesn’t always get a say.
Now raise your hand if any of the following scenarios churn something ugly in you:
Someone else’s kid makes Varsity and yours doesn’t.
Your friend drives a BMW P series (or whatever) while you have a shitbox with a tape deck and half a bumper.
Some perfect-looking skinny bitch is…well, a perfect-looking skinny bitch.
Don’t lie—your hand is up by now.
A writer you know signs a book deal with a big-time publisher.
David Bowie’s death a few weeks ago unsettled me—not the death itself, but the phenomenon that followed it. Initially, as my social media feeds filled with pictures and quotes and song links, I was uncomfortable and annoyed. Then I started to feel like a sociopath—the world was letting out this great, collective gasp in mournful unison.
Why wasn’t I?
It’s not like I didn’t try. I put up a few different elegiac Bowie pictures, but took them down soon after. It just felt icky. The fact was, I wasn’t grieving. Sad? Sure. But not grieving. And so it felt like I was trying to co-opt his death and make it mine in a way that it wasn’t. I was using this awful thing (though there are things way more tragic than the death of a 69 year-old man who lived an incredibly full and exciting life) to get…well what was I trying to get? Attention, I guess. Isn’t that always the point of a social media post? Whether it’s for personal or professional reasons, posting something on social media is us waving our arms back and forth, trying to signal to people that we need some attention. Look over here. This is where I am. This is what I’m doing. This is how I’m grieving.Continue reading →
Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. -James Baldwin
Here’s why I’m a lunatic. Last week I was writing in my journal—wrestling with questions about being present in my life, wondering if blogging was actually making me a worse writer by making me less here. And here’s what was going on in my head:
Actually this might make a good blog post, all about the tension between blogging and my “real” writing—wait, a post like that would never go viral, needs to be something sexier—maybe something political? Hillary’s a hot topic, maybe I should write about her—but am I smart enough to write about politics, informed enough? Maybe another vagina post, vaginas are really hot right now—maybe I’ll go get my vagina steamed and write about that…
When your search history includes “Where can I get my vagina steamed in New Jersey,” it’s time to step away from the computer and do some thinking. Continue reading →
***I’ve been thinking back to where it all started for me and this little blog. Y’know, all the way back to October (when I was still doing the e.e. cummings thing). Thanks to everyone who has read and supported me, especially those who’ve reached out to tell me when something resonated with them. For a writer just starting out, you can’t know how much it helps to know that my words are landing somewhere. Happy New Year everyone.***
the other day, my blonde-haired blue-eyed 7 year-old charge looked at me and said, “what do you wanna be when you…” and there he stopped, an impish grin forming across his sun-splashed summer face. he knew i was already a grown-up, but he also understood that being a nanny isn’t a response to the question of what you want to be when you grow up. babysitting is something you do, not something you are. and though he didn’t want to offend me, he did want an answer to his question. he thought about it for a moment and then said, “well, besides this, what do you want to be when you grow up? i wanna be an engineer—so i can make roller coasters.”
“It is not all bad, but it is not all good, it is not all ugly, but it is not all beautiful, it is life, life, life—the only thing that matters. It is savage, cruel, kind, noble, passionate, selfish, generous, stupid, ugly, beautiful, painful, joyous—it is all these, and more, and it’s all these I want to know and, by God, I shall, though they crucify me for it.”
-Thomas Wolfe’s Letters To His Mother
We all do it. We can’t help it really, it’s been so deeply ingrained in us—we must take stock. We must mark time and divide it up—plot it along the length of our lives. We’re told that time is linear and inflexible, and there are milestones that need to be reached at particular points along the way:
I am in my 20s so I should have a college degree and a job with a future. I am allowed to be this much lost.
I am in my 30s so I should be mating and procreating. I am allowed to feel much less lost.
I am middle-aged so that must mean it is exactly halfway gone for me and I should have most of the things I’ve planned for myself by now. I am allowed no more lostness.
Numbers and plans plotted on a graph, dots connected. Alarms set to remind me when I’ve missed one of those plotted points. Continue reading →
It’s been three months since I’ve kamikazied my way into the world of social media, and I have to say, I’m coming to understand it in a way that’s making it surprisingly enjoyable.
Nah, just fucking with you. It’s all still totally absurd and anxiety-producing, and it has me worried about the survival of mankind as a whole. But it hasn’t been all bad. Here’s what I’ve learned: Continue reading →
When I was 8, I saw a pair of white gloves in a toy store that sang to my soul. They were long and satin and gorgeous, and I knew immediately that my life would never be complete without them. So when my mother said no and dragged me from the store, my mission was clear: make her life a living hell. I begged and I whined and I sulked, and it soon became clear to my mom that she could either buy me the damn gloves or live the rest of her life being tortured by a freckled pain in her ass. She chose wisely.
Every night I’d put the gloves on very carefully—pulling them slowly up past my elbows—and I’d slip into my black mary janes that made the most satisfying clicking sound on the tiles of my bathroom floor. I’d spend long swaths of time click-clacking around that bathroom with those beautiful satin gloves on, and I felt positively fucking regal. The fact that the bathroom was so small that I could only take a step or two in any direction, and that I was in my pajamas so I looked like I’d just fled the “special” ward of a hospital, stepping back and forth in place and gesturing wildly with my gloved hands—well that never occurred to me. It all just felt so right.
That memory has been hovering over me lately, as I’ve been going through one of those cliched “hard times” over the past few months. It’s made me realize 2 things: 1) My inclination towards madness once I decide I want something is nothing new. And 2) What if I was willing to be a bit more like that little idiot, tapping back and forth in front of a bathroom mirror for no other reason than the fact that it made me happy? Ok the second one isn’t so much a realization as a question, but whatever.
I didn’t want those gloves to impress anyone—shit, I didn’t even care if anyone ever saw me in them. I wanted them because for whatever childish reason, they tapped into some part of me that felt true. I wasn’t looking to post them or like them, I didn’t want to pin or poke or tweet or twat them, nor was I trying to further a career or fill some gaping emotional void. I just wanted them for the sake of having them—to feel the satin over my forearms and touch the sink through the fabric and complement all those fancy sounds that my shoes were making. Whatever that experience amounted to—feeling like a princess, feeling important and sophisticated and charming—it was both a means and an end.
And it makes me sad that I don’t think that way anymore.
As an adult, things are different. I’m tethered to responsibilities that I didn’t have as a kid. Not just physical and financial demands (though those are certainly substantial), but ones of personhood and meaning-making—the questions that no one can answer but me. Am i living the life I want to live? What does that even look like? Am i running out of time? Could I be doing more? What terrifies me and excites me and holds me back and lets me go? Which things do I find beautiful? Terrible? Necessary? Irrelevant?
If youth is about having the space for those questions to marinate unarticulated, growing up is something a lot less passive. It’s an active pursuit, and it takes muscle and persistence and the willingness to reach for answers despite knowing that even if you find them, they’ll only lead to more questions.
The problem is that when I stop reaching for answers—when I become complacent or lazy or paralyzed by fear—that’s when I am the furthest away from that little girl in the bathroom. Because then instead of questions, all I can hear is one resounding, demented answer: RESULTS! Results are what will make meaning for me, and the pursuit of those results will take the place of seeking answers to those important questions.
If I get published, I will feel worthy. If this post reaches X amount of people, then what I’ve written matters. If I have a man who loves me then I’m ok. If I make X amount of money, then I have X amount of value. If I achieve X, then the fear that I am not enough will go away. If I can fix that relationship, then I am lovable. If this person likes me, then I’m obviously the shit.
It’s not always as conscious and idiotic as some of those, but you get the point.
And the point is basically this: once I’ve decided what the results of something should look like before that something has even started, I’m screwed. Because what inevitably happens is that I start clinging to that pre-ordained image of what it will all look like—and I grip that motherfucker until my knuckles are white and my palms ache and I can barely breathe. And then I’ve placed myself in a world consumed with fear and guaranteed to disappoint. Because here’s the truth of it: clinging will always fail me in the end. The tighter I clutch something, the less hold I have on it. That’s the great paradox, right? It’s only when you stop caring about what comes next does what comes next end up being so beautiful.
So I’ve decided that I’m going to try to be more like that little insane-asylum escapee—the girl marching in place to the beat of her own clicking heels as she adjusts the satin gloves that she’s pulled up over her Scooby Doo pajamas.
i’ll be honest–my creative juices weren’t really flowing this week. i started and abandoned several pieces that i thought might make good blog posts. as the week wore on and i was becoming more and more frustrated, i was also being inundated with more and more displays of gratitude on social media. it’s that time of year.
it’s not that i don’t think gratitude is important or that i’m not grateful for a lot of things. i do and i am. i suppose ultimately i think of gratitude the same way i think of humility and coolness—if you’re talking about it, you ain’t got it. look’it me, look’it me! look at how grateful i am? aren’t you grateful you know such a grateful person??Continue reading →