Notes on Normal

She typified normal.

I was eating lunch with a relative I’d never met before at a sun-soaked lunch spot in Santa Monica, listening to her describe another relative I never knew.

“She just…that’s what she was to me! Normal!”

The woman I sat across from–slender, youthful, with close-cropped hair–is an academic; she thinks more than most about the nuances of language and feeling.

So it surprised me to hear her use that word–normal: one I tend to think of as rather empty. There’s no such thing as an objective “normal,” I thought–the word often slips out without harm, but also without meaning.

I told her that, and, as you’d expect, she replied with great attention and thought: over the course of our conversation, she modified her choice of adjective–we settled on “healthy”: this woman (the one being described) was comfortable in her skin, she was well-adjusted, she knew who she was.

A few hours–and a couple miles of neck-cramping LA traffic later–I lay falling asleep in Culver City; I was staying the night with an old friend of my oldest brother’s, one whose name I’ve long punctuated with the nostalgically prideful phrase, “my first crush!”

He’s married now, to a woman whom–for a multitude of unrelated reasons–I greatly admire; they have a precocious daughter, a spacious, smartly decorated home, and lovely guest room to which I retired feeling distinctly content: in part, for the recognition that I didn’t occupy a totally un-special place in my host’s memory (“You were one of the first babies I knew!”), and, in part, for having spent time in the company of a couple that felt–it was the first word that came to mind–so wonderfully, captivatingly normal.

I knew theirs–like any relationship–falls short of perfect. But watching them laugh together across a table of tacos and and margaritas and pibil, I sensed a striking functionality, a satisfaction, an ease.

And as I lay in their luxuriously-sized guest bed, pondering how terrifically normal their interactions seemed, it occurred to me that such marriages seem anything but: they are, perhaps, as uncommon as people so universally percieved as posessing the poise and confidence my relative had earlier described.

Again, I had confused the word’s meaning: conflating “normal” with a vision of something healthy, desirable. Was that, I wondered, how we sometimes use the word–as a projection of whatever is our own, subjective ideal?

Back in New York a few days later, I was in bed again (this time, my own), absorbed in a third (yes, third) reading of my friend Emily’s (brilliant) new book. There was that word again, in the middle of one of my favorite passages:

Do more, be skinnier, get richer, be famous (and then be even more famous), get a bigger house and a bigger car and a hotter girlfriend and a better life. Be better. When did having a good life mean living one that other people envied? Behind this drive to achieve lurks a deeper desire to be transformed. The standards for what is “normal” have become so formalized and yet so restrictive that people need a break from that horrible feeling of never being able to measure up to whatever it is they think will make them acceptable to other people and therefore to themselves. People get sick with this idea of change. I have been sick with it. We search for transformation in retreats, juice fasts, drugs and alcohol, obsessive exercise, extreme sports, sex. We are all trying to escape our existence, hoping that a better version of us is waiting just behind that promotion, that perfect relationship, that award or accolade, that musical performance, that dress size, that raucous night at a party, that hot night with a new lover. Everyone needs to be pursuing something, right? Otherwise, who are we?

(Right!?!)

Absorbing that passage, I thought about the gulf that often exists between reality and perception, between the external and inside: how little my idea of that marriage probably has to do with the thing itself; how different that relative’s perception of the other’s disposition may have been from how she, herself, felt.

And how, when we define something or someone else as normal, it’s another way of reinforcing that persistent faith that who or what we are can’t ever be enough.

We often think that the negative connotation of normal is “ordinary” or “typical” or “dull.” But I wonder, too, if what we think of as the “positive” meaning isn’t toxic, too: if we often reach for it, as I did, to invoke an aspiration, an ideal, an image of a person or thing–one that says much less about what’s truly “normal” than it does about ourselves.

On Journaling, Audience, and Babies in Orange County

Last week I spent a few days visiting a grad school friend, V, who recently (seven months ago, to be precise) had a kid.

As offspring are wont to do, this (uncommonly cute, alarmingly active) baby has provoked infinite changes: at this point V can hardly recall what things were like before–but knows enough to say they were entirely different.

Taking a drive one afternoon to address a medley of urgent needs (baby: sleep; adults: frozen yogurt, hats), V brought up one, relatively insignificant transformation prompted by motherhood: starting to keep a journal.

We discussed the fact that, at this point in our lives and careers, we find ourselves less and less plagued by the “imposter syndrome” with which many (all?) writers continually struggle. (Grad degrees help.)

“I know I’m a writer,” V explained. “But journalling is the thing I’ve always felt insecure I didn’t do.”

Not being a journaler myself, I dismissed her insecurity (read: mine) right away: “It’s about audience,” I said. “I’m not interested in writing just for me. What’s the point?”

“I know,” V agreed. “But with the baby, I want her to know…and, you know, even aside from her, it is kind of useful as a writer to record what happened when.”

“Right,” I nodded, flashing back to the hours spent searching gmail for chats and messages, desperate to decipher the chronology of (embarassingly recent) personal events. Again, flip: “Thank god for the internet!”

A few hours later, I leaned on a rock a few yards from the Pacific, tearful. (That word is coming up a lot lately–Saturn Return, much?). I’d been traveling solo nearly a week, I’d yet to have a conversation with my mother, I was anxious to report what I’d been through–and  our first catch-up attempt, moments earlier, had been thwarted by geography. (Bad reception (me) + noisy midtown streets (mom).)

I love traveling alone. I love driving alone. I love going off and having adventures and thinking, mostly, about how I will share them later. That running interior monologue: it’s what enables personal writing to come out so quick.

We’ve been over the chronic, massive downside to this: inability to ever feel, fully, present.

The other side of it is that I long to share all that with another person. As V was quick to remind me later, my mother will always, to some degree, fill that role. But she’s always, also, my mother: thus wanting to give me a measure of space that neither of us will ever mutually, simultaneously, recognize as enough.

And without a partner, I’m inclined to fantasize about how that invisible, idealized person will arrive immune to those complicating issues: how they will listen, always, patient, receptive to the words and stories I can’t help but constantly prepare.

In the meantime, I seek substitutes: even on this trip, I’ve been checking in periodically with a guy back home, one who can’t possibly yet be invested enough to care particularly about the ins and outs of my (gripping!) travails.

Check-ins are harder with a three-hour time difference, and the other night, too late to call East, I jotted a list of things I wanted to share next time we spoke. They read like cryptic notes for someone funnier’s stand-up comedy routine: “military families,” “Orange County bookstores,” “Pacific surfers,” “Caitlin Moran.”

As I set them aside, I thought, sleepily, that I wasn’t totally sure I’d talk to this guy again, or how soon. I couldn’t be certain I’d even see him again, ever. Why was I so desperate to share my observations with someone who had so recently, and perhaps so ephemerally, come into my life?

It wasn’t that I needed to share with him, I thought. It was the urge to share with someone. And for the first time in a while, keeping a journal made sense: the impulse to chronicle my adventures shouldn’t come from a guy I hardly know. Between he and I, there’s only one of us I can be sure will still be around in a few decades or months or years.

And, only one of us I can be sure will, even then, be interested in what I’m up to now.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Feeling Cliche

This evening, on a rush hour 4 train, I used the opposite of subtlety as I returned the Arts section of today’s New York Times to my canvas tote and replaced it with the new issue of the New Yorker. And then I looked up–first into the middle distance of the crowd, then in the more focused direction of a nearby finance type with a quiet resemblance to Josh Hartnett, seeking validation: how worldly, how sophisticated, I–briefly–hoped they (mostly he) would judge.

And then I remembered that I now live In New York. I turned to my left and took note of a striking blond with the kind of tousled French braid and daintily upturned nose to which I will never more than aspire, imagined her 9-6 life at some glamorous publisher or glossy, and confronted, yet again, the distinct un-specialness that this city so often makes one feel.

Here’s a thing you may know about me: I’m pretty into other people’s approval. (Read: thinking I’m special.) My parents, my peers, random strangers on the subway. I’ll take it–no, I’ll actively, kinda aggressively, seek it–wherever I can.

And it turns out, living in the desert was kinda good for that. Hell, living in various smaller cities was good for that. You know, places where girls who casually follow current events and present softish Semitic features atop scruffed ankle boots don’t pack the walls of every Brooklyn-bound subway car.

(I will leave to your intuitive faculties whether this feeling did or did not worsen when I arrived at my destination: an NPR event in Gowanus featuring sincere discussion of artisanal pencils. Not joking.)

“We are so cliche.”

This has become a running joke between Alison and Douglas and me: how one of the persistent frustrations of living here is feeling, constantly, like everybody else.

The joke began when D and I were having drinks one recent Thursday night (Manhattans, naturally), and engaging a classic, painfully unoriginal conversation about the ups and downs of living in New York. (So much fun! But so expensive. So many options! But such competition. So exciting! But so bloody exhausting, all the time. Bored yet?)

The next night, out at a different bar with A (don’t judge), she told me about the ickiness of something her hairdresser had said when she’d confided about her latest romance–one that may or may not hew to a familiar pattern. (Girl falls for boy; boy is flakey. Stop me if you’ve heard.).

The hairdresser had said: “I hear that exact same story all the time.”

It made her feel, of course, shitty. The same way I feel shitty when I take a moment to fathom the approximate number of other, probably more talented and certainly more ambitious (though, likely, just as insecure) writers there are within two zip codes trying also trying to write blogs and publish books. Or, the number of kinda cute, semi-bookish single brunettes.

There are few things more painful than feeling like a cliche.

The paradox, though, as that there are few things more comforting than being reminded that we all feel the same things. To me, that’s the whole point of art.

And as an artist, one must constantly reconcile the pursuit of originality with the awareness that it’s all been thought and said before. (See: this brilliant essay.)

In art, cliche is taboo because it’s so vague. And life isn’t much different: my pals’ specific stories about dating and job searching resonate the way a good, descriptive essay or story or painting does, too. But the hazy idea of a strange gal on the 4 train wearing more awesome glasses? Not pleasant.

Sometimes (besides Nets games) its important to remember Jay-Z: as he put it, this is a city of eight million stories. They may or may not be more compelling than mine. But either way, the anxiety is pretty dull.

Four Conversations and, Still, A (Lot of) Question Mark(s)

“I think you have may have two competing ambitions,” he said, taking a sip of black coffee. “One, writing. Two, living in New York.”

I was sitting across from my adviser on my recent (brief) visit to New Mexico, and his comment was about to send me into the most recent in my lifelong series of mental tailspins about where (the fuck–it’s come to that) I’m supposed to live.

Less than a week later I was out at an East Village bar with my two best friends from NPR: between us, three pints of beer, a spiral notebook, and a flow chart of my future.

“We’re mapping this out,” Alison said, reaching into her bag for the requisite supplies.

Before long, after I’d fessed up to a moderately promising job interview the next afternoon, the chart had morphed into a list of bullet points under the heading, Points of Perfection. (These days, it’s a marvel my friends don’t bill me by the hour.)

“We’ll finish this next time,” Alison announced.

Still, between the two of them, they made sure I didn’t board the Q train without a couple of Big Wise Morsels.

For one, they said, it doesn’t, actually, matter where I end up. For another, there’s no such thing as where I ‘should’ go or what I ‘should’ be.

“Trust me, I’ve made a lot of bad decisions,” Douglas said, tapping his fingers against his beer as Alison and I reminded him that they’d just worked to assure me there was no such thing.

“Oh right,” he said.

Alison came to his rescue: “But you learned so much.”

“Right,” he said, nodding dramatically. “So much.”

On my walk home, I called a relative. When she asked what I was doing, I told her I’d just come from planning my life with a couple of friends.

“So, what did you decide?”

I muttered something largely unintelligible about taking things one day at a time, and pursuing some vague future that may or may not involve teaching, may or may not involve journalism, hopefully will include eventual publication, and may or may not take place within one of three U.S. time zones.

“Sounds good,” she said, ever a patient sport. “And…how does meeting a man figure into all this?”

I tell you this not to criticize this relative, who I love dearly, and whose opinion is almost always spot on. I tell you this because, despite the ferocious, entitled anger with which I responded, it was, pretty much exactly what I was, also, thinking.

“I have enough anxiety about this, I don’t need you piling on, too!” I shouted, walking down Avenue M from the subway. “How am I supposed to plan my life around a partner who doesn’t exist?

“I don’t know,” she said, nonplussed.

When D and I broke up, we talked about the fact that people around our age often latch onto relationships just to be latched onto something: we have so many options when it comes to everything else–where to live, what to do–that committing to a partner can remove some anxiety, take away one of the unknowns. Short of anything else to root yourself to, it can be tempting to pin it all on another person.

As misguided and dangerous as I know that can be, it’s also hard not to feel frustrated that it isn’t an option. And as I contemplate my next move, it’s hard, too, not to have that question looming: what about meeting someone? Where should I live so that I can? What should I do?

Short of answers, I spend my days trolling a troika of websites: from JournalismJobs to Craigslist apartment listings to OkCupid.

I know it doesn’t, actually, matter: who’s to say my chances of finding a relationship are in New York versus New Mexico versus Minnesota versus Washington? Not me, not my grandmother, not even my dear, absurdly generous friends.

Maybe I’ll start paying them.

Solitude Notes Cont’d: On Stephen Dunn, Anna Wintour and Just Being

So here’s my dirty little secret: sometimes, I tell people that I can’t go out because I need to be home, writing, and instead, I go home, make popcorn, and watch documentaries on Netflix.

I tell you this not to out myself to those members of my social group who I routinely turn down. (Bless them for the courtesy of persisting with the kind gesture; and, if any are reading, sorry: it’s, specifically, not personal.). Nor do I tell you this to discuss why it is that, these days, I suddenly have zero attention span for any sort of fiction–in film or in literature.

(Though, I did want to write about that, at first. And for now, I’ll quickly surmise just one possible reason: Anna Wintour, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Cunningham–the subjects of my latest three viewings–are characters so rich and vividly complex I’m not sure they could be invented.)

But anyhow. I tell you this because I have more to say on the subject of solitude. What I have to say is this: the more focus I try and summon on a creative project that requires substantial time to accomplish, the more time I require to just be, alone, not accomplishing shit.

I swear to God, I had this thought as I went to bed the other night, and then woke up, and saw that Dinty Moore had posted this quote on Facebook, from Stephen Dunn:

I think it’s really important to go to your room and sit there. The amateur writer only writes when something big happens in his or her life. Unless you have a better life than I do, you would write only three or four poems a year. So you go to your room and you wait for something to happen. You do that regularly.

In part, that’s a quote about discipline: about how writers can’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike; we’ve gotta make ourselves write the sentences, even when they’re not at our fingertips.

But it’s also–I think–about the fact that creativity often requires a lot of not very creative time. A lot of not very creative time spent not out in the world, being stimulated by fashion and design and conversation. But a lot of time spent just being. With yourself. With your thoughts.

Because creativity means not just taking inspiration from the world, not just observing, but interpreting: letting ideas and images percolate, toss around, bump into one another, connect and disconnect and connect and disconnect again.

I mean, I don’t know what Stephen Dunn means by simply sitting alone in his room: I picture him just, you know, sitting there, on the edge of his bed (actually, I picture him on the edge of my bed, because I don’t know what his looks like, which is weird), his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped between them, staring off into space and thinking really profound thoughts.

But for me, and I suspect, for lots of other creative types, the really valuable time doesn’t look anything like that: the most valuable, most stereotypically inspirational (lightbulb!) moments come when we aren’t consciously seeking them. Instead, they come when we’re taking a shower, or riding a bike, or half-watching salacious documentaries. Or, of course, trying to fall asleep.

I recently commiserated with a fellow dissertating friend about how our minds will feel completely stuck, completely uninspired, sitting in front of a computer; but the moment we close it, the moment we get in bed, new thoughts come. Because the pressure’s off. Because we’re not trying to solve the next problem or produce the next idea.

Am I sounding really preachy? And does this have anything to do with anything this blog is supposed to be about? Probably, and, probably not.

But I wanted to share it because, to me at least, it’s a new and important thought.

As a social person, I generally take advantage of opportunities to engage with people, to go out and be in the world. Usually, when I say I need to be writing, I do: I need to be writing.

I mean, these days, I should basically always be writing. But no matter what my adviser says, I can’t dedicate all those hours to making the sentences. Some of them, for me, need to just be about being: with myself, with random fashion celebrities and fallen politicians, with peculiar and prying thoughts of which I may or may not ever make sense.

Vivian Gornick Says: It’s “The End of the Novel of Love.” I Say: Kind Of, Maybe.

I don’t think anyone can be blamed for believing that romantic love is the answer to everything.

I’m not sure that statement even needs explanation: turn on some reality TV, watch a Hollywood movie, talk to your grandmother; we are, all of us, constantly surrounded by information that glorifies love. That makes it seem like the most important thing, more essential than anything else.

I remind you of this, of course, by way of reminding myself. I had a moment, recently (if this blog is any sincere record, various “moments” are a frequent occurence these days): I was sitting in my backyard feeling glum. Feeling anxious. Feeling hurt and frustrated about things in my life that have nothing to do with love or men.

And I found my mind falling back on this thought: “Well at least I have [insert current romantic interest here] to think about.”

As in: “God forbid I should go through anything alone.” And, more importantly: “God forbid I should find myself without at least the hope, at least the possibility of having romantic love in my life.”

This thought is something on which I depend. I may have gone a solid six years without a particularly serious relationship, but–ask my friends from that time and they’ll tell you–there was always someone. Usually, a few someones: some shy bartender, flirtatious flak or troubled bass player for me to think about and on whom to pin my hopes–however absurd or misguided as they usually were–of falling in love.

What, you’re not shocked? Anyhow. A professor of mine may or may not have gleaned this tendency from my writing when, about a year ago, he suggested that I read a certain book of nonfiction: Vivian Gornick’s “The End of the Novel of Love.”

I suspect you will be no more surprised by my admission that I waited something like a year to pick it up: I dutifully ordered it from Amazon a few months after his recommendation, but since then it’s been sitting, untouched, on the shelf: beside various memoirs and novels that each, most of them, glorify love more than the next. (Have I mentioned that Anna Karenina is my favorite book? It is.)

I waited to pick up the book because it seemed bound to undermine everything I write. Essentially, everything I do is based on the collective (slash my) obsession with relationships and finding love. Why would I want to read something pronouncing that entire conceit over?

Well, surprise surprise, I will tell you why. Because right after I had that thought, sitting in my backyard and feeling grateful to have a man who may or may not wind up being a boyfriend, I had this one: that it doesn’t matter. That, with or without a guy in my life, this still sucks. That love is great, that having a boyfriend is great, but it does not solve everything or even make everything easier. There is much of life with which we are stuck coping alone.

Also, with a year left in my MFA and something like a book manuscript due in fewer months than I care to discuss, things are getting desperate. I’ll read anything if it means putting off actually writing something useful. So, I took me to the Gornick.

Specifically, I took me to Gornick’s conclusion, because a history professor in college once directed me to always read the conclusion first, and because I am lazy.

Here’s, from what my lazy reading can deduce, the heart of her case:

Love…like food or air, is necessary but insufficient. It cannot do for us what we must do for ourselves. Certainly, it can no longer act as an organizing principle. Romantic love now seems a yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed; when what is required for the making of a self is the deliberate pursuit of conciousness. Knowing this to be the larger truth, as many of us do, the idea of love as a means of illumination–in literature as in life–now comes as something of an anticlimax. If in a story (as in actuality) neither the characters nor the narrator realizes, to begin with, that love is not what it’s all about, then the story will know at its conclusion only what it knows at the beginning.

Sing it, sister.

The problem I see in her argument, though, is this: that most of us don’t actually know this larger truth all the time. Perhaps I’m the only one who loses sight of it most days and only, occasionally, momentarily remembers it while feeling sullen in the backyard. But I kind of doubt it.

Of course, we should expect more from our writers. And so this one will resolve to try and remember it more than I don’t. Wish me luck.

 

 

Holding Onto What Was Good

You know how it is.

One minute, I feel strong and invincible and sexy: ready to join with Pippa Middleton in effortlessly conquering the male hearts of the world.

The next, I feel small and unwanted and vulnerable: rejected by the handsome, married passenger the row ahead of me on the airplane who I’m pretty sure never saw my face; rejected by the butch bikram yoga teacher who seems concerned with everyone’s alignment but mine.

I’m trying to focus on those former moments–the strong and heady ones–and less than a week post-breakup, there are more and more coming. But still, not quite enough.

So I’m trying to hold onto something S told me, one of the most important things I’ve heard in the last few days.

“You’ve gained so much in this relationship,” she said. “I don’t want to see you lose all that just because it’s over.”

She was referring to a few things–my ability to talk more openly with my mother, for example, and my sharpened focus on certain writing projects–but mostly she was talking about my confidence.

“You’ve just seemed so secure,” she told me. “When you were with him and when you were alone. Please don’t let go of that.”

I’m working on it. It turns out that holding onto the products of a relationship isn’t easy, though, once it’s over.

The small things can feel like the hardest.

Hours after the breakup, I wrote an email to D asking for my things back–dutifully heeding my friend M’s advice to do so “without saying anything about feelings.” The next day, he overnighted them.

Before I got the package, I anticipated how hard it would be–the steep emotional challenge of separating those items I’d kept at his house–a nightgown to sleep in and a sweater, because it was always cold–from the association of him, and from the association of hurt.

But I didn’t cry when I opened it. Instead, I put both things on. (The sweater over the nightgown–as N noted, they happen to pair well together.)

“I have to reclaim these clothes,” I announced to S and N as we stood, solemn-faced, at our kitchen counter.

And of course that’s just the beginning: there’s the sight of the salad tongs in my drawer that D’s mother sent him and he passed on to me. The thoughts of spending time alone this month in Taos, where I’d long imagined being–going to readings, running B, doing crosswords–with him. The sound of the Replacements songs that I put on his mix. (I’m not listening to it intentionally–I’m not that masochistic–but I have been putting on REM, my comfort music, compulsively, and the Replacements come right after in iTunes.)

I don’t know that I’ll ever shirk these associations completely. You never really do. (Though I suppose I should admit that until D, I associated the Replacements with someone else. Something about me and Paul Westerberg, go figure.)

So yeah, the sting will lessen. Someday I’ll be mostly nostalgic instead of mostly hurt. We had something lovely, that–when the anger and sadness wears–will be worth feeling warm and nostalgic for.

But in those moments when the mere sight of a stranger’s wedding ring makes me tear up (it happened, once, in an airport–travel makes me particularly fragile), it’s hard to imagine that time coming very soon.

When I talked to M, I briefly bemoaned the mental ache of returning to the single life.

“It really isn’t that bad,” he said, in that sincere tone I could almost believe. “And you have so much going on. Just keep doing your yoga, keep writing, just keep doing your thing.”

Not the most original advice, but important nonetheless. And so I do. I thank heaven for yoga and for cooking, for unbelievably loving friends and family, for the knowledge that I am committed to being serious about writing

Of course, I’d like to find someone else who makes me happy (and, apparently, mistype) before too long. But that’s one thing I can’t control, and therefore don’t want to think about, right now.

What I can think about are those things I can control: and at the moment that means working to put distance between D and the good things–from salad tongs to self-esteem–that he came with.

And in the meantime, watch out: me and Pippa are coming. Any day now.

Post Mother’s Day Ode #2 to My Most Lovable Mom

Newsflash: contrary to what one sometimes thinks when single, being in a relationship does not make all one’s problems go away.

Having to move bedrooms? Way easier. Dealing with car problems? Definitely improved. Frequent, fragile mood swings and persistent insecurity about one’s body and talent? Thriving as ever.

One thing, though, that it turns out is a bit easier for me, when I’m attached, is my relationship with my mother.

Now, my mom and I, overall, have a pretty solid relationship. I’d say it’s above average, easily. We talk several times a week. We both have fairly easygoing temperaments. We each think the other is, objectively (yeah, right), pretty darn interesting and lovely and smart.

But as I write in a new essay, featured today on the website Style Substance Soul (like the cross self-promotion at work here? A girl’s gotta do…), it’s not always entirely rosey.

I tend to focus on the ways in which my mother and I alike: you know, on those tics and mannerisms of hers that, because I recognize them in myself, find consistently, irrationally, repulsive: the way we say “hmmm” when other people talk, even when we aren’t listening; the face we make when we look in the mirror. Etc.

But in truth, we are quite different people. As you may have noticed if you are reading this blog, I’m pretty comfortable being open about most things, excessively intimate details of my personal life included. My mother? Not so much.

Continue reading

Thoughts on The L-Word, Cont’d

When I teach creative writing, like everyone else who who’s ever taught it, I constantly remind my students of the old adage “show, don’t tell.”

“Don’t tell us you hate your ex-boyfriend, show us that using scene, and voice, and image, and setting,” I say. “Dramatize!”

I repeat the words of one of my former teachers: “Nothing is less beautiful than beautiful”–the word is so abstract, so entirely subjective, to describe something as simply “beautiful” doesn’t tell us anything concrete.

When we study nonfiction, I tell them they’re allowed to show and tell: I read to them from an essay by Philip Lopate about the importance of reflection and tell them something I learned from a different professor: that the story is not as interesting as the sense the author makes of the story. (Whatever that means–like any platitude, it’s imperfect, and not always true.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how this applies in life. Because I want people to show me their feelings–love, hate, whatever–but I also want them to tell me. For reasons I can’t explain, I need the reassurance that comes not just from affection, from meaningful actions, but from being told: from the statement “I love you.”

“You need something more detailed,” D observed when we had the conversation. More detailed, he meant, than the gestures and behaviors that signify love: I need the words themselves.

Continue reading

The Problem With Memoir?

Last week my father sent me a link to an article about memoir from the New York Times: “it’s terrific, well written, and very funny” he wrote.

I had seen the headline–”The Problem With Memoirs”–but at that point, I hadn’t read it. Probably I hadn’t read it for the same reason I often don’t read New York Times articles: that I didn’t have time. Or at least, thought I didn’t have time. (Who has time to read whole news articles when there are endless Facebook statuses to skim and the internet is crowded with pretty pictures of lemon tarts and raspberry linzer cookies you like to fantasize about baking? Welcome to my world.)

But possibly I also didn’t read it because, well, because the headline promised a pretty direct attack on what I do.

It’s hard not to feel insecure about the impulse to write memoir. That article hammers home, rather agressively, the worst stereotype about the genre: that it’s filled with narcissistic, over-sharing attention whores shamelessly appealing to readers’ most base, voyeuristic impulses.

Now, I have never claimed that I don’t like to overshare. I’m not proud of this trait, but I accept it. The narcissistic label is one that I, with varying degrees of success, try and resist. Do I like attention? Sure, who doesn’t. (Okay, lots of people. But those of us who do aren’t exactly a minority.)

Should everyone who exhibits these traits write memoir? Of course not. Honestly, I think it’s really hard to write successful nonfiction. But it’s possible. It’s possible if you write well.

Continue reading