In his recently published memoir, Christopher Hitchens wrote something that encapsulated all of the guilt I feel about my confessional writing. “For those I have loved, or who have been so lenient and gracious as to have loved me, I have not words enough here, and I remember with gratitude how they have made me speechless in return.” When I write, I have a recurring fear of betraying the loyalties of the people I write about. This is bearably nerve-wracking when profiling people or characterizing someone’s work or public opinions—a kind of writing I find painfully boring.
The more fruitful and honest confessing of a subjective experience can’t be done with speechlessness on the subjects that matter most. There are subjects I care about, but only because of the people connected to them. To be fully honest about one’s conviction to a subject requires a confession of one’s love for the people behind that given subject. Giving this account honestly often feels like the kind of treachery that’s only possible between people who care for each other the most.
I’d mostly been able to avoid these conflicts after finishing my Nerve assignment, but I’ve started writing another confessional column for The Faster Times and this unease returns. When I think of writing these columns again I don’t see anyone in my life who’s been capable of making me speechless. To the contrary, the people I’ve cared for most are often the ones I’ve felt the most unavoidable need to write about.
This would be an easier position to defend if I had an ideological framework to help the practice stand on its own. When I write about other people I refer to them by first initial, and I try to limit anecdotes to those that directly involved me. That’s a paltry list and not much of an ideological framework. That may seem like a reason not to begin. If you don’t know what it is you’re going to say and how you’d like to say it, maybe that’s a good indication that you shouldn’t say anything.
There are many troubling things in that statement, foremost of which is the idea that we know in advance what we expect to find in reading something. Remaining silent about those people too cherished to pin to the blank page with a few oblique lines is a sort of gallantry, protecting the tender and fair from public sneers.
In describing 1984, Hitchens once observed it’s not the desire for power that’s so haunting but the will to serve innate in all of us. It makes sense to want power. We don’t need parables to understand why this is so, and why even the best among us would accept more than their appropriate share of authority if it were possible. What’s murky is our need to place authority in things and then, in varying degrees, argue about whose authority figure is more righteous. The dark echo that won’t go away is Orwell’s descriptions of how easily we all go down on one knee before some one or group with enough focus to have reasonably convinced us of their righteousness.
I think of that when I encounter especially heated responses to some of the things I’ve written about. With Nerve I wrote about some of the most vulnerable and irrational parts of myself, and it was not unusual to encounter responses with the directed fury of someone aiming to smash a false prophet. The more subjective and resistant to universal reducibility the stories, the more heated the response.
Writing outlasts us all, it will be there still, somewhere, when I’m dead. It’s resistant to change. The context we read something in changes perpetually, but the sentence will remain the same, a mute and totemic assembly of little symbols whose meaning comes from the inherited agreements of our ancestors. We want to think of language as a system of laws that we adhere to. Or, to which we must adhere, if you prefer. Sentences shouldn’t end with articles, adverbs shouldn’t come after a verb, and woe is the writer caught using a “which” where a “that” will suffice.
It’s easy to forget it was us, through our powder-headed great grandparents, that invented all that. The further away we get from the point when someone first came up with an idea for how to accomplish something with language, the more like a rule it becomes. What once was a simple suggestion to benefit meaning and communication becomes a mandate to lawfulness when dissociated from its human creator. Grammar didn’t invent us. But it does reveal the wilting damsel inside us all, falling at the feet of what remains–as if the husk of a thing has more power than the erratic person who created it.
Writing is a way of retrieving something from the past before it disappears behind the falling lids of time and memory. The only person who’s ever asked me not write about them is N, who I haven’t spoken to in a year. She didn’t really ask, it was a ticklish injunction. “I’d better not wind up in there,” she said when I told her I had a new job keeping a daily memoir of my love life. When I look back over everything, here and there, I’ve written about her more than anyone else. You could call that a betrayal. Repeated for effect.
I’ve long wondered when I would stop having the impulse to retreat to anecdotes about N mid-stream, irrespective of subject. I’ve tried to write my way out of it, going on long attempts at a literary summation that could come to a satisfactory resting place without her. The more I write about her the more I lose the end point, I realize in capturing this moment or remembering that conversation there were many others drifting off in their own imperceptibly accelerating lines, better described by the thing they’re moving away from than a guess at the future they’re traveling toward.
Just before I left San Francisco I had the mortifying experience of finding an old love letter I’d written when I was nineteen. It was hard to read because I seemed like such a helpless little worm, wrestling with feelings and ideas I couldn’t resolve. I felt like I could see finally see myself in the way other people might have seen me, petty, lost, tone deaf, and insignificantly small. It did not seem like me. It cut across the great inner consistency I’ve felt since my earliest memories. I couldn’t find a wisp of that inner self in those letters.
When reduced to my own husk of misplaced love, undue expectation, and wounded complaints written out in teenage handwriting, it seemed as if I was someone else entirely. It was a cruel shock, like what it must have been like for someone else to have come across a depiction of themselves in something I’d written, an inner universe of thoughts, feelings, and hopes left to dissolve into the rhetorical mist, save for the one or two details I’d been able to hold on to for the sake of writing something about my own precious self.
When we were still talking last year, I wrote N in a fit of guilt after hearing another friend had decided to stop talking to me because of something I’d written for Nerve. She’d told me long before that she didn’t read any of the things I wrote, in part because she knew she’d find parts of herself in it. She didn’t want to see herself reduced and pinned onto my pages. She told me to toughen up, I’d known that was the inherent risk of doing this kind of stuff in the first place, and my friend had known too that this was what I did. It wasn’t my place to ask him to accept it, and there was nothing he could do to stop me from writing it.
A few months later, after N stopped talking to me, he sent me a funny text message as if nothing had happened. There was no resolution. We both came to a point where we were willing to accept what had happened–what we’d been to each other–and continue. That doesn’t always happen.
In Flatland, a book my dad used to make all of his accounting students read when I was growing up, Edwin Abbot describes how someone living in a two-dimensional plane would be able to see a three-dimensional body and know what it was. He described a sphere passing through a plane. As seen by a 2D square in the plane, the sphere would begin as a single point, then slowly open into a small circle. As the sphere continued to move through the plane the circle would expand, and then shrink again as it was leaving through to the other side.
Writing from memory is a way of recreating something that I will, by nature, never have faculty to understand. The best I can do is ignore it, or leave behind a litter of rough shapes that have some leftover intimation of the things that meant something to me, and which have now gone away—not as declarations of a truth that only I can see, but as a way of running up to the edge where everything I know dissolves into an absence. I left these letters along the way.