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Writing is a Brawl: Thoughts on Another Week at WaPo.

I’m-the-man

I am not especially tough. I think most people who know me would be able to confirm this. My skin is gold-leaf thin, and this is especially true after I’ve written. You will find me at my most vulnerable on the day that something I’ve penned has been published. It doesn’t matter where; this is true whether I’m in control of the posting and it’s seen by a few hundred people, or if an editor at a national publication is involved and the post is seen by several thousands.

I am old enough to remember a time before the internet, when writing was far more romantic to me than it is now and when writers had a few insular hours or days or even months before reviews of their work began to trickle in. A letter to the editor or an op-ed or a missive to the author would travel through a postal cycle or onto the desks of various news staffers before it reached the eyes (and the ego) of the writer herself. Those were pleasant times — or they seemed to be, anyway. Some would argue that the time between publication and response, pre-internet, felt tortuously interminable. I think I would’ve appreciated the breathing room. Immediacy has obliterated the insulation of the writer’s ego, and I’m still mourning that loss. But the more frequently my work sees the light of day, the closer I get to accepting things as they are.

For the second time this year, Alyssa Rosenberg has generously shared her space at her Washington Post blog, Act Four, with me. This go-round, she did so while she traveled to Toronto for the city’s International Film Festival (TIFF). (Be sure to check out her coverage, now that she’s returned!) I wrote six posts in total: Thursday and Friday of last week, Monday through Wednesday of this one. Writing daily for a Washington Post blog was as exhilarating now as it was back in May.

But if I told you that I approached each day with confidence, if I claimed that I didn’t feel anxiety at dusk every day worrying over what to write and how to frame it and how it would be received and how frighteningly possible it was that I was on the absolute wrong side of an issue, I’d be telling you the boldest-face lie there is. I’d be talking about someone other than my quietly neurotic self.

amelie puddle

no crying

For writers like me, who struggle with the cultural disintegration of a feedback buffer, there are side effects to writing at a breakneck pace for a broad audience. The first among them is, of course, the comments section paranoia. I learned a few years ago to fastidiously avoid those unless I’m asked not to and then, only to spend as much time on them as I comfortably can without crying. The second is staggering self-doubt, which — I assure you — will annoy everyone within a mile radius when you’re on daily assignment. The third is an inability to sleep. The fourth is an uncanny aptitude for focusing on the three critical statements, rather than the 30 favorable ones. This last also manifests as talking myself out of great comments by convincing myself that 2/3 of that feedback is from people I know, people who love me, people who know just how little it takes for me to wither or chafe.

If you regularly experience any of these effects, I’ll let you in on a little life-hack. At 1 am, when you’ve reached delirium and you’re still pounding keys on what seems to be incoherent, remember: there is no time. The only minutes you have to spare are for sentences, not self-questioning. And when you wake up again at 5:30 am to re-read what you wrote at 1, you’ll realize you’ve developed an immunity to iocane powder. (Word to the Dread Pirate Westley.) Honor the absence of idle time and all that clutter casts itself aside. Head down, keep typing. That sound of your fingers flying across the keyboard amplifies, like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. Eventually, you surrender to it.

Is that enough? Will you be cured? Are your insecurities behind you? Man, nah. Your insecurities will always be nipping. Sometimes, they will clamp down and rip themselves a good chunk of flesh. I have yet to learn how to play off that limp, to walk a straight line when I’m wounded. This is what terrifies me: the more I’m read, the more often I’m wounded — and if I want this life, this daily-published life, I better learn quick how to self-suture.

There is nothing as exhilarating for me as writing. A close second is being widely read and well-received. I am trying to reconcile that some people will always think my purple prose sucks and that others still will almost always disagree with my central claims. Not everyone thinks that I’m good at this. I am working hard to become that most feared kind of woman: the one who does not require validation. But this, I suspect, will take as many years as I have left — and I do not know, having tasted validation, if it is a thing I could ever learn to eschew.

Here is another thing I’ve learned: publication is petrifying for the conflict-averse, but to write is to kick up dust and to beg for a brawl. To write is to wait for the big kid after school, with eggers-on encircling. You will want someone to root for you. You will want someone’s help with the wounds.

friend kind of

During this guest-blogging run, I think I gave as good as I got. I took more risks, made more leaps, tried to make interesting intellectual connections. I tried, as is the wont of Rebecca Traister, by way of Amy Poehler, not to f—ing care if you liked it. I’m enclosing all the links, in case you want to read them to see for yourself if you’d declare me this round’s winner or consider the whole thing a draw:

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Uncategorized

Love and Language.

1.

First comes the absence of accent. You hear it before its loss registers elsewhere: a flatness, frosty and far, where there were once warm lilts and bends. Your voice was a carousel, your language a whirligig. It’s since sanded itself, become polished and practiced, indistinguishable.

You are hiding your truths in places you will not so readily find them.

It is easy to tell a man you love him, easy to mean it. But over time, it morphs in your mouth, its meaning multiplying, reducing, clouding. Something is always wanting, in the translation.

You are not clear when you articulate love, because you have never understood men as more than audiences. Perform for them, but keep them distant. Perform for them, but know when to leave, when to grant an encore. The performance must be evocative, but respectable. It must titillate but it must also offer insight.

You are less actress than apprentice. You cannot tell if he is on the edge of his seat or yawning. Men, in this way, are mysteries.

But this is beside the point. Audiences owe so little: attention, at best, and in short supply. The actress owes a world.

No, never view a man you love as something to be acted upon. You mustn’t perform. You will always feel you are earning a keep. You will dance till dawn for a bit of applause and feel empty, wanton, when he withholds it.

Women learn this first with inconsistent fathers. When they are with you, you wish to dazzle them — and you do. For as long as you care to, you do. Find his heart, his preoccupations, his passions. Become conversant in them. And you will be clever and interesting because, at first, you are the most flattering kind of mirror. When he is with you, you offer such forgiving reflections. He is younger with you, time has stood still, a judgment day feels far enough at bay that you’ve nearly convinced him he’s invincible.

But he is often gone. And in his absence, you are building calluses over your needs. First it will be hard and hurtful to articulate them. Then, you will not feel the need to do so at all.

What is love, if not knowing when to keep silent?

The beginning of new relationships is when your accent is heaviest. Love leaves your lips easily, and love on his lips takes a razor to every callus.

I want to know everything, you whisper. I want to tell you everything, he responds.

You hope to dazzle him, and you do. But soon, you will want your distance. And in the distance, the calluses crust over.

2.

My daughter’s speech is muddy, a mix of water and silt. It floats out, as if behind gauze or a veil. I understand her, sometimes, but less than I’m told I should by now.

I am not one of those mothers who begs and borrows and steals to acquire the trendiest literacy aids. I do not own an iPad. I believe in board books and conversation and sunshine.

She watches television. (And I realize, at this point in the reading, someone is sending me to the stocks or the noose in old Salem. But understand, at this point in the reading, that if my daughter did not watch television, I could not be writing this. If I hadn’t watched as much television as I did growing up, I wouldn’t likely have wanted to be a person who writes things down.)

Now that she is closer to three years old than two, I am told her speech should not sound like it is being sifted. She should be clear, responding to questions, asking them, forming simple sentences.

Because she is not in daycare, we have both been spared the intense developmental comparisons we’d find there. But whenever she does get to mingle among peers, I am concerned with her insouciant acquisition of language.

She is no loafer. Story is an empath, a firebrand. She is intellectually curious, musical, startling perceptive. She is creative, a gesturer. She cobbles her own expressive roads.

But she does not speak in ways that are easily understood.

Even mothers like me, neither tigers nor minimalists, know when to be concerned about their children. And for us, it is rarely overreaction.

I worry that she has inherited my ambiguities. I do not often know how to speak, either. Perhaps it is just that the words morph in her mouth in more literal ways than they do in mine.

But here is where that similarity ends: my daughter knows exactly how to love. It is not complicated. It is in the eyes, in invented songs, in laughter, in the folding of her bony limbs and skin around mine. It is all the kisses I give her, returned. It is alphabets and gifts of toys, constellations, saying hello to the moon, to her mama’s smiley-face mug in the morning.

It is not confined to the way her words are formed.

3.

Nearly a fortnight ago, in the basement bar of an East Village restaurant, I slid onto a stool, waiting for a lithe, sparkly-eyed twenty-something to transfigure an excerpt of fiction I wrote last year, in a fit of pique. She was first in a lineup of actors cast to read the works of writers, both established and grappling. I am the latter, of course, the non-resident only in New York for a few stolen hours, the sole writer featured without a published book to sell.

In Baltimore, it is easy to forget who you are. It is not so often affirmed. In New York, if you are literary, neither affirmation nor criticism are ever in short supply. You are among kinsmen fluent in the language of representation and publication, professorship and craft. You are among people who amass rejection and do not identify it as masochism, but as love.

I had never heard my work publicly read aloud by anyone besides myself, let alone performed. New York is the only place where I’d want to.

The audience waited for the first line, spoken by a seven-year-old twin to her conjoined sister: “Do you think Mommy loves us?” It’s a play on an age-old theme, a lifelong wonder. Are we allowed to interrogate love? And when we do, will we ever be ready for the result?

The girls are black, sharing organs at the lower torso. One is developmentally delayed, the other fairly precocious. In this scene, they are in conversation. It is difficult to imagine this going well. The actress is white and grown, her body positively un-twinned.

But the language is universal, her interpretation thoughtful and quiet. She draws the attention of our intimate crowd, pulls them toward the words, and for a moment, they are not my own, and she is no longer there. There are only the twins, those susceptible twins, and their questioning of a mother’s love.

My friend Shelly, who co-organizes the event, tells me witnessing this often makes writers as nervous as if they were reading their own words aloud. Indeed, it is a foreign thing to see something intended for silence enlivened. It is strange to surrender a sliver of an incomplete novel to a room, to see the way your own words land on other ears.

This is is what readers do all the time, Shelly reminds me. They take our words into themselves, add their own inflections, superimpose their experience. They gasp, perhaps chuckle, and occasionally, they call into question their loves.

It is risky to be let in on this process. Day to day, we understand the words we write as spores, floating out and off and overhead, but rarely touching down.

Here, I was watching cupped hearts catch them. I could see them sink into the loam.

I had my answer, then, about the way I communicate love. Mine is an adoration mapped with words. For the utterance of a loving word is the loudest act there is.

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Nonfiction

The Irretrievable Word (or Mo’ Public, Mo’ Problems).

Words are everything. Words are empires; they are ruins. Words are the fiery dragon and the watery balm that extinguishes. They rouse the beast and tame the serpent. Words impress and belittle. They mock and exhort and destroy.

I am well acquainted with their import and how the hands that move them should be steadied, undefiled. But my work with them has always been doubled-edged: a dark art, a sacred vocation. I can rush them, for money, push them into a vice and turn them till they’re taut and succinct and serviceable. I can wring dry their water, make them acrid, isolating, detached. Or I can sit with them by a stream, till they glow and they flush and sustain. Words are pliable this way. And our motive, in using them, matters.

I used to have the luxury of preciousness, of doting over every blessed phrase until it sang, until I was certain I’d done it justice, until I knew I’d done no harm. But such luxuries wither away with daily deadlines, and the pageant I’d made of carefully parsing every thought has been slowly scaled down until there is little left at all: an errant simile twisting in the wind like a streamer, a string of once-electric vowels gone hollow like the echo of vuvuzelas.

This used to be what I wanted: wider readership, more frequent contributions to the funnel cloud that culls our culture’s words. But in the eye of the twister, I have clarity–and I know the significance of the work I once did: slow work, painstakingly constructed, and published only when I was pleased. Now, I know the vulnerability of dashing off words and watching them flutter quickly out of reach, rather than preening under the caress of my hand. And perhaps worst of all, I know what it is to have serious doubt that you’ve said what you mean, that you mean what you say. I know the cold sweat, the worry that wakes you at dawn and wonders: did that essay do more harm than good, did I injure the ones I hoped to help, did I do a disservice to my family, my friend, myself?

Words are everything. And when they leave the heart and they enter the air, they are no longer ours. This is hard to accept: like full-grown children, they have no choice but to reflect the way they were raised. And under the constant deluge of others’ assessment, I often feel I’ve failed them. But this is the burden of being not just noticed, but truly considered: you must always account for your way with words.

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