Lady in the House Questions: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

1.What has been your ultimate journey?

Traveling as a lead vocalist for a rock band.  Traveling as a back-up dancer for a Pop music group.

 

2. How do you start?

A phrase book. A love story. A contradiction. A typeset. A video. A challenge.

 

3. How do you end?

A phrase book. A love story. A contradiction. A mixtape.

 

4. Do you worry about the politics of classification?

The older I get, the more annoyed I am that I have to bother.

 

5. How do you classify yourself?

Flagless.

 

6. When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down?

I need walls to protect myself.  However, there’s always the chance of mildew and black mold if they’re not replaced every a couple years. So I occasionally cut a hole in the sheet rock, air out the funky spots and replace it with a new wall of a different color.

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Lady in the House Questions: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

Impulse Toward Privacy: A Conversation With Writers Deanna Fei and Frances de Pontes Peebles

Her Kind: Deanna Fei and Frances de Pontes Peebles, who met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, talk about the writers they feel indebted to and the role of mentorship in their careers. From this conversation we get an incredible list of authors and their works, and questions that make you think about the value of time and space, privacy, and when to share your work and when not to, and what it means to be a writer in community.

 
Frances de Pontes Peebles: Every time I read a novel that transports me, I feel grateful to the writer for bringing it into existence. I also feel awe and envy, and each of these feelings propels me to write. Margaret Atwood’s book The Blind Assassin inspires me in this way. So do Middlemarch, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, and all of the late Brazilian author Rachel de Queiroz’s books. Whenever I’m feeling discouraged with my own work, I turn to these books for inspiration. I’ll always be grateful to their authors.

I’m not sure I’d make a good mentor. There are writers who enjoy talking about the act of writing—about its difficulties, it challenges, its triumphs. They are very open with their feelings and with how they go about their personal process of writing. They thrive on this openness. In some cases (not all), these are the kinds of writers that make the best mentors. I love talking about books and general inspirations, but I dread talking specifically about what I am working on and about my writing process. I don’t even like for people to see my workspace!

Deanna, we had a professor that said (and I’m paraphrasing): “If you talk too much about the work-in-progress, you’ll lose it.” But there are other writers who believe that if you don’t talk about the work-in-progress, it won’t be real. I wonder how much protectiveness over one’s own writing process is useful? And how much revelation or sharing (even for the sake of mentoring) is destructive? Are there things a writer needs to keep sacred? Or is that just superstition or worse, selfishness?

 
Deanna Fei: I’m with you on my gratitude toward writers whose work fills me with awe and envy, and The Blind Assassin is also one of those books for me. Others that come to mind are Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, Junot Diaz’s Drown, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, and so many of Alice Munro’s stories. And Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is the closest thing I have to a bible.

I’m also deeply grateful to writers I’ve studied with, particularly Marilynne Robinson, Ethan Canin, and Elizabeth McCracken at Iowa. It’s not often that I write for a full day without hearing one of their nuggets of wisdom in my head. But it occurs to me that I’ve never had another writer take on a real mentor role to me. I’ve certainly had writers I hugely admire be wonderfully generous in providing a little counsel or a good word or some commiseration, but not in that ongoing, one-on-one way that mentorship implies.

Frances, I think you and I have both wished at times that we experienced more of that at Iowa, but I also always admired how our teachers seemed to consider themselves writers first and foremost. You mentioned selfishness as a negative trait, but I’m not sure how you can make writing the center of your life without being somewhat selfish with your time and thoughts and emotions. Because those are our materials, and they are sacred. I’ve always felt this way, but never more so than now, as a mother of two babies.

I recently took on an official mentor role through the Women’s International Leadership Program to a Sudanese MFA student at Hunter College. Given how constrained my time and energies feel these days, I was a little hesitant, but I really enjoyed talking with her about writing in general and my specific experiences researching and writing A Thread of Sky. I think this is partly because I miss the teaching/counseling I used to do with public school students, and because I feel a vested interest in helping to bring less mainstream voices into our literary consciousness. Also—and maybe this seems a little contradictory—it mostly felt like we were just two writers discussing our craft. I think writing is such a fundamentally humbling pursuit that whether you’re on your first book or your fifth, from chapter to chapter, sentence to sentence, the struggle is essentially the same. Of course, I’m only on my second book, but I’d be surprised if I felt much differently farther down the road.

But to speak to your questions: I didn’t talk to that student about my work-in-progress—not in any detail. As you well know, I completely share your feelings about that. For me, it feels something like being pregnant and being called upon to announce what kind of person my child will be. Every now and then, I still find myself answering that dreaded (and totally understandable, totally well-meaning) question—“What’s your next book about?”—out of politeness or obligation, but I always regret it. Maybe this sounds precious, but it feels dishonest and disloyal.

But are we missing something? You and I are probably a little extreme. I mean, when we were both pregnant last year, we dreaded going public even with that news! (Of course, I am hesitant to disclose that.) I think that impulse toward privacy is inseparable from my writing process and my writing self, but do you ever wonder if we’re missing out on valuable input from others? How do you decide you’re ready to share certain details about your work with the people closest to you? Or is that irrelevant when we know that at some point, we will share the actual work—with each other, for starters?

 

FP: You’re right. A certain kind of selfishness is vital to any writer. I define this kind of selfishness as protectiveness—of our time, our space, our ideas. Every writer has to have dogged determination in order to start and finish any piece of work. After I became a mother, I realized that I would have to multiply that amount of determination by a thousand.

Some writers may share more of their process, struggles, and ideas with others but ultimately we must all face our work alone. We must access a place within ourselves that is inaccessible to all others in our lives. We create fictional worlds and, in doing so, must give ourselves wholeheartedly to those worlds. Real world concerns must take a backseat. So we must be selfish in order to push those day-to-day responsibilities and worries out of our minds. I think cultivating this kind of focused selfishness is even more important for women. Whether we like it or not, in most cultures women feel pressure to be nice, to appease, to sacrifice. Mothers especially are expected to put others first. Elizabeth McCracken—one of our Iowa teachers you mentioned—once said, “Fiction isn’t the place to mind your manners.” Another quote of hers that I carry with me is, “Nothing good was ever written from timidity.” When I struggle with my own need to appease, or when I feel unnecessary pressure to sacrifice my time, energy, or privacy, I think of Elizabeth McCracken’s quotes and feel strengthened by them. This process, this place, this work are all mine. They are not my husband’s. They are not my child’s. They are not my friends’ and they are not the world’s. Not yet. One day, when the work is ready, I will be very thankful to be able to share it. But in its nascent phases a draft must be completely mine or it will never survive.

Deanna, you and I exchange work long before it’s finished. You and Mika Tanner, our classmate from Iowa, are my most trusted friends and readers. To answer your question—I share a draft when I can no longer see the work clearly, when there are questions that I can’t answer alone, or when I feel I can’t grasp my original impulse or idea. When I am at this impasse, I send my drafts to you and Mika and am always grateful for your counsel. Every writer needs two or three trusted readers. In my mind, it’s the kind of trust that is as deep as marital trust, because I know you will always tell me the truth in a compassionate way. I know you would never let me embarrass myself by putting out shabby work! Most important, you would never let me betray my initial impulse. Isn’t this a kind of writer community—a small one but a community nonetheless?

There have been times when I’ve really missed Iowa, where we were surrounded by dozens of writers and we were completely immersed in our craft. But how much of this kind of immersion is helpful, and how much is harmful? If we only write and surround ourselves with writers, are we cutting ourselves off from experiences that inspire great fiction in the first place? Does a writer need to cultivate interests and experiences outside of writing in order to produce good work, or is imagination enough?

 

DF: Yes, you and Mika are definitely my writing community—so much so that I can’t say I actually feel the need for more. (Knowing, of course, that my work will also eventually be read by my agent, editors, and so on.) We often joke about being married to one another, but it’s true that that’s the level of mutual trust we’ve built and relied upon for more than ten years, and I expect that will always continue.

People generally assume that, as a novelist living in Brooklyn who blogs for the Huffington Post and is married to a journalist, I must be constantly flitting around with literary/media types, but the truth is that the only writers I talk to on an intimate, regular basis are you and Mika. And on a daily/weekly/even monthly basis, it’s interesting how rarely we discuss the actual work. We check in with each other on how it’s going and we generally leave it at that. I think that reticence is part of our bond, that we approach writing in the same fundamental way: as you said, by reaching into parts of our psyches that are closed to the rest of the world. As much as we’re there for each other in every aspect of our lives, and as much as we need constructive criticism when we’re ready, we know that writing ultimately happens only in isolation.

Even the way we talk about books—we always ask what we’re reading and recommend books (or not), but we rarely analyze or debate them in detail. At least for me, my reading is sometimes so closely intertwined with my writing process that I prefer to not break it down too much.

I think the reticence is probably also a reaction to how invasive the rest of the world can feel: all the questions about sales and reviews, or genre or “point,” or how to get published. Again, those questions might be well intentioned, but often they seem so indifferent to what writing is actually about for writers.

Then again, I’m reminded of a literary festival in Beverly Hills I participated in not long ago. It was packed with famous writers and much of it felt weird and intimidating, but I’ll always be grateful I went, because I made an instant connection with two writers—both women of color (like me), both with multiple international bestsellers to their name (unlike me). The three of us had a blast cutting out of the events and going to eat and drink and hang out in each other’s hotel rooms, and one of the things that really struck me about our time together was how open and matter-of-fact they were about sales and contracts and even asking for advice on very involved issues of plot in their current novels-in-progress, when we had all just met and weren’t even familiar with each other’s work.

There was something really eye-opening about that experience. It made me a little nostalgic for how, when we started our first novels back at Iowa, we exchanged outlines and synopses and first chapters and daily struggles and so on. Obviously we’ve moved on from needing or wanting that level of camaraderie, but I wonder if someday we’ll get to another place.

You’re right that too much immersion with other writers can drown out the stuff of life that gives rise to our writing, especially when the conversation feels overly concerned with being clever and of-the-moment. When I think of the communities that inspire my writing, I think of the women in my family, who do the kind of gritty work that’s sort of the opposite of sitting at my desk drifting through imagined worlds; the nonprofit/educational circles that I’ve been part of; friends and acquaintances who are not at all literary types but in their approaches to life represent different slices of my ideal reader. All of these conceptions of community keep me feeling deeply connected even when I’m secluded in my office and striving to say something important with my writing.

Are there communities that you think of in that way? Do you ever feel like you’re writing within or to a certain community? And given the fact that you’re not only a new mom but that you’ve been living on a remote farm in a rural part of Brazil for the last few years, have online communities helped give you that sense of connection to wider events?

 

FP: Living on my family’s farm and helping run our coffee business was, at times, a great boon to my writing. Not in a literal “I’m going to write about this experience” kind of way, but in a way that made me guard my writing time and use it wisely. Being in a small farming community that I’ve known all of my life also helped me look outward when I wrote. I was in a rural place but I was writing about a cosmopolitan city, and my imagination and my writing helped transport me from what could have been an isolating experience. The Internet definitely helped as well. I was able to Skype with you and Mika many times to talk about our work. I am very grateful for that connectivity. It begs the question though: with all of our modern devices keeping us connected, can writers truly work in isolation anymore? What have we lost by keeping so connected?

I don’t like to think that I am writing for any community in particular because my hope is that my work will reach a cross-section of communities. I read novels so that I may be transported to completely different worlds and read about experiences I may never have. If I read only what was familiar to me, I’d get bored. I’m most grateful to writers that take me out of my comfort zone, that introduce me to ideas and communities I never knew existed. Rose Tremain did this for me with her book Sacred Country, as did Pat Barker with her Regeneration trilogy about soldiers recovering from WWI.

In terms of writing from within a particular community, that’s a tough question. Would I belong to the female community? The Brazilian community? The American community? The mothers-who-are-writers community? The writers-who-are-farmers community (hah, hah!)? I’m both skeptical and wary of placing these kinds of definitions on myself. Maybe it is because I spend my life between two countries, speaking two languages, juggling two cultures, and being told by certain groups in both countries that I am neither one nor the other. This is probably a common experience among immigrants and the first generation children of immigrants—you want badly to belong to a definable community, but instead you are a mixture of several communities, belonging to all and yet none. So I can’t claim to write from a particular community. One of the reasons that I write is to try to understand and come to terms with this cultural duality that has always been a part of my life, and will be a part of my daughter’s life.

Deanna, you have a similar kind of duality in your life. How does it affect and/or enrich your work? Are you grateful for it?

Back to the idea of gratitude, every day I am grateful that you are in my life as a fellow writer and friend and now, a fellow mother. Thank you for having this conversation with me, and for sharing the past eleven years of our lives, Deanna!

 

DF: Yes, all the web connectivity is a challenge in terms of maintaining the cocoon that we need to write. But in terms of research, it’s a huge blessing, the way I can pause mid-chapter to look up details on the bombing of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad in October 2004, or the Sri Lankan death toll in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami—both pivotal events in my current novel-in-progress—without getting up from my desk.

Of course, there are the perils of Facebook/TMZ/etc., where I certainly waste too much time. But there, too, I like being able to let in the outside world and then shut it out once my self-discipline kicks in. For me, the same goes for emails and texts. I’m a hermit only to a point, and I imagine it’s much easier to control my level of engagement with those forms of communication than it was for writers in earlier eras dealing with impromptu visits and dinner parties (though the latter sometimes seems like a lot more fun).

To answer your question about cultural duality: yes, as an Asian American writer, I am conscious of how that plays out in terms of my writing process, my subject matter, my potential readers, and my place in a long line of writers from Maxine Hong Kingston and David Henry Hwang to Jhumpa Lahiri and Alexander Chee. This can be a burden if my writing gets viewed in a narrow, sociological way, with my characters being reduced to ethnic types, or if it gets criticized purely in terms of how it represents or doesn’t represent Asian Americans. But overall, it’s an enriching and fortifying force in my life, and I am grateful for it.

And yes, I am eternally grateful for all that we have shared over the years—not least, this conversation. Love and miss you, Frances!

 

Deanna Fei is the author of A Thread of Sky, a New York Times Editors’ Choice and an Indie Next Notable Book. Born in Flushing, New York, she is a graduate of Amherst College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received a Fulbright Grant, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and a Chinese Cultural Scholarship. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Millions, and the Huffington Post, where she is a regular contributorShe currently lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a new novel. Visit her online at www.deannafei.com.

Frances de Pontes Peebles is the author of The Seamstress, winner of the Elle Grand Prix for Fiction 2009. Her stories have appeared in the Missouri Review, Indiana Review, O. Henry Prize Stories 2005, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She was born in Pernambuco, Brazil where her family owns and operates a shade-coffee farm.

Impulse Toward Privacy: A Conversation With Writers Deanna Fei and Frances de Pontes Peebles

Girl Hood: On (not) Finding Yourself in Books

by Jaquira Diaz

Growing up, I was always the black sheep of my family—the loud mouth, the troublemaker, the practical joker. I was a juvenile delinquent who spent most of her time on the streets, a habitual runaway, a high school dropout. By the time I was seventeen, I’d attempted suicide and had been arrested at least eight times; I stayed home when it was legally required by house arrest. My family didn’t know what to do with me. And what was worse, I didn’t care. I was the lost kid of an absentee father and an addict mother, being raised by an elderly grandmother who had no clue how to deal with my explosive anger or my recklessness or my drug use or my drinking. I lost count of how many teachers, school principals, relatives, counselors, court-appointed shrinks, juvenile probation officers, police officers, friends’ parents, priests, and drug counselors tried to save me. There was no saving me—I was on a path of self-destruction.

As an adult, I would come to understand that I was angry at my parents—at my father for not being around, at my mother for being abusive, at both of them because they didn’t know me, or even see me. I needed to know that I mattered to someone, that I wasn’t invisible. So I turned to my homegirls who were escaping their own lives, trading the chaos of home for the chaos on the streets. One of them had left home after being sexually abused by an uncle, and lived with her brother most of the time. Another had two babies before she was a junior in high school, and decided they were better off with the father, a man in his thirties. And another had five siblings and what I thought was a perfectly good set of parents at home—a dad who owned a restaurant and paid for summer vacations in Spain, and a mom who planned birthday parties and cooked dinner. Yet, she preferred the madness of the streets. Maybe, like me, she was tired of not being seen.

But I’d be lying if I said that it was all about my parents. It was also about me. I was in the middle of a sexual awakening, what my homegirls would call “catching feelings” for boys and girls. I couldn’t talk about that, not to anyone, not in the early nineties, and certainly not in my neighborhood.

It was a high school English teacher (isn’t it always?) who gave me books to read, who sat me down and asked me to think about what I wanted out of life, who wouldn’t accept my lies or my bullshit. It was she who suggested I write about who I was and who I expected to be.

Unfortunately, there was nothing I wanted. I couldn’t imagine a life past my eighteenth birthday.

***

My recovery was not instantaneous. There was no one person or one moment or even one year that made the difference. It was a collective effort that took several years and quite a few people and countless failures, until one day it was clear: not just that I was going to live, but that I actually wanted to.

And yet, even during all the turbulence of my adolescence, one thing remained constant: I was a kid who loved to read. As cynical and angry as I was, I still believed that books were important, believed in their magic and their power. Even before I was a writer, I was a reader. My favorite books got under my skin. I returned to them again and again, gave myself to them entirely, and they kept me up at night. They grabbed hold of me, shook me, and even after they let me go, it would be a long time before I could see clearly again. You could say it was books that saved me.

Growing up bilingual—speaking Spanish to my parents and grandparents, English at school, Spanglish with my friends and siblings—it was difficult to find books that I could relate to. I read whatever I could get my hands on: Dracula, The Catcher in the Rye, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird. The books I read were full of characters who were nothing like me, who didn’t share my experiences, or my background, or my language, or my anything. I didn’t see myself in books, and it was clear that these writers weren’t writing with me in mind. No one was writing for me.

When you grow up poor, sometimes books are the only connection you have to the world that exists outside your neighborhood. You begin to imagine that the people in those books matter. You imagine that they are important—maybe even immortal—because someone wrote about them. But you? When you fail to find yourself in books—or people like you, who live in neighborhoods like yours, who look like you and love like you—you begin to question your place in the world. You begin to question if those people who make up your neighborhood and your family are worth writing about, if you are worth writing about. Maybe no one thinks about them or you. Maybe no one sees you.

***

It wasn’t until I was nineteen that I discovered Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I was Puerto Rican. In their books at least some of the characters were bilingual, even Puerto Rican, and we shared similar experiences. But Cisneros and Santiago wrote about “good” girls—girls who (for the most part) did what they were told and who seemed much more innocent than me. Girls who didn’t have my problems. Something—I didn’t know what—was missing.

Then, when I was senior at the University of Central Florida, my professor, the poet and writer Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés introduced me to Junot Díaz’s Drown. I was smitten. I read it twice in two days. I’d finally found the book I’d been waiting my whole young adulthood for—a book with realistic accounts of poverty, addiction, longing, difficult familial relationships. These stories were each a study of gender roles, sexuality, and the duality of the immigrant experience. It was the reality I knew, and here was someone who understood. Drown introduced me to characters who were flawed, selfish, troubled, mentally unstable, who found beauty in their world in spite of their dire circumstances, who loved each other despite all the ugliness and suffering. Finally, after all this time, I found a writer who’d written a book for me.

Years later, I heard Junot Díaz speak at the 2011 AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., where he described his own childhood reading experiences, how he lost himself in comic books and science fiction, how he was an avid reader, but still, he never, ever saw himself in the books he read. So he wrote for that kid he was, who was always searching books for characters like himself and the people he knew and the places he lived, maybe as some sort of validation that these were all worth reading and writing about.

Now, in the middle of several projects, I find myself revisiting my Girl Hood, and revisiting the places where I lived as a kid—the public housing projects in Puerto Rico, a handful of neighborhoods in Miami—and I’m back where I started, hoping to find even a speck of myself in books. I’ve found my Girl Hood in bits and pieces: I fell in love with Patricia Engel’s Vida, Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, Adriana Páramo’s forthcoming My Mother’s Funeral, and (holy shit!) Amina Gautier’s At-Risk. And for the last few years, especially while reexamining my Girl Hood, I keep coming back to Michelle Tea’s The Chelsea Whistle, a memoir about growing up in the rough neighborhood of Chelsea.

And yet it’s not enough.

I’m a queer woman.

This is something I was never able to say as a teenager.

And if you think it’s difficult for a poor high-school-dropout-juvenile-delinquent-Latina to find herself in books, try adding LGBTQ to that equation.

***

These days, as I revise the third draft of my novel, I think about myself as a young reader. My main character is a lot like I was. Although she’s not entirely me—she’s more like a mosaic of a handful of the street girls I knew growing up. Half of them I was secretly in love with. Girls who fought with me, got arrested with me, smoked out with me. Girls who snuck into clubs with me, terrorized the neighborhood with me, got jailhouse tattoos with me. Girls who picked me up when I was stranded and brought me food when I was starving, who sat with me outside the ER after my boy was stabbed in a streetfight, and who held me and cried with me at my grandmother’s funeral. Girl Hoods, of course, who were both strong and vulnerable, and much like the characters in Drown and The Chelsea Whistle, still found love and beauty and hope in the miserable world in which they lived. They are women now—the ones who are alive, the ones who made it. For a while there, we didn’t know if any of us would.

These are the people I write about. These are the people I write for. For the girls they were, for the girl I was. For girls everywhere who are like the girls we were, troubled and angry and lost, who turn to books for a little bit of salvation or redemption or reprieve, in hopes that the story will find them, and that they will find themselves in the story and not feel so alone.

 

Girl Hood: On (not) Finding Yourself in Books

Hello New Year, Hello 30: Amy Monticello & Marissa Landrigan in Conversation

HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. In “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop writes: “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster/ of lost door keys, the hour badly spent./ The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” As we begin a new year, what do you think you will lose? By choice or not?

 

 

MARISSA LANDRIGAN: The timing of this question is particularly pertinent, as both Amy and I turned 30 this past autumn. I know we are both preoccupied with what that passage of time means – what, in that transition, we will lose, and what we hope to gain.

I’ve always loved this Bishop poem because it suggests a hierarchy of loss, how losing one’s door keys is so meaningfully different from losing an hour, from losing a family heirloom, from losing chunks of one’s own life, eras and places and loves. What the poem captures so stunningly well is how easy it is to slide from one loss into another. How once you begin losing small things, you allow yourself to lose time, and to drift further into the casual attitude towards loss that gives way to real loss, the kind that comes from not recognizing the true value of the intangible. But loss is a word loaded with negative connotation. Perhaps the art of losing is to recognize which things are worth losing, shedding the past like a snake sloughing off an old skin, and which things are worth clinging to, desperately, against the inertia of time.

Over the course of last year, I lost some of those latter, more significant things, larger things, both good and bad. I lost one home as I moved cross-country to start another job. This was a positive loss, and most definitely by choice. In fact, the inertia in this case would have been on the side of staying put, and choosing not to take the action it required to find a better job, to pack up a house and a dog, to drive for nearly a thousand miles, to start over again in the eighth state I’ve occupied in the last decade. But in making that choice, in letting go of my last place and all that I had become in concert with it, I opened myself up to gains of another kind.

As I think about “losing” my 20s, this is what I hope: that whatever I lose in watching the years turn— in a way that is inevitable and therefore, I suppose, not of my own choosing—  I gain something —  wisdom, or at least a better sex life —  in exchange. In gaining something from a loss, actually, I think we are able to transform that loss into something we chose. Rather than involuntarily losing something, we can see the transition as intentionally gaining something else. Perhaps this is what Bishop meant when, in the closing lines of “One Art,” she wrote that the art of losing may only look like disaster.

 

AMY MONTICELLO: Marissa, I’m so glad you placed this question in context of our both turning thirty, since losing practically feels like a prerequisite of making the transition to a new decade. And like you, I think I’ve been using thirty as a narrative marker specifically for loss-as-gain, as much as that goes against my tendency to cleave, to deny loss by never completing it. Recently, I noticed that much of the writing I did in my twenties brought characters right to the brink of loss in their lives…and then I left them there, sometimes hanging on the edge before an inevitable unraveling, and sometimes flashing forward to what the loss would come to allow. I never let my characters experience their losses all the way through. Instead, I cut the meatiest chunk right out. For me, the last line of Bishop’s poem— the speaker imploring herself to “Write it!” — speaks to the work of loss I’ve often avoided both professionally and personally, and the work I’m gearing up to do better.

Nowhere is the tandem between loss and gain more present for me than in my husband and I trying to have a baby. Very much by choice, I want to lose myself as the focal point of my life (and my writing, at least as the self-obsessed character I’ve come to know). And through this loss, I want to gain an edge on the low-grade narcissism underlying my most irksome and damaging insecurities. I know more mysterious gains await me in motherhood, but from where I stand now, as an only child and a writer of personal narrative, I’m looking forward to relegating myself to an oft-subordinate role. I’m excited to be diminished, to loom less large in my own mind.

Trying to conceive has been a series of losses and gains. My sense of control over my body has been obliterated. For the ten or so years I’ve been a cardioholic (running, cycling, doing any exercise that involves a pounding heart and buckets of sweat), and have drawn an intense emotional power from managing my body’s strength. The development of my endurance and musculature and flexibility, however incremental, has given me the false sense that my body is changeable by will. But if this were true, I would be pregnant as I write this. It’s an interesting time to experience this loss, given the current political discourse surrounding women’s bodies. Pregnancy has become a complicated metaphor for my politics.

And yet the diminishing of self has already begun. Historically, I’ve needed too many people and too much approval in my life, but in trying to get pregnant, my world has gotten a little bit smaller and a little more quiet. I lean on my husband without shame. The language of our house has shifted to center around an anticipated presence instead of all the absences (steady job, savings account, dishwasher, though, of course, I have to let those things go every damn day). For the first time maybe ever, I spend the majority of my present preoccupied with the future, not the past. Also, a better sex life!

What you say about the wisdom inherent in loss touches me deeply. The most sustaining thing about writing, for me, is trying to arrive at the elusive insight cradling both loss and gain, not necessarily privileging one over the other. So many of my essays start out with the urgency to preserve or resurrect a particular absence. But writing through that ache to have again almost always grants me the opposite; I get to hold the absence in my hands for as long as I’m writing, and then consciously set it free when I finish. In fact, neuroscience tells us that we engage the same brain circuits when we remember as when we imagine, so the version of an absence I write is the combination of my truth and my wishes. The loss on the page is both real and how I want it to be, and the art of creating that loss is what makes the losing easier (“Write it!”). My favorite endings say a final word between heartbreak and joy.

With writing projects, it’s not uncommon for me to let go and then return. Several years ago, I let go of my MFA thesis, a braided narrative I ultimately felt did an injustice to the two woven story lines. I had tried too hard to make them “speak” to one another in echoed voices, rather than letting them dialogue through their differences. I ended up separating the narratives and publishing one of them as a chapbook, but now that I approach nonfiction with a stronger embrace of its lifelike messiness, I’ve been considering recombining the narratives to see what happens when I let the ragged edges exist on their own terms.

Also, my research for a true crime book recently ran up against the barrier of my being denied legal access to crucial case files. For a few weeks, I thought this meant the project couldn’t proceed. But now I’m wondering if I just need to let go of my original approach to the book, which was a straightforward narrative based on facts, and find a new way into the material based on a dearth of information. Actually, once I started conceiving of the book as a lyric instead of a narrative, my enthusiasm for the project returned. In nonfiction, I think letting go may often be a content-form thing. We have to relinquish our attachment to material as we imagine it, and let a form emerge based on what that material really is.

 

ML: Amy, I completely agree that often, the most significant act of letting go we can attempt as nonfiction writers is to move on from our attachment to a particular narrative, or to a particular form of telling that narrative, in order to let the true nature of the material speak to us.

When you mention your true crime project, I think, strangely, of Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying, because I often think of it as one of the more honest explorations of the limitations of nonfiction writing. In it, Slater attempts to tell her coming-of-age story, but because her version of that narrative was plagued by mysterious illness, myriad mental diagnoses, and doctor’s visits which ultimately became opportunities for attention, she is forced to engage constantly with her own perception of the truth, and her tendency, based on her illness, to lie. By incorporating the construction of personal fiction into her memoir, she re-imagines the genre entirely, at times even admitting to readers that the last chapter might be entirely false. In this way, she successfully let go of the rigid boundaries of truth, and that allowed her memoir to transform into, I think, a much more honest narrative.

I’ve had similar experiences with my MFA thesis, which I now refer to, comfortably, as my book, because of the many times I’ve had to let go of something that was once a part of the narrative structure. The first incarnation of the book was written largely as an exploration of the subject I wanted to tackle—  I was starting from scratch in terms of the research and expertise I needed to write the book, so my first draft mostly just was regurgitated research. This was of course very boring, and very unoriginal. Over the next few drafts, I too attempted a braided narrative, wherein I wove together all that external research with a personal narrative, attempting, I suppose, to craft a full-length narrative of strung-together braided essays. This was a little bit more interesting, but obviously incredibly difficult to read. Finally, after about a year of thinking and some very helpful advice from friends and editors, I eschewed the research altogether, and had enough distance from the primary subject to rewrite the personal narrative in a way that incorporated my discovery of the research, without needing to rehash all the source material.

In order to do this, to fully let go of the past versions of the manuscript, I actually created a new Word document, put my seven old drafts in the corner of my office, and with nothing else on my desk, retyped my way through the entire narrative. This act of letting go was perhaps the most liberating thing I’ve ever done as a writer. In trusting myself to “remember the good parts,” I had already written, I was able to ignore any lingering attachment I had to material that simply did not need to be in the final version of the book. As a result, the draft I have now feels like the most complete, most honest, and most real version of the narrative I could create.

 

AM: I love the process you describe regarding the role of research in your book, and how it evolved from the primary focus of the book’s first incarnation to the invisible scaffolding behind your clean-lined final narrative. And the image of you writing that concentrated, high-octane version of your efforts at that uncluttered desk— I want that made into something I can hang on my office wall. Send me that, along with a bottle of whiskey, please. I never fail to be surprised (and relieved) when the simplest version of the story we could possibly tell ends up being the one we land on last. But it seems to me that all the complications—  all the murdered darlings of labor-intensive research and intricate plot structures— had to be written before you could see what was unnecessary, crowding out the essential story.

You and I write on the flip side, too. We write in the digital age. My process while writing essays intended for my blog or The Nervous Breakdown is very different from my long form process, especially in terms of letting go. Once, while discussing the control freak pleasure I take in line editing, the poet Sean Flanigan told me he hated revising; he’d rather write something new everyday. We were at Larry’s bar in Columbus, Ohio, which is the best dive bar no longer in business, and the things that got said between writers at Larry’s over dollar cans of Pabst were often romantic and impractical and not really indicative of our sober work ethics. But that’s what made Sean’s words so great: they captured the ineffable grace of the work itself.

I warn my students all the time about the emotional pitfalls of publishing–how the high of acceptance is almost always followed by dread and doubt. How the most pleasurable part of writing is simply doing the work. Being mid-fucking-sentence. Accumulating the hours. Losing the hours. I never feel better than immediately after writing–it’s when I most want to do anything, binge drink, have sex, bleach the floors. And because the rhetorical situation of the Internet values fast turnarounds and tight deadlines, I send TNB and blog essays to “press” insanely soon after initial completion. My online portfolio contains many, many first drafts, the scent of work hubris still on them.

It’s not uncommon for me to read these pieces later and cringe (I’ll admit to revising post-publication on these sites, whether readers notice or not), but the release of work in real time has become something of an addiction for me. First of all, I have an excuse to write more and revise less, so I’ve been a happier, more prolific writer. Second, and perhaps conversely, the response of an audience I’ve somewhat come to know on these sites pushes me to arc my essays, with deliberate conversation between previous and subsequent pieces. Privately, you and I have both wondered if we’re accidentally drafting essay collections through our work writing for digital mediums. Could this literary catch-and-release be partly credited for creating more coherent bodies of work, built more consciously than long form works written largely in isolation? And if so, then what do we make of the criticisms of online writing as “half-baked,” released too early in underdeveloped states?

 

ML: Strangely, revision is actually my favorite part of the writing process. I’m pretty anal-retentive, so I really enjoy the knuckles-in-the-dirt action of revision, the part where you take the mess of whatever you first threw on the page and shred it apart. I’m often visceral in my revision activities — actually slicing essays up into paragraphs and spreading them around on the floor to rearrange structurally, or sometimes balling up whole pages and tossing them into the air, to see where they land. For me, the blank white page (or, more accurately, screen) is the most intimidating thing.

I wonder if this is true for nonfiction writers more than other creative genres, but it’s often not until the second or third draft that I manage to see what my essay is actually about — that is, what it’s always been about that I couldn’t see when until I began. I write my way through subjects, and that leaves a first draft looking a lot like a big slab of stone that still needs a lot of chipping away and refining before it begins to look like a statue.

This may be why writing for digital media is so appealing to me, too. In being, as you say, necessarily more prolific, I have definitely felt my revision process speed up. I write a first draft without much consequence, and I’m never attached to them, knowing that the revision is where the real shaping happens. Writing fast first drafts for The Nervous Breakdown, then, comes pretty easily to me. But now that I have to produce a revised version on a faster deadline, I’m learning to establish that necessary distance between first and second and third drafts on a much shorter timeline, and I think this is making me a better writer by pushing me even further towards letting go of my initial drafts and perceptions of a piece.

Did I ever tell you, Amy, that your blog Ten Square Miles was my initial inspiration for diving into writing for online publication? Before I read your work on Ten Square Miles, I had always wondered why writers would blog. I thought of it as a drain on the finite resource of my creativity. If I was writing for a blog, I thought, I wouldn’t be writing “real” essays. I had only so much time, and I wanted to devote it to bigger, better things.

But your work on your blog, and in particular, your discussion of it as a place to test out ideas, to draft beginnings, to write without pause or consequence, allowed me to see that perhaps blogging could fuel, rather than siphon, my creativity. Shortly after you did, I began writing my own blog (albeit for a different creative purpose, and with a specific scope in subject), and I found that blogging, and later, writing for The Nervous Breakdown, and revising my full-length manuscript, became like practicing different stages of the writing process simultaneously. With so many projects, and so many outlets, my creative output short through the roof, as I allowed myself to develop new ideas, and practice craft-oriented revision in this very symbiotic way.

You’re right, too, Amy, that this faster turn-around is certainly leading to a more conscious body of work for both of us, and that faster than, doesn’t always mean half-baked. We all, as writers, have to learn to let go of the drafts that came before, and perhaps in developing an ability to do that more quickly, we are tapping into the recurring themes and thoughts we might always have eventually circled back to — we’re not spending as much time, perhaps, with our concentration broken, in between pieces. One of the most surprising aspects of writing for digital media in this way has been discovering just how much of my work is connected. In gathering together some TNB essays for a possible collection, I remembered and resurrected several years-old pieces that never made it past the drafting stages, and have found them to be of a piece. Without the need to develop more quickly for digital publication, and the thematic consciousness that produced, then, I might never have discovered the connections bridging years of my work.

 

AM: Marissa, I bet you’re wonderful for an arts and crafts night! Come to think of it, I always love those Facebook photos of you surrounded by stacks of paper, mid-reckoning, or those concept maps that look like deep space galaxies, or those lists you make with song lyrics around the essay titles like text crawlers. I’m such a boring reviser, all screen, all cut and copy and move and undo. I should at least start bedazzling my documents with MS Paint.

I detect another kind of letting go in your last response. It’s like you bring a piece as far as you can in one phase, and then, in order to push it into the next, you have to take it apart. Deconstruct it. Fracture it. I sense freedom in those scissors and balls of papers being thrown around the room. In my regular life, like when I teach, I’m always moving, bouncing, expanding to take up all possible space. But writing yo-yos me back to my most tightly-wound state. Our apartment is too small for a desk, so I write in bed, and I write in total silence. No open windows. No Pandora. I squeeze myself so I fit completely inside my laptop screen; the rest of the room disappears outside the walls I erect from either side of my computer. My husband likes to scare the shit out of me by standing in the doorway until I look up. I usually shriek.

But every writing session closes down not with calm exhaustion, but with manic energy. I have to go immediately to a spinning class, or on a really brisk walk, or to a loud, crowded bar. When I was in high school, I used to come home from school everyday, walk into the kitchen where my mother kept a portable CD player, turn on the Phish or Dave Matthews or String Cheese Incident I was mortifyingly into back then, turn the volume way, way up, and spend about an hour dancing in circles around the kitchen table. Uncreative dancing. More like flailing. I’d bump into and break stuff. Anyone who ever came home after school with me can attest to this because I’d make them dance, too, make them witness me all stripped down to limbs. I had to dance like that at the same time everyday. It was as though, all day at school, vacillating between secret nerd and social slacker, I’d taken myself to the edges of myself, and the only way to find the center again was to move as intensely as I could, shake up my core so everything could settle back where it belonged.

I fucking loved it.

What you say about the symbiotic relationship between writing for digital media and working on a book, how they require different energies and provide different outlets, makes so much sense to me. I never intended to become a blogger, either. All I knew was that I had wound down work on a group of essays I’d been revising simultaneously, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I looked inside and didn’t see a memoir yet. But something had come to a close with those essays–a governing principle that linked them, I think–and I needed a new place to go in my writing. Ten Square Miles offered me a place, virtually. Well, whether it is or isn’t an actual space is starting to become blurry as I research the effects of the Internet on human cognition. It feels dimensional to me. I treat it like a rented studio with floor-to-ceiling windows, letting the production of writing become an exhibit. Writing for the Internet necessitates a loss of privacy (writing on stage is a different kind of vulnerability even for someone who once let teenagers watch her white girl dancing). The mix of people who have found my blog fascinates me, touches me, opens me to a new way of feeling human among humans. Some theorists claim chronic Internet use is chipping away at our capacity for empathy, but I never feel that way on my blog or The Nervous Breakdown. Quite the opposite, actually. The writing I do in those spaces has led to unexpected friendships and reunions and genuine correspondence with strangers who step in and out of my life like we’re riding a train together.

Writing for digital media also necessitates a certain loss of shame. I’ve written about my father’s heart attack and going to doctor’s appointments with him, about having early-stage cervical cancer, about stalking my husband’s ex-girlfriend, about being an atheist in a Christian family, about living very isolated in the South, and now, about wanting a baby I’m not sure I can have. I also write about my curly hair and eating oysters and this holiday we have in Ithaca called Skirt Day (not the first, but the second warm, sunny day of the year when all the college girls trust the weather enough to bare their legs for the first time in six months). My family sometimes worries about the impact of my online writing on my professional life. My old boundaries have fallen away for sure. I’ve unfurled a fist of fear deep in my gut. I’ve started, slowly, so slowly, to let go of judgment as an expression of my ethics.

 

ML: I agree that writing for digital media necessitates a certain loss of privacy— and with that, shame. I also worry from time to time about my online writing and my professional life. I’ve written a piece recently about gun violence that involved confessing to some of the more violent parts of my past, including a brief mention of a topic I’d always thought would be off limits in even my personal narrative work. Especially since online writing allows for such instantaneous and widespread sharing, and given our earlier mention of moving more quickly towards publication online, I have certainly found myself re-reading a live essay of mine online, via a friend’s Facebook page, and wondering whether it wasn’t terrifically stupid to have shared that piece of myself with such a wide audience.

But actually, I find this loss of shame wholly liberating (or at least, that’s what I tell myself to justify my shrinking desire to withhold parts of myself from my writing). You said it: losing shame, which in this sense means letting go of self-consciousness and letting go of fear. Releasing ourselves from embarrassment, and preparing ourselves for the judgment of others, which may be welcoming or ostracizing.

In fact, this circles back to a discussion of our mutual 30th birthdays, as well. As I enter this new decade, and begin to think about how I’d like it to be different than the last, one of my primary goals is to better welcome my multiple selves into a single sphere. A friend recently told me that his thirties was the time he felt he truly began to weave together the disparate threads of his self into a single being, and that’s what I’m working towards. The essays I’m attempting to collect right now, in fact, deal very much with the ideas of the personal and public selves, as manifested in different forms — our physical bodies, alongside, say, our political identities. Hopefully, in attempting to infuse personal, professional, and digital personae into one whole, complete, and ideally, more honest Marissa will lead to much letting go and release, both of the shame of bringing my personal life into my professional work, but also in terms of abandoning aspects of my personal life that might have seemed important to a woman in her twenties (rampant self-portraiture on social media, maybe?) but that aren’t a part of the woman I’d like to be in my thirties.

 

AM: Have you seen this interview with Cheryl Strayed over at The Millions? In it, Robin Grearson claims that Strayed’s alter ego, the popular advice columnist Sugar, “offers Cheryl’s mistakes as a light in the tunnel of someone else’s journey, lets the reader see someone’s failures, but there’s a key element in that, she never apologizes to the reader.” To my mind, this is where good confessional writing transcends the voyeurism or the navel-gazing it’s often accused of. Effective confessional writing doesn’t reveal the worst parts of the writer for the sake of unburdening or shock; there’s a humanitarian goal behind it. This semester, my creative writing students are writing Sugar-esque advice columns to each other using the personal essay form to respond to one another’s anonymous questions. The point is to use personal experience as an empathic bridge between them, and to practice nonfiction as an agent of growth and change. Serving this purpose as a nonfiction writer, for me, means I have to tell the truths that matter, and are often the unflattering truths.

Later in the interview, Strayed says, “I think that not asking for permission to be human is a really big part of being a fully actualized human. I think with all humility, you should be accountable to your actions. But also that, with that apology, be able to report what your actions were.” And a writing teacher of mine, Lee K. Abbott, once told me that all characters deserve “full citizenship” on the page. I think both Strayed and Abbott are advocating for the existence of those “multiple selves in a single sphere” for the good of the writing and the good of the writer. Shame, I think, roadblocks our acceptance of the contradictions we contain as people, and perpetuates stigmas that actually keep us from shedding or changing the worst parts of ourselves. The things I haven’t let into my writing because I’m ashamed of them are the same things I secretly know imprison me in real life.

With regards to age, I think you’re on to something. Most of the older women in my life echo your friend in that their true self-acceptance began in their thirties (and I hear our fifties are likely to be spectacular on this front). This reminds me of something you said at the beginning of our conversation: that with all losses, you hope to gain wisdom. This feels like the unavoidable wonder of aging. I couldn’t wait to leave my twenties behind–my husband actually bought me a pot of chrysanthemums to christen their grave–because I yearn to be wiser than I am, and the slow accumulation of years and experiences is the one thing I don’t have to actively work on in order to become wiser. And choosing the instability that comes with an artist’s life may be tempered by the direct application of age to art.

 

ML: I couldn’t agree more about the goal of confessional (or really, any kind of writing) being humanitarian in nature. I love what you say about creating an empathic bridge between reader and writer. This week, we hosted the poet and nonfiction writer Lori Jakiela here on my campus, and in advance of her poetry reading, she gave a lovely lecture on the role of art in the current pop culture climate. Using Youtube clips of The Jersey Shore and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, she made the argument that we live in a climate that tells us that personal experience is spectacle, which of course, ultimately feeds into the pervasive accusation that nonfiction writing is navel-gazing.

Challenging the “I’m so much crazier than you,” or “my pain is bigger than your pain” narratives, Jakiela said, comes from writers who are willing to bear all, not for the sake of being naked on the page or the screen, not out of some ego-driven desire to self-publicize, but for the sake of their reader. For the sake of finding something to share, of finding something in common.

I know both you and I, Amy, are sometimes plagued by our own pervasive need to be seen by a larger public sphere — we’ve made self-deprecating references to our active social media presences, and our frequent Instagram portraiture. We sense that we should, in some way, be ashamed by this desire to be noticed, knowing that it stems at least in part from a need for public validation. My graduate school professor, Dean Bakopoulos often joked that the subtext of every Facebook status update was “Hey! I’m not a loser! … (Right?)”. But perhaps this, too can be seen as an act of reaching out to connect, to find commonality with even those friends of ours who we know to be different personally, socially, politically.

At a reading I gave in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, our host Jeff Eyres kicked off the event by reminding us what we know from recent developments in biological anthropology — that the first settled human populations, and indeed, neurological developments in the human brain, are largely attributable to storytelling. Our persistent human need to connect to each other through collective narratives is both a community-building exercise and quite literally a way to extend our thinking by giving our brains a way to practice large-scale, complex thinking.

And in a world of of constant division and separation, especially during an election cycle, when we are so focused on our differences, Jeff said, what could be more important than sharing our stories? If storytelling made us human, than it has the power to keep us human, too.

 

AM: Marissa, have you ever read Seed? It’s a magazine that seeks to reunite the arts and sciences, and often publishes articles on the science of art-making. Both of us have mentioned the brain during this conversation, which I’d love to keep exploring with you.

I absolutely know what you mean about the self-consciousness of curating a social media presence, and especially one that’s both warm and enticing professionally. For my career, I’ve decided it’s important that I maintain Facebook and Twitter pages, but that means balancing the links to essays and blogs with other, more personal posts that help my followers feel connected to me (and, as you rightly point out, I, to them). It’s gratifying to propel people to my work in a way I actually somewhat quantify, but I also want to build a readership the way some presses do authorship, developing, as much as possible through screens, meaningful relationships with those who’ve invested time in my writing. In order to do this, I’ve had to let go of presenting myself seamlessly on the Internet. This means acknowledging the very narcissism I’m also trying to overcome. Some people griped when Facebook came out with the new Timeline format, but I appreciate the idea that I’ll have a permanent record of my online activity–some of it no doubt cringe-worthy, and public, like having the highlights of my seventh grade journal visible to a few thousand people. But some of it lovely, and some of it useful, providing a cartography of my adult life, showing me all the ways I’ve learned to let go, and all the things I’ve gained by doing so.

It has been wonderful trading perspectives on this similar moment in our lives and writing, Marissa. An invaluable experience of turning thirty. In many ways, having this conversation reminds me of another thing I plan to lose this year: a sense of myself as too young to be in any way wise. Articulating this part of my value system has shown me that I am, in fact, cultivating a way of being in the world, and has given me some vital confidence that I can model this system for my future son or daughter, and use it as bedrock in my nonfiction, and trust it to guide me as I make selections in the art of losing. Thank you for helping me shape so many complicated thoughts with your own.

 

Amy Monticello‘s work has appeared in Creative NonfictionNatural Bridge,The Iron Horse Literary ReviewUpstreetWaccamawPhoebe, and elsewhere. In 2012, Sweet Publications released her nonfiction chapbook, Close Quarters. She received her MFA from The Ohio State University, and now teaches writing at Ithaca College. In addition to contributing at The Nervous Breakdown, she is at work on new manuscript, The Way I Love You, which examines our penchant for nostalgia as individuals, communities, and a nation.

Marissa Landrigan‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Guernica, Orion, Diagram, Paper Darts, and elsewhere, and she is a regular nonfiction contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. She received her MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food narrative tentatively titled The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat. She teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown, and blogs about becoming un-vegetarian at http://wemeatagain.com

 

Hello New Year, Hello 30: Amy Monticello & Marissa Landrigan in Conversation

Escape Velocity

by Sridala Swami

I have a folder on my computer in which I keep not only every poem I write but also the poems of other poets who have exchanged work with me. When I first created the folder, it was called ‘Women at a Tangent’. In 2004, four women – poets – including myself, began work on a collaborative project, and called ourselves by that name. No work emerged from that collaboration. One died; another one’s particular tangent took her far away and the two who remained were no longer interested in working together.

And yet that folder remains unchanged, and that is where I keep my work and the works of others. I can’t bring myself to pull my poetry out of that place and rename it for fear that I would no longer recognise it in another shape or under another name.

*

In the last five years, I have become adept at letting things go. I watched as my father, in the last stages of his illness, tore up bitter letters from his family that he’d been storing for years. Two days before he died, we were in hospital and waiting for him to be discharged. The last bottle of albumin was taking time to drip into his veins. A nurse came in and adjusted the speed of the drip. In a short while, my father had a high fever and delirious; doctors and nurses came in and out of the room while I held his hand and prayed. I could not let him die in hospital.

He survived that night and the trip home the next afternoon. Through that last day, as we watched him struggle to swallow a mouthful of food, as we severely rationed the water he craved but could not have too much of, I struggled to imagine a life without him. I couldn’t, of course; this kind of loss is not about imagination, but experience. But for the first time that night, I made myself think of what he might want instead of my own fear of what I would do without him. The next morning, in the quiet half hour before the day’s demands needed to be met, I said for the first time: If he cannot get better, let him not get worse.

That thought was permission: when it was time to wake him up, he had gone and I had said my farewell without even knowing it.

There’s no choice in losing things or people. There are no decisions to be made, no moment when you have to master yourself and say, “Now. This is the right time.”

Letting go – that’s something else. There is no time to allow the choices to fall away until there are none left. You have to let go at a point where things are still potential, when something else could have happened. You have to let go in the full knowledge that regret will almost certainly follow.

*

Wong Kar-Wai made 2046 and screened it at Cannes in 2004. After the screening, he took the film back to re-edit and released a ‘finished’ version months later. What people saw at Cannes in 2004 is another 2046; a work-in-progress, a version that no longer exists.

Before Cannes, Wong told his lead man, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, that he might need him for some more scenes, so he should be sure to keep the moustache the character has in the film.

Tony shaved off his moustache.

Wong still re-edited the film after Cannes, but there could be no more new material. At least not with his lead man in it. The film had to go out into the world putting its flaws and its beauty on public view and there was nothing (more) Wong Kar-Wai could do about it.

I have a manuscript of poems that I wish had a moustache so someone could shave it off and say to me, ‘Enough!’

At this point, I want someone else to decide for me – like Tony did for Wong – that this manuscript is done, that it does not need more poems or new poems, and that the poems do not need reworking or reordering.

Because this is what I’ve been doing for the last year: I’ve added poems then cringed at how much I hate them, and have removed them; I’ve made a non-negotiable list of poems – poems I will not leave out – and panicked at how thin that leaves my manuscript. I’ve written long notes to myself about the shape of the book and what every shift of poem in it means. I tell myself I know how Wong Kar-Wai felt. I tell myself there’s a better version of this book just out of my reach and if I work at it long enough I might achieve perfection.

But through the process of holding on to this manuscript, I have come to recognise the fear that does not allow me to send this book out yet. What if there are no more poems, ever? What if this is not a season of fallowness but a prolonged drought?

If I don’t write any poetry, can I call myself a poet? Like the folder on my computer, can I continue to name something in a particular way, when what it contains is something else altogether?

In the last month, as I prepare to send out this manuscript of poems, I remind myself that the poet Adil Jussawalla has had a book of poems out this year, after nearly three and a half decades.

My own manuscript is called Escape Artist. The irony is not lost on me.

And so, even though the thought of having nothing left –not one single new poem – is terrifying, I am finally ready to let go of these imperfectible poems.

Escape Velocity

The Ghost’s Daughter Speaks

by Rachel McKibbens

Some days I am completely incapable of dealing with loss, no matter how inconsequential. Living with both bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders means I do not have an “ordinary” stress response; the frontal lobe of my cerebral cortex sends out the same distress signal for a nuisance as it does a catastrophe.  The short version: there are days when I misplace my car keys and want to die because of it. Part of me recognizes this as an irrational idea. The keys will eventually be found, life will go on—deep inside my skull’s flawed machinery, I know this to be true—but sometimes the crush of stress and panic becomes unmanageable, a colossal beast in a too-small house and within minutes, this feeling develops into another person inside myself, whole in its contempt for my body, so capable of losing things. The voice of this person becomes the most dominant voice. I call it The Bad Fuel. This voice encourages the body to stop. To come to an end. A simple solution, driven by perverse logic:

The loss is the fault of the hands that have no memory.
The loss is the fault of the brain in all its clutter.
Chop off the hands. Crush the brain. Destroy the loss.

***

I grew up in an extremely violent household. Nights when my face throbbed, when my struck skin howled from every pore, I would lie in bed and try to vanish. I was not old enough to understand what death was, exactly, but I recognized loss; I understood it was a kind of absence and I was determined to become that. I would close my eyes so tight I saw stars, I truly believed I could stay inside the hard clenched black and flip myself inside-out, becoming the reversal of light. Often, I would pray myself into a catatonic state: Let me go away. Let me stay in the dark. Let me be gone, over and over until the sun came up. I would go several days without sleeping, trying to manifest my end with heartbroken prayer. Sit for hours in front of the television, staring into the static between channels. I mistook the humming of my sleep deprived brain as a step closer to vanishing. It was the only thing I wanted. All the time.

This is the earliest version of my suicidal ideation I can recall.

***

What I can’t remember, no matter how hard I try: when I was around two-years old, my mentally ill mother placed me in the Albert Sitton Home, a large institutional-type building that housed abused and neglected children. She also gave me a different name while I lived there. A name to un-daughter me, so she was not abandoning the child born of her body, but the child born from her brain. This is how she survived herself. And though I remember nothing of this place, I know it is where The Bad Fuel did all of my speaking.

Rachel displays characteristics of dual-personality
disorder. The behaviors of Rachel and [Alternate
Name]are dramatically different. Rachel is sullen and
withdrawn while [Alternate Name] is hyperactive and
speaks in a high-pitched voice. This is most likely a
result of trauma and has the potential to subside
if treated properly. Rachel displays this condition most
often when she has been with Mother. It is imperative
that Mother cease from calling Rachel by [Alternate
Name] during visitation. Both Mother and Father have
been encouraged to remain consistent, calling Rachel
only by her given name.

* * *

 My best friend often praises my detailed memory: I can’t believe you still know the first and last names of every one of your classmates, all the way back to preschool. Names and people were easy. I searched for my potential within each one, a patchwork ghost. It is what many survivors do out of habit: rebuild. In grade school, I’d spend months studying the mannerisms of classmates. Ambidextrous, I wrote with my left hand like Scott Whitter, with my right like Salma Sanchez. I took Valentina Rivera’s sibilant ‘S’. Stole Stephanie Carson’s entire name.

Some days I find poems on my computer I do not remember writing.

* * *

Who is writing this now?

* * *

While I am drying a plate, I forget I am drying a plate, so I set it down on the windowsill above the sink. I occupy myself by doing twelve other things until the plate becomes nothing, so forgotten it hardly exists. Three hours later, I hear a crash in the kitchen. The plate is in pieces, some of the pieces have fallen down into the garbage disposal. I stand in the kitchen and my body fills with gallons of The Bad Fuel. The plate is broken. I have five beautiful children who I love, five children who rely on me to protect them, but the plate is broken, I am useless, I can’t even keep a plate intact, I don’t know why I am allowed to be alive, there are thousands of people who’ve been killed in Afghanistan who probably never broke a plate. I am such a fucking failure, I can’t even remember to keep washing the dishes. Millions of families were destroyed during the Holocaust and I can’t take care of a fucking plate. I need to be dead. I need to be dead. I need to be dead.

***

The first story I ever wrote was in third grade. It was about a child who found a small door at the back of  his bedroom closet. It led to a bright green field. At night the boy would crawl through the doorway to safety as a snarling monster tore through his room and swallowed his bed. My teacher entered the story in a contest called, “What Sparks My Imagination.” The story won an award. A ceremony was held and a local theater troupe re-enacted the story for my entire school.

I imagine this is the single greatest moment of my entire childhood.
I have to imagine it because I was not there.

When they announced me as the winner, I did not march up the aisle of the auditorium to receive my first place plaque. I did not get to watch the story I had written become a truth, re-enacted onstage. My father had smacked my eye swollen shut the night before so I had to stay home from school to recover. The children in the auditorium clapped as the actor pantomimed crawling through a door no bigger than a shoebox. The man who played the boy playing me escaped and I did not see it. I wrote my escape, it came true and I did not see it.

***

My mommy doesn’t live with us, she died when I was born.
My mommy doesn’t live here, she died of cancer when I was two.
My mom can’t come to the door, she’s sleeping.
My mom is never home because she is an astronaut. She died in that space shuttle explosion. The one everyone watched on t.v. Her name was Judith Resnik. She was an astronaut. No, not the teacher one. The pretty one.
My mom is psycho. She kills our pets and leaves them on our doorstep.
My mother is cuckoo. She thinks Satan sends messages to us through the radio. She says that’s why we’re bad.
My mother is looney. She was raped by her stepfather. Her mother shot bleach into her vagina with a turkey baster when she found out.
My mother is fucked in the head.
My mother suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and Narcissistic personality disorder.
No, for real you guys. My mother is totally Kray.[1]

***

I am running out of room. My compartmentalized brain has been folded into itself for so long I am losing the names for things. There are days when I cannot remember the word for whisk. Days when a chair is not a chair but that thing over there, in the corner. With the yellow cushions and the wooden legs. I worry I will forget the things I don’t want to forget. I wish I could get rid of every bad thing that is taking up space, dig them out with a fork or a pair of scissors. I deserve to have more room for joy.

***

Solve the Equation:

This is the woman you have neither seen nor
spoken to in twenty years, which amounts to
seven thousand three hundred days of absolute
Loss. If your mother’s brain had four times the
number of rooms your brain had when you last
saw her, how many rooms will her Loss-
riddled brain have developed over the span of
twenty years if each of the original rooms split
in half every five?

Show your work.

***

Excerpt from a college entrance essay I never sent: I am a poet because I have considered suicide since I was a child, and it wasn’t until I discovered poetry that I learned there are other languages for my sorrow—death is not the only one.

 ***

I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.
I do not write because I have suffered. I write because I have survived.

***

res·ur·rect
/ˌrezəˈrekt/

Verb

  1. Restore (a dead person) to life.
  2. Revive the practice, use, or memory of (something); bring new vigor to.

***

After Miss Clemons led the class in the Pledge of Allegiance, she directed the students to get in a single-file line and make their way to the school auditorium. Rachel, the tallest kid in class, was at the very end of the line and took the last empty seat in the auditorium just as the lights began to dim. All of the children and faculty applauded the brief and exciting darkness.

When the lights came back up, a man in pajamas was standing center stage. The children knew the freckles painted on his nose and cheeks meant he was supposed to be a young boy. After letting out a full-bodied yawn, the boy curled up on the ground and went to sleep. A violin playing “Rock-a-Bye Baby” began to play over the loudspeaker. The boy began to snore dramatically and the entire auditorium became a flock of giggles.

Suddenly, a snarling, monstrous roar exploded from backstage, then the stomps of undoubtedly large footsteps, CLOMP! CLOMP! and the boy sprang from his bed. As the roars grew louder, the boy ran circles in his room before leaping into his closet, pulling the door closed behind him. He crouched all the way to the back, past his shoes and toys, until he was pressed tight against the corner. Just then, he noticed a sliver of light escaping from beneath a small door, no bigger than a shoebox. He pushed it open and saw a bright green field on the other side. Green and green for miles and miles. The boy’s heart sank as he heard the monster clawing at his mattress, reducing it to metal coils and cotton. The boy got down on his belly and inched his way through the doorway, the good gold sun hitting his face as the audience stood up and cheered.


[1] Twin brothers Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and Reginald Kray were notorious gangsters in London’s East End during the 1950’s and 60’s. Ronnie was rumored to have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was later judged to be criminally insane and spent 30 years in a secured mental hospital.

The Ghost’s Daughter Speaks