on solitude and wanting


There is nothing worse than to be alone; there is nothing better.

In the United States, women are socialized to speak, to pour out their happinesses and sadnesses and anger to a willing ear. Lacking that, untold things fold inward, blooms recurling into buds. When I have got something to say and no one to tell it to, I’m all I’ve got, and I ought to be a sufficient fan and critic.

The trouble and boon of solitude is that, instead of speaking and speaking, we can only drive deep inside. There’s a certain loneliness and pleasure in this, so that, like Rilke, “I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough / to make every minute holy.”

Sometimes as a teenager, I had premonitions of missing something that I didn’t have in my life yet to miss, but I enjoyed the feel of missing, of wanting some shadow person or thing. There is a contradiction in me, and probably in all people: we are too alone and not alone enough. We have one thing and want another. We acclimate quickly to what we have, seek out more. In all of this, American media tells us that we must want and want and want: a newer phone; the shiniest hair; a soulmate to make us complete. Of course, desire is a biological imperative for our growth, and so there can be pleasure in wanting.

But loneliness undermines holiness. It is antithetical, so that when I am lonely–when I want for things or people I don’t or cannot have–I am basically unappreciative of what is now, what is concrete and before me.

And to seek fulfillment from others is a hard ask. In this country, individualism most often translates into greater spans of aloneness. I live alone. I go from place to place with small bursts of company. After thirty years, life tells me this: solitude is the default, and company the anomaly, the island.

If I will be alone, then I must be alone.

It is hard; I can’t deny the periodic antipathy. But, far more importantly: it’s only when I’ve been alone that I’ve tapped into anything remotely holy. If I can claim any impulse of profundity, it exists only between two ends of a desk during spots of solitude.

In Excess of Being, Lera Auerbach claims that, “in writing, I am my better version.”

To this, I add: in writing, I am alone.


photo credit: Walking it alone by Lance Shields (license)

What happens when our relationships drive our art

Seagull Tornado Fractal

I’d never met him before, and he’d made me cry. What was it like to be Kazuo Ishiguro, I wondered, and to know that, at any moment, you could encounter a stranger whom you’d made cry?

I guess, as with anything: strange at first, and then gradually less strange.

He was reading at a synagogue in D.C., and I sat in one of the pews with my fingers on the embossed cover of his new book. I’d already read two others, his most famous: Never Let Me Go, and then The Remains of the Day. That had been years ago, and his words still hung with me, surfacing at random—unconscious philosophies by which I lived.

From The Remains of the Day, this line (in paraphrase): all our interactions are motivated by the fear of rejection, and by the desire for acceptance.

How devastating…how true.

Kazuo Ishiguro only read three pages from his book. Mostly he was asked questions about his writing, his process, his characters. How do you create characters, Mr. Ishiguro?

“I don’t create characters,” he said, “What I do is much simpler: I create bridges—I create relationships.” When the relationships are interesting, he explained, the characters evolve organically around them.

He used the word bridges, but I could only see a distortion of the air in my mind, like a tiny wind vortex connecting two people, shifting and palpating with their connection.

That little vortex is the centerpiece of his creativity.

In the many years I’d taken writing courses, studied craft books, talked to writers, this was something I’d never heard. But it seemed as true as anything, and so obvious. It resonated with an assertion from another book I’d read, David Castro’s Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul:

“At the heart of every human aspiration to create is a relationship.”

Relationships with others, with ourselves, with some imagined audience: they motivate the impulse to create as well as the process. And it holds true. On reflection, the work I’ve done that I value most was pushed along by people who made me very happy, and frustrated me, and dashed my hopes, and made me laugh—cry—and laugh-cry. Sometimes all those things belonged to one person, to one relationship.

And then Ishiguro was asked a question at once too simple and too big: “What motivates you as a writer?” A sympathetic titter rose from the audience. None of us would like to be asked that, or know how to answer it.

But he took it bravely. “To share those relationships with others,” he said. That was it.

And then I realized that, for all the ways he’s a conscious genius, Ishiguro also perhaps accomplishes what we all seek to do, but on a much larger scale: distorting the air between he and us (in our pews, in our homes, on our buses). Building a world of unconscious philosophies.

So what happens when relationships drive our art?

We are more authentic. We are more complex. Sometimes, we make people we’ve never met cry because our relationships and their relationships are fundamentally the same: whorls of air, rejection and acceptance.

photo credit: Seagull Tornado Fractual by Devin Moore (license)

What no one tells you about writing…about yourself

It was my second year of an M.F.A. program in creative writing. I was enrolled in a creative nonfiction course. “Think of the ‘I’ of now,” we were told, “and the ‘I’ of then.”

Most people likely haven’t heard of this concept. I had not either. In short: the ‘I’ (or eye) of now—your present perspective, full of wisdom and understanding—should infiltrate your essay, should cast new light on the experiences that the ‘I’ of then could not fully comprehend.

That’s what makes the essay deep. We never used that word, but its requirement was unstated, a sort of prerequisite to being a great essayist.

Oh, how I wanted to write great nonfiction. The desire was so strong, I spent many long hours stop-starting on idea after idea (not the story of the three-legged dog, not the tale of the bamboo forest, etc). I was thrilled and dismayed by so many ideas in such short order that I accumulated a long list of two-sentence Word documents, each of them titled grand, hopeful things.

Finally, after much pain—and the night before my deadline—there emerged a wrought, profound twelve pages.

In the next week’s workshop of my essay, my cohort agreed on the question: “where are you in this piece?”

The ‘I’ of then was quietly offended. I was everywhere—everywhere—didn’t they see! I was in my mother and my grandfather and the many stories I had been told, all the memories passed between them and me.

But my class was right: the ‘I’ of then was kind of a terrible essayist. She had never been trained to write about herself—not directly. It all felt too close, too egoistic. It’s the first thing that no one tells you about writing about yourselfthat you must embrace your ego, put aside your humility, your disinclination to say I—I—I over and over. You must sit with yourself for hours and hours, thinking only of you: the funny, and the very best, and the very worst, and the bits of you that you have tried—but, of course, are least likely—to forget. And you must tug all these parts of yourself wide like netting, inspecting the gaps and holes until you believe you have some new understanding, something to say.

You must confront the small part of you that believes you haven’t got a story to tell.

Last week I picked up a picture is worth…: the voice of today’s high school students, a series of essays by teenagers, students at a charter school in Reading, Pennsylvania.

And did they ever have stories to tell.

This passage from student Jean Mouscardy, in particular, made me feel strange and emotional on the metro:

I remember a day when I saw my father. I was 7 years old. (He left when I was only 4.) He saw me after 3 years, and slid his hand on top of my head, then told me, ‘Hey, my boy’s grown a lot. I’m glad to see you.’ He talked to my mother a few minutes then left. I watched him go and I think when I talked to him I smelled something. I had no idea, but it sure wasn’t perfume. Now I know it was alcohol.

Sometimes the eye of now can be a cruel, enlightening bastard.

This is the second thing that no one tells you when writing about yourself: that turning these memories like snow globes will almost inevitably give us new, occasionally damning insight, that we can never unsee what the ‘I’ of now has managed in retrospect to witness.

According to Manuel Guzman, a learning facilitator at the charter school: “the evolving content of one’s personal essay serves as the gateway to all relationships of importance: personal, spiritual, economic, and political.”

This is true. In my nonfiction course, after many machinations at my desk, I wrote a second essay about-not-about myself. I sneakily used the second person: “you felt neglected,” and “you pulled the dog’s tail.” This felt right to me, because—I see now—I could not take ownership of how many times I had hit my mother’s hound dog over the head. I did it because I was jealous of how much she loved him. I could not acknowledge the memory of (what sounded to a seven year-old as) his brain rattling in his skull. I couldn’t, as myself, detail the dog crossing the road, describe how he was struck by a car and the way his body arced through the air in front of me.

It was only after reading what I had written that I realized the guilt in me had grown over the years like a swallowed seed. I had to hazard my way through those memories to understand that some part of myself held jealousy, held cruelty.

Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

It could be argued that I knew those things before. Yes, perhaps I did. But not in such words, not consciously. To process a feeling, we must articulate it.

So I forgave myself for the dog’s death. The ‘I’ of then—where I still lived, before the essay—became fused to a new self-perception. I could be unkind, but I would not let myself forget it.

In this way, the personal essay is more than gateway. It’s inception, an attempt to make un-nebulous our feelings, to point to tangible words and phrases as the concrete basis for our interactions with the world. We don’t know what we think until we’ve written it.

Writing is meditation, depth of thought. Every sentence, as we create it, is creating us—our relationships with the personal, the spiritual, the economic, and the political.

What no one tells you about writing about yourself is that most of your attempts won’t be great, or deep, and that isn’t the goal, nor is it the reward.

The reward is this: somewhere in two-dozen abandoned essays, I’ve realized that I’m no longer afraid to use that ‘I.’

But I didn’t know I felt that way until I wrote it.


photo credit: I was so scared. I just wanna run and It’s wonderfuL “The comeback” via photopin (license)

On Shyness and Writing

Human shapes by mripp, on Flickr

Image source

I am twenty-eight, and sometimes, walking down a sidewalk, I still find a point in the far distance and make that my friend, and everything–everyone–goes to watercolors at the periphery.

I am a writer. I am shy.

They seem almost canonically opposed: to be shy is to be fearful; to write is to be brave. One is quiet, the other vocal. Many shy writers have two selves: her, in person, occasionally dull-eyed, looking away; him, in black-bolded print, to be had by the world for reading and digestion.

We treat shyness as an ailment. “Buck up,” is my dad’s phrase for me. “You have to admit,” he’ll say, “you’re too sensitive.” It would be easier not to be shy; there are times–in the world, with strangers and with people I know just a little–it’s like having an arm cleft away (oh, those phantom twinges of social grace).

But sometimes, it’s the best.

Shyness shares a bond with deep emotion, and the capacity for it. Shyness is a reaction to rejection, to things that hurt too much. Other synonyms: oversensitivity, thin skin. The shy person is sensitive, and the great boon of shyness–and the shy writer–is that sensitivity, the allowance that small, unexpected things will be felt heart-deep.

These small, unexpected things are the writer’s grist. It’s that moment, stepping onto a sidewalk, when a homeless woman says, “Like you, I used to go to work every day when I was young. Now look at me.” And though you won’t see her straight on, you’re imprinted with the gravel in her voice, and the feel of her: the downweighing, the curved back.

It’s standing at a crosswalk in February snow, becoming aware of a man singing in a delirious, half-drunk way, something about kissing and making love. And when he passes by–mostly grown, swimming in t-shirt and jeans–he sings directly at you for two or three seconds, his eyes angry, confused, bloodshot, like it’s all your fault, and all the possibilities in the world are in your head for who he is and why, and what he means to you.

It’s something awful to meet some people’s eyes. It can be a straight injection of shyness. It’s the time-slowing uncertainty of childhood all over again: what do I say? What do I do? What will happen to me? Shyness–fear–pins us to the moment. It is entirely uncomfortable.

The first tenet of writing: conflict. More is better. We’re subconsciously aware of this from the time we can speak to ask for another story, another. To be uncomfortable–to feel tension–is to perceive conflict on minute levels, to see the smallest strands of spider web in the air. This is terrible and wonderful.

What is writing but taking that discomfort and reliving it again and again until it very well sings? Until, right there on the page, you’ve got that moment. I am not always that brave, but sometimes I manage it–I see other writers do it–and that’s the story or novel or essay that makes me uncomfortable, that gets to me.

This is not about embracing shyness, because shyness isn’t itself a thing so much as a symptom of sensitivity. Recognize it. Be sensitive, I say to myself. Be uncomfortable. Let these small things get inside you.