Writing in An Age of Despair
Why telling stories matters
This is the mid-week version of Men Yell At Me. A newsletter about the intersection of patriarchy and politics in America. You can read more about me here. If you like it and you want more, well, there is more where it came from. And you should subscribe.
In 2017, I wrote an essay. I wrote it about words. About my missing mugs. About stories. About memory. About the absolute wreck of my life. This essay, was published in The Rumpus in 2018. It’s become my manifesto. It reminds me of why I write and why our voices matter. I’m off this week for Thanksgiving, so I am republishing it here for you. In some ways, the essay feels more relevant than ever.
For twelve years of my life, I kept losing things. The first was a book titled The Conversation Piece, which I bought for my boyfriend at the time, so we could have fun conversations on the long car rides between my college and his parents’ house.
The book gave us questions: “You are given a magic potion that allows you to be invisible for one hour and one hour only. What would you want to do during your hour of invisibility?”
“If money were not a consideration, what do you believe would be the ideal number of children to have?”
“If you and a partner had a free limousine at your disposal for one night, where would you most want to go?”
My answers at the time were the West Wing, six, and everywhere. I don’t know what my boyfriend’s answers were. He never played along. Instead he stayed silent, rolling his eyes when I’d beg him to tell me what exactly he’d do with one thousand fresh roses.
Once we got married the book disappeared.
I knew he took it. I asked him about it and he stayed silent. It’s hard to fight silence. But life and relationships are a constant negotiation of self and things. This one I let go. And later when two floppy straw hats he hated went missing, too, well what was that in the face of the greater life we were building? Not everything is perfect, is it? Not in any relationship. He was a good man. He is a good man. He would be a good man. These are the things I said to myself, over and over. I whispered them as I searched for those lost pieces of me—spinning them into a force field of hope.
Other things disappeared over the course of the next twelve years. Denim button-up shirts. A Target clearance t-shirt with a gold embossed arrow. Three separate mugs that told me to “Write Like a Motherfucker” which I kept buying to replace the ones I lost. Other mugs too, one with the faces of Democrats on them. How careless of me to lose them. I must have lost other things, too. I began to forget which things I lost through my own absentmindedness and which things were disappeared. And that’s how I became the forgetful one in the relationship. That’s how I became the crazy one. At parties we’d tell stories about my laughable absentmindedness: Remember when I lost the baking sheet for two months only to find it in the bottom of the freezer? Remember the time I put the eggs in the cupboard with the coffee? Remember when I went to the store to buy mustard only to come back without mustard but with three different kinds of Cheetos? Remember how I keep buying mugs because I lose them? Remember?
That was the narrative we spun about who we were. It was a better story than the one we were actually living.
It turns out you can live in a fiction for a long time. For a lifetime, perhaps, but my limit was twelve years. Our relationship began to crumble. He asked me to quit working to focus on our marriage and children full-time in order to save us. I discovered a corner of the basement where many of the things I’d been missing had been hidden away. I realized that whatever story I had been living was erasing me. I didn’t leave then. I just signed us up for more therapy. But three months later, a sign I bought from the Target dollar spot, which read, “Drink Up, Witches” disappeared. And that’s what broke me.
I screamed, “I told you not to hide my things anymore!”
“I didn’t hide it,” he said. “I just put it out of the way for a while.”
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera describes a picture of Czechoslovakian Communist leader Klement Gottwald standing near Vladimir Clementis, a politician and writer. Four years after the photo was taken, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. His image was removed from the photograph. The only part of him that remained was a large fur hat, now on Gottwald’s head.
Kundera writes, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
After my second child was born, I felt like I was falling away from myself. Like I had lost hold of everything firm around me. My husband told me to take pills. My therapist told me to write things down. So I wrote. I wrote down lists of things every day. Words we said. Food eaten. Fights we had. This was just for me. A personal accounting of myself that I could come back to everyday, to remember I was real and whole. To remember I was still this person whose outline I could no longer see.
That list ruined my life. Through its accounting I saw the total of gains and losses. In the losses column was myself.
I am so tired, I can’t decide if I’m depressed or just exhausted from staying up too late drinking whiskey and watching cult documentaries. The last time I was depressed, I convinced myself I was fine; I was just recovering from a kidney infection, you know, for a whole year. It wasn’t until recently, when my therapist pointed out that it’s not common to gain forty pounds and struggle to get out of bed for a whole year after a kidney infection, that I even considered the possibility.
Everyone is tired now. Last week a friend of mine, a writer and an editor, told me he doesn’t understand the point of his work anymore. Isn’t it better to be a lawyer, an aide worker, someone on the front lines of something, he wanted to know.
I sent him a clip from the movie You’ve Got Mail, the one where Greg Kinnear’s character, the world’s greatest expert on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, looks at Meg Ryan’s despairing Kathleen Kelly and declares she is a lone reed. “Kathleen,” he snaps, “YOU, are a lone reed. You are a lone reed, standing tall, waving boldly in the corrupt sands of commerce.”
“I am a lone reed,” she says clutching a piece of paper on which he has typed his words of encouragement.
(I’ve never understood why Kathleen Kelly left him for the capitalist monster Tom Hanks who insults Pride and Prejudice.)
Other friends are despairing, too. Twitter is a Greek chorus of despair. Articles and blog posts, Facebook groups, Instagram captions, all lament our moment. Children in cages while people cry for civility. The Supreme Court in limbo and along with it our basic human rights, dignities, and choices. Journalists are shot and killed. I know so many people who get hate in their inboxes every day. I get it, too. I’ve recently started getting hate even in my Instagram messages. According to a Bloomberg poll, two-thirds of Americans are trying to escape the horror of the news.
In this swamp of fear, all we have are our words. Our voices as we scream at politicians in restaurants. The angry tweets we send. The voicemails we leave our senators. The long-form story on blood spatter. The novel we write secreted away from the horror of the news. We clutch these words to our chest, but we wonder if they are enough to save us.
We are lone reeds.
Maybe it’s because I’ve lost so much in the past two years. I literally have nothing left but words, my mean grandma’s china, my kids, and two cats. I struggle to pay my bills. But I still think words matter. Stories matter.
In her essay, “Memory and Imagination” Patricia Hampl writes, that it is the “habit of nations and those in power… to deny the truth of memory in order to disarm moral and ethical power.” She continues,
The beauty of memory rests in its talent for rendering detail, for paying homage to the senses, it’s capacity to love the particles of life, the richness and idiosyncrasy of our existence. The function of memory, while experienced as intensely personal, is surprisingly political.
This is why words matter, because they create a record of memory. They create a plurality of voices. They matter because sometimes you wake up on your thirty-fifth birthday on a deflating air mattress, in a room of a house that is no longer your home, with your two kids next to you, your back aching, an email in your inbox telling you that you are a terrible mother, and no money—every dream you had for yourself gone, but you think, at least I have these words. At least I still have this voice. And this pain radiating from my back, means I can feel every part of me. Means that my body throbs at the edges of who I am. I am here.
I could have woken up in a comfortable bed, I could have woken up with money and without that email waiting for me, but it would have cost me my voice. At least I am still here.
We write because words are the most powerful tool of citizens in a regime that seeks to erase their existence. We write to make it known that we are here. We write to make a personal accounting of who we are in the face of a power that wants to erase us.
At a conference in February, someone asked me which writers inspire me and I immediately thought of everyone in our slush pile. For writers and editors alike, the slush pile is often confounding and frustrating, but I see it as a cache of humanity, a pile of hope. Our slush pile is overflowing with people telling their stories despite overwhelming odds. When I think of writers who inspire me, I think of our ENOUGH series and how for every woman telling her story of sexual assault, there is another woman who tried to tell hers but lost her case in court. Another woman who was silenced in a settlement. Another woman who was told her case can’t be tried because she was raped while unconscious. Just get along. Just be quiet. So many parts of ourselves stuffed in boxes, moldering in basements.
I didn’t always want to be a writer. I wanted to be a lawyer like my father. I wanted to work as a public defender. I wanted to make sure that everyone got a good defense. I wanted justice for everyone. Days before I was supposed to sign up for the LSAT prep class, I learned about my sister’s sexual assault. I didn’t go sign up. I never took the test. I did take the GRE and I sobbed the entire way through.
Around the same time, I got a letter in the mail telling me one of the columns I had written for the college newspaper had been selected to be included in a textbook. In the middle of everything, my sister’s pain, my family’s turmoil, the demands to forgive and forget, that acceptance letter made me feel like I had a voice. And that wasn’t nothing. It was everything.
Even as things have fallen apart, I’ve had these words. These lists. These texts sent to friends. These posts in secret Facebook groups. These emails. These conversations over coffee and whiskey. I now have legal documents and decrees. My therapist’s notes. My garden of Word documents, half finished, all trying to tell a new story, or just the old story that didn’t get told the first time. I still want justice, but I see it through words now. The balance of justice is weighed in story.
In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown explains that before all else we are creatures of imagination. “We are in an imagination battle,” she writes:
Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha MacBride and so many others are dead because in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, radicalized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable. Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.
The limits of our stories are the limits of our lives. Our words should open up the world, not close it off. Our words should include all people, not trap them in cages.
I see every story, every word as a struggle of memory against forgetting. As a struggle of nuance in the flat face of fascism.
When Pamela Colloff writes about blood spatter, or Doreen St. Felix writes about music, or when the woman in Submittable writes about her rape, and I say “I am so sorry, but we can’t publish this. But please keep writing. Always keep writing.”
No word is wasted. No story is told in vain.
A long time ago on this website, Cheryl Strayed told Elissa Bassist to write like a motherfucker. Elissa has been writing like a motherfucker; her words are in the Not That Bad anthology edited by Roxane Gay, along with mine and so many other voices. Elissa keeps writing and so do we. Writing like a motherfucker is never done in vain.
I now have three mugs reminding me of this. I have my two denim button-up shirts. The t-shirt with the gold arrow. I found the book on conversations and the sign that says “Drink Up, Witches.” I found them all, and I kept them when I moved out. There is room for all of it where I am now. In this new house, where I read and edit your words and believe that what you have to say matters, there is room.
It occurs to me that this is earnest. It occurs to me I am crying. It occurs to me that I might be saying too much. This might be too personal. But it also occurs to me that I have never in my life loved so many people with my whole heart like I do now. So I want you to know that you are important. Your story is important. Your words open up my world and imagination. And in moments of despair I clutch your words to my chest. We are lone reeds. But we are doing all this work together.
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