Several times in the last four months, I’ve begun posts, and then found myself unable to finish them. The problem, in short, has been that I don’t believe what I’ve written.
Obviously I’ve haven’t been writing lies. I’ve believed the veracity of the words I’ve written (which have, of course, come directly from thoughts in my head). But when I’ve looked at those words on the screen, they’ve looked hollow. They’ve looked like they’re not worth reading. Not worth sharing.
Those of you who know me know this is not like me. I can’t remember any time when I regularly held my tongue, and until recently I had never had trouble sharing my thoughts, experiences, or opinions in writing either. Nor have I even recently been reluctant to share these thoughts with friends, or to share them more widely, publicly, in short doses. I’ve been emailing as furiously as I ever have, giving my friends, as always, as many words as I have in my head. And I’ve been using Twitter and Google Buzz more than before. I’ve not gone dark. Except on this site.
I don’t know what this is all about. I have some theories. For whatever reason, the first person, when it refers to me and is shared more widely than I can know, turns me off. In emails, I choose the recipients; on Twitter and Buzz, I know who is following me. Therefore I don’t seem to mind writing “I” there. But here, where anyone can read—even though few currently do, fewer by far than follow me on those sites—”I” scares me, even sickens me. It’s a wonder I got through this paragraph.
At the end of April, on the Yale Daily News‘ final publication date of the year, a friend emailed to me to say how much she loved the opinion page that day. I found her in the coffee shop where she said she was reading. I read the page there with her. I agreed that its columns were quite good. And I told her, sheepishly, that I didn’t regularly read the YDN, or its opinion page, this year. My disinterest was bad, I felt, because I had invested a whole year into making that page good, and all I had wanted at that time was for people to read it. This year even I didn’t do that. So it goes.
Later that day, I had more thoughts than whatever I had shared with her at the coffee shop. So I wrote back to her:
I’m reading this today and I realized earlier that I think part of why I don’t read the opinion page much anymore is that I’m really burned out on the first person. I don’t know whether that’s a result of editing four first-person pieces a night every night last year, or whether it’s from things I’ve been exposed to this year (or both), but I just find it really hard to get into first-person accounts, stories people tell about themselves, anymore, even in books. Maybe (hopefully) that’ll change.
I won’t explain here and now all the “things I’ve been exposed to this year” in a coherent way. Maybe soon I’ll try to get into that. I’ll end this post less ambitiously, hinting at the point of all this with with a few experience that may seem connected to no one but me.
My best friend spent five months fighting cancer—and, as much, fighting the drugs and surgeries that were fighting his cancer too. Meanwhile, he wrote “a collection of musings on life.” He wrote beautifully and powerfully and spoke meaningfully to hundreds of people. For some reason, his blog was a definite exception to my resistance to the first person.
In the fall I took a course on J.M. Coetzee, in which we read each of his novels. Coetzee’s books repeatedly challenge common notions of authorial control, suggesting that for an author to create characters, to ascribe thoughts and emotions and actions to other people—even fictional people, even himself, in writing—may be a form of abuse, a violation. Coetzee’s most recent installment of his memoirs, Summertime, treats the author’s life in the third person, and re-imagines the years 1972 to 1975 in high fiction: as if Coetzee weren’t married; as if he didn’t have young children; as if he lived with his father; as if his mother were dead.
I graduated college. Applied to a few jobs. Moved back home for the summer. Began thinking about the future.
I wrote a senior essay. I spent several months researching before writing the paper, which at the end comprised 40 pages of text, several pages of graphs, and a dozen pages of bibliographic citations.
I read a number of books that immediately struck me as significant parts of my coming of age, my growth into adulthood. Most recently from this list I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I learned that Malcolm read up to 15 hours a day, every day, for the years he was in prison. He just read and read books. Then he got out and became Malcolm X.
I’ve thought some about reading and writing in a directed way. Now that I’m done with my schooling, I’ve thought, I can begin my education. It’s a corny play on words, but the idea is seriously truthful. I can now read what I want and write what I want, and it’s on me to make it happen. At the beginning of the school year, I told some friends I had a new motto for the year: Whatever happens happens, but it’s gotta happen. They laughed at me.
I’ve had some thoughts about what I’d want to write. On my more creative, ambitious days, I’ve thought through ideas for fictional stories. The rest of the time I’ve tried to figure out what I might try to say that falls under non-fiction and doesn’t use the first person, since, after all, I now hate the first person, at least when “I” means me. (It really is astonishing that this post is still going, that I’m going to click “Publish” in a moment. I haven’t been able to do this in months.)
I went to the toilet the other day, and grabbed one of my favorite books, just to skim and smile at and be entertained by for a few minutes. I opened the book. There, on the page following the dedication and preceding the table of contents, I read, for maybe the eighth or tenth time, a few sentences that might as well be all the books in the world:
Nothing in this book is true.
“Live by the foma* that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
The Books of Bokonon. I: 5
If I wrap this up by saying, “Everything I could ever say, Kurt Vonnegut has already said in Cat’s Cradle (or maybe in one of his other books),” it would seem like the point of all this is to say that Kurt Vonnegut is the man. He is, and more. But that’s not the point. (I only read the sentences above a few days ago. I’ve had most of these thoughts in my head for months.)
I’m not sure how to end this, then. I have to tell whoever is reading to read Cat’s Cradle. If there’s one thing to take away from this post, that’s it. The real wisdom is in there.
But also re-read the quote above. Before the book’s story, before everything else I wrote here, I think the words in that quote are the point. Did I need to write all this other stuff to draw attention to that? Maybe not. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been writing in recent months. Whenever I write, I found that Kurt Vonnegut has said my thoughts already. That’s funny, and heartening. And a challenge.
But I can’t just quote Kurt Vonnegut. So next time I won’t. But keep the foma in mind. Nothing in this post is true. More from me later.