Greetings from Barely Holding It Together. The monkeypox outbreak is getting worse, dangerously so, and cronyism and corruption are ongoing in San Francisco. Summer is ending, which in this city means hot (for us) temperatures are coming, in a city with no air conditioning because—historically—'we haven't needed it.' And each year it's a reminder that the days of no heat advisories are over.
It also means the semester is about to start, and this marks my 4th (and ostensibly last) year as academic director of the MFA program I teach in. It's a hard job, in that I have some semesters 90+ students whose learning and academic success I'm somewhat responsible for, and like all hard jobs it's been triply hard to do well during a pandemic and its aftermath.
It's in my nature amid any disruption to work to find some stability. Let's make a joke to ease the tension in the air. Let's solve this sudden problem on our own before checking to see if others also find it a problem. My co-director and I have worked overtime to keep the ship steady, so to speak, and 4 years in, as disruptions keep coming, that's starting to feel like denial. Or that classic definition of insanity.
When I'm at my best, stormy seas are a thrill. Change is not just coming, it's here. Chaos is a creative constant. These are not those days. And yet, I do have in-laws coming to town. And Beyoncé has a new record out. And a new issue of Shenny. Four months in and making this still feels like a privilege.
1. The word 'gal'
The other day, my Dad asked if my partner was 'still working for that woman?' (N.'s a personal assistant), and even though he didn't intend aggression, I heard it. It'd be unnatural for most men I know, myself included, to ask 'Is he still working for that man?' 'Guy' is the usual go to. As I learned in my 20s to update from 'girl' to 'woman' in referring to those gendered female, I've since learned to go for 'gal'. Yes, both 'guy' and 'gal' affirm the gender binary (if you've got a good single form of the word 'folks' I'm all ears), but I love the idea of referring to folks in mixed-gender groups as 'gals'. Hey gals listen up. Gals are great. Let's all be gals.
2. Nathan Fielder's The Rehearsal (HBOMax)
If you've ever heard me tell an anecdote or ask for a favor, odds are I practiced that conversation in advance of seeing you—at least my half of it. I'm not a comfortable liver in the moment. The Rehearsal is a show where Nathan Fielder engineers hyperdetailed spaces for people like me to practice at their desires. In the pilot, a guy wants to come clean to one gal about a lie he's let go on too long among their trivia group. Fielder reconstructs on a sound stage the very bar they do trivia in, and hires an actor to study the friend and act out her role, over and over for weeks, until the guy feels prepared to talk with her IRL.
That's a cute show. What makes The Rehearsal a brilliant show is that Fielder himself has hired an actor to play the guy, and recreated the guy's apartment on a sound stage, and rehearsed, over and over, their initial meeting. At every moment the boundaries between real life and performed life are dissolved. Nobody on the show looks great, and that's either cringe-inducing, or comforting, depending on your outlook. The show indulges some Didionically cruel indictments of its subjects, but Fielder's whole alien-studying-humans gestalt elevates it to something that feels, at least to this watcher, deeply moving. Watch it as a comedy. Watch is as a tragedy. Watch it as a horror, often. Lately, I've been watching it as a romance between the people we feel stuck as, and the people we dream of someday being. No show in the history of TV has ever dramatized that difference as hilariously and gut-wrenchingly as this one.
How To Write About Other People
Speaking of being Didionically cruel, she famously wrote how writers are always selling somebody out. We take, is what she means. We take and use, and us nonfiction writers leave the people we take from called out usually by name. The first time this happened to me was in a poem written, back in college, by my friend Mark. It's titled 'Set to Flame', and you should know that at the time my greatest ambition was to make movies:
Thoughts come to him in a funnel, never finding a way out.
The wind rushes in through the screen, grimy with the world,
& pours over his thin body, his hollow eye-sockets
as his fingers curl & wither with frustration, the way film does
when set to flame. He thinks how cool his life would be
if it was directed by David Lynch, finds himself
listening for eerie music, the promise of something
to come. Thinks of biology class in tenth grade,
a cow's fat red tongue lying on a styrofoam tray.
Poking it with his incisor, stupidly awaiting
a reaction. Thinks of Rod Roddy from 'The Price is Right'
shouting Denny Collins from Fairfax, Virginia, come oooon down!
He pictures kids on pilgrimage to the shrine of Bob Barker.
The gaudy lights, the smiles from Bob's lovely assistants.
He hopes they let him play Plinko. He stares at the ceiling
until late. He wants to reach inside & pull his intestines
& everything else out through his mouth, like gooey strings
of film, wants to watch it all curl & wither.
I read this poem unexpectedly, flipping through the collection Mark handed copies of to close friends. I didn't know he'd written it, but I recognized myself immediately, and the first feeling I had, my heart racing faster as I read each line, was how happy I was to be seen. Thought of. This was matched immediately by how nervous I was to be recorded, in as much posterity as can be assumed from an undergraduate poetry class portfolio. Was this who I 'really' was, or was this how I was presenting myself to others? And what was the difference?
If I've been written about since, nobody's told me. Now I'm on the other side of the selling-out, writing about friends, family, and my partner for my own gain. This came up in places of my essay 'Behold Us Two Boys Sitting Together' (not online, alas), where I wrote about the dangers in looking, in others, for reflections of yourself—or more broadly in rendering others as secondary characters in your own narrative.
One of the many challenges in memoir writing.
Every time you turn a person in your life into a character, no matter how round, you diminish them. Distill is the verb we writing teachers prefer to use. Find the revealing detail the renders their essence etc. etc. I was, I knew, more than a neurotic (closeted) college kid wishing someone would magically make him and his life more interesting, but reading Mark's poem brought that aspect of my life to the forefront, and forced me to see it as someone else did, using the very words with which they'd painted the portrait. I was suddenly not in control of some truth about me, and I'd never felt that kind of dispossessed before.
I try to remember that feeling every time I write about someone in my life who I am—and would like to stay—close to. NF writers have all kinds of tips on how to minimize the collateral damage of writing about other people. My favorite, from Terese Marie Mailhot, is that you should always try to include one detail or aspect of their character that the person would like to see in themselves. (Thanks to Mike Scalise for drawing my attention to that great tip.) I also like Joy Castro's notion—from Family Trouble, her anthology of NF craft texts about this topic—about using other characters always and only to help answer your memoir's central questions. 'If an incident, detail, or family story contributed in some way to the answering of one or both of [my] questions, then it went onto the page. If it didn't, I didn't even draft it.'
Here's my own policy, when I've written about somebody who's still in my life, and whom I want to stay a part of my life: If I've written something that I haven't talked with them about, or disclosed in any way, then they get to read what I've written before I publish. If what I feel or remember is true, even to me, I want them to be the first to hear it. Telling others first feels, to me, like a betrayal.
I wasn't hurt when I read Mark's poem all those years ago. I fully recall being flattered and happy to be written about. Which is the lesson I tell students over and over. We have, especially in adulthood, so few ways we get to feel special. Being written about is often a shock, but it's also one small way we get to live beyond ourselves.
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