create the clues and the world follows — soon the clues will start to reappear and the new home will reveal itself.

Through Mannahatta’s streets I walking, these things gathering;
On interior rivers, by night, in the glare of pine knots, steamboats wooding up;

And I, plunging at the hunters, corner’d and desperate;
in the Mannahatta, streets, piers, shipping, store-houses, and the countless
workmen working in their shops,
And I too of the Mannahatta, singing thereof — and no less in myself than the
whole of the Mannahatta in itself,
Singing the song of These, my ever united lands — 

I wanted to write about performativity but I don’t think I have time… meeting a friend in an hour.

It’s been strange since M. left. He’s in Alaska now. I haven’t lived alone for five years… or really, ever. I always lived in houses crammed with housemates and random people crashing on the couch, or tiny apartments crammed with me, Eva, tons of cats, and whoever we were dating at the time. Or cars or vans or shitty motel rooms with evil men. Places where carving out a corner that was mine was my singular goal.

I used to crave time and space alone. When Brian and I moved into a bigger apartment in Thailand, it had this tiny little random room off to the side that I immediately claimed for myself. It was probably the only assertive thing I ever did against him. I would go in there, lock the door, and write, for hours. That little room saved my life. Sometimes he would bang on the door and yell. I just turned up my music louder.

But now when I’m alone in my apartment I have this feeling like, now what? If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound, and if I do stuff alone, is it really happening? I find I have almost no sense of identity without people around. Like my sense of self only exists defined in relation and opposition to other people.

I walk around the city a lot. It’s not really a city, but I can pretend. I kind of feel like I’m floating a lot of the time.

Performativity reminds me of this conversation I had with G. on Facebook yesterday. [For those of you not intimately acquainted with my life story, G. was that crazy Spaniard I was with through high school and on and off for years… that tortured first love. But you knew that.]

I was posting a bunch of old pictures from high school… one of them was of one of the exotic fruit picnics I used to have with G.’s sister. I was a grocery store cashier and I would use my discount to buy starfruit, guava, mango, kumquat, and so on. Anyway, it’s a photo of me holding a fig in my fingertips, looking at the camera with a quizzical, faraway look. Then this conversation ensued:

G: “Possible LSD day w weird fruit? U do have that look in yr eye.”

me: “Actually there was no LSD involved on this particular day. I just always had a crazed look… I still have a crazed look.”

G.: “the way you have of holding fruit w the tips of yr fingers, like crucial ontological readings are being taken”

me: “A lot of these pictures remind me that I was kind of living in a dreamworld, where ideas and archetypes and stories were much more real than reality, until I was in my early 20s.”

G.: “Yes. And i don’t think I was like that: obv. in my own world to some extent, but was mostly a kind of lunkhead materialist, clever enough to understand that I was participating, thru you, in a world of like, Platonic ideals, but generally as a kind of phantom visitor in that world. Not experiencing it firsthand, but thru your eyes.
You were living with a surplus of meanings/portends etc, and I was kind of struggling to find meaning anywhere. The stolid Beckett to your flaming Joyce or something. If that makes sense. And lordy, I hope you know how good that was for me.”

* * * * * * * * * *

I’ve been thinking about that exchange… wondering if I ever actually grew out of the archetypes and stories and dreaming the world alive.

Create the clues and the world follows.
Soon the clues will start to reappear and the new home will reveal itself.

I remember after Elliott Smith died, I read some big analytical article about how he was writing songs about drugs and addiction before he really fell into addiction in real life. They said it like he wrote himself into the story of being a drug addict.

I was barely a year into my own addiction at the time, but I recognized that in myself. In fact, listening to Elliott Smith songs like “Needle in the Hay” and “Good to Go” on repeat for years was the premise for my own fall. I remember feeling this sense of pulling, toward what I didn’t know. Eventually I found it.

Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she’s mine for life. 

You write yourself into a story and then get stuck watching it turn into a nightmare. For years I wondered if the key to getting clean was to write myself out of the story. To give the story a twist, uncover a secret the main character didn’t know, find the turning point.

I tried getting clean the way other people did, but it never worked, because my storyteller kept writing myself back into my addiction. I needed a new story.

When I finally did it, it felt like conjuring a universe out of thin air. No wonder I feel like I’m floating.

* * *

strange world
but will be coming home again shortly

portland
in the morning
walking
cold

i am the thing that goes on

When my idol left it broke. My back it broke my legs it. Broke clouds in the sky broke. Sounds I was. Hearing still hear.

her favorite flower as a childLast night I dreamed about Eva again. I dream about her at least once a week, usually more. Some of the dreams are amazing, like the one where we had on dresses made out of tiny lights (not like LED, something more glowy) and we were dancing on a roof with flowers that also glowed.

Most of the dreams are upsetting. Usually she dies and then I spend the dream consumed by regret.

Last night’s dream was more complex and subtle, though even more meaningful. She was helping me move to New Orleans. For some reason it was a big secret, we had to leave in the middle of the night and take a lot of weird precautions. (This reminds me of when she helped me run away from L., her boyfriend at the time, who was so psychotically angry at me for no reason, because he believed I hated men/him, when really I was just trying to stick up for Eva and not be a doormat in response to his abuse and his insistence that I give him all the money I was making at the political job where we were working. One night he started to completely lose it and she feared for my safety, so before he got back from the bar we came up with an escape plan for me. I have a flash of a memory of running diagonally across El Camino Real around midnight on a damp spring night, with her small green Oscar de la Renta suitcase she’d bought at a thriftstore, hastily packed with a few days of clothing and $80 she put in my hand, looking over my shoulder as I ran to see if he had gotten back to the motel yet, running to the bus stop at the corner and taking the bus to the CalTrain station, shivering into a couple hours sleep on a bench, wrapped tight in my jacket that my cousin N. had given me, that belonged to her best friend Jan who had shot herself the year before, the black coat had a plush lining and a fake fur collar, but even San Jose is cold in March at 3 am, then killing time with Denny’s coffee until dawn, then the train to San Francisco. I could never convince her to leave him. No wonder I’m still unreasonably afraid of being cold.)

Maybe in the dream I was reliving that night, but trying to take her with me this time. When we got to New Orleans, she helped me move into my apartment. I woke up the next morning and she was gone. The memory loss I experience in real life happened in the dream — I took my camera to the store to get some photos printed from my trip, and as I was looking through the photos on the store’s computer screen, I saw a series of images that I didn’t remember from real life.

My memory is like that — I’ll completely forget things that happened just last night, or even a few hours ago. I have several theories for why it’s so bad — MUCH worse than my memory loss when I was actually doing heroin! Most of my theories have to do with PTSD and having to compartmentalize my feelings when I was escorting, since I hated it so much it took every fiber of my being to keep going when I needed the money. By the end I was having detailed fantasies about killing my clients.

Anyway, back in the dream, I was flipping through my photos from the night before, and saw images of Eva and me, like flipbook, one taken every few seconds. I saw us walking down the stairs from my apartment, in frozen still images, through the entry way of my building, selfies of us kissing goodbye, and then I had taken a video of her walking away, pulling her roller suitcase, opening the door, disappearing into the dark. I couldn’t remember why she left.

The part of the dream that struck me most was at the very end. This part of the dream would seem heavy-handed with symbolism if I were writing fiction. Eva had left me a gift back in my apartment, the quilt she sewed in 1999. When we first met, freshmen at Reed, she had a very painful breakup with her first love. We bonded over our tendency toward obsessive and all-consuming love, and I would read her passages in my diary from when G. broke up with me, to try to show her that it would get better (not that I was all that healed either). We had a lot of fun that year, but it was only the first in a long line of traumatic experiences for both of us, and she was battling serious depression.

Somehow that year she got the idea to make a quilt that symbolized her ongoing recovery. I don’t remember anymore why a quilt, or what made her think of the design, but it was ingenious. There were only two colors, dark blue and white, each with a tiny, pretty blue and white floral pattern, like antique wallpaper. She always liked blue and white, and her taste was a little more girly than mine, though our aesthetics would meet, cross, divide, converge, and meld over the years. I can no longer remember what I would have liked before I met her, which part of my taste is mine and which is hers.

The quilt design was simple: it was essentially stripes of varying widths creating a gradation from blue to white, starting with a wide dark blue stripe, then a narrow white one, a slightly less wide blue one, a slightly wider white one, and so on until the other side, where there was a very thin blue stripe and then a very wide white one. It was supposed to symbolize how her depression and grief — the dark blue — would gradually get smaller, until happiness — the white — would overtake it and triumph. A dark blue border ran around the outside, and the back was dark blue. Amazingly, in between our mountains of homework, she actually measured it, cut it all out, pinned it, and if I remember, started hand-sewing it. When she went home for break, her mother or a relative helped her sew it on a sewing machine. The quilt lived on her bed ever since; for all I know it’s still there. Besides being symbolic, it was beautiful.

Back to the dream, and the most important and heavily symbolic part: As I was looking at the quilt and wondering why she’d left it for me, I noticed that it wasn’t finished: there was a section that had never been sewn, where the fabric and backing was still pinned together with dozens of straight pins. There were many more pins than would actually be necessary for holding together the simple striped panels — pins over every inch of the fabric, the sharp ends exposed.

I stared at it and couldn’t figure out how I’d never noticed before that it was held together by pins. Hadn’t it been in her room that whole time, hadn’t I sat on it, hadn’t we used it to cuddle when we were on drugs sometimes? How had I never been stuck by a pin? And why was it never finished?

We recently had a communication that was upsetting to me, and it seems obvious to me that this is related. But I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.

The untranslatable word тоска, as described by Vladimir Nabokov: “Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness. “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. At the lowest level it grades into ennui. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness.”

When my idol left it broke.

My back it broke my legs it.

Broke clouds in the sky broke.

Sounds I was.

Hearing still hear.

[anne carson]

the people of the open wound

Why does writing cause so much more anxiety than other creative pursuits?

This question came to me while reading T Magazine last week, which had mini-profiles of a few writers. For those not in the know, T Magazine is the fashion/design supplement to the Sunday New York Times, which is included every month or so. I usually don’t read T because it is one of the most ostentatious offerings to the temple of lavish materialism, all surface and glitz. But I was flipping through this one because it was the Spring Design issue, and I have a weakness for architecture.

(First I encountered the Platonic form of those houses where you aren’t allowed to touch anything and every room looks like a hotel. This “renowned advertising provocateur” [?] keeps any sign of his own existence out of his NYC condo; his books and even his expensive art collection are hidden in closets and drawers. Even the bedroom is devoid of personal belongings. He said: “I didn’t want it to feel like a home. I wanted it to feel like a hotel.”)

But maybe T Magazine was trying to change its reputation from a confection of conspicuous consumption to something with more substance, because they included this feature about seven writers and where they work. That’s when I encountered Adam Thirlwell describing the room where he works as a “place of anxiety” and Tom McCarthy admitting, “It’s tempting to stare out of the window most of the day. Who am I kidding? That’s what I do.” Then there’s one of my favorite Riff columns in an old NYT Magazine, about self-doubt and writing, which contains this quote:

Because if I had to identify a single element that characterizes my life as a writer, a dominant affective note, it would be self-doubt. It is a more-or-less constant presence in everything I do. It is there even as I type these words, in my realization that almost all writers struggle in this way; that the notion of a self-doubting writer is as close to tautology as to make no difference, and that to refer to such a thing as a “struggle” is to concede the game immediately to cliché, to lose on a technicality before you’ve even begun.

He also refers to “the little voice in your head or the booming baritone in your gut that wishes you to know that what you are writing is entirely without value.” I started thinking, why is writing like this? I don’t know of any other creative activity that is so associated with anxiety. When I was a studio art major (painting, photography, drawing) or when I played in orchestra in high school, I never felt this way. I didn’t sit in front of a blank canvas obsessively cleaning my workspace rather than painting, I didn’t get to the darkroom and immediately remember something I just had to do because I was scared of developing photos, I didn’t dread going to orchestra practice — in fact, all of those activities were very enjoyable.

The problem with the other vocations I’ve tried (including anthroplogy and other non-creative fields) is that I was never sure I was good enough at them. But that over-arching lack of confidence didn’t infect the everyday level of actually doing the thing. I was perfectly capable of working on my art; I just didn’t think I was a great artist or that it was worth pursuing for the rest of my life. I didn’t have anxiety about music, I just didn’t like practicing my instruments enough to choose music as a career, and wasn’t sure I would ever be professional-level good. But it never even occurred to me to procrastinate working on art or music.

The strange thing is that writing is the only thing I’ve done where I do have the overall confidence that I am a good enough. I know I’m a good enough writer that I can make money off it. I know I can produce an amazing memoir. I never felt like this about art or music. My confidence in my writing borders on egotism. But it doesn’t help the daily activity of actually doing the writing. Down in the trenches, none of my confidence in myself as a writer helps me actually write without that sheer terror that is familiar to any writer.

I just googled “self-doubt” and “anxiety” with “writing” and found so many posts calling it a “cliche” or the “biggest problem for writers” that there’s no need to quote anyone else: Anyone who writes — or anyone who knows a writer — knows that writing and paralyzing panic are inextricably linked. This is not related to the concept of writer’s block, which I wrote about in my last entry. Whether I’m writing “for myself” (memoir or personal essays or blog entries) or not for myself (reporting and freelancing), I experience this overwhelming sense of dread and jittery apprehension. Even just thinking about writing makes me feel like I’m looking over a 500-foot cliff with no railing.

The worst part of journalism, for me, is the interviews, which are on a whole other level of panic that we won’t get into here. But I’ve found that even after the interviews are done and transcribed, working on writing the article — which for me is the “easy part” (ha!) — takes every ounce of willpower I possess. I know what I’m going to write, and once I sit down to do it, the writing itself comes out in regular intervals of sentences and paragraphs, but my brain is constantly telling me it isn’t any good. Sometimes when I make it to the end and submit the article, I’m able to relax and feel a little pride in my work — but a lot of times I end up hating what I’ve written, even if others (professors, editors, friends) tell me it’s great. I find this quote (from that Riff piece again) very accurate:

The following, for example, is a frequent enough occurrence in my professional life: I’ll pitch an editor with an idea for something I want to write about, and they’ll tell me to go ahead with it, and then I’ll straight away begin a process of deconvincing myself, of deciding that the article I’ve persuaded someone to pay me to write is actually not worth writing at all or that I’m not the person to write it. And at this point, of course, it’s too late to back out, and I have to go ahead and write it anyway; a whole routine that is very time-consuming and enervating in the extreme.

The fact that professional writers who publish stuff in the New York Times sound just as anxious than me, if not moreso, is not very comforting. Think about it: how many books or articles have you seen about the self-doubting writer? And how many have you seen about the self-doubting, panicked artist or designer or musician or actor? (Stage fright doesn’t count.) I can’t think of ever seeing something about a non-writer consumed with misgiving whenever they attempt to practice their craft.

I’ve found one of the most useful things about going to school for journalism is that it has forced me to write. Much of what I’ve learned is common sense or I could have found in a book, but having someone force me to write journalism has helped immensely. And once I wrote a few articles, I felt a little better knowing that I could do it. But the anxiety remains.

And it’s actually worse for my personal writing. I have more than five books about writing memoir, but I’ve barely read them. When you think about a project for more than 10 years, a project that encompasses everything you care about, most of the important events in your life, and a chance to find meaning in chaos — which you have used to justify all that misery, because “at least I have good stories, at least I can make a memoir out of it” — I’m not sure any writing project can approach that level of significance, and of course the more important the writing is, the more the terror devours me.

As I thought about why writing is like this, I realized that the storytelling, narrative aspect of writing, and its solitary nature, makes it almost the closest to the experience of living, compared with other creative acts. Movies and plays purport to imitate reality, but they require dozens of people and hours of practice before the finished product. Art and music evoke emotion but aren’t narrative.

Writing is like being alive — it’s like the stream of your thoughts. It doesn’t have any bells and whistles to disguise this feeling of being naked before God. No equipment is needed other than pen and paper (or laptop), and the end product is words, only words. In that sense, it’s more personal than anything else. It’s the result of one person, which means that only one person is responsible if it turns out badly. Some visual art is just as solitary, but the artifice can disguise the personal.

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, there is nowhere to hide when all you have is words on a screen or page. When someone would tell me I needed to play a passage differently in orchestra, it wasn’t about me, it was just about needing to practice or correct a misreading of the music notes. When my art teachers gave me a mediocre critique on a painting or photograph, it was just a product of my hand, it wasn’t ME. But writing is only me. The closest thing to being inside my head. No wonder it’s so hard to start. Or finish.