Write like you're dead

The explicit pleasure of writing to a you that won't read this.

“I call it write like you’re already dead,” says Cindy.

I am trying to explain how lonely it is to write as if you are telling a secret to no one; a confession into an empty church. Cindy says “write like you’re already dead” is something she teaches her students, and a good way to make brave choices, and the loneliness of writing for ever fewer and ever more people at once is a hallmark of becoming a better writer. But “write like you’re dead” is how you get to write about family, for example, without fearing the repercussions of disclosure.

I’m finding lately the impetus for my writing is to tell you a story behind your back. Different from unsent letters, which I have also written. Publishing every day on this blog answers a very specific need, but creates other problems I try in vain to explain elsewhere in private.

Many of my stories are parables about lovers, and I blame our attenuated reality for writing in parables, which I blame on among other things, the pandemic. But I always want to talk about lovers.

So what’s an attenuated reality. I use the word “attenuated” not to signify a mutation of the universal fabric, but a muting of its rules. The rote questions we think are cliché now after 15+ months of pandemic et cetera, such as “what is time?” “does anything matter?” “are these real feelings?” are just proof that it is our interpretations of reality that matter, not reality, and we are no longer cuffed to the consequences of the systems we created to track time, matter or relationships.

My writing parables is an indication that I am of sound mind (of which I sometimes think I need a reminder), in the same way “crazy people don’t wonder if they’re crazy” (which is ludicrous). But more important to me than sound mind, honestly, is elevated thinking *painting nails emoji*. I am using my imagination as fuck. The fantasies and allegories I post here matter so much more to me than the prevailing facts that motivate them. It is a seduction. I am summoning you when I write. My vigor and appetite for correspondence with you, in this particular vacuum of reality, are almost worth the absence of real interlocution. 

Almost. Which brings me back to the “confessing to an empty church” syndrome of writing. The silence and loneliness of my unheard confession can be deadly. I seesaw between finding solace in the free second person voice I occasion in my writing, and my refusal to assume the stakes. I want desperately for this to be acknowledged by you and to hear you say the actual words to me: I agree to, and accept the message you have sent to me. I even like it.

Cindy, Amy and I are talking about confessional writing and specifically, we’re unpacking The NY Times interactive deconstruction of “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, the most salient aspect of which, I believe, is the fact that Bishop said explicitly in her lifetime, that she does not want to have to divulge the details of her life, to engage in the “school of agony” (her words) so popular with writers in her time, marked so prominently with their identities (gay woman). She refused to write confessional poetry.  Her discretion was paramount. Cindy describes how she teaches Bishop in her poetry courses, alongside John Ashbery, as exemplary of “reticence.” So my question: was it fair of the Times to name all of the tragedy and trauma from Bishop’s life as it related to this poem, if Bishop swore to keep it secret? I think that for whoever got to really connect with and understand what was being said between the lines of “One Art,” the poem was enough, and for everybody else, you were lucky if it affected you. If you didn’t get it, you didn’t deserve it. Maybe.

However. On the other hand, I think about artists in my community today who refuse to name their identities. I smell something like shame in that discretion. Or no let me admit: at first I am in awe and am sometimes even envious of the artist who can afford not to render their personal identity into their work. “The privilege of white cismen,” as Amy says. I wish I could practice that kind of privacy, but the urge within me is to tell you stories that matter to me because they are mine and the only way you know that is if I explain who I am and why I matter. The key there is that I write with urgency. I manipulate the urgency. I play with the urgency. I wrote once a long time ago in another blog: if there is an elephant in the room, ride it. I have no choice. I’m usually the elephant.

The point of writing is supposedly that the seduction is mutual. A reader keeps looking for my words, and I keep looking for the reader. So I am in awe until I am bitter, when people don’t seek an audience because they’ll find you with or without your persona. Because you get away with anonymity. And when I think about it long enough, I consider the anonymity a disability. I use that term with no presenetiments except that it means you operate in the world with a different set of rules that I don’t understand. An attenuation of reality.

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One of the most affecting parts of the Me Too movement in my opinion, was the open source database of personal testimonies unfolding on social media. A torrent of evidence, some of the stories were dramatic and revelatory, many more were willfully mundane—tweeting, “raise your hand if you were told you’d make a good wife at a young age,” for example. 

I thought countless times about how I might tell my Me Too story. I thought adding to the database would help me, help others. But then I realized it wouldn’t, that there was no benefit to telling my story. No benefit to me, no benefit to young women, no justice to be meted. I have no desire to tell a secret that is not a secret (thoroughly deconstructed in therapy years ago), or to speak to those involved. I do not want to summon, even in a protected quasi-fiction like this platform, those whom I do not seek in my unprotected reality. 

So consider it a privilege if I write about you, if I write to you.

“I call what I’m doing, write like the reader is dead,” I say eventually.