Sunday, April 21, 2013

Out of my soul and onto the page

This Saturday night I sat in my royal-blue IKEA armchair in the corner of my office room with the door closed, reading the printed-out pages of an autobiographical novella that I wrote when I was 26 years old (it includes dated and matter-of-fact references to pay phones, maps, and phone books). The title is "A Despicable Woman." It's relentlessly bleak. It should really be subtitled "Portrait of an Incipient Stalker," for reasons I'll explain soon. 

The pages I flipped through were ones that were given back to me by Bobbi, who was my English teacher in high school back when she was Bob and a man. We'd gotten back in touch, and I'd mailed the "manuscript" to her; she'd jotted down sympathetic (because it was clearly non-fiction, and sad) and encouraging notes. 

I have no idea how many pages this thing is. I didn't number them, and I've never counted. It's a fairly thick stack of paper, though. The story started out on the hard drive of an old PC of mine; at some point, in a rare show of responsibility regarding my computer-stored data, I stuck it on a hot-pink plastic disc and put a 33-cent stamp with blueberries on it in lieu of a proper label.

I wrote the series of themed vignettes back in the days before I embarked on my self-imposed literary-education regimen of reading every single piece of short fiction published in The New Yorker (a story a week; more when their Fiction issues came out) and Harper's (monthly), as well as all the stories published in The Atlantic's sporadic Fiction issues. (I read all the stories in whatever the then-current issues of those magazines were; I didn't expect myself to read back issues. Well, except for the year I asked my folks for a subscription to The New Yorker for Christmas, and got access to their digital archives, but I didn't read very far back in those. I'm much better about reading stories and books in print due to the lack of other online distractions.) 

But before all of that self-imposed homework, at the time when I wrote this hoping-it-might-count-as-a-novel thing, I was pretty ignorant when it came to then-contemporary fiction, short or otherwise. I was working as a newspaper reporter in Lynchburg, Virginia, and reading so much for work that I spent my downtime indulging in "brain candy" -- looking at mindless celebrity tabloids at Barnes & Noble (yes, seriously) just so I could "turn my brain off" and turn my eyes toward pretty, glossy things for a while. I'd like to tell you that I did this out of a heartbroken kind of burn-out from seeing too many tragic news stories all the time, but really I was just tired of looking at words all day. 

The point is I wrote this thing before I knew how to write. I was feeling my way through it, just groping blindly through the air, propelled by little more than self-hatred and despair. I wasn't even so much trying to create art, at least in the sense of writing something stylish or au courant. The goal was simply to write something novel and true, an exposé of my psyche and all the darkness in it -- a "catalog of my sins," as one of the subtitles put it. 

I didn't spare myself; I wrote about the loveless things I thought about when "getting off" (my quaintly prudish term for masturbating), the dumb stuff I daydreamed about, that poor geeky kid I fake asked out in junior high (a dare, for the amusement of my own geeky friends). I wrote about the times I passed firefighters at stoplights collecting donations in their boots, how I would not even make eye contact with them, simply wanting the light to change; I wrote about the time I crashed an old man's funeral in hopes of writing a profile about him, all because I'd forgotten until that very day that my editors were expecting me to turn in a "feature obituary" to fill a slot in the next day's paper. 

And most of all, I wrote about my then-obsession with a guy I'd just barely dated in parts of the eighth and ninth grades. (I've mentioned him on here before; I would go on to lose my virginity to his dad, just a year after writing this particular confession, in a sort of Freudian-soap-opera nightmare chapter of my life.) Having recently undergone volunteer training that included learning how to recognize stalker behaviors, passages like this one below raised an army of red flags for me Saturday night (for the record, I rarely think about this guy now). The whole story is written in third person and the protagonist is never named, in part to create the same distance between the protagonist and the reader as the social-anxiety-ridden protagonist feels between her and everyone else in her life.

Years ago she stood at a phone booth in the mall and dialed his number. It was eerie because the mall was so familiar to her -- the trendy clothing store where her mom bought clothes for her, bright lights everywhere, people and families passing her on every side. She was here because he couldn't trace the call back to her. 
His phone rang at home and he picked up.
She didn't say anything. She'd planned on not saying anything. It hadn't occurred to her to talk to him. That's not what she was doing here. 
"Hello?" A little annoyed this time, the way people usually are when they can tell someone is calling them up to not say anything.
He hung up.
She called again. She didn't know why. It was just sort of automatic.
"Hello? Hello?" Silence and then he spoke.
"What a stupid game. What a stupid life you must live." He hung up in disgust.
And she called him again one more time.
Later, she thought about what he'd said. It was terrible -- she should have felt sorry about it, and she did, but she also felt strangely, sickly triumphant. She'd made herself a small part of his day that day.   

I was reading this thing again on a Saturday night, an evening when I could have been out on the town or chilling with my boyfriend or at least engaging in relaxing, less "heavy" downtime, because I was looking for patterns. Even though I wrote this paean to self-loathing back in my mid-twenties, before I drank or had ever had sex, and years before I would struggle with under-employment and other topics that crop up a lot on this blog, it's impossible for me to not see certain still-relevant themes. I wrote the piece in the hope of somehow earning redemption, with the not-terribly-original notion that if only I confessed all of my sins I could start anew, forgiven and pure. That if I went ahead and put down on paper every bad thing I had ever thought or done, no one could continue to fault me for it -- out of my soul and onto the page. 

I think that's what I'm doing here with this blog. 

The problem is that when I spew forth so much negativity, here and in that old opus, the light doesn't get a chance to shine. I'm trying to attain redemption via confession -- but I can never be "finished" confessing. I'll always have some dumb decision or less-than-saintly motive that I could write about here. Even though I have a good, stimulating job now and the temptation to see myself as (professionally, at least) "born anew" is great. Even if I quit drinking, developed some social finesse, achieved success with my now-embryonic-and-potentially-stillborn creative-writing career. (It's pretty much the oldest embryo ever, with bi-focals and a cane inside there.) Even if I could check off all of my purported goals, I would still sometimes fuck up. 

So when can I cease to be fixated on the negative, the torturous and magnetizing darkness in myself? When can I stop hating myself? When am I "done" doing that?

I had this dopey image the other day, a personal variation on the ashes/phoenix thing -- of me burning myself up in a blaze of self-criminations until I'm just ashes, and then this pure me rising out of it. But the logic of an image like that relies on the possibility that there's an end to the self-hatred, that there's a point when there's nothing left to burn down into ashes and it's now time for something new to rise up out of it. And there's not. There's never going to be an end to my doing bad or cowardly or morally lazy stuff that I could potentially be hard on myself for. 

So I reckon I just have to let some of it go. 

The strange thing is that this old writing, this "catalog of my sins," in baring everything bad I'd thought or done up until that point of my life, had the effect of endearing 26-year-old me to now, 34-year-old me -- which I suppose was the sly, possibly subconscious, all-living-creatures-really-want-only-to-be-loved point of the whole endeavor. Isn't that the real goal of confessing -- not just to be forgiven, rendered pure and clean, and able to start anew, but to be loved? 

Maybe if I do a better job of calling myself on the true motive for my self-deprecation -- some desperate, sad, yet terribly human desire to be loved -- I can stop doing it so much. If I can make myself see it as a method that I use for validation -- if I can see it as pathetic and needy and even approaching if not outright selfish -- I'll stop doing it. Better living through self-awareness. Like some banner in a yoga class. 

Oh, but wait. Telling myself that my impulses are "pathetic," "needy," and "approaching if not outright selfish" sounds an awful lot like the language of self-hatred. Damn it. 

There's of course nothing wrong with being humble or modest. That's not what I'm talking about here. I surely don't want to swing too far in the opposite direction -- love and forgive myself even for actions that are reprehensible. Proclaim myself to be God's gift to humanity, a veritable queen among cretins, in a protected zone beyond reproach. And OK, I don't want to be one of those perennially beaming New Age types, radiating self-love and sheer wonderment and glee at the simple miracles of the universe... for no other reason than that I find that type of earnestness to be eye-rollingly corny. (I'm sorry; I just do. Judge me if you will.) 

But after years of attacking myself, of opening myself up for you like the dude in the "Operation" game, laying bare my heart and soul and the sometimes dark rustlings of my mind, it occurs to me at last to ask -- where and what has it gotten me? It has gotten me the admiration of a handful of friends who read this blog and applaud the "bravery" they feel it must have taken for me to share some of the things I've written here. Ditto for some of my more autobiographical short writings. So there's that, and it's not insignificant to me.

That said, at some point I have to stop hating myself, right? Isn't that what everyone says -- that I should love myself, that it's the first step toward loving other people or being a caring and truly productive member of society? Isn't it just one of those basic rules that everyone seems to agree on? 

What would happen if I stopped hating myself? 

Who would I be?


  1. I enjoyed reading this and struggle with similar questions. I've never had much luck trying to will change, but it seems that the mere fact that these questions occur to us tends to indicate personal evolution. I hope you continue to blog so we can see where this takes you...good luck. For your readers' purposes, it'll be most interesting to see how your writing evolves, whatever happens, but for your sake, I hope one of the directions will be to stop drinking. Seems like it's making your life harder than it needs to be and that you risk losing what's important to you. Maybe that's not going to change now or ever. Still, from the perspective of this stranger (for whatever that's worth!) your drinking is dangerous. In many ways, you're so open in this blog, but it doesn't seem like you've faced the elephant in the room, although you've described maneuvering around it. If my suspicion is right though, and you're about to address it, I hope that you're as compassionate towards yourself throughout the process as you are to others.