Personal Writing: On What Is Disfigured and What Is Whole

I am very late to the game in remarking to the fiasco of sorts around "The First Person Industrial Complex" as it was titled in Slate but this is my blog and I had money-earning writing to do, dammit and so it took me a moment, OK? I think that there is a lot of value in what Laura Bennett wrote and I also agree with many of the critics of the piece. But again, this is MY BLOG so I want to talk about my experience as it relates to this piece. My quote appears in the Slate story as follows: Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.16.52 AMThis snippet came from a thoughtful, cordial one-hour interview on the phone and as much as I want to be outraged that the full depth of my relationship to first-person writing didn't make the cut, I know that I have  similarly cut conversations into quotes for the purpose of both clarity and brevity. I stand by this quote and believe there was far worse that it could have been finagled into. In reality, a fuller depth of that experience was better captured in a section of a story that was ultimately cut in my piece "The Cult of Work" for Hazlitt. It read:

Because I make a comfortable living as a writer, people expect me to feel exempt from the pull of monetary incentives. And in an economy that demands that the overwhelming majority of us work for a living, to express ingratitude at my position would be distasteful and tone-deaf to the point of being mean-spirited. I am indeed grateful to be a writer now but this gratitude is a sigh of relief rather than an exuberant shout. Writing has disfigured my relationship to my interior life as I seek to monetize its every fiber, transforming a once thoughtful exercise in self-reflection into a spreadsheet of experiences arranged in order of their potential monetary value.

There are no longer minutes but seconds between when I have a peculiar thought or experience and when I consider how I might sell it to a publication. Even as I write this, I withhold the darkest and the least linear elements in this particular constellation of thoughts in the knowledge that an editor would cut them anyway. I hoard my most clever turns of phrase even when they are apt for a conversation. My hope is to one day insert them into a project that will not be metabolized at the speed of the internet. It is not an entirely ignoble plan but the lived reality of which results in rampant self-censure in my personal encounters.

The point of this passage was not to say "Woe is me, I can't write as freely as I want!" but to express that no matter how graphic the detail, how intimate the prose, and how much a reader relates to the experience at hand, they are not reacting to a fragment and not a whole. Their relating to the story I wrote is authentic but it is not relating, necessarily, to me as a living, breathing human.

An unedited documentary of my own life would be profoundly dull and most of my thoughts and feelings are ordinary as fuck. But there are pieces that emerge from the quotidian and the extraordinary alike to which I say, "You belong to others too, I think." I then take a gamble on whether or not others will relate to them and craft a story based on that experience, thought, or moment with myself. I reconfigure it not to be deceptive but to explain it in a language that people speak. Sometimes it has a dream-like quality that matches the moment at which the thought happened even if the thought itself felt uncomplicated and sometimes it is expressed with more linguistic authority than I've ever actually felt in my body. In any case, it is a reimagination of the original feeling as a means of both self-preservation just as much as a means of self-disclosure.

 Personal essays are often a middle chapter in a life. A mark of punctuation. A turning point. A milestone.  They are made more poignant by being incomplete, teetering on the edge of some resolution but not entirely resolved. And though they are abridged version's of the writer's reality, they have the power to make readers feel something like resolution. These essays take what people thought was disfigured in them and readers recognize it as a familiar scar. And in showing the distance between the writer and the wound, proving that they can be made whole again.

10 Sentences I Wrote That Remind Me I Can Write Sentences

Surprise! I have made my blog which used to be sort of about One Direction and my selfies into a ~writing blog~ of sorts. And since my writing process is mostly me just clicking away in a fevered rush until I suddenly stop and start sobbing onto very expensive electronics about my utter incompetence, some of this blog is going to be about the self-care I do in writing to pick myself back up. What I have struggled with over the last few days is creating sentences that I care about or that mean something to me or are clever or use words well or whatever it is that sentences are supposed to do. It is easy in those moments to think I've exhausted all my best ones and should call it a day. But I have felt that many times before when I wrote a sentence I was especially proud of. And so this post involved me rereading a bunch of previous work and selecting ten sentences that I am especially proud of. I can look at them and either laugh or have a little heart ache or just be grateful to be entrusted with language for a living.

So here they are, sentences I wrote and am very happy to have done so:

"To commit suicide in the beginning or the middle of a story was to radically refuse to participate in the narrative as anything but a ghost. There was something familiar about wanting to haunt a story rather than tell it."

"Summer is in full swing and you know what that means: it's time to do ho shit."

"The reliable ghouls at the Post run a cover photo of the moment right before the cruelly small blade enters Foley’s neck. It turns out that the beginning of an era looks a lot like an unfair fight between metal and bone."

"Chill is what Cool would look like with a lobotomy and no hobbies...Chill presides over the funeral of reasonable expectations. Chill takes and never gives. Chill is pathologically unfeeling but not even interesting enough to kill anyone. Chill is a garbage virtue that will destroy the species. Fuck Chill."

"Sorrow does not have a circumference. It has a weight that slumps the posture and disfigures one’s good sense but it is a weight like heavy particles in the air more than weight like a watermelon on the shoulders."

"I thought of many ways that the delicate magic of children’s lives might be disturbed by the practicalities and cruelties of everyday living. And this was all just the neurosis of encountering eight little shoes."

"The first rule of ending casual relationships is that you have to end casual relationships. There are too many people that just choose to stop responding to text messages to end things. Those people are weasels that eat trash and wet popcorn and deserve to be set adrift on ice floes and left to the mercies of the deep ocean."

"Yoga, in the minds of many straight men, is a placeholder for light but effective exercise done primarily by women. It is a sanitary practice, a form of exercise uncontaminated by sweat or gender-neutral footwear. Something that pretty girls do three times a week in flattering pants."

"We laugh and shake our progressive heads when a little girl wants to be a princess, gently clarifying, 'No little one, I mean how do you hope to toil so that you and your family might not starve?'

"At the center of this dying universe was a living god. And that god was full of impossible, unconditional, and undeserved love. But just as New York’s light pollution obscured the beauty of the skies, its pace and indifference had dulled my senses to godly love. And so I invented stories about the particular clarity of Connecticut skies."

How Lana Del Rey Taught Me To Love My Tired Words and Wild Kingdoms

Right after my book sold, my agent asked if 55,000-65,000 words sounded good to me as a word count in the first step of negotiating my final contract.  In my head, I was like, "Girl, how many pages is that?" but I hate feeling like I'm some kind of big old dumb dumb so I quickly replied that this would be totally manageable and like, I could totally write more as needed. And this week when I surpassed 30,000 narrative words written that amounted to more than half-formed ideas and a handful of orphan metaphors, both of those things were still true. The artist at work.

But the other truth is, for the most part I don't know shit about shit and had absolutely no concept of how many words 55,000-65,000 really is in the context of a book. And because at my freelancing peak, I was publishing 4-6 stories a week that  came out to about 10,000 words total on average, I was like, "Shit, I'm going to finish this book in like a month and then go smoke cigarettes and wear leather in fuckin' Paris for the fall!"

La Tour Eiffel, etc.

But what I didn't take into account was that my freelance work is not thematically linked nor is it going to dwell inside a bound physical object that people invest more than eight minutes and zero dollars in. I produce at that volume to accommodate the metabolism of social media, not to live on someone's bookshelf or in their Kindle as a single work threaded together by well-established themes. I want people to want to share my book with their mom in a way I don't expect them to with my stories that have titles like, "The Dickonomics of Tinder."

As I worked on multiple essay drafts at once, I became acutely aware of my tendency to repeat the same metaphors and turns of phrase. As it turns out, there are just not that many fucking synonyms for "fragile" and "clumsy" can be used to describe everything from foreign words mixed in with one's tongue to the way a particular kind of woman stands still. Worst of all, I discovered some latent interest in restoring the monarchy because I want to describe everything (fucking everything) as some kind of kingdom. Wild kingdoms! Tastefully appointed kingdoms! Kingdoms in the valley of the shadow of death! It was like that time Oprah told everyone they got a car except I was handing out like, land and castles and standing armies.

Just as I was prepared to give up hope (not really, but this story needs an arc), I found deliverance in an angel.  Her name was Lana Del Rey and she cannot stop repeating herself to save her goddamn life.

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An article in The Verge about the lyrical universe of Del Ray reads:

To be a fan of, or even just have a healthy interest in Lana Del Rey is to enter a world and mythology every bit as dense and geekable as something by George R. R. Martin. Since breaking out in 2011 with her langorous first hit "Video Games," the aggressively self-styled singer songwriter has gained legions of fans, many of whom are inspired and egged on by the foggy relationship between her lyrical truths and biographical facts. Blue hydrangeas are the dizzying Carcosa-spirals of Lana Del Rey fandom.

I was like, "You had me at dense mythology and aggressively self-styled and foggy relationships!"

A guide at NYMag from 2014 actually delves into an exhaustive guide to how much she repeats herself. Like, girl cannot stop talking about Elvis or her own death or blue hydrangeas or America or dads ( in all their glorious forms). Here are four gifs that kind of sum up her catalog nicely:

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I mean, Lana Del Rey is problematic as hell but her music doesn't sound like something coming from a one-trick lyrical pony. These references create history and texture, placing her songs  in the ecosystems of her evolving but persistent obsessions and the sustained physical presence of certain objects. When you think about it, it ends up seeming strange that other artists aren't repeating themselves as often. Are there environments so fleeting, their moods so fleeting?

Now, I am well-aware that pop records are not essay collections and that my mileage may vary. I do believe in rigorous reflection on word choices and that I should actively expand my linguistic horizons. But I am also the most consistent presence in my book and if I related to the subjects and people I explore therein in the language of magic and monarchy, then it would be dishonest to go pillaging in the depths of the English language and shoving clever metaphors into stories where they don't belong.

Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to write another 10,000 words in time for me to make it to Paris in the fall because even though she loves America, you can just tell that Lana is secretly French as fuck.

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