August 30th, 2008

did you think you were here alone?

(did you think you were here alone?)

there are so many times i wish i'd kept a journal.

that summer after high school, riding my bike to the cemetery behind our old house. storms rolling in, drawing until the paper side of my left hand made marks of its own. that long, strange autumn, the first out of high school, when light was indirect and bright and sunsets were the work of a subtle surrealist. my first semester, miserable at the community college, alone again in the newspaper office. my first year at iowa, sort of on my own. coyote and i sleeping in the same twin bed on bad roommate nights. my first few weeks out of iowa, locked in my room or alone in public spaces where i knew no one would engage me. what was i thinking about? what led to the personal constructions that followed? naked in bed with wet hair, candle wax in the carpet. reaching over to flip a tape or see the sky beyond the eve of the house. times of blue light and specific incenses i can no longer burn. driving at night with no destination and the windows down. goddess statues and witchcraft books, circles of polished stones on the bedroom floor. susan seddon boulet's image of isis cradling her husband's corpse, the one i hung over my bed for years: why?

it's not so much the urge to cast these moments in bronze as it is a need to demystify them--to hear my voice as it was in that moment instead of projecting a romanticized one from my current perspective. the september day i found a three acre lot exploding with sunflowers and ran in circles, unable to believe my luck; the day i pulled up to a marsh and, with the slam of my car door, sent a half dozen cranes skyward. i can describe these moments now with a sort of nostalgia, an old woman paging through her wedding pictures. but i don't really know who that person was, running through the sunflowers, driving around at night. i can only fill in her blanks.

i have writings--poems or half finished short stories, the sporadic three page diary entry--dated march 15th 1993, next entry february 2nd, 1994. the little bits i have are singularly focused, audience-intended performance pieces, in which i try to amuse, to attract, to be unique and interesting even staring into the void. there is no reflection on my surroundings, no meditations or coming to terms with things. there is only a degree of honesty. i tell instead of showing. i'm proud of myself for preferring bands or books that most of my acquaintances don't know about and rarely reveal more about myself.

not that it's bad writing. it's something, at least? but i'm trying to charm strangers into falling in love with me, and those strangers aren't anyone who will ever read my words. the writing is very limited. intrinsically flawed, embarrassing, over-earnest, self-pity parading as entertainment. i didn't know how to keep a journal until the late nineties. there is a craft to it, a craft only attained through entries made with greater regularity than once every eleven months. you have to write out the performance voice. you have to get past the addictive thrill of confessional writing. you have to evolve beyond using your writing to get things out of people. you have to write past the need to see yourself as absolutely unique, the only one who knows about this, the only one who appreciates that, the only one who sees something a particular way. you have to stop being so impressed with yourself. you have to stop being so disgusted with yourself. you have to recognize your voice as derivative and worthless three dozen times before you find your own gold standard: only then can you come into your own style, using your tools as actual tools instead of becoming overly invested in novel devices.

even now, something i write will grit my teeth two weeks later. but it's different. i fail, but have developed more technical skill at the process of getting a moment down and giving it to my reader as something that has value beyond making them love me. perhaps what i wish is that i'd learned that sooner--that i'd kept a better journal while i was still young. except, at the time, i was already overwhelmed. i didn't see the point in writing down the things that happened to me or my perceptions of those particular things. i didn't have enough time and, anyway, they were my moments and i'm the mother of my own perception.

i didn't think there were moments or observations i could lose.

now, paging back, what i find are page after page of complaining, of psychoanalysis, of selling myself, of hoping always hoping i could reinvent myself into someone he would love--whether it was the "he" from the sixth grade or the "he" from my last year of college. weird cosmogenesis written in someone else's voice, that's the legacy i've left myself. i've always been reflective, i've always needed time to process and contemplate events--i just didn't appreciate that those moments were as mortal as anything else. i figured i could get all that little stuff down later.

so this started out as a plea, to all of you, to learn to write it down. to keep it for yourself if you can't give it to others. to document those little moments, how the cranes flew up from the marsh, how the campus smelled of chinese food and maize the first day of class, how the screech of the plane as it lifted off the reagan runway almost satisfied the scream you were choking back. to remember not just the umpteenth fight with your mother-in-law and the bounced check but how the new summer breeze felt on your bare arms and how seeing the crack in ester's windshield made you love her even more. to document the beautiful moments even when you know you were angry or frustrated or sad: there is a connection, sometimes. an ugly moment makes a beautiful one so much more meaningful.

don't let the beautiful little moments die, that's what i'm asking. we remember the wedding days, or we tell ourselves we do, whether or not what we remember is an accurate memory or simply the template, the bullet points, what we are supposed to remember about such times.

don't remember in templates and bullet points. remember the stories: catching my breath as the doctor lifted my nephew into the delivery room lights and his eyes rolled about, feral and curious, taking everything in. watching his adoptive mother hold him for the first time, her face mimicking his face, the slight tremble in her husband's hands. don't just remember you had a wedding and it was such a happy day you'll remember it your whole life. remember that you were terrified and out of sorts and didn't know what you were doing most of the time you were doing it. remember that your eyeliner rolled down the back of the vanity in your stepmother's bedroom, that you spent a quarter of the hour you had to get ready obsessed with trying to retrieve it, how your maid of honor came in to find you in your slip and corset sobbing and tugging the chest of drawers back from the wall, how she pulled you away, sat you on the bed, shoved her eyeliner into your hand, pressed her forehead to yours and hold tight for thirty whole seconds before running back out of the room. don't lose these beautiful instances to the fear of looking vulnerable or foolish.

if there's one thing i've learned from the writing craft it's that we're all vulnerable and foolish, sometimes, and being able to honestly talk about that, being unafraid to portray yourself in unflinching detail, it's part of what separates the memorable writing from the unforgettable kind.

i mean, this isn't a lesson you can necessarily be taught. this is a lesson you learn for yourself, and some people never learn it. it takes time and it involves pain. when you keep a journal, you are potentially creating not just a log of victory and complaint to "get it down" or "get it out" so you don't have to dwell on it so much, but a legacy for those people you leave behind. get it down, get it out, but if you presume to be a writer, if you want to document your life: learn to write the little moments, too. it's how you will come to be seen, it's who you will be--to someone, somewhere--three hours after your write it or a hundred years after your last breath. it might be meaningful to someone, it might give someone hope, it might help someone see the beauty in their own life, now or a century beyond your understanding.

you can't, possibly, remember that every time you take up a pen or you will lose your mind. don't remember it in every moment, but remember it, especially when you can't see a point to this thing that we do.