Dear, dear readers—been quiet these last six weeks. I’m barely back and resettled following the AWP conference, sitting on my couch looking out the window to the plum tree that was, last year, just a twiggy volunteer. It’s flowering. The sun is brilliant. It’s enough to disorient a girl, or orient a girl, depending on lots of things. The Central Valley barely had a winter—how we are here, something in my gut doesn’t understand.
I hardly slept in Chicago last week—was too stimulated by the swirl of 10,000 fellow tribe members—but the one night I did, I had a spectacular dream. I say spectacular because it started out as the nightmare I’ve been having my whole life—the dream in which I am utterly desperate to express something and be heard, and in which my voice itself fails, my capacity to push air molecules against one another into crashes into words into understanding into passable sense is suddenly nonexistent. It is, for me, a terrible thing to consider even when I am awake, bathed in bright light, able to talk it out. That inability to register, to touch. Word to space.
But the ending was somehow different this time. The lead-up was the same: the force behind my voice was escalating; the thing getting said was getting important, coming to a kind of crest. I was (context reminder: this was at AWP) lecturing about the essay as a site of transformation, about how the study of the living essay is itself the study of the evolutions are available to us not just as readers and writers but as living people struggling with our own limited skillsets for finding real forms for our sense. In the dream, it was important that I said this thing, that this thing be heard. A force pulled it out of me, into those listening, the exchange necessary for all.
And then my voice gave, and the words became islands, and the voicing made something beyond my body. But at that moment, for whatever reason, the dream failed to become a nightmare as it was ten thousand other times: it was enough that I knew the shapes of the words internally, that I could recognize necessary language within my own bounded self, even if I couldn’t connect it to the world beyond me, if I couldn’t deliver it to the place it seemed to want to go. I could know those words, solo.
I wish I’d been able to stick around in the dream longer, but right then I sneezed and woke up in my bed high above Chicago, stunned.
I’ve been teaching in my sleep since the very first week I started teaching, back in graduate school. My partner at the time used to report which students I’d been talking to from within my REM jungle. I’ve always been a sleeptalker, and some part of my consciousness holds onto complete sentences no matter how out like a light I am, but it was surprising to me then to hear that from within my sleep, I called on my first students by name, to learn that the urgency I felt in the classroom apparently never went to sleep. That was twelve years ago. I’m no longer surprised by reports that I’ve been explaining on my downtime again, because the most urgent conversations I have are all about language’s accomplishments and literature’s necessity—especially to the writer, to the individual, to the body, to the heart that is the site of the damn hard work of relating, of making the insides visible, of helping carry life-sustaining sense into the world on broken human backs.
I’m not having the easiest late-winter-into-spring—the release of my first book has left me overwhelmed by details, I’m having one of those moments where I can’t possibly be writing enough to keep up with the internal drive (and the writing is marrow-level work), and a couple weeks ago I split up rather painfully and suddenly with a partner who’s helped me make more sense of my living self than anyone/thing other than blank paper and blank screens. The AWP conference was one intense distraction from all those elements: if you’ve never been, you can’t begin to imagine the simultaneously inspiring and nervewracking atmosphere of the thing, but for me, its real value is the time it allows me to spend with the folks who form the band I feel myself running with in my bones—the writers whose books I learn from and teach, the editors whose love of living literature helps it get born, and the faces that have peopled my workshops and my living rooms over the years. Put upwards of 10,000 people you can talk to in a space together, and feelings will start flowing.
I only got to attend one panel at the conference (I was exhibiting at the bookfair most of the time)—a discussion on the last day of the conference titled “Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay” to which Fiona McCrae, Sven Birkerts, Eula Biss, and Robert Polito each contributed some really wonderful thinking about modes of essaying, and what kinds of distinctions work and don’t when we examine the ways that essays invent, discover, and reveal what Sarah Manguso talks about as the “true dimensions of the self.” There was a great deal of talk at this year’s conference about the “me memoir” (a term I knew instantly I looked forward to sharing in my workshops) and the ever-pressing urgency behind the creation of new forms—specifically, of story forms that depend not on chronology but present other means of opening our subjects. Reflecting on her experience of writing “The Pain Scale,” Eula Biss discussed her perspective on the challenge of essaying, noting that all writers need to do to find a form that will open their work is to first identify what it is that they are writing about, and then (“just”—!) open the form for the exploration.
I laughed out loud. Gotta love how funny wisdom can sound when you just say it plain. OK, well I guess that takes care of form.
Here’s what I want to know now: what is the difference between “the I” and “the me?”
And if great art is indeed great criticism, then will trusting exploration (formal or otherwise) always lead us into a discovery of what it is that we most need to say?
I think about dreaming. I think about energetic release, about brainfire, about leaving the daily world behind and moving through the version of it our deeper, wilder selves remember while our conscious minds are offline. I think about the things that take shape in our lives because of the shapes we take in relation to one another. I think about the things I am always, always, always talking about: remembering and forgetting. What there is to love. How essential our numbers are, all of them.
The night before I flew home, I had drinks with a good friend from graduate school whose first book also came out last year. We talked about publishing and disappointments. We talked about the need to create impossible work. We talked about how the things we don’t know get in the way sometimes. We told each other to keep going, to stop trying to figure it out—which is all any writer I know really needs to be told. And then he said this thing about believing in the ghosts of poets, and believing in process. Both the seed and the way. Which is what I believe in, too, and which is what has gotten me here.
I think about birth stories, about intimate essays that involve no I or you.
I think about this thing everyone seems to be talking about, about how easy it is to fall into a certain kind of narrative.
I think about the difference between writing about one’s self and writing through one’s self, and the pressures creative people feel to speak.
I think about how sudden release is, and the shift to listening.
I keep thinking. Keep going. Keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going.