…if anyone knows.
Almost everyone in my car has two seats to themselves, and while this might not be ideal for Amtrak’s bottom line, it’s the closest to paradise I’ll come for 39 long hours. Instead of an intimate co-sleeping arrangement with a massive gentlemen en route to North Dakota’s pipelines, I’ve made a sloppy nest of laptop playing Wes Anderson’s entire movie cannon, plastic bag pillow, jar of olives, journals, glasses, hair tie. If the olives are producing a noxious odor, I’m beyond detecting it; there’s too much competition between liquor, exposed feet, and the steady fart trumpets from people all around me. The jar of the lid captures the scent, or so I tell myself, while realizing that I was destined for train travel, with just the right amount of clueless to time the opening of the jar and the loud fork olive extraction and the messy crinkle-crinkle of my plastic bag pillow to keep rhythm with the person sneezing behind me. We are a factory of sleep disruption, and our song goes: sneeze, crinkle, fwop, tinkle tinkle, cough, click, thunk, crinkle. If the entire car hates us with the heat of a thousand suns, we earned it.
Not that we’re the only pair of dedicated sleep disruption artists. That would be disqualifying the man watching a shoot-em-up action film, speakers blaring. It’s like I’m there, in the casino, angry at Al Pacino. After the conductor comes through and kindly points out the error of his ways, the man says, “Oh, I didn’t know anyone else could hear.” It’s then that I notice the dangling cord, and consider that in this headspace, it’s just as likely that his headset had always been plugged in and the rest of us developed supernatural hearing.
The rest of the train ride is a blur. Memories include excitement bordering on hysteria at being awake for the 6:30am breakfast crowd, which was me and three other people stuffed into a single table by someone whose been angry since 1976. Everyone else was freshly hatched from the comforts of their sleeping cars, including the elderly couple arranged across from me and the surly fellow to my right. He explained that he was accused of theft the previous day when he was trying to purchase a sleeping car, and I was never able to make heads or tails of the misunderstanding, though there was nothing he said that sounded untrue. I’m also a sort to be accused of strange things when in the company of people who brag about being normal and can never consider the shifty-eyed disposition might emerge from someone with perfectly clean hair and filed fingernails…so I get it. Still, I can feel his disdain for me developing with every sentence that leaves my mouth, relating my route to a writers’ conference, the joys and perils of traveling alone. Whatever, I probably sound like someone trying too hard to escape semi-colon existence for an exclamation mark inspired life, but it’s 6:30am. His posture and sideways glances communicate what I’m used to hearing from a certain type, notions that I’m this “little girl” one wide-eyed moment away from an axe murder. The usual underestimation of my own tiny knives. I’ve found that the men most likely to assume this about me have never actually been in an urban environment, and underestimate the value of intelligence in navigating strange spots in favor of pure brawn. The ability to talk another person down or fake a level ten crazy is just as useful as going toe to toe. This is not a conversation we have, but the post script of my head that happens when my computer is in front of me again.
The actual conversation is me guessing one part of the pair was once a teacher, based on the steady expression she maintained through the scenery and conversation loop, learning her husband had been raised on farm work and was once a machinist, daydreaming about their lives, their children, and the amazing scenery likely offered through their daily drives. It was the sort of conversation that happens on trains, a combination of detail and restraint, confession and pause. This, alongside the admission that we’ll all leave the train swearing it’s our last time on a train, because it’s slow and hard on the body, all the while knowing we will definitely be on a train again, awkwardly arranged in coach seats. No matter the discomforts, it seems criminal to just fly over Montana like it doesn’t mean to be there, like those mountains and rivers aren’t something to see. If I could take the whole thing by swingset I would, but until that feat of science, there’s Amtrak.
The breakfast itself is terrible, wads of reheated eggs looking exhausted on a plate that somehow came to $20. The sun revealing green all around us was everything.
This is how you know you’re in coach on Amtrak: all the neatly closed and coordinated luggage has been properly stowed in sleeping cars. Coach is not a place of matching sets in modern colors, hard-shelled and adorned with stickers announcing far away cities that might not really exist. We are a tribe of borrowers and Goodwill shoppers, garbage bag packers and shopping bag haulers. There is no one in coach in expensive jeans, no skateboards covered in sponsor labels velcro’d to a brand name backpack. It’s men who shoved their personal possessions in a camping backpack and a bottle into a front pocket for slow sipping at each announced delay. It’s women with so many children they haven’t known a private shower or a hairstyle more complicated than a ponytail in years. It’s people who walk on in pajamas and stay that way, and confuse the courtesy of the kind chap selling coffee for friendship; a friendship that is revoked the moment his lunch break lasts a little too long and all the addicts tighten their line formation and bristle. Coffee. This is about coffee. And beer. Definitely beer. It’s people who are accused of things by other people, people who are a bit more tired at 30 than average, it’s people who Know Better Than You about so many things, if you wouldn’t only take the time to listen.
And in the midst of this is me: borrowed suitcase (check). Uncomplicated hairstyle (check). Personal weirdness to account for (check). Mounting exasperation and an inability to complete a sentence (double check).
There are very few women in coach during the journey from PDX to MSP, though two men in hunting jackets and John Deere trucker’s hats have managed to find one. She’s a Japanese tourist with an east facing seat in the observation car, and both of these men are eager to tell her everything she’s not asking about America. I’m seated behind her, barely remaining upright and thinking about disease. The American men are talking about how their parents can’t retire, early careers in dirt bike racing, and why Americans need to repeatedly renew their drivers’ licenses. The Japanese tourist mentions speaking three languages, and one of them tells this joke:
“Someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual. Someone who speaks three or more languages is called multilingual. What do you call someone who only speaks one language?”
Lulz all around.
Their conversation is slow and meandering and surprisingly intimate, as each produces a phone full of images of their respective hometowns to best illustrate their explanations of everyday life. I hear her comment that she doesn’t have the same journey that a lot of Americans feel compelled to experience, the journey of identity, because she knows exactly where her parents were born and what place they started from; she knows what village they belong to, what palace resides there, and what it means when the bells toll. Both men are silent at this, out of respect for the truth and the poetic delivery, and I’m thinking about it too, and my own need to inspect my genetics and identify as American plus something else. I wonder if there will be a time in the future with a single identifiable American ethnicity, one that has nothing to do with the Civil War and dates of immigration, and if during this time Americans will be a bit more interested in story, having been freed from the prison of memorized names and dates and graves.
These meandering thoughts sustain me and them until sunset demands retirement to seats for movie watching and pseudo sleeping. There will be no sleeping.
There’s a guy who is sleeping, and every third breath he yells, “whoa!” I got the seat with the light always on. This makes me feel responsible. Somewhere the whole train turned North Dakota, which means it’s occupied by oil men who make Montana snowboarders coy about their drinking habits. Everyone is sick, or at least sick of being on the train, expressed through repeated sighs, stomach clutching, head clutching, groans. We are the unwashed masses, and the smell is real. I steal a fork from the kindly chap peddling coffee to friends that aren’t friends to finish my giant jar of garlic stuffed olives. Everyone doesn’t know they’re jealous, but I’m the least sick and the most delicious. The fork makes clink noises against the glass every time it takes a dive. The light is on. Dive. They know what I’m doing. Dive. I’m responsible. Dive.
Amtrak Hellride for the stripes.
Once the woman finished her anecdote about bear shit and the obligatory bear shitting in the woods joke, an elderly man in a bright red hat with long white hair (who had been staring at me for hours) finally saw fit to ask a question. That question was: “Is that Yellowstone?”
My brain said, “It’s Glacier National Park” and then followed with “that’s too much work” and so I had no choice but to answer: “Okay.”
“Maybe Middlefort or Middle Fork River?” he pressed. Wait, does that mean he thinks the river is Yellowstone and not the park, or are there two places with the same name?
I try to formulate a word but my chin just rotates in a circle, possibly off my face, and I think about reasons to cry. Some alert young man in the official outfit of snowboarders everywhere explained that the river branches from Yellowstone and runs into Coochie River. (Note to reader: in other circumstances I might see fit to harness the powers of the Google and learn what the proper river names were, but for the sake of this story I think we should all remain on the same confused, sleep-deprived, and desperate level. Remember: there is none of the internets!)
It seemed like I should compliment this young fellow for his knowledge, and so I said, “You know Geography!” Then I decided I shouldn’t talk anymore.
Still, Montana: giant trees and snow and great gorgeous mountain tops. The sky filled with hawks and eagles and blue. Great green stained rivers running a track that defies time. The land seemed strong in a way it isn’t in most other places in America, like it knows it’s going to outlast you and won’t kneel to the demands of industry. If it needs to, it will make the bear shit smell permanent to keep you at bay.
Throughout the train people kept telling me it’s going to get boring eventually, but I couldn’t hear it. Montana let us through, but just barely, and only because we kept to our track even more tightly than the river.
Finally on the train, everyone around me immediately fell asleep, informing a suspicion that Amtrak avoided further confrontation by stuffing those free sandwiches with sedatives. Another way being gluten-free = torture. They thanked me for my services with a seat directly below a light that was always on. Even the observation car was empty, which made it look like a scene in an 80s movie right before a red leather jacket dance battle takes place that tears the whole place apart. The only people to trickle in were teenagers, the sort that buy Nirvana t-shirts from Target. Both sleeves of crackers were history, which left avocados, and I cut the first one down the middle and began eating little slivers with my knife. The teens looked at me, and tittered. Whatever. I was laughing at them the whole time, too. At some point I fell asleep and snapped awake when my glasses hit the floor. This is why I purchase pairs that cost less than $100.
Light of dawn meant Montana, and I hurried to the observation car to take in Glacier National Park without even wearing a jacket. Every seat was cameras and conversation. There was a woman of about 40 with hair the color of sand and a face shocked red who was giving an on the fly science lesson about grizzly bears in Montana. She reported that 40% of the grizzly population lived in Glacier National Park, and then went on to describe a fault line you can actually see. Amtrak’s absence of reliable wi-fi services makes trains the perfect place to compulsively lie without a smart phone interruption. If it wasn’t for the olives I would have feared I was contributing nothing to the Amtrak community, especially since I only just then noticed that I’d failed to seize an opportunity to create an elaborate nature story that would shock the German tourists to the core. And just when my jealousy couldn’t get any thicker, the 40ish lady said, “you know, the smell of bear shit never goes away. There’s areas all over where you smell nothing but that. Nothing.”
Please, do go on.
Note from Amanda: super exhausted today, so this is short so i can sleep. More tomorrow!
I got off Amtrak today wearing 39 hours of train haze and a body odor generally reserved for detox diets, checked into my hotel, babbled at my partner, hung up on him, showered, and then collapsed for two hours. Two fitful hours of frantic arm itching as each hair follicle threw a tantrum, I thrashed the blankets all over while mumbling about how my hair is red, my skin is red. Then I wrote this in my dream journal with a certainty that this will make deep psychic sense later. Much later.
When I stood up I thought bedbugs, hives, eczema, dry skin, autoimmune issues. Then I looked down at ankles that had assumed the curvature of a redwood, with just as much spongy resistance. To the Internets! After reading about blood clots and kidney disease and liver failure and poking my ankles to measure resistance, I called my mother. She was babysitting my nieces, which is something I learned after I called her house phone, then called my sister, and then called her cell phone.
“HELLO!” my mother said. Her cell phone is a friend from another country who only understands English with exclamation marks.
I was trying not to cry. My cell phone is a therapist with opinions. “My ankles are swollen.”
“I’m with your nieces. We’re playing Sorry!” That was a good response, because my next thought was holy hell that’s a boring game, even more boring than the game where I’m dying of ankle swell on the 10th floor of a hotel. Then she said, “Have you been eating a lot of salt?” That’s when I remembered all those olives.
Let me back up:
Yesterday I got up late because I went to bed late, and ran around stuffing too many t-shirts and not enough anything else into compression bags I didn’t close properly. Then I shoved all these bloated plastic bags spun into knots that rendered them more cumbersome than folding would have been into a tiny suitcase, and then I said oh no, and flapped my hands until a friend came by with a bag designed to handle a whole lot of suits. Apparently this is perfect for 9,000 t-shirts and air-filled bags.
While I was flapping, my partner was doing things like depositing checks and dropping off rent and picking up prescriptions and not saying too much about the too many clothes I was definitely going to take. He also managed to not say anything about the number of books I was taking to sell at a conference where people notoriously scoff at self-published authors, and did not say a word about the giant bag of Trader Joe’s food that made no sense for any living being. Items included four watery avocados, two sleeves of rice crackers, two Stumptown Cold Brews, two snobby German mineral waters, chickpeas trapped in an oil stew, carrot sticks, and a giant jar of garlic stuffed olives. Green was well represented.
Now that you have a clear image of the slapstick in progress boarding the train: I did not get on the train. At the Amtrak station I was ignored by one woman busy wishing she worked elsewhere, and then was handed a ticket by a pasty man who announced I was bound for Pasco. Huh? Someone was handing out boxed lunches.
“Where’s Pasco?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” was his response. I took the box labeled Turkey, because yeah.
The bus was all the things bus dreams are made of: fart smell and windows that don’t open and rotten food and babies with the lungs to scream for four hours and confusion. No one knew why the hell we were on the bus, and after a few shouted questions we learned an entire fleet of buses were headed to Pasco, because the train was not coming into Portland at all. Since none of us were new to this transportation experience we got over it in favor of trading cookies and chips with an efficiency that would put a playground to shame. As someone gluten-free I was an instant celebrity, as the entire contents of my box save for the apple were rationed out to people who like eating. The bus pendulumed my stomach, and I shoved crackers into it to keep it quiet.
At the Pasco station the Amtrak employees had a mutiny on their hands. Four hours on a bus is tolerable with a food bribe; we were now stuck waiting in a tiny lobby with no indication of when this would end. There was a great thunderous volley of complaint, as people jockeyed for status as Alpha Complainer, angry eyes encouraging the crowd to hoot their support for one of three Silver Backs. My favorite was a woman in her mid fifties with brown hair curled for battle, a hands-on-hips, this-is-bullshit strut that announced she was born to do this. There would be letters. There would be calls. There would be a sleeper car, and it would be clean! Not like last time!
Meanwhile, I was Tweeting to Amtrak, since I learned during a previous trip that this is the only real way to get a response. Fair enough; I don’t answer my phone, either. The Twitter exchange told me how far behind the train was and was quite apologetic, and I was quite apologetic too, because it’s not her fault that her time control device need new batteries and physically present Amtrak employees eat anger as a delicacy. Like any good coyote I kept this new information for myself, because I eat hilarious, and one of the would-be Alphas had just declared, “This is CRAZY!” A girl in newsprint pants glanced up, then unplugged her headphones and turned Snoop Dog way up. The complaints now had a beat. This was amazing. This was for everyone.
Then they made us get in line.
A theory: there are pressure points on the bottom of my flat, flat feet that trigger misery when I have to stand without moving for too long. Too long = five minutes. Standing in line, my brain said: what am I doing with my life? I don’t think I was happy enough my 36th year. Do I say that every year of my life? What year do I look back on as my happy year? What was happening then? I probably wrote about it as miserable at the time. Maybe this has something to do with the transition from hair metal bands to grunge bands in the early 90s. Went from ridiculous-spandex- high-kick girls-girls-girls nothing-but-a-good-time to I’m-still-alive and I-think-I’m-dumb in 18 months time. Maybe I should listen to more Motley Crue.
She took my ticket just in time, but didn’t direct me anywhere. So I stood there, five hours older, three bags heavier, 34 hours to go, before finally picking car 15 because an Alpha Complainer stood in front of it yelling, “Is this it? IS THIS IT?”
Amanda will be writing one thing or the other about this adventure every day this week for #AWP15.
1.) I’m a mean, mean woman
About fifteen years ago I attended a party. A man I sort of knew approached and began the dance of the aggressive would-be molester, the push to see what my “fuck off” level was, exactly. I’m not talking about flirtation, but aggression demonstrated by someone making calculations based on how drunk I was (or could be), how bored, how unwilling to be assertive. You’re trying to get laid tonight with that outfit, I know you are, I can tell…no, you are…no, you are. I know I’m trying to get laid. Why are you moving away? Don’t be shy. What are you drinking?
It was uncomfortable, but I’d already learned that subtle clues don’t register with this special breed of asshole. I’d been to pagan festivals oozing with older folks looking for broken people to vampire, to clubs where shifty guys standing at the edges of the dance floor slip pills into unguarded drinks, to hippie-rich desert trip-out spaces where people try to accuse you of not being “free enough” if you articulate a boundary. There are people of all genders who will push and push and push and use silence as consent, simply because they don’t give a shit if you’re consenting or not. The objective is you giving in; not your enjoyment, not communication, not pleasure. The goal is the contents of your pants; this isn’t romantic. The lesson I learned from watching such people in action is to deliver a “no” with a hammer when a swat won’t suffice.
So rather than stand there and dodge unwanted affection (for hours) I made direct eye contact and said, “I’m not interested. At all. So stop.”
Then another man behind me said: “Aww, why are you being mean?”
This was just enough to encourage the aggressor to start up all over again. That was exactly what he did, and exactly why I left.
Overview: When you are clear, you are mean. If you let it happen, you’re being complacent; you should have been clear. If you express enthusiasm, you’re a slut; you should hold back. If you hold back, you’re a prude or a zealot; you should give in.
You will always choose wrong.
You have a thing that is desired. You are not whole; there is a specific thing separate from you that is prized. You? You are not prized. You are the keeper of the prize; she who keeps the prize is resented. It’s not fair that you get to be the gate and the key.
If my ascent to dark and clawed cousin of the manic pixie dream girl, the venom-injected sibling of the Sad Girl could be drilled to fit a singular event, this would be it. An army of Valkyries hatched inside my head and have since been busy harvesting and hunting. What I left behind was bullshit, things that have never been missed.
I left behind the parties that invite people like this. Adult-children, who perceive other people as an entitlement, a gate to break through. Actual adulthood is achieved through recognition that initial primitive impulse is not necessarily a call to action.
I will not be a gate that holds back animals. And I’m not willing to share company with those who think animals are simply adorable, and I am only there to feed them.
2.) Community as cloaking device
In any community, most people know who the liabilities are: the people who can fuck up any event, party, or family gathering through being lecherous, violent, or offensive for attention. Nevertheless, crafting clever disguises and escape hatches for unsavory sorts is something that often happens, from the Catholic Church to the NFL. This also exists in so-called alternative zones, and it’s time to stop pretending that it doesn’t.
Recent headlines draw attention to this, from the alt-lit community that supports predators, to Canadian television stations where pop celebrities are quietly discussed as someone to avoid if you’re female, to the Burning Man community that knows what to do to create an instant wired city for 60,000 but not what to do for rape victims.
Since long before Burroughs writers have noted their sexual proclivities and have absorbed a fair share of scorn for the less mainstream varieties, but only in recent days have these individuals continued to enjoy mainstream support, even after numerous victims come forward to reveal a pattern of violent, dangerous behavior. Tao Lin used a relationship with an ex as the basis of a book, including verbatim pages of correspondence; in this book he detailed a pattern of abuse, and then further abused his partner by publishing it without permission. It was only after his behaviors were detailed on Twitter that he felt inspired to offer this ex any future royalties on the book in question. And in case you’re wondering, stealing words to pen a heavily autobiographical account of manipulation and rape isn’t enough to compromise a book deal.
In the mainstream writing world, Lena Dunham has increasingly come under fire for using her sister as a human shield against accusations of homophobia, for violating her trust and using her stories to bolster her own, and for detailing what many would categorize as sexual abuse in her memoir. Dunham’s response to these accusations is demanding that people take it back, calling the accusations (not her actions) “not ok”, and completely failing to note that readers are simply drawing their own conclusions based on information she freely submitted. She seems to feel these accusations are misplaced simply because she’s Lena Dunham – and those who rally around her seem to agree. Not that the Hollywood set has ever been particularly inclined to heap scorn upon someone accused (or even convicted) of a sex crime; the difference is that Lena Dunham appears to be someone who would consider what she did a crime if someone else had done the deeds.
Back in my day of creative nonfiction workshops, there was much discussion of the lines we draw for ourselves in memoir, and places where the story isn’t our to tell, and what sacrifices we make for story. Dunham’s words would have been revelatory if they included acknowledgement of her own capacity for villainy and insight as to what she’s learned about consent in the years that follow; instead, it underscores her sense of exceptionalism and narcissism. Those who aggressively defend her perpetuate this delusion. Shelter and cloak.
Comprehension of feminist rhetoric, the ability to piece together a zine, or a preference for clothing ideas inspired by sci fi films or 80s sitcoms doesn’t exempt individuals from reprehensible behaviors. Whether Brooklyn-based man-boys or Marion Zimmer Bradley, sheltering of those who respond to no as if it were a suggestion results in entire communities that reek of fear and insecurity, where talent hovers on the margins of excess and is usually neglected out of fear of being supplanted.
There is no glory in taking advantage of a situation – or other people – simply because you can. An inability through disability of will to say no does not equal yes. Fear does not equal consent; it equals fear, and invites an enabling, cowardly community of insecure individuals who cannot achieve their heart’s desire without exploitation to be created, on the face of what could have been revolutionary. The destruction of such communities might not happen overnight, but it will happen eventually, and it is loud and ugly and public and awful.
3.) A cure?
The wolf blood in me demands an unambiguous morality and loyalty with rigidly defined lines that cannot be crossed. And yet I have remained friends with individuals who have crossed boundaries because I have chosen to call them out in blunt terms (“mean”) and have refused to indulge it or diaper it. This has involved targeted statements such as “you are fucking creepy” and “you don’t respect boundaries” and “you are being willfully negligent of the desires of people around you so you can get what you want” and “you are a self-serving douchebag taking advantage of naive young people and abusing your position of power.” When this doesn’t work, making them leave (instead of leaving yourself) could be the solution.
Real friends and loving family members occasionally call you out in a way that reduces you to a blubbering mess. I’ve done it, and it’s happened to me in instances where I was damaging people around me, simply because I could. The notion that people don’t change is bullshit, the sort of thing articulated by someone too lazy and self-serving to change.
Those who respond to accusations with, “you’re right, but stop making me feel bad” (as was the case with the alt-lit meltdown) are desperate to remain the only living person in the discussion. Acknowledging the real pain of the individuals on the receiving end would allow them to fully exist beyond immediate convenience or supporting narrative prop. Feeling “bad” is the result of the actual adult that operates beyond primitive impulse attempting to claw to the surface; maybe feeling bad is what’s for dinner.
Others will not register a “bad” feeling, but will instead seize the opportunity to argue better. The accuser is not a rational person; the accuser is overly emotional, and therefore not to be trusted; the accuser did not firmly articulate lack of consent with a notarized “no,” and is therefore not to be taken seriously; the accusers have a personal vendetta against me (all of them), and I was fired for the activities of my private life, not because I’m a serial woman abuser who has been protected by my community for years. Does a better argument eliminate the accusation? If an IQ exceeds expectations is consent implied?
Why does the number have to grow (and grow and grow) to be taken seriously? How many accusations are enough to suggest action? Why is it suggested that accusations come from scorn, but it isn’t suggested that the original actions came from an even uglier place? And why is the desire for this to not happen again not discussed so much as the desire for no one to be accused again? Why does it so rarely lead to discussions about cloaking and enabling in community?
Communities are strengthened when standards are established, and creativity and collaboration are the anchors. Where idea exchange and common interests inform a shared desire to see what can be developed when people support each other. Victimhood is not a culture, but the inevitable outcome of a world of aggressors ill prepared for interacting with others. The way to get people to “stop being victims” is to stop the people who create victims through actions.
Violent people holding court while terrified sad people quietly whisper about the reasons to avoid them solves nothing; encouraging the people who come forward to remain quiet for the sake of the community poisons the well. Call them out, and if behavior doesn’t change, kick them out. It’s only then that other ideas and real innovation can bloom, instead of fighting for sun around weeds.
And even as I write this, I wonder how my ideas about community and (for that matter, parties) would be different if I had chosen to stay, and he had been made to leave.
How can I say this? There are many people posting things right now that offer insight as to how to talk someone out of suicide, largely in response to Robin William’s death. There are links to lists that outline preventative measures to intercept a suicide before it happens. These lists often assume that suicide is the end result of prolonged feelings of unhappiness that can be corrected with hefty doses of medication and therapy. There is no mention of other reasons — and there are many.
Here’s my issue: I don’t think tapping out on life, if you truly feel you’ve contributed all you can and no longer have the wish to exist in your body, is something that needs to be “corrected” by others. It seems reasonable to me that you might be done, and know it. It would be cleaner (and much kinder) to give your loved ones fair warning, so that it’s clear this isn’t a decision made lightly, and is not a decision that reflects an absence of love for others. Hunter Thompson, for example, knew he didn’t want to grow into a crippled old man dependent on others, and elected to exit earth by his own hand. He left clear instructions to have his remains shot from a cannon. There is no doubt that his family and loved ones mourned this, but an exit in such fashion is fitting of his character; it’s hard to envision him slow-rotting in a cancer ward. People use “right to die” legislation to end prolonged (and painful) battles with cancer and other diseases all the time, because not existing is a more peaceful option that existing as a shell of oneself. This could be honored, or at the very least, respected, even though it leaves a sour taste.
I’m not untouched by suicide, and people very close to me have committed it, and I’ve seen first hand the ripple effect of people wringing their hands and wondering what could have been done; I’ve done it myself. The lives of every living person adjacent to the suicide are altered in an instant, with each person nurturing individualized guilt over perceived failure to reroute an established choice. Those affiliated with certain religions might find it especially agonizing; I don’t have that issue to overcome. The part I struggle with is that my love and companionship were not sufficient gifts to replace personal pain (physical or mental), and if there was a spell to be spoken to reroute that pain, I didn’t know it, or I said it wrong. What remains is the same hole that is left when anyone dies, the plague of things said and unsaid; this grief can’t be avoided.
Death is inevitable; only sometimes can it be amended by action. There is great difficulty in learning to honor another’s choice, and letting go of the desire to steer others. Let Robin Williams death, and other suicides, be mourned as the sudden absence of a beloved someone — not a mistake in need of correction that cannot happen.
A friend of mine once got a tattoo. She’s a Taurus, and the tattoo was of a bull. She picked it off the wall of the studio, and adjusted the coloring. Within ten minutes of getting it, someone asked: “Why did you get a tattoo of a purple cow?” She pointed out that it’s obviously a bull. Look at the horns! Look at the septum! It was pointless; it became the question she’d field again and again, until she gave up and started saying, “It’s a purple cow.”
I think of this when people ask where I’ve published. I used to say, “I’m independently published!” By this, I hoped to summon the literary equivalent of Ani DiFranco: I didn’t go with a label, I made my own! I’m not Suzanne Vega! All I need is a wicked debut and the next thing you know, stadium shows!
It didn’t take long to note that no one thought about stadium shows. They thought I was talking about a tiny press at a college. A trendy start-up with a typewriter logo. The side project of a major literary magazine. Most publishers of this kind don’t launch the endeavor with their own novel.
Now I say, “I self published.” Then I sit back and wait for what I was trying to avoid: the smug expression of someone with a limited edition chapbook at a tiny publisher, four minutes from being out of print, who is finally fulfilling her self-righteous dreams. Better? Good.
Or maybe I wait for the bookstore to confess the “special section” already has a lot of titles. Or for a professor to say, “you’re not really published then?” Or for a fellow author to say, “did you try to get published first?” even if the entire first part of the conversation was about a publisher’s lack of marketing support and their unwillingness to publish the book’s sequel.
Then: “So…why did you decide to go that route?”
Well, because I’m a woman. When James Joyce writes a long, complicated but well-crafted sentence, he’s fashioned a genius. If I write a long one, I’m accused of making my readers work too hard. If Cormac McCarthy writes a short, gruff exclamation, it’s poetry. If I do, what kind of emotion are you trying to communicate here? If I write a personal essay, I’m asked to make it a memoir. If I like a black cover, I’m asked if there can be a fish on it, or a girl with her foot in the water, or maybe a sunset, a pair of sunglasses, a bonnet. Almost every female book cover looks like a douche commercial. If I write on dark subject matter, there’s questions of who my audience might be, and whether the book would even sell. And that’s the keyword: sell. Those doing something dangerous and innovative who get book deals (and happen to be women) really hit the lottery. Anne Carson clearly has naked pictures of everyone. I would like to send her mine. Or they’re writing about sex, which is the only acceptable form of feminism. Equal pay? You’re so second wave. Lean in, or something.
Two options: write differently to sell, or write the book you want to write, and accept the fact that maybe no one will read it, maybe no one will buy it, maybe no one can even find it — maybe it’s just the book you write.
Terror. If the story is just for you, then why would you even write it down? Writing is about communication, to present ideas and pictures and dialog that another will receive. Writing without response is the literary equivalent of the tree falling in the woods riddle.
And this is followed by: should I trust myself to know what is best about my writing? Sure, I’ve experienced dozens of writing workshops and excellent mentors, I’ve got a BA and an MFA, I’ve learned tricks and techniques and tools, I’ve buffed and polished myself into confusion and insanity and back around to hilarious. Really? Should I trust myself? Now?
In moments like this, the only question that can get me to stand at my desk and start working is: What would Virginia Woolf do?
This is an easy answer. She’d write her book. She’d agonize over it. And stick her foot in her mouth ten times in between.
This is still what I do. And just like her, I find myself repeatedly adjusting and pacing as my life changes and I learn new things, so it’s so very hard to call a book done without calling the same curse from yourself.
The downside: when you write the book you want, and no one reads it, it might be more devastating than writing the book you kinda didn’t want to write and don’t care if anyone reads.
I wrote the book I wanted, with the cover I wanted, and the quotes I wanted on the back. It took twice as long as I’d anticipated, because blood was squeezed from every word. There was no editor to herd me away from the book and urge an obsessive hobby that resulted in winter wear. There was no fact checker to consult with scholars about a village of immigrants in 1960s Cleveland. To this day I have the privilege of saying that the end result is exactly what I envisioned, and I compromised nothing. This is an achievement. This is joy.
No one would review it; most newspapers even have policies against self-published books. The accolades I earned came exclusively from online sources kind enough to note their reactions on Amazon or Goodreads or Powell’s. Bookstores that sold out of copies didn’t restock it, and offered no reason as to why. Others were left saddled with a stack of something no one wanted, and had to ask me to retrieve them and quietly slink away. The neglect I fretted about receiving from publishers was now arriving from other outlets, and it had nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with an inability to network and a deficiency of cash to pay someone to do it for me. After a year of being on some shelves but not enough, I was backing myself into my own bitter corner of self-published self-loathing, and lowering the gate with a dose of depressed laziness.
I got back on the purple cow after talking to my niece, Rayne, about writing. She’s doing a lot of the same things I did when I was 9, like filling one journal after the other, and writing a book series with character traits from different books put together like Mr. Potato Head. She’s got a leg up on me thanks to her illustration prowess, and every time I return to Cleveland she’s got another something finished to show off. When I talked to her about writing, she said, “I want to be a writer like you.” And my response was, “You ARE a writer.” I didn’t want her to think she had to wait for some secret initiation. It’s not something that’s granted through degrees or contracts or book sales. It’s something that’s announced by writing.
This reminder doesn’t fully resolve the stall. Self-publishing requires business savvy and social skills, two areas in which I’m woefully deficient. On a good day I can make it all the way to the end of a conversation without bringing up the special deformities of a little known disease, or starting a telephone slideshow of cat pictures. An ill-timed question about my book returns a stunned expression that suggests I’ve never considered what it’s actually about. It’s a miracle if I can twist this gobbledee goo down to something resulting in monetary exchange. I’m more manic than pixie and only dream girl if someone wakes up screaming, but I’m not sure you can buy a book in the middle of all that racket. Still, I should have cards to hand people or something.
The same holds true if I ever want to tangle with the publishing world that is the PUBLISHING WORLD, and hope for a contract that isn’t adjusted for self-esteem deficiency and impatience when working with lawyers. These are skills. They are learned, and I wish I could just buy them.
See above, about the shortage of cash.