personal

nothing personal

When I was a teenager, my grandmother bought me a gift that pretty neatly summarizes the whole family’s attitude towards my literary aspirations: a sweatshirt printed to read careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”  The late 2000s were, sartorially speaking, bonanza years both for those of us who would rather not make eye contact while speaking and for those tasked with buying our Christmas presents. It was a simpler time.

Here, context might be useful. Czeslaw Milosz wrote that “when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” which I still think would make a pretty biting tank top. But for whatever reason, my grandmother, like my parents and the rest of my relatives, seemed (and seems) to find the idea of my authorship delightful, even as she acknowledged that I could probably ruin somebody’s day. In fact, I think I was being tacitly encouraged to do exactly that. “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” is the kind of thing one says from one’s perch over three fingers of whiskey at the end of the bar, heavy-lidded and mysterious, itching for a fight. “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” is the last sentence in the transcript of the divorce hearing before a fistfight breaks out. “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” is the thesis statement of someone who did not come to play, someone who told the Uber drive to drive around the block a few times while they go pick up this Pulitzer. As sentences go, it’s both the cigarette and the ashtray and the perfect-O smoke ring besides. Imagine if your grandmother gave you brass knuckles. Maybe she did. I don’t know your grandmother; she isn’t in my novel yet.

What I love about this article of clothing, of course, is not only that it’s a literal threat but that it’s written on a sweatshirt, second only to pajamas in terms of outfit choices inappropriate to wear to a murder, and that it was given to me, a former Sunday school teacher with several kinds of anxiety. This is not to say that I love the sweatshirt ironically. Far from. If anything, I spend more time torturing myself into new ethical pretzels regarding my responsibilities toward the people I write about than I spend actually writing about them, or writing in general; it’s a heavy thing, to end up in someone else’s story. Perhaps I should have mentioned that Milosz was a poet, and of course you’re going to be screwed with a poet in the family. But then, I’m a fiction writer, and here I am telling you the truth.

The first time I workshopped a story about a character who bore any real similarity to me, I was a junior in college. I’m being careful, of course, not to say that I never wrote such stories, because I have been writing myself into things since I learned to read. In middle school, I chronicled the adventures of a shy, near-sighted girl who went to Hogwarts. In junior high, I chronicled the adventures of a shy, near-sighted girl who knew where the noses went when you kissed. Around eighth grade, I branched out and wrote a series of poems about girls who had rich interior lives and interesting problems, as well as, most likely, heavy-duty astigmatism. But these pieces were different; they were aspirational, not characters so much as lenses, a way of scripting out the person I wanted to be. These many not-Ninas were smart and kind and always ready for clever banter with their equally clever friends. For years, I couldn’t write a plot longer than two pages because I wanted everyone in my stories to have a nice time, which meant no real conflict.

And when I learned to draft out conflict in high school, my writing no longer featured Ninas at all. It seemed childish to put myself and my life into something that other people were supposed to care about; it seemed like that was a good way to ensure that no one would care at all. Anyhow, the pain and joy I felt were private and excruciating, sometimes shameful, too muddy to make a story from without opening up half a dozen other stories besides. If it seems obvious that I left myself a pretty bloodless pile of material to work with, let’s just agree that you were younger once, too.

So: junior year. In this workshop, as with every workshop I took at Pitt, my classmates and I wrote each other feedback letters. These were to be printed out in duplicate, one copy for the author and one for the professor. (I still have all of mine somewhere.) For my first story of the semester, one of my classmates, a muscular, imposing man ten or fifteen years my senior who spoke about as often as the average chair, wrote some very kind praise for my imagery and dialogue before honing in on his major critique: the main character and how strongly he disliked her. She was kind of pathetic, he said. Whiny and self-absorbed. It was hard to care about her much at all.

I didn’t take this too personally. I’d been, at this point, to a decent amount of therapy. Besides, this was magical realist fiction in which small domestic goods fall out of the sky onto a local homecoming parade. It was sort of beside the point if you liked the heroine, a shy, anxious girl who is trying to erase herself from her own story. In that character, at least, I was finally writing what I knew.

A week or two later, it was his turn. He liked noir, and where his first story had featured a heist, here was a femme fatale: a young, beautiful mail-order bride who arrives in this country and bleeds her older American husband for everything he’s worth before ultimately disappearing with some other lover, probably to go do donuts in the parking lot of hell. The husband, the hero of the story, is a broken wreck by the time everything is over. I no longer remember whether it’s he or the narrator, who’s relating this whole sorry saga to a third party at a bar, who refers to her as a bitch.

I do remember her name, because her name was Nina.

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been a mail-order bride. There are many stories to tell about me, even some you could tell a friend at the bar and a few I’d rather you didn’t tell my mother, but none end like this one. It wasn’t about me at all. And even so, when the workshop began an uncomfortable silence fell, and it persisted until a different classmate raised his hand and said, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but think of our Nina the whole time.” We all laughed a little nervously. The author, avoiding my gaze, did not respond.

For the rest of the semester he neither spoke to nor looked at me, and I followed suit. And for a long time afterward, when I caught myself reflected in a window, or saw myself in the background of a photo on Facebook, or heard my own voice echoed back on an iffy phone connection, I thought, in the sincere and ludicrous way I thought everything then, Is that how he sees me? Is that at all what I’m like?

It’s a heavy thing, to end up in someone else’s story.

The movie adaptation of Harriet the Spy came out in 1996, when I was five and Michelle Trachtenberg, who plays the eponymous Harriet, was ten. Did I see it? Are you seriously asking?

In both the adaptation and the original novel, Harriet’s notebook is eventually discovered by her classmates, about whom she has written notes equally prolific and unkind. For a decent chunk of the plot, she is alone in her angry, confused grief. Her friends, understandably, no longer trust her. The grown-ups, unsure how to handle a little girl who bites, aren’t much help at all. As a kid, I found this completely unbearable and watched from between my fingers. Even now, thinking about the betrayal of sweet Sport makes my heart squeeze up.

But there is a moral center here: Harriet’s nurse, Ole Golly, who returns towards the denouement to provide the sort of restorative wisdom that adults are capable of in stories for children, if not always in the real world. It’s very good advice:

Naturally, you put down the truth in your notebooks. What would be the point if you didn’t? And naturally these notebooks should not be read by anyone else, but if they are, then Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them:

1) You have to apologize.
2) You have to lie.

Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.

It’s just that this, here, is my notebook, and I’m photocopying it to share with the class. What counts as the truth? Is it better to leave the difficult things unsaid, if they aren’t only about me? And if so, am I writing myself into another bloodless corner?

Ultimately, Harriet becomes the editor of the student paper. She learns how to tell stories without hurting people. I admire that. I have no idea how she does it.

The same semester my classmate wrote about another Nina, I was dating a fellow fiction major. Early on, when it became clear that we were going to see each other again and then again and then again, he told me, “We shouldn’t read each other’s stories,” and we shook hands on it. (Truly, is there anything more romantic than a handshake?)

I appreciated this for multiple reasons, not least of which was the relief that he would not read my fiction looking for traces of himself. At the same time, though, it was kind of lonely, because I – twenty, fidgety and silly and a little traumatized – wanted to know that I meant enough to show up in what he thought about, even if sideways, even if obliquely. Enough for there to be a red-haired girl in a crowd. Enough for there to be a line of dialogue I recognized as my own. I dreamed of mattering so much that to leave me unspoken would be ridiculous. When we broke up before his graduation that spring, I understood what we’d spared each other from.

After the end of things, I invited him to hear me read poetry at a campus arts event and he came. It was an act of generosity for which I’m still grateful, because I – now nearly twenty-one, fidgety and sad and always laughing a little too hard – was no longer someone he was even sort of obligated to. We were (and are) friendly, but “friendly” doesn’t have to mean giving up your Friday night.

I read a piece I’d written for my autobiography class, all about blood, which I realize sounds much more goth than it actually was. The professor had told us to list things we kept writing about, details we repeated over and over, no matter how granular or specific. One of these would be the point of departure for a piece worth some percentage of our final grade, and go. I miss college a lot sometimes.

Poetry didn’t count under the no-reading rule, though who knew if the rule still applied? Even so, though I’d chosen this piece with some care, there was a line in the piece about my ex, and I remembered this as I got to it. Did I ever tell you how my bruises started appearing out of nowhere in college: under my toenails, over my collarbone, inside my ankle like a tattoo. When I walked home from having my heart broken for the second time, I could feel the blood pooling against my ribs, purple and yellow and gray.

I could leave it out. But it was part of the piece. But he was right there. But if I wrote something, shouldn’t I be brave enough to read it? I held the paper in my shaking hands and kept reading, word after word after word, until the sentence was over, and then the piece itself was over, and I could not unsay anything anymore.

He clapped, I remember. And told me it was good, an act of generosity for which I’m still grateful. And then I spent seven years wondering why I’d been afraid to remind someone that they had hurt me.

For what it’s worth, that line is inaccurate twice over. First, of course, I am conflating pain with a bruise, with internal bleeding, the sort of thing I did a lot in the name of creative license but which would not fly in, for example, the ER. Second, I left out an entire (metaphorical) heartbreak; technically, I’d been crushed three times, not two. But I was not ready to write about that yet, nor would I be for a long time. In some ways, I’m still not.

Let me stop being precious, just this once. When I was twenty going on twenty-one, I severed one of my dearest friendships because I was afraid to tell my friend that he had hurt me. When I finally did draft something, during the Kavanaugh hearings last fall, I called it assault and I left out every single identifying detail: not just who my friend was, but what he had done.

Whose story is that? I still don’t know. It didn’t feel like mine, and it also felt like it was mine alone. We haven’t spoken in eight years, though, when I was twenty-two, a different friend told him the story on my behalf: he kept emailing to ask why I wasn’t talking to him anymore and I didn’t think I could handle explaining. I still missed him. I still miss him. I still refer to him, sometimes, as my friend.

Several times in my life a listener has critiqued my narrative in some fundamentally wounding way. The classmate who wrote me into his femme fatale fiction found it impossible to care about the character I’d created, and it stung. What stung worse was the feedback I got from my friend (my ex-friend? my friend emeritus?), because it came down to this: he didn’t believe me.

Not that I was lying – maybe just exaggerating. Maybe just confused. Maybe we should just remember that I was emotional and young. It had been long enough now that my memories might have coalesced into one false thing instead of many spikier, more difficult truths. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the mind abhors a story with no moral.

1) You have to apologize.
2) You have to lie.

My reluctance to write about other people has meant that lately I am reluctant to write. My reluctance to write about other people has meant that lately I am reluctant to write about myself. Which makes sense; I will be a different person someday, in addition to the many selves I have already been, and I feel tenderly towards the latter and want desperately to impress the former. It’s possible. I’ve been several people I admire, in addition to several I do not.

But not writing my own story means, I know now, leaving myself to the mercy of other people’s narration. We are storytelling animals, meaning-making machines. Mostly the stories people tell about me are good ones, the kind you don’t have to tell in a bar as a cautionary tale. If I am actually much more inconsistent than you were told, maybe you won’t even notice.

And sometimes the stories are bad: that I am overemotional, unstable, fragile, naive. The best I can do is live as decisively as possible in the opposite direction; you cannot tell someone that their interpretation of you is wrong. Funnily enough, I learned that in workshop.

A little while ago I went to dig something out of my wardrobe and found another gift from my grandmother: a sweatshirt that says “PROTAGONIST” across the front. I think I’ve only worn it a few times, since it’s white and I am the kind of person who sleeps with a Tide To Go pen clutched in one shaking fist, but it’s traveled to every closet I’ve had since high school because I love it so much.

There is nothing worth saying that is empty of other people. Even telling you about myself has meant telling you about who I knew and when. Stories don’t always have morals, but they need audiences: audiences of many, audiences of one, audiences of yourself and yourself alone.

To yourself you must always tell the truth, a wise adult once told a little girl in a story that wasn’t real but was real enough to stay with me my whole life.

Here’s what I know: the novel in me is unfinished, and whenever anyone touches it it changes. And this is good, to have the handprints of the world on the things you love. Anyone might end up in it now.

I am taking creative license. I am telling you my blood is purple, that I’m tough as nails, that what you have heard is true. When you read about a crowd, look to the back for a glimpse of red hair and imagine it’s me.

Anything could happen now.

I am still writing.

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personal

noli me tangere

A story is never told the same way twice. So much depends on who’s listening; just as much depends on whether the story is happy or sad, on whether its subject rewards brevity or embroidery, on whether the point was actually to explain anything at all. Injury stories are especially good test sites for these principles, since they’re never told without the intention of eliciting some reaction, whether pity or not. The aim can also be humor. The aim can really be both.

Anyway: last month I fractured my left elbow because I slipped on a curb while carrying a box of La Croix in one arm and a two-liter of Diet Dr. Pepper in the other. The box burst open, though the cans were fine, and the two-liter was shaken badly but recovered after a few hours in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, I scraped both knees, one of which was bruised purple for two full weeks, plus the knuckles of one hand. Meanwhile, I went on to have half a dozen x-rays and be seen by multiple medical professionals, including, most recently, a very nice orthopedist who told me that I was now healed enough that I need only wear my sling in places where I might get pushed or jostled, like the subway. This is (was?) a stable fracture, the kind of thing that heals itself; I only really had to protect myself against my own discomfort.

And listen, I know what you’re thinking, so here’s the answer: the La Croix was peach-pear, and it was worth it.

*

Maybe I’ll start over. My sixth grade spelling teacher hated the word “like.” Only a little of her classroom remains in my memory now: I remember blue walls and high ceilings, heavy windows that we propped open in the winter when the radiators ran hot, chalk boards ghosted with last period’s half-erased words. I remember that she was tall and platinum blonde, that I admired her in the vaguely frightened way I admired all adults who took me seriously. But mostly, I remember her pacing between our tables, interrupting us when we slipped up and saying, with no little sharpness, “Like, like, like. Don’t say like.”

By then – which is to say, 2002 and 2003 – there was a veritable like epidemic going around our school. At the time I thought it was, like, unique to us, though when have West Virginia sixth-graders ever been the vanguard of pop culture? Later I would learn that the colloquial “like” turns up as far back as a 1928 issue of the New Yorker, but Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet and I had to go off my gut. It was just as well that Mrs. D taught spelling and not language arts. Our grammar was not her primary concern, though she was, you understand, concerned.

Whenever we got each week’s vocabulary list, we’d go over each word, pronouncing them in turn and providing usage examples and definitions when called upon. This always brought me quiet, uncool joy. Inevitably, one classmate or another would offer up the forbidden syllable: “It’s, like, a kind of boat,” or “She was, like, totally ecstatic,” or something equally harmless. And Mrs. D would spit fire for a moment, but then we would move on, eyebrows singed but intact.

So the day I got my own dressing-down was a betrayal: I’d thought of a simile I was proud of, but only got as far as it was like before she cut me off. I don’t remember what it was, or what it like, exactly. Only that it was like something else, the way everything is like something else, though my knees as I stared at them were just my knees. I think I gave a different example then, desperate to prove that I really did know what this word meant, though what I’d wanted to say was better. And then we moved on.

The sting died quickly and I got over it. Just kidding! It’s 2019, and I’m still telling this story. But really, the whole thing is funny to me now. I wasn’t a teacher’s pet, but I was always too eager and uncanny not to be a teacher’s something, which is to say: injury stories can be about your pride too, too. I was effectively swept up in a grammatical sting operation, and all because I’d wanted to say that the clouds were like cotton or something. This is, like, a metaphor.

*

Maybe I love injury stories because they’re the best way I know of talking about pain.  Maybe I love injury stories because the pain I am most familiar with is not easy to describe, except in metaphor, and so rarely makes a story at all.

My therapist is always careful not to let me see what he’s writing in that legal pad of his, but I entertain myself by imagining that he’s keeping a tally of my references-per-session. I’m not his only client, and surely I’m not his only jittery, overread trivia fountain of a client, but maybe I’m the one who reaches for props the most.

“It’s like that line from the poem, how does it go?” I’ll say. Or, “It’s like that scene in that episode of Mad Men season one, except I’m both Sally Draper and the plastic dry-cleaning bag.” Mostly I am trying to be funny. I’m uncomfortable being serious without trying to be funny, and we are there to be at least a little serious.

The day I first came in with my arm in the sling, he asked me how I was doing and I laughed – real laughter, too, nothing sardonic or sad. I’d spilled coffee in my purse that morning: coffee that Griffin had lovingly made for me to bring to work, and the purse that he’d bought me for my birthday last year. The whole thing was a disaster I couldn’t fix fast enough because I was on the train by the time I noticed and my one good arm was occupied. “Oh, terrible,” I said. “But I’m always fine when everything goes wrong. I’m like the eye of the hurricane.”

“Why do you think that is?” he said, which I should’ve seen coming, since I pay him to ask me difficult questions. I shrugged with one shoulder. I’d taken a lot of ibuprofen and my purse was almost dry; we were already almost to the part where I could make this into (only?) a funny story.

*

I meant to tell him that, somehow, I made it almost a full month before someone pushed my bad arm on the subway. They were in a hurry, and I was in the way. And it’s a stable fracture, I reminded myself, gritting my teeth. It hurts but the hurt does not signify anything new.

It’s like that line from the poem, you know? Noli me tangere – some of the only Latin I’ve ever known. Touch me not. A friend put the last lines of Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt” in her AIM profile once, back in the dark days of AIM profiles, and I didn’t read the full poem until much later, afraid that I wouldn’t like it as much as I liked its ending:

‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’

In high school, this was tied with my other favorite poem ending, from Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

And how could I have liked anything as much as those endings, even the poems they grew from? I wanted to be wild. I wanted to be a creature rising from the fire. I wanted to be so sure, so tough, that I would never have to explain how I felt again. Not in the physical sense; how I felt on the subway platform, holding my wounded arm in its sling like a baby (like, like, like), was easy.  The other kind of feeling. The kind my elbow has been a good distraction from.

*

Maybe I’ll start over. For real this time. Here’s the thing: I haven’t written for months. Not about myself, anyway. And not for lack of trying.

But I don’t know how to begin writing about the last few months without writing about crying snotty, messy tears in my therapist’s office as I asked for the test, whatever it’s called, the one that would finally tell me how crazy I am. Most of the time I am trying to be funny. Mostly I can’t be serious without trying to be funny. Instead I let my own plea hang in the air between us because there was nothing funny to say. I looked at my knees instead – my knees that still look only like knees.

“Okay,” he said, very gently, after a small eternity. Probably all of five seconds, during which I’d reconsidered my entire life, aged infinitely and badly, turned into dust, and blown away across the indifferent ocean. “We can do that.”

I don’t know what I looked like then, and I’m glad I don’t. Probably like – like, like, like – someone had finally let me into the building on a cold night when I’d forgotten my keys. Your own gratitude can be embarrassing to witness.

*

The test is actually a whole battery of tests, spread out over multiple appointments. A few were familiar from Intro to Psych and from counseling intake in college. This, of course, made me certain that I was going to cheat somehow, that I’d game the system into telling me something kind and therefore untrue. Later, the doctor would tell me that the tests are designed to account for distortion in either direction: people lying about being good, or people convinced that they were bad. I still find that remarkable.

There was a semi-structured interview. There was word association. There were sentences he started that I had to finish. There was, once, a laptop cued up to a multiple-choice survey that was either three hundred or five hundred questions long; after a certain point, the numbers blur together. There were sheets to fill out in ballpoint pen. There were questions I could see the gist of and questions I absolutely could not, each of them getting at the untellable story of a certain kind of pain.

Between insurance hiccups and the holiday season, it was a few months before I got the report. And then, all of a sudden, there it was: an appointment on my calendar, a seven-page PDF about myself to look over first. I read it slowly before I walked to the doctor’s office, delaying the ending as long as I could, doubling back to make sure I understood. Then I read it again. I wrapped myself in my own arms, both of them still unbroken for another couple weeks.

The ending of the report isn’t poetry, though I’ve kept it humming my head the way I collected Plath and Wyatt once. What mattered more, then and now, was that the words described me. I was wild to hold. I was rising from the ash. I met the criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and here, the doctor was saying across the table, was what we were going to do.

*

Pronounce OCD. Define it. Please provide an example without using the word like, because everything is like something else and right now you are trying to be specific. Please provide an example without invoking physical pain or past accident. Please provide an example without getting cute.

We understand that something definitive, like an x-ray, would be helpful. We understand that perceptual ambiguity is sort of the whole problem. It’s, like, pretty unfair. In the meantime, maybe metaphor is a consolation prize.

*

Right now, I am sitting on my couch, drinking a can of La Croix. Lime, specifically. It comes from the same grocery trip as my poor, much-battered peach-pear, but my best friend was holding that box and so it wasn’t hurt at all. I realize now, I forgot to tell you: I wasn’t alone.

Injury stories are never told without the intention of eliciting a reaction, and I am telling you a story, singular, which is to say: I am realizing that I’m not alone.

Story, singular, meaning my elbow. Story, singular, because my brain is not yet (and may never be) a story I can tell – though I’m sending postcards, and I hope this one reaches you. It’s just that there’s no good way to tell a story you’re still inside of and will always be inside of, especially not here, at the beginning, when I am just beginning to figure out what I’m going to do.

My elbow is mostly healed now. I stopped wearing the sling two days ago, and the ibuprofen has sunk to the coffee-stained bottom of my purse. Even that stain has faded a little. Time passes. The slippery curb and I have reached, if not an understanding, then an uneasy truce. And my bruises have faded, and my arm extends the whole way, and I only resent people the normal amount when they push me on the subway. Don’t touch me, I think, every single time. Like that line from the poem. You know?

Let this count as starting over. For real this time. Let my tricky brain and I reach, if not an understanding, then an uneasy truce, and let me find a way to say what this is like. If not now, then someday. If not someday, then still, let me try.

This is, I know, no kind of an ending. But this is the new year, and I am trying to read the rest of the poem first.

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please touch the art

One of my friends recently asked me, not in so many words, if I’d like to play hooky from my life. His vacation days at work expire if he doesn’t use them, which means he occasionally has to invent adventures. And so yesterday we met for brunch at the Squirrel Hill Pamela’s, stuffed ourselves food-drunk on potato hash and scrambled eggs, and made our way to the North Side. We were headed to the Mattress Factory, an installation gallery that is mentioned in every single round-up of Things To Do In Pittsburgh, which makes it even stranger that it took me seven years to go.

Around 10 on a Friday morning, your average diner can be pretty empty, especially if the weather is lousy. Around 2 on a Friday afternoon, your average gallery can be pretty empty, especially if the upper floors aren’t heated. Around 4:30 on any day, though, your average parkway is stop-and-go, so on the way back my friend and I got stuck in rush hour traffic on I-376. By then we’d spent most of the day with ourselves and the same handful of strangers, and it was confusing to have so much company, to be one in a whole stream of people heading to the same place.

Jeff put on WYEP and we listened to someone talk about Shuggie Otis, and I looked out the window and thought. I thought about all the work I hadn’t been doing all day, the words I hadn’t written, the pages I hadn’t revised, the many ways in which I was falling farther and farther behind this theoretical other Nina who has everything pulled together; and I thought about making tea and taking a nap; and I thought about how Other Nina wouldn’t be tired and would, instead, have finished her daily quota of five pages, might be standing at the kitchen window sharpening a paring knife, watching the snow come down, considering what to bake or broil.

How easily we become ordinary again. In the Mattress Factory, we’d felt like astronauts looking down at some beautiful new planet.

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Anne Lindberg, shift lens

In every genre I’ve ever touched, including this one, I am forever writing the same story about myself. The story is this: I was once naive and precocious, then wounded, now wise. If not wise, then verging on wisdom. Adulthood is always on the tip of my tongue. It’s a comforting story – comforting to keep myself at that distance, to assure everyone that there’s an arc to this, where this is equal to me. Comforting to find a moral.

And in every genre, but especially and always fiction, I am forever getting writing advice that is really advice about living. Let go of the edge of the pool and take some risks, one professor told me. What are you afraid of?

Weeks ago, my thesis chair met with me over coffee to discuss my manuscript draft. The project is only superficially autobiographical, but in workshop there’d been some confusion about how much of my adolescent protagonist was me. By December I’d spent a lot of time distancing myself from her. Still, some of the critique letters mixed up her name and mine, which is understandable. My chair didn’t see this as a problem. “Think of it as a compliment,” she said. “They want to believe it’s real.”

But at the coffee shop, we were discussing more practical problems: specifically the fact that my girl describes emotions but doesn’t feel them. It’s as though her life is perpetually on the tip of her tongue, as though she keeps herself at a distance, as though there’s something she’s afraid of. There are scenes where she explains the species of sorrow at hand, but if she’s sorrowful, God only knows.

When my chair pointed this out, I surprised us both by laughing. It’s not that she’d said anything funny. It’s that I had just realized the one way in which my protagonist really was me, in which I had written my own story for the millionth time, but this time, at last, I’d done it honestly.

I’m not actually a wise person. I am someone who makes stories where maybe there shouldn’t be any yet. I am someone who cannot abide a vacuum, and I am also the vacuum. Oh, that sounds terrible, but that isn’t how I meant it. Space is a vacuum, and it also contains all the light there ever was or will be. It’s not empty; it’s formless. So am I, against my better judgment.

What I mean is that there are two ways to create narrative. The first is after the fact, when you can see everything plainly, as a kind of accounting-for. The second is during, out of panic or need. It’s the difference between this happened and I was okay and this has to happen so I will be okay. It’s the reason I still, at almost twenty-five, can’t always describe how I feel, so busy am I at trying to figure out how I should be feeling. What am I doing? Does anybody know?

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Chiharu Shiota, Trace of Memory (detail)

The thing I like most about installation art is that, in every actually meaningful way, it defies description. Yes, I could tell you about walking through Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored rooms, but so what? You aren’t there, watching yourself move on all the walls at once, catching the angles of your face that previously only belonged to the people who love you. You aren’t there, sitting in the dark of James Turrell’s Pleiades, waiting for your eyes to adjust. Have they adjusted? Has it always been this dark, here in the void? And is the dim light real, or is it just your own lonely brain searching for something to see?

The other thing I like most is that it demands to be touched. If not with your hands, with your eyes. If not with your hands, with your whole body, just by being that close. You could keep yourself at a distance, but then why’d you come?

And the other other thing I like most is that, if you’re me, you eventually find yourself standing in front of some strange object and thinking, What should I be doing? Am I doing this right? 

Art is for asking questions. Usually the questions are open-ended. But I am nearly twenty-five and all of my questions have become very literal lately. What should I be doing after I graduate? And how do you get oil stains out of denim? And is my own intuition worth trusting? And does my insurance cover this? And what if I ruin everything? And what would be the polite thing to say? And what if I cannot see my mistakes until I’ve made them?

The answer, I know but do not believe, is that it works out. It just does. That, or you die, but I haven’t died yet.

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Bill Smith, spherodendron

All those dazzling things yesterday, and instead I’ve been thinking about Eadweard Muybridge’s horse since I woke up this morning. You know it even if you don’t think you do – it’s that set of images, a long strip of moments in time and a horse caught in each one, running. Any one frame is a portrait, but all of them together are a movie.

I feel like that horse sometimes, caught between this place and the next one. I am still this version of myself and so have no idea what I’m running towards, what I will have learned. But every moment before this one cues up so beautifully. Surprising and inevitable, as Flannery O’Connor would say.

As a child I was obsessed with what I might look like when grown up. The answer, of course, is that I look like myself. But that’s only obvious in retrospect. You can look at my adult face and see that little girl, those same green eyes, that same sharp chin; it’s easy, after the fact, to find proof. In 1996, though, my future was an idea I hadn’t finished having yet.

In 2016, my future is an idea I haven’t finished having yet.

Perhaps I will learn to tell a different story about myself. In that story, perhaps I am still naive and precocious, even as I am wounded, even as I am wise. Perhaps all of those things are happening simultaneously. Maybe I don’t need to be a museum curator, just an archaeologist.

I want to tell stories I don’t know the ending of, and I want to resist writing the ending.

The theoretical other Nina knows all of this, of course, but the thing is, she’s only theoretical. I’m the one who’s actually here, who has the privilege of screwing up and trying again. Her pages are better than mine, her knives are sharper than mine, ever iteration of her body is more beautiful than mine, but don’t you know mine is real?

I said I’d played hooky from my life yesterday, which isn’t quite right. I think I was present for it in a way I usually am not. Even in the traffic. Even in the unheated Mattress Factory. The thing I like most about the world is that it demands to be touched: if not with your hands, then with your eyes, or with your body, by being there. That’s all I wanted to say. I’m saying I’m going to try being there.

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beginning song

I turned twenty-four on Monday, and it’s still very strange to me. I don’t know why; I’ve had twenty-three birthdays before this one. You’d think that, with practice, I’d eventually get the hang of this whole thing.

And I know as well as anyone that there aren’t really any grown-ups, just people older than us who fake it better. I didn’t wake up on Monday with a sudden understanding of love and death and hedge funds, or an urge to buy a hardcover collection of New Yorker cartoons. To be totally honest, I woke up and played Animal Crossing and ate a pb&j for lunch. That’s who I am. That’s who I was when I was twenty-three, too.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the stories I choose to tell here. Everyone does that, the packaging-up of small humiliations and victories. When I was eleven, I wanted to move to Canada. When I was thirteen, I played a lot of computer games. As a kindergartener, I sang weird folk songs on the playground. I’ve talked about all of these things on this blog. They were so long ago; they are, for lack of a better descriptor, easy. I already learned something, and I can tell you about it, so I’m going to.

It occurred to me today, though, that ten years ago I was fourteen, and what about that year? What about fifteen and sixteen, or really any age between then and now? To be honest, I don’t know what to do with those years and that life. It’s complicated. I made mistakes. I still make mistakes, but I made those so earnestly. They aren’t good material. Too soon; besides, why share everything? I’ve never believed in that kind of disclosure. Every person has gates up, chain-link fences, dead zones where the cell reception doesn’t stand a chance. Everyone names countries within themselves and then makes it impossible to return there, at least for a while, at least until the government changes and the landscape is no longer familiar.

Here’s an easy story: there’s a little shop on the main street near my apartment where you can buy candy and lottery tickets and magazines. A newsstand, I guess you’d say – imagine that, we still have newsstands. I walk by it when I go pretty much anywhere in the neighborhood, and each week there’s a different hand-written sign in the window dispensing wisdom to us passersby. I think whoever writes them is older and not a native English speaker, based on the handwriting and the syntax. This week, it’s “TAKE PROBLEM AS A CHALLANGE.”

I love those signs. I love whoever writes them, whoever spends the week thinking of advice the world could use and then giving it. I wonder if they were ever twenty-four.

And another easy story: on Tuesday, my favorite band came to town and I went to their show. I’ve seen the Decemberists play before, but that was years ago, in the life I don’t know what to do with. It was 2011, and I thought all the time that year that my heart might explode. The friend I went with isn’t a friend anymore. We no longer speak.

But this time, I was older and wiser and had brand-new glasses. I ate yellow jasmine rice standing up in my bedroom beforehand and took the bus downtown. That’s how you know I’m a better version of myself: I actually caught the bus on time. And it was amazing, that show. Truly it was. For some songs, we were instructed to sing along, and I did. I clapped until I thought my hands might break. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I got home.

The harder story is that, a lifetime ago, I had just turned fourteen. There was this boy I loved beyond all reason, who likewise loved me beyond all reason, and he sent me songs to listen to. That’s how some teenagers touch each other, you know. One of those songs was “The Legionnaire’s Lament.” And I did listen to it, and then I persuaded my dad to drive me up to Morgantown so I could buy Castaways and Cutouts with my allowance money, and I proceeded to listen to that album on the bus to and from school just about every day for the rest of eighth grade. At some point, it didn’t matter if I was actually listening to it or not; it had gotten inside me. I mean that there was this album I loved beyond all reason, too.

The thing about being that young is that you very likely have no idea what the world will do to you. Not only that, but you know there’s something you’re missing, because everyone tells you constantly about how young you are, how naive. Everything is new and terrible and wonderful. How else are you supposed to take it?

Of course things fell apart with that boy. Between then and now, a lot of things have fallen apart, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With everyone I’ve loved since, it’s been more careful, a little less wild. I grew up, I guess. Besides, you never want to break your own heart the same way twice.

But I still love that band – love that album and all the ones after it. The newest one came out at the end of January. I’d preordered it, and I hung around the apartment until I heard the mailman come by. I thought my heart might explode. That was this year, in the life I’m still figuring out what to do with. Some things you love so much you fear, and I guess I was afraid, thinking that maybe this landmark would be gone from my life too. That whatever magic I’d felt was only still there through the force of nostalgia.

It wasn’t gone, though.

There isn’t a moral to this story. It hasn’t been long enough, and it might never have been long enough. That’s the problem with hard stories: they’re suggestive and they go nowhere. When I was seventeen, I avoided being in photos, and when I was fifteen, I read “Brokeback Mountain” sitting on the floor of Borders, and when I was twenty, I hadn’t yet stopped speaking to any of the boys who told me I was fragile. So? So what?

When I go by that newsstand, I always look to see if there’s a new sign; that’s why I know how often it changes. The plate glass is angled a little bit so I can see myself walking forward. Sometimes my image is smaller than I’d expected, and sometimes larger, and sometimes it doesn’t matter, because I’m just glad for proof that I’m still there. TAKE PROBLEM AS A CHALLANGE.

This will all be a story, too, someday. I won’t know what to do with it. That’s probably fine.

What I do know is that on Monday I turned twenty-four, and on Tuesday I saw a band I love. And today is Thursday, and I’m listening to the birds outside and the piano in the apartment below mine. No moral to this story either. Everything is, miraculously, still new and terrible and wonderful. How else are you supposed to take it?

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