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.