Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Discomfort Is Not Its Own Reward

One of the essays I whipped out in December regarded a topic I'd been thinking about for months: how love is not always neatly boxed into one or another category, e.g. romantic love, platonic love, sibling love, etc. I wrote about my friend's not-quite-closed marriage (which is not open); about the attachment I have with another friend, who is a sister to me but whose body is a luscious part of our sisterhood; about a strange, filial/sexual/agape/physical love scene in a film I saw. The main thread of the essay was the platonic but helpless love I fell into last year with a person in my life who is unaware of that love. (Don't worry, sports fans, my marriage is sound [and closed].)

I termed all this "blurry love", and everyone I spoke to about the essay prior to writing it was enthused about the idea.

After I wrote the essay, I sent it to a small handful of people. No one gave me specific feedback. Matt read it and said it was good, but he always says that. People said they'd get back to me or just didn't respond at all. I thought it was missing something, though I wasn't sure what; I was impatient to revise it into something I was comfortable sending out. So I sent it to my monthly writing workshop group.

In doing so, I ignored a few mental warning bells. Most of the group knows the platonic-love person I refer to in the essay. And they certainly know me. There's uncomfortable stuff in the essay for sure, but that's the nature of what I'm writing about. Blurry love is uncomfortable. That's why I wrote the damn thing: to open up the discomfort of un-ordinary forms of love to discussion. I figured we were all grownups in the group, and besides, I went to great lengths in the essay to explain just how platonic was the love I describe.

A friend who has a fairly extensive friendship with the platonic-love person wrote me a few days before the group met to tell me she was not comfortable talking about the essay and she'd have to miss the meeting that week. She was perfectly kind, but it still upset me badly. I valued the friendship a hell of a lot more than the essay and I didn't want to damage it; plus, the essay felt like a failure, since no one wanted to talk about it. I worked hard on it, so that stung.

I deleted the essay from Google Docs and sent something else to the group instead. The friend and I hashed out what happened a little bit and decided to move on.

This past weekend, I finished Tim Kreider's forthcoming book of essays, and in it he ventures up to this same thesis of mine: that not all categories of love are as well-boundaried as we'd like to think they are. And, potentially, no categories of love really are, and culturally, we're calling certain what's really quite fuzzy.

In spite of Kreider, in spite of my own fervor for telling the ineffable, this essay might not be salvageable. Evidently no one, in any context, wants to talk to me about it, and that's basically insurmountable, since I know something's wrong with it that I can't see and that needs fixing. It's possible that I'm hitting a limit I've hit once or twice before: the point where discomfort is not its own reward, where the ineffable should remain ineffable so as not to make people's skin crawl at what I've written. In my mid-20s I wrote a handful of stories about men doing violence to women that attempted to comprehend the monstrous, and thus displayed it. I don't regret that work, but I (irrationally) wish to control it completely, to direct it toward people who need it and away from people whom it will hurt. That's not how creative work works, once it's in the world. This essay might be a mid-30s version of that work - teasing out a complexity that no one actually wants to read about.

It's also possible that the essay's just not that good. Not worth salvaging. That my creative feet are too big for this particular thematic tightrope. That hasn't happened to me in a while, but it does happen.

These past few weeks have held big ups and big downs. Dizzying highs, terrifying lows, and creamy middles, to quote Pater Simpson. I got in the mail a paper magazine with my name in it, and an accompanying check. Despite the plethora of online bylines and the handful of payments I've picked up in the past year, that was an unbelievable thing to hold in my hand. Then the secret project got rejected by my dream press.* A review of a book I completely adored can't find placement to save its life - I think I've hit 20 unsuccessful pitches on it - while a handful of reviews for books to which I was mostly indifferent (and one I didn't even like) have found homes in places I couldn't dream of hitting with my stories or essays. I got an acceptance for a story I'd trunked in 2014 and was only this final rejection away from trunking again. I am stressfully behind on reading, reviewing, and revising, as well as interviews, planning for the semester, planning my next solo workshop, and sleep. Also, for much of the past month I was operating under a poor medication choice that turned me into an emotional lunatic. Thank goodness the effects seem to be ebbing away now, but I'm depleted, as if I've been on a long, active travel trip. Inside my own head.

None of this excuses me from making a bad choice with the blurry love essay. But I wish that choice hadn't been part of the tapestry.

Out in the world:

First two columns of Victorian Spam: one and two.

I reviewed Mira T. Lee's Everything Here Is Beautiful for the Masters Review. I did not expect to like this book but I did.

I reviewed Anca L. Szilágyi's Daughters of the Air for Locus. It's in the print issue for January, and I don't know if it'll show up in the online issue eventually. I hope it does; it's a good review (I think) for an unusual book.

What amounts to a hot take on an article in the Guardian about depression. My rebuttal on Medium. It cost me a Facebook friend and a reasonable amount of anguish to make this argument, but I'm not sorry. Friends who have struggled with the same issues chimed in to thank me.

*More complex truth: I lust to be published by this press even though the style of writing they publish hasn't got much in common with what I write. I sent them the manuscript on a prayer more than a belief, so the rejection was not a surprise (one of those cases where "it's not right for us" is the whole truth), and they said nice things about the writing, but it still hurt. 

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