What does it mean to be the one not chosen?

Last week I devoured all three of Lea Thau’s “Love Hurts” episodes in a single afternoon. Thau hosts the Strangers podcast, which I’d never heard of until a couple friends recommended it. Read this description and tell me you’re not curious:

Producer Lea Thau investigates why she’s single. She goes back to guys who didn’t want to date her in recent years and asks them why. From ages 15 to 38 Lea was never single, but since her fiancé left her while she was pregnant, finding love again has been hard these last few years. Is she too old? Is she too broken from that last big heartbreak? Is she too much this or not enough that? While looking for answers, the man she is dating disappears. This is the first installment in a series.

A fourth episode is due out tomorrow and I can’t wait. The series is, hands down, the most honest and straight-forward thing I’ve heard or read about online dating in particular and modern love in general. (Much better, I’d add, than the Modern Love column, which I sometimes like but more often find suffers from its 1500-1700 word limitation.)

I want to call Thau ballsy, but my feminist inclinations suggest I ought to find a better adjective. But that’s how these episodes feel: vulnerable and exposed—and that’s the biological reality of balls, isn’t it? Thau confronts romantic love—and, more specifically, romantic rejection—without worrying too much about justifying her own dating experience as a legitimate subject for discussion: I know that going back to guys who’ve turned me down, asking them, ‘Why not me?’ can seem so arrogant and whiny and self-involved and potentially aggressive, like, ‘How dare you not want to date me?’ but I hope it doesn’t come off that way.

I think of all the people I might ask that question, and all the people who might ask that question of me, and I can feel the sweat from my palms dampening my keyboard as I type.

The one thing Thau does that I’ve always avoided (on this platform at least) is talk about her experiences with dating as they’re happening. You could argue that it’s difficult to get much perspective that way, and the classically-trained essayist in me values perspective above all, but maybe there’s something to be said for reflecting on the dating process in real time. She perfectly captures the neurotic swing from sanity to anxiety that seems a requisite part of dating:

You feel joy…. You remember that before you met this guy, you’d finally come to a place where life felt really good, where you could let go of this idea that you had to meet someone now, and actually felt that your life was pretty awesome. Not just as a cover up like before but in a more genuine way. Finally. And you think, maybe there’s a way back there before too long, even if the first guy you kind of opened up to disappeared. Then two days go by and you think, “He still hasn’t fucking been in touch? Even just to wrap things up? He doesn’t even feel like he owes me that?”

I’ve made several good friends through online dating, but Thau’s experience is closer to what has been, for me, the reality of dating. You feel a strong connection with someone and then he disappears. Or you disappear. I have backed out of dates under the flimsiest of excuses. And I have learned the hard way that you must assume—no matter how explicitly someone declares their interest in you—that that person is actively dating other people, unless they’ve clearly said otherwise. It takes practice to learn to be kind and accountable in this process. But learning how to date with integrity has little to do with actually finding someone to love. (And more to do, perhaps, with finding your niche of furries or Pastafarians or Stevie Wonder Truthers.)

So then what about my dating life right now?  Continue reading

The fine art of the wedding speech (or how to be less of a jackass)

I know. No one should begin a blog post on the topic of vulnerability with “Last weekend, in a yoga class…” But I’ve been trying to practice the fine art of not giving a shit this summer so I’m going to do it, even though I know you might stop reading right here.

So, last weekend I was in a yoga class, and the room was set up so the instructor was in the middle and the rows of mats on either side faced the center of the room. What this meant in practice was that once the room filled up, my mat was very close to my neighbors’ mats. And when we were in cobra pose—bellies down, backs arched, gazing forward—my face was just a couple feet from someone else’s face. I cannot imagine who thought arranging the room this way was a good idea. Apparently everyone else in the class was a Sunday morning regular and perfectly content to updog right into someone’s post-coffee breath.

I like yoga because, like all writers, I spend a lot of time in my head and yoga forces me to remember that I have a body. I like it because it’s good exercise, but it doesn’t have the existential demands of, say, rock climbing. (While doing yoga, for example, I never wonder if I might break my ankles). But I like it much less when the spritely instructor asks us to come into a deep lunge, raise our arms high in the air, and make eye contact with someone across the room. And then, if we want, to “turn up the corners of our mouths.” Here one is forced to either smile gamely at some sweat-soaked stranger across the way or to actively avoid their serene faces and out yourself as the one very uncool, very un-Lululemon-ed member of the group.

I harbor certain useful illusions about myself as an open person. I write about my life for public consumption. I am lazy about closing the bedroom curtains. If you asked me to tell you a secret, I’d have a hard time coming up with something my friends didn’t all already know. Once I was on a date and I mentioned that sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I lie in bed and say the prayer I said every night growing up: Now I lay me down to sleep…. “It’s not that I think someone is listening,” I said. “But I find the words soothing.” “Wow,” he said, “That’s a pretty revealing thing to say on a second date.” This had not occurred to me–given the context of the conversation, it seemed relevant to share. Conversations like this inflate my sense of my own openness.

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the bride- and groom-to-be

Lately, however, I seem to be bumping up against the boundaries of my openness. This experience has taken various forms, but the most prominent one is my utter terror at giving a speech at my sister’s wedding. My sister is getting married! In two-and-a-half weeks! And I am so happy for her. I think this is the right thing for her right now. I think her boyfriend is the right guy (or, to be technical, because I staunchly oppose the soul mate myth, I think he is a right guy; I think he is great and they are great together).

When people ask me if she and I are close, I always tell them that she is my favorite person in the world. She is. It’s no exaggeration. I’ve even thought about mentioning this in my speech. But the idea of articulating even this minor anecdote in front of a room full of the most important people in her life makes me want to cry-slash-puke. It’s hard to explain my anxiety to people. They say, “But you’re a writer.” Or, “But you talk in front of groups of people for a living.” Yes, but I don’t regularly stand in front of my students and verbalize my deepest, most sincere joys and anxieties (while wearing a floor-length tulle gown, no less).

I am the oldest and my sisterly protectiveness seems to take the form of deep empathy. When she cries, I cry. I’ve done this my whole life. When she’s happy, I experience her happiness as if it is my own. I tell my sister I love her almost every day, but a wedding speech demands this love be articulated in a very specific format. It is essentially an invitation to publicly declare to the people you love the most that you find their happiness so overwhelmingly good that you can hardly stand it. This is a version of openness I am struggling to grasp.

For me, the gap between writing these things and stating them is expansive–expanding. I am pretty good at one and petrified by the other.

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A few things about finishing a book draft

I did it. I finished a draft of a book on July 11, two Fridays ago and about ten days after my deadline.

I sent the draft to my friend, and skilled deadline enforcer, Erin at 4:23 p.m. (her words were, “I won’t even look at it after the fifteenth. So don’t bother.”), just in time to run, literally, to my appointment at the chiropractor. And then I came home and had a small celebratory beer and went to a baseball game.

At the game, I wondered if maybe I had arrived at one of those whole-life happiness apexes. I imagine you only get a few—if you are lucky—and most of the time you don’t notice you arrived at one until you have crested and are sinking back down to the grit of daily-ness. Finishing the draft, however uneven and full of holes it may be, felt like the most exciting thing I’ve done. I posted a note about it on Facebook and when I looked back at it while standing in line for the bathroom, I almost teared up from all the comments. (One should try not to cry in line for the bathroom at a baseball stadium on a Friday night. People get uncomfortable.)

baseball

I remember sitting around a table with friends two New Year’s Eves ago, having lemon cake and champagne before heading out. We all had big plans for 2013: people were getting married and finishing school and starting a new business. I said I would finish a book that year. The prospect seemed both unimaginable and inevitable; after three years, I had to finish it. But I only finished two thirds of a draft before getting mired in an awkward structure and an impulse to be very kind to everyone I was writing about. Instead of finishing, I bought a last minute flight to Texas where I could play Trivial Pursuit with very old friends and not think at all about writing.

So I sat in the stands at the baseball game, drinking overpriced beer on an empty stomach on the hottest day of summer so far, thinking, this could be it: the happiness apex. Because surely the part between completing a draft and getting (or not getting) a book published is fraught with demoralizing experiences. Not just the obvious rejections from agents or editors, but also the moment when you look over what you’ve completed and realize how far it still is from the shimmering, beautiful thing that you’ve spent so many years picturing. (I have not yet looked.) But I had baseball and beer, and later frozen yogurt and blueberries on the back porch while gossiping about the neighbors. I was happy. But then it has been well established that is remarkably easy to feel happy on a July night in the company of fresh blueberries and a handsome man.

What I have discovered in the days since completing the draft is that not only do I miss the daily writing—the stress of it and the purposefulness of it and the enormity of it—but that my thoughts still return to the book’s central questions. It doesn’t feel much like finishing. When I was writing about and researching love everyday, it was always on my mind, whatever I was doing—but mostly in a fairly-detached, fairly-rational way. I even found myself giving people advice about love, which feels pretty fraudulent since I don’t exactly have an impeccable history of good choices, but I know a whole lot about what others have discovered. And 2014 is the year of faking it, so maybe I am in the habit of fraud.

I suspect that anyone who has ever written a book (or a half-way thoughtful and somewhat honest book) has discovered that the entire proposition relies on fraudulence. I’ve also found that reading and writing so much about love has left me pretty cynical about the process, and distrustful of my own intuition (thanks to even the most basic knowledge of neurochemistry) and yet, nonetheless, weirdly hopeful. In other words, I have just enough knowledge to paralyze myself. I am too aware of all that can go wrong.

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dispatch from Sardinia

This land resembles no other place. Sardinia is something else. Enchanting spaces and distances to travel—nothing finished, nothing definitive. It is like freedom itself.

–DH Lawrence, 1921

So far today I haven’t left the premises. Hostel Alghero is a series of small bungalows with a central espresso/wine/Fanta bar and a tiled patio. I sit in the same white plastic chairs that adorn patios in Vancouver. I wonder which countries, if any, don’t have these chairs. Inside, the only noise is the TV that plays pre-MTV-era music videos: Queen and Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. There’s a dusty pool table pushed against the wall, some dorm-style tables, a chess board with no apparent pieces. Siesta is running long today.

I planned to get to the beach but a lingering mirto headache has slowed my progress. Mirto is a digestivo—an after dinner liqueur—made from myrtle berries. It tastes bracingly medicinal, like high-end cough syrup—with the same consistency. The Sards serve it straight from the freezer. It’s weird at first, but it grows on you quickly, especially when a glass appears without you asking or really even noticing how it arrived. It seems the line between the recommended amount of mirto and an excessive amount mirto is a fine one.

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I sit on the patio and watch people come and go. And I write. It’s hot still at a quarter to six, but the breeze is stiff and cool. I’m sharing the hostel with my friend Kirsten’s geology field school and as the students filter in from the airport, their loud American voices seem to hang in the air. Some have already been down to the beach or to see the cow that’s slowly rotating on a spit in downtown Fertilia—an area that’s exactly two blocks long and one street wide. They put  up the cow last night as we walked home from dinner. A veal roast, they said, but this beast appears fully grown. We watched them build up the fire from a heaping mound of logs in the street. The musculature wrapping around the bones was deep red and white, as vivid as any classroom anatomy poster. But this cow is spread eagle and pierced sternum to pelvis with a ten-foot steel pole. One end of the spit has been slung to a crank with a bicycle chain.

The camp faculty have talked me into giving a lecture on academic writing and in exchange have plied me with salami and Vermentino. I am certain I’m getting the better end of the deal. It’s such a pleasure to chat about teaching over smoked ricotta and late night mirto. It feels, in fact, like I’ve fallen into someone else’s rhythm, a space that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist. Still, it suits me to settle in somewhere.

Everyone asks about my book, which provides good practice pitching it. The faculty tell students not to bother me, then they sit themselves down at my table with a bag of cookies and a jar of Nutella. But I like their company and work is progressing, despite having to reorient myself after only a week away from writing. It’s hard to believe it was only a week. Vancouver life feels far away. I look in the mirror and it takes a moment to see myself there. My face is freckled and my hair is fuzzy and light around the temples. Impossibly, the dimensions of my face seem different. Continue reading

The Perpetual Terror of Forgetting (or attempts at immortalizing my dog)

I always thought of stories as records, as ways of remembering our lives. And I thought it was our duty to tell them, a way to keep ourselves alive and thriving. And I don’t mean our species here—because it seems obvious that stories help our species thrive—but rather our individual selves. As in: I tell therefore I am.

But stories are also ways of forgetting. Maybe this explains the relationship between collecting and recollecting: a story is a collection of details and circumstances that seem worthwhile. Any act of recollection necessitates prioritizing that which is relevant and discarding the rest.

Forgetting seems like an unfortunate side effect of time and age and general human fallibility. But  research suggests it’s part of the brain’s design and has real neurological value. What this means in practice is that we selectively inhibit some memories in order to facilitate the retrieval of others. The more a particular memory is retrieved, the more likely competing memories are to be forgotten. Forgetting is the brain’s way of speeding its processing time, and from an evolutionary perspective this seems advantageous: remembering takes work and we need some mechanism to streamline that process. I imagine remembering like walking through a field. The more you walk the same path, the wider and more accessible the path becomes. But, at the same time, the less you walk alternate paths, the more they grow over and become increasingly difficult to follow. If you need to get somewhere quickly—or remember something important—you are grateful for the well-trodden path.

Another dog photo may seem totally irrelevant at the moment, but wait for it.

I know another dog photo may seem totally gratuitous, but wait for it.

When I tell the story of the first person I loved, I remember his white t-shirt and his long hair pulled back. I remember the night a group of us went to Sonic and he sat down next to me. And I remember that particular mode of noticing that only happens when you are sipping a milkshake beside a handsome boy on a hot September night: your body becomes an antenna tuned to his every movement and inflection. And all your intention is split between two actions: noticing him and not letting anyone notice you noticing.

I remember how my friend Joel said, “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but it does seem like he likes you.” My hopes soared.

But I cannot remember exactly what I thought of him. Did I think we might fall in love, or was he just a diversion before I left for London? Would I have considered, at the time, the possibility that I might be here now, writing about that September evening? Did that night seem any different from the one before or the night after? Or did he, from all the other crushes I’ve had? Now that I have written our story, I can’t remember the night before or the night after. I can’t remember if it was him I longed for, or if it was Love. Continue reading

AWP 2014: Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction

Mandy Len:

A guest blog post on Brevity:

Originally posted on BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog:

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A lot of folks are talking about feminism right now, especially in writing and publishing. And a lot of folks are talking about creative nonfiction, the wayward fourth genre that’s finally asserting itself in classrooms and literary journals. But we aren’t talking much about the intersection of feminism and creative nonfiction. And we ought to be.

Sarah Lenz’s AWP panel on ‘Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction’ featured five women who have spent a lot of time thinking about the feminist issues unique to nonfiction writing: Lenz, Marcia Aldrich, Kristen Iversen, Sonja Livingston, and Mary Kay McBrayer. Rather than report on each panelists’ talk, let’s just dive in to the most urgent and interesting ideas.

Creative nonfiction is a genre of de facto feminism:

“I’m a de facto feminist,” Lenz said, opening the panel. “I write from a woman’s perspective because I can’t escape my own identity.” Regardless of their initial motivation or agenda, all…

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Faking it

When I finally read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple years ago, I hated it. As you might expect, he talks about running both as a discipline and a metaphor. He outlines his training process for marathons and triathlons and, as he plods along, he considers the relationship between running and writing. I like hearing about other people’s creative processes, and even though Norwegian Wood is the only one of his books I particularly liked (and I did really like it), I still thought I might learn something from Murakami. After slogging through 1Q84, I hoped he and I might find some common ground again in the genre of memoir. But no.

Murakami says a few things I completely disagree with, like: “Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.” And cliché things like, “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.” And smug things like, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The thing is, running marathons and triathlons is impressive—especially when you start in your late twenties and continue into your sixties. And writing a bunch of highly-acclaimed books with cultish following is also very impressive. But I have a badass friend who regularly runs ultramarathons—and once a hundred miles!—and he’s not nearly so self-satisfied.

Reading What I Talk About felt like an ongoing reminder of my lack of discipline. I thought the book could’ve been subtitled, Why I’m so good at things (and you’re probably not). The fact is, I agree with Murakami on some basic points. I believe dedication will always take you further than talent. I believe in sticking to regular routines and putting writing ahead of other obligations that sometimes seem more important. But, not only did his book not inspire me to write more or better, it actually made me feel a little embittered about the whole process.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

I say all this because I want to talk about what does work for me, and how I’m hoping to keep motivated without such Herculean smug-guy self-discipline. I much prefer Alain de Botton’s idea: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

When I was a kid, my main (and most loathed) chore was mowing the lawn.

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