When I told my sister I wanted to cut my nails because my manicure made me feel like Barbie, she looked me square on and said, “Mandy. That’s a good thing.”
While staying at her place over Christmas, I came home one night to find her on the couch with the dogs. She was wearing pink leopard flannel pajamas and drinking a mango margarita from a Butterbeer mug and watching The Voice. This is what I like about her: nobody else inhabits their preferences that joyfully.
She has kind things to say about every performer on The Voice, even as she critiques their wardrobe. And I think this is what other people like about her, too. She has specific tastes, but feels no obligation to defend them. She is like the anti-hipster, wholly sincere, consistent to the core. She can wax happily about the luminance of someone’s skin in a Manet painting and the cake-to-icing ratio of a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake. She is intelligent, hyper-feminine, quick to laugh, and quick to point out her flaws.
I have always wanted to say what I intend to say with no thought for others’ judgment, to feel not an ounce of self-consciousness when someone scrolls through my iTunes library. I don’t want to be the person who works SAT vocabulary into the conversation when she meets someone smart, as if desperate to say, “See! Me too!” But I am.
I’ve been thinking about authenticity in this new year. Going from Vancouver to Appalachia and back seems to do that, to call up the space between what’s meaningful and what seems constructed to incite a sensation akin to meaning. Take, for example, the Contemporary Christmas Eve service at the Methodist church. There was bread and grape juice (Methodists don’t do wine), the Lord’s Prayer, a reading from Luke, an acoustic guitar, candles and Silent Night. But no altar, no hymnals. Instead two large projectors aired a slickly-produced video about the many distractions of the holiday season. It’s fairly standard Christmas sermon stuff, but it felt especially hollow up on the screens. I wanted to hear the pastor talk, to dwell in the sanctuary of a sanctuary. As a devout teenager, I could always summon gratitude at church, especially when the lights went down for the candlelight service. Maybe I was hoping for some echo of that. But I only felt the fullness of the evening’s chicken casserole and that last glass of pinot grigio.
Sometimes I worry that the longer I live in Vancouver, the more alienated I become from the place I grew up. It begins to feel too far away. I notice Food City sells Duck Dynasty beer koozies and home no longer feels like home but instead like a satire of rural America. But two weeks later I’m at Vancouver’s Whole Foods grasping a $5 organic chocolate bar while examining a slab of soap that looks like Jell-O and I wonder how this life feels any more authentic. I am, especially in the holiday season, ever aware of the odd balance between being agreeable and being wasteful. I wrap gifts in the cartoon Santa paper that I know will be ripped off and stuffed in a garbage bag the very next morning. It’s easier, I’ve learned, than protesting. And what’s a little wasted paper compared to the fuel required to fly across the continent? I receive more gifts than I could want or need or store in my tiny apartment, and yet I understand that to complain about or reject them is to reject the giver herself. I don’t know how to be both a good member of my Appalachian clan and a thoughtful consumer.
I’m finally reading Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and I have to confess: I don’t know if I’m going to finish it. It, too, feels like conspicuous consumption, like a pop song with only one chord. It’s the kind of book people describe as a “remarkable true story.” This much is true. But there’s something about the way Walls skirts every opportunity for reflection that drives me crazy. The book’s thesis might be summed up like an article in People Magazine: “This all happened; isn’t it terrible and weird?”
After scouring the internet, it appears I am the only person who feels this way. So let me defend my likely unpopular attitude about a book I’ve only half-read (I know) with a theory I’ve been developing about nonfiction writing. Here it is:
Memoir, especially the scenic, plot-driven kind like The Glass Castle, is largely ontological. It says, “Here’s a true story about living in the Appalachian Mountains in 2014.” Or, “Here’s what it was like to roam around the desert under the loose supervision of neglectful parents.” It tells us something about the nature of being. If it’s something new or idiosyncratic or unconventional, all the better.
Essays, by contrast, are more epistemological, that is to say they are interested in knowledge and its acquisition. Essays investigate what we know, and how we know what we know, and why intimate knowledge of the human condition can feel beautiful or terrible or perhaps both at once.
Of course a single piece of writing could explore the nature of a childhood roaming about the southwest AND reflect on how the stories we tell (or hide) about our families control our sense of the world. It could move between ontology and epistemology, between narration and reflection.
Most of the reviews praise Walls’ neutrality in depicting her parents. She never succumbs to excoriating these people who, inarguably, deserve it. But I want to see her adult self wrestle with the realization that the friendly women who lived next door were prostitutes. I want to know how she felt when, after a stranger groped her in the night, her parents still refused to lock the doors and close the windows, citing the family’s need for fresh air over her own sense of safety. Maybe Walls does this later in the book and I should just stick it out and reserve judgement. Maybe.
We use the term “essay” to refer to the short form exploration of an idea (I’ve written about this before, so perhaps I am back to where I started) but what about book-length essays? Why isn’t there a term for this? This problem of taxonomy is, for me, a larger problem. A problem of imagination. I had some intuition about what kind of book I wanted to write, but until I found an adequate model I couldn’t quite imagine it, much less describe it to someone else.
I’m also reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which is nearly plot-less. It is, ostensibly, a book about coping with her mother’s Alzheimer’s. But it moves through the history of canning fruit, and the circumstances that enabled Mary Shelley to write Frankenstien, and Dutch vanitas paintings—all subjects I knew very little about—en route to its actual subject. Reading the book is like opening boxes to find new, neatly packaged boxes inside; it feels like watching a sharp mind in action. Solnit moves about freely, unconcerned with that great mantra of all writing classes: show don’t tell. In this way, she is like my sister: gracefully inhabiting or abandoning convention as it suits her. But there is some risk in this approach. As Richard Gilbert points out, her style, “makes for more demanding reading—less warning of new topics and less time for a reader’s preparation. You’re immersed a new story before you know it. Some readers will get lost and bored and close the book.”
As a reader and as a writer, a wandering, essayistic style feels more authentic to me (as perhaps this particular post well illustrates). And maybe I am stuck with essaying because my life has been (thankfully) uninteresting thus far. The plot diagram of my life is pretty flat. Reading Solnit feels like getting permission to loosen my grasp on chronology and scene, to let the engine of the book be the movement between ideas instead of through time.
When my sister was a kid, she put her stuffed animals on rotation, sleeping with a different one each night so as not to show favorites. Last week, when I told her that Roscoe was sick again, she said, “The thing that really gets me is thinking how upset he must be if he has to poop in the house. You know it must be so terrible wishing someone would come home to take him out, but no one does.” Maybe her authenticity grows out of this empathy toward all creatures living and stuffed. Maybe it is easy to be less invested in the judgement of others when you’re busy identifying with them.
I have one more depiction of authentic kindness before I go: this website. It was a Christmas gift from a friend who says he hopes it might give me a home for my book, a website of one’s own. So now you still can find me at mandylen.wordpress.com but also at the very searchable thelovestoryproject.ca. One day I will be the kind of writer who freely abandons convention, and I will be the kind of gift-giver who is so perfectly generous.