I went to my first co-ed party when I was ten. The night ended in boy-girl slow dancing, which, I felt sure, was the most grown up thing I’d ever done. I danced with a boy who’d just transferred from another school and even though our unbent elbows kept our torsos at a comfortable distance, his hands on my hips felt tentative and electric and possessive. It felt just a little bit unchaste. The next week at school, he asked me to be his girlfriend.
A few days later, my mom and I were walking through the dewy grass outside our house one night when she asked, out of nowhere, if I had a boyfriend. Her friend Kathy had heard as much from her son, who was also in the fifth grade at a neighboring school. I can so easily remember the constriction in my chest, my total surprise that adults would notice or talk about the love lives of fifth graders.
“No,” I said instinctively. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
I immediately regretted this lie. Not merely because I hated lying to my parents but also because there seemed to be no way out of it. What was I going to do, casually bring up my new (first) boyfriend a few days later as if the whole conversation had never happened? I was embarrassed about having a boyfriend at all, and then—on top of that—I was embarrassed about being so embarrassed that I’d had to lie. This embarrassment inception could not be undone.
The new boy broke up with me a few days later, probably (almost certainly) because I was so weird and self-conscious around him after that.
I was so sad about being dumped, and sadder still that I couldn’t talk to my mom about it. But also, I felt relieved of the burden of my lie.
I don’t know why I was so self-conscious about having a boyfriend at age ten. Maybe because slow dancing was, to my mind, just a long slippery slope away from sex. Or maybe because desire itself felt like a kind of parental betrayal. A few years later, I would be equally embarrassed about not having a boyfriend. It seems my own desires—and desirability—have always sort of mortified me.
Sometimes I think I started writing about love precisely because there is nothing else I have spent so much time wanting—and so much time regretting. The surest route through self-consciousness, it seemed, was language—naming, taxonimizing, rationalizing, putting ink onto a page. And I was pretty sure (after starting a blog and giving two high-profile talks and, now, writing a book on the subject) that I was finally cool with love. Or as cool as one can be. But then I recorded my audiobook.
I love audiobooks and I listen to them constantly—while walking the dog or waiting for the bus or biking around town or cleaning the bathroom. And if it’s nonfiction, especially if it’s personal, I love it when the author reads. I want to hear their words about their lives in their voices. It felt important to me to read my own audiobook. So I told my publishers I really wanted to be the one who read it.
The producers booked a studio that happened to be right down the street from my apartment. So for three days last week, I got up and ate oatmeal and drank coffee, and then I walked around the neighborhood with the dog, practicing totally made up vocal exercises. Then I biked to a studio where a large stack of papers with my name on it awaited. And I sat on a stool for five hours and talked about love.
Of course I wasn’t just talking about love. I was reading essays—essays which I’d previously thought about in the most classical sense of the word, from the French essai: to try. I was trying, with each one, to understand something about the gap between how we talk about love and how we actually practice it. But what I realized by the beginning of day two was that what I was also doing—maybe even what I was primarily doing—was articulating a lifetime of joys and frustrations and total misapprehensions.
No amount of research and reflection really hides the fact that every question and every conclusion is grounded, at least partially, in the intimacies of my life. And for the first time in a long time, this really freaked me out.
It’s one thing to put your own desires and failures—all the things you wanted but never got—into a Word document and send them off to an editor in another country. But it’s another thing altogether to voice these things into a microphone and hear your own voice say them back to you in your headphones.
As I read, I was aware almost constantly of the strange asymmetry between me and the audio guy on the other side of the glass. He was so nice, so friendly every morning, but I realized, as the week wore on, that I knew almost nothing about him and he knew so much about me.
“What I love about my job sometimes is that I get to read a book while I’m at work,” he told me over lunch the first day. And then he added, “You’re really brave for putting yourself out there like you do.” In fact, he said that several times as the days passed. And each time I felt more exposed and less brave.
In the tedium of copyedits and several rounds of proofreading, it’s really easy to feel bored by your own writing. As I combed over the first and then second set of proofs, I felt that I would rather do almost anything than look over these pages again. I’d prefer to clean out the refrigerator than muster up the energy and attention required to make sure every word, every comma, every citation was in the right place and working as it should. People would ask how the book was going and I would roll my eyes and say, “ugh. I’m over it.” And I was.
But somehow my relationship to this book has shifted, yet again. As I thought about everything the sound guy and the producer knew about me, I was suddenly aware of all the other people who will soon know as much about me. And I find myself in the strange position of wanting as many people as possible to read the book and also none at all. I especially feel, for better or worse, that I do not want anyone I know or anyone I will come to know to ever listen to the audiobook. This, after I insisted on reading it myself.
Still, I’m glad I did it. In many ways the book was written to be read aloud. Because that’s how I wrote it: speaking each paragraph and each essay while the dog snored (in the most gentle and adorable and totally indifferent way) on the floor behind me. Because I know no better way of making sure each word is the best word, doing its best work in the sentence. And of making sure each sentence’s syntax is smooth and logical and invisible.
Because writing that is so clear and accessible that it’s almost transparent is the kind of writing I most like to read, it’s also what I’m always trying to write.
Reading the whole book from dedication to acknowledgements left me with a useful (and unexpected) sense of completion. Performing the book—which is really more than just reading—reminded me of something I needed to remember: The book is good.
I don’t mean it’s amazing or perfect or the greatest book to come out this year or even in the next month (though it will be out in just over a month–which is wild and terrifying!). I mean I like it. I think it’s smart. I think I have worthwhile things to say. I don’t regret any of it or want to change it. I believe what I say matters, and that I say it in a way that’s interesting. Basically, I think my book is worth reading.
Maybe I won’t feel this way in a year—or in ten years. I don’t know. But six months ago the book felt uneven, messy, frustratingly incomplete. There were passages that fell flat and things I knew weren’t working. But now, here it is, this thing I made that I know to be good. What a thing to know!
So if you decide to listen to the audiobook, please don’t tell me. But thank you, thank you for reading. Now that I have written something as long and demanding as a book, reading has begun to seem like an unbelievable act of generosity. When I get the occasional note or message from a reader with an advanced copy, I’m stunned by the fact that, with everything happening in the world, people make time to read. Even though I think what I’ve written matters, even though I think it’s good, it’s still astounding to me that anyone would devote hours of their time to this thing I made. It’s amazing.