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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“Your Story is Not New”: On attending a memoir retreat

“The amazing thing about a memoir retreat,” I said to my friend Claire yesterday.

“—is that they exist?” she finished.

“No.” I laughed, then paused. “Well…maybe. I was going to say the amazing thing about a memoir retreat is that, in the course of a few minutes you get to know someone in a way that otherwise takes months or years. You say, ‘What’s your writing project about?’ and they tell you their big story. The thing they haven’t figured out yet. They thing they can’t get over. The most difficult experience they’ve ever had. It’s instant intimacy. And everyone—I guess because they’ve already made the decision to write about themselves—is just incredibly open.”

Many people, I think, will be quick to dismiss the idea of a memoir retreat altogether. And while no one has said this to me yet, I can imagine what they might say: “Why on earth would it seem like a good idea to bring together a bunch of narcissists and say to them, ‘Write more about your own trivial experiences! Publish them!’ Why would we—in the era of blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter—encourage even more oversharing? And why would we dare imply that that oversharing could be literature?”

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the view of Icicle Creek from Sleeping Lady Resort

The amazing thing about this particular memoir retreat–Wild Mountain–was that everyone I met had already asked that essential question: “So what?” And even if some folks didn’t yet have an answer, everyone understood, implicitly, that they needed one. No one seemed interested in what Susan Shapiro termed “upbeat anecdotal slices of life.”

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Lately I’ve been struggling with a minor revelation regarding my own writing: I’ve got to be more honest—to bare more, to be more vulnerable—if I want people to read it. And being more honest requires more me in the book. It means, like it or not, that what I’m writing is a memoir. There’s just no way around it. Continue reading

on being young and in love–or on writing memoir and selling yourself out

Last week I was out to dinner with some friends when one asked me, “Does it bother you that J might read your blog?”

My first response was instinctive: “No. He knows what I’m writing about. He’s always known, since I started this project. And he’s read big chunks of it.”

But, as I let the question settle in, I wasn’t sure that was a good answer. I thought of Joan Didion, who I seem to be quoting often these days, and who famously said that “writers are always selling someone out.” I tried explaining what I’ve mentioned here before, that I don’t know how to write about love stories without writing about our relationship. So, despite the fact that, in the many years we were together, J was generously supportive of my writing, I think carefully about what I post here whenever it also implicates him. I said that I tried to write from a place of honesty and kindness, though I’m often not sure if honesty and kindness can co-exist that easily.

“No,” Jen said as we finished our sushi, “I mean, does it bother you that he can see, you know, what an effect he’s had on you?” No one had ever asked me this before, but in a round about way, I guess I have thought about it.

Cheryl Strayed, when asked at the recent Associate Writers Program conference about embarrassing her ex-husband in writing about the end of their marriage, said, “If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it’s going to be your own.” And I tend to agree with this idea about memoir. The memoirs I like the most don’t have an agenda or anything to prove. They’re motivated by genuine inquiry, starting with the self.

Jen’s question reminds me of a photograph I came across a few months ago. In it I am sitting on one of the leather couches at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, DC. When we lived in the city, J and I often rode our bikes to the Hirshhorn, but this photo is from our first visit, when I lived in Florida and he lived in Ecuador.

I remember riding the narrow escalator upstairs, standing on the higher step so I was eye to eye with him, and staring into his face as if I might die if I stopped looking. I remember thinking that the people around us could see how I was staring at him, and him at me, and that for the sake of decency, we ought to stop looking at each other like that. But we didn’t stop. We spent the afternoon whispering, and gazing at the art, and then at each other. That we would soon be apart again made the whole experience all the more poignant in my mind, because that’s how you think about love at twenty-two. Continue reading