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Has there ever been a good piece of writing that started with I’m listening to Lana Del Rey? I’m sitting in my bedroom and listening to Lana Del Rey. That line implies almost everything that follows: cramped handwriting, rainy afternoon, amphetamines and alcohol. But alright, here goes:
I’m in my bedroom listening to Lana Del Rey. I’m uneasy and I don’t know why. It feels like the end of a season, even as the entire year has felt like one shapeless day; we’re past the pumpkin-patch orange of fall and not yet into the Christmas tinsel.
In some ways my life has never been so clear-cut: there is literally a stack of paper next to me on the bed, words waiting to be edited into some kind of coherence. Yesterday at Walgreens I bought four pens and four highlighters. I’m visiting in a city I lived in for 4 years. I should feel comforted but instead I feel destabilized. I’ve been listening to the same sappy song over and over again.
Of course, this entire year has been uneasy. Covid cases in Utah have gone from 2000 a day to 3000 a day in less than a week. By next week we’ll probably hit 4000—most people I know are still planning to travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I was acutely anxious during March, which eventually numbed into a kind of resignation around August, and then gave away to the ensuing pandemic fatigue, but (as everyone predicted, as we are still somehow shocked by) winter has presented fresh horrors. My friend messaged me: This is a good year to practice being uncomfortable with uncertainty. But what about being comfortable with certain terror? It’s not so much that I fear things will never be good again, just that I know they’ll be very bad before we turn the corner.
The world is unstable right now, and writing, too, makes me feel unstable. I’m editing and rewriting, which is good because I can reverse-engineer the aspects of plot that make the books I like engaging, and painful because it means I have to directly confront the parts of the material that are Not Good. I’m an emotional person, and I make intuitive decisions without necessarily being thoughtful about how structurally sound they are. This is true of my actual life and true of my writing. As I edit I have to cut out all the scenes that are not there for any real purpose, or don’t accomplish what they set out to do. I’m more torn up about that than I should be.
In writing, as in life, I feel like I have too much control. I get to make all of the decisions, and I have to live with the consequences, which is freeing but also often frightening. I keep wondering: who will hold me, who will soothe me, who will tell me what to do? Who will reassure me that the world still exists when I close my eyes, that when I open them again everything will be intact? Why does it seem unfair that no one will—not because no one would, but because no one can?
When I was a kid I needed repetitive reassurance, needed to hear my mom repeat 50 times that the Yellowstone volcano was not going to explode and blanket all of North America in ash. Back then she was a source of truth: just hearing her say it seemed to stabilize reality. These days, no one in the world can reassure me except myself.
Samantha Harvey: I try to imagine a life without narrative. Sometimes I think there’s nothing more seductive than the idea of living in a vanishing now. Other times I think that life without stories leaves you almost unbearably alienated and untethered. We tell ourselves stories to stay sane. I am currently telling myself a story in the most literal way, and my uneasiness comes from the fact that I know I’m the one writing it. It’s like lucid dreaming, which has always both thrilled and unnerved me: bringing the subconscious into the conscious.
I think I finally understand that seminal Didion essay on self-respect. Writing has made me realize in the most horrible way that I can only blame myself the mistakes I make. It’s true that I make decisions that don’t age well (I’m listening to Lana Del Rey). What if I said that I’m trying to get better—then again, what if I said I wouldn’t have done it any other way? I never thought that life should be productive or sensible or clear, I wanted to have “gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.” People always want you to package it up for them, to explain why you did this or that, write up a little narrative, and if you tell them you can’t they think you’re erratic and frightening.
Tonight I fell asleep at 11 PM and woke up at 1 AM and now it’s 3 AM and I’ll write or read a couple more hours and then I’ll pass out until I wake up, and then I’ll get coffee at Reveille and do it all over again. I’ve been thinking about that Jenny Holzer truism, Protect me from what I want—why is it that love is either “unhinged and hurtful, or mediocre and a safe comfort,” and sometimes all four of those things at different times? I’ve been thinking about how “any power asks you to dedicate yourself to its expansion.” Writing hurts and love hurts and I accept that I bring the pain on myself, that pain is a precondition for existing in this world, it’s a condition of autonomy, the price we pay for getting to do what you want.
I’ve never had it together. I’ve always felt like I was just barely holding on, everything tenuous all the time. These days I have people to hold it together for and I’ve been trying. Like: I have to finish this book, and it will be good, it must be. My mom is waiting for me to help my brother write his college applications. My friend sent me Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, which reminded me of that Masahide poem:
Barn's burnt down --
I can see the moon.
My whole life I’ve only wanted moon. Like honestly, fuck the barn. It’s just the way I am: I crave freedom and uncertainty, and when I get it I’m left deeply uneasy. I couldn’t have it, wouldn’t want it any other way.