Last week, someone asked me why I don’t enjoy writing conventional literary fiction. I said, “Well, see, I’m a person, and my thoughts aren’t that interesting, so I have no idea how to write someone else’s.” I didn’t realize it was true until I said it.
The fact is, inside, I’m pretty boring. I get downright jealous reading Woolf or Joyce or Flaubert, books where characters’ thoughts are elegant and deeply articulated. In my private life, meaning the one that takes place between my ears, I am no Clarissa Dalloway; instead, my mind is a jumbled ball pit of repressed urges, circled by a spiraling helix of anxiety, interrupted by snakes. I think like I speak: that is, confusedly, and not in complete sentences.
Of course, this might not be the same for you. You might contain multitudes. I’m okay with this – it’s just that the way the mind is portrayed in realist novels is nothing like the way mine actually works. I don’t think in paragraphs. Most of my concerns are lame. Were Marilynne Robinson to come hang out in my skull, even she would get bored.
That being said: yesterday, for literally the first time ever, I experienced an epiphany.
An epiphany, if you are one of my students (and if you are: how did you find this and why are you reading for pleasure and was I somehow responsible for your change of heart), is a moment in which a character experiences a sudden flash of realization that throws the previous events of the story into a new light. If you are some Creative Writing teachers, it must happen once in every story. If you are James Joyce, it is a way to provide a tidy ending. If you are Hermione Granger, it sends you dashing off to the library, bushy hair akimbo.
I had never had one before. Up until yesterday, all my realizations had been slow-moving ones, thoughts that looped back and forth on their own paths like a drunken tortoise. Gee, I guess I am happier when I spend more time outside. Turns out I have no interest in building theater sets. Kraft macaroni and cheese was better when I was younger.
True to boring form, I was attempting to pick up the floor of my room. In preparation for my move out of Iowa City, my two closets have descended into complete anarchy. In open rebellion, they keep chucking random dusty objects onto the wood floor. (Probably the cat has something to do with this.) It’s like they’re angry I’m leaving.
Yesterday, splayed open next to a basket of clean yet unfolded clothes, was a packet of short-short stories. We’d written them for Marilynne’s class in August: they were supposed to be either Beautiful, or Meaningful, or Moving. I’d completely forgotten about the assignment, but as I leafed through them, I remembered. Colin’s story: the man nobody wanted at a funeral, sent cleverly away by the other mourners. Jake’s (apparently autobiographical) tale of blessing premature babies as a hospital chaplain. Mine, about an artist visiting an elementary school and encountering her younger self. “These are great,” I said to myself, or a jagged incoherent approximation thereof. “I will save them for later.”
Then it happened.
Standing there, holding the dusty paper, I realized: there was never any Later.
I don’t know how I got the idea, as a child, that Someday I would sit amongst my box of memory items, fondling each one carefully — remembering the time I’d worn the Princess Jasmine choker at Halloween, gotten the seashell box from a Women in Business luncheon with my aunt, received the eighth birthday card and been unable to read my grandparents’ spiky handwriting. But this idea stuck with me: I imagined that, one day, I would want nothing more than to spend an afternoon remembering.
The fact is, I have four boxes of Memory Items, and I never touch them except at times like these: that is, when I am moving, and I have to try to winnow them down.
What’s absolutely necessary, I ask, gritting my teeth, and what can afford be chucked in the black plastic bag? I dither over grandparent cards and childhood toys. It’s immensely painful: not a blissful trip down Memory Lane, but a grim death march. I’m like a refugee fleeing Warsaw and casting aside the family silver. Maybe in this way it is genetic.
But whatever it is, it’s not limited to sentimental knickknacks.
- In my book collection, there are so many anthologies that I’ve saved from college “for when I’m teaching and I need to reference them”, but I have been teaching and I have never once needed to reference them.
- I have made multiple soups in the fall, frozen them for Later, forgotten them, and then, mid-fridge-clean in the spring, had to throw them out because I’ve already packed away my microwave and bowls.
- I have four bags full of vintage clothes with broken zippers that, Later, I’m going to take to the seamstress and totally wear all the time. Some of these clothes broke in high school. Others I brought to Germany with me. They broke there. I packed them across the ocean, then carted them to Iowa. They are still broken.
I don’t know what person I eventually plan to become, this soup-eating, clever-referencing, vintage-dress-wearing person, but I’m not her now, and I show no signs of becoming her, so why am I carting all this around?
I can see myself letting go of the boxes, the bags of clothes, especially since I’ll have to haul pretty much everything I own across the country – twice. (More on that later.) I will concede to sell my Norton anthologies for much less than I originally paid for them. The one Later-habit I am determined not to give up, however, is my constant notebooking.
If you know me, you’ve probably noticed this. I have a tendency to hold up a finger and say, “I’ve just got to jot that down,” then steal what you’ve just said right out of your mouth and transfer it onto a margin. (You have probably especially noticed this if you are Alice Gribbin and we are hungover together. What can I say? You’re very witty, especially to a slow-moving brain.) Possibly you’ve sighed, but conceded: at least it’ll end up in a story. At least I like it enough to use it later.
As it turns out, you are wrong. I do not use it later.
Never have I ever sat down to write, not known what to write about, flipped through my notebook, and said, “Ah! I know! I’ll begin with Alice and the owner of Decorum each tenderly touching a certain plaque with one finger, and saying to each other, ‘It feels like leather – no, like a kitten!’” Instead, whenever it’s absolutely required, I sit down grumblingly and force myself to reread a story, then finish it. I confess that the idea for this blog post was originally written down in a notebook (next to the bit about the plaque, in fact), but I did not first set out to write a blog post and then go, “Huh, what about?” and pluck it out of there.
The notebooks may be useless, but I can’t give them up. Like Joan Didion, I am one of those “lonely and distant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss”. Still, luckily, private notebooks aren’t very large, unlike my boxes of other random shit. I will keep them, but I’ll try to force myself to glut the Memory Boxes.
This resolution is essential to the plot of any good epiphany story. You, dear reader, should be able to end the story for yourself and tell exactly what I’ll do differently in my life going forward. If you are my father, you will respond, “Great! Just get rid of it!” and if you are my mother, you will say, “But sweetie, are you sure you want to throw that little purse away? Your auntie made it for you when you were three…” and if you’re my roommates, you’ll be like “Cool, can you get all your junk out of the office now?” and if you’re anyone else, maybe it makes no difference to you.
But still: epiphanies are a rare bird, and I’d like to know more about them in the wild. Tell me if you’ve ever had one, please. Also, since I’m not, as far as I know, a character in a Joyce book… will my resolution to junk it all stick? Or will it just disappear into the wild ball pit of my brain, emerging only sporadically to wave a hand and guilt-trip me?