“I wonder what your daughters will think?” asks Annette, the wife of a fiction writer. We are in the auditorium at a book festival, and I have just read a short story based on an actual weird and fraught relationship I had with a high school teacher when I was a teenager. Annette waits; she really wants to know.
“I guess we’ll find out,” I say and laugh. My twin daughters are seven years old.
The story is called “What Happens Next?” It is autobiographical and it is about sex. Not intercourse per se, but the mysterious world of adolescent female desire. The fictional me in “What Happens Next?” is full of shame. She is a girl who is interested in sex, but not in the way she thinks she is supposed to be.
People Like Me
“Home is longevity,” Ellie says when I ask what the word means to her. Ellie and I grew up together in Nashville. During our high school years, we slipped each other notes every day in class and spent hours every night on the phone. On weekends, we practiced dance moves side by side in front of mirrors in the rec room of my house. Never, during those years, could I have conceived of a life in which she would not be a constant presence.
Ellie teaches high school in St. Louis, where she has lived for most of her adult life. I have lived in Vermont for seventeen years, since John and I arrived to assume faculty positions at the university. Seventeen years and I still do not call Vermont home. Maybe I never will.
John, my parents, and I are heading south on Interstate 55 from Nashville to Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He is driving; my father rides shotgun. I sit in the back with my mother, holding my breath. The entire car is silent, all four of us as still as stones.
“We have to pull over,” John says.
It is a midmorning in July. I try to focus on passing cars.
“There’s a gas station a few miles up,” my father says evenly. He shifts in his seat.
The front left tire is flat.
On a Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., Beverly and I planned a trip to Long Island, just us girls, to celebrate my upcoming marriage. By that evening, Beverly and I were no longer friends. But I didn’t know that yet. At 7:00 p.m. I was sure there had been some mistake, some misunderstanding, some bizarre but absolutely explainable crossing of wires—she hadn’t gotten my messages, she had fallen into bed with some new boy, she had been kidnapped. I would continue to turn various scenarios over in my head for the next several months until finally I had to accept the truth—I had been fired.
I have been telling this story for years, but telling is a different animal from writing. In the telling and retelling, I have shaped a version of it, one that fits neatly in my hand, something to pull out of my pocket at will, to display, and to tuck away when I’m ready, like a shell or a stone or a molded piece of clay. The story that I have honed over the years is as neat as my scar; it is smooth, and tender, and conceals more than it reveals.
A few years ago, I was invited to give a job talk at a Midwestern university. I am content enough at my current institution not to have applied for another job in 15 years. But I was curious. So, even though it is wrong to go on dates when you are married, I went.
The visit was largely unpleasant and entirely confusing. Few people seemed to be interested in my work. One prominent member of the faculty made no attempt to hide his disdain for scholars who write for mainstream audiences. “Why should my writing be clear?” he blustered. “Scientistsaren’t expected to be clear.” Dude, you are not Jonas Salk, was among the rejoinders that I came up with on the plane ride home.
Many years ago I was sitting with a jazz musician in an auditorium when a song by Norah Jones came on the loudspeaker. He asked me what I thought of her music. I told him I liked it. He shook his head. “I can’t use it,” he said.
Ever since then I have kept his words in the forefront of my mind whenever I begin an essay. They get me through drafts when sentences that felt like evidence of genius the night before reveal themselves to be crimes against paper in the light of day. And they get me back on track at the end of long dry spells, “who the hell do you think you are” stretches when I wonder what I could possibly have to contribute to a conversation I desperately want to join.
Several years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates took his son, not yet 5, to see a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As his son made his way off the escalator, a white woman pushed him and said, “Come on!” Chaos ensued. There was a black parent’s rage and a white man’s threat to have the black parent arrested. Coates narrates the incident in cool, steady prose. Ultimately, he writes of the regret he carries: “In seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.”
Witnesses for the Future
“You have seen how a man was made a slave,” Frederick Douglass wrote in his 1845 autobiography, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. “You shall see how a slave was made a man.” These words herald the moment when Douglass masters his master, the sadistic overseer and “negro-breaker,” Edward Covey, seizing him by the throat. More remarkable than Douglass’s physical prowess was the fact that he lived to write about this at all: In addition to the beatings and other miseries, Douglass endured severe cold that left gashes in his feet pronounced enough to cradle his pen. “Written by himself” is Douglass’s subtitle, a phrase that resounds throughout early African American autobiographical writing. Douglass’s books, along with photographs of the author, portrayed a man who was fully self-composed. The story was the self.