The name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag, and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps, the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember, it is not poised on the tip of your tongue, not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall, well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war. No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
“I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut because of the helmets. If I were up there on the moon, or by the Milky Way, I’d want to feel the stars around my head. I’d want them in my hair the way they are in paintings of the gods.”—Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry
There’s never a time when I can’t go straight to sleep, no matter how many hours I get a night. It’s like, every minute a day I have to fight it. I’m never not-tired, even when I’m dosed with caffeine. And I can’t really do anything all the way, you know. Everything’s always the bare minimum and it stretches out day after day after day an endless chain, me just waiting for the real night to fall so I can sleep for the first time. I don’t like this…I want to sleep but most of all I want to actually wake up.
The first time my mother set me loose I was twelve, I think, and I was at the carnival our fire department hosted every year in a field where all life had essentially been plowed away, leaving us to walk on pale dirt the consistency of rocks or dust. We’d been having a fight, I think, and I’ve always been good at that, always better at the passion of an argument, knowing best where to stick each of my knives (in her sides, or her chest) to shut her off, effectively. I’ve always been intuitive about causing pain and humiliation, for anybody, really. I know where it always hurts. I’m much worse at whatever comes after, the apologies, the reconciliations, the groveling self-deprecation. You have a hot head and a wicked tongue, my grandmother used to say, because I hated her and she knew it, hated the way she laid flat and took everything from men, her own sons included. I was six years old when I remember wishing to pulverize her with my eyes, because nothing’s uglier to me than resigned weakness, and I’ve always been this way. But at the carnival, my mother, who never reacted, told me to get out of her sight, and I did so, obligingly, because I had five dollars and never wanted to see her again. I had a small coven of zits on my chin, but I felt thirty-five years old, I felt untouchable as I rode the scrambler alone, staring in front of me coolly, my hair and tacky necklaces whipping around in my face. And then I found a boy from school, adjusted my tank top and he bought me cotton candy, except it was blue, not pink, because everyone knows pink makes me want to scream, however immature it is to feel that way about a color. He touched my arm a lot, and I wanted him to kiss me but I also didn’t want our braces to get stuck together, which apparently happens although I’d never known anybody who it happened to. But then I told him I had to go home because I wanted to walk around alone for a bit, because it was dark out and the lights from the ferris wheel somehow felt important like a shot in a movie, or something.
And then I went to play the game where you throw the ping pong balls into the fish bowls to see if you can win a half-dead goldfish in a plastic baggie. And I got it in on my second try, because I think the pet store stand really wanted to get rid of those goldfish. I didn’t really know why I bothered, I hated goldfish and I knew it would die within a few days, they always do, the ones you win, I mean, because I guess animals aren’t really meant to be prizes at some dumb game. But regardless, I fantasized that maybe we’d get a big tank and some tropical plants and a filter and keep the fish alive for a while. But we didn’t, we just put it in a vase with some bottled water and it died before I could even think of an adequate name. It must be dumb, being a goldfish. I bet they’re in a hurry to die.
“If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”—David Foster Wallace, “Up, Simba”
I’m not weak but I’m not invincible. This sensitivity I keep around like Mary’s little lamb serves me to write without being mechanical about it. I’m not weak but I’m not invincible. I have a glass formation around my emotions that are encassed in my heart, which cries rivers that soak my sleeves. I’m not weak but I’m not invincible. I walk the fine balance between open and closed-off too readily but it’s like walking barefoot on twine that cuts into my soul. I’m not weak but I’m not invincible. I don’t cry, curled up like a fetus, I don’t cry hiding my face to the wall, I don’t cry to lose my tears in the shower, I don’t cry because I’m weak. I cry because I’m not invincible. Because I’m human. Because I’m broken. And the memories are breaking me again.
It’s the weirdest thing when you realize that people like you (that are your age) actually exist. And 100% of the time, they make you feel like a dumbass (mostly for feeling like you were special enough for them not to exist…and also because they’re so so much smarter than you).
“They looked for one another when nothing else was happening, the way you pick up a magazine or look in the cupboard for a snack. Not exactly by accident and not exactly on purpose. You could go out in the world and do new things and meet new people, and then you could come home and just sit on the stoop with someone you had never not known, and watch lightning bugs blink on and off.”—Lynne Rae Perkins, Criss Cross
Loneliness stings, And always has an awful aftertaste (Even if not much has been tasted). And it leaks in methodical kitchens Like a faucet in a motel room in the middle of the night.
It is a telephone cord twisted into knots a 1-800 number with no response.
It is the rattling freight trains that Jerks you out of a groggy night’s sleep.
It is an absent-minded old woman with heavy breaths And heavier words, clutching your hand in her graying gloved one, Staring into the synthetic blue world of a tropical fish tank Confessing her wheelchair-woven longing For a full life—because she does not feel she knows what it means Even though her middle-aged kids whose bellies have grown soft Keep insisting she’s had one.
It is being a child and dropping your ice cream cone on the warm cement And your mother not buying you another.
It is that night when you’re 25, gulping coffee at a truck stop Realizing that nobody particularly cares where you are or what you’re doing That your freedom at times can be total and complete.
It is taking a piss in the public bathroom with no one to hold your purse. It is the wet green of the woods Or a heart accompanied and comforted only by its pacemaker.
It is loving and dying But also not-loving and not-dying.
Personally, I’m no good with time. Half-hours are a bit like blinking for me, and it’s not like I’m spending my time living fast and falling hard or anything. I’m so boring, it’s like sometimes I simply forget that I’m still here, sitting in a chair, hair mussed, eating a peach. And I trick myself into believing this is okay, and I even like it at points. I talk about grander things, capitalizing on chance, not being so afraid. And I sustain myself on it, my thoughts—things that I want to do, but always shrouded in the faraway, the someday.
It’s frustrating, desiring boring, simple things. At the end of the day, it means that you too are boring and simple. What we want, what we long for—whether it be a person or a city or another dumb materialistic object—because, in wanting, everything/everyone turns into an object, something akin to a solider daydream, but still nothing you can intertwine your bony fingers with. I don’t know what I’m really trying to say; I guess that all longings are pretty selfish, because it’s never about what you’re longing for. So that’s my excuse for sitting here, steaming with it and not living passionately and excitedly. See, I’m good at lying to myself, but it doesn’t send the truth away. It’s still always going to be here, waiting for courage that will never come.
I will never be that girl with the hair that looks exotic instead of simply unwashed and I’m too pragmatic to have anybody love me enough to write a beautiful poem. I don’t have the innate sense to recognize which people actually listen when I talk, and my persona will never be left behind me in a room, like the sillage of perfume.
“We all have our little solipsistic delusions, ghastly intuitions of utter similarity: that we are the only one in the house who ever fills the ice-cube tray, who unloads the clean dishwasher, who occasionally pees in the shower, whose eyelid twitches on first dates; that only we take casualness terribly seriously; that only we hear the whiny pathos in a dog’s yawn, the timeless sigh in the opening of the hermetically-sealed jar, the splattered laugh in the frying egg, the minor-D lament in the vacuum’s scream; that only we feel the panic at sunset the rookie kindergartner feels at his mother’s retreat. That only we love the only-we. Solipsism binds us together, J.D. knows. That we feel lonely in a crowd; stop not to dwell on what’s brought the crowd into being. That we are, always, faces in a crowd.”—David Foster Wallace, Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way
In ethics class so many years ago our teacher asked this question every fall: If there were a fire in a museum which would you save, a Rembrandt painting or an old woman who hadn’t many years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs caring little for pictures or old age we’d opt one year for life, the next for art and always half-heartedly. Sometimes the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face leaving her usual kitchen to wander some drafty, half imagined museum. One year, feeling clever, I replied why not let the woman decide herself? Linda, the teacher would report, eschews the burdens of responsibility. This fall in a real museum I stand before a real Rembrandt, old woman, or nearly so, myself. The colors within this frame are darker than autumn, darker even than winter—the browns of earth, though earth’s most radiant elements burn through the canvas. I know now that woman and painting and season are almost one and all beyond saving by children.
“She was calm and quiet now with knowing what she had always known, what neither her parents nor Aunt Claire nor Frank nor anyone else had ever had to teach her: that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”—Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
When I write, and it’s going well, that’s how I really am.
That’s why it hasn’t been going well. Because I can’t find her. It used to be easier. I could take her out and slip her on, like a glove or a sexy dress and then I could put her back in the drawer. I always knew where she was, so I didn’t have to think too much. Retrace my steps, my emotions, the edges of my personality, the bones in my feet that I stand on.
I know I’ve changed this summer but it’s difficult to put into words…I’m older? Nothing much has happened to me—I’ve mostly just slept and watched TV, to be honest. But something about me has changed, and I’m not sure if it’s even a thing that has emotions that can be ascribed to it. It’s like, a Lost in Translation feeling. Have you ever seen that movie? I can recognize it in Scarlett Johanssen when she goes to a temple and doesn’t feel anything and when Bill Murray is too tall for his showerhead. I guess it’s more of a hotel room feeling than anything else, if that makes sense. Not being able to fall asleep in a hotel room is a weird kind of purgatory, isn’t it? It’s eerie. The TV channels are messed up and room service is too expensive and I often find myself sitting in the bathtub, feeling emptier than anything. It’s not special, I know. But it’s a feeling hard to put your finger on. I guess that’s the closest I can get to describing the person I am right now. It’s like I’m always lying awake and alone in a hotel room.
I sink into autobiographies past midnight, intertwining my fingers around themselves—I’m always twitching slightly, like I’m on the verge of tears at every moment—but here’s a story I always wanted to tell: I’ve always wanted to go to Paris because I think of it as a magical land where girls don’t twirl eagles’ feathers in their hair but ride upon their backs, and at night, everyone is always breathing words to themselves, like hypnotizing spells. Artists are abound at every corner, living in flats, barely making a living, primitively starving, but fiercely loyal to their craft, and there’s fainting, burning color there, and in their eyes. And there are streetlamps straight out of A Tale of Two Cities and when it rains, no one uses an umbrella, and the French are lilting and wild yet romantic in their words, and everyone is drunk, but pleasantly so.
Here’s another story: I never want to go to Paris because it will be a dirty city with too much smoke and people crowding around, and no one will fall asleep to Tchaikovsky except me. Perhaps the traveller does not see as much beauty as one who knows but a hundred miles, perhaps that is the reason for their restlessness.
(I thought I’d post this here as well as the Paper Towns Q&A blog. It contains no spoilers. Thanks to Tamar for making it possible for me to post this publicly.)
Where did the strings metaphor inPaper Towns come from?
Someone said it to me once, after a friend had attempted suicide, that “maybe all the strings inside him broke,” and I liked that image a lot because 1. puppets, and 2. We are all aware that there is this emotional/psychological life inside of us, right? But it’s very difficult to talk about, because it doesn’t have a physical location.
When your back hurts, it’s relatively easy to address this problem using language: You say, “My back hurts,” and I can understand what you mean, because I also have a back, and it has hurt before, and I remember that pain, which makes it easier for me to empathize with you.
It is much harder for me to empathize with you if what hurts is abstract. When people are imagining sadness or despair, they often try to render it in terms we find familiar. You often hear, “My heart hurts,” for instance, or “My heart is broken.” This problem, of course, is not actually in the heart.
(I do think a lot of people feel emotional pain physically near the solar plexus, but it’s not the physical manifestation of emotional pain that makes it so difficult: It’s the emotional/psychological/spiritual/whatever pain itself, which you can’t describe easily in concrete terms.)
To talk about emotional pain (and lots of other emotional experiences), we are forced to use abstractions. (“My heart is broken,” is a symbolic statement.) And many people feel, in this world driven by data and statistics and concreteness, that abstractions are inherently kind of less valid than concrete observations. But emotional experience is as real and as valid as physical experience. And the fact that we have to use metaphor and symbolism to describe that pain effectively does not make it less real—just as abstract paintings are not inherently inferior to representational paintings.
You often hear in high school English classes, for instance, that thinking about symbols is dumb or useless or “ruining the book.” But underneath it all, this is why we have language in the first place. We don’t really need language to share the news of your back pain: You can point at your back and grimace to tell me that your back hurts, and I can nod sympathetically.
But to explain to you the nature and nuance of my grief or pain or joy, I need abstractions. I need symbols. And the better our symbols are, the more clearly we’ll be able to communicate with each other, and the more fully we’ll be able to imagine each other’s experience. Good symbolism makes empathy easier.
So why the strings? The strings inside a person breaking struck me as a better and more accurate abstract description of despair than anthropomorphized symbols (broken heart, etc.).
And this is very important to remember when reading or writing or painting or talking or whatever: You are never, ever choosing whether to use symbols. You are choosing which symbols to use.
Open question to the Internet: Why is it apparently mysogynistic of men to get excited about the Olympics women’s beach volleyball because there’s pretty ladies jumping about in tight sport bikinis, when half of the female Tumblr population has done little else this week but perve over the Olympic male swimmers in their tiny swimming trunks?
Because female athletes aren’t considered to be serious competitors. Because the women’s football tickets are being given away, and the men’s football tickets cost thousands upon thousands of pounds. Because female athletes struggle for sponsorship unless they’re stereotypically aesthetically attractive enough to get modelling deals whereas Wayne Rooney’s neanderthal face gets paid millions. Because male athletes are valued because of their prowess, their skill, their charm, and female athletes are valued for their bodies. Because Michael Phelps breaks records and is a national hero, and Ye Shiwen breaks records and is accused of doping. Because the male gaze is a product of hundreds of years of oppression, of complex gender dynamics, of sexualisation and sexual exploitation, and there’s no female equivalent. Because the female exposure of the body is a sign of vulnerability, of sex, of reproduction, of physical use and nothing more, whereas male exposure is a sign of confidence, of power, of physical strength. Because women are naked on the covers of magazines to pleasure men and men are naked on the cover of magazines to inspire other men. In other words, the world is backwards, and twisted, and complicated, and your observation is perversely oversimplified.