finding truth in the mirror
I sat on the edge of the bathtub, staring at the wall. I felt as flat as that wall, flat and covered with an airtight coat of pliant beige latex paint. It must have been September or October of 2006, around the time my oldest daughter was turning six, a month or two after my second daughter was born, a few months after my friend Susan died of cancer, and a year since I had stopped teaching at the high school. John was on the other side of the locked bathroom door, knocking softly, but I could not answer the door or take my eyes from the wall. The sound of a woman wailing filled the room, a cry that had broken my impermeable membrane and spilled out of me. I heard the knocking and the sobbing but that small patch of bathroom wall was all I could take in.
As I sat there, I became aware of the fact that only part of me had lost its grip. With scientific detachment, I made a mental note of the fact that there was another part that sat beside me, watching the spectacle; a smirking, eye-rolling part that did not buy this tragic performance at all, not one bit. Oh, puhleeze, this part sighed, get over yourself. She stayed with me as John coaxed me out of the bathroom and into the car because he had to drive our eldest to an appointment and knew he couldn’t leave me alone, and while the car was speeding over the Richmond Bridge and I was thinking how easy it would be to just open the door and lean out, just lean out into nothing, the little snickering in my ear yanked me back to life.
I don’t know what that part of me is or where she came from, but I’m lucky she exists. I imagine her dressed in a slim black suit and cowboy boots, with a bald head because she has more important things to do besides fuck around with hair. She’s my inner critic: the scoffer, the bird-flipper, the contrarian who shows up to kick my ass with a hard pointy toe whenever I take myself too seriously.
Writers take themselves seriously. You have to if you’re going to sit in that chair all alone, day after day, forking the meat of your own mind. In “Why I Write,” Joan Didion said, “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” While sitting in that chair, forming sentences and shaping thoughts, a writer is finally able to see the amorphous shadows and shapes that might otherwise have remained buried inside. Of course it’s not just memoirists who do this. Virginia Woolf said that “every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works,” because what we write — whether it be fiction or nonfiction or memoir — always reveals an inner truth, even if we like to pretend to be a godlike (invisible, indifferent, and filing our fingernails) by retaining a remote narratorial stance. In fact, it could be argued that people who write in the third person without claiming a subjective personal stance are the ones who take themselves the most seriously. Anyhow, I suspect that all writers must be intensely self-centered, at least until they step away from the page, at least until the kids start coughing and the cat barfs and the stinking heaps of dirty laundry topple over onto their head.
You can’t see a truth until it’s put into words: that’s the whole premise of talk therapy. Referring to his story “The Depressed Person” David Foster Wallace said:
It’s about narcissism, which is a part of depression. The character has traits of myself. I really lost friends while writing on that story, I became ugly and unhappy and just yelled at people. The cruel thing with depression is that it’s such a self-centered illness–Dostoevsky shows that pretty good in his ‘Notes from Underground’. The depression is painful, you’re sapped/consumed by yourself; the worse the depression, the more you just think about yourself and the stranger […] you appear to others.
I suppose most writers feel at least an occasional tinge of guilt about their self-indulgence, especially the ones who are supposed to be selflessly attending to the needs of others. In order to handle that guilt, some have learned to embrace it: they declare themselves narcissists, wrap their arms around themselves, open wide, and slip themselves a little tongue. In a characteristically unapologetic quip, Norman Mailer once said, “I hate everything which is not in myself.” Tobias Wolff called writing “…an acquired schizophrenia. You have to really allow yourself to be a kind of egomaniac when you first start a story or a piece of work,” and once, when someone asked Mary Karr if she thought she’d been successful because god liked her better than other writers, her reply was emphatic: “Absolutely!” She also said that she doesn’t write to help anybody else, that she does it for the money: “I did it because I’m greedy and I like living in New York.” And it’s not just writers calling themselves names: Google “narcissism” + “writer” and you will find a chorus chiming in on this diagnosis.
Do writers have to be egomaniacs, schizophrenics, and narcissists with messiah complexes? Does writing require pathology? In order to be a writer, do I have to be sick? Lady Antithesis snorts and sneers: Maybe if you were more adept at depression, you could write like David Foster Wallace. She picks a bit of gristle from her canine and flicks it at my face. If you were a better narcissist, you’d be famous by now.
I love it when she talks to me like that. I just want to hand her a whip, pull down my pants, and beg her to slap me some more sense, because the truth is that writing keeps me healthy and whole.
I did not start writing seriously until I was pregnant with my first child. As soon as her little self started germinating inside me, sponging up nutrients and taking up more and more space, my need to write stories was born. Later, I’d feed and bathe her and change her and play with her and, while she was napping, I’d slink guiltily back to my writing chair and pick up my thought where I’d left off.
In the room where I wrote hung a giant 4’ by 6’ photograph of her face, a close up printed on canvas, so close her glistening eyes and blurry features fill the frame and sometimes, while I was sitting there typing, I’d be overcome by the impression of my relative smallness, of feeling a like mouse in a hole with a big hungry creature peering in through a window, trying to capture my attention. Eventually my story became my first novel, Nothing Sacred, and the birth of my second daughter inspired What Would Water Do, my second novel. Both are written in the third person because it felt right: covered in spit-up and batter and Elmers glue, having been woken three times in the night, not remembering the last time I had finished a sentence or gone to the bathroom without an audience, I yearned for bodilessness and as much omniscience as I could muster.
How dare you write a novel when you have not even written a short story, taunted my Inner Snark as she stretched and flexed her muscles in the mirror. Who do you think you are?
There is nothing simple about holding a baby. Babies exude a heavy, sweet substance that covers like glue. You will sit for hours watching them while they sleep. Or at least I did. I was completely overwhelmed by the heavy importance of what I was doing. Donald Woods Winnicott, the English pediatrician and psychoanalyst best known for his ideas on the true and false selves and who had a lot to say about narcissism, said this:
“The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein… provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.”
Winnicott said that antisocial tendencies might just be a cry for help. For him, antisocial behavior is an expression of a sense of loss and a need to be held. So in order to raise a healthy child, a mother’s job is to make the face-to-face connection, to see the truth in her child and mirror it back like a pool of water.
Being a pool of water is not easy. After awhile, a person might want a body again. At the beginning of this year, I started looking for a paying job and began writing memoir since I knew I wouldn’t have time for fiction any more but I still needed to tell my stories. The stories were always about me, but since I wouldn’t have time to pretend otherwise, I switched to memoir, where I didn’t have to expunge myself from the tale, I could just mainline my truth. If fiction is a heart transplant, memoir is a dissection. Fiction is a chess match with a tournament winner and memoir is trying to beat yourself at the game. (But these analogies are just fun, because in truth, the “I” in all writing is a construct, as is the lack of “I” in the third person.) On January 9, 2013, I “published” my first bit in a series of essays I called “body talk,” an exploration of how my body shapes my experience. Like Winnicott’s newborn, I showed these essays to the world and waited to see what would be reflected back to me.
Mostly, the response has been encouraging. Mostly, the response has inspired me to keep going. However, some of the comments have been challenging. Someone wanted to know what made my story important and wondered why it wasn’t enough just to simply live. Another reader said I should lead with the posing naked stuff because that’s the only thing that makes my story unique. The term “narcissist” has been brandished. Several others spoke of the inherent dangers of appearing self-centered, of being too nearsighted to care about the reader’s experience, and another said that I seemed hungry for attention.
Meanwhile, Ma Marquise de Sade leans against the wall, nodding and grinning. She doesn’t have to say a word.
At this point, I have several choices: I could pull my hair over my face and sit in the corner. I could revise the whole thing, choosing an “I” that was more self-deprecating, worried about what you think, and attuned to the world around her because certainly, a narrator should be endearing. I could try to make the story more exciting, perhaps go out and do some something unique so I’ll have more to write about. I could explain myself, hire a defense, or retreat to fiction or biography or journalism.
But, like a true narcissist (can’t we come up with a better word, people?), I will take this opportunity to look at myself a little harder. I will cut stuff out and add some in and do whatever I can to clarify and project what’s inside me outward, hoping someone will understand what I’m talking about, hoping it won’t get twisted or warped, because I need to find a way to communicate and I can only do that if someone else is there to play this game of hide-and-seek with me. Because I could play this writing game alone but it wouldn’t be quite as fun. Because, as Winnicott said, “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.”
But we must come up with a better word than “narcissist,” my friends, wordsmithy writer-friends especially, who probably know how a word can act as an iron bar thrust into the spokes. All writing is self-reflexive: get over it. I’m not qualified to diagnose whether a writer is “narcissistic,” nor am I interested. Each of us writes (and reads) from a unique adult experience. If Mary Karr thinks god has a special kind of love for her, I want to read more to see what that looks like. I read Joan Didion to see what I think about what she thinks and Virginia Woolf to feel the cold, deep clarity of her soul. I read Winnicott to understand myself and I write to hold myself together.
Why do you write?
Have you ever gotten feedback that made you feel like a funhouse mirror?
(By the way, my original essay included many lovely footnotes that did not translate well into WordPress. Does anyone know how to use footnotes here?)