the kindness of strangers
I have a relationship in my head with Stephen Elliot. Not a romantic relationship, but one where we’re sort of tenderly drawn to one another, as one might be with a child who is small and thoughtful and quiet except when they’re particularly articulate or suddenly wild. I had a dream last night in which Stephen Elliot came into the room where I was sleeping naked with someone. He asked if we were coming to brunch. He wasn’t at all disturbed by our nudity, but didn’t not notice it. Maybe I get the feeling that I’d just like to sit with Stephen watching a day move by in a park, or walk through a city that one of us knows well. If you don’t know who he is, he is the author of books like The Adderall Diaries, and the man behind The Rumpus, where I recently had a poem published. If you subscribe to the Daily Rumpus, a sometimes daily email from Stephen, you will learn interesting things. Here’s an excerpt from today’s Daily Rumpus– thoughts about memoir, about writing about ourselves and other people (again, the the word “tenderly” comes to mind) :
I’ve been thinking about writing, how we create from life. It’s complicated, of course. Someone pointed out that I was creating celebrity (mini-celebrity) by standing at the center of my own work. Like Woody Allen. We wouldn’t know Woody very well if he didn’t star in his films. And then I write about myself and then also about honesty and I change very quickly so I look back at what I’ve written and I think, That’s not who I am. It is, but you can’t fully capture a person, not even in an entire book. At best you can maybe get at an idea, like Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and The Murderer. The idea of that book was the experience of being written about, how reading about yourself is like failing a test you didn’t know you were taking. To continue on that idea, when I interview people they often tell me to write whatever I want. They’re not afraid of what I might say. And what they mean is I can show their bad side and their good side. What they don’t mean is that I can show a side of them they don’t even know exists, which is the side of ourselves seen by everyone else.
Sometimes, when I’m intimate with someone, I try too hard to be honest and then end up lying. It’s like, if there’s no truth then the lie is multiplied with every explanation. And it’s like you can’t tell someone what you want if you don’t know what you want. And anyway, I was with someone the other day who said she felt like she knew me from my writing and I didn’t know her at all. Right. The trouble of knowing and being known. That’s a longer commitment. That’s not for lovers, only for friends, I think.
My rule, when writing about someone, is to hide their identity. They might recognize themselves but their friends shouldn’t recognize them, their employers shouldn’t recognize them. But that’s only my rule; you have to make your own and be responsible for them. Another rule is to try to be fair. Another rule is to try to be kind. If you can do that maybe you’re halfway to a place, but if you can’t do that you’re not even close.
The only real-time interaction I’ve had with Stephen Elliot is that he fed me a spoonful of frozen yogurt at AWP in Chicago, then sat next to me for about five minutes. No, we didn’t really talk. Yes, we were both sober. There’s a small story behind the scene but it doesn’t explain the intimacy of feeding a stranger with a spoon. That’s maybe the core of what my imaginary relationship with Stephen — the fact that he was willing to share something with me, something I didn’t ask for, and the fact that I opened my mouth.