I think about this fucking blog every goddamn day. Every day I think about this blog. I don’t want to write. I want to keep my thoughts in my head. Thoughts in my head don’t need to be organized or eloquent, and they don’t need to have a point. Thoughts in my head are also not subject to praise or criticism: no one else has any opinions about what’s on my mind at any moment, and I like it that way.

And yet I made a commitment to write, so I think about the blog every day.

My daughter is off school today, so I took the morning off work and took her out for donuts and then a trip to Barnes and Noble to spend a gift card she had received. I think one reason I get books from libraries instead of bookstores is because I can’t enter a bookstore without thinking about the business of books. When I see these bright commodities, many of them so perfectly marketed to interpellate me and fill me with desire to touch and hold and read, it disgusts me a little. For one thing, there are so many, and more every day, that it’s clear that the world doesn’t need another . . . and yet there will be another, and another, and another, because there is a market for it, and what exists in America exists because there is a market for it.

There is a binary—things that sell for money are important, and things that don’t are not. By this binary, the book I actually did write, a work of literary scholarship, is not important, because it will sell a small number of copies primarily to university libraries. But there is a competing binary—things that don’t sell for money are important, and things that do are not. According to this binary, I could preen over the fact that only the few would ever want to read my book in the first place: exclusivity replaces popularity, esotericism replaces accessibility.

Binaries are such lazy lies, though.

I’m reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? It’s a very different book than Fun Home, her first memoir—obsessive about interiority, dreams, psychoanalysis, and how all of that connects with relationships, especially her relationship with her mother, but also relationships with therapists and with lovers, and she weaves all of this together using the recurring plot device of her own writer’s block. Importantly, she wasn’t able to successfully write memoir as a young woman—eventually, the process of memoir-writing, therapy, and obsessive reading of psychoanalytic theories together transform her sufficiently to make it possible to write about her life with genuineness. She includes the rejection letter she received in her early 20s from none other than Adrienne Rich, when she sent a short memoir-based piece to a prominent literary journal. Rich wrote that her work had dealt with the material “at a rather superficial level. Even for yourself, I think it would be useful to go back and ask yourself some real questions as to the meaning of each incident, and its context. I hope this is helpful. Don’t be put off, or discouraged. Writing is a very long, demanding training, more hard work than luck. Strength to you. In sisterhood, Adrienne Rich.” It’s not just developing a voice, developing skill, Bechdel implies—it’s also learning to be the True Self instead of the False Self (in Donald Winnicott’s terms), and that is a painful process that takes years.

But the voice, the being willing to speak, is also important. I often tell my students, most recently my Milton students this past Tuesday, about how I didn’t talk in class as an undergraduate, but I forced myself to start talking in class in my first year of graduate school. It’s an anecdote, mostly, a way of saying “I understand how you might feel about my desire that you speak in class.” But the details are instructive. In that first year of graduate school, in the first semester, I continued my instinctual loathing of my classmates who were confident enough to speak up all the time in class. I felt similarly toward my vocal classmates as I feel now toward the authors of the books in the bookstore: They’re speaking, so I don’t have to. They’re speaking, and that’s because they think they’re so smart. They’re speaking because they want attention. They’re speaking, and so whatever I have to say is unnecessary and superfluous.

When I forced myself to become one of the students who spoke up every day, it was agony. My heart would pound, my breathing becoming shallower and faster—classic anxiety symptoms for someone shy enough to have once tried, at the age of four or so, to hide underneath my mother’s skirt when she wanted to introduce me to a roomful of strangers. It was a discipline, and I succeeded sufficiently that eventually, I was on the other side of the same binary. There was a beautiful, smart woman in one of my classes, and she hardly ever spoke up. When she did, though, it was top-notch, insightful stuff. Nothing she ever said was less than brilliant . . . but I hated her a little bit for how infrequently she shared her lapidary brilliance with us. Here the rest of us are, hustling to keep the conversational ball moving about this really damned difficult literary theory, and You. Are. Not. Pulling. Your. Weight. I imagined that she was looking down on me, because although my numerator of brilliance in the course may have rivaled her output, my denominator was much, much larger, diminishing my Brilliance Quotient.

are-you-my-mother

Of course it was all about me. Isn’t everything?

But the fact of it was that I made the decision to speak up in class for myself, not for anyone else, and that was a good decision. I got over my shyness, and my life has been very different than it would have been if I hadn’t managed that feat.

I think that now, with this blog, I am in the same place that I was twenty years ago with speaking. No one else needs to read my opinions. There are enough opinions out there, enough brilliant writing—truly, no one needs me to try. But my life changed for the better when I learned to speak in a group. I don’t know what will happen if I go the next step and write down what’s in my mind.

Rachel E. Hile

rich-quotation

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