I finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts last night. After the last page, I flipped back to the first and began rereading. I had the sense that I was finally grasping what Nelson had been saying all along, but it took me until the very end to get it, and still, I had it only by its wily tail—no firm grip on the thing. It’s my fault: I read the first half of the book in starts and stops, on the subway, before bed, distracted and a little lazy.
A few weeks ago, in a December that already feels far away, I hurried up subway steps and walked through cold night air, and I was struck suddenly by a feeling of nostalgia for the kind of writing I did at Salt, in Maine. I thought about the mindset I need to be in to write. The job necessitates being in a particular state of feeling things vividly, or at least being able to access a place of vivid feeling in memory. In my mind and with my body, I have to get close to the place, person, emotion, scene, time, and moment so that I am nearly crushed by my sensitivity to it.
But I also wonder (or worry?) whether this process results in fabricating something, or if it is an act of merely accessing something that was always there. In the present—in the moment of experience—nothing can be quite as clear, can it? Retrospectively, though, we can see anew.
To clarify, to understand: it is an oft-cited reason for writing. Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
With a sort of violence, we writers impose a narrative line upon disparate images, we select the most workable of the multiple choices.
There’s something that feels fraudulent about that process of selection. Recently I was comforted by an essay by Dinty W. Moore. He says, “Although the personal essay is a form of nonfiction, and thus the self you bring to your essay should be an honest representation of who you are, we are in fact made of many selves: our happy self, our sad self, our indignant self, our skeptical self, our optimistic self, our worried self, our demanding self, our rascally self and on and on and on. But in truth, if we attempt to bring all of these selves to every essay that we write, we run the risk of seeming so uncertain, so indecisive, that we merely confuse the reader.” Thus, he says, we must “‘Select’ the most appropriate self.”
I am asking again and again how to write and why to write. I realize only now that I am revisiting the same theme from Frank O’Hara’s lines: “It may be that poetry makes life's nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial.”
We select, freeze, interpret, impose, restore, bring forth—in order to live.
Each sentence in The Argonauts is dense, contains worlds. I know it is the kind of book where each time I read it, I will take away something different. Despite my stuttering start, by the end my eyes stung with hot tears. I was hungry for more. Back to the beginning I went, and will go, again and again. Such revisitations constitute a life.