August 25, 2009
“I once read a Chekhov story which described a minor character as ‘trying to snatch from life more than it can give’; maybe I have turned into such a person, unable to accept what is given, always trying to tear things up in order to find what is ‘real’, even when I don’t know what ‘real’ is, unable to maintain the respect, the dignity of not asking too much or even looking too closely at the workings of the heart, which, no matter how you look, can never be fully seen or understood.”
Mary Gaitskill, “Lost Cat”
Last week, I had the worst panic attack that I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve had plenty of panic attacks in my life before last week, but, maybe because of this regularity, I had gotten so used to dealing with them that they didn’t really, you know, “panic” me anymore; a panic attack had become a simple, physical thing that I would quickly and easily deal with through breathing and concentration, as simple as popping a pimple. This panic attack last week was different, though, different mainly because it was never-ending and uncontrollable and made me feel very sure that I was going to die very soon. I believed completely and totally and literally last Friday afternoon that I would either die that day or that something even worse would happen (like I would, because I was uninsured, rack up tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills which would bankrupt my family and ruin their lives in the process of my dying, that I would “take them down with me”). No matter how badly or sadly I’ve felt at various points before in my life, I’ve never felt anything like I did then, not even close, I’ve never felt I was going to die. Thankfully and luckily and wonderfully (there are never enough stupid adverbs to describe being alive), I was helped and supported and given medication and reassurance and love and didn’t die and am still alive and living and et cetera and no longer think I’m going to die (at least any time soon), though it took me several days after the attack to get to this point of not feeling constantly like I was going to die anymore and I am still working pretty actively to not have this feeling.
Now that I don’t constantly feel like I’m going to die anymore, though, I keep having the urge to write about the experience of feeling like I was going to die, which seems like a pretty significant experience in my life and an interesting one, too, an experience with many facets which I would like to explore in language and thought. When I think about my experience in this writerly context, I think there are so many good images and thoughts and scenes in it, and by good I mean “affecting” and “sensual” and “interesting,” I mean good in a literary context, not good in a more general sense, since there was nothing really “good” about my experience in a more general sense, it was horrible and awful. Though I am actively trying to avoid actively thinking about dying right now at this moment, I just can’t help myself, I keep finding myself writing down stray phrases and sentences and images which I think will make good parts of this essay I will eventually write about the day I felt like I was dying, I keep finding myself creating outlines and making mental notes and then stopping myself from doing so, stopping writing because I’m afraid to start.
I’m afraid to start writing this essay about the experience of feeling like I was going to die because I’m afraid that writing about the experience of feeling like I was going to die will make me feel that way again and that’s a way I don’t want to feel again, especially not right now, with it so soon in the past behind me that I’m not even sure it’s over. I feel like in order to really write this essay well, and by “well” I mean in a way which is “affecting” and “sensual” and “interesting,” and has a literary quality, not “well” in the medical sense of “well-being,” I feel like in order to write it “well,” I will have to make myself feel the way I felt then, when I felt like I was dying and couldn’t breathe and couldn’t think and just sat on the hard tile floor holding my chest and shaking. I am struggling with this issue some because while I feel that writing about my feelings will likely help me “get over” them in various significant ways, I will have to go through them in order to do so, go through in order to get over them, and I don’t know if I’m “strong” enough to do that right now, though to use the word “strong” in that cliched emotional context offends me deeply as a writer even though I feel its truth as a person. I’ve always hated the idea of “writing as therapy”; even though I write about myself and my feelings often, I am always more concerned with craft and metaphor and image and rhythm and form, not with anything like “expressing myself.” Most of the time when I’m afraid or anxious about writing, which is often, it’s that I’m afraid or anxious that I’m writing badly (in the literary sense) or about things which aren’t “affecting” or “sensual” or “interesting”: it’s a confidence problem, really. The odd thing about this experience I’m having right now is that I have none of my usual problems with confidence; I somehow know that I can write this story of feeling like I was going to die really well, I know that I can describe it in a powerful and affecting and interesting way, I’m not worried about that at all. I’m just kind of scared, I think maybe, of how well I can write it, I guess, I’m scared of writing it so well that in the process of doing so I will be inside of it again and that’s not a place I want to be or a place I want to take any other person. It is very difficult to feel like the thing that makes you the happiest in the world is also the thing that makes you the saddest and that is where I am right now, stuck in the middle with you.
I am afraid to write right now and so I read instead. This morning, I read the story “Lost Cat” by Mary Gaitskill in Granta. I read the story because the story has been popular in the sections of the Internet that I read regularly and also because when I was about twenty, I read the Mary Gaitskill short story collection Bad Behavior and thought that it was by far the best short story collection that I had ever read, though afterward I found that I never really loved any of Mary Gaitskill’s other books in the same way, save maybe for Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which I thought was very entertaining but not nearly as “good” as Bad Behavior. Mary Gaitskill’s other books, like her novel Veronica, especially, were just too dark for me and too sad, maybe, they took me into places where I didn’t want to be; I stopped reading Veronica after reading just a little bit of it because I just couldn’t handle feeling the way it made me feel anymore. Even though I thought that Mary Gaitskill was an amazing writer who described these dark places of hers very well, who could write exquisite shadows and the most beautiful wounds in the world, I didn’t want shadows or wounds from writing, I wanted words that would me feel full and happy and whole, not the other way around.
This morning, I read “Lost Cat” and I loved it and I thought that it was so sad and good and beautifully written; reading it reminded me of how much I had loved Bad Behavior when I was younger even though this essay was so much more complex and sprawling and mature than any of the stories in that book had been. Near the middle of “Lost Cat,” on the fourth page, Mary Gaitskill introduces the story of two children that she and her husband have spent time with for several years as part of this program called the Fresh Air Fund. As I read this part, I was reminded of hearing Mary Gaitskill tell the same story about the children in a radio interview I had listened to with her a few months ago, an interview she did in June to promote her latest collection of stories, Don’t Cry. It turns out that Mary Gaitskill has written and spoken about these children at various lengths in several different places: in the Washington Post in 2005, she wrote a story about her experience with them called “Love Lessons“; in O Magazine in 2008 she wrote a much shorter story about the kids which also introduced the narrative of “the lost cat” called “Letting Go – The Lost Cat“; in Granta this month, she wrote the very long story that I read this morning, “Lost Cat,” which is about her experience with the children and the cat and a lot of other stuff, life and death and everything else.
In these different versions of the same stories, similar moments appear and reappear variously in scene and summary, they are shifted and molded and cast in different colors and tones, are painted with different words and phrases; the names of the children at the stories’ centers change from “Christopher” and “Isaiah” (in the Post story) to vague, unnamed “Dominican kids” (in the O Magazine piece) to “Cezar” and “Ezekiel” (in the Granta story). This is not some James Frey kind of thing; besides those names, nothing of the concrete world changes in the different stories, just the writer’s perceptions of events that she’s experienced, her thoughts and feelings and memories and the way she tells them to us, what she decides to give us and what she decides to leave out and how she decides to put it all together.
Reading the different versions of the stories of the kids, I was somewhat reminded of the controversy in 2007 about the difference between the Lish and Carver versions of Raymond Carver’s most famous stories, which ones were better, which were more “complete” and “true.” I know that when I first heard Mary Gaitskill tell the anecdote about spending time with the kids in the radio interview, I thought it was kind of interesting or whatever but I was also kind of bored and wanted her to get back to talking about literary technique and how she wrote her stories, the things I wanted to hear from her at that time. “Love Lessons,” the Post story, is a good enough essay (and when I say “good enough,” I mean “much, much better than I could write”), but some of it in places seems crude and detached, the dialogue is off, somehow, the scenes aren’t quite as believable and true and clearly and perfectly rendered as they are in the later “Lost Cat” in Granta, you just don’t feel as close to their teller or the things she’s feeling or thinking or experiencing. When she was talking about the kids in the radio interview I listened to a couple months ago, Mary Gaitskill stopped her narration of her experience with the kids several times to say something like “I can’t really describe it” or “I can’t really explain it,” and this was after she had already written out and published this story several times; she still just couldn’t get it out the way she wanted to, she still couldn’t say it right.
Ever since I told my family last week that I thought I was going to die, my mother, who is the one who saved me from feeling like I was going to die by just being a great mother to me in general but also by taking me to the doctor and having him tell me I wasn’t going to die also and then give me medicine which helped me get rid of the feeling that I was going to die, my mother has stressed the importance of talking about how I feel inside to her and to others. “You have to tell us how you feel,” she said. Talking about the way I feel has always been difficult and complicated for me and I anticipate that this will not change easily or quickly or just by reading something in a magazine or on the Internet, but I found it helpful in the middle of this experience of mine, this really bad situation, to see how Mary Gaitskill navigated the difference between talking about something and writing about that same thing in different forms, to see how how she has over a period of time processed and reprocessed the material of her life into words to make it all into this story I read this morning, this story about a lost cat and some kids and stuff which helped distract me for a little while from thinking about feeling like I was going to die.