Retreat Into Silence

People who know me will find this hard to believe, but I abstained from speech, texting and all forms of communication on New Year’s Day, which I spent at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires.  I made this the subject of my last essay on Perceptive Travel. A fire alarm went off during my day of silence, and the center was evacuated — which freaked me out a little.

I’ve been a professional writer for my entire career, which is to say, for nearly the past twenty years. I’ve written for international publications with large readerships, and  for tiny niche publications with smaller ones. But in that moment, wrapped in that blanket on New Year’s Day, I realized that the small group of people who would care if I got stuck in a blanket during a fire drill at my New Year’s yoga retreat, the people who would appreciate the joke I’d make out of anxiety an oblige with a good ol’ LOL, the people with whom I am the most intimate — they are my home. They are the people that make it possible for me to leave home and travel, and to tolerate being alone, and yes, lonely, on a holiday when most people naturally congregate with their beloveds.

Read the rest.

I read “On the Ethics of Writing about Others” in Phillip Lopate’s anthology, To Show and to Tell, only after I wrote my own piece on bile and spite.

If I had tackled these tasks in reverse order, I would have saved myself a lot of time, because I could have just written this sentence: Read Lopate’s essay, I agree with it.

Oh well. But read his essay, I agree with it. My favorite bits include his rules on this tricky topic for himself, which are:

1) Never write to settle scores.

2) Write as beautifully as possible.

I also liked that when he wrote about his family, he changed the name of his siblings but not his parents, “reasoning, I suppose, that my parents were elderly and their lives were nearly over, whereas my siblings were still in the midst of the struggle.”

Bile, Spite, and Pot Shots: On Writing About My Divorce

My ex-husband would like me to please stop writing about this divorce, which he sees as me writing about his life.

Maybe this is the first problem, or actually, the threshold problem here: that he sees our divorce as only being about his life, and not mine. It’s funny…for some peculiar reason I feel like all of this happened to me, too.

But okay, I’m already getting distracted from what I want to write about here, which is:

Why I am writing about this divorce at all;
what my motives are for this writing.

For he has asserted that these writings of mine are pot shots, acts of bile and spite, and while I immediately thought he was full of shit, I also wasn’t sure why I thought this. And so I’m doing what I’ve done my entire adult life, which is turn to the page to sort it all out.

***

Well, first I turned to Facebook to get some advice. Because to understand this inquiry, it’s important to understand that after a brief experiment, I decided to break off direct communication with him. For one thing, I don’t trust him. For another, in our few exchanges, I found his tone nasty and sarcastic, and entirely unhelpful to me and my peace of mind.  So on any matters relating to our divorce agreement, of which my writing is a part, I will only communicate with him only through my lawyer.

I wasn’t aware until recently that he remains an avid reader of my work. Still, it was an unpleasant surprise to receive a text from him the other night, after he’d read something I’d written. It was less what he wrote, although that wasn’t so nice, than the realization that I’m likely to receive a nastygram from him whenever I publish something relating to our divorce. This made me want to stop writing about the divorce entirely, which then annoyed me — a chilling effect was his goal, should it really be so easily accomplished?

And so I asked Facebook– and especially my many writer friends– to weigh in on whether I should allow my strong aversion to hearing from him stop me from writing about this divorce.

***

This is a version of a question that comes up often when I teach: what will happen if I write honestly about the people in my life? I always say that writing about people in your life has consequences. Words have power and they matter. Relationships can be affected, indeed, they can be ended by what you write. While I am not so worried about the quality of my ongoing relationship with my ex-husband (as we have none), hearing his annoying feedback is a real consequence of my writing about our divorce. So I have to decide if it’s worth it to me.

Facebook overwhelmingly told me it was worth it: to let him whine and to keep on with my writing.

***

But leaving aside my ex-husband for a moment,  let me just say that there are people who have serious doubts about the benefit of this kind of writing. It’s personal, and emotional and it makes some people uncomfortable. The narrator that I’ve used to write about this (and all nonfiction writers understand that the “I” in a piece of writing only is based on the whole version of oneself) is often pretty fucking pissed.

In fact, if I were to have given myself some writerly advice over the past year, I would have said, Alison, it would have been better for the writing to have gained some more distance on this experience. And by distance, I do mean time: the divorce hasn’t been final a year, I was still married just over a year and a half ago. My hyperventilating-in-the-street phase, my scare-away-homeless-people-with-the-rivulets-of-plum-mascara-running-down my–face-which-made-it-look-like-I-was-bleeding-from-my-eyeballs phase (it was a bad time to start wearing plum mascara), my nauseous-feels-like-I’m-being-beaten-with-spiked-sticks phase  – that’s all over now, but it’s still in my near term memory.

But I did start writing about the divorce quickly, because in the immediate throes of separation I was unable to write at all. I also couldn’t read, or sleep, which meant that the world had become entirely unrecognizable to me. I greeted the return of each of these activities of my normal life with great relief. When I could write, I wrote. And I wrote about the divorce, because that was on my mind.

Very quickly, I began to hear from readers who encouraged me to keep writing on this subject. I heard that it was important to read honest writing about this divorce experience, which certainly isn’t the prettiest life has to offer. I heard that my writing has given others in similar situations some comfort.

So that’s all very nice and of course that is the reason why I now could declare this subject closed, affect a pious stance, toss my hand across my brow and declare: I do this all for my public! For my readers!

***

That’s one part of it, but it’s not all of it.  Ex asserts I’m doing this writing out of bile, which is anger. I have been very angry at him, and the fact that he considers my anger remarkable, is in its own way astonishing.

But anger is one emotion that doesn’t actually propel me to the page – if anything, it propels me to the gym.

Just try writing when you’re really really angry. All you end up writing is FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCKITY FUCK.  Or something like that. Writing is an activity that is very hard to do in the grips of rage; absolutely nothing I’ve published on any topic has been written in anger. (N.B.: an angry narrator is not the same thing as an angry writer.)

He also says I write out of spite, which is a desire to hurt, annoy, or offend someone. Hmmm. Annoyance is the easiest motive to dismiss first –-I’d consider his annoyance at my writing about the divorce a side benefit if it didn’t provoke communication from him; the fact that it does this actually makes it more annoying to me.

But have I wanted to hurt or offend him with this writing? Have I wanted to hurt him at all?

***

I will admit that there were certainly times, and especially during the divorce negotiations, that the thought of punching him very hard in the face did occur to me. But that’s a very abstract thought, I’ve never actually punched anyone in the face.

No, my motive for writing about this divorce isn’t to create any particular emotional response in my ex-husband – as I said, I didn’t even know he was reading what I wrote until very recently. Besides, it’s not generally my instinct to want to create pain just because I’m feeling it. I definitely know I wanted my pain to stop, but even in the worst moments, I didn’t think that causing him pain would accomplish that.

I write about this divorce for the same reason I write about anything: to lay out the facts so I can see them, to discern the pattern between these facts, to find the story, yes, to find what’s funny about it, and finally to gain an understanding of the world.

And it is also true that by writing about the divorce, I’m shaping the public narrative. But then again, no one is stopping him from writing his own story.

But that gets to something else that’s happening here, in my writing about this particular topic. Every time I write about the divorce, I feel a greater sense of control over what happened to me, a greater sense of personal power. When I write about the few facts I have, and the meaning that I can find in them, I feel more ownership over these circumstances, and in fact I feel powerful.

Every writer knows this feeling – when you start to put facts of your life down on a screen and move them around, it saps even the most painful circumstances of their emotional strength. Trauma becomes material, to be arranged on the page for the greatest effect.

***

Now, I suppose if you had a certain kind of a mind – a paranoid mind, given to zero-sum thinking — you might say that any way in which I become strong makes my ex-husband weak. He was at the height of his power over me when he unilaterally ended our marriage, and categorically refused to respond truthfully to my most basic requests for information. I was at the nadir of mine. Every fact I’ve been able to determine, and every step I’ve taken sense to regain autonomy over my life has restored my own sense of personal power.

It hasn’t occurred to me until this moment that he might see my recovery of a sense of power and agency as a problem for him. But if that’s the case, then so be it. Writing is my strength. And I’m not going to make myself weak so that he can feel strong.

De-Storyed: On Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

When I type the word “destroyed” –which I have had reason to do a lot in the past year, as I’ve written about my messy divorce–I often mistype it as “destoryed.”

De-storyed is actually an apt description of what I experienced. With the end of my marriage, the major stories of my adult life were obliterated. The stories that l would tell about my life, about my husband’s life. The story of how to spell my name: “one L in Alison, but two Ls in my last [married] name.” The joke I used to like to make about our marriage at an early age: “I was a child bride.”  The story of how I changed colleges three times (to be near him); the story of why we’d moved every two years (his job). All of these stories changed.

The cruelest part of my divorce, though, was not that my stories had changed, but the critical story to which I had no access: the true story of why my marriage had suddenly ended.

The facts I have are these: Ours was not a marriage of fighting, screaming, yelling, or of long chilly silences. On one night my husband was a man I would have described as impulsive, yes, but also someone whom I would have described as smart, loyal and good. We had recently made our weekend house our full-time home; we were preparing for him to start his own business.

The next night, this same man came home from work, packed his bag and within a half an hour was out the door. The few explanations he did make that night were either flimsy or untrue, as evidenced in bank records and such.

Within three weeks, we had stopped communicating except through lawyers, and mutual friends either stopped communicating with him, or him with them. And so a person I’d been with for more than half of my life, and my entire adult life was simply gone, and without an explanation that made any real sense to me.

At first I seriously wondered whether he’d had a stroke, or an aneurysm, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Very gradually, I began to accept that I would never learn the true story, or at least from him.

The brain is adept at finding a coherent causal story that links the fragments of knowledge at its disposal. – Daniel Kahneman

At first, I thought that being de-storyed in this way was especially cruel to me, because I make my living as a writer. I live for stories. But when I read Daniel Kahneman’s book book, Thinking Fast and Slow, I understood that this situation would be uncomfortable for anyone — and my strong urge to knit my broken pieces into a coherent narrative, a reflex.

Our brains automatically create causal, plausible stories out of limited information. We fill in the blanks when a cause isn’t provided. For example, in the book, Kahneman describes an experiment in which people are asked to read this sentence:

After spending a day exploring the beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered her wallet was missing.

When tested later, people are more likely to recall the word “pickpocket,”  than the word “sights” — even though “pickpocket” did not appear in the sentence. He explains:

The event of a lost wallet can evoke many causes. It could have slipped out of a pocket, left at a restaurant. However, when the ideas of a lost wallet, New York and crowds are juxtaposed, they jointly evoke the explanation that a pickpocket caused the loss.

In the absence of facts, the mind creates a plausible story — and then, this is Kahneman’s major point — it’s really hard not to believe that story. But the key word here is that the mind “creates” the story, or maybe “conjures” is a better word for it. The mind tends to discount random events, the inexplicable, and come up with a story that identifies a cause, whether or not there is any proof. The mind, he writes, is a machine for jumping to conclusions.

We are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world. – Daniel Kahneman

Absent an explanation from my husband, I took the fragments of information that I had and a coherent story began to coalesce. The night he left, one of the few things he told me was that he wanted to have a child and not with me. (Childbearing was a topic we’d discussed often, and hadn’t come to a definitive conclusion.) Within a few days, after I confronted him with evidence in financial records, he confessed that he was involved with a woman he’d dated in high school.

Six months later, they were engaged, bought a house in the suburbs, and a baby was on the way. Forgive me this vanity, but it’s germane to the point that I’m making here to say that it was universally agreed, even by people who do not hesitate to tell blunt truths, that I was more attractive compared to his new love, and certainly the more worldly. Usually, the story would go that a man would leave someone like her for someone like me, not vice versa.

Anyway, the narrative that I developed to explain my divorce to myself was this: he wanted a different life than the one he had with me. A more traditional life, with a woman who would make him the center of her world, and have his babies, and not care a whit about writing, traveling, the life of the mind. I didn’t want to live in the suburbs and think about municipal rules and regulations, that was never going to be me.

Plus, I’d read that first loves, those connections you make in high school, have special resonance, so possibly some part of him had been in love with her all the time of our marriage.

In any event, if that was what he wanted, fair enough. It was terrible that he couldn’t have told me that flat out, that we couldn’t have come to the decision mutually. But hey. Most marriages don’t end gracefully. He would have his suburban life with his new love, and I, relocated to Greenwich Village, would have my life. I liked my life better.  I was recovering, and in fact, I was easing into a satisfying new relationship of my own.

Just over a year after he announced the end of our marriage, I emailed to congratulate him on the birth of his child, and in the process of these congratulations, inadvertently summarized my understanding of the events that had transpired.

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our own ignorance. – Daniel Kahneman

He didn’t correct me, but here’s the thing: I recently learned that the story I had created for myself was wrong. After a few months of suburban life, and possibly by the time my congratulations reached him, he was no longer in a relationship with his high school love with whom he’d fathered a child. He’d moved on, both romantically and literally, and was with someone else entirely.

When I learned this news, I sat with one of my closest friends and tried to figure the whole thing out, which is to say, to make a new story to accommodate the new facts. What in the world is he doing? If he hadn’t destroyed our life together for true love, to be in a traditional family, or just to have sex with lots of women, then why had he done this at all?

She told me not to bother trying to construct a narrative, that I would never understand what he was doing, because what he was doing makes no sense. A man who has lived three different lives in the space of, oh, 19 months is most likely not a man making considered choices. He’s behaving randomly, in the truest sense of the word. (Definition of random: made, done, happening, or chosen without method.)

We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgement is missing — what we see is all there is. – Kahneman

I obviously had to retire the explanation that I’d made for my divorce–that he wanted a more traditional life than I did. This retirement had some extra relief for me in it: on some level, I had been wondering what I know many acquaintances were whispering: if I had somehow managed to be a more traditional woman, if I had used my passport less and my uterus more, would I still be married today?

Perhaps if his relationship with his daughter’s mother had lasted, the answer would have been yes. But that relationship didn’t last. He didn’t want my kind of life, and as best as I can tell, he didn’t want the life he walked into when he walked out on ours.

Of course, I realize that what he does with his life now is no longer any of my business, outside of how he handles the payments he’s legally required to make to me. But my mind’s story-making reflex still sprung right into action, and now I have a new one.

It involves me feeling sorry for him, and actually feeling concern for the apparently haphazard way he’s running his personal life. It involves me thinking that despite the undeniably shitty way he’s behaved towards me, he will always be my first husband, always be a person with whom I spent all of my twenties and most of my thirties, and it includes the hope that he finds some peace.

This new-new story makes me feel good, because it makes me feel more compassion and sadness than anger. (And also, yes, because this story makes me an entirely blameless bystander to his meltdown, innocent victim being the role I much prefer to play here.) But I also realize that it’s just another theory, based on very few facts.

Kahneman points out that it’s incredibly hard to sustain doubt in a coherent narrative that seems to make sense, even when you know, as I do, that I’m missing most of the true story. And he’s right. Although I know it’s based on precious little, at this moment I really do believe this version of the story of my de-storying. And I suppose I will believe this until something new emerges. If it ever does.

My Best of Perceptive Travel

Kripalu

I’ve been so proud to be a part of the Perceptive Travel team since my first post on September 8th, 2009.

The blog has been much honored — both before I came aboard, and since, most recently with a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers. I wrote a weekly piece — mostly essays, sometimes other things — but in the past year, as things began to shift for me, I began to post more irregularly. And so, in a couple of weeks, with the publication of my 208th essay, I’ve decided to step down.

It’s part of a general cleaning of my career house. I haven’t spoken much about this publicly, but in the past few months, I’ve slowly and deliberately shed my regular writing contracts, which have taken up most of my writing time over the past seven or so years. I call it putting the “free” back in “freelance.” Ha ha.

It’s a change I needed to make, but damn. Looking back at my PT work over these past five and a half years makes me realize how much I’ll miss it.

I wrote about some of the more unusual experiences I’ve had while traveling: calling the cows in Sweden, swimming with sharks in Bora Bora, kissing a penguin in Dubai, shooting a rifle in Montana.

I got to indulge my penchant for quirky history — two of the most popular pieces I wrote along those lines were on The Negro Motorists Green Book, a guidebook for African Americans traveling in the segregated south, and a piece about Evangeline’s empty grave. And my love of literature:this piece on Cannery Row. And my appreciation for art, public art installations of pink critters in Calgary, the photographs of Inge Morath. And my enthusiasm for science fiction, which justified several pieces on The Very Large Array in New Mexico. And for volcanoes, which justified not one, but two trips to Mt. St. Helens.

PT provided a unique opportunity to link external travel with internal travel — exploration and introspection. I had no shortage of anxiety to plumb — about my appearance, The European Look continues to hold a spot on the site’s top list; about flying, about swinging bridges. But I didn’t find only bad news when I looked inward: I’m also fond of the pieces I wrote about imagination and travel.

It was an opportunity to dig into the things I was curious about when I was traveling — those blue evil eye beads in Istanbul, a hotel that had once been a brothel, virginity soap in Dubai, Newport’s mansions, Chinglish. And shoes! I got to write about shoes.

New York City was my home for all but eleven months of my tenure on the site, and I wrote about my hometown more than I ever have before. I wrote about being a Native New Yorker, about the city in the summer, a much hated walk in Times Square, and alligators in the sewers. The eleven month hiatus I took from the city were spent in the most rural county between New York and Boston, and I chronicled those adventures on the site too.

Eat, Pray, Love. These are the three words I heard most often when people heard that I was getting divorced, and that I was a travel writer. (It’s a flattering comparison, I think.) I did write a little about my then-husband and our travels before the marriage’s unexpected demise — just over a year it came apart, I wrote a piece about a camping trip that I’d taken with my ex-husband when he was my college boyfriend. I thought it was funny at the time, but it now strikes me as quite sad.

My divorce was dramatic, sudden and, thanks to the ex-husband, salacious. But some good writing (and, I’ll admit, some less-good writing) has come of it. On PT, the pieces that I’m proudest of includes the first piece I ever wrote on the subject, which is in part about the inspiration I found in The World Trade Center, and a piece I wrote about revisiting Puerto Rico.

As people like to say at the end of posts like these, what a ride. Thanks to Tim, and to Sheila, Liz, Brian and Kerry for a terrific five and a half years. I’m looking forward to seeing where you all take PT next.

Sandy, One Year Later

Hurricane Sandy damage

This was the view from my window, one year and one day ago. At that moment, I was only three months into the sudden end of my marriage, and Sandy was the first emergency that I handled on my own.

Also, since I lost power with the rest of lower Manhattan, every single one of the comforts that I had relied on to get me through that confusing time vanished with the electricity. Contact with my friends, television, movies, music — gone, gone, gone, gone.

This is what I wrote in my journal the next morning:

Day the first with no power, and now the cell service has also gone down. A new wave of rain has just washed in, I should wait until 2 or 3 to leave and go on a mission for ice, water, powdered milk, bread, Advil. Whatever else I can find.

Flashing lights coming down Houston. Sound of generator. Sound of sirens. A genuine disaster here in New York City. Doesn’t even have the decency now to be stormy. It’s just quiet. The storm seems to have moved off, the wind part anyway, which was so impressive and blew the window over my desk open twice.

I sort of doubt that the power will be out for super long, but you never know and right now I have to be in survival mode. I have to conserve resources. I have to take care of me and the cats and that’s my only responsibility.

And not to go insane, that is my other responsibility. There is no internet and no texting and no email and nothing but me, and my thoughts.

Book Arts for Writers

500 Handmade Books

Over the years, I’ve been amused at how writers of different types and genres live on totally isolated islands. We all take the same alphabet and rearrange it on the page to create various effects — but as it is with every major profession, specialization creates silos.

I first noticed this when I spoke at the AWP conference a few years ago, which is an association of writing programs — basically professors and students involved with literary MFA programs. I’d been writing professionally for nearly twenty years at that time, but other than the person who invited me to speak I recognized not a soul. My life, and livelihood, had been wrapped up in writing for magazines, newspapers and websites that were pretty much aimed at a mainstream audience. The world of the academy was different, writing there is an exercise in Literary Art. I learned that describing someone’s writing as “accessible,” which is a basic necessity in commercial writing, would here be a major insult.

I’ve now infiltrated another silo, related to my writing concerns but totally different. It’s called Book Art, which is using the form of the book (and its content) to communicate an idea. The Center for Book Arts in New York City has a definition here. It involves bookbinding, letterpress, altered books, book sculptures, folded books. All kinds of lovely things that are becoming more rare as information is so easily transmitted digitally. And what becomes more rare, becomes more valuable.

I’ve been reading up on Book Arts, both with books on paper — 500 Handmade Books, Volume 2, pictured above really gives you a great idea of what this form is all about. And of course, all irony noted, there’s plenty to find online. This is where I’ve started.

http://fuckyeahbookarts.tumblr.com/

http://paperphilia.com/

http://fpba.com/blog/

http://bookuse.tumblr.com/

http://fpba.com/blog/

http://www.bookbindingnow.com/

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