[I]n class today, my students and I discussed Jo Ann Beard’s remarkable 1996 essay “The Fourth State of Matter
.” No matter how many times I read the essay preparing for classes, I’m always taken with its ease (though the crafting was no doubt painstaking) in laying out a living and breathing, trustworthy and lost narrator.
Throughout the narrative, a reader is bit by bit introduced to the Jo Ann on the page—a woman whose husband has (mostly) left, whose dog is slowly dying, whose attic is infested with squirrels, and whose life seems on the verge of impending change. For better or worse. Most jaw-dropping to me about this essay’s construction is the writer’s willingness (not to mention ability and self-awareness) to create a character of herself that is inescapably situated in the essay’s present moment.
Sure, the essay is written in present tense and is as such stuck there, but not once does the writer seem to sneak in through the back door to softly touch up the former version of herself or quietly slide her a note of future perspective.
What’s more, the whole of this essay lives out the been-beat-into-our-writerly-heads maxim: show don’t tell
. She shapes this time-held character entirely out of action and inaction, out of the spoken and unspoken—and through it all, we get to know the narrator’s situation more fully and rationally than the narrator herself.
Of course, this happens often in the best fiction. The reader understands the irony the narrator cannot. The reader knows the narrator is in self-denial. The reader learns not to fully trust the narrator.
Etc. But as an essayist, I shiver a bit at the thought carving up, with such precision, a slice of myself from 5 years ago and presenting him with all of his flaws and limits and naiveté for the reader to see. To hand him over, as Montaigne wrote in the introduction to his voluminous collection, “wholly naked.”
For the past few months, I have been rewriting and editing pieces of my forthcoming nonfiction book (shameless self-promotion alert: Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland
). It follows a year of my life in 2005. That is to say, the Jeremy on the page is the Jeremy of nine years ago. On top of that, I wrote most of the manuscript from 2009-2011.
As I spent much of this past December huddled in the corner of a coffee shop, no doubt leading the patrons and staff to believe I was hammering out a manifesto about anarchy and aliens (also: I may’ve stopped shaving), I was confronted with three versions of myself: the Narrator Jeremy of 2005, the Writer Jeremy of 2009, and the Editor Jeremy of today.
A bunch of savages, the whole lot of them.
The most profound thing I can say about that experience is that it was weird. Not only did I have to roll my eyes at the 24-year-old kid living his life on the page, I had to also roll my eyes at the 28-year-old who presented him. Not only was the character of myself hard to watch, the lenses through which I had to watch him were itchy.
Luckily, both Narrator Jeremy and Writer Jeremy sometimes pleasantly surprised me. Wow, I lived by some upright and un-jaded ideals back then
, I had to think as I read. Man, could I turn a phrase when I wasn’t worried about editors and publishers (and readers).
At some point, I realized I had begun thinking of these younger versions of me as children—my children. (I warned you it was weird.)
Unfortunately, thinking of these former me’s as children tempted me in ways all parents are tempted: I wanted to step in to brush the cowlick down, to lower that clumsy Narrator safely down from his high horse, to slip comfy rose-colored glasses surely over readers’ eyes.
I am not sure how well I resisted these urges. I knew that I could and should merge the Editor Jeremy with the Writer Jeremy. And so I imagined the process of revising the manuscript as friendly conversation between the two, some give and some take. In this way, I hoped to retain some of the freshness and freeness of the younger me while also cutting his crap. I didn’t want to take all of his words away—he was a nice enough lad—but I knew I needed to call him to task in a way that I didn’t have the distance or critical eye for five years back.
Managing the Narrator Jeremy, however, proved much more difficult. He needed to stay preserved. There was no room for conversation or negotiation. Thinking of him as a separate person, as a real-life character on the page helped, of course. But in order to craft him, I had to delve into my own memories and photos and decades-old scribbles. The material with which I had to allow him to maintain his anonymity and age was still attached to me, proving it difficult to separate us entirely—an awkward Siamese pair.
And in these ways, thinking of him as a child of mine ultimately proved useful. I had to like him, flaws and all—nay, love him. (Dear Oprah: is this what you mean by loving yourself?) I needed to find a comfortable care and concern for the Narrator no matter his shortcomings or out-of-date clothes.
Strangely, what pushed me along was the voice of my mother. Her eternal response to a comment that someone is ugly is “Now, I bet his mother thinks he’s handsome.”
That’s what got me through, becoming the mother to my former self: oh, that 2005 Jeremy, he’s handsome, ain’t he?
(Well, at least he wasn’t overweight, Editor Jeremy—you slob.) And when I felt the twitch to change him—to make him prettier—I did as any good Southerner knows to do. I softened it all with the perfect blend of pity and empathy: bless his heart.
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