if you have to be sure

I drove to Maine this week to spend an afternoon and evening as a visiting writer — spoke informally with classes, dinner with some faculty and students, a public reading, drinks. Not an entirely unfamiliar experience, but gradually, I’m acclimating to a different way of being — from the 10-minute reading in a line-up of three or four to a more sustained attention, expanded expectations. To have this larger “platform” and its attendant expectations requires, I am starting to realize, a different kind of preparation — not only of the material, but a kind of mental and emotional preparation. More simply, as my son would put it, “leveling up.”

After the book came out, I was of course asked to speak about it. When a book comes out, one is supposed to want attention for it. Interview requests, the speaking invitations, reviews — it seems obvious, but in some ways I did not feel prepared for it. I very much wanted attention, but it was also true that I very much wanted to hide and never have to speak publicly about it, or anything, ever.  Anyone who is close to me, who has had to live with or near me this past year, knows how much I simultaneously hate and love this book. Each time I read from it, I encounter things I would change — words, phrases. Delete whole sections. And yet this book — this messy, flawed, human book — has brought me so many gifts, how can I feel anything but gratitude and love? 

I had a writer visit my class recently, someone who has likely been asked to speak about her book hundreds, if not thousands of times. What struck me is how unhesitatingly she spoke of it — walking us through a close reading of a short passage, diagramming its structure on the whiteboard. As a listener, I felt a kind of relief. Her expertise, her certainty about her own work was reassuring. 

I feel vulnerable in more ways than I anticipated. Not only that the book itself is explicitly about my life, but that the aspects of the personal are generally what people want to know more about. Did I ever find any more information about my birth family, do I feel a sense of resolution having written the book, and even, someone asked me after a reading once, Do I forgive my mother? I don’t know how to answer these questions. I find myself bristling slightly when I am referred to — as I have been on occasion — as a “memoirist.” I am no expert on adoption, or on memoir, or even on my own life. I didn’t set out to write about my own life in this way, and yet, now that I have — now that I have entered the public conversation with this book — what responsibility do I have to speak with certainty, with authority? How different the role of the writer is from the role of the Writer? Perhaps I have not appreciated this distinction well enough. Not only in what it might require — the public presentation of the private role — but also the ways in which I need to prepare myself for the swirl of emotions that flood me after such a public display. 

Despite the warmth and generosity of the faculty and students, despite the conviviality over dinner and drinks, despite the kind and effusive remarks of the students, I drove back home yesterday feeling deflated. I re-played every answer I gave in class, every line I read aloud that felt flat. Imagined audience members on their way home, shaking their heads in disappointment and shock at how bad the whole thing was. Was I the worst Visiting Writer in the history of the college? Quite possibly so. 

This doesn’t seem a very helpful way to proceed in one’s life as a writer. (I am always charmed when someone asks, “Do you ever feel doubt about your work? How do you deal with doubt?”)

I arrived home in the afternoon, tired, depleted, a little sad. I read the news of W.S. Merwin’s passing and among the many poems and quotes and tributes posted, someone had excerpted these lines from “Berryman:”

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write