Essays

“In Our Midst” in Real Life

As the injustices pile up, and reserves run low, the question of where we should focus our moral attention becomes critical — when exposed to more evils than we can possibly attend to, most of us feel helpless. And what, more than helplessness, excuses apathy and inaction? Rather than confront global suffering, we may cull our feeds, or stop watching the news. Or, worse, we may make of the suffering other an enemy, turning apathy to antipathy. These unspoken algorithms by which we manage our empathy — they are almost innocent, almost “self-care.” (We’re not committing atrocities, just refusing to witness them.) But layered together, they have the shade of evil.

“The Little Room, or the Unreality of Memory” in Pacific Standard

I could not remember the room at all until my mother said it was where the placemats were stored. Then I had a flash of going in there as a child, pulling out the drawer that held the table linens, so I could set the table for some family dinner. I saw myself there in the little room, not from the first person, but as though watching a girl from a kind of bird’s eye view or hidden camera, out somewhere near the ceiling in the den. Yes, finally, I could picture the blond color of the wood and the way the drawer would often stick. But the memory was flimsy, like a memory of a dream. My father still could not picture the room; perhaps he had never been in there. What do you imagine on that wall? my mother asked. Just wall, we both said, a continuation of the wallpaper. I had no fond memories of that room, and in all my years of visiting the museum of my grandmother’s house since it sold, had never seen it there; my mind simply wallpapered over it. And now I doubt the specificity of the rest of my museum — am I sure where the floor lamp was, of the color of the brocade?

“Earth Is Not Vengeful, Just Indifferent” in Pacific Standard

Like an asteroid impact, a supervolcano can cause global cooling, forming an ash cloud that blocks the sun and leads to widespread famine. At this moment in history, when we’re breaking new heat records every month and the permafrost is melting, global cooling doesn’t sound so bad. But we don’t know what the baseline will be when it happens. What if some other disaster has already altered the global climate? A “mini ice age” in the 1300s has been tied to both volcanic and earthquake activity in Europe and the bubonic plague — there is debate over whether famine led to weakened immune systems, making populations more vulnerable to the plague, or whether mass deaths from the plague led to reforestation and subsequent global cooling.

“NASA’s Overlooked Duty to Look Inward” in the New Yorker

Mike Massimino, in his memoir, “Spaceman,” reports having spent almost a full day staring out a window of the Space Shuttle Columbia, watching sunrises and lightning storms (“like a form of communication, like a sequence, like the clouds are alien creatures speaking to each other in code”). On his second spacewalk, Massimino told me recently, he had a spare moment to “take in the view.” He recalls being struck not only by Earth’s incredible beauty—“We are living in a paradise”—but also by its fragility. From out there, he said, especially during night passes, “you can see the thinness of the atmosphere,” a bluish-green line. This sudden perception of Earth as a delicate, intricate system is so common among astronauts that the writer Frank White coined a term for it: the overview effect.

“Magnificent Desolation” in Real Life

When I think of the jumpers, I think of two things. I think of images of women covering their mouths — a pure expression of horror. They were caught on film, watching the towers from the streets of Manhattan. I do this sometimes — hand up, mouth open — when I see or read something horrible, even when alone. What is it for? I think, too, of the documentary about Philippe Petit, who tightrope-walked between the tops of the towers in 1974. At the time they were the second tallest buildings in the world, having just been surpassed by the Sears Tower in Chicago. It was an exceptionally windy day (it is always windy at 1,300 feet) and when a policeman threatened him from the roof of one building, Petit danced and pranced along the rope, to taunt him. This still seems to me like the most unthinkable thing a man has ever willingly done. The jumpers did what he did, but worse. Death was not a risk but a certainty; they jumped without thinking. It’s more horrible to contemplate than many of the other deaths because we know the jumpers were tortured. Death is fathomable, but not torture.

“Vanity Project” in Real Life

On the other hand, there are phantom limbs. Amputees frequently continue to feel the presence of their missing limb and even feel pain in it, suggesting that the mental self-model can be so persistent and strongly ingrained that changes to the physical body are difficult to incorporate into a new mental model — that the mind is not as plastic as the body. Or perhaps it’s that the sense of self expands more readily than it retracts, that the mind is resistant to reducing the scope of the self. I am reminded of the poet Anne Boyer remarking on Twitter that she did not identify with recent photos of herself because her hair was missing, following treatment for breast cancer. Of course, I thought: phantom hair.

“Can Ideas Withstand Shifts in Language?” in Guernica

For every translator, there must come a moment of reckoning, of wondering, What precisely am I translating? Flaubert was famously a stylist, who believed “a good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” (If unchangeable, then untranslatable.) Odd, then, Davis writes, that “many of the translations do not try to reproduce that style, but simply tell this engrossing story in their own preferred manner.” She cites the “lush, loquacious” 1948 translation by Gerard Hopkins (nephew of the poet), which “added material in almost every sentence.” A text is only made of language, and yet the language seems to generate some other, ineffable, epiphenomenal essence—a spectral text that survives when all the language changes. Infinite translations, infinite texts.

“Personal Data: Notes on Keeping a Notebook” in Catapult

A few weeks ago, cleaning out my grandmother’s room, my mother and I found a plastic bag of personal effects, brittle and delicate, that had belonged to her father, my grandmother’s first husband, who died in 1956. My mother was six at the time and barely remembers him. A black wallet, containing cards and photos (one of my uncle, her older brother, but none of her). Some old receipts and documents, folded and worn soft. A flat, round object we eventually identified as a bottle opener, rusted shut. What meaning was there? He’s part of my blood, but I don’t think of him as related to me. My mother had never seen any of these things.

“Variations on Crying” in The Butter

I have noticed that there’s something about speech that can trigger tears. I’ll hear a story, and know intellectually that the story is sad, but I won’t actually cry until I tell it to someone else. Is it the speech act itself, or the presence of an audience? In college, I learned that a girl from my high school, someone I knew but hadn’t kept in touch with, had been in a bad car accident; her right arm was severed off. I was shocked when I heard it, but not sad, exactly. Later, I repeated the story to my mother; I remember we were driving at the time, and I was in the passenger seat, as the girl would have been. I started crying when I said the word “severed,” which had not seemed quite so brutal in my head as it did it my mouth. It’s not often we have cause to say the word “severed.” Several years ago, my friend Kevin’s wife Katie was almost crushed when a gallery wall fell on top of her; her pelvis was shattered. She has said she didn’t recognize the animal scream that came out of her. When Kevin called their families to tell them what had happened, he couldn’t get it out; he’d try to speak and start sobbing. More than once, mentioning this story offhand to someone else, I’ve gotten unexpectedly choked up, like I can only realize how close she came to being killed or paralyzed when I’m vocalizing it.

“Dream Logic” in The Butter

Years ago, a friend told me that she dreams in the third person, watching herself. At the time, I found this improbable—why wouldn’t you dream as you live?—until I noticed that I often fantasize in the third person. I don’t just mean sexual fantasies, but any time I project forward into an imagined future, and sometimes I replay memories as though I’m watching them from outside the scene. In dreams, though, I embody my body, only seeing myself when I look in the mirror, in which case my reflection is often grotesque or distorted in some way. I once heard that you shouldn’t look in the mirror while on LSD; perhaps the same is true of dreams.

“Why Read Novels?” in The Smart Set

“Time, Money, Happiness” in The Smart Set

“Impossible Time” in The Smart Set

“Seeing Things” in The Smart Set

“The Point of Tangency: On Digression” in The Smart Set

“Fair Usage: On the Politics of Dictionaries” in The Smart Set

“Writing that Sounds like Writing” in The Smart Set

“Ways of Looking” in The Smart Set

“The Art of the Paragraph” in The Smart Set

“How do you pursue a writing career in Trump’s America without hating yourself?” in Electric Literature

“How do you know if your writing is any good?” in Electric Literature

“What is fiction for?” in Electric Literature

“How do you know when your book is finished?” in Electric Literature

“Structure vs. Urgency: On Finding Work/Life Balance as a Writer” in Electric Literature

“Should white men stop writing?” in Electric Literature

“Connections and Luck Do Matter” in Electric Literature

“The Madwoman and the Critic: On Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and the Crime of Dismissive Criticism” in Open Letters