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June 11, 2013 | Nonfiction

A Closet Full of Costumes

Mary Miller

A Closet Full of Costumes photo

In an interview with Luna Park in 2009, I was quoted as saying this:

I really do believe in the whole write-what-you-know thing. One time I wrote a story from the point of view of an old sick man and it was just terrible. It was like really bad Carver. The man sat around watching daytime television and eating pie and it was just so bad. I guess I prefer to read stories where you can tell the author is invested in some way and hasn’t just sat down and thought, today I’m going to write a story from the perspective of a homeless Haitian boy, when that person has never been to Haiti, been homeless, been a boy.

I don’t feel this way anymore. I think the problem with my old-sick-man-eating-pie story is that it was about an old sick man eating pie. It had no momentum; it was about nothing.

In the last two years, I've only finished half a dozen stories (four of them short shorts) that are based on my life. The rest of my attempts—dozens and dozens—have failed. These stories remain unfinished in files labeled “New Story Material” and “Ideas and Stuff.” When I try to write about myself, I’m unable to capture whatever it is that makes a story compelling. Perhaps it’s because I find my life so boring—my relationship problems, my ex-husband, my decision pursue a writing career over marriage and family, my struggles with anxiety and hypochondria. All of it bores the hell out of me. It’s not that I’ve overcome these things, or gotten past them, it’s just that I feel like I have nothing to say that could be of any relevance to anyone but me.

The last (true) story I attempted was about getting dumped six hours before my boyfriend and I were to fly to Atlanta for my brother’s wedding. It begins with this gem: “The pain had made me unselfconscious.” After the first few paragraphs, I knew it was bad and that I was only writing it for myself, but I kept at it. The narrator cried openly in the airport, “tears streaming down her face,” and was hungry but "never wanted to eat again."

Since you will never read this story, I’ll give you the best part, the only paragraph that doesn’t make me cringe:

I take a seat across from a blonde woman with jeweled shoes, a blue jogging suit, and bad skin. I imagine what it would be like to wake up in the morning and reach for this jogging suit in my closet, to put it on. To slip the jeweled sandals on my feet. I wanted a closet full of costumes.

There was one other thing, a businessman talking loudly on his cell phone. Really carrying on for the entire gate. I tried to block him out but this stuck with me: “we don’t need to be swappin’ horses in the middle of the race.” I thought about that for a long time: we don’t need to be swappin’ horses in the middle of the race. It felt like he was speaking to me but I didn’t know what it meant. It also reminded me that I was glad I wasn’t a businessperson, that I would never talk loudly on my cell phone while wearing uncomfortable clothes and trying to seem important.

The story stalled out, or never got going; it had nowhere to go. I had been dumped and I was sad and I had little more to say about it other than that. After three thousand words, I returned to my current project, a novel, which has almost nothing to do with me except that I am writing it. I’m not sure if I’d call this growth as a writer. On the one hand, I’m exploring new territory—writing about people who are unlike me and situations I’ve never been in, doing a lot of “research”—but on the other, I miss being able to write about myself. I didn’t have to fish for a plotline. There wasn’t the question of what happened next. Nothing happened next. Only another day, same as the one before.

This change may have begun with April, my counselor at the University. Since counseling sessions were only five dollars a pop, I thought, why not? I began to see her every ten days (if you needed more than this they had to send you out-of-house). In retrospect, April wasn’t very attuned to my needs. All we ever talked about was how I was doing, how things were going. Here is a sample abbreviated conversation:

A: How are things?
M: Pretty good.
A: How are you sleeping?
M: Okay last night, but I’ve had pretty bad insomnia the last week. It really sucks.
A: Are you having difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep?
M: Staying asleep—I go to sleep fine but then I wake up around three in the morning and just lie there for hours.
A: What do you do when you wake up?
M: I read, usually. Sometimes I watch TV or listen to a podcast. (I never read.)
A: How are you and your boyfriend doing?
M: Okay. I haven’t seen much of him lately because he’s been working a lot. He’s really busy.
A: Are you doing the things we talked about—keeping the anxiety log, exercising?
M: No, but I’m (insert other positive things here).
A: Have you been to the MindBody Lab?
M: I haven’t, but I’m planning on it. I really am. I'd do it today but my meter's going to run out.

And then she would look at me like she felt very sorry for me, like I was hopeless, and this would make me want to get better. It was often the only thing that made me want to get better. More and more, the question seemed to be, who is April? Who is she to be giving me advice?

Basically, all we did was talk about how I was doing while she jotted things down on her legal pad. I always left feeling like a failure, like no matter what there would be these things that weren’t going well. The focus was on what was wrong, what needed fixing. I didn’t want to keep logs. I didn’t want to go to the MindBody Lab and listen to a man say soothing things to me in a room full of other students wearing headphones listening to a man saying soothing things. It took me quite a while to realize that THIS IS LIFE. If I turned the tables on her, asked about her eating habits or her relationship with her mother, I would find problems there, too, things to fix. I could suggest she keep a food log, tell her to go to the MindBody Lab.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if this is what made me grow bored with myself, seeing how regular I was. How uninteresting my life is. I’ve always known my life was uninteresting. I spend a lot of time alone. If I agree to a social event, I nearly always try to get out of it. I don’t think I’m especially special. At the same time, I am the center of my universe. I am everything.

Or this change may have begun with something else, like the feeling that I’ve used up all of my best material. I know some people who milk the same story over and over, and I’m like, really? You’re writing about that again? Good Lord. Don’t you have anything else going on, anything at all?

I’ve written the married stories and the newly divorced stories and the bad boyfriend stories and there are only so many bad boyfriend stories one can write without hating oneself completely. Or maybe I’ve simply grown tired of it all. My problems are not easily fixed because life doesn't offer easy fixes. My choices have been difficult but they're mine and I don't regret them. So I will continue struggling to write stories about things I don’t know, which is better than struggling to write about the things I think I know and have them turn out lifeless and dead.

Writing offers no solutions, no enlightenment. At least not for me. I never wrote a single thing that changed how I thought about anything or dealt with anything. It’s not therapeutic; stories are just words--three, four, eighteen, thirty thousand words on a page. They have nothing to do with actual life. Listen to the voice in your head for a few minutes. You couldn’t count the number of words you think over the course of a day. There would be too many to put in a novel.

I don't have any answers. April didn't have any answers. She had questions followed by more questions that I could never answer correctly. All I know is that the worlds I've been making up are much more interesting than the one I'm inhabiting. I can use my anxiety and hypochondria and my poor choices in men to other ends, give them to characters who are suffering like me, but differently.

I showed this essay to one of my most trusted readers and he said this (and kind of hurt my feelings, btw): It's too You-Centric for publication, I think—you need to get into how this affects other writers and give some context. It's an interesting question, though, something worth pondering. My response was that this was a personal essay. I don’t know how it affects others. I’m not going to take a poll. Perhaps he’s been writing long enough to see the changes in his work and to view this as a normal development, nothing worth exploring, but I began writing seriously at twenty-seven, fewer than ten years ago. I haven’t been writing since I was thirteen. I haven’t had decades to see that this as just the ebb and flow of things—tastes change and people change and that’s how it is even when you don’t realize you are changing, or you seem the same to yourself.

Another reader said this: Think about the issue of control. You have it more completely when writing fiction, and that probably influences how you feel. When writing about yourself, you're still facing stuff that happens *to* you, not making things happen.

The idea of control is interesting. I am, and have always been, a person who could never have enough control. I find vulnerability abhorrent, which is odd considering the kind of fiction I’ve written in the past. I can expose myself on the page in a way I never could in life. I can show my lack of control on paper but, in person, I am often aloof, standoffish. I will always try to win even if it means losing.

My memories of childhood are all about control. I recall sitting at the kitchen table writing my name, wanting it to look perfect: only four letters, M A R Y. When it didn’t look how I wanted it to, I would cry and throw my pencil and my housekeeper would have to hold me to her bosom to calm me. She had an enormous, wonderful bosom. I felt at home there. I recall the bows on my tennis shoes having to look a certain way. I would bend over and fix them, holding up a line of Catholic schoolchildren. All of my most special possessions were tucked away in boxes or lined up like neat little soldiers next to the mirror where I would stare at my face for hours every day. Everything had to be perfect and nothing was ever going to be perfect and it made me crazy.

I will never be perfect, not in my life or my writing life. I can’t find a way to get to who I am through my own stories so I have decided to write different stories, about people I don’t know, in situations I’m unfamiliar with, in times I never lived. I don’t know what any of this means. I’m not an essayist. I guess that’s what this is ultimately about—I don’t know myself. I only have questions followed by more questions. Writing about myself has not led me to any conclusions, hasn’t helped me figure anything out at all. But maybe writing about others will. I doubt it but I don’t know. I only have words and words are meager. They are so small. This is a word. This is a word that will build a story. Here is my world and I am offering it to you. Maybe it is based on my life and maybe I made it up. They are only words.

* * *

Addendum: A week after writing this, I am working on two stories based on my life and they’re going well. I have no idea what to make of this, but its inclusion seems important. Maybe I shook something loose here, or maybe this is all just self-absorbed meaningless bullshit.

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