I have a friend on Twitter. Well, I have 104 friends on Twitter as of today–a nice number given my account lockdown–but anyway, I have a friend who, last year, sent me some direct messages. I publicly vented my frustrations over writing memoir. I kept missing something, kept striking out when I re-read the work.
In true Twitter form, I fired passive-aggressive vitriol into the ether. She took me to the side and genuinely tried to help me. She offered worthwhile advice: writing in different narrative styles to unlock the block, if you will; narrow the scope for a more focused work. I tried to write about depression. I said, â€œIâ€™m just a black man whoâ€™s depressed. Nothing special.â€
She said, â€œBlack men are depressed and donâ€™t know it–or are too afraid to admit help. How is that not special?â€
I write about my depression–indeed, anything involving my life–in broad generalities. No details, no descriptions, no names–no exposure. I can write four or five expository paragraphs about a house, a color, a feeling: so long as those things relate to fictional characters.
In my memoir pieces, my brothers and sister are named â€œmy brotherâ€ or â€œmy sister.â€ I carve out huge, significant swathes of time when writing about my first depressive episode: my ex-wife and our divorce; my second, and current, wife who saved me [I said as much in my vows]; my playing with knives; taking my car up to 100 MPH on a highway to let things happen; the suicidal sides.
Every memoir I write is a lie. Not like you-know-who and such-and-such. I lie by omission; I lie by cowardice. Or discomfort. To write it right, I must summon up an exposure analogous to my personality: secretive, private, silent–see the connection?
My Twitter friend said, â€œMaybe youâ€™re better served writing fiction.â€
This bothers me a great deal. It fucking pisses me off.
But Iâ€™m not mad at my Twitter friend. Her conclusion is logical, sound. I donâ€™t want to be that kind of fiction writer, though. I donâ€™t want to write a short story and play coy, let a wry smile roll from corner to corner of my mouth–Grinch-style–and wave off the questions. â€œNah, itâ€™s not autobiographicalâ€ although it is to some degree.
Itâ€™s easier to create an asshole protagonist versus writing a memoir about my father versus telling my father, â€œSometimes? Youâ€™re an asshole.â€ Itâ€™s easier to lie and lie and lie–play coward in memoir or play passive aggressive punk in fiction–than to tell the truth. The whole truth. All of that shit.
I wish I had the balls to willfully lie in a memoir–to say I attempted suicide versus contemplating it like a riddle. I toe the line, though. Iâ€™ll write about my fatherâ€™s pistol and a night when I was home alone; Iâ€™ll write about finding the muted gray gun on the top shelf of his closet, about where he hid the plastic box of bullets; Iâ€™ll write about holding a bullet in one hand, the gun in the other.
But I stop there, digging into the scene and looking for value. I stop short. I held two equal parts of suicideâ€™s sum, but I was too scared to bring them together. I feared Hell. I feared the unknowability of Heaven. I feared the end of life. I thought it silly to take my life because I was lonely, because my family fell apart, because a half Black/half Puerto Rican girl with the fat ass pretended like she didnâ€™t love me–Evelyn–so I put the gun back, I climbed into the bed, I played music in my headphones and cried myself to sleep.
I try to show insight without tears; I try to show growth without pain and the precipice of madness; I try to show wisdom in the absence of vulnerability. My memoirs ring false.
My disease is a real-life secret, discussed publicly online because Iâ€™m attempting to connect. Everything I do online–ever since I signed on in 1997–is about connection. So far, with respect to depression, I havenâ€™t achieved the connection. Iâ€™m a half-assed advocate. People need the details, the puzzle pieces to hold up and compare with their own problems.
Itâ€™s those details I struggle to share. Itâ€™s the vulnerability I wonâ€™t express. I coat my words–memoirs, blogs, tweets–with a steely ambivalence. Iâ€™m often in pain–most times emotional, sometimes physical–and connection assumes an exchange. I want to help people, depressed or otherwise, get through whatever shit that ails them. I donâ€™t even know why. Itâ€™s a calling I discovered when I first started writing at age seventeen. But Iâ€™m trying to have it one way.
Maybe help is the wrong word. Here, from my landing pad in South Jersey, stuck in ennui surrounded by flea markets and farmland, I send out communiques to strangers. I try to reach across land masses and bodies of water to let you know I know–you know?–but itâ€™s a one way affair. I wonâ€™t show the messy parts of me. I think the messy parts are worthless.
Whatâ€™s messy is love. It arrives in the most inopportune times, but love–the true variant, the one which commits strangulation until submission–cannot be ignored. I didnâ€™t mean for it to happen. Not really.
I couldâ€™ve told her, â€œHold up. Let me finalize things with my wife first.â€ That was the responsible thing, the by-the-script method. My wife and I were in shambles; my first major depressive episode arose out of a single thought: I donâ€™t want this life. I told her days before my 25th birthday, â€œI want a divorce.â€ She slapped me. I almost punched her–fist cocked, instincts alarmed–but I chilled and let the shock rumble through my left cheek.
Love made things worse. I met the love of my life while still married. Though we were friends for ten years, seeing the love of your life is a religious experience. My ex-wife said, â€œYouâ€™re going to Hell.â€ Maybe. I broke away from fissured vows; we werenâ€™t going to make it, but some suggest when a marriage erodes, you stick it out to the end. These people arenâ€™t married or remain trapped in shitty relationships, too scared and weak to break free. Thatâ€™s a messy part of me–wanton anger and self-righteousness.
I thought about my Twitter friendâ€™s assertion–sharing my depressive experiences for all the black men out there. I thought to myself, â€œBut I canâ€™t even admit to leaving my wife.â€
Memoir requires truth. Not just facts, but the messy parts, too. I write around the blood, the viscera, and Iâ€™m left with a bunch of words. Empty words. Lies.