Wednesday, October 15, 2008
My Parents Put My NYTimes Article on the Fridge
On Sunday, I had an essay in the Modern Love column in the Style Section of The New York Times -- about my ex-therapist who wrote me a love poem.
I've gotten some very odd responses from strangers. One man accused me of vanity -- didn't I know my therapist was in love with me? This email included the word "duh." A therapist whom I don't know weighed in to tell me that I was right and my ex-therapist was wrong. A psychoanalyst wrote in to ask me to read and offer a critique of her essays on getting banned as a result of some major (undisclosed) indiscretion, because I seemed to really understand and forgive humans -- as if I were the new spokesperson for screwed-up therapists.
Going public as a writer has always been hard for me. Fiction allows me the thin veil -- which I appreciate. But essays, even benign essays, even humor essays, but especially very personal psychological essays (that are supposed to have a humorous bent) leave me wide open to be misunderstood.
Quick illustration: I had a guru in college. He was a security guard and patrolled campus. He once asked me if I'd rather be loved or understood, which has become a recurring theme in my work. I said I'd rather be understood -- what is love without understanding?
But over time, I've seen examples of love without a deep understanding -- and it can be pure in its way and sometimes very comforting. I don't know that my 90-year-old grandmother and I understand each other in some fundamental ways. Our generations are so very different, and yet our love is whole and good and maybe purer, in fact.
In general, though, I write to overcome misunderstanding. I write to communicate. Communication banishes loneliness -- in the best scenarios. And yet when I write -- especially if I've dedicated myself to an entire novel -- and it's misunderstood, I feel an incredible ache and loss. If I cannot bridge the gap from one human to another with this much communication, with this many words, how will we ever connect to each other?
I suppose I'm forgetting something very fundamental. Readers don't come to MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS, for example, to communicate with me. They come to communicate with my characters ... And they really come to the novel not to understand someone else more deeply -- or not necessarily -- but to understand themselves more deeply.
I always respond to my emails. I love the ones that I get from kids -- scads of them. (I write novels for the younger set under the pen name N.E. Bode.) But the adults who write emails to authors are a different breed. Some write beautiful emails, grateful ones, in fact. But often my job with the emails I get from adults is to remind them that I'm not an author, but a human being. They want to tell me what I've gotten wrong, to their mind. And, well, a lot of the time, they want my agent info, an in with an editor, or for me to read their work in my spare time -- as a mother of four with a full-time gig as a professor and a full-time gig as a writer.
I haven't written back to all of the strangers who've written in this time, but I will, one by one. I'll say maybe I am vain. I'll say thanks, but I think I got the part that my therapist was wrong. Check. I'll say, I don't know what you did wrong to get fired, and it's none of my business, and I can't really save you. Sorry, but I'm not a therapist myself. Only a writer.
Or maybe I'm really a translator. This is the world in all of its complications. And I turn that experience into language. And I turn to the reader and hand it over -- line by line. In doing so, have I banished loneliness? No. Loneliness is elemental to the human condition -- and maybe that's one of the things I'm translating ... here.
--Julianna Baggott's latest novel MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS was written under the pen name Bridget Asher.