Mine (University of New Mexico Press, March), a collection of personal, lyric, and investigative essays about ownership—the corporeal, the familial, and the intellectual in form—as well as the realities of loss and isolation and the idea of belonging and home. Agent: None. Editor:
Elise McHugh. First printing: 750.
I started writing as a newspaper reporter, and at first I loved that job— except for one part: I never got to speak. I wrote about crazy, horrible things—plant explosions, police brutality, attacks on holiday yard art— and yet I wasn’t allowed to say what I thought about those things or how they reminded me of something, which reminded me of something else, which would eventually remind me that we’re all human, and damaged, and beautiful, and one day we’ll die.
So I became an essayist, and for a little while I was happy.
But then one day I read that the best essays sound like a conversation with a friend, that an essayist should be relatable and likable. And I thought, “Shit.” Because how relatable am I? I’m a woman. I’m queer. I’m drawn to odd and often contemptible people.
At that point I was tinkering with an essay about the years during which I lived among the furniture of a man who had killed his neighbor—and maybe also his wife and his best friend. The man was a millionaire named Robert Durst who had been cross-dressing at the time to avoid recognition, and my essay tried to untangle the empathy I felt for Durst, how I was so lonely then, and I assumed he must feel lonely too.
After writing about Durst, I started an essay on Bonnie and Clyde reenactors, and then one on ex-gays, one on stalkers, on self-mutilation, a dead opossum, sexual abuse, and murder ballads. I got pregnant and wrote a letter to a woman in prison for murdering her teenage children. Then, just as I began to write about that woman, I lost my pregnancy. So that essay ended up being about maternal filicide and miscarriage— neither topics that come to mind when you think about having a conversation with a friend.
And yet these are the subjects that shake out of my head when I try to essay, a verb I now recognize has very little to
do with relatability—at least for me, at least for a lot of us. Because the problem with advising writers to be relatable is that not all of us have the privilege of so easily fitting in.
When I write now I imagine an audience of like-minded readers. I picture myself addressing a bunch of strange, queer women obsessed with failure and human cruelness and loss that leads to loneliness but also moments of bliss. And that is how I eventually wrote my book. I stopped thinking “Shit” and started to say, “Fuck you.”
Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” And I agree. But more recently I’ve been drawn to a quote by Valeria Luiselli: “How do you explain,” she asks in her latest book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House Press, 2017), “that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity?”
To essay is to trust that the voice of the singular—the voice of the maligned, estranged, ostracized, or ignored—deserves more attention than the chorus of voices we normally hear, the perspectives we’re told hold weight because they are familiar, normal, representative. The essay is a creature best suited for the strange and queer among us. It is a genre of resistance, one that falters when it’s told to play nice.