K Paoletter 25: Under Lock & Key

I’ve been thinking of starting a diary. Which, of course, is not the same as actually starting one. The inclination to journal was triggered by — what else — reading another writer’s journal, in this case The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavits, one of my grad school professors and a mensch of the highest order. Her book is meant as a different sort of diary than the journals she kept as teenager, which she admits were written under the expectation that they would be “published at some future date, when my literary fame might bestow upon them an artistic and biographical value. I believed I was born to posthumous greatness. I often imagined myself more famous when dead than when alive.”

I likewise maintained a diary through much of high school and college, one motivated by similar delusions of grandeur. I kept at it because that’s what writers are supposed to do — were I to neglect my self-indulgent scribblings, how would my adoring readers in the 22nd Century be able to glimpse my early genius? Now that people actually pay me to write, now that writing is not a fanciful concern but a matter of paychecks and bills, journaling with some future audience in mind feels impossibly narcissistic, while at the same time writing for no reader but myself seems a waste. 

These bemused considerations of perhaps the most foundational form of creative writing stems, I’m sure, from the frustrations I’ve felt in recent months about how my career as a journalist and critic precludes any other writerly aspirations. Despite spending the bulk of my twenties hammering away at a novel, I haven’t written anything fictional in well over a year, and find the prospect of embarking on some new project that would require similar levels of labor daunting, to say the least. Perhaps my revived interest in diarism is nothing more than a manifestation of my unconscious yearning for fiction. I pivoted as naturally from journaling to writing fiction as I did from writing fiction to writing for money. Perhaps closing the loop and keeping a journal will lead, inevitably, to a new novel. 

At the same time, the immense power of The Folded Clock demonstrates how ridiculous it is to put fiction on a pedestal above other sorts of writing. Few novels can match the reality effect of Julavits pretending to personally know a local ceramicist in a bid to curry favor with the owner of an antique store in Maine, or her sorrow over the death of the tree outside her window in Manhattan. Her book is bursting with quotidian events like these, and they only become literary because of how Julavits’ perception of them interlocks to create a self-portrait of a person trying to make sense of her own life. “When I write,” Julavits reflects, “I am trying through the movement of my fingers to reach my head.”

The result of that attempt may not be a novel, but it feels more alive than many works of fiction. In Reality Hunger, David Shields’ manifesto for a new vision of contemporary writing, he states that “conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelations. Life, though — standing at a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night — flies at us in bright splinters.” The Folded Clock is wrought from such splinters, but rather than arrive in irregular bursts, Julavits carefully organizes and dispatches them for maximum effect. 

“What I want,” writes Shields, “is the real world with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not merely reported.” If most fiction won’t suffice, then neither will journalism, with its mandate to be accurate and digestible. Both fiction and journalism simplify life in the name of clarity. Clarity is worth pursuing in the name of imparting information, but it is not necessarily the best reflection of the conditions of existence. To achieve that lofty standard, the only option for the writer is to turn to either poetry (which, godspeed) or the essay, what Shields calls “a conditional form of literature — less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre.”

The Folded Clock is a perfect example of an essay that has assumed the genre of diary, while a work like Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger reads more like an essay that has assumed the genre of erudite history. There are plenty of nonfiction books that don’t stretch beyond their genre branding: autobiographies, no matter how perspicacious, rarely do, nor do most memoirs, which, Shields points out, effectively operate as works of fiction given the vagaries of memory. Indeed, the great mass of nonfiction books released every year have no greater ambition than to impart knowledge from writer to reader. An essay can only animate a book if its author acknowledges and accepts the ambiguity of their position, that reality is so fungible that the act of distilling it into a few hundred pages of bound words that read like the gospel is inherently preposterous. The best novels function like essays, but not all. What matters is to essay in whatever form you’re writing in on that day, in that moment — diary, novel, email newsletter. 

The Folded Clock, then, pulls a neat little sleight-of-hand: it replaces the dull journals of Julavits’ youth that she once hoped might be published after her lifetime with a diary she wrote explicitly for the purpose of being read. And while those old diaries, she admits, betray “no imagination, no trace of style, no wit, no personality,” this one pulses with the urgency of a human being reporting on their life as it is happening. It’s a diary that demands to be read, not one that sits on a bedside table patiently waiting to be written in.

But how, as a working writer, can I strive for such heights without getting bogged down by my failure to execute on my own ambitions? After the critic Dave Hickey passed away in November, I found myself preoccupied by the passage in his landmark essay collection Air Guitar where he compares working as a freelance writer to playing basketball. It’s a bizarre analogy at first blush, but Hickey persuasively connects the immense energy that animates the sport to the “deadline life…. the nonstop intensity of it, an embodiment of the breathless push of writing and thinking about everything all the time… the experience of arising each morning certain that if you don’t write today, you won’t eat in eight weeks.” 

Keeping a diary under such circumstances seems like a death-wish, but not any more so than grasping at grand artistry through whatever report, review, or profile you’ve managed to browbeat an editor into assigning you. But like professional athletes, Hickey believes, the best freelancers refine their craft to the point that it’s possible to achieve the sublime through instinct alone. “You are going to have to take the ball in one hand and leave the floor,” he writes, “knowing, finally, that there is no hope of your making any of those zillions of fluid, instantaneous decisions that you must make in the air, if you are not borne aloft, buoyed up, as you leave the floor, by a serene, tenacious, gravity-defying confidence that, in just a few seconds, you are going to duck, twist, extend, and slam that sucker down!” However adolescent the sentiment, I can’t help but wonder if all my glum introspection about what sort of writer I am is something that could be resolved by merely putting my head down and driving hard to the cup. 

I don’t know if I can honestly claim to have put anyone on a poster with my work over the past couple months, but in any case: I have an essay in the new issue of The Baffler that takes a skeptical look at the Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb’s claim that the interstellar object dubbed ‘Oumuamua is really a relic from an extraterrestrial civilization. Late last year I also published a fun piece for Boston explaining why the radical changes to the city’s skyline over the past decade haven’t also included the debut of any new observation decks, and Components issued a new report on how the marketing of iPhones and other Apple products warps product reviews of all stripes. On a related note, earlier this week the writer and brand strategist Vicky Gu hosted Kelly Pendergrast and your’s truly at a digital roundtable about tech aesthetics — it was a ton of fun, and since Vicky has a bunch more of these conversations lined up I highly recommend subscribing to her newsletter. Oh, and just in case you missed it, my biggest article of 2021 was surely my editorial in the New York Times arguing that the best way to alleviate overcrowding in the National Parks is to create more of them. I’ve visited both Joshua Tree and Yosemite since I wrote that piece and my opinion on the matter has not budged in the slightest. 

I loved Gabriel Mac’s recent recounting of his experience with phalloplasty in New York Magazine, a procedure that, in his case, involved scraping a bunch of tissue off his thigh and weaving it back through his pelvis to create a penis. While Mac’s description of his recovery from the surgery is harrowing (one nurse tells him “the whole process is constant body horror”), what’s most striking about the essay is the delicate — yet joyful — way Mac situates himself within the broader transmasculine community, where a desire to undergo phalloplasty is far from universal. “Whatever magical spectrum of unicorn gender expression was otherwise being embraced” in transmasculine circles, Mac writes, “it ended firmly before needing a socially, culturally, politically, historically, personally, emotionally, medically complicated dick. But I did. And I couldn’t outrun it any longer.”

That’s all for now. Apologies for the long layoff since my last missive — I’m hoping to get back into a regular newsletter routine again in 2022, but don’t hold me to it. In the meantime, you can find me on my website, or eyeballing the hulking snowblower parked behind the house with a mounting sense of resignation.

Your pal,