A few days ago, I read a difficult piece of writing. I know it was difficult because the author told me so in the first paragraph: she was “scared” to write it, had been “warned” by friends that the subject was too raw, too controversial. Difficult, then, not in the way a critic means a poem is difficult — making complex patterns that demand the reader’s patience and alertness — but because she knows what she is about to say will be unpopular.
This piece, published on the blog of a prominent literary journal, made the rounds of the literary internet — you may have read it, too. The difficult thing the author has to say is that she doubts the validity of some other female writers’ reports of being raped by their male colleagues. The expression of this doubt certainly discredits her as a friend, if she is a friend to these women, and shows her tin ear to our society’s acceptance of victim-blaming. But she’s not writing as a friend. She is writing as a woman (“I am a woman, too”) and particularly as a woman writer. From the beginning, her language shows she believes this is supposed to make her argument (which leans heavily on her mother’s third-hand evaluation of another woman’s experience) seem justified, part of the spectrum of concerns women writers may have about their work and each other.
What astonished me about this piece more than its content was the fact that it called itself an essay. “I never wanted to be an essayist,” the author sighs at the piece’s opening. Essay: not post, or piece, or article, is the word she uses, surely, because the word’s roots in trial and to weigh would seem to lend her difficult, unpopular argument credence; though her opening confession of fear seems to have no weight at all, as a gossip’s “I don’t want to sound nasty, but . . .” before smearing a neighbor has no weight.
If difficulty is a euphemism for the qualifier that allows you, as a woman, to gaslight other women and to discourage other, younger women writers in the process, I think it’s time to reexamine what we mean by “difficulty” in nonfiction writing, that contemporary, confounding beast of a genre. Difficulty for the writer in investigative, long-form journalism has so much to do with research, with how to present the subject, with what to include and what to leave out; difficulty for the writer in the essay is to do with the self, but not in the way of the confessional “It happened to me” — as Lena Dunham has shown again and again, that barrier is not the difficult one to get over right now. It’s the problem of the moral assessment of the self in light of its environment: the self isn’t sure what it believes, or why it believes it; why it feels the way it does, or why others behave the way they do. The above author’s difficulty is none of these: although she waffles enough in print, her mind is made up before she begins writing. Her work is only an essay, a weighing, in the sense that she feels the weight of her blunt invective in her hand before she hurls it.
To really explore difficulty in life-writing (which is the term Yiddish writers used after jettisoning “biography”; it seems to encompass “the flickering” between fact and fiction, as Ben Lerner writes, that is bound to happen when one tries to account for a life), to hold the stone or draw it or submerge it in water, scratch or heat it, rather than hurl it, takes longer than the time we seem to have for the Internet. Not long before reading the above piece, I had gone to hear Claudia Rankine read from and discuss her book Citizen. In Citizen, Rankine gathers stories from her own life and from those of friends about the menacing racist slights experienced by black Americans and the cumulative, isolating mental anguish they cause. Rankine’s raw material is intensely topical and intensely discussed — if it is not always the stuff of the national news, it is often hashed out in outraged Facebook threads and on Twitter. But she doesn’t allow this dialogue to introduce her topic for her; instead, she begins utterly alone: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices…
Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor.
The route is often associative…
Rankine presents to us here both her difficulty and her methodology: that she will proceed as she needs to — associatively — but that her collection of moments is not arbitrary. The moments are islands, in the Muriel Rukeyser sense, “connected underneath,” and it’s important for Rankine to lay out her prologue thus to guard against readers who think, like Rukeyser’s bathers, that “the islands are separate like them.” Rankine’s whole book becomes an argument against both the separateness of these painful experiences, and against the “post-racial” separateness of whites who believe themselves incapable of inflicting them.
Reading Rankine, I recalled how Eula Biss, in her 2008 book Notes from No Man’s Land, also makes her essayist’s act of weighing about separateness and race, but from a white American’s perspective, lifting seemingly innocent pieces of our country’s infrastructure and finding racial injustices swarming beneath them. In “Time and Distance Overcome,” Biss tells the brief history of the telephone in the United States, including the fact that black men were sometimes lynched from telephone poles. Near the essay’s end, she acknowledges that “when I was young, I believed that the arc and swoop of telephone wires along the roadways was beautiful… I believed that the telephone itself was a miracle. Now, I tell my sister, these poles, these wires, do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me.” Here, too, overcoming separateness is the difficulty: having to reconcile the child’s naive belief with the adult’s grim knowledge, in the same body.
Writing about race is difficult in the way writing about sexual assault is difficult, not for the barriers to speaking about them, although those exist, but for the long path many take around their core: the impact of society’s complacency and an individual’s ignorance on another individual’s sense of self. Citizen, Rankine said to an NYU audience sitting thigh-to-thigh in a room at the law school decorated with portraits of graying white men, is about bodies, about intimacy, the failure to connect. “Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us,” writes Biss.
It’s not so difficult to tell what you think, even if you know an army of Internet commenters might come after you. It’s more difficult to circle what you think you know until it begins to crumble under the weight of the world. Both Rankine and Biss explore the true difficulty not just of telling, but of knowing, a hard thing — from the outside in, from the recorded historical datum or photographed scene to the felt bitterness. They wrestle with multiple lives, gladness and despair, friendship and betrayal, occurring in the same bodies, in the same country. They take these irreconcilables and weigh them. When we say “this is hard for me to say,” in writing, we should mean not only that it will be hard for you to hear it, or hard for me because of how you will react; but that it is hard for me, because after all I have found out, after all I have considered, I can’t be sure what I mean by me at all.