Tom Spanbauer is on the verge of saying it. Then he does say it. “You are formidable,” he says. He means this with tenderness right now, but in a few months I’ll hear him use the same word to describe his former teacher, editor, mentor and monster, The Notorious Mister Lish. But right now Tom is saying this to make sure I’m okay. He asks me, looks straight into me with his warm brown eyes when he asks. “Are you okay? How is this landing on you?”
We’re talking about a short story I’m writing and it’s not going very well, which is the way that these things sometimes go. We are both saying things and trying not to overstep in the saying of them, both trying to be understood. I’m at his table with him, in his house. Technically, in the basement of his house, with its own separate entrance, but it’s still his house and I am inside it. Invited, even, to both sit and remain. Tom uses the word “revolt” next, says that he thinks I am actively in it, that I am in revolt against the rules and conventions of writing. He says this, he says, because he and I create stories so differently.
But we don’t. He uses words. I use words.
The difference is he trusts them more than I do, which makes him reach in his writing more often and a lot further than I can reach right now in my writing. Words. I’m still talking about words.
What’s formidable is entrusting ideas and memories to words and crossing your fingers so hard you feel like they are going to snap clean off, crossing them and squinting real tight because you know once you take the memory or the idea — when you take it out of its naturally chemical state and give it the flesh of language, give it bones and blood and a nervous system — once you do this, you are Victor Frankenstein. And you’re terrified of what Victor was always most terrified by: your own expectations, your own disappointment. You’re terrified you’ll be terribly disappointed in your words’ inability to fully translate and transmit and animate. The reader, that adoptive parent of what you’ve birthed, she’s going to do all that surrogate stuff readers do when they are so affected by what you’ve made and imposed upon them, that they heap upon you all the credit for doing something you didn’t really do and feel like you don’t deserve.
I’m talking about robbery now. About committing a crime. Not being robbed. Not the fear that wells up inside you and stands your hair follicles into little mountains all over you. None of the fear. It’s guilt. The guilt of being the robber. Of being the one who points the gun at someone and doesn’t have to pull the trigger and still gets something for it anyway. Of still being able to feel the long deep groove of the trigger embedded in your finger long afterwards, feeling it in your sleep, the weight of it. But more than the physicality and the big dimple in your skin, feeling the parallel reality where it all goes wrong. What I’m talking about when I say guilt is the flutter in your chest that doesn’t match the smooth calm in your brain, that discomfort and sleeplessness and slow spin of knowing you got away with something you probably shouldn’t have been able to get away with at all. Because this isn’t what being formidable is supposed to feel like.
I go home later, to my own house, where I don’t have a basement, where I have to walk in through the front door, and I try to explain this to my wife. She asks me to clarify what I mean. Formidable. I tell her I’m not sure how, but I’ll try. I realize before I even start talking that I’ve never had to do this so deliberately before, to assume someone wouldn’t know what that word meant in the same way I understood it. Or wouldn’t feel the tingle of familiarity in the back of their heads when the word is uttered, the one that pushes the neck around and bobs the head and makes the forehead move in what we would all call a nod. To affirm our understanding.
But this is so easily feigned, you know, this understanding thing. What I’m talking about right now is the robbed robbing the robber. Because nodding in and of itself doesn’t confirm anything. It is only evidence that someone’s nervous system is functioning, is sending and receiving chemical messages; it’s no proof at all that there is sympathy or jealousy or worry or compassion or any of the other thousands of emotions we feel when we understand something, when the message stops being something chemical and begins being something physical.
My wife nods at whatever it is that I’m saying. Her doing this doesn’t reassure me of anything because I don’t trust the words I’m using. Using one word, two words, twenty, well over a hundred before it’s over, to explain another word. The prisonhouse of language. Her doing this only assures me that she can hear me, and that she is trying to understand.
Gustave Flaubert wrote a novel called Madame Bovary. What I should say is he published a novel called Madame Bovary, because he never finished writing it. Flaubert went to prison for doing this. And while in prison for publishing his novel, he began reworking every sentence of it. Word by word. In pursuit of the perfect expression of his ideas.
Le mot juste.
A formidable task, to say the least.
I tell you these stories — about Tom, about my wife, about Flaubert — because our need to be understood is both part of what makes us human and also what can make us insufferable as humans to other humans. I also tell you these stories because that’s what humans do. And if I’m telling these things adequately, you’re probably nodding your head right now. In fact, I’m pretty sure if you’ve read this far, you’re probably already doing it. But it’s entirely possible that you’re not, too. And not just possible, but incredibly likely. Especially if you’re as skeptical of words as I am.
Look, this isn’t about proclaiming or celebrating the Words Are All We Have As Writers thing. It’s not about bemoaning it, either. This is simply about being honest. About realizing that there’s only so far words will take us before they become prisons. There is a kind of understanding that comes from the simple act of hearing. It’s called listening. It’s what every reader does. It’s what you are doing right now. And it’s what every writer does, too, whether she knows it or not, accepts it or not. Listening to the story you are trying to tell is the first act of telling it. You don’t have to hear every word of it, by the way. Because what we are ultimately after in the telling of our stories isn’t a specific form of understanding that gets perfectly replicated in every reader.
Listen carefully now. What I’ve just described is programming, and programming is most definitely not understanding. Programming is about replication, exact replication, which is about the farthest thing I can think of from understanding. Understanding is about making the mistake — about fucking up — and knowing you’ve fucked up and having something itch in you because of it. Programming doesn’t itch. Or, at least, it’s not supposed to.
But I’m coming to wonder if what we are ultimately after as writers may not be understanding at all. Maybe we’ve given up on being understood, or maybe we give up on ourselves before something like understanding could even happen. I’m wondering now if I am less interested in being understood and more interested in something else. Something bigger and more powerful than being understood. Something that a skeptic like me has a hard time accepting. Something like trust, as in I Trust You. When we read and when we listen, we suspend our disbelief. Writers can’t make readers do this, by the way; that suspension is inherent to the process of both telling and being told a story. “Let me tell you a story,” the writer says. “Okay,” the reader says. “I will let you.” That most gracious allowance, for some of us, can be literally too much to bear. I’m thinking about Sylvia Plath right now when I write that. About Ernest Hemingway. About David Foster Wallace. I don’t have to say it exactly, do I? You understand what I mean. No. I’m definitely more interested in something else than just being understood. And I hope you are, too. Because I trust you. I really do.
So go ahead now. Disappoint me. Break my heart. Enrapture me. Be formidable. Tell me a story. Because I’ve already decided that I will let you.