If you’ve never looked at the “Missed Connections” section of your city’s Craigslist, do it now. It’s under personals on the left side of your screen.
My area, Potsdam-Canton-Massena, has one that reads, “The store owner told us a funny story about herself in NYC, and you were wearing a shimmering Renaissance dress. I really wish I had introduced myself to you. Here's hoping.”
Most of the posts aren’t that eloquent or interesting (a shimmering Renaissance dress on a Thursday night?), but they’re all messages to strangers in the hopes that “you” (“you were wearing,” “you were in a blue Ford truck,” “you ordered a soy latte”)—will not only find and read the message, but will reply.
Think about this for a moment: a person has an encounter with someone—in line at Starbucks, at a long light, at the tricep machine in the gym—and his (or her) response is to write something and send it out into the world, not knowing if it will ever be read, if it will matter. Sound familiar?
I love the direct address of “you” in writing when it’s done well. Take Maggie Nelson in Bluets when she writes, “Above all, I want to stop missing you.” I was cracked apart by that line. It’s the idea behind everything I’ve written in the past ten years, essays about my own “you.” I suspect I’m not alone here.
The Beatles’s “Long and Winding Road”: “You left me standing here a long, long time ago.” I once read a McCartney interview in which he said it’s one of his most requested songs and when he sings it, he looks out to the crowd to see grown men weeping.
We all have a you.
But sometimes the “you” in essays is what Ira Sukrungruang calls the “disguised I” It’s a distancing technique that allows the writer to engage via disengagement, so to speak. Ryan Van Meter does this well in “If You Knew Then What I Know Now.”
But there’s one essay that fuses both instances of “you,” and it’s from So You Know It's Me by Brian Oliu. These essays were originally published as a series of posts on Tuscaloosa Craigslist Missed Connnections over a period of forty-five days in June of 2010. In them, Oliu writes, again and again, "This is about you." And it is. It's about each of us. And what we miss.
“mfw-22-Craigslist” is a piece of metawriting (so of course, I’m intrigued). It addresses a private, yet universal “you.” Someone has been/is missed. But the “you” may also be read here as the “disguised I,” and a very important one: the writer.
I argue that it may be read as a direct self-address in which Oliu attempts to get at why we write. In other words, he converts Didion’s “writing is the act of saying I” to his act of saying you. When I read the essay, I hear the writer talking to himself (or in my case, herself).
Personal essays are like Missed Connections, the sending out of a self into the world in hopes of making a connection without knowing if and when one might be made. “Here’s hoping.”
What I’ve been writing for the past ten years is about missing a “you.” But if I really think about it, I’ve been writing how I miss myself—the roads I used to run, the states I moved away from, the good-time-girl who went bad for a while. Isn’t that one of the reasons essaysists essay? To attempt to get at who we once were? Or weren’t?
From the final line of Oliu’s collection: “Believe me when I tell you that you, you are the one missing, and that I, I am the one missed.” We all have a you, and in writing, sometimes that you is ourselves.
I didn’t want you to miss this one:
Make no mistake, this is about you. This is about you, sitting there, reading this. This is about you, touching the keyboard, reading this. This is about artifice—this is about you knowing that this isn’t about you. But make no mistake, this is about you. It has always been about you. It has always been about you reading this, even though you are reading this for the first time. This is about you typing, letter after letter. I can’t remember the last time I saw you typing—I only see the product of the motion of fingers. The products, the thoughts that start as thoughts from the heart—no—though I wish they came from there, they are beautiful. They say beautiful things, about the occupying of space, about “if I,” “if I were,” “if you,” “if you were.” This is about you moving your hand from keyboard to mouse. This is about keeping tabs. This is about rotation. This is about you messaging me to ask if this is about you. This is about you typing. This is about you asking what was the deal with the last time we spoke. This is about you asking what was the deal with these missed connections—this invisibility. The others, they aren’t real, you think. This one, this isn’t real either, you think, though this one is about you. This one can’t be about you, but it is about you. This is about you asking me if this is about you. This is about me telling you that it is not about you, although it is about you. This is about me not telling. This is about one person. This is about me, you think. This is a mistake—this is about you.
*Thanks to Ander Monson for creating this forum and for the opportunity to join it, to celebrate the essay and essayists and each other.
Jill Talbot is the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Recent essays may be found here and here, along with one of her own second-person essays here.