Monday, January 22, 2018

How Can I Explain Personal Pain?: On Tatiana Ryckman’s I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do)

1. Virginia Woolf, reviewing the work of George Moore, said, “The only criticism worth having at present is that which is spoken, not written—spoken over wineglasses and coffeecups late at night, flashed out on the spur of the moment by people passing who have not time to finish their sentences, let alone consider the dues of the editors or the feelings of friends.” Reviewing the work of E.M. Forster, she said, “There are many reasons which should prevent one from criticizing the work of contemporaries. Besides the obvious uneasiness—the fear of hurt feelings—there is too the difficulty of being just.”

2. Tatiana Ryckman is my friend, and she recently had her publisher send me her new novel I Don’t Think of You (Except When I Do), released September 7, 2017. Kevin Sampsell, head of her publisher Future Tense Books, scribbled a note at the top of the press release that accompanied it: “Hi John—I hope you enjoy Tatiana’s book and can help us spread the word.” I tightened up on reading his message, which seemed twofold: 1) Enjoy the book, but also 2) promote the book so we sell the copies we’ve made and Tatiana can continue to write books. In other words, don’t let this gift be in vain.

3. In his manifesto The Gift, Lewis Hyde expounds on what he calls the “gift economy,” a quasi-anti-capitalist notion of community dependent on the notion that some commodities—works of art, religious artifacts, or anything that is made and given not for profit but for the pleasure of giving—are intended not to be gathered to oneself but to be circulated, within oneself and in the larger culture. In differentiating between work and labor, he says, “When I speak of labor…I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.” I’ve done the work of reviewing plenty of books, and I’m reticent to subject my friend’s labor to it. In fact I’ve sat on her book for a month now, fearful of commingling the labor of reading with the work of reviewing.

4. Fuck that. This review is a labor of love and gratitude, and a hopefully honest reckoning of how Ryckman’s thin book changed me, and might change the world. Whether it’s a “good” book, worth a disinterested reader’s time, I’m not in a position to say. I can say that it’s an honest rendering of the self-abnegating love one gives to another person before one reconciles oneself with the pain and loss of dignity such love entails. I was going to also add that it’s a love given to an undeserving object, but Ryckman has let me know that it’s not about the person I thought it was about, and our mutual friend Caitlyn gently reminded me recently to treat the book as a work of fiction.

5. So, about that. It’s a work that can probably be called many things—epistolary novel, prose poetry—but I want to call it a collection of micro-essays (or perhaps microfictions in the Borgesian sense) simply because that is what I understand it to be. Almost no section is more than a page, some are under twenty words long, they’re arranged by number to the first decimal point from 0.0 to 10.0, and all are written to a now-former lover. I can’t claim to understand exactly why she goes with the decimaled numerology, except perhaps to trace some order into the drama and trauma of a late-twentysomething breakup, or perhaps to trace the narrator’s selves in their sequential versions. The project was inspired—if that’s the right word—by a rudimentary drawing which she includes on the last page of the book of two mice fucking and one of them saying, “This feels so right,” which feels to me like a very Tatiana Ryckman thing to do.

6. In fact, the choice of illustration is, for me at least, the most Tatiana Ryckman thing about the book. Reading it, I had a continual sense of not knowing a friend as well as I thought I did. We went to grad school together, and had many late-night conversations that people have in grad school. One time I told her I couldn’t remember if I got the scar on my right middle finger from getting it stuck on a merry-go-round ramp in the third grade or from my adoptive father trying to cut it off when I was ten. She responded by biting my nose. She wrote many pieces then, in her mid-twenties, that were pure fiction in an uncontrolled voice that made her the life of any reading or party. Even as someone who has never had that type of relationship with her, I can say that sex is a large part of her experience and her aesthetic. There’s plenty of sex in this book, to be sure. But it no longer seems, well, fun. Perhaps that’s why I’m so stunned at the voice from which she writes in this essayistic novel: needy, dependent, alone.

7. The cassette tape holds a special place in Ryckman’s personal mythology. I only bring this up because she quotes in section 7.1 a B-side from the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album that I listened to obsessively on cassette tape in the early Nineties. The song, “Gimme the Car,” is sung in the voice of perhaps the worst type of male, a sex-obsessed late adolescent begging his father to lend him the car so he can date rape a girl he’s obsessed with. The voice only works because, as in any good fiction, frontman Gordon Gano injects the boy with a pathos, both through the lyrics and an especially creepy repeating riff and bassline, so that the words “How can I explain personal pain?” are a sort of mantra, an ode even, he repeats for any lingering humanity that remains within him. Ryckman’s narrator in I Don’t Think of You is not even close to the depravity of Gano’s car boy, but they both speak from a position of humanity lost in the attempt to navigate a sexual relationship mostly devoid of pleasure.

8. She refers in a number of the book’s micros to an experiment our friend Caitlyn conducted while living in Guanajuato, Mexico with her husband. Despite (or perhaps due to) a complete lack of experience as a visual artist, she decided to learn to paint by painting the same gate outside their villa every day for one month. Miller wrote about the experiment for Hunger Mountain in 2016, and Ryckman mentions in 5.0, 5.9, and 7.3-4 trying a similar experiment by drawing the robe of a man who used to live at the house where she stayed for two summers while in the throes of her obsession. Alas, she finds herself incapable of the repeated recreation of an object without injecting it with her obsession, and like Miller she gives up. In casual conversation Miller advised her, “I mean, it’s an endeavor that was doomed to fail. No one is ever going to capture life as it was. We all decided to try something impossible.”

9. The one quirk of the essay as a form with which I struggle most is its presumed narcissism. The form almost requires its writers to talk to themselves for an audience. This becomes especially fraught when relating personal pain. I think of Sampsell’s own 2012 essay “‘I’m Jumping Off the Bridge’,” where he talks down a man who comes into the bookstore where Sampsell works and says he’s going to kill himself, then spends the ensuing months talking himself down from the same fate as his own life spirals downward. I could almost feel his spirit—or at least his editorial hand—in Ryckman’s voice. The poet Ralph Angel once told a woman he was advising at the graduate school Ryckman and I attended to “get naked on the page”; she responded by dipping her breasts in paint, pressing them against paper, and submitting them with a statement of intention. One can’t be sure, but I don’t think that was what he was requesting. To get naked on the page—to confront our pain and confusion and mold them into language—requires a blatant disregard of our impulse toward emotional self-preservation. If we press our most private parts onto the page, it’s not paint that records and preserves us. It’s blood.

10. This may be what I see as the closest thing to redemption Ryckman offers in a cycle that could fairly be judged as relentlessly disheartened: The acknowledgement of the narrator’s dependence on people besides the object of her affection is the first punctum of the narcissistic persona she hones throughout I Don’t Think of You. One of my favorite paragraphs late in the book relates an opening of perspective that feels like curtains being flung open on a warm April day: “And on the other side of town, when my grandfather said goodbye to a woman who could no longer remember herself, the last person left from his real life, I was surprised that I did not reassign their sadness to you or their separation to us. How lonely, I thought instead, to be the last thing left no one remembers.”

11. She’s been experimenting with voice for some time now. This shift was prompted, I think, less by moving from her twenties to her thirties than by her shift from writing primarily fiction to writing quite a few nonfiction pieces, something I find many of my primarily fiction-writing friends getting shoehorned into. In some ways, she represents to me the inverse of our societal understanding of fiction and nonfiction: her fictional voice is singular and instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read more than one or two of her fictions; her nonfiction voices, on the other hand, are myriad and sometimes contradictory. To give just the most recent example, her recent piece for The Tulsa Voice, wherein she recounts interviews with Oklahoma Republicans in search of a more broad understanding of the word “resistance,” is measured to such an extent that I can’t even see her in the piece (which is, suppose, the whole point of journalistic integrity), and I can see her, alone with the pixels, pouring every ounce of the self she withholds from The Tulsa Voice into this little book.

12. Virginia Woolf’s assessment of George Moore is that he would have made a better memoirist than a novelist—his skill at conversation, the singularity of his voice in a crowd, was his greatest strength. Perhaps antiquity has proven this assessment correct; perhaps I’m simply being egocentric because I’d never heard of Moore before reading Woolf’s review of his work. Or perhaps a third option is the most viable—that Moore was one of many, perhaps most, writers whose work missed its audience by at least one epoch. Today his novels might be read as Woolf seems to read them, as the rendering of one person’s conversational voice translated into written language. This is how I read I Don’t Think of You. Unlike Woolf, a reader doesn’t necessarily come to a book like this one needing to read it as either fiction or non-fiction. Not knowing whether a written experience was a lived experience for the author makes the work somehow both more expansive and more opaque to read.

13. I’m trying to choose my words judiciously in relating details of Ryckman’s personal life. She has, after all, read my early drafts, ones from which I’ve cut details that make narrative nonfiction compelling for the precise reason I decided to cut them: They’re secrets, and secrets are bonds. Perhaps the greatest lie writers get away with is pretending we’re making our audience proxy to our secrets rather than giving them carefully molded simulacra, wrought through many, many attempts to observe ourselves, a gate, a failed relationship, a lasting friendship, and make them into language. To be long-term friends with fellow writers, to me at least, is to make a conscious act of the continual transformations and self-renewals we all go through. Our selves—whether we choose to call them fictions or not—when written assume a perhaps-false sense of permanence through the simple act of recording them and the not-simple-at-all act of editing, revising, perfecting, and publishing them. The gift, then, is this discrete object representing that self in words and pixels and pages—a self existing outside of time, in conjunction with the simple, fluid little selves that live within friendships and sex and shared space.


John Proctor has written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College, and runs a weekly writing workshop for inmates at Rikers Island. You can find him online at

1 comment:

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing your thoughts on Tatiana's work. What an intense pleasure and responsibility to be friends with the writers we love and admire.