Friday, December 11, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 11, Lucas Mann, The Road that Doesn't End: On Jill Talbot's "The Last Year"

When the world shuts down, time moves differently. There is a compression to each day, the sameness of the lived moment pushing in on itself. The past and the future start to pulse and ripple into and out from the vacuum of the present. In my mind, it’s like one of those scenes in any number of action movies, when the bomb is cast off into the sea just in time, and after the explosion we see the water shiver. So much of what I think about is not what I’m doing, but what I’ve done, like the past has more space to move, infiltrating the act of living, squeezing into the cracks of boredom and uncertainty.

It’s a clumsy metaphor to say that quarantine has begun to feel like writing. It reminds me of how I was all in on the maxim of publishing a book being akin to having a baby until I watched my wife have a baby. I guess that’s part of the problem with writing, and writing about writing — writing itself does not feel real, it does not feel lived; it’s merely the transcription of the living already done, so we’re compelled to find metaphors to stand in. When talking about writing with my students, I’m always moving my hands in specific but subconscious pantomimes, as though I want them to imagine their hands doing anything else — build a house, drive a car, juggle, just so long as it’s not typing. There’s a need to find purchase on something concrete, finite. Far more frightening is the truth — a lack of anything defined, just the passage of time in fits and starts, and the fact that writing is indeed one of many acts of living, all moments that count and are lost.

Starting at the end of 2019 and carrying through six months of pandemic life, I read along with Jill Talbot’s serialized essay collection “The Final Year,” which ran on The Paris Review website. In it, she tracks the time before her daughter leaves for college. Her essays came in currents, waves of differing size, ebbs of silence. With each new season, there was a weekly rush of essays, then a fallow period in which I’d grow to miss her words, and then they’d appear again. Some of the pieces resembled more conventional essays — a certain thread followed through, an expected length, narrative satisfaction. Some of my favorites, though, were shorter even than a flash piece, just an image snatched and briefly held before floating away.

After a while, the pieces seemed to teach me how to spend time with them, where to slow down. I savored longest her shortest piece, “First Snow.” In it, she writes about her dead mother’s tradition of making ice cream out of snow, and her life with her daughter in Texas where it never snowed until one day it did — all in a short paragraph of clipped, muted sentences. She tries to describe the feeling of scooping a cup of snow while her daughter still slept, mixing it with sugar in her mother’s bowl. This is not missing, she writes. This is us living — and then it ends with the feeling of no ending at all.

Upon finishing each essay, I did the thing that I think a lot of writers do of going back to reverse engineer, reading to try to confirm for ourselves the way the piece was made. With “The Last Year,” this began to feel like an unwinnable game. Each missive, on its own, never attempted to structure anything to completion, nor did it feel like a clear progression in a building story. I don’t mean to write it all off as just a diary or free-association — there was skillful, intentional structure built, each essay given a frame and momentum that could have been clean and effective. But each time, it seemed to break down or dissolve into yearning for more. The result wasn’t disappointment; more a continually renewed reminder that a life is far too big to hold on the page, even a sliver of life is. And alongside that, the growing certainty that the project of trying to tell the story was worthy of its failure, that the writer would show up again to tell it through a new moment, a new frame, lovely for the time that you read it and then of course not enough. This is us living; this is her writing.

In “Gone,” Talbot writes, My daughter grew up on highways. Her essays, too, live on the road, in motion, with on-ramps and exits that cycle up in down in numbers across states, the only constant an unreached horizon hazy over hot concrete. When there is no point of demarcation, no desire for destination, the essays become a conduit for past, present, and a hope for the future to meet, double back, hold still for just a second before speeding away. Last moments with Talbot’s daughter Indie give way to the earliest memories of her, which bleed into Talbot’s own childhood, which fades forward into her father’s death, her mother’s death, Indie’s father who left and then the act of writing that departure over and over. What it is to remember, what it is to regret, what it is, most of all, to yearn, whether that’s for the past or someplace not yet seen, or both. Texas turns into Oklahoma, Colorado, New York, New Mexico, then back, then gone again. In every moment, something is missed, something is loved, something is longed for. In the essay “On Lasts,” she writes:

Every time I’ve moved, I’ve pretended the last time I see people is not that at all.
See you tomorrow.
See you soon.
I can’t bear to say goodbye.

At the end of the essay about ends, which isn’t the last one in the series, she looks forward to an ending that hasn’t yet arrived: I already know the last thing I’m going to say to her.

I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my writing career invested in the belief that writing is not as important or romantic an activity as writers often behave like it is. Jill and I have been mutual fans for the entirety of that career, close to a decade now. Without me realizing it, we’ve read most everything that the other has published, and we write about our lives, so in a way we’ve known each other for that long, at least the parts of ourselves raw and nagging enough to record. Even as our work spoke to one another, I’ve felt at times a disconnect in how we talked about it — she was one of those who made writing into an act of devotion. We’ve met in person twice — first at the University of San Francisco’s Emerging Writers Festival, then when she invited me to visit her students at The University of North Texas. I mostly remember the way that, each time, she spoke of writing with this kind of reverence, as though it was life; not in that way gross way where writing can be held above all else, just the sense that the two couldn’t be separated. She spoke of her and Indie moving around, and always her desk would get unpacked first, filled again with little totems that meant something to her and her work, and each new home would be filled with the constancies of her daughter and her writing, growing together, intertwined. I never kept a desk as anything other than storage.

Jill spoke about revisiting subjects in her work, the way that some stories are meant to evolve alongside your life and how your life is shaped by the retelling of them. I felt myself slink into contrarianism. When I wrote about something, I was ashamed to have done so; I wanted publication to be chance to wipe my hands of it. To write about life felt like an act of theft, as opposed to any sort of enhancement. Steal a relationship, a grief or a joy, try to cram that into a narrative, then watch the narrative fail to say it right. Rinse, repeat. Self-deprecation — or not even really self-deprecation, but deprecation of the entire endeavor of personal writing, which in a weird way let me off the hook if I screwed up since it was doomed anyway — became an easy retort and an easy place to hide.

Before the publication of my book Captive Audience, I was doing the same old freakout about how everything I’d been trying to say seemed wrong by that point, when my wife, a theater actress, told me that the goal shouldn’t be to get it right exactly, pinned down for the record. The best you can hope for, she said, is to try to perform what it felt like, what it meant, for just the moment that you’re telling it, and then it’s gone. I believed it when she said it, as a way of thinking to aspire to in theory, but I find that elusiveness, that humility, so hard. Not just for me — I think writing rarely achieves it. As a form, it’s so easy to carry the weight of the expectations of some kind of finality, trundling over life and into record. When I reread “The Last Year,” a whole package now instead of week by week, it remains both familiar and elusive, and I realize that I recognize my wife’s words.

In our memories, there are rooms we’ll always be standing in, saying one thing or another, Jill writes. Or not saying what we should. Then she goes back to the task of documenting these failures, each one singular, beautiful and not enough.

When I started writing this, I wanted to say something about the effects of serializing nonfiction, but now I think what I’ve enjoyed the most about having Jill’s words to return to is the way the experience of reading them doesn’t feel anything like conventional serialization. I’ve always thought of serialization as highlighting momentum, building suspense by meting it out, making us wait for the next step forward toward the ultimate answer. It’s why disappointing endings in TV shows can ruin everything that’s come before. We want the cliffhangers to pay off, a perfectly choreographed ending to the distinct patterns made out of the passage of time. Instead, “The Last Year” made me appreciate the passage of time, full stop. When Jill writes, it’s always the present, and it’s the past and the future too — the payoff lies in between somewhere.

I met Indie once, in a thai restaurant in Denton. She popped in to say hi before picking up a friend and driving her to the movies — she’d just gotten her license. Through the window of the restaurant, I saw the smudge of her headlights turning on against a darkening sky. I didn’t know her at all, but I’d read enough about — or maybe the right way to say it is enough around—her that meeting her felt simultaneously like meeting a celebrity and a secret. My daughter grew up on highways—I had images of her in my mind from Jill’s previous work, arms out a car window somewhere feeling the wind. I watched Jill watch her drive away. My wife was a month or so away from giving birth then. I didn’t tell Jill that I was thinking only of endings. Of the way a new life would end the old one. Of the fear—certainty, really—that I would not be up to the task of living or trying to remember how to write about living as it sped up, sped past me. Often, I still feel that way. The moment in the restaurant felt significant as I lived it, a marker worth recognizing, but it also felt like if I ever tried to write the moment it would wilt.

I read the last essay of “The Last Year” on my phone while my daughter piled wood chips onto a bench at the park near our home. It was a few days before we’d send her back to daycare and my teaching semester would start up again—since March, while my wife worked, it had been us two. Time felt so slow, except when I thought of how much of it had passed, which made me panic; the world had compressed, it seemed, into an area so small I could throw a rock across it. Jill’s essay moved in flickers, statements or memories of only a sentence or two before a break, and then another. Toward the end, she writes:

Right now it feels like a part of me will always be standing on the sidewalk outside Indie’s dorm, cupping her face with my hands to say the last thing, then watching her disappear through the propped-open door. I suspect that years from now, I’ll write about standing on that sidewalk, and I’ll have the words for what’s impossible for me to know now.

The essay, the whole project, is about a lot more than writing, but in that moment this was the best writing about writing I’d ever encountered. Best in that I saw it for its aspiration and believed in it. Writing about writing that cannot be separated from writing about living. Writing as a conversation with the people you love, as endless and hard to pin down as the feeling is. The act of writing felt very distant then, like it could end for me, quiet and clean, and nothing much would be lost. Jill made me want to try again. This is the first try.


Lucas Mann is the author of Captive Audience: On Love and Reality Television, Lord Fear: A Memoir, and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. The recipient of fellowships from United States Artists and The National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

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