Thursday, December 10, 2015

BAE 2010: Composing Smart by César Díaz

Two girls sat beside each other on a bench. They engaged in a conversation that went back and forth. One girl looked intently at the other, who spoke while she scanned the parking lot. Moments later, two more girls approached the bench and joined in. Behind them, the façade of the St. David’s Episcopal Church towered overhead, making all of them appear smaller from the angle of my rearview mirror. It was the summer of 2007 and I worked for nonprofit running creative writing camps throughout Austin. The girl looking out at the parking lot was my twelve-year old sister. Earlier that year, she had asked if she could spend the summer with me in order to get away from our mother. I agreed only if she’d attend writing camp, hoping that she’d fall in love with writing in the way I had so many years ago. I tried downplaying my own projected fears: here was a little Mexican-American girl from the poorest region in South Texas in a classroom full of the upper class city kids that occupied the downtown summer camp. I worried that she’d struggle making friends. She was a fish out of water, I thought. Instead, I marveled at the ease in which she made friends out of complete strangers. 

I tried playing it cool the moment she got in my car. I asked how her day went. 
“Fine,” she replied dryly, looking out the windshield at the afternoon traffic. 
“Just fine?” I asked. In my rearview, the group of girls looked on in our direction. My sister noticed.
“I’m invited to a pool party this weekend.”
"Are you going?”
“I don’t know those girls.”
“But you’re invited.”
She glared at me. I could almost see her thoughts shifting from expression into words, but she held them back, tight lipped. She sighed.
“What’s the point,” she finally said. “Mom wouldn’t let me go.”

I’m drawn to this moment for what it illustrates about a lifelong anxiety with social interactions in large crowds. Despite that I’ve been told over the years that I have this very same quality as my sister, I’ve never truly believed it or have wanted to believe it. Instead, I’m convinced that the root of this anxiety can be traced to my sister’s last comment: What’s the point? Mom wouldn’t let me go. Our mother was hundreds of miles away and somehow influencing my sister’s decision on whether to make new friends. The way my sister delivered her own verdict, she was tapping into the family pessimism that we learned mostly from our mother. But this essay is not about vilifying our mother for the ideals she learned as a migrant farm worker, but instead a way of getting at the root of the pessimism that threatens to undermine my own sense of self as a writer and an essayist. 

Growing up in farm working camps, the space our family created was insular and deliberately shunned the outside world. We were taught to stay clear of any attention, especially in the schools. This proved hardest for me as a bookish child who stood out academically. I kept crossing that line between anonymity and acknowledgment when our job was to go to school and return leaving very little trace. At home, we were exiled from that strange “American” world and told to remain within the comfort (or confines?) of our own Mexican culture. I grew up indirectly navigating between these worlds and doing so meant becoming invisible by detaching myself from social interactions and suppressing my own individuality.
Arthur Krystal’s essay “When Writers Speak” (as anthologized in Best American Essays 2010) has me reflecting on the ramifications of this suppression in my life. His essay is the shortest (at two pages) of all the pieces of this anthology year, yet it does in brief what I expect from literary essays: to move us towards understanding by pointing out a pattern the world (or in this case, a writer) knows well.
Krystal: “Writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists; it’s not their job to be smart, except of course, when they write.”
Writers are not inherently intelligent when having conversations. We appear to be merely by composing our smarts, but this takes time. As Krystal points out, “There’s something about writing, when we regard ourselves as writers, that affects how we think and, inevitably how we express ourselves.”
There are two things at play here, coming to terms: 
  1. With believing you are smart and have something to say, and 
  2. That you are a writer and can compose in ways that articulates your ideas.
I admit that I worry too much about coming off seeming “stupid.” My ingrained pessimism gets the best of me and prevents me from throwing myself in positions where I’m proven otherwise. Who wants to be told to shut up; we don’t want to hear what you have to say! I grew up with those exact words. My brothers threw them at me in Spanish along with this word: Sabelotodo! A “know-it-all” that over shared the things he learned from reading books.

The older I got, the less I felt I wanted to share what I knew or thought. I turned inward to the safety of my own imagination with my words and books. But a sabelotodo can only hold so much back.

I tend to think about the past in patterns. Essays stitch those patterns into something meaningful.

So, here’s one: I remember when I was seven years old, sitting on a floor and scribbling down words on an old notebook. I had the urge to make meaning but something stopped me. I’d momentarily stare at my words before crumpling them up, stuffing them in my mouth, then chewing them into a scrap of unrecognizable inky goo. I had this habit for years and aside from having pen ink permanently staining my teeth, I never took that urge beyond that point. I told myself. No one cares.

But I fought that compulsion and even ignored it, yet it was there. And so almost thirty years later, I sit here and compose my words against that old pattern of anxiety and pessimism—the inarticulate migrant boy fights back!


In my early twenties I struggled with the idea of mingling. I attended art shows mainly with my girlfriend who was an artist. The visual art scene in Austin in the early aughts was sleepy by today’s standards, but despite that fact, it frightened me to be at an art show surrounded by strangers. I struggled with simply having back and forth conversations because each one ended up asking me the same question—are you an artist? Back then I spent all my energy anticipating how I would answer such a question. I didn’t have the confidence to identify as a writer even though all I ever did was sit on the floor of an empty apartment reading books and writing. It irked me that people wanted to talk to me when all I wanted was to remain anonymous amongst a crowd of art goers, much to my girlfriend’s confusion.

“People like you,” she once said. “You don’t have to tell them everything about you, that’s not what mingling is always about.”

She was right. These mingling sessions with strangers were cursory and hardly as serious as I took them. But I saw having conversations as some form of contract between people talking much in the way an essay establishes connection between a writer and reader. But what struck fear in me in conversation as it does in essay writing is acknowledging that tiny uncharted space where one can be misunderstood. This lack of control for that gap in understanding has often set me off in a panic, and then I become erratic and squirrely. It took years to feel comfortable in conversations, and took coming to terms with believing in who I was and how I projected that out to others.

There are times I wish I could time travel. My thirty-five year old self confronts that sullen twenty-year old kid hunched over a velour couch drinking beer and listening to Neil Young’s “On The Beach.” I’d grip him by the shoulders with both my hands and tell him what so many people have said to me over the years—chill the fuck out dude, it’s only writing.

  Albert Goldbarth: “The future is always being created. (So is the past).”

And so anxiety has a way of rematerializing.
Recently, I visited two of my closest friends at opposite ends of the country. I noticed that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything while talking. I wasn’t distracted; I just couldn’t seem to cull my thoughts together to say exactly what I wanted to say. Instead, I uuuhhhhed and ummmmed and blanked out all together leaving my friends hanging. I was days from participating in a panel at NonfictionNOW and I couldn’t even talk! I was now too conscious of it all, that extemporaneous back and forth dialogue between people chatting, that fragile connection between an author and a reader, and that uncontrollable gap between panelist and audience. I laughed it off, thinking of what Krystal had to say about my predicament:
 “Or maybe it’s just that the flow of thought alters when we write, which, in turn releases sentences hidden along the banks of consciousness. There seems to be a rhythm to writing that catches notes that ordinarily stay out of earshot. At some point between formulating a thought and writing it down falls a nanosecond when the thought becomes a sentence that would, in all likelihood, have a different shape if we were to speak it. This rhythm, not so much heard as felt, occurs only when one is composing; it can’t be simulated in speech, since speaking takes place in real time and depends in part on the person or persons we’re speaking to. Wonderful writers might therefore turn out to be only so-so conversationalists, and people capable of telling great stories waddle like ducks out of water when they attempt to write.”
Here’s where my past returns: out of nowhere during my panel at NonfictionNOW, I obsess over what type of writer I am—that outward conversationalist of the world I didn’t grow up in or the inward writer that was born out of necessity? Then I question my own authority about speaking at a conference. Is it the publishing of a memoir or a collection of essays (two things I’ve yet to accomplish) or is simply being a practitioner of the genre enough? How do I know whether I have some incisive thing to say? Who determines all of this? 

What’s the point? No one wants to know this stuff. 

I psych myself out and later go through a panic attack in my hotel bathroom.

Earlier I said that living closed off from the external world made me “invisible” and “suppressed my individuality.” It made me impassive to the way I viewed the world, its politics, and my success within in it. I’ve learned that there’s a built in sense of self-destructiveness to that impassivity which perhaps is linked to my own upbringing or the nature of my own culture. It’s obvious I struggle with this to this day. Why else would I jot this down in my journal soon after that panic attack—Achievement makes me nervous…


My best friend once told me he admired my ability to be so vulnerable, to lay myself out there in ways he couldn’t. I learned this from my mother. I don’t know how to stop. Take this essay for example, I know I’ll flinch when I realize that I’m sharing too much, and that I run the risk of being misunderstood or judged. But I deal.

One last pattern: my mother used to tell us, 
“Dejame contarles algo.” My brothers and I were usually at our kitchen table or sitting on the couch watching television in our living room, sometimes all of us were sitting in the back seat of our van after Mass, or maybe just a few feet away from our mother as we worked harvesting whatever fruit was in season. It didn’t matter to my mother where we were, her stories began with this imperative—allow me to tell you this story.

My mother’s role was more than just that of caretaker, my mother was a storyteller, a sharer of inaccessible histories about herself and our past. Her stories were fragmented narratives, snippets she recounted over and over. As a child I understood in the most basic sense my mother’s urge to be so vulnerable and why she revisited those same histories while we rolled our eyes and whined. There was a compulsion to find meaning and each time the story was told, our mother asked new questions and sought new answers. We were merely spectators.

For our mother, the hashing out of her stories while we listened was secondary to her interrogation of the very things she said out loud. These storytime interactions weren’t necessarily a lopsided affair, but an opportunity to see our mother embark on her own interior journey by forging a way out of her own past. For her these moments were sparked by a certain longing and were mere catalysts towards discovery. For myself, the most important thing I took away from her habit for storytelling was learning that through vulnerability we have things to say.

I owe my essayistic sensibilities to my mother. It doesn’t escape me either that the origins of my anxieties stem from a past that turned me towards the essay. Yes, I fear the outside world and my own achievements and yet I anticipate them. I dislike engaging in conversation and yet I have found ways to master it. I fear rejection and yet I embrace it. I am a part of that strange outside world I was told to avoid long ago, and yet it haunts me. The past had already dictated my future, the present merely summoned me to look back, take stock of the patterns so I could to stitch together a way to fight back from disappearing right before you.

César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. His essays and other think pieces have been published in Guernica and Essay Daily, where he is a featured columnist. He is currently writing a memoir about his experiences as migrant farm worker in the 1980s. He sometimes has things to say on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. It doesn’t escape me either that the origins of my anxieties stem from a past that turned me towards the essay. Yes, I fear the outside world and my own achievements and yet I anticipate them. I dislike engaging in conversation and yet I have found ways to master it. I fear rejection and yet I embrace it. I am a part of that strange outside world I was told to avoid long ago, and yet it haunts me. The past had already dictated my future, the present merely summoned me to look back, take stock of the patterns so I could to stitch together a way to fight back from disappearing right before you." This is utterly congenial -- words I'd use myself to describe the compulsion to write essays.