The physical world was troubling me. In those early days of writing what would become Beyond Measure, my bangs never sat right and I was usually cold, except when I was sweatingly hot. My teeth constantly threatened to revert to their pre-braces positions, and the chair I wrote in was being bleached by the sun—though if I lowered the blinds I’d have to raise them, and then I’d have to contend with how they never fell exactly parallel to the floor.
The physical world was trouble. I wanted to go without it. But time and time again, people who read my essays told me I was too much in my own head. How couldn’t I be? I wondered—I was my own head, after all, and if I was writing about the merits and downsides to subjectivity, then why should I ignore the place from which that subjectivity arises?
Finally, I started listening to the critiques. Eventually, I would be able to describe the light around me as a way to represent hope; I would be able to describe a plastic bag in the wind as a way to describe my declining mood.
That was the point of the collection, in a way: to understand how we are applying our expectations of the physical world—that it is measurable, namely—to the virtual and emotional. But when I first started writing the book, though I knew I needed more of the physical world, I didn’t know how to create it on the page (and still often don’t know how). So I turned to other essayists to show me. I read pieces of Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock again and again, I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness too. But most often, I read Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach.” I’d find myself thinking of the essay suddenly, as if someone had said aloud to me, either whispering in my ear or shouting from across the room, “Find your beach!”
I’d first read that essay before I knew I’d be writing about measurement. Later, I found myself turning to it often while in the throes of the book. I’d pull it up on my iPad, place the screen next to me on the bleached chair’s armrest, and swipe slowly with my left hand while I wrote feverishly with my right. If Smith could make a Corona billboard about productivity and work and writing, then I too could find my beach and make it about what I was thinking and feeling (uncertainty and the body and anxiety).
I kept it simple: I assigned myself a physical space to write about (Bed Bath and Beyond) and an object (an electric toothbrush). As I wrote, I studied the way Smith moved from the billboard itself to what it represented, the way her imagined personality for the woman across the way from her held her concerns about motherhood and happiness. In description she found uncertainty, and in uncertainty she found meaning. The piece existed because it was about something in three-dimensional space—the piece existed specifically as an essay because its three-dimensional space held people and those people felt feelings and thought thoughts there.
I am still unable to not be aware of my trouble with the real. It takes essays like Smith’s to remind me. To look inward, especially while writing my book, I had to look outward—and no matter how cliched that is, it’s true. I was, after all, writing about measurement, and even if that measurement is applied to my enigmatic body—I wrote about working out and sweating and sleeping—it is an external description of what’s happening unseen, a description dependent on context. It’s impossible to measure anything—to even consider measuring anything—without having something to compare those numbers to. Measurement can be metaphorical, but the metaphor has to point to something real, just as subjectivity must be relative to something else. It implies difference, and difference requires reference points.
Smith’s essay, then, didn’t just show me how to write about the world around me—it taught me why I should want to, and that, in turn, taught me something about what I was trying to figure out by writing the book in the first place: why, when faced with all the sights and sounds of the outside world, I still don’t trust myself to measure it accurately.
Rachel Z. Arndt is the author of Beyond Measure (Sarabande, 2018). She received MFAs in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Iowa, where she was nonfiction editor of the Iowa Review. She’s written for Popular Mechanics, Pank, The Believer, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.