Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Letters to Beatrice

One of my main projects this summer is to finish the 3-part memoir I have been working on for most of my adult life. I have finished the first two parts, and am working on the third. Each chapter in the book begins with a letter to a semi-fictional character named Beatrice. She is sort of like the Muse of the book, and the letters mainly focus difficulties of writing the book. It's that whole postmodern, self-reflexive thiing. Maybe it's a little passe now, but the letters are a good way for me to articulate the difficulties and joys of writing. So here's a lttlle teaser--a few letters from the last part of my book:

Dear Beatrice,

I remember, when I first began writing this book, I imagined the story’s arc would be something like this: young man has traumatic illness/existential crisis, loses faith, gets severely depressed, begins long struggle to re-build his mind and his faith, culminating in his re-affirming his faith, getting married, living happily after. A touching fantasy.

This, however, did not happen. The story goes more like this: young man has traumatic illness/existential crisis, loses faith, gets severely depressed, begins long struggle to re-build his mind and his faith, discovers art and literature, becomes artist, English teacher, opens art gallery, stops going to church, embarks on creatively fulfilling but religiously void life.

The crisis did not end. Here I am, 30 years old, and more of an agnostic than ever. If anything, this is a story about being okay with crisis, of using it. The sparks of this crisis are the words in this book.

Sincerely,

Jesse


Dear Beatrice,

In the earliest outlines of this book, I imagined being re-united with you at the end, in this section called “Paradise.” That is how I envisioned paradise—a grand reunion with you, like Odysseus and Penelope, Dante and Beatrice, etc. I imagined I would marry you, have a family. And so on.

I still imagine the novel ending with a reunion with you, but this time it’s different:

You are the young girl in my English 100 class who writes an essay about how worthless she feels and who, though writing, I am able to convince is actually very smart and worthy.

You are the young man, so cynical and despairing at the emptiness and fucked-up values of Orange County, who wanders into my art gallery on an open mic night and reads a poem that expresses exactly how he feels, a poem people listen to with rapt attention.

You are the faces I saw as I traveled across America by train.

You are the silly drawings I make.

You are the words I write every day in this Mead composition book.

Sincerely,

Jesse


Dear Beatrice,

After reading a couple essays by David Foster Wallace about the porn industry and John Updike (separate essays), I am struck by a particular insight DFW repeats—the tragedy of self-absorption, of narcissism. He describes “a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.” He quotes Updike, “Of nothing but me...I sing, lacking another song.” He describes a child actor-cum-porn star named Scotty Schwartz as “totally incapable of talking about anything other than himself.”

This got me thinking about this whole writing project, which is completely about my own experience. However, I suppose, my hope is that the book is also about a movement from a focus on myself to a focus on my community. I hope.

I agree with DFW’s observations about American culture. The question is: am I contributing to this mentality with my writing, or moving beyond it? I want to move beyond it.

Sincerely,

Jesse


Dear Beatrice,

I have a tattoo of Dostoyevsky on my left arm. When I show people, they sometimes ask, “Why?” I tell them, “Because he is my favorite writer.”

If they ask me, “Why is he your favorite writer?” I tell them, “Because he understood that beauty is not possible without pain. Because I read The Brothers Karamazov when I was at the lowest point in my life and it taught me that suffering can have meaning, that suffering need not be the end, that it can also be the beginning of something astonishing.”

Sincerely,

Jesse


Dear Beatrice,

Last night I had a dream where my friend was yelling at me because the life I lead is too solitary. I was trying to defend myself by saying that I spend time with people every day—that I do band practice, community events, the gallery, etc. But I felt helpless in that way that you sometimes feel in dreams where, despite your most passionate efforts, you are powerless to change the situation. I awoke, reflected on my life, and came to the conclusion that my friend was wrong.

Yes, I spend a lot of time alone, but this time is essential to my well-being. I think it is easy for people to become ensnared in the lives of others by a host of invisible obligations—family, relationships, work, money, etc.

There have been times in my life when I have found myself ensnared, my freedom consumed by the lives of others.

I have fought hard for my freedom. As I’ve grown up a bit, I have learned to hold onto, to cherish my freedom.

Which is not to say that I don’t have relationships. I simply refuse to let other people determine the direction of my life. We only get one life.

Sincerely,

Jesse

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