Francis Bacon, Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror (1976)

Guess Who’s Writing at Dinner

I’ve been carrying around a new notebook with me for the last two weeks without writing a word. It’s not that I don’t have ideas. I do. But they’re not the right ones to commit to a new notebook. The ones for the start. Instead, I fill up the few remaining small patches of empty space left in the other notebook I carry with me. Or I write on the back of scrap paper salvaged from work.

Maybe it’s all this expanse of white space that intimidates me, or the importance one usually accords to opening lines and first impressions. Interviewers more or less make up their minds about an applicant in the first few minutes. The guy I’ll flirt with in probably less time. I’m careful with opening gambits, though I realize that such caution is not necessarily a good thing.

Whenever I start a new notebook or hook up with a guy there’s always the hope that this will be the one, the story that gels, the fuck that turns into weekends in the country. But they usually don’t, or at least not often enough. As I get older it becomes increasingly unimportant whether they do or not. It’s enough I keep writing (I’d say the same thing about the sex, but alas, that doesn’t depend on me alone).

If I were in the middle of the notebook it wouldn’t matter. There I don’t mind recording the stray unexamined thought, the half-formed idea, an image from the street.

Like the pink sweat pants the girl outside the café is wearing. She’s a pretty girl, an athlete perhaps or a dancer, with long glossy black hair and too much makeup for her age. She’s texting on her iPhone, which is wrapped in a raspberry-colored iPhone case. It makes me wonder how many cases she has and if she pairs them with her outfit.

The case and the carnation-pink lipstick and laces are bit players to the sweat pants, which is a pink of a different and more unsettling kind. It is the brilliant shocking Lolita pink of hothouse flowers and bubble gum, a hidden garden’s bougainvillea and cupcake frosting. And pretty close to the color of the pink triangle. But not the pale pink “I’m-into-dildos” bandanas.

There I go, off topic again. It’s a wonder I ever get laid.

I suppose a blank notebook is as good a start as any to think about what I’ve been writing here. That, and the count of page views for the blog that is inching its way to a neat threshold number with lots of trailing zeroes. It doesn’t matter what the number is, since most of my visitors came for the pictures in my posts rather than the words I wrote. Still, it surprises me that it’s about as many people as live in my home town, a small city on the Northeast corridor. Although there’s nothing of the momentousness I remember feeling as the odometer in our family’s station wagon began filling up with 9s, it’s an occasion of sorts nonetheless.

So I’m writing now to be in time for the final countdown. I don’t have much time left. Only 23 more views till the counter’s nines tumble and yield their place to the next generation noughts. The image on the Second Coming (Out)—a text on the acquisition of gay identity—is driving visitors to the blog. Who would have thought there were so many people out there looking for pictures of Turkish oil wrestlers?

Milestones are an invitation to reflection and self-critique. It’s also a good excuse to drink champagne, but this is a minor landmark, and one largely undeserved, so no bubbly. If someone did an eye-tracking study of the way visitors read my posts, the heat map would have a big blot of red on the upper right-hand corner, the place I usually anchor the embedded image. Maybe a bit of yellow on the title of the post. Small rivulets of blue for those few faithful readers who come to read the texts.

But even though most of the population of this small city comes for the pictures, I keep writing in the blog. That was a deliberately infelicitous phrase, by the way. In the blog.

Isn’t that what a blog really is? A space you write in rather than the outcome you create. A house more than a book. A comfortable space to write and play in and try things out.

But this is not the same as letting it all hang out. Keeping a blog doesn’t do away with the obligation to one’s readers to be careful, to trim one’s nails and suppress the urge to belch in the company of friends (unless you belch in a particularly memorable way),  to edit.

I’ve been rereading some of the things I wrote a few years ago. The posts have gotten much longer and the images embedded in the posts larger. It must be the blogger’s equivalent of taking off one’s shoes at a friend’s house, a presumptuousness that says “I’m going to stay longer.”

I have the sense at times that I’ve been invited into my reader’s house for dinner and then launch into a very long monologue at table just as dessert is about to arrive. I hear a little voice (my own, of course) saying, “Don’t try your listeners’ patience!” but that has precisely the opposite effect. The more I try to be engaging, the less I am. It must be the blogger’s white coat hypertension or performance anxiety. Relax. Get hard. Entertain. It never works.

I’m fluent in the language of my adopted land, which I’m told I speak in a relatively colloquial and error-free manner. But I speak decidedly slower than native speakers do, so that there’s a small extra cost in listening to me. My friends may not be aware of this cost and listen to me without turning away or off, but I am aware of the demands I make on my listeners. I’ve seen it work to my disadvantage in other less intimate settings. I’m equally aware of the demands I make on my readers.

The content has changed as well. I seem to be writing much less about art and politics and language—the reason why I started this in the first place—and more about identity and memory. The posts have become more personal, but not better.

I barely recognize the writer of those earlier posts. This from a text entitled “In Praise of Locker Rooms

The nakedness of a locker room is a pure state of undress, the equivalence in flesh of a cappella song. There are, of course, scraps of biography cast about the locker benches that give a clue to the identity of these bodies —the Gucci gym bag, the discount shaving cream, socks that pill, a frayed collegiate knapsack and Aussie Bum briefs—but they are like endnotes in a paper that tells a good story: you read them, if at all, only after you’ve finished the main body of the text.

I wonder if I could write something like that again.

In the end, it’s not a friend’s house I write in. If it were, my natural (read: acquired throughout my entire childhood and adolescence) introversion and circumspection (me, take off my shoes?) would prevent me from writing anything at all. No, it’s more like the house I’ve rented on the island of Sifnos in the Aegean for this September.

I’ll be there the whole month, maybe a week or two longer. With a small surplus of days carried over from the year before, I have 33 days of leave, and I intend to use them all up this summer, all in a row, six and a half weeks. One of the perks of living in Southern Europe. We may have had our salaries slashed by 30%, but summer leave is summer leave.

The idea is to revise some of the little essays in Breach of Close into some kind of coherent whole. I’m not very confident that I’ll manage to do it, despite assurances from my friend Elizabeth, a wise and marvelous editor (that said, she has not combed the texts in Breach, so whatever awkwardness lies within these texts is my doing). Whatever the outcome, the house will be a place to write and think and take late afternoon naps after a swim in the sea. It’s at the very edge of a village in the headlands of the island. It’s so much at the edge I won’t have any neighbors, really. A good place to write. Or to get slightly drunk on Aperol spritz as the sun sets over a belt of shimmering sea.

I’m thankful for the blog and for my readers, and their patience with my rambling texts. I suppose I’d write even if I had no readers at all, as I suspect most of you would, who’ve gotten to this point and whose texts I may have read myself. I would write if only for the sheer pleasure of the words. If only for the chance to write a sentence with the words “bougainvillea and cupcake frosting.”

But it’s also deeply rewarding to know you’ve been read, and I thank you.


Image: Francis Bacon, Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror (1976)


3 responses to ‘Guess Who’s Writing at Dinner

  1. I seldom read long texts in the PC, and when I do it’s for professional reazons. I mean, I don’t have to like the texts I read. I read yours out of pleasure alone. I just love’em. I love the way you write, and the way very simple and usually unnoticeable or minor things acquire a new light in your texts.


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