Madness, Rack, and Honey has been sitting on my desk for weeks now, waiting to be revisited. The other day, I started flipping through and reading, out of context, the marginalia from my first and second encounters with the book, until I stopped at Ruefle’s essay, “On Fear.” I thought I could study my two sets of margin notes and come up with a working definition of fear, some easy way to explain what I mean when I consider my own relationship to it.
My first note from my first reading of the essay came from one of those mechanical pencils that resemble the classic non-mechanical archetype (yellow handle, pink gum eraser, wood texture near the tip). It was a subtle mark: two soft bendy lines surrounding the paragraphs where Mary talks about being “a fool on a fool’s errand.” I guess I wanted to cushion this moment in the essay by putting loose almost-parentheses around the general area, leading my eyes to pay special attention upon a second reading as opposed to, say, pulling out and isolating one specific sentence.
My first note from my second reading is much more aggressive, written in black pen, not only on the first page or first paragraph but resting on the right-hand side of the first two sentences: I simply wrote, “vs. listening, pg. 77.” I guess I wanted to highlight some juxtaposition between two ideas, the first being that words could be “unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel,” and the second being from Mary’s essay, “On Secrets,” where she says that she writes “because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.” Perhaps this moment in “Fear” made me remember that moment in “Secrets” because I subconsciously wanted to opt for a more justifying and inclusive definition of what constitutes writing: that to be open to learning and change, we must keep writing so as to keep listening, and so how could there be room for such a thing as superfluous words? There has to be more than six degrees of separation between listening and unintentional cruelty! How else can I justify all these words words words while also feeling like a good listener and a compassionate, cruelty-free citizen?
Upon writing all of this out I’m struck by how, context aside, secrets and fear have so much to do with each other: the fear of the consequences of divulging something private, or perhaps the fear that leads one to keep something private to begin with. And so maybe this honorable act of listening/writing is still one motivated by that cognitive four-letter feeling: I must write because I must listen because I must know what I don’t know, I must discover the secrets that I don’t even know are being kept from me. A fear-induced kind of learning, so to say.
And now I am struck by how I’ve fallen in line with Mary’s very first example of fear: I began by claiming I was going to define the word “fear” and here I am instead trying to justify why I write, trying at all costs to avoid the revelation that I may have “consecrated my life to an imbecility.”
Perhaps I should have said, do we write toward fear or away from it?, and left it at that.
Here’s what I think: “fear is like a hangover,” and I do agree with Ruefle. Fear is memory based—whether we wake up the next morning and feel embarrassed or fuzzy or leaning into regret—and has to do with consequences, with the body, with repetition or the avoidance of such. Ruefle claims that fear does in fact drive us but I wonder too if it’s the thing that blocks us, the thing that prevents me from writing as much as it forces me to. I read her description of lying in a hammock and being overcome with fear and I think that’s not just fear but anxiety; how it is anxiety that makes me want to know with certainty all the things I may at various times claim to need to know, and how it is also anxiety that makes me, the older I get, see the value in clichés, like “ignorance is bliss”—both the words and the sentiment, how there comes a time and place for the need to convey much through very little effort, and quickly, please.
Through fear, do we seek order or do we seek chaos? Which is better? Anyone who has read Mary Ruefle knows she only pretends to give a solid stance on anything, and I’m not going to try to sort out such a complex dichotomy either. But I will say this: I was listening to a comedy podcast a while back, and the guest told a short anecdote about Jerry Seinfeld. He said that while the eponymous show was still actively on air, Jerry had hung up, in the writer’s room, one of those posters showing what the entire galaxy looks like from far away. Jerry found this to be a humbling and helpful reminder, especially during the stressful, pressure-filled job of writing episodes: to remember how gigantic the universe is and how small one episode of a sitcom is, to gain a comforting though incomprehensible (or perhaps comforting through being incomprehensible) perspective. And the guest went on to explain how some of the other writers experienced the exact opposite of this: how they were filled with dread at the insignificance of life, of writing, of TV…what does any of that even amount to in the face of all existence? And I bring this up because since hearing this anecdote, months ago, I still haven’t made up my mind: does the galaxy poster soothe me or incite me? Do I fear the vastness, or my own singular weight?
In the very last margin notes, at the very end of my last reading of “On Fear,” I wrote: can fear, like me, contradict itself? Can I be scared enough to want to know everything and nothing, in terrified and rotating intervals?
Sometimes I think I’ll have a better grasp on my life, my writerhood, if only I could say something definitive: no!, the galaxy poster terrifies me and distracts from my ability to maintain motivation. Or yes!, it hangs above my desk so as to instill repeatedly a sense of the beautiful vastness of the world and my ability to take risks in it, because eventually I’ll be smaller and smaller than I am even now, I’ll be dead, and I’m already so much smaller than the stars.
I guess you could say that fear is causing me to seek out definitive knowledge, which promises to secure me. As if I could possibly justify my desire for shape, separate from the content it holds—how I care less about the decision itself and more about my certainty of it. Knowledge, to me: “Eventually you will know things, Sarah, and then you will be safe.” But Mary also says, in another essay, that you cannot know and learn at the same time, and this I certainly agree with, because the more I learn, the more I realize how very little I know, how ignorance sometimes really is blissful; how, should I ever own a galaxy poster, it will live on the bedroom wall, in the kitchen, rolled up in the spare room, back on the bedroom wall but near a window this time, below the desk, above the desk, folded up beneath a pile of textbooks, torn along the lowest accessible corners by one or more of the cats, ripped endlessly from being moved and taken down so many times.
Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject…In principle, the audience may not even add its thought. All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.” -Susan Sontag
A proposition: to be honest about the changing of one’s mind. Even when it comes to a stupid poster and where it belongs and how I feel about it from one day to the next; regardless of my ignorance and my mutability, to remain focused, to stare directly at the thing: to consider, I mean fully apprehend, the usefulness of the poster when it is hung before me, until I wake up and need to experience it otherwise. And then to fully contemplate otherwise.
To know that my mind will change doesn’t necessarily require dismissal of its current state—though what a very scary thing to do, trusting yourself and your work even as you come to recognize, intimately, your own evolutions. Claudia Rankine brilliantly observes that she works in book-length projects because she cannot trust the authenticity of any given moment. I think I work in similar forms—projects, sustained inquiries, Truth understood as a series of contradictions—through less graceful means: an over-trusting of, a stubborn adhering to, whatever’s in front of me. Presence guided by panic.
I guess my proposition is one of self-trust, and the necessary act of making it public—the life of the poet.
A poet learning TRUST is essential learning.” -CA Conrad
What a terrifying risk, life; not the living but the knowing about it.