The writing life is a secret life, whether we admit it or not. Writers focus perpetually on the half-seen, and we live in the dim or glorious shadows of partially apprehended shapes. We could bill ourselves as perceptually challenged — given that we live two lives at once, segueing from one to the other with some distress — but we accept, long before we publish, the outlaw’s mantle. We occupy a kind of border country, focused on the details that speak to us. Ask those who marry us, or those who don’t: we’re too intensely involved, yet never quite present. Perhaps we’re difficult to live with as adults, but often we were precocious, overly-responsible children — not in what we accomplished, necessarily, but in what we remembered, in the emotional burdens we took on. Many of us were our mother’s confidantes, the special children with whom hopes and betrayals were discussed. Our mothers were often women who lived alone, in reality or in spirit, women whose passionate beliefs and perceptions knew little outlet but this blood tie, this receptive listener who would take it all to heart. We listened out of love, and because we felt in ourselves a reservoir of longing: we were unfailingly attracted to the secrets of others, and to secrets shrouded in the phenomenon of the world. We knew too much: in this we were outlaws. Early on, we were awarded possession of a set of truths, enlisted to protect someone’s version, yet we lived in the context of those stories and we understood the truth to shift. The truth was agile as a dream. Only language could match its permutations or approach its complexity.
So it is that we children who become writers evolve into a particular genus of angelic spy, absorbing information, bargaining with ourselves, banking on the possibility that we might one day intervene in the dynamics of loss, insist that sorrow not be meaningless. In this way we might speak, yet not betray a trust. Those whose voices first blessed us with an ambivalent power still stride through our heads, their luminous forms breaking down. They are lost, finally, as we know ourselves to be lost. Yet literature insists on history — the story of a life, intimately known — and writers gamble with redemption. Surely our hope in holding a world still between the covers of a book is to make that world known, to save it from vanishing. We may be agnostics or furious atheists, but we are all religious, and we practice a faith. We probably don’t pray: prayer is always a veiled request, and writers avoid asking for directions. Writing as practice is more similar to meditation, which requests nothing. There is the same silence and the waiting, but writers are notoriously failed seekers. We watch our thoughts arise and practice attachment, fascinated by the dance of the flames. There’s a mystery to penetrate within that heat, one that defies boundaries. Writers grow up with permeable selves, and the very process of secrecy feels familiar.
Writers begin as readers, and words become a means of survival. At some juncture deep within family life, the child sees in written language a way to embrace her own burden. When I was young, words themselves seemed secret because I read them in my mind and no one else could hear. Knowledge was often secret; the most interesting things were repeated in low tones. And late at night the life of the house was magnified. My father was an insomniac who walked the long hallway; he’d camp out in the bathroom while everyone else was asleep, smoking and reading. What did he read? Those books were stacked on the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet, behind closed doors, out of reach. They were all paperbacks, detective stories with guns on their covers, or couples, half-undressed, or maybe a woman in defiant high-heels and clothes that clung. We kids weren’t allowed to lock doors but we got around that rule in the bathroom by shutting the door and pulling out a drawer that in effect barred any entrance. I had to climb up on the counter and hang perilously to the shelves themselves in order to look at my father’s books, to page through them looking for the most secret, forbidden lines, and so it was that I discovered at age eight or nine, Updike’s Rabbit, Run. I opened the book to find Janice on her knees beside the bathtub, drunk and panic-stricken, trying to find her baby in the deep water. I read the scene once, I read it twice: I felt myself flung inside Janice and I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t stop reading, maintaining my cramped balance by holding to the frame of the narrow window, only letting go to turn pages. Outside a drowsy bank of lilacs nodded in the heat, bulbous and densely fragrant, shaded in foliage, and suddenly it really was night, I was in my bed, seeing the image of the book, its cover illustration so like the others, shut away. There were layers of secrets. Adults failed miserably, parents killed their children: I knew this already, having heard the women talk about a fourteen-year-old girl out our road who gave birth alone in a field and left the baby there. That girl was a stranger. But I recognized Janice from my own nightmares; she was like me in dreams I couldn’t stop having that summer; partially blind, on her knees in a room that tilted, and she’d done something that could never be undone; it was too late. I woke from the dreams terrified, relieved to discover nothing was wrong — nothing visible, nothing real. I said the word in the dark, banishing last fears after every startled awakening: nothing. Janice was nothing like Marlo Thomas or Mary Tyler Moore, plucky icons of my childhood sitcoms, and nothing like my own mother, who would never, never lose her baby in a bathtub. Who was Janice then, and why did I know her? I saw that the trick within the world of the book was like the trick in dreams: it had been too late always, even before the book began. The water in the tub was too deep, the baby was slippery, she was blind drunk and lost her grip, then forgot for an instant she’d lost it. Everything beyond that moment was drenched with shadow; everything before it was lit up. Now when I woke at night and saw a sliver of light cast across the dark hallway, spilled out from under the closed bathroom door, I knew Janice was in there. All my dark dreams had flown to her: I didn’t have them anymore.
This, then, was how language worked. And if it could save me, it could save us all.