The Things We Carry

I read this article, Journalism is not Narcissism, at Gawker, of all publications, and I understand the impetus behind the writing. I agree with many of the points being made (I can’t tell you how often I’m asked if I’m going to write a memoir). I also can’t help but think what a privilege it is to be weary of hearing the same old first person stories.

While it may be that first person writing is the way for certain writers to succeed, the fact remains that said certain writer generally fits a profile. The real problem isn’t that we’re inundated by first person narratives. Rather, it’s the kind of first person narratives inundating us. The world is, as Hamilton Nolan notes, full of interesting people but how often are those interesting people allowed to tell their own stories?

We don’t really want that, do we? Instead, we want to hear those stories from Katherine Boo (who I respect), or Dave Eggers (who I respect) or any number of journalists who, I suppose, are somehow better equipped to tell interesting, personal stories than the subjects of such writing themselves.

Certainly, a great writer can take raw material and make it into something a wider audience will want to read. While reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I found that the book read like a novel, a really compelling one with richly drawn characters and tight pacing and intelligent nuance. Would the people she was writing about have been able to tell their stories in the same way? I don’t know but I certainly would like to see a publishing and cultural landscape where that was possible.

I remember the woman in grad school who said she took a book about race and affirmative action more seriously when she realized it was written by a white woman. 

This is more complicated than just too many first person stories. I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about how easy it is for us who do this sort of thing, to sit around and talk about the things that exhaust us. It’s understandable. The world is overwhelming. The Internet can be overwhelming—so many voices, so many correctives, so much anger. We have that kind of time to be exhausted, right? We have the intellectual freedom to be exhausted. We suffer, perhaps, from an excess of luxury.

One of the things that has irritated a lot of us lately, beyond first person narratives, is stuff. How exhausted so many of us are by things that we might rid ourselves of all we do not need.

In one of my closets, I have this huge plastic bin of knick knacks and gizmos I’ve gotten at conferences. The bin is swollen with nonsense and warped with age. I haven’t opened it in ages but I have moved it with me twice in the past 8 years.

This week, I was thinking, “Why am I holding on to this huge plastic bin of crap?” I was briefly motivated to purge myself of all the unnecessary detritus in my life which isn’t too terribly much, but is certainly worthy of being dealt with. And then I thought, surely there are more pressing things for me to deal with. Last night, as I was once again ruminating on this bin and other things in that closet, I thought, how lucky, one must be, to be weary of material possessions, to consider what they own a burden. The problem of too much stuff is one I am certain many people throughout the world would love to have.

And at the same time, I don’t want to be that person who always minimizes what we worry about simply because we aren’t standing on a bread line. I don’t want to minimize the kinds of things we write about because of some arbitrary, and all too often, gendered definition of interesting. 

One of my favorite short stories is Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” about the literal and figurative things soldiers carried during the Vietnam War. There’s this line, early in the story: “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.” That’s true for soldiers, who carry what they need on their backs for days and miles without rest. That’s true for what we collect over the course of our lives, even if we don’t know always the why of what we own. We acquire things because they satisfy some need, either literal or figurative. 

Necessity is also true of what we write. There is a proliferation of first person narratives because our stories are the one thing we carry with us that cannot be discarded or lost or, we hope, forgotten. Maybe telling our stories is the only way we can get paid for our writing, because of our cultural curiosity and unending desire to know everything about everyone. Maybe we tell our stories because we want to be seen and known.

Maybe, there’s enough room for our stories alongside the stories of the billions of interesting people in this world.