This is To Be Seen and Unseen, a monthly column by Morgan Jerkins on the praise, backlash, and challenges experienced as a writer for the web.
I’m not quite sure when exactly the first seed of apprehension to write about men for whom I had romantic feelings began, but I believe it was the sixth grade. Long before I started to take writing seriously and instead dreamt of being a doctor, I had a crush on a boy named Roger* who was in the same lunch period as me. There was nothing in particular that I liked about him. We never spoke to each other and we did not run in the same circles. However, when I saw his face as I walked around the cafeteria to dump out my trash, I was enamored with both his looks and popularity, two attributes that I did not have at that age. I wanted him to be my boyfriend from that day on and the only way for that to happen was for me to write him a letter.
I obsessed over each sentence and coerced anyone around me to be a stand-in editor, advising me on its tone (Too cheesy? Too indirect?) rather than misspellings and syntax. By the end of the week, my letter felt like a public act. Everyone knew I had a crush on Roger and the moment of truth would happen on Valentine’s Day. I appointed a friend to give Roger my letter just a few minutes before lunch period would come to a close and I would be making my way over to the trash cans nearest to the table where he sat.
He read the letter, was intrigued, and told the messenger that he’ll make his decision on me once he got a good look at my face. I walked around, dumped out my trash, faced him, and he laughed. For the following weeks, he would yell out “Turtle!” every time I walked around to dump out my trash. I turmoiled over why he didn’t like me and why did I write anything at all. It seemed safer to hold in my thoughts than put pen to said feelings. I never knew what happened to the letter afterwards but I can take a guess.
Besides our supposedly perpetual destitution, one of the most pervasive thoughts about writers in our culture is how we should not be dated. We are considered to be poisonous not because many of us are introverts, sentimental, or perfectionists, but rather because we may write about our partners, creating an entirely different portrait of the relationship with or without our partners’ permission. The fear of a person interpreting you and your situation altogether differently isn’t as insurmountable as that person writing and therefore immortalizing the experience. At first, I scoffed at this preconceived notion. I believed that there was no such thing as objective truth and that writers were placed too much on pedestals.
But then I thought about my own individual patterns: If I have a crush on a man, I’m afraid to write about him even in diaries because I’m afraid that he won’t stick around for long. When he doesn’t, superstitiously, I blame my words as curses which damned the budding relationship from the beginning. Forget about incompatibility and lack of communication, it was my words and therefore my control over a narrative that made this keep happening over and over again. But then I wondered, why should “he” or anyone else have control of my share of the experiences? If something does not last, does that not make it real and therefore disqualified from being memorialized?
There are women writers throughout history who not only accepted transience through amorous affairs, but delighted in them. In Anaïs Nin’s 1958 autobiographical novel, Seduction of the Minotaur , she writes, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” This quote refreshes me: My writings should illuminate myself within a situation rather than being “fair,” for who defines that binary? One of the greatest pioneers of female erotica, Nin wrote vividly about attraction and sex exclusively from the female point of view. Besides having a bevy of famous friends, such as Gore Vidal and Arthur Miller, Nin kept an impressive amount of lovers, whom she details in her posthumously published erotic journals.
Delta of Venus , her most famous work, was also her most reluctant one. She only chose to publish it to support her husband after her death; she feared that if she published erotica, she would only be known for that. The book became her only bestseller and the staple of her career and legacy. I’ve admired Nin as an artist from afar, especially her musings on sensuality and the inadequacy of men’s language; however, I have wrestled with whether or not I have feared the same, that once I open that portal and allow readers in to know all about my infatuations, ecstasies, and eventual heartbreaks, that that would be the only thing I’d be known for, as if my emotions undermine the work itself.
In the twenty-first century, diaries and journals are becoming more and more digitized, further bridging that gap between the creators and readers. Larissa Pham, author of the erotic novella Fantasian and former writer of the Nerve tinyletter “Cum Shots,” is an example of female writers taking advantage of this progression.
When I spoke to Pham about how it felt to write about her lovers, she said, “ I try to write from a place of considering my role in a relationship—what I did, what I felt, how I was reacting to things. I don’t like to make characters of my lovers—I deliberately try not to flesh them out. I don’t want people to know what they look like or what they do. Because the work isn’t about them as people—it’s about more abstract things, like desire, and communication (or the impossibility of communication) and obsession and things like that. Those things happen between people, but who the people are—that doesn’t matter quite so much, especially once you run the whole thing through the writing process, which crystallizes real life into a narrative, which is an entirely different thing.”
I ruminated on what Pham divulged to me about her writing about men and arrived at the conclusion that I also stay away from putting words to page about my dates, situations, and the like because I do not consider my own role in these predicaments. When I think about a situation that’s gone well, my language usually sways to what he did for me. When the situation goes badly, it’s always what I did to him, what kind of mistakes I may have made. I take responsibility for the bad and posit the man almost in a position of sainthood; he is forever unscathed—the victim—and I am always reprehensible. Maybe, I gave them too much credit, that by trying to flesh them out, as Pham explains, it would impede the natural process of allowing both my emotions and words to symbiotically interact.
The choice of whether or not to write about the crushes I’ve had or the men I’ve dated seems to be an exercise in control. Because writing is my vehicle through which I channel my thoughts, not detailing these experiences, even in the privacy of my own journals, not only feels like an injustice, but also a chastisement to my own self. I would never write about a man in my life for the internet without his permission. But I do wonder if the man is not in my life anymore, could he still be made a subject? Could I still engage with his influence in some way?
The crux of the dilemma lies not with power but expression . . . or maybe those are one and the same. The difference between he and I is that I’m the one with the pen. He is free to deliver his story and interpretation of the succession of events just like I can. Our audiences can create characters out of us both, which neither of us can control. But isn’t that communication in general? Once something leaves your lips, you can never fully assess its weight until . Until something happens. Until someone gets hurt. Until. The problem is that there is no definitive line drawn. The power between genders when it comes to artistic expression is a complicated one.
Ted Hughes, the former husband of Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote about Plath and vice versa. However, after she committed suicide, he had control over her literary legacy and claimed that many of her journals toward the end of her life were lost or downplayed them as notes for a potential novel. These writings were later recovered and in them were allegations of the psychological and physical abuse Plath suffered from Hughes. In this situation, both individuals were writers; however, the man attempted to obscure what discomforted him about his ex-wife, thus tampering with her oeuvre and reputation.
What two people establish between each other may be completely overlooked from others. But once the relationship ends, if you write about said person, does that line still provide a trace back to that person? Is it still unfinished or for writers, does that new line signal the actual end, the boundary between my narrative and yours? I believe that when a writer fleshes out the vicissitudes of a relationship, if it is for only one pair of eyes, it is private, solipsistic, and therapeutic. However, once someone else sees it, that act becomes continuous. I have invited you in and you can assess the relationship whichever way you choose. Maybe, there is no end. No feeling is final once its reliving is immortalized through words. And maybe, that’s not something to be ashamed of no matter how the relationship panned out. My narrative matters and it cannot be stamped out.