coal-mining, a diary entry

… When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it…
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing…

– from “Courage,” by Anne Sexton

I’ve been wanting to write something about those last two lines, ‘courage as a coal you kept swallowing,’ for so long that I forget precisely what the content was meant to be. Now I find myself thinking about middleschool, and being told by others that I was a lesbian, and how I took it and said, “Yep.” Not because I really thought it was true, but because I thought if you owned what other people tried to shove on you, they’d never own you. I had a similarly wrong-headed approach to good intentions, where I would lie about what I did and why I did it, saying I did bad things, so that my good intentions remained good, instead of self-promotion, let me tell you just how good I am, ma’am. But it was a relief to be a lesbian. The reason they called me it was because I was deficient in some womanly sense — meaning that no boys thought I was hot — but calling myself a lesbian was a right-back-‘atcha, I-don’t-like-you-either-move. I wore anything that made me look unisex for the majority of school.1 Funnily, frivolously, a big part of growing-up in college involved me realizing that if I thought something was beautiful, that was enough of a reason to wear it. It would not somehow ‘clash’ with me. This is how I came out as a straight woman. For a few years, though, every time I put on a scarf or a cardigan or a skirt, I was waiting to be ripped to shreds.2

I decided not to go forward with philosophy, and when I recount that decision in the most authentic-feeling way, I say that it’s because I could not write the damn papers without clawing them out at the last minute.3 You feel nude when you say “Moran’s account of self-knowledge lacks the right kind of error,” and I felt nude when I bought my first big red scarf and wore it over my same-old grubby clothes. Now I wear big honking boots and primary colors and give no fucks, but I still feel that former nudity, when making claims, and I wonder about whether or not this is a womanly thing, too.

Most of the women in my graduate program apologize before they speak, on any very public occasion. Most of the young men do not.4 Usually the apologies take the form of good scholarship: “Apologies if I misunderstood, but…” acknowledges that you are responsible for understanding the material, even if you failed to live up to it. Sometimes I wonder how much the apology is a way to consolidate even insults, particularly if the same point is phrased like, “I’m sorry if this is stupid, or a waste of time, but…” The point being that if others say that it is stupid or that it is a waste of time, you knew it, you said it first, at the very least they’re confirming some part of what you said as true. It might even be courageous, to admit that you’re fallible openly … yet it seems more courageous to speak without qualification. And though so many young men do, sometimes you wonder if speech involves any courage, or is it just normal, does it take more out of some people to go without a word on the matter. Sometimes I wonder if difficulty is any sort of a guide for normativity: if it’s hard to speak, speak more; if it’s hard to sit quietly, count your pencils. Which is the coal to keep swallowing?

My idea of a writer: someone interested in everything.
Susan Sontag

Sometimes I wonder if choosing not to go forward with philosophy is a choice not to commit, on more than one level. I fantasized immediately after the decision about all the things I’ll read and see – and felt weightless, for the first time in years. At some point, I became afraid to read things. Not because of any difficulty in comprehension, rather the dangers of comprehension: I’d realize that some of the deepest beliefs I have, about goodness and how to conduct oneself, would turn out silly, misguided, unfounded. I did my work on practical reasoning, agency, and general methodological concerns. I’m a pretty good reader. And I always loved that philosophy, unlike everything else, seemed so demanding of every reader. Neutrality in the face of an argument was impossible. Either it followed, or it didn’t, and you ought to say something about why. When I decided not to continue with philosophy, I felt that some philosophical responsibilities, like eventually owning up to certain terrifying arguments in my field, had been lifted. I was just a conceited woman in a scarf again. That’s a kind of fear of commitment. But I was also afraid of only doing this work for a long time. Now that I am just a conceited woman in a scarf again, I wonder if I gave up the good work of a lifetime to half-ass it all. I suspect what Sexton meant by the coal is the temptation to buck duty. I can’t tell if it’s harder to keep going or stop going; I can’t tell if difficulty tells you anything about what you ought to do.

Charles Peirce wrote in “The Fixation of Belief” that doubt was difficult, whereas dogmatism was not. For a few years, now, I’ve been in that in between place, and I’ve wondered about how difficult doubt really is. (I wrote about it once.) The easy reply is that when doubt is easy you’re not actually doubting anything. This seems to be the difficulty in speaking and writing. If it’s too easy not to write something in the name of full consideration, maybe you’re not really considering it; if it’s too easy to commit yourself to something, maybe you’re simply avoiding real consideration. There’s a part of me that thinks that difficulty ought to be the guide here, but I’m not sure why, or how one can tell.

I’m still reading those big bad articles, by the by. I’m still scared. But now, it feels less like I’m letting the team down if, in the end, I agree that many moral claims aren’t true, don’t make sense, have no basis, or if I say that some piece of philosophy is not important, I cave to the skeptics. There were things that I thought someone ought to believe, and ain’t I someone? Now I feel like I owe only a different kind of ought. That’s difficult, too. I find myself more worried about living well than I was when I expected to go forward. I find myself thinking about how committed I am at every moment, what I eat, what I do, how I interact with entertainment, how I help others, what I say to my parents on the phone. I want to try to write about them. That’s difficult … and good. Wish there was a bigger bang here. Just wanted to write that I am thinking about writing.

  1. Oddly, a really important part of this process was reading Charles Sanders Peirce and other pragmatists, and realizing that I could reinterpret social moves that admitted of multiple readings, as a kind of self-preservation. If you find yourself considering glances for an hour, read Peirce & James & Dewey.
  2. This is what my friend Clare termed ‘The Scarlet O’Hara method.’ ou faint, you wave a handkerchief, but you send the damn thing in at 5:00 AM while high on techno.
  3. “Gender allegations!” I know. I speak as I find here in Boston.

2 Replies to “coal-mining, a diary entry”

  1. In which the humble respondee understands the difficulties of the author and admires her red scarf skills.

    I recently read an old advice column response on the Rumpus re: feeling of inadequacy/failure/depression . There was more to it than that, of course, subtlety that seems necessary in explanation but that I’m afraid I’ll fail to illuminate properly (see: the writer wondering why her lovers had not loved her, and why she was not successful despite lack of work). In any case, the response was a call for humility on the writer’s part, that she was not, in fact, deserving of any kind of sympathy because she had not gotten bloody on the dangerous (non-existent but seemingly always-present) wall of trying. The goal was not to tear her asunder, but to remind her that passion is not about ease or deserving or feeling coolly smooth, but about loving and wanting so much that she might struggle instead of accepting, that she would strive so hard she might break, that she would fail beautifully. But she had not failed because she had not tried.

    Having felt this inadequacy, and still feeling this same inadequacy (now with a dose of shame and self-awareness), I think of these words every day and remember that I am not worth my own internal whining if I’m not crying a little about the things I love (and actually doing them, even if it makes me blush at the sheer badness of most of it): “write like a motherfucker.”

    Which is all to say that I, too, think that difficulty is necessary. I struggle with it every day, and wonder why I can’t turn my lazy suffering into productive suffering, why it isn’t easier – but that’s the thing. If it’s easy, you’re not doing it right.

    Or something.

    (Here is the question/response I’ve become obsessed with for my own sanity: http://therumpus.net/2010/08/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-48-write-like-a-motherfucker/).

    1. In which the humble author is immeasurably grateful to the respondee: thank you, Rex.

      I had never seen that Dear Sugar entry before, and I’m so glad you shared it. I’ve read a few of her columns, and there is something she said both in ‘Write Like a Motherfucker’ and ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ that sticks with me:

      The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.
      – from “Tiny Beautiful Things

      She mentions in ‘Write Like a Motherfucker’ that she wasn’t capable of writing a book in her twenties, though, like the woman she’s responding to, she thought she ought to have done so. One of the things I’ve found in philosophy is that skill is rarely incremental, and being insightful requires not reading A responding to B responding to C, but reading A and F and G and C and Z. Yet it’s not obvious, reading A and Z, that they have anything to say to one another, and so if you’re going to read A and Z, read them for their own sake, because the chance that they’ll actually benefit you is slim.

      I am trying now to do the work that I wanted to do — which, believe it or not, is write a blog about books and games and songs I thought about. And I’m familiar with the derision for those who like the idea of being a writer more than they like writing. The many tiny things cannot add up if you’re not doing the work. And so maybe the anxiety I sometimes have, about how much to read, about what to read, is a silly anxiety. “Either they will add up or they will not. There is no cry.” There are things I’m doing when I’m not doing the work, and I cannot tell if they will add up, like reading the wrong book at the right time. I joked to someone recently around a mouthful of cake that my greatest virtue and my greatest vice was always saying yes to fun.

      This isn’t really a response to your thoughtful response. Let me try this: I’m glad to hear that someone I admire, that I know works quite hard, feels that difficulty, too.

      Regarding difficulty, a friend responded to this post in a different context:

      … in “Letters to a Young Poet” (Letter VII) where Rilke writes, “People have (with the help of convention) found the solution of everything in ease and the easiest side of ease; but it is clear that we must hold to the difficult; everything living holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself according to its own character and is an individual in its own right, strives to be so at any cost and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to the difficult is a certainty that will not leave us…the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.”

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