Heartbreaking Work

For a living, I talk about the intimate details of my life onstage.

I know.  I wouldn’t date me, either.

Oftentimes, I’ll be approached by audience members after my show, and they’ll commend me for my “courage.” They’ll thank me for my “vulnerability”, my [alleged] “honesty” and my “bravery” for going onstage to share these personal stories in front of an audience.  They’ll THANK me.

This has always been equal parts flattering and puzzling to me.

I certainly don’t feel courageous or brave or vulnerable when I’m onstage.  It doesn’t feel like I’m taking a risk up there. Rather, I feel like it’s the only place where I’m in complete control.  And I’m an anxious person, so I love control. If ever there was a moment in the process where I felt vulnerable, it would’ve been months ago, maybe at the moment I read a passage aloud to a colleague for the first time.  But not NOW.  These are the words I’ve allowed myself to say.  These are the words I’ve written and re-written and re-written.  I can’t think of anything less vulnerable.

You want to see me vulnerable?  Be a pretty girl who makes small talk with me in a cafe. Be the nurse in the walk-in clinic who asks me, “And what is the reason for your visit?”  Be the guy changing beside me in the YMCA locker room the moment I realize I’ve forgot to change out of my sexy briefs before going to work out.

But onstage?  Dude.  I’ve written this.  I’ve memorized this.  Anything I’m about to talk about happened forever ago.  I’ve processed it.  Sure, standing onstage is scary if you don’t know what you’re doing.  I mean, I don’t know how improvisers do what they do (that’s a lie, I actually do know, and it’s really uninteresting).

But I have a script!  Full of things that I’m willing to share with the world.

“How can you talk about such intimate details of your life? How can you talk about sex?  About depression? Living with an anxiety disorder? About having your heart broken into a million pieces?”

How can I talk about having my heart broken?

It’s a thing that happened.  Because it’s a thing that happens.

I’ll tell you my specifics, and you can draw parallels to your specifics, and together we’ll build something universal. In your brain. When we hear a good story, we think it might be about us, because it might as well be.

My “characters” are real people, but you won’t meet these people in real life, just like you won’t really have breakfast with Tiffany.

__________________

I finally read “A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers last week.

Heartbreaking_Work_Dave_Eggers

If you’re ever roommates with someone born between 1976 and 1989 with a degree in creative writing, this book will come up in conversation.  Frequently. And rightfully so.

If you’re not familiar, it’s a hilariously sardonic and painfully honest glimpse into the world of a big brother trying to raise his little brother in the face of tragedy (their parents’ simultaneous cancer-related deaths).  The book is listed as a memoir, but it is chockfull of fantasy elements and meta-self-referential/meta-meta-self-referential sequences.

Throughout the book, Eggers will periodically have one of his characters break out of a scene to start interrogating him, the writer.  They will accuse him of sending up different elements of the story to evoke sympathy from the reader.  They will call bullshit on him when he’s stretching truths.  That sort of thing.

Eggers seems to be constantly wrestling with whether or not he’s taking advantage of his loved ones, his friends and even himself for the sake of art by writing this book in the first place.

Being a monologuist who works almost exclusively in memoir, I found one section in particular to hit especially close to home…

This passage really knocked my socks off.  Every once in a while, an artist will perfectly articulate a feeling that’s been stirring in your heart more eloquently than you ever could.  And this was one of those for me.

During one of these interrogation scenes, a character asks Eggers, “Are you sure you want to be telling [we, the audience] all of this?”

Eggers replies:

“What am I giving you?  I am giving you nothing.  It seems like you know something, but you still know nothing.  I tell you and it evaporates.  I don’t care — how could I care?  I tell you how many people I have slept with (thirty-two), or how my parents left this world, and what have I really given you?  Nothing.  I can tell you the names of my friends, their phone numbers, but what do you have?  You have nothing.  They all granted permission.  Why is that? Because you have nothing, you have some phone numbers.  It seems precious for one, two seconds.  You have what I can afford to give.  You are a panhandler, begging for anything, and I am the man walking briskly by, tossing a quarter or so into your paper cup.  I can afford to give you this.  This does not break me. I give you virtually everything I have.  I give you all of the best things I have, and while these things are things that I like, memories that I treasure, good or bad, like the pictures of my family on my walls I can show them to you without diminishing them.  I can afford to give you everything.  We feel that to reveal embarrassing or private things, like, say, masturbatory habits (for me, about once a day, usually in the shower), we have given someone something. These things, details, stories, whatever, are like the skin shed by snakes, who leave theirs for anyone to see.  What does he care where it is, who sees it, this snake and his skin?  He leaves it where he molts.  Hours, days or months later, we come across a snake’s long-shed skin and we know something of the snake, we know that it’s of this approximate girth and that approximate length, but we know very little else.  Do we know where the snake is now?  What the snake is thinking now?  No.  By now the snake could be wearing fur; the snake could be selling pencils in Hanoi.  The skin is no longer his, he wore it because it grew from him, but then it dried and slipped off and he and everyone could look at it.

None of this is mine.  My father is not mine.  His death and what he’s done are not mine.  Nor are my upbringing nor my town nor its tragedies.  How can these things be mine?  Holding me responsible for keeping hidden this information is ridiculous.  I was born into a town and a family and the town and my family happened to me.  I own none of it. It is everyone’s. It is shareware.  I like it, I like having been a part of it, I would kill or die to protect those who are part of it, but I do not claim exclusivity.  Have it.  Take it from me.  Do with it what you will. Make it useful. This is like making electricity from dirt; it is almost too good to be believed, that we can make beauty from this stuff.”

____________________________

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