In MFA school, a teacher mailed me a cassette entitled “Mess o’ Sentimentia.” His thinking was that heart-friendly tunes might spur the emotion he saw missing in my work. He wanted me to be more effusive. It didn’t really matter to him if I was more sad, angry, loving, giddy, or resentful, as long as I was less fastidious.
Hearing his plan did make me experience one of those feelings—I’ll leave you to guess which one.
Being described as fastidious could be complimentary if it meant only “attentive to detail,” but the connotation is clear. To be fastidious is to be neat in the most annoying way. For a writer, “fastidious” isn’t far from “constipated.”
Though I promised to listen to his tape, I was relieved when the cassette arrived and, through some error in dubbing, was entirely blank. The list of titles and accompanying hour and a half of silence seemed a condemned man’s reprieve. I’m a dutiful student and debated and debated what to do. I finally decided not to alert him to the problem.
My reasoning—it wasn’t a problem.
Of course, maybe it was. Maybe it still is. I’ve always thought nature abhors a vacuum, and readers abhor the unsaid and supply it, feeling they realized instead of having revelations proffered. To say too much, I figure, is to be treacly or maudlin, and that way lies backlash, a reader’s resentful, “Oh yeah?”
But hiding is just as dangerous. I groom sentences because the simplest is most direct, but my mannered writing must sometimes seem inconsistent with the sloppiness of real emotion. I do feel and, though I’m sometimes afraid to, I like to believe my sadness, anger, love, giddiness, and resentfulness are audible. My heart is never silent.
I envy the disarray of writers who know how to voice undiverted sensations in their own terms, without translation. It’s hard for me to leave any page a mess. I hope neatness signals something too. I have to.
When one of my classes has a “silent conversation” and passes around sheets of paper that contain one student’s question and many students’ answers, I sometimes put on soundtrack music I’ve gathered from various movies. All this music comes from movies unknown to my students. The raw strings and sinking resolution of these pieces, their minor chords and major movements, their clashing waves of piano or invisible, nearly imperceptibly building notes turn the students’ faces to the page. Their pens dance en pointe. Someone invariably says, “This music makes everything I write sound so important!”
That was my teacher’s idea—to open up my apertures to self-expression, to get me believing I have something worth saying. I might have appreciated his gesture more, and, had his “Mess o’ Sentimentia” found volume, perhaps I’d have found myself. He must have hoped he’d draw my genuine soul out.
But those words “sound so important” bother me because who wants their writing to sound important instead of be important? To be true to myself is to distrust every word I utter. A restrained soul communicates itself in reluctance the way stretching a sore muscle yields both relief and pain. My restrained soul—embarrassed by effusiveness or grandiosity—shrinks instead of shouts. Perhaps I don’t know my voice’s full volume, but arrested expression can be real too, the clearest sign of emotions that cannot, dare not, be named.