“I Wanted to Shake You And Say, ‘Stop it, Talk About This With Me, Not Your Readers.’”
I could only close out the last few days of the Prostitute Laundry Book Club by talking to and collaborating with Max, one of the book’s most important figures and my . . . guy. This is the first segment of a conversation started while flying back from the west coast. We passed my latop back and forth.
Charlotte: I’ve written about you a lot and I don’t think I’ve ever really asked you how you feel about that. The first piece of my writing (about you) that you read was the copy of the Tiny Letter I sent you while you were in Venice, right?
Max: That sounds right. When I found out about Charlotte, I devoured everything you’d written that I could find online and tried to imagine whether any of it was about me. But yeah, that Tiny Letter was the first thing that I was sure was about me.
Charlotte: Did you think some of the previous stuff was about you? Were you hoping I’d written about you, or would write about you, or was the prospect more anxiety producing than appealing? How’d you feel after you read that first letter?
Max: I think I was pretty overwhelmed at the beginning and had no idea how to separate how I imagined you thought and wrote about me versus how you thought and wrote about other intimate relationships you were involved in at the same time.
Similarly, I don’t know about “hoping” you were writing about me… more like nervous, but definitely excited. I think for the first few months after I read that first Tiny Letter, I really pictured something like “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” where our relationship was somehow the topic of a piece you were investigating for a magazine, and I was desperately trying to speak and act in ways that I wouldn’t be embarrassed about when/if it was shared publicly. Which isn’t to say that I was only saying/doing things with the goal of maintaining some kind of professional character management — I really did care on a deeply personal and present level how we interacted, and was delighted by how you offered me opportunities and encouraged me to say out loud the dumb/sweet/poetic things I was thinking about you. I remember reading the Tiny Letter you sent me while in Venice and being immediately overjoyed with how you presented the dialogue because it was like, “Wow, she was really listening to everything I said.”
In particular, there were a couple text messages and emails (mentioned in later Tiny Letters I think) that I seriously spent hours putting together, typing and editing and rereading before sending because it felt really important that I get it right. For sure most of that was my own recognition of your good taste and powers of observation, but I had this sense that you were approaching our time together like an author and character and that made me even more intent on providing you with truly sincere and heartfelt expressions that you could quote me on.
I could go on for a while more about how I felt when I read it if you’d like (get this conversation started on a super mushy note), but since over the course of this tour you’ve had to address a few times the concept of writing about your life while living it, I feel like this might be a more interesting aspect of how I was feeling . . .
Charlotte: Do you (ever or regularly) regret telling me that I can write about you any way I want? Do you feel like that’s a permission I’ve abused?
Max: No way, not at all. It was really important to me, for feeling out who you were as a person and figuring out what you wrote about, that I never let my own narrative get in the way of what you were creating. Not to toot my own horn, but I really think that email I sent (I believe it’s quoted in the “The Cord”) about totally trusting your artistry and wanting you/being excited about being a part of whatever you created summed up my feelings then and now pretty succinctly. As I’ve gotten to know us better and your readers as well, I feel an extension of that desire to never hold your writing back, partially out of fear (i.e. knowledge) that that would be a pretty typical male thing to do. And I know I’m a better person in my present life by being aware that the things I do and say to the person I care most about could end up in some stranger’s inbox.
Truly: you are one of the most talented and inspiring writers I have ever experienced and it’s thrilling to be a part of your incredibly lived and written story. I think every human on this planet would be a better person if they lived as though knowing that someone they cared about was paying attention to them and sharing that with the rest of the world and I consider myself to have one of the most successfully lived lives since I am a part of my favorite story.
I know that my work is a little more abstract and less linear (and that my career is way behind yours,) but do you have any similar feelings/concerns about you or parts of our relationship showing up in things I make?
Charlotte: Of course not, I’d love it if it/I did! But I’d also be surprised. It seems like your work comes from a more sequestered place that doesn’t admit as much repurposing of immediate situations and circumstances. Which is fine. I think sometimes about Letter to D, and the way Gorz apologizes to his wife for not accurately depicting their relationship in his work and even disrespecting their relationship (and her) in the way he wrote about it.
And that in turn reminds me of Henry James’ letters to friends about his wife, in which he insults her in a way that (Vivian Gornick argues) belies how uncomfortable he is with how deep his connection to her goes, the self-doubt it evokes. Not that I think you’d be insulting to me in your work, but I guess I don’t expect myself to turn up there. Even though I know I sometimes do, a little. It feels like a very guy way to be in the world, to not insert a partner into the things one writes/draws/discusses/makes.
Do you feel like there’s any aspect of us, a moment or conversation or experience, that I didn’t get right in a way that was unfair to you, like something you said or did that I left out or didn’t give enough attention? Because if you want to get it out there, now’s the time!
Max: Hmmm, this one is tough because I know that many times over the last year I’ve desperately wanted to send footnotes to your readers like, “No, that’s not the objective truth of what happened!” But I think that statement is proof of its own uselessness; your writing about us is not meant to be objective (I don’t think) and any discomfort or disagreement that I’ve had in the past would never have contradicted what you wrote, just offered a different perspective. I guess that’s an example of the alternatively very lady way to be in the world: knowing that you can share an experience with your (lady) readers and never have to worry that they will misinterpret your experiences as the events themselves. I don’t think it’s an issue of confidence necessarily, just a different way of trusting and giving priority to feelings that I’m not jealous or scared of, just less knowledgeable (interested in?) I guess.
Charlotte: A lot of guys read me too — we just talked about this. And I wouldn’t recommend calling women readers “ladies.”
Max: I used “lady” as the alternative to “guy” because that’s how baby Henry described us this past weekend.
Charlotte: Don’t blame your sexism on a baby!
Max: Here’s an example: in the Tiny Letter you sent out right around New Year’s you describe in general a lot of the moments of shakiness and speed bumps of un-connectedness we experienced since the final chapter of PL. While those experiences were happening in real time, I remember watching you close yourself off while you were upset in a way that I now know means you are working through the situation in your own head, narrating the moment and breaking down your feelings for writing down later. In those moments, I always wanted to shake you and say, “Stop it, come out here and talk about this with me, not your readers!” and would get this sinking feeling that there was nothing I could do to help our situation and instead would have to wait until you had come to your own conclusion about what had happened and how it made you feel.
Even worse, it made me feel like it was completely pointless for me to try to explain to you how I felt in the moment or how much I cared about you, because I imagined you had already relegated me to a character who couldn’t adjust or change how you could even possibly perceive my actions. And since a lot of your writing lays out all the different ways men can be shitty, I couldn’t help thinking I was going to be another public example. But then of course, whenever I would get a chance to read what you had written, it was always clear that you weren’t trying to describe me to your readers and instead were only trying to convey how it made you feel.
In terms of leaving things out, I have always known that if I really cared about or needed to share my feelings within those same experiences I would simply have to create and distribute those myself.
Charlotte: I didn’t want to write that post NYE letter but I felt like I owed it to people who’d been reading for a long time. It pretty much only reiterates a lot of the hesitancy and ambiguity that had started to manifest for me in the time since “The Cord” — like, reading that last/most recent letter against “Forever Beginning,” I saw that they basically say the same thing and sometimes almost in the exact same ways. But I just wanted to reiterate, to get as close to the truth as possible: our being together is not a happy ending if happy means easy or painless or complete, nor is it an ending.
If you don’t think I’m interested in trying to get at the truth when I write — some truth — I would be disappointed. I’m not sure truth is always or often or maybe ever “objective,” though. There are things I leave out of my personal writing because I think it’s too tedious; including it would make the writing worse. And there are things I leave out to protect your feelings, believe it or not (!)
I think because you haven’t know me that long, relatively speaking, and you’ve only loved me since I was writing about you/us, that what you might think is me plotting writing about my life is just how I try to understand my own life, period. And maybe writing about my life can’t be separated from my attempts to understand it, but… I think what you describe me doing when I withdraw from the moment and from you is accurate, it just doesn’t need the “for writing down later” clause at the end. Because it’s (probably, to whatever extent I know myself) just how I live, regardless of whether or not I’m going to write about that exact sensation or moment later.
And if you wanted me to talk to you, you could just ask a question. Or wait a little bit and ask a question a little later. I don’t know. I guess we both behave in ways that feel unreasonable and inscrutable to the other on some level. I don’t think it’s the fault of writing. I don’t even plan to write about us again, in the immediate future anyway. It’s not something I’ve thought about in a while, maybe since agreeing to write that Brooklyn Magazine piece. I’d understand if, from your perspective, my writing about us seems like it would never end. But I think I’m already moving on, which doesn’t mean I won’t loop back to it again (and again.)
Max: I certainly don’t think there is any fault in the writing, or in the thinking, or in the describing that you do. In fact, I don’t think there’s even a problem that needs a fault drawn out of it. I know that what often is hardest for me (and this certainly goes to your point about inscrutability) is how your internal processing can seem in the moment to take priority over our relationship itself, but every day that I’m with you confirms that issues of “priority” are about as slippery to talk about as descriptions of “truth” — at a certain point we’ll both just be talking about how we think and respond differently from each other.