A Tiny Crisis

by Brendan O’Connor

About a quarter of the way through Kerry Howley’s Thrown, a book of reported non-fiction about semi-professional mixed martial arts fighters in the Midwest, the narrator reveals herself to be not Kerry Howley, but Kerry Howley’s stand-in, Kit, who is like Kerry Howley, but not quite — or perhaps more so. “My (admittedly neurotic) progenitor,” Kit tells us, “is so conscious of her own tendency towards self-confabulation that she hesitates to call anything she says of herself a fact. She has never known a real person who saw herself with even passable clarity; never known a storyteller who could tell of a trip to the supermarket without self-gratifying sins of omissions. All narrators, I say, are fiction. All. The reliable ones have the decency to admit it.”

We are given to understand that the things recounted in Thrown are true things that did happen to real people, that they are not fabrications, and that it is only the person who is recounting them who does not exist in the physical world. Kit, the narrator, is Howley’s avatar in the world of the story; Howley is giving herself the same treatment that all people who are written about inevitably get, of being reduced to their most representative parts, despite — hopefully — our best intentions and efforts, as writers to render them whole. They become characters. Often they become characters before they even make it onto the page. At our least generous, the people we write about are, to us, never anything else.

It’s a truism of literary criticism that the narrator and the author are not the same person. In fiction or poetry or things written about fiction or poetry — which is what I read pretty much exclusively until about two years ago — the distinction between narrator and author, while useful, is sort of obvious. But writing non-fiction, I am not so cognizant — or at least not always — of the existence of a narrator, someone that lies between me, the writer, and you, the reader. Maybe I should be. In some stories, this narrator is more prominent than others. “Put more of yourself into this,” an editor might say. Or “I could really hear your voice in this piece,” a former teacher might say. And in something like this piece, whatever it is, who is here, in these words, speaking to you, the reader.

Anyway, I think I’m having a crisis of faith in the notion that so long as I do my best work and am present and accountable and responsible (or at least try to be) that it will all work out. Why should it? It’s not like there is a specific goal towards which I am working. People ask what my dream job would be and I tell them, “Staff writer at a fancy magazine,” and laugh and laugh because who knows if fancy magazines will even be around by the time I’m a good enough writer and reporter — a potentiality which is of course itself strictly theoretical — to even consider trying to convince one to pay me a salary to write the weird things I write.

As I take stock of where I am and where I have been and what I have done in the last twelve months, even as I see so much progress, the part of me that holds all my self-doubt and self-recrimination and self-loathing creaks open and all these horrible little grasping creatures crawl out. They look familiar, if a little pale from lack of sun, because the truth of ambition is that it is always shadowed by resentment, as hope is by regret.

We can only control so much, and everyone is just figuring it out as they go along. Still, it’d be nice to have some clarity about where I’m going. I might adjust accordingly, if only to get there a little faster.

Photo by xiaozhen

Never Better, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2014.