Around lunchtime Tuesday, email arrived from Philip Connors, one of my favorite writers whose work you may not know yet. (See, e.g., Why is writing an editorial like pissing yourself in a blue serge suit?)
“As a follower of your continuing family revelations, I have to say it pleases me to know there’s at least one person out there who can probably relate to the attached,” he wrote.
Curious, I opened the file, and was completely unprepared for what I started reading. “So Little to Remember” is a remarkably candid account (in the current n+1) of the aftermath of Connors’ brother Dan’s suicide, and the truest and most disturbing piece of writing I’ve come across recently. The brothers were not close, which only made Dan’s death more shocking, mysterious, and difficult to accept.
As with all of Connors’ work, the essay is so meticulously constructed, it resists excerpting. I’ve posted a screenshot of the first few paragraphs below, anyhow, in the interest of encouraging you to read the whole thing. Below that, after the jump, Connors explains how the piece came to be written. He touches on the tensions — of endless interest to me — between life, and writing about it.
I was very slow in coming around to the idea of [the essay] as a piece of writing, self-contained. It began as a thought experiment. What if I went through my all my notebooks and pulled together all the entries that dealt with my brother and his death? If I compiled them in a single document, maybe I would see certain patterns in my thinking, certain obsessions that were recurrent. I thought I’d use it as a well of raw material from which I could dip when I needed inspiration. I was trying to write a book about his suicide and wasn’t having much luck.
So, about four years ago, I undertook the mind-numbing task of reading everything I’ve poured into those notebooks over the years. I stuck miniature Post-it Notes next to any passage that touched, directly or indirectly, on Dan’s death. When I thought I’d marked them all, I went back to the beginning and typed them into the computer. The whole thing came to about 40,000 words. I printed it and took it with me to my summer job as a fire lookout and just sort of lived with it for a season, out in the woods. I think it was the end of that summer, the summer of 2006, when I finally began to see it as a proper “piece of writing,” with a kind of natural narrative arc, a sense of drama, and even a kind of purgation near the end. It certainly hadn’t inspired me to write anything new.
I spent another year and a half going over it when I had the stomach for it, cutting out stuff that was pointlessly redundant or over-the-top lugubrious. I got rid of about 20,000 words this way. Then I found some other notebooks I’d forgotten about, small, palm-sized notebooks I wrote in on the subway when I lived in New York. There was more material there. Eventually, I ended up with about 22,000 words. I showed it first to my wife, who cried and felt ill for a couple of days. This seemed like the kind of reaction I’d want from a reader, so I sent it to the usual places I send stuff knowing it will be rejected, and of course it was — too long, too dark, too personal. Not quite right somehow for glossy paper. So I sent it to n+1 about a year ago, and they said — I’m not sure how it works for us, but let’s do it anyway.
Together we cut another big chunk of it. We argued over how many of the other writers’ quotes to keep — there were a lot; it was almost as much a commonplace book as a diary — and now, I think, what’s left is what’s essential. It’s not exactly me: I had other thoughts and other interests during those years. I wrote about women, and hangovers, and my stupid job at the Wall Street Journal, and I wrote a lot about people and things I saw on the subway, in bars, or on the streets. In that sense, “So Little to Remember” is an artificial creation. It focuses on one slice of my life over an eight-year period. A pretty intense slice, but still just one slice.
The last thing I did was show it to my parents and get my mother’s permission to use her diary entries. They were both incredibly brave about it. It could not have been easy for them to read. With my father in particular, I have a richer relationship than the one depicted in the piece. But he understands that, the incompleteness of a piece of writing in gathering up all of life’s complexity. As for me, I’m happy to be done with it. I’ve always been partial to the idea that a piece of writing is its own separate entity, even if it came out of my pen. It will have its own life in the world distinct from my life. I like that thought. It’s a way of letting go by making stories.