that the process of revision, as he goes about it, is “a form of increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing.” You crank out some prose, then make adjustments — tiny and not so tiny — until the prose is better. Then you do it again. Then, you do it again. The you as represented on the page changes by all these gradual adjustments, whether or not you’re writing in first person. Eventually, you’ve “revis[ed] yourself up” into a better and smarter person, someone more entertaining, more compassionate, wiser than you are in real life.
Wise words, doubtless revised many times. Saunders is a master of cutting through the crap, and here he decisively ignores any qualms about the difference between author — the real-life person, the one that lives and breathes and messes things up all the time — and persona — the character or voice on the page, that higher-grade creation whose every tiny act has been carefully considered. As Eileen Myles
once wrote, “The dirty little secret is that it’s always about me.” Snazzy Barthesian ideas aside, when it comes down to it, the author is very much alive and well, reading her work in bars and on stages, tweeting about the latest political outrage, anxiously chewing her nails at the desk and trying to become that revised-up version of herself.
My first book is coming out this fall, a first-person memoir about my mother’s murder when I was a child, the long search for her killer, and my life in the intervening years. Friends and acquaintances keep asking me how I feel, knowing that so many of my deepest inner thoughts and sad experiences will be on public view. I don’t feel anything about this, or I don’t think I do. I understand, abstractly, that this might become a problem, that I might feel suddenly more exposed than I thought I would. But I don’t feel
anything about it, not yet. Why is this, I’ve wondered. What’s wrong with me, that I don’t mind exposing myself like this?
She’s powerful, this woman....She is tough but vulnerable. Her heart is open. You get the impression that she meditates, eats well, sleeps without ever needing a pill.
Lately, I’ve been reading through my own book, to better familiarize myself with this thing I’ve made before I go out into the world and talk about it. I cut as many words from the manuscript as appear in the finished version, and, truth be told, I need to remind myself what’s still in the text. As I turn the pages, I walk through my own history, events that happened to the real-life me. I see my body, this body lying here on my bed in Brooklyn next to this sunny window, slightly chilly in the air conditioning, walking around and talking to people and growing up and falling in love. But the girl, and later, the woman, on the page sometimes doesn’t feel like me. The voice guiding it all is much wiser, more entertaining, and more compassionate than my real-life self. Where did this woman come from? Did I really build her, à la Saunders, from three years of continual revision, tweaking word after word until I stripped her of my linguistic fumbling, my anxieties, my insecurities, and fears? She’s powerful, this woman. She walks us through a terrifying night and she looks at those around her with a clear eye, and she has things to say about society, and violence against women, and queerness, and poverty. She is tough but vulnerable. Her heart is open. You get the impression that she meditates, eats well, sleeps without ever needing a pill.
I so want to be this woman, the woman I have made. And, god willing, I’ll have readers and those readers will expect me to be her. They will think this woman is real. And she is. She’s as me as she is not-me, but I don’t spend very many of my waking hours living up to her standard. She is recognizable as me, if you squint, but we’re different. We resemble each other like cousins, rather than sisters. One of my very closest friends, a poet whose work often deals with questions of identity and the self, could not hold on to the idea of me while reading my book. “I kept going in and out,” she said. “I kept re-realizing that this was you.”
I’m dating someone new, and I gave them the book before we’d been hanging out for very long. Here
, I thought, take my life. Might as well.
I did not expect this person to read my book so deeply and so quickly — so, well, passionately — that it left us both breathless. At first, I felt glad to have started out by handing them this best self I’ve made. Now I feel like I have to live up to her.
Is that so bad, though? Maybe I can revise my actual self, take my morning crankiness, my obsessive housecleaning, my lifelong tardiness, and my moments of petty jealousy and command-X them once and for all. At least some of them. Maybe I can make myself into a better person as defined by myself, on the page, through a continual process of looking closer and closer at the words, actions, and circumstances that add up to my life. And if not, well, I’ll keep writing, keep that persona alive so she can keep doing the good work that I’m too imperfect to do.
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holds a MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University, where she served as publisher of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art
and was a member of the journal's nonfiction editorial board. She is the recipient of a Writers' Fellowship from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and a Javits Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education, and has attended residencies at Norton Island in Maine and PLAYA in Oregon. Perry's prose has appeared in Blood and Thunder
magazine and Bluestockings Literary Journal
. She lives in Brooklyn.