I am terrified of writing sometimes. There are so many ways for it to go wrong. I get anxious that the words and sentences I'm creating will not match the thing I've experienced or won't do justice to the importance of the idea. Often, I want to investigate something but do not feel I have the intelligence, understanding, or information I need to do so with any real insight. I often have the desire to be creative but worry I lack the psychic acumen to make anything new or relevant. Oddly, this sense of unknowing is also the very thing that eventually compels me to write. Because on the other side of that initial panic is fascination, the anxious joy of problem-solving, a sense of vastness that occurs when one is puzzling over ineffable things. John Keats might call this "negative capability," the pursuit of art even as it leads to more uncertainty and confusion. He compares this confrontation with the unknown to standing in a chamber with many doorways. The doors might open, but they open only into darkness. My friend, the poet Philip Mathews, says, "If you're not making people uncomfortable, including yourself, then you're probably not doing it right." I find these ideas very liberating, that the things I'm afraid of, the issues I find most troubling or upsetting, the ones that keep me up at night or wake me up in the middle of night, are the beginnings of stories that need to be told. Knots that want to be untangled. Or understood, because knots are useful. Or merely admired, because knots are also beautiful.
When I first read about the FBI's decades-long surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. I was confused. What good reason did the government have to secretly investigate a peaceful civil rights activist? Did King know that he was being surveilled? Did his family know? What, if anything, did the FBI discover? Some of the questions were answered upon further reading. King did eventually find out that every phone call made from his home was recorded, for decades. Every single conversation. And the house was bugged. One of the things the FBI discovered was that King was having multiple affairs, mostly with Caucasian women. But ultimately, what bearing should that have on who he was as a civil rights activist? On anything except his personal life? The only rights being violated here, once again, appeared to be King's. But the thing that made me most uncomfortable, the idea that really kept troubling me, the one that opened the darkest, most mysterious doorway, was the one that led to his wife.
[I]f white men aren't wondering what it's like to be black women, then we’re not doing it right.
Her life was being monitored too. Every aspect of it. Someone was listening to her as she parented, as she visited with her sisters, when she confided in her friends, when she prayed alone at night in her bedroom. The thought of it crept into my mind off and on for months. I read all of King's biographies. I read The Trumpet of Conscience
. I read and listened to every interview I could find with Coretta Scott King. I listened to Martin Luther King's speeches and read “Letter From Birmingham Jail” again, and like any feeling human being, I cried, and was bewildered to think that some of these social systems still lingered. That persistent and astonishing quote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," burned a hole straight through me. Did the prejudice I'd experienced as a gay boy growing up in the Bible Belt in the ’80s and ’90s also mean something about the rest of the world? I was even more perplexed after reading about King's friendship with Bayard Rustin, and their many conversations about gay rights, how King thought the issue was too complicated, too polarizing to take up as an immediate cause at the time. Always though — driving to pick my son up from school, walking to work, sitting alone on my porch in the morning — the same emotional anxiety came to mind: What was it like to be this man's wife? To be loved by him? To have loved him? To have the weight of his worries? To worry for him? To wash the dishes, and put the kids to bed, to dream in the 1960s, to publicly align oneself with social justice, to be the wife of a political leader and a minority and a woman in the middle of the last century, while also being monitored constantly by the same system that oppresses you?
I didn't want to tell people I was thinking of writing about any of this. I was incredibly nervous about it. I felt silly and stupid for even considering it. But I was plagued by a restless empathy, by curiosity, by a compulsion to imagine, as far as it was possible, what it might have been like to sit where she sat, if only for a moment. With this in mind, I began the actual work of writing, and my fear of not knowing or not understanding was arrested by curiosity. I failed countless times. I worked on it for two years before I felt satisfied with my attempt at articulating that moment into what was first a forty-page draft that eventually became fifteen, then nine pages long. I spent two years writing what would turn out to be a nine-page story.
writes in an op-ed for The New York Times
called "Who Gets to Write What?": “Imagine the better, stronger fiction that could be produced if writers took this challenge to stretch and grow one’s imagination, to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to characters who look like them as characters who don’t, to take those stories seriously and actually think about power when writing — how much further fiction could go as an art. It’s the difference between a child playing dress-up in a costume for the afternoon and someone putting on a set of clothes and going to work." At some point, my apprehension had become determination. This is where Philip Matthews comes to mind again, helping me to say, if white men aren't wondering what it's like to be black women, then we’re not doing it right. Of course I will never know what it’s like, but I wanted to try to understand. John Keats says, "An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people — it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery." Ignorance is a heavy burden, but even trying to understand what we don’t expands our sympathies and imaginations. Writing is like reading in slow motion, and was my way of investigating a singular moment that seemed fraught with mystery and discomfort, distress and oppression, heartbreak and devotion, a moment that had stirred so many questions in me that I couldn’t help but cross the threshold of doubt into wonder.
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holds an MFA in Fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. In addition to Granta
, his work has appeared in West Branch
and New Stories From the Midwest