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"I Must Have Been That Man"
Winner of the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, 2015
Selected by Anne Fadiman
This is a very personal piece, allowing readers to come along as you navigate college-age independence, a recent heart transplant, and the challenges of compassion. What did you find was your greatest challenge in writing this piece?
I think the greatest challenge with this piece wasn’t in the writing of it but taking the step of showing it to other people and ultimately submitting it somewhere. Like you said, it’s extremely personal and I think that my biggest fear with nonfiction is that someone will read it and think okay but what’s the point. In my day-to-day life, the transplant is not really something I share with people because, as you can imagine, it brings most conversations to a rather abrupt pause. It’s a strange, unusual, heavy thing and that tends to make people (myself included) uncomfortable. So when I write about it and I’m trying to work out an idea about compassion and empathy as I was in this piece, I want to be sure that I’m approaching the subject and my experiences in a way that is interesting, truthful, and accessible all at once. It’s a difficult balance. So, with this piece, I asked a few people I’m close with to read it and then tell me what they thought the point of it was. If they missed what I was trying to say, I went back and reworked the details to be a better guide through the story.
What can you share about this piece prior to its BLR publication? How long did it take you to complete it?
I actually wrote the first draft in one afternoon in Prospect Park. It was during the summer and I took a blanket to the park with a copy of Nox by Anne Carson and my notebook. I read all of Nox and sort of took notes on it and then it brought me to writing down the story of the man who had fallen out of his electric wheelchair. This turned into about a four-hour park session and I gave myself a sunburn. After that, I went home and worked on it for three years. In each draft, the title was always "I Must Have Been That Man" after my favorite James Tate poem, and the dialogue was always the same, but nearly everything else changed in rewriting. So, it took me three years and an afternoon. It takes me about three hours to drink a cup of coffee, too.
The interaction between you and the man in the wheelchair is very powerful. Why did you decide to focus on that specific experience?
I’m a pretty regretful person. I dwell on things, mostly interactions I’ve had with people. I think about how I could’ve been better, what I could’ve said as opposed to what I did a lot. The story with the man in the electric wheelchair has sort of haunted me in that way for a long time. I found myself telling the story to different people and they all said that I did as much as I could, it was a strange situation, it would’ve been inappropriate to take my shirt off in the street. And they were right, of course, but I still wished I could’ve given him something more than what I did because he had given me something, even if I couldn’t yet articulate exactly what it was.
After I read Nox, I thought a lot about what a beautiful memory Anne Carson had made in this book for her brother, how she honored him by struggling with their relationship and by creating this lasting elegy for him. The man in the electric wheelchair and I are not friends and I would never impose myself by going to look for him to make me feel better about something I failed to do, but I guess I felt as if I wanted to pay tribute to that specific interaction, to what he gave me that day, and to have it written down as a memory of him and me in the rain.
You end the piece with the question that had been posed to you when you joined the transplant waiting list—“Is your suffering dear to you?”—which leaves the reader thinking about the piece as a whole and its themes. Why did you decide to end on that question?
That question was actually the very last piece of this story. I added it just before submitting because I realized that it was sort of the whole point, and the point of most stories I tell about my illness. It’s a harsh question and, growing up, as I say in the piece, I always assumed the answer was a resounding, and slightly insulted, no. But the more I wrote about the man in the electric wheelchair, and the longer I live as this closeted ill person, the more I realize that my “suffering” is not so simple and the complexity of it is quite dear to me. I think this is true for anyone, no matter what your brand of “suffering” may be. But I was hesitant to include it because it’s from the Talmud and what do I know about the Talmud? So, I fact-checked by calling my parents (both Rabbis) and my dad happened to be the one who picked up and I said, Hey, remember this story you used to tell me? And he said, Yeah. So what? And I said, Well, I think I want to use it in a piece but I want to get the Talmud part right. And then he said, Okay, send it to me and I’ll tell you if it’s right. And suddenly I was like, Oh no, my dad will read this. But I figured if I could send it to my dad and not toss my cookies, I could probably hit submit. So, I did and he read it and we’re still friends so everything is okay.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
I love this question! This is the question I always skip to when I read Q&As. I’m not sure if this qualifies as advice but it was the first thing I thought of so, here goes: in college, I did an independent study with Kathleen Finneran on nonfiction writing. We mostly worked on writing I had done about my transplant that I was trying to craft into a cohesive narrative that would amount to more than this one time I had to have a heart transplant and it was really hard. My biggest concern was that the writing itself wasn’t very good or interesting to anyone but me. I told her all this in her office at one of our weekly meetings like it was some big secret. She flipped to the last page of the packet I had turned in and wrote: you are worth reading. As a 21-year-old woman not yet comfortable with absolutely anything, that meant the world. It has become something I repeat to myself whenever I sit down to write, something that takes my fear away so I can just begin.
Which writers have influenced you? What are you currently reading?
I love James Baldwin and when I sit down to write a story or an essay, I think of how he writes with such fierce vulnerability in all of his work and how he embraces imperfection and complexity. It reminds me to write through things, show my scars, rather than try to simplify or reduce ideas to make them more palatable.
For the “currently reading” question, you caught me. I’m between books at the moment, like Zsa Zsa Gabor with husbands. (Didn’t Zsa Zsa Gabor say that? Or maybe it was Elizabeth Taylor? It was someone with a lot of husbands.) Middlemarch is sitting on my bedside table and I’m “reading” it. I’ll probably still be “reading” it by this time next year. No, I’m going to finish it. I’m going to go home right now and finish it (I’m not).