There’s this quote from Nabokov’s Lolita that haunts me.
I have read Lolita twice in my life, but when I found this excerpt as epigraph earlier this year while reading for field exams, I didn’t recognize it. It haunts me because it lays out so clearly the ways in which I’ve sealed my own fate by presuming not just the narratives of the people in my life, but the narrative of my own life.
I am always trying to conform to my own notion of myself, except I am not entirely sure what that notion is. I am always piecing myself together from a collection of my past, my own feelings and insights, and the insights of my family and friends.
I met with my dissertation advisor this afternoon to discuss my pending oral qualifying exams that will take place tomorrow at 2pm. She said that I am good at talking. She said that I am rather fearless. I get this a lot these days. The world has somehow become a mirror and in it I am seeing a version of myself I don’t recognize. I am seeing a person not so resistant to change, not so hyperbolic, not so willing to succumb to my own emotions. I’m seeing the person the world seems to think I am based on 1,500 words that appeared online and in the newspaper a couple weeks ago. Or rather, I am seeing the people the world thinks I am.
I am a porous person. I am shaped and molded easily by those around me. But the people around me have grown in number, and my shape is changing. Maybe I will become a wolf. Or a ball of light. Or snow or a song or something gray and amorphous and unimaginable.
The point is, I’m giving myself up to a different narrative, one that is perhaps not a narrative at all. This is hard for me. The narrative is all I know. But that’s the old me talking. The narrative is all I thought I knew. Perhaps I know more. Perhaps I am a bit fearless in spite of being so afraid. Perhaps I am not as many-angled as I think I am.
Two nights ago, I watched Maggie Nelson read from The Argonauts at a conference where I presented a paper that wasn’t actually a paper but was a digital experiment in recombinatory flash criticism (no, that doesn’t actually mean anything). She read from the beginning, the middle, and the end. She read about being fucked in the ass, about making the private public, about puncturing solitude, about the many-gendered mothers of her heart. I asked her afterward how to stay safe as someone writing from or through an “I.” The I that I am is so prone to forming myself around what others need me to be, so much so that I’m not entirely sure what I am, and any deep investigation into what I am yields static and confusion.
There are about 40 things I’m trying to say here that I’m not saying. About how I’m learning what I am, what I want to be, what kind of writer, what kind of scholar, what kind of user of time, what kind of lover and partner and citizen (if any). There are books I’m trying to work through in my head. Essays. Stories. Sometimes all I can do is watch How To Get Away With Murder. Or dream of another place. A colder place. A place that exists in some narrative of myself where I am driving with you through the woods up to Tahoe and it is dark and there are only trees and curves and the hope of stars, except in this narrative you’re gone, I’m the one driving, I’m alone, it’s much colder than the August night on which this actually happened, and my destination isn’t your family’s cabin but is instead nothing and nowhere.