I’m sorry about all that. Really. I’m really sorry.
But I had to write it to get to here. To tell you about my second hesitation. My second reluctance when I assigned Heartbreaking Work. Because the irony, the snarkiness, is one thing. I can appreciate it in a wry, mouth-twisting, intellectual way, though it does little for my heart or for my soul. But this other thing. This second thing — it’s dangerous. And seductive.
It’s the way Dave Eggers carries his half-written book around with him like a weapon. Like a lesson. The way he holds it over his friends. Holds it against them. Near the end, one of his friends calls him on it. Asks not to be put in the book:
“How much do you really care about me, outside of my usefulness as some kind of cautionary tale, a stand-in for someone else, for your dad, for these people who disappoint you—”
“You are so like him.”
“I’m not this. I can’t be reduced to this. I am not a lesson. You are not a teacher.”
“I am allowed.”
“I am allowed.”
Perhaps the London Review of Books summed it up best when they called Eggers’ work a “grand settling of accounts.” It’s tempting, writing for vengeance. It seems to have worked for Eggers. And there’s that famous story of Michelangelo painting a critic as one of the three judges of hell on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. So I’m not saying vengeance can’t be a creative tool.
But it isn’t for me.
Up until three or even two years ago, A Heartbreaking Work is the type of book I might have written. If I’d been writing. I would have painted whole legions into judgment. Whole bureaucracies. I would have painted in broad swaths, written a book with plenty of villains. Eastside High School would have been a villain. And all health insurance companies, followed closely by most doctors. And the entire medical system. And most churches. And some individuals, too.
You see, when my dad first started showing signs of sickness, around my senior year of high school, I went silent. I went silent for ten years. I mean, I went to college and I ate lunch with people and I went to parties and I had people over and I laughed. But I went silent about the big things. About the hard things. I waited and I watched. I bided my time, always with my half-written book in mind. And I noticed things. I noticed how people treated my dad and I took mental notes. I kept my god-like lists of the good and the bad. Who would make the cut? Who would make it into my book? And waiting in line at the grocery store and driving to class and, especially, at night before I went to bed I rehearsed my register of wrongs to myself and I thought about my book and I felt better. I thought about my book that only needed an ending and then the whole world would be set right and in that ending my dad would get better and everyone would do a quick intake of breath and say Oh my God. They were right. She was right.
And then my dad died.
And then Eastside High School said the most ridiculous thing. They said they didn’t want me to teach English for them anymore because I told too many stories during class time and I didn’t care about the state standards. They broke up with me? And I went over to Chris’s house and I ranted and I raved about all the writing I had to do because now I had a second book! My first book would fix everything about medicine and this one, this second one, would fix education! (Only that book’s already been written. More than once.)
But Chris just looked at me and asked: “Are you really talking about writing? Or do you just want everyone to tell you that you’re right? Because I know you, and I don’t think you can write for spite.”
And I stalked off and tried to write my books anyway but I never did. I never wrote a thing. I went silent for two more years. And I taught as an adjunct teacher but it didn’t pay all my bills so I took on a series of progressively worse full-time jobs. I tried to be an office manager for a plumbing company and I tried to be a personal assistant for a sort-of crazy businessman and I tried to start up a local newspaper for an outright eccentric and I got fired from everything. I lost everything.
And I came back to Chris and said I’m no good at any job I do.
“That’s true. But who cares?”
And I said Help me. Please. I feel like my soul is endlessly turning in on itself and I’ve become nothing but a storing-house for sadness. I have nothing. I have nothing and I’m no good at any job I do and I can’t even write anymore.
Chris sighed and said “I already told you. You can’t write for spite. I don’t just mean you shouldn’t — I mean you really can’t. I’ve watched you try.”
What do I write for then?
And Chris sighed again. “Isn’t it obvious? You have to write for the only thing you’ve ever been any good at your entire life. You have to write for love.”
Now that I can do. Because there are things that I love and there are places that I love and there are people who I love and, most of all, there is person who I love.
That’s why you have to believe me when I say that, despite everything I wrote before, I don’t want to write for vengeance. I don’t need to. I’m not here to even the score. I have no accounts to settle, other than my own. The people I’ve slighted and neglected. The people I’ve wronged.
And now. Now. It’s not that I don’t think that there’s evil in the health insurance system or problems with how we treat sick people as a culture. It’s just that, in grad school, professionally, and personally, I find it much more creatively stimulating to think in terms of collaboration rather than critique. To define myself in terms of what I’m for rather than what I’m against.
I’m not against public education as much as I’m for parental involvement and effective, affordable alternatives.
I’m not against health insurance companies as much as I’m for innovative cost-sharing programs.
I’m not against traditional medicine and god-like doctors as much as I’m for narrative medicine, for open communication, for treating patients like humans rather than a battery of tests.
Even the Lyme disease. I am not so much against Lyme disease as I am for those who have it. I’m more than for you. I’m with you.