“It feels reassuring to write everything you remember, how it all felt. But to write well sometimes involves rejecting reassurance.”
I’m pretty sure Stephen King was the first writer to say that line about needing to force yourself to kill your darlings. At this point, it’s ubiquitous enough that I’m not going to bother to look up the source—it belongs to at least three different people in the first meeting of every writing class I’ve ever been a part of. The line is useful and true; darlings are hard to kill. All the more difficult, I’ve found, when all the darlings are yourself.
your name here painted upon them.
In what started as sort of a final flagellation, I deleted the scene. Fifteen pages gone. This hurt, but made me feel a rush of renewed risk, like getting a tattoo. I kept scrolling through the manuscript, and whenever the boredom became palpable, I cut again—the scene in which I wander, grieving, through a faded Poconos campsite on a class trip; the scene of my mother giving me permission to grieve in my own way; the Thanksgiving scene in which all of the story’s players are conveniently in action around a single table; the scene of me and my father and my surviving brother talking about movies; the final scene of me returning to the funeral home where the service had been held.
I had not intended for there to be a pattern to my purge, but when the dust settled, everything newly missing from my book was about me. What remained after the deletions felt startlingly naked when I read it over. There were quick memories of my own; there were memories from other people and snippets of the interviews I’d conducted with them; there were references to the books I thought about when I thought about my brother. Nothing lasted long; there was very little arc to connect the fragments. When you remove both showing and telling, what’s left is only implied. What was left for me was blankness, the throbbing nothing between the bones of my brother’s story—a story about absence, about what cannot be understood.
It took a while to accept that the scenes I’d deleted wouldn’t be pasted right back in. Their removal seemed wasteful. And honestly, I was more unsure of the book without them. I thought I had less control over my readers’ reactions, less of a handle on whether any of what I wanted to be felt would be felt. It was hard to trust that the reader would connect at all. But perhaps the reason so many of the scenes about my own journey eventually felt boring to me was that they were, in a way, too easy. Not easy in their construction, not easy in the emotions that they explored, but easy in the fact that you could anticipate them. They made sense. They made a narrative. They addressed ephemeral, irreconcilable themes—addiction, grief, guilt—with too much concreteness, too much order, too much substance.
Where there had been extended descriptions of my life, I began to drop in snippets of the writing my brother had left behind—poems, stories, detox journals. Most had nothing to do with me. I only read them long after he was gone. They fostered no scenes and led to no epiphanies. They lay there on the page, unchanged, incomplete, surrounded by blank space on either side. And, to my great surprise, they felt right.
I read an old Auster interview recently in which he describes The Invention of Solitude as “an exploration of how one might begin to speak about another person, and whether or not it is even possible.” This line really resonated with me; what better way to describe an attempt that is both autobiography and elegy? So much of any memoir is the exploration of what can even be said. In the face of such uncertainty, of course it feels reassuring to write everything you remember, how it all felt. But to write well sometimes involves rejecting reassurance. It took a long time for me to realize that, when trying to tell the untellable, what you don’t say can be the most important part of the story.
Lucas Mann was born in New York City and received his MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. He is the author of Lord Fear: A Memoir (Pantheon, 2015), and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Pantheon, 2013), which earned a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection and was named one of the best books of 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle. His essays have appeared in Slate, Gawker, Barrelhouse, TriQuarterly, Complex and The Kenyon Review, among others.