Dear David Shields
My wife and I saw you read at the Strand last spring. After the reading, as we were heading down the stairs of the Union Square subway station, my wife said, “You should write about my father sometime.” I misheard her, maybe because of all the surrounding noise. “I don’t really think it’s a good idea for me to write about my father,” I said. “No, my father,” she said. “You should write about my father.” We had been talking about how I don’t write anymore. She assumed it was due to lack of subject matter. Interestingly, she never asked me why I didn’t think it was a good idea to write about my father.
I’ve read all of your books except Handbook for Drowning and Heroes, although I did not read them in chronological order. This non-chronologic reading order influenced the experience of reading Dead Languages, which is ostensibly a novel. I’d already read about your stutter in your nonfiction work, and I’d already heard you speak (in person and on podcasts) about your stutter. I’d also read your own take on Dead Languages as autobiography masked as fiction. So I read Dead Languages as straight nonfiction, easily substituting “David Shields” for “Jeremy Zorn.” I wondered how different, maybe even how better, the book would have been if you wrote it today. It’s a stupid thought, because the book was fascinatingly good. And when I finished, I lamented that my father hadn’t dealt with his stutter as productively as you have with yours, which is also a stupid thought.
I have not been sleeping well for over a year now, but I used to be able to lay motionless in bed, with my eyes closed, a state of pseudo-meditation (or so I told myself). In the last few weeks, I have started to fidget. My irritable bowels force me out of bed right into the stack of New Yorkers that sit on top of the toilet. I then tiptoe out of the room so as not to wake my wife. I make myself coffee and try to distract myself until I can, reasonably, return to the bedroom, take a shower, get dressed, and pretend that I am doing a normal morning routine.
Wayne Koestenbaum: Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person-singular pronoun. Later I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it.
My dad, who has always been a nervous person (in addition to his stutter, he twitches/tics and insists on getting to the airport three hours before his flight), went through a long bout of depression when I was seven. The only solid memory I have of that period was that he slept downstairs, in our den, because he was averaging only three or four hours of sleep each night and making my mother miserable with his restlessness. So, he made his bed on the den couch, watched late night talk shows until he drifted off, put on early morning news shows when he inevitably awoke a few hours later, and sat like a vegetable until I came down each morning with a bowl of cereal and changed the channel to morning cartoons.
I look like my dad (I hear this all the time, especially at the hospital, where my father, also a physician, still works part-time), and now I sometimes feel like my dad. I’ve never asked him about what drove him to sleep downstairs for almost an entire year. If I did, he would answer, “Stupid things. I was worried about money – expenses like braces, bar mitzvahs, summer camps. I worried about my patients, about missing diagnoses. I felt that I was getting out of physical shape – I’d become a horrible tennis player, for example, and couldn’t run without my big toe flaring up. Stupid things like that. Nothing really important. But no one who’s depressed worries about important things, because then it’s not really depression. It’s normal.”
Charles D’Ambrosio: The idea was this – that at a certain age, a black hole emerged in the middle of your life, and everything got sucked into it, and you knew, forever afterward, that it was there, this dense negative space, and yet you went on, you struggled, you made your money, you had some babies, you got wasted, and you pretended it wasn’t there and never looked directly at it, if you could manage the trick. I imagined that this black hole existed somewhere just behind you and also somewhere just in front of you, so that you were always leaving it behind and entering it at the same time.
I was thirty-five when my daughter was born, roughly four years after my wife and I started trying to have a baby. I constantly think about how insanely lucky we were to have her, which immediately transforms into an incessant worrying about how she could die at any moment. It’s an awful fear to have because (a) my daughter is healthy, and (b) I spend all of my working days around people who are not. I suspect this type of anxiety is shared by all parents, to some degree, but is particularly felt by parents who’ve struggled with infertility.
Every time I watch a video of my daughter, I think about how sad it would be to watch this video if she was dead.
Chuck Klosterman: I feel like my constant fear that my baby is going to die and it’s going to be my fault keeps my mind sharp. And then the amount of care required sort of gives my life purpose. So it’s kind of like a Life of Pi situation where my baby is the tiger.
My daughter enjoys undressing her Madeline doll, which is easy for her because the doll only has two items of clothing: a blue coat and a pair of small, white gloves. At the end of the day, I put the coat and gloves back on Madeline, and, while doing so, I think about how wretched this re-dressing of the doll would be if my daughter was dead. More specifically (more pathologically), I think about how crushing this scene would be in a movie about a parent whose child has died.
When my father used to bathe me and my brothers, he would obsessively examine our bodies for black and blue marks. When he found one, he’d press to ensure the bruise hurt. This was his way of screening us for leukemia.
At brunch with friends (friends = parents of a child the same age as my daughter), I decline a second cup of coffee. “If I drink two cups today, then tomorrow I’ll have a headache unless I have two cups. So I’ve started limiting myself to just one cup because my threshold for caffeine dependence has gotten incredibly low.” Why do I feel a need to append this tiresome explanation with a joke? “In other words, how I became my father.”
My wife told me a story about an intensive care specialist from her training at the University of Arizona. Apparently this doctor, whose job often required him to deliver bad news to a patient’s family, had a bad stutter. My wife said, “One time, he was talking to this woman about her husband, and he said, ‘I think he’s going to die die die die die.'” Having grown up around a stutterer, I know it’s a false story. That’s not how my father would have stuttered the line. He would have blocked for a few seconds before getting the sentence started. He would not have repeated the same word over and over and over.
A favorite joke of mine (and of my brothers, too): At a stuttering convention, the keynote speaker is a psychologist who also happens to be a beautiful woman. She tells the audience her theory that stuttering can be cured with the proper motivation. To prove this, she promises to sleep with any stutterer who can answer a simple question without stuttering. She invites the first three volunteers on stage. She asks the first man, “Where do you live?” He answers, “D-d-d-d-d-d-etroit.” She moves on to the second man. “Where do you live?” He answers, “Ch-ch-ch-ch-icago.” She moves on to the third volunteer, who answers her question immediately. “Miami.” Excited, the psychologist whisks the man upstairs to her hotel room, where they proceed to make love. In the afterglow of the sex, she turns to him and says, “Now, wasn’t that a great experience? Isn’t it amazing what you can do with the proper motivation?” To which he answers, “B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-each.”
I am thirty seven years old and identify myself as: a father, a husband, a doctor, a son, a brother (and brother-in-law), a bourbon drinker, a Mets/Jets/Knicks fan, a subscriber to six podcasts (of which I never miss an episode, akin to the way my father never misses an issue of his subscription medical journals), a too-slow reader, an early riser (5:30 AM) who tires too early each night (around 9:00 PM), a former music nerd, a current music nostalgic, more of a salt tooth than a sweet tooth, and a New York Jew. I no longer identify myself as a writer.
Collage is the only form that currently appeals to me as a writer, despite my frequent failures in the format. Collage fits me as someone who sneaks in reading on the subway, as someone who considers a twitter feed (at times) to be meaningful in its assemblage of information, as someone who has bought into the idea of art=content. Collage has become my favorite form to read, although I had trouble getting through Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which I read upon your recommendation. I did use a quote from Speedboat in a collage piece I wrote about hotel room sex (“I have often been in hotels alone. It is no good unless you’re on assignment. One sits in the lobby, the bar, or worst of all the restaurant, with a book, and pretends to be preoccupied. One gets soup or vegetables on the pages, and they stick.”) that has been rejected by at least half a dozen journals.
Wayne Koestenbaum (in the same essay quoted above): The world was doing its best to ignore the fact that I was a writer.
My inability to write is not the same as my father’s inability to speak, is it? I’ve always felt that our anxieties align much closer than our shortcomings (physical appearance excepted, of course, as neither of us would be considered conventionally handsome).
David Shields: When I’m having trouble writing something, I often close the document and compose the passage as email to, say, my friend Michael. I imagine I can feel the tug of the recipient at the other end of the wire, and this creates in me a needed urgency. The letter always arrives at its destination.