Mary Barbour is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Mary has taught writing workshops at Dave Egger’s Literary Organization, 826 Valencia, in San Francisco. She has also spent time volunteering in high school writing programs in Brooklyn and Manhattan as well as reading submissions for the Pushcart Prize. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, where she is working on a short story collection about things like violence, existentialism, and the trials of modern love.
There’s something so cathartic about the month of January, isn’t there? Something about the sparkle of pure white snow, twinkling on windowpanes and glimmering off tree branhces; the promise of a fresh start; a clean slate; a new beginning. Getting reconnected with the “real you” in its purest essence. It’s a time for a purging of the past to make room for a future. A time for progression…and for reconciliation. A time to rush headlong into the year with a bounty of hopes and expectations…and no concept of the impossible.
This January, however, found me a bit blasé about the possibilities of the new year. Like most MFA students, I hadn’t been writing at all. But suddenly an opportunity arose for me to read aloud in front of a crowd of brilliant friends and writers! NON-FICTION of all things! I broke into a sweat. I don’t write non-fiction. You see, Fiction writers can get away with writing like we … don’t know how to write. We don’t even have to form complete sentences, and it’s all nonsense anyway. NON-FICTION, on the other hand, was a finely crafted form of truth (something that I’d come to believe was nefarious and important to avoid). As far as I could tell, I was supposed to write something real about myself.
I cowered in the darkness of my study for days.
What was it that was hindering me? Why couldn’t I just write something true?? I agonized over the mental blockage and decided, that perhaps I needed to do a psychic cleansing of sorts…to fess up to a few human mistakes from my past and see if that sort of reflective honesty might open the floodgates and let words come pouring out in the form of something…something that might be considered vaguely self-reflective and true…literary NON-FICTION, if you will.
I knew it was a long shot, but had little to lose at that point. I hoped that in some way, professing a thing or two about myself, would, in turn, allow me to access the precious facts and insight, or whatever it is one needs to write something like the daunting “personal essay”.
I thought it would be a good idea to pen a list of situations in which I may have….slighted someone in on way or another. You know…things I might not readily admit to just anyone. Perhaps if I got that out of the way I could move on to the other stuff…stuff that was no less true…but maybe less….complete. As expected, these secrets were difficult to access at first, buried deep, deep in the unmined layers of my subconscious. But slowly, a few began to trickle out. I started making a list of apologies, which began like this:
I’m sorry to my big sister, Susan, for reading your journal throughout most of middle and high school. I always wondered why you began hiding it underneath your amoire and filled it’s previous spot on your nightstand with Twin Peaks: The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. I took this to mean that you knew all along that I was snooping through your things but in retrospect I guess that still doesn’t make it right. Still, as you are now a published memoirist, I can’t help but think you took some pleasure in having an audience at such a young age.
To Mrs. Rogers, my high school math teacher. I was coerced (by the popular girls) at school into walking out of your class that day even though it was against my better judgement. But you did call me by my older sister’s name for six months and once even called me Barbara Lee, on my birthday. When the class staged a coup against your dreadfully pointless homework assignments and agreed to walk out after role call, I followed the herd, but really, I never thought you were all that.
To the girl on the dance floor who we didn’t see walk into the bathroom at that gay cowboy bar in Denver. I mean, let’s be honest, that outfit was a bit much for a Thursday night, but you were probably having a great time in those white satin pants until you heard our rather harsh judements drift over the bathroom stall.
I realized once I started writing that the memories came rushing back, and the apologies began to roll out more and more easily. This was great! Why didn’t I think of this before?? I jotted them down as quickly as I could, thinking how important it was to free myself of this meaningless weight….to get over the hurdle of thinking that NON-FICTION had to mean I was confessing something about myself which I’d prefer to hide underneath a fictional veil….that a piece of NON-FICTION had to be something revealing, something epiphanic. No, no….this was the necessary purging that I needed to get out of the way, so that I could get on with writing the good stuff, the important truths about me and the world in which I live. So I plowed on:
To my Aunt Jean and her gender ambiguous teacup poodle. When you brought Holly home, you dressed her in a pink sweater and insisted that she eat out of her pink Princess bowls. It wasn’t long before you discovered that “she” was really a “he” and renamed him Elvis, fitting him in a blue plaid doggie jacket. Unbeknownst to you, I subversively challenged your conventional notions of gender by changing him back into a pink sweater each morning before you woke and training him to eat out of the princess bowls, which I hid under the shelf in the laundry room. I’m sorry that he still pees sitting down.
To Mrs. Olsen, my high school gym teacher with the really big calves. I’m sorry for teepeeing your house on the last Thursday of every month. I don’t know why you never thought to watch for us, as you could have set your watch to our monthly schedule of vandalism, but I’m especially sorry about that one time the shaving cream stained the word “Lesbian” on your driveway for so many weeks afterwards. If it’s any consolation, my therapist thinks that was “a significant event” in my life….whatever that means.
Well, I was really on a roll now. Wow, this felt great. To think, after all this time I had never known how easy it was to unload the baggage of feeling like a bad person. What a crime that I hadn’t unburdened myself earlier! I kept on…scribbling furiously in my leather-bound notebook, feeling enthralled about the progress I was making. Once this was done, I was sure I could actually write something:
To Sara Gorman, the forward on our high school basketball team, for referring to you as “Ruben” one time, after you ordered the awful smelling sandwich at a highway truckstop before a traveling game in Joliet. I did not know the nickname would stick, nonetheless haunt you until you eventually switched towns and jobs in a manner not unsimilar to the witness protection program. Our mothers still see each other at County Market from time to time…though eye contact is rigidly avoided.
To the Jefferson Middle school graduating class of 1992. I’m sorry for my haircut during the years of ‘92 to ‘95. I did not think that hairspraying thin strands of my bangs onto my forehead and pulling the rest back into a pompadour, was such a bad idea at the time but looking back, I realize how painful it must have been to witness. Though the memories may have faded, the pictures still live on in all of your school yearbooks.
To my sweet kitten, Chicken Little, my favorite childhood pet. I’m sorry for dangling you over the foyer from the 2nd floor balcony all those times…. but comforting your tiny kitten body afterward gave me such a sense of purpose as an 8 year old. I’m convinced my older brother did the same thing to me as an infant, so really, I had no way of knowing better.
To my friend, Elyssa Kilman, who had been a vegetarian for most of her life. I’m sorry for ordering that pork burrito we split from Holy Guac that one night and telling you it was seitan. I derived so much pleasure from seeing how much you enjoyed it.
To Sharon Parisi, the boss of the first and last corporate job I’ve ever held. I’m sorry I spent most of those two years as your assistant writing down snippets of your phone conversations with your boyfriend and meticulously documenting your eating habits, but I had just read The Devil Wears Prada and was convinced that painting you as an overbearing, money hungry anorexic was surely my key to literary fame.
It’s funny, as i continued to think about the things I was apologizing for, more and more instances kept occurring to me, and I, in turn, kept releasing them, like sandbags thrown off a hot air balloon. I began to feel a levity I thought must be close to holiness. I was feeling things I hadn’t felt in years. I had begun to develop a certain…evolved perspective. I realized that I, Mary Barbour, was not the person who carried out these actions, my old self did and I am but a distant ancestor of that morally stunted version of me. So I kept on, apologizing, for the silly misdemeanors and mistakes, which now seemed to be just impediments on my way to crafting the piece of Creative Non-Fiction I was surely destined to write. I continued:
I’m sorry, 4th floor occupants of Claver Hall my freshman year of college for experimenting with Patchouli as perfume and incense, simultaneously.
Come to think of it, I’ve never apologized to David, my little brother, for feeding you what I thought were tasty Flinstone shaped candies, one by one, and proudly watching you savor each fruity bite. Thank god that Mom noticed the empty bottle, and the green tint of your face, before I could lay you down for a nap. You were too young to remember, but I swear I still notice an almost imperceptible shudder everytime I offer you a tic tac.
To Ali Hartt, because you considered me a friend back in high school. I’m sorry for soaking tampons in tabasco sauce and taping them to your locker freshman year because you were the last girl in school to get your period. I mean…it wasn’t my idea. But still, I’m happy that from what I can gather on Facebook, it seems like you eventually started dating again.
To every roommate I’ve ever had, I’m sorry that I’ve probably eaten most of the bigger chunks of Heath Bar or Cookie Dough out of the pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream you kept in the freezer, but only because I would not have minded if you’d done the same to me, even though not one of you never did.
To the New York City Sanitation department , I’m sorry for telling everyone who will listen my theory on how recycling in this city is just an elaborate hoax. This isn’t something I’m likely to stop doing, but in the event that I’m wrong, I really am sorry.
To my older brother Rick, I’m sorry for killing the plants in your closet when you asked me to water them. I neglected to read the instructions on the fertilizer and just emptied the whole packet in the day before you returned so that you wouldn’t realize I had forgotten to care for them for an entire month. I was only ten and did not know that it was a marijuana plant.
To San Francisco, for being in such a bad mood for most of 2008 and blaming it on you. And subsequently, for telling everyone when I moved back to the East Coast, that you are soulless, badly dressed and smell like cat urine when it’s foggy (which is kind of true).
As I scribbled out this last apology, it occurred to me that in a single sitting, I’d practically become a new person. Without all of this dead, negative energy inside of me, I was able to see more clearly. I was enlightened. I was freed. I could finally sit down with a cup of coffee, unhindered by remorse and regret, and that terrifying fear of being a NON-FICTION writer who had the paralyzing task of accessing and revealing the vulnerable truths about oneself for the purpose of sharing it with a bunch of other people who know you are writing about yourself. Thank god, I had freed myself of these unbearable truths that weren’t fit to be shared with anyone, not the least of whom a crowd of esteemed peers and mentors. Now I could think freely, at last, about what I could possibly write for the Freerange non-fiction reading series that might leave people with some, insightful and revealing, however incomplete, impression of the writer standing before them.