• We Sit in a Circle

    Judith Clare Mitchell

    Summer 2022

    In January 1981, when I was twenty-eight and two years divorced and there was no internet or serotonin reuptake inhibitors, I sometimes opened the Providence yellow pages—that voluminous if inert search engine—and scanned the eclectic array of addiction specialists, adoption agencies, junk haulers, and housecleaners who’d paid to have their businesses listed under the inchoate category of HELP. Or I’d read the help wanted ads in the Providence Journal and look for my name. In both cases it was as if I hoped for a listing that said, Judy: Call this number and we’ll fix everything.

    When I had the energy, I sought less magical but equally nonproductive means of rescue. I made appointments with a series of psychologists but connected with none. I went on dates, so many dates, usually spending the night, but almost always grateful to part in the morning. There was also a man I saw somewhat steadily, a bankruptcy lawyer whose girlfriend, a nurse, worked nights and weekends. Just good times, cocktails, and sex, I reminded myself when not only the gin but oxytocin began to flow.

    I was weepy, felt empty, had nothing but my office work, which I did from nine to five, and my drinking, which I did when I got home. I’d once had writing, the only thing I’d ever been told I was good at, but I had faltered without deadlines, assignments, community. This season of my life, these doldrums, might have been a good time for an MFA—Brown, a half mile from my apartment, offered one—but that would have required planning and gumption. The only writing I did was in a personal journal, daily multi-page scrawls of frustrations and disappointments and self-recrimination that I didn’t think counted. “If you write something that nobody else reads, is that really writing?” a professor in college had asked us, fledgling novelists in a seminar room. Yes, we chirped, but she shook her head sadly and told us the answer was no.

    1/6/81 Today’s new therapist looks over my forms and asks what I need to cure my depression. I’ve never been asked that before. I say I don’t think of chronic depression as something curable exactly, the way headaches can be cured with aspirin, but if she’s asking what might mitigate it some, then maybe a committed relationship with someone I like who likes me. Love is what I mean, but it’s also a word I don’t like to use in public. It has come to sound babyish to me.  

    In any case, my answer is not only wrong, it’s offensive. She literally rolls her eyes and tells me I should not need a man to be happy. Also, if I really wanted a relationship, I’d have one. Finding a man is not as difficult as I’m making it out to be. Women meet men all the time. Women meet men every day on the bus. 

    “Well, that must be my problem,” I say. “I walk to work.” 

    This therapist, an icicle wearing a blue suit from Talbot’s, glares and asks why I’ve chosen to deliberately deflect her point. I tell her I’m sorry, but I’m a transplanted Jewish New Yorker and joking in moments like this is something we do. I want so badly to add that relationships are not as easily come by as she thinks, that, in fact, the only thing harder than finding a good man in Providence is finding a good therapist in Providence, that in both cases you know within five minutes it’s not going to work, but you still have to sit there for a reasonable amount of time, blithering out your life story, as I’m doing now, forty-six minutes to go.

    And so, for my New Year’s resolution I forced myself to hunt down a writing class. The one I found was an adult education course called “Keeping a Journal for Creative Writing.”

    I expected, as did the others who enrolled, a class where we’d comb through our journals and turn the more interesting entries into finished essays or stories or even a book—readable, publishable, real. We imagined we’d grapple with the ethical issues inherent in creative work based on actual people and events, that we’d learn how to fiddle with timelines and fudge facts to shape the ordinary into something dramatic, to impose on our lives a compelling narrative arc.

    It was the preposition in the title that had thrown us off. The class should have been called Keeping a Journal as Creative Writing. Because contrary to our assumptions, our journal entries weren’t going to be the raw material for essays and stories, but the final product. The first and last draft. The point.

    Our instructor, Marcia, laid out the rules. We’d all continue to write in our journals at home. In each class session, we’d read our journal entries aloud. That was it. No lessons. No discussion. No feedback. This wasn’t a writing workshop. It wasn’t group therapy. If someone was overwhelmed by the need to respond to a piece, that person could say to its author, “Thank you for sharing.”

    Nor could we revise. Any entry we opted to read had to be both true and raw. We couldn’t invent or exaggerate or withhold or whitewash. Each clunky sentence was expected to capture our truth at the moment we put it down on the page. Rewriting would impose an understanding or mood from a subsequent moment. Change did not improve our entries, it rendered them false.

    Facetiously but seriously, Marcia made us raise our right hands. Facetiously but seriously, we intoned as one: I shall make no changes. I shall not revise.

    1/28/81 Today’s new therapist is a hollow-cheeked man in a suit and tie with wispy white hair. He has arranged the blinds so the afternoon sun glares in his patients’ faces.  

    He asks about my life. I tell him about my office job and my women friends and the men, all the men. It’s the men he homes in on. “So,” he says, “you are sitting here proudly telling me you’re promiscuous.” 

    I don’t like promiscuous. I’d prefer anything over promiscuous. Whore. Slattern. Slut. At least slut sounds like a girl who’s having fun. I’d also prefer a therapist who hadn’t come of age during the Great Depression. I try to catch him up on what’s happened since. The pill, the terms “double standards” and “sexual revolution.” I come this close to bringing “generation gap” out of mothballs. 

    He says, “If you believed any of that you wouldn’t be depressed.” 

    Later I meet up with a guy friend at the Rue De L’espoir. We drink martinis while I rail about his species. The sneering therapist. My ex-husband who recently volunteered that my face is better than the face of the woman he’s currently seeing, but her body is better than mine. The bankruptcy lawyer who lies to me whenever he’s going to be with the nurse. 

    “We agreed from the start we’d both see other people,” I say to my friend, “so why does he lie about it?”

    “The real question,” my friend says, “is why do you always pick men from the Venn diagram of assholes?” 

    He takes a pen from his jacket, draws three interlocking circles on a cocktail napkin, points to each one in turn. “You’ve got your mean pricks here,” he says, “and your selfish jerks here and your insensitive douchebags here.” 

    My friend is an awkward man, bulky and balding, obsessed with antiquity and obscure operas. I’m sure women have been choosing awful men over him all his life.

    “The therapist you saw today is a prick,” my friend says. “The lawyer you’re dating is a jerk. Your ex-husband’s a douchebag. And you’re sitting in the middle thinking the men in the circles are all there is.”

    I tell him I get what he’s saying, but I don’t think he understands how the center of Venn diagrams work. “If I’m in the middle where the circles overlap,” I say, “it doesn’t make me some damsel trapped in a world of assholes. It makes me all three kinds of asshole at once. It makes me mean and selfish and clueless.”

    But later, when he asks me to go back to his place, this nice guy, this good friend who is not an asshole, who cares about me, and I say I’m sorry, I just don’t see you that way—then I think maybe he understands Venn diagrams fine.

    We went around the room at the start of our second class, each of us reading one of our entries. The single mother read about exhaustion and food stamps. The older woman read about leaving her family for a woman she recently met and fell for. The self-identified housewife read about sleeping alongside her second husband while dreaming of her first, a boy who died too young.

    The nurse’s aide read about changing the dressings on a patient’s vulvectomy. “There was no mons pubis. No clitoris. No vagina. No nothing.”

    The only man in the group read about being the only man in the group.

    I read about the Venn diagram of assholes, my farcical piece about my stereotypical life. It got laughs. As I’d painstakingly designed it to.

    Because right from the start I’d broken my vow. I’d written the first draft—the one I’d promised not to alter in any way—with care, knowing a group of strangers would be hearing it, judging it and me. But when I finished that first draft and read it over, I knew I could make it clearer, funnier, smarter, more meaningful. With no hesitation—who would know, after all?—I tore the page out of my notebook and started anew.

    Though no one had taught me about the off-putting nature of melodramatic interiority, I removed all fulminations and self-pity. Though it would be almost two decades before I could articulate how direct dialogue impacts pacing, I wrote conversations as if a transcriptionist followed me wherever I went. I refined the language, then refined it some more.

    I added the explanatory bits. In the first draft I hadn’t described my friend’s appearance—I knew what he looked like—but had simply referred to him by name. In the second draft I added the description, but omitted his proper name, called him instead by his generic name, “my friend.” This way my audience could envision him but not, in tiny Rhode Island, identify him.

    There was also this: I’d met my friend at the Rue De L’espoir a full month before I wrote this entry. I know because I wrote about our get-together in an earlier journal from 1980. And because I still have that earlier journal, that’s how I also know, some forty years later, that I combined the two entries, pretended that I’d met my friend on the same day I’d met the therapist. To do that I had to make some significant changes. For instance, I deleted the name of the man my friend originally called a prick and subbed in the mean therapist. I clearly didn’t care that I was making things up or turning two true entries into a single entry that would not withstand fact-checking. I introduced an element of fiction, the kind of deeper truth-telling that only an author’s inventiveness could bring to the page.  

    I don’t remember committing this perfidy, but I have no doubt as to my reasons. It turned a consumer complaint into a story. It complicated the first-person narrator by contrasting the therapist’s view of her immoral behavior with what was truly immoral—not her expression of her sexuality but her doing something that could deeply hurt another woman. No, I was saying without coming right out and saying it, our narrator is not the innocent her friend thinks she is. She is, in fact, the bad person, the asshole the therapist thinks she is. But not for the reason the therapist thinks.

    As for the changes to the prose itself, clunky writing had always been a stray lash in my eye, something I couldn’t ignore. It didn’t matter what I’d sworn to. I could not leave my writing unpolished. When it came to writing, if only my writing, I had standards.

    Though the class was not what we’d expected, we adapted. Then we more than adapted, and journal writing became our calling. We’d finish reading our entries aloud and sit in astonished silence at all the human business we’d shared. Marcia said, “More and more I think this kind of writing is the most important writing I do,” and we wrote that down. Only one person resisted. This was Delores, who, on the first day, told us she was a travel writer, which turned out to mean she wrote letters to friends when she traveled, and who, at the second meeting, before walking out, said, “I don’t see why it has to be so dark. Why can’t we write about recipes and children’s bright sayings and vacations?”

    I had no children, feared solo travel, and for dinner, often opened a can from Campbell’s new Soup for One line. My kitchen trash was empty wine bottles and a half dozen Soups for One. “Well, that’s pathetic,” a date said one morning before he tied off the bag and carried it to the curb on his way to his car. It was a little less pathetic when you turned it and him into a journal entry, when the soup and the man both got laughs. My journals were full of this sort of thing, some funny, some not.

    Judith Claire Mitchell is the author of the novels The Last Day of the War and A Reunion of Ghosts, the latter the recipient of the Edna Ferber Prize and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. A professor emerita in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her short fiction and essays have appeared in journals such as the Missouri Review, the Sun, and the Iowa Review.

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