THE BLOG

The Art of Translation: On Confessional Writing

06/12/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016
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A friend recently told me about a word game where you place the word "only" anywhere in the following sentence: "she told him that she loved him." She only told him that she loved him, she told him that she loved only him, she told him that she loved him only, she told only him that she loved him, and on and on. Where you choose to place this one word changes the meaning of the sentence, the narrative of it, dramatically. Intentions are downplayed, exclusivity is promised, the counterbalance between the words "only" and "love" is re-weighted over and over again. As a writer, this game reminds me of the often fraught experience of writing about relationships, how I've tried so gently to calibrate what is said and what is left out and still the smallest syntactical gesture makes the difference between opening or healing wounds.

I first came to writing by reading poetry and trying to pin down my own feelings. Words gave them a shape that made them feel solid; as if the tangle of abstraction in my chest became something functional or at least substantial, anything that I could hold at an arm's length. A paperweight. In high school, I once heard a famous poet read a poem over the radio that he had written about his favorite meal. I knew that for better or worse I would never write poems about pizza or other small daily pleasures. I worried that this meant that I wasn't a real poet, that I wasn't in touch enough with what I later learned to call the quotidian.

I wrote and studied poetry throughout college. When I put together a collection of my previous work my senior year, it became obvious that I had only ever written poems about relationships, not just romantic ones, but that all of my writing was an attempt to figure out how to talk to someone, maybe it still is. I wrote to try to frame experiences that felt impossibly big. I had a meeting with the chair of the department in order to be assigned someone to work with on my thesis. This was 2003, the first time that I heard the term "first person confessional." I also learned that I was supposed to feel ashamed. I learned to feel uneasy with any writing about love, especially my own, to look down on writing about relationships. I stopped writing poems.

Several months ago on the walk home from drinks out with a date, I drunkenly used the word "archipelago" instead of "arpeggio" while describing an album to him. It was too dark for him to see me blush when he corrected me. An archipelago is a group of islands and an arpeggio is a
broken chord; both words are terms for clusters that stand-alone but in proximity to others like them.

The same day that my friend told me about the word game, I attended a lecture by an author and translator who spoke about the importance of word choice in translation and how much of a difference it makes what dictionary one uses. As readers, we depend on writers to translate for us the abstract, what we didn't know, yet we needed to hear, into gripping language. As a writer, it's difficult to escape the anxiety that my translation from the experience of love into text is somehow off by a word, that one most important word that makes all the difference between connecting with a reader and falling flat on my face. I've also learned that writing about those closest to me inevitably changes relationships in my personal life because I've anointed myself the narrator of our shared experience. I'm articulating and defining an ineffable intimacy, I'm documenting someone at their most vulnerable. It doesn't matter that I'm also at my most vulnerable. We each experience love differently and at the same time we're looking for mirror images.

We read and also fall in love not only to see ourselves reflected back to us, but also to meet someone outside of ourselves, for both affinity and exception. I write to connect with people, I do so on the page in part because, like most writers (and also as someone with a variety of neurological quirks), it's always been easier for me interact in the space between reader and writer than it is in person, as much as I'd like to. My favorite poem, the one that I taped to my fridge, is "My Heart" by Frank O' Hara. The final line of the poem is "and the heart/well, you can't count on the heart but the better part of it my poetry is open." It reminds me to stay receptive to all forms of possibility in both writing and relationships, to be afraid and do it anyway.