oh mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones

(19 may 2010)

Like millions of former English majors working in borderline abusive secretarial jobs, I have written a book. It has not been published, which is pretty much the same as having not written anything at all.

There’s this book I’m meant to write. I’ve known it since before the other. And yet it is hard to ratchet up whatever it is that it’s going to take to write what’s next.

It is challenging to write a follow-up to something that has never been read.

That makes it sound far more important than it really is. It’s not the gospel or an epic or, heaven help me, Fiction. It’s just biography and it’s just Jackie- a subject that is the biographical equivalent to the beauty pageant answer “world peace.”

So in the large scheme of things like God and Franzen, it is relatively unimportant that there’s this Jackie book I’m meant to write. And it’s fairly inconsequential that this is THE Jackie book and that I really really don’t want to write it because it is an inferno of impossibles.

Because biography done well is a whole hard world of difficult and I’m not ready to fling myself in the abyss just yet.

These are all things I should have considered before mentioning this Jackie book to a fellow biographer; before casually tossing it out over the humus plate in the simple hope of garnering that amorphous credibility that comes from the respect writers have for one another’s as-yet-unexecuted Great Ideas.

It is a great idea so I was stupid not to have foreseen the explosion of enthusiasm its revelation would trigger. I should have anticipated the overpowering gung-ho.

There are three reasons why this project, this Jackie book- otherwise perfect- appalls me to no end:

1. It involves a language I do not speak.
2. It involves money I do not have.
3. It involves sources that do not exist.

Never mind that the few sources that do exist appear to be systematically dying as I approach them.

There’s an Elvis song entitled “It’s Impossible.” The actual opening lyric is “It’s impossible to tell the sun to leave the sky.” My family bastardized this line into the distinctly different yet equally truthy observation that “it’s impossible to stick a piano up your nose,” the sentiment that perhaps most accurately captures my feelings towards this project.

This Jackie book? It is a piano up my nose.

I do not say any of this to the fellow biographer when, three months later, she returns to the subject of the dreaded Jackie book. I do not tell her it’s a piano up my nose. Instead I nod and smile as she says Jackie book’s time has come. That it is a story that MUST be told. NOW.

It could be a documentary! A mini-series! A Sophia Coppola-directed feature film!

The fellow biographer tells me this and only then does she avert her gaze toward her falafel and drop the bomb for which I have been waiting all this time.

That it would be better were I an academic or an older, previously published white man (sadly, I am neither), Because there is no funding for girls like us.

A sentence that, just hearing it spoken, I know is going to be hell on earth to repeat to my parents.

When I do, a full week and a half later, my mother says- her voice fraught with the hope that her daughter is the reasonable, financially cautious young woman she was raised to be and an inkling that she probably isn’t-Well, maybe someday you can really do it, but the timing’s just all bad right now, right?

And I couldn’t help but laugh. Because though I’m a woman of few philosophies, the one I’ve held most dear is that one must imagine somewhat more boldly than may be socially acceptable and that when things are at their most inconvenient and impossible, that’s when they’d really best be done.

Which is essentially what the biographer meant when she said, We’re story-tellers and, really, nothing else matters when you’ve a story to tell.

So maybe this is it. Maybe Jackie’s time has come and it will be the year that- without French or funding and with sources dying right and left- I finally try to tell this story that all the older, previously published white men have inexplicably overlooked. This story that— I am quite sure— was left behind just for me.

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