4732 Millas de Distancia
November 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Sometimes, when he’s working in rural Colombia, my friend Mau will take advantage of a moment of signal to send me his location. It appears in our chat as a red pin in the middle of a blank, white square with a tag that says something like: Mau: 4,732 millas de distancia. The terrain around him is so remote it is unmarked unless I zoom way out. He is not just far away, he is unreachable.
Memoir writing is often a bid for closure. Memoirists face the challenge of how to get the approval they crave from the people they’re writing about so they can let their story rest in peace. I had Mau’s blessing to write our story, but I didn’t want closure, I wanted him here.
November 2017 was the last time we were in the same place. I visited him in Bogotá and instead of touring the city, he arranged a series of photoshoots re-creating romantic scenes in iconic movies, but with my wheelchair in them. What started as re-creations became real romance. I wrote everything down. What we said, what happened, how it felt to me. I sent it to him.
“What do you think?” I asked. I was asking as a woman. I wanted to know if I got it right. Was it just me? Do you feel this way, too? But I am also a writer. I publish the stories I write. On Instagram, on my blog, on the internet, for the public.
Mau’s work restricts what he reveals about himself in public. My work is the exact opposite. So I was also asking, “Is this ok to say?”
When I send subjects my writing, I sometimes get minor corrections, and always happy permission. But Mau gave me more than permission, he got into it. His suggestions went beyond protecting his work into line edits on mine.
“I hate the word ‘aqua,’ and I think ‘saltily bobbing’ sounds weird,” he said about one of my early vignettes.
I responded with impeccable calm: “Editors don’t tell writers what words to use! I pick each word very carefully. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS!!!! Also, the Mediterranean Sea is aqua when the sun hits it.”
He doesn’t get it, I whimpered to myself. But I also had to admit his input was remarkably good.
“I think the ‘ghostwriter’ thing is perfect, and the piece should end there. I would cut the last two paragraphs that feel like they might be part of another piece.”
Mau was right. But more than that, his investment in my writing felt like intimacy.
I kept writing about us until I had 8,000 words of an essay that didn’t feel complete.
“I think you need to put in everything that happened. Not just the photo shoots, but when we met, and all of that. Even the ugly bits,” Mau told me.
I took the classic writing advice, opened a vein and bled on the page until I was over 12,000 words.
It took two months before Mau could read through it. An agony to any writer. A time that seemingly brushed past him without much concern for my suffering.
“I want to be able to devote myself to it,” he said, when I pestered.
“Yes. That’s good,” I said, without relief. It would be easy to wait if I just wanted his approval. But I wanted his devotion.
Finally, he took the essay to the library in Bogotá. “It’s very beautiful and romantic, I love libraries.” He sent me two emails worth of notes.
I had hated the waiting.
I resisted his notes even more.
I loved every second of his attention on the longest and most personal writing project I had ever undertaken.
“You need a punchier beginning,” he wrote. “My speech is too long. Starting with it somehow makes it seem like the focus of the essay is on my bisexuality/HIV.”
“The beginning is so flawless.” I said, demonstrating how I would prefer he commented. “Using your whole speech makes the reader wonder how you could be cynical about love, while I feel so sure we are falling in love at the same moment. I love that part!”
“It’s just that it reads to me like the thing is about ME, and it’s about US. But I see what you mean. Maybe just breaking up that paragraph into two at, “eating off his plate”?
I broke the paragraph in two.
Early in our collaborating, when his first suggestions involved deferring to the bureaucracy he works for instead of the integrity of the piece, I emailed my writer-friend Misha, in a fit of tangled appreciation and frustration. She responded:
To include him in the writing, you have to relinquish some control. Is this something we have to do to include people in our lives more generally speaking? Is this a challenge that will absolutely constrain your work, or after the understandable frustration subsides, might there be a creative possibility that will allow you say what you want while ensuring it’s in bounds for Mau?
She was right. I was bristling against the constraints exactly as I would if he was living in my space and making me adjust my solitary life to his presence. We had decided to not be in a long-distance relationship, but inside my writing we were…relating. Arguing, reaching for understanding, connecting, collaborating, compromising.
When memoirists write about those we love, we risk a harrowing disapproval of how we saw and experienced things. We also risk the equally harrowing experience of being seen as we are and accepted.
If Mau and I had proximity, our affection could be physical. And if it ever came to that, as a writer, I would feel nostalgic for this. For 4,732 millas de distancia, with nothing but white space, a blank page, and his attention, waiting for me to fill it with words.
Erin Clark has been published in 21+1: The Fortune Teller’s Rules, and Life as Ceremony Vol 4. Her essay “Pee Spot” won Beecher’s literary award for non-fiction (as judged by Joy Castro). Her most recent work is Love All The Way, a mini digital memoir weaving video clips and professional photographic recreations of classic romantic movie scenes with Erin as heroine, her wheelchair on full display. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Photo credit: Diego Moncayo