On Writing (About Other People)

In which there will be hot takes

Hi all. This week I wanted to do another post about the act of writing, since I haven’t done one in a while, and since I’ve written much nonfiction in the past couple years even beyond what I do here.

Moving to Berlin marked a shift in the way I write, the amount I write, and the approach I take to writing. This chapter of my life—the first non-academic one in two decades—unlocked an eagerness to begin to structure a personal history. An eagerness, I should say, combined with a confidence and competence: I’d read a lot of excellent memoir and autobiography, starting with Stephen King’s On Writing in high school, the cumulative effect of which was now hitting. I published a few personal essays, contributed regularly to my postgraduate alma mater’s Coronavirus Notebook, and chipped away with renewed vigor at a collection of vignettes about my growing up.

In so doing, I regularly encounter a problem which is not unique to creative nonfiction but closely associated with it: the problem of talking about people you know and revealing details of their identities and lives. And the conclusion I arrive at is that a well-intentioned writer should be able to feature their people (friends, enemies, lovers, family, etc.) in their work with almost total impunity.

Now, what do I mean by work? One thing I don’t mean is libel. ‘Well-intentioned’ is the operative word here, an important qualifier. You can’t deliberately defame someone’s reputation. But if you are relating an incident that involves another person, and you treat them with the same nuance and respect that you give yourself, and you refrain from exaggeration, then there really is no reason for that person to take issue with you. Unless that person has a bounty on their head, whatever they’ve done with or to you—assuming you approach your writing sensitively and sympathetically—is fair game.

I’m not saying everyone should do this, because not everyone is a strong enough writer to walk that line. We readers have to feel safe with the writer: we have to know that they know how to relay events in a way that doesn’t vilify anyone. They let the events, and the conduct of those involved, speak for themselves. If so-and-so reads about themselves and is offended—well, if they didn’t want a story out there about them, then they should have behaved better.

What should you have to be afraid of? Here’s the thing, and I mean this as comfort: no one cares that much about you. A story you release into the wild in which you were the victim of someone’s cruelty is not going to garner legions of fans who set out to make your perpetrator’s life a living hell. You aren’t Beyoncé, and this isn’t a Rachel Roy/“Becky with the good hair” situation. (And Beyoncé was perfectly within her rights to write a lyric like that, because her marriage had been compromised.) All the lives in your pages will go on—undisturbed, if you’ve done your job as writer.

After all, they say the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I, for one, would be flattered to have made enough of an impact on someone—positive or negative—to merit a mention in their memoir or autobiography. The singer said “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” but I don’t want you talking about anyone else!

Monologue: The Taxi Driver in “Leaving on a Jet Plane”

In which I give a background character (at best) a chance to shine

Oh my God it is so cold. Pretty far from my ideal 6:53 a.m. Not that I minded driving twenty minutes out of our way right off the bat after this guy practically begged me to stop at his girlfriend’s place—the more time, the better for me. I could’ve done without the recap of their entire relationship on the way. I mean, I love a good story, but this one was…concerning. Doesn’t sound very healthy if you ask me. Apparently he’s messed up a lot. Like a lot. Like, I guess cheated on multiple occasions? I wasn’t fully clear on it: every so often he would get kind of evasive and go quiet, like he felt guilty for telling me any of this, but then the silence would be too much for him and he’d start up again.

I can drive in silence forever. That’s what I do.

Anyway, he was saying he wants to prove how committed he is to her and he’s going to suggest that they get married once he’s back. And I wasn’t about to tell him my theory that the last thing she’d be eager to do with a boyfriend who had an infidelity problem would be to tie herself to him so he could continue to be unfaithful behind the façade of marriage TO HIS FACE…but then he looked at me like he was waiting on my opinion, so I was like “you sure seem to have thought this all through,” and I’m willing to bet the sarcasm didn’t register because he was too distracted and worried.

I can’t even tell if they had a fight and he’s just trying not to part on bad terms, in which case showing up at her house first thing in the morning is an even worse idea than I thought. On the other hand, it isn’t as if they can text while they’re long-distance. I don’t even know what texting is: it’s 1969 and we have no such technology. Maybe I can see the future. You know, I’ve always suspected that. I like to think I have more talents than just ferrying people around like that guy on the River Styx. I forget his name.

Where was I? Oh right, keeping my thoughts busy while my generous benefactor emotionally manipulates his partner. Ah, but he hates to go, I’m hearing him say, so that solves things. Hmm, should I rest my head on the steering wheel, or bang my head on it?

She doesn’t look like she’s buying it, though. I don’t know, I could be projecting. She looks smart, like she can make up her own mind. Unless he withheld something major from me, which I really doubt, he is not pitching her a terribly attractive plan here.

Wait, what time is it? Time to lay on the horn is what. Neighbors be damned. What is he—WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WRAP IT UP. YOU HAVE TO BE AT THE AIRPORT AT LEAST TWO AND A HALF HOURS IN ADVANCE EVERYONE KNOWS THAT COME ON.

Cannot believe he’s making this my problem. I’m in kind of an ethical dilemma, aren’t I? By enabling him, I enrich myself but actively complicate these two lives. Especially the girl’s, she doesn’t deserve it. What do I do?

Oh, she’s giving him a bag he must have left with her. Yeah, yeah, just throw it in the trunk while I start the engine, we gotta go. (Now’s my chance.)

Hey sweetheart! Come here. Just for a moment. Yeah, lean in close. Listen to me. You’re free now. Okay? Your boyfriend might be the one getting on a plane, but you’re the one who gets to fly. You seem like a nice chick and you don’t have to wait for anyone. So do yourself a favor and get the hell out. Got it?

All right, you take care now. Go get some sleep!

*deep exhale*

All good? Good. Seatbelt?…Let’s go.

Translation

A eulogy I will not get to give, except here

My uncle, aged sixty-five as of just recently, died earlier this week from a cancer which tends to be detected in its advanced stages. It came on quickly and ended quickly. He was the eldest of three brothers (my dad being the middle) and of four children total. And he was a good man, one I enjoyed talking to and felt comfortable around—although given the geographical distance I have, relatively speaking, only ever learned fairly little about him and his life.

People have been sending condolences, saying how sorry they are for my loss, and I think, why express these things to me? What am I going to do with this information? Put it alongside all the other information about his life and now death, none of which I know how to deal with?

Of course the sentiments do help. But I can’t yet say exactly how. Grieving across the divide of space and time is a very tricky human art, and I’m a bit disoriented having to do a crash course in it. It’s one thing to be there for collective mourning: it’s another to conduct and shepherd myself through my own mourning an ocean away.

The last time the whole family was together was Christmas 2017, the end of a big year. My cousin had gotten married at the beginning of July; hardly two weeks later, my grandma suffered a stroke. While seeing her at Christmas certainly wasn’t the same as seeing her at the wedding, simply getting to be with her and know she was on the mend was a huge relief, and there was a special joy and gratitude to the family festivities, at least as I recall them. That’s not a bad last memory to have, but neither a transatlantic move nor a travel-restricting global health crisis factored into the potential future I was taking into account as we said goodbye. I’m thankful to say that she is still here. We expected my uncle to be here, too. A phone call between the two of them, facilitated by my parents, was the last full conversation he had. Lives take their turns.

Death is a strange concept. I read things like “we aren’t afraid to die, we’re afraid to die without having lived,” whose sources I forget. The faith I grew up in tells me that death on this plane of existence is an upgrade to a less flawed plane. I once asked a friend who had studied theology how we would all understand one another in the afterlife—that is, what language we would use—and he said we wouldn’t need language as the human brain knows it because we would have the language of love. My uncle no longer speaks the language his loved ones speak; he is learning a new one, just as our ancestors and more lately departed family did. I wonder if he would understand me were I to speak to him now, if he could reach back through his memory for a means of communication he used to be fluent in, if there is a translation.

The funeral was today. I was present in spirit. Spirit can count for more than we think it does. He leaves behind my aunt, my three cousins, and the three grandchildren they’ve given him (so far). I’ve never liked the phrase in obituaries ‘so-and-so is survived by.’ That makes it sound like life is a war we’re fighting—and sometimes it is, but that isn’t the point. The person’s soul survives, their spirit carries on, their essence remains. Certainly the family dynamic will always bear my uncle’s influence, the way he shaped it. If anything, we have one more commonality in how we all loved him. That seems like more than mere survival to me.

Michael Battista Gigliotti, 6 October 1956-25 October 2021. Requiescat in pace.

Image: taken by the author last Thursday

Tiny Lit Review: NORMAL PEOPLE

In which I review a book that I anticipated having more than one paragraph to say about

Friends, I was not a fan. I thought I was going to like it, in fact didn’t really prepare for the eventuality that I would not, so this put me at a loss. I often found Sally Rooney’s prose exciting and pointed—it was the story I took issue with, and just as often felt that the prose was wasted on the plot it was trying to convey. This plot was, more than anything else…predictable. Popularity shifts, not-like-other-girls/boys characterization, detached (dare I use a word like tawdry) sexual relations without a tremendous amount of emotional context. Each of the central couple hangs out with just awful people otherwise, whether platonically or romantically, so their choices aren’t especially sympathetic; I was baffled much of the time. Maybe I just don’t know how Ireland works (for the record, I never claimed to). I have not seen the series, nor am I terribly inclined to, as the writing essentially gave me all the picture I needed. It seems the story resonated with not a few people, which almost certainly skewed my expectations in its favor going in, which in turn made what I was met with all the more jarring. I won’t actively dissuade anyone from reading it; I’ll simply say it was not what I thought I was signing on for, and unfortunately not for the better. Rooney clearly has potential, and I do look forward to reading more from her, including her first novel, Conversations with Friends.

Image: Faber & Faber, 2018

A spot of publishing news!

In which I am in (and out)

Because I’m a flash kind of gal lately: a short short story of mine entitled “The American Teenage Classic Graduation Farewell” appears in the forthcoming anthology Intermissions (out 1 November, Grattan Street Press). A printed thing for a nice change.

I’ve been spotlighted in an author interview—under the pen name I use for fiction—which, let me tell you, I could get used to. It was great fun to do something even this succinct.

Enjoy, keep an eye out for the book in a week or so, and I’ll hit you with a review of a much-talked-about novel soon!

(GSP’s blog also runs on WordPress and features great reviews, other Q&As, etc.—go check them out.)

Image: the cover, from the University of Melbourne’s Grattan Street Press

All Along the Gender Spectrum

In which I chart the self

Monday was National Coming Out Day in my home country. I have no specific coming out to do, but I thought I would reflect on how my understanding of myself has evolved especially over the past few years.

I’ve always identified as female, and while I don’t necessarily foresee that changing, the way I choose to express my gender identity never ceases to surprise me. My longstanding fascination with baby-name books once led me to a book that organized names into categories (as well as the typical alphabetical listing); my name fell into a category called Feminissima, whose description went something like, “If these names were dresses, they would have frills and flowers covering every inch of them.” I remember resenting this imposition—I didn’t consider myself an overly feminine girl, or at least not a consistently feminine one—and feeling that resentment on behalf of the other names in the category. Would all those people really be okay with this narrow definition foisted upon them by sheer virtue of their names? I doubled it.

My sartorial gender expression varies depending on how I’m feeling toward my body, and has done since I was thirteen. I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone who hasn’t suffered from some body-image issue, and from my limited vantage point I judge mine to be rather run-of-the-mill: I haven’t experienced the dysphoria that some of my friends and acquaintances confront. Suffice it to say the ability to think of myself as unconditionally beautiful and capable of different types of beauty is an active journey that I choose to go on every day, and that it still lapses from time to time, despite having a much firmer foundation than it used to. A baffled what did I think was wrong with the way I looked? now accompanies my every viewing of photos from adolescence.

Since being on my own in a city with a lot of options, I’ve discovered and explored a desire to experiment with more structurally androgynous looks (as opposed to, say, the androgynous looks of my teens, which I put together less thoughtfully in a shamefaced attempt to hide my body). On the flip side, I’ve even more recently begun to experiment with eye makeup, which heretofore intimidated me given my significantly impaired eyesight. Both of these pursuits have freed me up to try things it never occurred to me that I might like. They’ve helped me to appreciate my physical features and give love to parts of myself that I may have neglected—for example, I’m admiring my nose more often. I’ve been admiring noses in general more often. It could be the positive influence of Instagram. Yes, that exists.

Perhaps paradoxically, they’ve also nudged me along the self-expression pathway by allowing me to imitate others. This is where my notions of female presentation and femininity get muddled, because I have a history of styling myself after my favorite musicians, many of whom are male and of a certain era. (See above selfie, created last weekend.) Within this group, the ones with the strongest draw to imitation are the ones I’m sexually attracted to, which leaves me with the question of whether I want to be them or be with them. I think those desires can coexist; still, it’s a question I continue to consider as I come into my own as an artist.

Nor am I sure if this is a fixation I’m supposed to outgrow or have outgrown. For now I don’t see the need for self-judgment, especially if such style studies are making me more comfortable in my skin and boosting my confidence, which seems to be the case.

The way I analyze and discuss things, particularly music, has been a flirtation with masculinity/masculine presentation throughout my life, as I’ve noted, regardless of how I present physically. Essentially, I’m looking forward to deeper engagement with the aspects of my person and personality that fall all along the gender spectrum. I think the more I commit to that openness, the more complete I will feel.

P. S. I can’t go without mentioning that a smidge of external validation here and there hasn’t hurt, although it is 100% not the point. A friend and former coworker once called me a fashionista and frequently says that seeing my looks inspires her to put extra effort into hers. Having never expected to be the kind of person who had that effect on people, I found my self-perception changed for the better. So if you think someone looks good, tell them!

Another brick out of the Wall

In which I chronicle a convergence

This time of this year is special for the city I happen to be in as it commemorates the 60th anniversary of the raising of the Wall. Construction began on 13 August 1961, and things proceeded relatively quickly from there—by this point, there was a marked delineation and an armed patrol to monitor any and all passages from one side to the other. It also commemorates the reunification of Germany: 3 October 1990 established the holiday of Einheit.

It’s on my mind more than usual because my parents were both born in autumn 1961, far from the city and region being bifurcated, and in the month and change separating their births the divisions between East and West grew that much more entrenched. Given that my coming of age has essentially been a realization that the world is simply a series of chaotic events one after another, I imagine my grandparents must have been freaking out—my grandfathers, anyway; my grandmothers were likely more concerned with their uteruses at that particular moment.

Kennedy had been in office for approximately thirty seconds. My generation has been privy to all the things a president can get done, and not done, in the first half-year of their administration. You know sometimes I forget that Kennedy was actually president? I mean, it’s not as though plenty of stuff didn’t happen during his administration, but my brain occasionally skips from the hullabaloo over his being elected at all (do we really leave a cAtHoLic in charge of the country? I don’t know, how’s the second one doing?!?) directly to the assassination—as though he were cut down before being able to do, or not do, anything. Of course, he was president, and he did do good as well as harm, and a practically overnight statement like the Wall put him under immense pressure. Well, it seemed immense to everyone except the people whose lives, families, and routines were suddenly and dramatically reduced.

Tomorrow I go back to the East Side Gallery, the artistic exhibit of the remains of the Wall, to meet a friend of my sister’s who has been close to my family for almost her whole life. She is visiting on a break from her studies down south. The last significant time I spent at the Gallery was in the company of a person I’d known less than a year who had caused me to question identities I once took for granted. I can think of no better setting for either encounter. Berlin is a collision course for the past and the present, a stage for the act of coming together and apart. Every place is like this to a degree, but it forms the core of Berlin. Here it stares you in the face. Here you will not forget it.

Above all it points toward the future. We still talk about walls; we still raise and raze them for people. We go forward, even as we trail ghosts from our lifetimes and before. We struggle to reclaim things. We come to terms, or we hope to. New generations come up. Time is short. Memory is not.

Image: not the Wall, nor nearby the Wall, nor even really a wall itself—it’s kind of a free-standing mini-wall in the back courtyard of an apartment building in my neighborhood, I just found it a nice example of Berlin’s determination to fill any wall-like space with art

For the peckish…

…the second issue of The Birdseed drops today, featuring tiny works like breadcrumbs, of which my “Taxi” is one! So encouraging to see mags cropping up explicitly to dedicate space to the pieces that don’t take up much.

Page through the sections—the cumulative effect will put you in a real October mood. 🍂

And speaking of, I’ve got an essay up for the Women Writing Berlin Lab about the album that defined my October 2020.

Happy High Autumn from the Northern Hemisphere. Drink tea with honey, wake up earlier with the sun, wear things you can snuggle into. We’re gonna make it.

Image: taken in the author’s neighborhood a few nights ago, think it sets the mood (more where that came from on IG @c_m_giglio)

New List = new ep!

In which I (and not only I) comment on a certain, famous, now revamped list

A music lover’s work is never done, is it?

After wrapping season 1 of Pod Sounds, I’d planned simply to map out and slowly but surely execute season 2. And then the New List dropped.

That’s right, kids: Rolling Stone, having tackled a refresh of its 500 Greatest Albums list last September, decided on a refreshed 500 Greatest Songs for this year’s project.

According to the editors, the new ranking was created ‘from scratch,’ although plenty of entries seem to have remained at least in the ballpark of where they were in 2004. I’m unsure if any have retained their exact original spots, because I did not have the energy to comb the whole thing.

I did have the energy to note that one (anti-) love song which may or may not have Turned My World Upside Down(TM) in recent memory has jumped fourteen (14) spots to nearly crack the Top 10. Yes indeed, The Beach Boys’ own “God Only Knows,” previously rounding out the top twentieth at #25, now sits pretty at #11!

Truly I cannot express how elated I was to read this; I danced around the room. In light of my and my co-host’s entrance into the podverse, it felt like a personal win.

And even if it had nothing to do with us (I mean, unlikely but whatever), you know we had to mark the occasion with a special episode.

So enjoy our RS-adjacent ruminations, and hang tight while we get season 2 off the ground!

Preparation of a Young Woman Film Critic

In which I make a checklist

Big news: your girl was selected for the Young Critics Workshop at the Ukrainian Film Festival Berlin!

From this weekend through next, I’ll be working alongside seasoned and up-and-coming writers to probe the genre of film criticism and hone the craft in order to cover this year’s premieres.

It probably goes without saying how excited I am. Aside from researching the history of Ukraine for a bit of cultural context (and hoo boy is that a WHOLE nother ball game), I’m assembling some tools for my aspiring critic’s toolbox. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Read all the biographical material on Pauline Kael you can get your hands on
  • Think about how exhausting it must have been to be Pauline Kael
  • Watch those 2-hour items in your Netflix queue that you ‘didn’t have time for’ even though you had time for 6 20-minute episodes of New Girl
  • Determine once and for all whether you will say ‘movies’ or ‘films’ (too pretentious???)
  • Perfect your cool/stoic/appraising/disdainful glance
  • Improve your subtitle reading time as if training for a sprint
  • Get used to saying “Don’t take this personally…”
  • Conceive that you might one day actually find yourself in a position to say 🎶 don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party? 🎶
  • Incorporate a lot of black sweaters into the wardrobe
  • Start looking for visual motifs wherever they may remotely be found
  • Stop forgetting who Peter Bogdanovich is

Look out, Hollywood, I’m on my way!!