Writers often hate talking about the book they’ve just written. On the one hand, books are an exercise in preservation, an old-fashioned sort of external hard drive. But for the author personally, a book can also be an elaborate act of forgetting. I wonder sometimes whether I’m driven to write about certain things, especially difficult things, just so I’ll never have to deal with them again; I’ll capture my subject and be done with it. From a particular angle, the writing life for me is a gradual process of self-erasure—first the crisp details go, then the plot, the underlying obsessions—or else each book is a box in which something of myself can be stored away forever.
I’ve never felt this shrinking, unpublic side of writing as strongly as I have with the book about real-life murders I just finished—work it’s just not possible for me to be “done with.” The book tells the stories of killings, but I didn’t want to recount the cases with the heavy hand typical of stories that turn on crime and justice. The buffoonish, Wayne LaPierre–esque division of the world into good guys and bad guys may be an easy, reflexive way to organize the life around us, a busy firing of synapses that adds up to something less than thinking. I never saw the point of it, but I admit, in this instance, it would have made terrible stories easier to forget.
It’s stressful to keep in the forefront of our minds how real lives are pixelated with good and bad acts. It’s even worse when the real lives you’re writing about belong to murderers, and the acts—at least one of them—are as bad as possible. After all my research and all the interviews, I felt the weariness I imagine sin-eaters feel—the people who take responsibility for the world’s sinful deeds so others won’t have to.
Some of the murderers I wrote about are still living their lives, however reduced they are to the grim routines of prison. I started relationships with these men mostly through correspondence. It seems right to keep the letter-writing going, but, to be honest, it’s hard now that the excitement of discovery—no matter how dark—is over. Already a year ago, one killer wrote me petulantly, “Oh, so once you get your story, you’re done with me.” I’d let too much time slide before responding to a letter of his. Sheepishly, he later wrote, “Ignore that last letter.” The exchange sounds like anyone’s quotidian spat, yet this is a man with a psychopathic streak a mile wide. His murder of a gay man involved an hours-long beating that can only be called torture. Not easy to forget, but easier when forgotten.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” from 1976 (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”), has become something of an anthem among literary types, a “hit” poem for this turn of the century as “Recessional” or “Dover Beach,” two other hymns involving loss, were for the last turn of the century. I recently heard Colm Tóibín recite the poem during a lecture he gave in Key West for a mostly elderly audience. The reading was especially moving given the age and accumulated experience of the listeners. But I was struck by the poem’s oddity. A villanelle (in which, of course, lines return as incessantly as memories), it describes a kind of ecstasy of deliberate forgetting.
We expect our poets to remain preternaturally aware and sensitive even while the rest of us shut down with age. Far from being a celebration of alertness or even of keen mourning like “Recessional,” “One Art” extols the brand of self-repressed forgetfulness that beatniks or bohemians would have deemed insufferably bourgeois, if not senile. On the surface, the art of “One Art” isn’t like art at all. It’s the opposite of preservation.
Bishop was no lazy pseudothinker, no suburban automaton; she was no Wayne LaPierre. It was heartening for me (someone addicted both to art and to occasional shutting down) to hear her bracing, almost giddy counsel to put away parts of our lives. Of course, there’s a winking quality to the advice, and Bishop seems to take pleasure in the anti-artistic implications of her poem. But “One Art” acknowledges that we aren’t divided into artists and bourgeois cattle any more than we’re divided into good guys and bad guys. Her work doesn’t allow for the bohemian’s “them and us.”
Moving from torture to poetry, from LaPierre to Bishop, is liable to induce dizziness. But everything I relish in life is woven out of such disparate threads. Even my days, like everyone’s, are made up of sleep and wakefulness, and both are important. Even if I can’t quite shake the murders I wrote about, at least I can put them away for a while. Now that they’re safely in a book, I can momentarily erase them from myself.
The sage, sly writer Edmund White tells a wonderful anecdote about the poet James Merrill (in whose old Key West cottage I’m writing this article!). An acquaintance longed to meet the eminent poet, so White dutifully phoned to set something up. Merrill, who’d just finished his masterwork, The Changing Light at Sandover, drawled his agreement, then added, “But why would anyone want to? What’s there to meet?” His monumental act of creativity had been akin to emptying himself.
Here in this beautiful waxed wood room filled with four o’clock sunlight and the subtle hum of an overhead fan, I couldn’t be further from the sordid American underworld I’ve spent much of the past three years exploring. All is refinement and culture. When my neighbor visits, he points to a spot by the kitchenette where Leonard Bernstein once played the piano or to another corner where Elizabeth Taylor stood laughing during one of “Jimmy’s” parties. Elizabeth Bishop herself was a frequent visitor to the house, so it’s a good place to reflect on “One Art.”
In the delightfully floral, bibulous, lazy world of Key West, I live a part of my life that seems utterly irreconcilable with the murderers I’ve come to know, the stories I’ve written about them, the letters I owe them. I forget for a while, but I know it will all come back to me, like the repeating lines of a particularly clangorous American villanelle.
David McConnell’s most recent book is American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men (Akashic Books). He is also the author of the acclaimed novel, The Silver Hearted, 2010. His short fiction and journalism have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including The Literary Review (UK), Granta and Prospect Magazine (UK). His novel The Firebrat came out in 2003. He’s the former co-chair of the Lambda Literary Foundation. McConnell lives in New York City.