I Cannot


First Person

Licensed under CCO 4.0, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last year, a formal tone that sounded nothing like my speaking voice started to sputter out from my cursor and onto the page: “I cannot think about it now,” “I journeyed back to my abode.” Words elongated, and phrasings—strange ones—appeared. I watched the sentences extend, and noticed they were saying very little, but that they were saying this little in very mannered ways. “At the shore, attempting to reel in my kayak amidst the smooth stones and locally famous sea glass, I suffered a gigantic spasm of the muscles in my back, so painful I could not speak but to scream,” I wrote—not a terrible sentence, and not describing nothing, but when have I ever spoken the formulation “could not __ but to ___”?  Or the word “amidst”?

When, last year, I saw in my prose that falseness and false formality, I wondered where it had come from. I seemed to be a few minutes away from using whence. I seemed to be searching for a rhythm that wouldn’t come, and reading over tatters of drafts later, I realized I was attempting to write prose in what was basically iambic pentameter, as if this classic formal constraint contained within it the key, the one key, to a sense of writing well, a sense so rare that year for me to find at all. From whence this sense of language-pressed-through-sieve? From where did it first flow, that impulse toward the cannot instead of the can’t, I wondered, and the immediate answer that occurred to me was, strangely but also obviously, the internet, which supplies phrases like “I am deceased” and “I simply cannot.” I thought to myself that I do not, anymore, use the internet to read very deeply.

Now, the internet can feel like a relatively arid version of its wilder self. I return to Instagram, where many nights this year I’ve revisited the video of the young man being possessed by an ancient burp who cracks his head hard into a garage door. Visual content dominates. But still, running alongside this video, and the many like it, are other digital testaments to experience—personal essays published in places fewer and further between, for less and less money, if any at all, places insistent on the very democratic, and also cheap, idea that all “I”s have a story to tell, and are simply waiting for their platform, that more content is better than less, and that writing is, in fact, “content” in the first place. If we are to look at, for instance, the Masterclass guide to writing personal essays, we are told, first and foremost, to strive for the importance of our own personal experience. A personal essay “serves to describe an important lesson gathered from a writer’s life experiences,” says Masterclass, and it should focus on a moment that “sparked growth.” Masterclass teaches us to write in an already-existent form in a proficient way. And it is a weighty idea—that all personal essays must be about growth-sparking moments. That all moments, written about, must be of importance. No wonder “cannot” essays, as I’ll call them, often seem characterized by what seems to be that particular stiltedness, that particular insistence on extension instead of contraction, that particularly “important”-feeling diction that I have noticed in my own recent writing.

We write “I cannot” instead of “I can’t,” we use formal tools of nomenclature. We might use white space, or a braided structure, to lend weight to otherwise innocuous phrases. We sometimes, or often, use the present tense, flattening us inside a moment in time alongside our narrator (I turn on the coffee machine. In the thick fog, I cannot see more than ten feet in front of my feet.) We use short, abrupt-feeling sentences (I walk to the store. [White Space] I buy glass cleaner. [White Space]). Our slight formality might turn towards the archaic—a friend recently sent me an essay that used the phrase “my monthly blood” to describe having one’s period.

In fact, we might use this kind of language in order to transmit a certain desired seriousness, like that carried by the word libation, otherwise seen/heard only on a certain kind of menu, in a certain blocky font. Indeed, a friend tells me libation has been on the conversational rise since the early 2010s—about the time the “hipster-retro handlebar mustache,” in his words, peaked, and also around the same time that I lived in San Francisco, which felt like the epicenter of the mustache thing, the vegetable tattoo thing, the wood-grain thing. More than a decade later, I hear “libations” uttered casually by fresh-faced young men who do not, I think, mean to be serious. Yet neither do they mean to be ironic, exactly. I feel I recognize something similar in the word ladies, ever cheerfully condescending, ever hackle-raising—it too is on the rise, proliferating literarily at levels not seen since 1909, at least according to the Google Ngram Viewer, which notes 1822 as the high point for ladies, and 1978 or so as its low point (as of 2019, the word was used almost 200 percent more than in 1978). It’s like the language on wedding invitations, another friend suggests: attire instead of clothing, request the honor of your presence, tea-length. Like many phenomena noticeable for their formal gestures at nostalgic extremity—the starched high-collared dresses, breakfast cereal made from scratch, the handlebar mustaches—the slightly formal essays point toward, I think, the threat they are meant to oppose: a feeling that things are too much online, that things are too casual and must be elevated. Just as the suspenders and wood grain of 2010 gestured at, what, an increasingly digital sandedness to life’s corners, the formality-tinged essays of the 2020s gesture at a ubiquity of digital content made from reality; they are attempts to heighten or “craft” it into something seemingly more important, something smacking of authenticity in a way that is actually altogether very impersonal.

I am seeing someone else and we are done, he announced; My mother is looking at the television, which is on mute; in my third decade, I; Swimming has saved me over and over again. But this time it cannot; I am taking the long way to the airport to see my father; this is not a story I want to tell anyone else; I know that if I touch the sides they will be cold; I am trying to fix what cannot be fixed; I am anticipating . . . the gently pursed phrasings pile up, serious and austere, attempting, it sometimes seems to me, to sanctify something, to sprinkle a libation, really, across the digital altar, emphasizing the importance of this particular story, this particular writer’s life amidst the noise.

Amidst the tone of graven importance the writers of these essays, maybe there’s not much to say that feels new—or if there is, we are often side-stepping it. In her book Hole Studies, Hilary Plum points out how contemporary essayists, she says, write “I’ve been thinking a lot about . . .” and “then just virtuously mention a subject, not saying one thing of substance about it, moving on before we have to do any work.” On the flip side, there is the feigned overconfidence of aphorism, which supplies contemporary writers with what Adam Gopnik calls a “neat if slightly dubious finality.” Memory is a tantrum. Setting isn’t just place but time. Dying can be easy. These days, it’s harder to learn how to live. Aphorisms of this kind don’t always feel particularly exciting or convincing—they feel, instead, fairly rote, and like assertions the writer makes to establish a sense of authority when they don’t necessarily feel one.

Both overassertion and hand-waving seem to be sidesteps around saying something. Like that formal wall: Is it guarding something? It is as if it is constructed of exhaustion, and of the dregs of feeling, not feeling itself. And so, if the formality with which I seem to write, now—although I hope this essay is a kind of exorcism, to be honest—can be taken as a sign of something, I see it as maybe a guarding of energy. This kind of writing, somehow, has reversed, it has turned shallow amidst the depths of feeling of everything else. This type of writing has become, in this way, not a refuge but a different manner of engagement. Perhaps formality—and this is another tic of the formal writers, by the way, the hopping, birdlike, never-settling perhaps—perhaps formality is simply a symptom of a writer seeing depth and gesturing toward it, but not really plumbing it, which would be messy, and uncertain, and risky. Not yet.

Recently, a poet friend mentioned that she thought the “I cannot” thing was the result of a flood of poets into nonfiction writing—“It’s all poets, now,” she said—who bring with them their Lyric. It all came back, she indicated, to rhythm, and to old and felt ways of stressing the importance of the material, as maybe my own failed strainings toward iambic pentameter suggested. She said that she would never use can’t in a poem—it would be too harsh, she said, not at all lovely. But I suspect there’s also a sense of guarding, again, with cannot—write “I can’t” and the “I” feels very bare and possibly, shamefully wrong, overexposed. It’s an idea that Gillian White gets at in her book Lyric Shame, which examines the “ambient shame” around and inside poems that feel “too credulous of [their] I,” maybe even too casual with its deployment. Indeed, writes Ben Lerner in Literary Hub, moving the argument toward contemporary nonfiction and regarding Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, these essays, in their considerations of loneliness and alienation, actually “transpose” the lyric from “generic marker traditionally understood as denoting short, musical, and expressive verse” into “long, often tonally flat books written largely in prose.” “If a color cannot cure, can it at least incite hope?” asks Nelson in Bluets. And then a kind of aphorism: “We cannot read the darkness. We cannot read it. It is a form of madness, albeit a common one, that we try.”

Of course, “essay means ‘to try’ ” has become its own aphorism, so accepted among contemporary essayists that it’s easy to assume that all the lightly elevated language, the slight stiltedness to certain phrasings, are simply an extension of this idea—of trying to be heard, of trying to eke meaning from experiences we carry inside. Yet I can’t help but imagine, too, a different kind of trying: mundane, unsure, suggested, loose.


Lucy Schiller is an assistant professor of nonfiction writing at Texas Tech. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, the New Yorker, the Columbia Journalism Review, Speculative Nonfiction, West Branch, DIAGRAM, Popula, Essay Daily, and elsewhere. Her first book is forthcoming from Flatiron Press. She lives in Lubbock, Texas.