I moved here, to this place where the woods intersect the desert, to write. Because, for me, to write is excruciating: the endless encounter of a dread that is never overcome. The dread of my own undoing. But the ground here is soft; each step an impression in blood-red loam. Each footprint stays and then disappears in the rain.
It seems true what Marguerite Duras wrote: to have intelligence is to want to write. It also seems true what James Baldwin wrote: intelligence and hatred go hand in hand. To write is to balance these two axioms—to regard the self, to will the self, and then to see the self, which is to participate in its destruction. Somehow, the self survives. It fails, so it survives.
I’m not sure what I mean by failure, but I do know what I mean by success. It has nothing to do with aim, or accomplishment, or expectation—the modern obsessions. For me, success has to do with the root of the word, the meaning that no one means anymore, succudere, to come close after. To miss the mark, and then: To keep going. Success is fueled by the ambition of failure, endless failure.
I walk every day through these trail-less woods, but I never know where I’m going, only that I want to go through the trees and up. Each day, I know only that I will. I say that I walk to saunter, that I write to wander through the unknown. But step-by-step I make a trail, and then I cling to it like a sense of self: out, and then, back to where I came. By now, the trail is furrowed too deep to be washed away.
The trail is evidence of my successions, each time extending a little bit farther, ending at the highest point, and then the next highest point, and then the next. Because I want to see the forest from above. I want the omniscient view. I am ashamed of this self-regard, of my secret belief in myself—of its singularity and its underbelly of pride.
In an open letter to a disputatious President, Ottessa Moshfegh asked, “Do you feel you’ve been chosen by God for a special task to accomplish here on earth?” She answered herself: “I do. I believe in fate.” So do I. But belief is an experiment. It, too, is liable to fail. I believe in myself because I do, but also because I must.
I once heard Alexander Chee tell an anecdote about Gertrude Stein. He quoted her as having said, “I will make myself into a famous author.” I cannot verify this quote. Nevertheless, he said she repeated those words to herself, and later he to himself as a mantra. He offered the phrase as advice, not to prove that the repetition of desire translates into reality, but to confer the point of his seminar, “to know the point of telling,” which Chee likens to faith in oneself: fiction by belief.
I remember a younger version of myself, scaling mountains in a different range. When I was twelve-years-old, my mom and I walked to the crest of the Continental Divide. She told me that if I spit, half of my saliva would end up in the Atlantic Ocean, the other half in the Pacific. Imagine that—little me, spread out across half the world. So I did it: I spit on the top of the world. Did I feel self-regard then? I must have.
Years later, in a writing workshop, its leader balked at how I let subjective claims stand as universal. Who are you to speak for so many? Who do you think you are? Both good questions. He said I was using words without knowing what they meant, words like “we.” Your writing reeks of self-regard, he said. (He couldn’t look at me when he said it.) He was right: I had presumed to rise above myself and others and I had failed. I nodded my head. I wanted to say, “But I am trying to exceed myself,” but I didn’t. I crossed my arms instead.
My default posture is one of self-defense. If self-regard has a posture, it would be with crossed-arms, too.
Later still, another person reading my work said she got a whiff of self-regard. I wonder what self-regard smells like. I imagine the odor of something forgotten or covered up—the smell of a once-secret cyst breaking free of the skin.
As a child, I was told I was special, a Somebody with a capital “S,” a person turned into a proper noun before I was ready. Because I had not earned my sense of self, I tried to understand the one I had been assigned. A formula: Special meant better than. I knew myself only by what others were not, and my intelligence developed only to serve its subject. I told my mom: everyone exists just for me. More than a whiff: The putrid smell of solipsism.
So Joan Didion put her head in a paper bag: to humiliate the self. She wrote that “innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself,” likening innocence to self-deception, to a performance, to a fiction sustained by belief. What she sought instead she called “self-respect,” a layer-cake of admiration, achievement, and recognition. From the self, to the self. Her essay “On Self-Respect,” serves to prove the decency of her term, and in it, Didion weaves together a series of fictional exemplars—Rhett Butler, Jordan Baker, hostile Indians and brave settlers—from fiction to the ideal of oneself. A whiff...
This morning I walk to the next highest point in the forest, a place that is bald except for a wooden cross with sawn-off arms. This forest is full of shrines and holy places, of testaments to war. Because, of course, as long as self-regard has been here, this place has been at war, and I think: I am here, like this stick in the ground, standing upright, like an annunciated “I.”
The I that I call myself; the name everyone calls themselves—the bridge between pride and humility. The moment the protagonist realizes they are the antagonist of someone else’s story.
Now the cross intersects only the horizon—the shape of the earth, the relief of the sky—I exhale, and then: I hold my breath. I know I’m supposed to crave the horizon but, with my feet sinking into the mud, I know only that I don’t. Now, all that I want is for the ground to forget me. And that it will. Because the only memory it keeps is the color of blood-red.
I turn around to head back the same way I came—doubling on myself like Didion, but then I decide I want to unlearn, to take a different way home. I depart from the trail. I don’t know where I am, only that I’m not lost. It’s getting darker. My footprints blend in with the night. I feel smaller than small, infinitesimal. I wonder how it is I’m finding my way.
When I return home it’s late. I stomp the mud off of my boots. My husband looks relieved to see me but I feel strange, vulnerable, unsure how to tell him that I’m changing. I’m sorry for making him worry, I say, that the walk was great, that I’m great, that I’ve got a lot of new ideas about things. My husband shakes his head. He’s always warning me against this greatness, these ideas. He says I will become beholden, but he doesn’t say to whom.
It’s okay, I say. I tell him I’m like the cross which is no longer a cross, standing upright, non-reactive and self-contained. I am like that, I insist, begging him to see me as I want to be seen. But he’s looking at my blood-red boots, wet and slouched in the corner. That is the one thing, he says, I cannot do.
Sarah Haas is a writer and critic living in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Her work has appeared in LONGREADS, THE RUMPUS, LARB, ENTROPY, and more.