Just a Number

I’ve got a guest blog up at Strange Angels, a new and very hip online dating site. If you want to know what makes this different from other mainstream matchmaking sites, check out their policies and procedures. 

Strange Angels also maintains a blog of narratives, advice, and analysis from emerging and established writers. And who better to edit it than Whip Smart memoirist and former professional dominatrix Melissa Febos!

My contribution is a short essay, “Just a Number,” which recounts my experience dating an “older” man, and what I learned about age in the process. Check it out here.

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How Internet Stalking Made Me a Braver Writer

About a year ago, when Ten Square Miles was in its infancy, I discovered that WordPress records the search terms people use to find my blog. Because I suffer from above average narcissism, discovering this feature was better than ten dollar bottle of wine night at Maxie’s–I had a window into what people out there in Internetland thought about me, if they thought about me at all.

Through this feature, I learned that my name is Googled, on average, about ten times a day (that number would be higher if WordPress counted my own hits on TSM, but it doesn’t as long as I’m logged on). I learned that the most common misspellings of my name are “Amy Montichello” and “Amy Munichello,” which I’ve taken to mean that the searcher is trying to Google phonetically. I learned that most people get to my post “Give the Rest Away” by searching “Van Gogh flowers.” I learned that more people than I imagined care about the ending of The Wonder Years. I learned that the scene on The Tudors where King Henry VIII masturbates into a bowl has fascinated many, many viewers.

One day, I discovered a curious search term in WordPress’ archive for Ten Square Miles. Someone had searched “amy monticello big whore.”

Big whore? I’ve written about the days when I maybe–maybe, a big maybe, I think–had a few too many sexual partners, but anyone who follows Ten Square Miles knows I’m happily married to the recurring character named Jason. And that Jason is pretty much fucking perfect. So I was surprised to find that, when I clicked on the search terms covering the previous week, there was a whole spate of insults lobbed at me via keywords on Google:

amy monticello slut

amy monticello who gazes at her navel until it turns to mush

amy monticello jerk

amy monticello who uses cancer to get attention

amy monticello cocksucking bitch

Whoa. Generally, I like to think my body has experienced a normal amount of penile penetration. Generally, I want to believe that my nonfiction, while certainly self-disclosing, aims for analysis and reflection of human behavior that uses the self as a lens through which to observe that behavior. Generally, I wish I hadn’t had part of my cervix removed on two separate occasions.

But then I saw two other searches that revealed the bigger picture:

amy monticello who rats out her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends

amy monticello the bitch who wrote about me at nervous breakdown

Jason only has two ex-girlfriends, and the other one is a friend. Besides, I only wrote about one ex on The Nervous Breakdown.

If you click on that link, you’ll learn the significance of that particular ex, and that, years ago, I started this stalkfest, naively using her own email address to hack her Facebook account when I was younger and more stupid and before I really understood how that all worked. Was it ethically unsound of me to do that? Yes. Did we both write horribly mean things to each other for a period of several months? Yes. Did I actually say I hoped she was hit by a truck. Yes. Do I wish that now? No.

I didn’t write The Nervous Breakdown piece to hurt anyone. I wrote it years later, in a very different and more self-aware emotional state, because I believed that story represented something about the access we have to one another online, and how this access taps into our best and worst selves. My worst self was willing to commit identity theft, yes. But my best self was willing to make a public apology and try to more rationally and lyrically examine that particular moment of my immature life.

Actually, I think I come off a lot worse in the essay than the ex does, so it unsettled me to see her so upset. But she clearly was upset, according to her search terms. And I felt a strange mix of unease and relief at seeing this. Unease because I’d caused her pain by writing about our weird, squirmish relationship. Relief because she’d unknowingly given me something precious–a tiny glimpse into her private self.

As she is not a blogger, I assumed she didn’t know I’d be able to see her keyword searches. I confirmed this theory when I posted a status on Facebook about finding the WordPress archiving feature, and the scathing search terms vanished immediately. Since she didn’t mean for me to see her Googled insults, then she wrote them–typed out the phrase “amy monticello the bitch who wrote about me on nervous breakdown”–for herself. Because typing out those words probably helped her release some understandable anger. Because it feels good to tell ourselves our own truths. Because she was typing on her own damn computer, and she could write whatever she damn well pleased about me. Because she is a human-fucking-being, and that’s what human-fucking-beings do.

I was also relieved by the stalker equality we now shared. She was as interested in me as I was in her. I had caught her just as she had caught me. I am one hundred percent serious when I say that reading her search terms made me feel closer to her. Kinder towards her. She’s an attorney, and if I didn’t think she’d slap me with a harassment lawsuit, I’d write to her and thank her for writing every one of those keywords. But I probably shouldn’t push my luck.

Nonfiction writers are consistently asked to justify their use of real situations and real people in their work. And they’re constantly judged for what they reveal about themselves, as though the feelings explored, and not what the writer does with them, are what we should focus on. Just look at the comments section on Abby Mims’ “Et Tu, Nemesis?” on The Nervous Breakdown (as syndicated this week by Salon and analyzed by the New York Observer). Most of the criticisms hurled at Mims are about her jealousy towards writer Joshua Ferris. While I, too, wondered at times about Mims’ portrayal of Ferris as an arrogant sycophant, I also think these readers miss the point of the essay. Mims isn’t proud of her envy, or how it caused her to behave towards Ferris in their highly competitive graduate program–but she has to disclose these feelings in order to tell the far more important story of how she came to confront her own career as a writer, where jealousy towards other writers is not only useless, but detrimental.

These sometimes vitriolic readers also miss the other point of Mims’ essay: that writing about these feelings analytically is a sign of (at least impending) inner peace about her former rivalry. Successful personal essay and memoir require critical distance as well as emotional honesty. If we’re writing about it, whatever it is, with an attempt to reveal its full complexity, you can assume we’ve probably clawed our way up to acceptance. You can assume we’re writing from a place of humility, not pride.

Knowing that the ex is out there, reading my work, has done a strange thing. It has given me a new audience. Lately, while working on new material, I’ve been picturing her. Back in the days of our insult-trading on Facebook, when I was in contest with my own rage and envy, I judged her based on the effects her mistakes–her human-fucking-being mistakes–had on Jason and me. I didn’t do for her what I do for people I love, or even people who just deserve to feel better because they’re people, and people make mistakes: tell her a story about my own similar mistakes. Reach for empathy.

Ever since I felt her presence on my blog and other online writing, I’ve striven for greater bravery. I’ve tried to mine my mistakes and shortcomings for the chances they offer for personal forgiveness and an unveiled intimacy with others. I’ve tried to reveal–do I dare say embrace? Love?–my worst self so that her power over my best self can be lessened, evaporating in the fullest light possible. Maybe that’s why Catholic confession and AA begin with a personal inventory.

Over the years, I’ve honed my talent for Internet stalking. Today, armed with a nickname and general description of her graduate field, I found a buddy from my spinning class I need to email about tomorrow’s two-hour ride. My nonfiction writer’s memory latches onto detail, so with a little time and a genuine interest, I can cobble together a remarkably accurate portrait based on almost anyone’s Internet data. But I try not to do that maliciously now. Now I aim to use my skills for good. I use them to search for the hidden self. The one you think I couldn’t understand or wouldn’t like. The one that probably looks more like me than either of us would care to admit.

* Side note: Today, someone tried to search “amy monitello porn.” I don’t know if there is a real Amy Monitello who has been in/makes porn, or if someone out there believes or wishes I have done porn. Sorry to disappoint you. No porn. 

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I Know Who You Are

Here’s an uninteresting story: I used to be friends with a girl who wasn’t a very good friend. She was manipulative and critical and almost never made me feel good about myself. We had our fun together–camping trips and music festivals and recreational drugs–but most of that fun came with my ability to reflect her interests (a jam band fan, an androgynous dresser, a vegetarian) and subordinate my own.

The details don’t much matter. The week of my wedding was stressful, and my friend behaved as she always did, dropping acidic comments where they weren’t appreciated or helpful or in the spirit of my impending marital bliss. The only difference was that I now had a partner, and he thought it was pretty crazy to let someone abuse my friendship. We talked about what it mean to have her at our wedding, and decided it just couldn’t be. I crossed her off the guest list via email.

One of my worst qualities is my abject fear of confrontation. With frienemies, pushy students, unwieldy writing projects, I let myself get backed into that tiny, airless corner called Everything is Fucking Fine before I scream and thrash and gouge my way out. It’s not pretty to watch. I’ve shocked people with my recessive tendency towards telling off, quitting, or vanishing without explanation. Somewhere out there, somebody thinks I have multiple personality disorder.

So it has been with Ten Square Miles. The year is only seven months old, but 2012 has been topsy-turvy good/bad/transcendent/disheartening/bizarre, and my response has been to shut down on the blogosphere, to give the illusion that everything is fine with the promise of upcoming posts that never come. There’s no easy answer as to why this blog has been a literary desert since February, but lots of disparate stuff has happened, and I haven’t had much time to make sense or meaning of it. I published a chapbook to a lovely critical and mixed familial reception. I did not get a job I wanted. I turned down a job I didn’t want. I started meditating at a Tibetan monastery. I began crying at the sight of other people’s children. I committed to spinning classes. I gave up sugar. I watched Dawson’s Creek from start to finish on Netflix (Joey and Pacey 4-ever). I survived a freak Ithaca heatwave with a temperamental air conditioner. I taught an adult memoir writing class at a community arts center, where they have a Keurig coffee maker, and now I want a Keurig coffee maker. I got stuck for over twenty-four hours alone at the Cleveland airport, and had to rely on the kindness of both strange and familiar men for the first time since meeting my husband.

The strange and familiar men. That’s as good a place as any to tell you I’ve got a new piece live at The Nervous Breakdown. “I Know Who Are You Are” tells the story of my first tattoo–a pair of blue wings on my shoulder–and a boy who also became permanently etched on my past. I hope you’ll check it out and have some faith restored that I haven’t told all my stories yet.

I do intend to get back to blogging on TSM, as well. There will come a day–and I hope it’s soon–when I’ll burst forth from this silence and tell you something unexpected, something that will make you wonder if I’ve ever been truthful here, if you ever really knew me at all.

Until then, here’s a picture of Cheryl Strayed and me. I just really like it.

Photo by Christina Lutz

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Review of CLOSE QUARTERS at Contrary

Lee Gulyas, writer and professor at Western Washington University, made me cry with this review of Close Quarters on Contrary‘s blog.

Gulyas writes:

Through the architecture of small chapters, some stand-alone essays, others vivid vignettes, Monticello not only chronicles the linear story of her parents’ romance, marriage, separation, and eventual divorce, but also investigates her place in this tale. One early, curious episode is the chapter “Christmas, 1984” where the mother tape records a family Christmas dinner, and the author, twenty-five years later, probes the larger, thematic concerns—again with a joke—this time with two-year old Amy as the punchline, “Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry,” because she mistakes her parents’ playfulness for fighting. 

…This handmade book is the perfect format for a love story, a story of a family bound together, not via conventional marriage, but because even though this couple cannot live together, they cannot live apart. Close Quarters ultimately is the author’s search for meaning among the peculiarities of divorce and small towns, places “where nobody can really disappear”, a delicate and intimate search for how her parents’ love story shapes not only their relationship as a family, but her own notion of belonging, love, and commitment.

For the whole review, go here. And to all who’ve read, purchased, and cheered on Close Quarters, thank you. I’m baking cookies for you in my heart.

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Micro-essay in Creative Nonfiction

Creative Nonfiction, one of my favorite nonfiction literary magazines, has published a micro-essay I wrote on Twitter for their Tiny Truths section. Check out Issue 44 for this and other wonderful nonfiction, including a heartrending craft essay by my friend B.J. Hollars, who gives Susan Sontag a run for her money on trauma photography analysis, and ponders the ever-looming question of whose story we have a right to tell.

Speaking of Twitter, I’ve added a follow button on TSM’s sidebar, as well as my recent oh-so-exciting tweets. Mostly, I post links and pictures of my dog. For more engrossing 140-character fun, be sure to follow Creative Nonfiction (@cnfonline) on Twitter, too!

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A TNB Reverse Interview

Friend and fellow writer/blogger Marissa Landrigan, who curates the food ethics blog We *Meat* Again, helped me do something special for a Close Quarters review on The Nervous Breakdown. About a month ago, Marissa pitched the idea that we play on the famed TNB self-interview by doing a reverse interview, from writer to reader. So, I asked Marissa questions about Close Quarters, which she answered essay-style in her latest TNB piece, “You Will Never Know: A Review of Amy Monticello’s Close Quarters.”

It’s pretty much a dream for a writer to receive such a thoughtful, personal reader response. I’m so grateful to Marissa for the opportunity to hear the associations she had while reading.

And please check out her wonderful blog (complete with recipes and stunning pictures) and pieces on The Nervous Breakdown!

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CLOSE QUARTERS Reviewed by Slash Pine Press

I may have an ear infection and end-of-semester fatigue, but Close Quarters just received its first book review by the wonderful Slash Pine Press. Not only am I bowled over by Alexandra Franklin’s kind insights about my writing, I’m also touched because I know the Slash Pine project from my days at the University of Alabama. They’re a generous, innovative, stylish press.

For example, I once participated in a reading organized by press founder Joseph Wood (a prolific poet in his own right). In groups of about  ten, we went on a silent hike through the woods near the Black Warrior river, stopping every quarter-mile or so to hear a student read a section of our work aloud. Slash Pine is always experimenting with the interplay between words and space.

Here’s my favorite snippet from Franklin’s review:

The essays in “Close Quarters” are less essays than extended prose poems—the rhythms clear and smooth, the narratives taking a backseat to the lyrical rollicking of the prose. Monticello takes a contemplative step back and shows us her family as they might be seen through the knotted stitching that holds them together: imperfect, incomplete, in the shadow of dark lines. But they are beautiful, and they catch the eye.

Check out the complete review (with pictures!) here.

Thank you, Slash Pine!

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