Galen Beebe

Modesty at her Vanity


ISSUE 36 | MODESTY | JAN 2014

I write from a closet. (This is a metaphor.) This closet is comfortable, familiar, and safe. Let’s say it resembles my childhood bedroom—bright walls, wooden furniture, an abundance of tchotchkes. The tchotchkes are probably the overwhelming factor. In fact, the closet’s full of junk. Much of it is absently strewn about, but I know every report card, medallion, and baby tooth (I’m a hoarder of memories) and when I’m in there, I’m not ashamed of any of it. This is the world I know most intimately, both somewhere I can’t escape and the place I gratefully return to whenever I’m alone.

The stuff in the closet is what makes up my writing. The color palette ranges, and changes as I grow, from sweet-faced yellow to electric green to a nuanced off-white. The space isn’t uniform, but there are trends in the design that point me in certain directions: poems about desire, essays on impermanence, stories of control. There are no mirrors in there, only feelings I get when I look at the things that make me up. Whatever the final picture looks like, everything I make is a self-portrait.

This is the vanity of writers: We can’t escape ourselves. Even when we’re writing about things we don’t know, we’re writing about things we know. We write only about things that interest us, and ultimately, only about ourselves. We’re locked up in our closets: our patterns, our pasts. I’m tangled in the tchotchkes and wear the color of the walls. I can’t help it—it’s all about me.

Self-centered as I am, I’m also modest. I don’t like people in my closet. I blush when the door is opened on the jumbled shelves and dusty corners. Though it’s the place I feel most comfortable, it’s also where I’m most alone. I like to keep my world contained and exactly as I left it. So I don’t open the door. Instead, I publish from behind it.


Illustration by Tom Tian

In November of 2013, I published a web-based piece called Kiss List with my collaborator, John West. The piece consists of four graphs and a map cataloguing my first kiss with everyone I’ve kissed. It includes an array of facts, including how much I enjoyed each kiss, how much shame I felt afterwards, the gender and age of each kisser, and when and where the kisses took place.

Kiss List, like most of my closet-projects, satisfies an urge to know everything about myself—and when I’m in the closet, that’s fine. I’m trying to arrange the objects, to see in them a larger pattern. The piece is an honest and unnervingly specific image of me. It portrays exactly one part of who I am, and I started it to be just that. By separating out and examining different aspects of myself, I can paint my portrait from various angles. It’s hard to get a fair perspective on the objects that surround me when I’m in the closet; it’s hard to step back and see myself. This is a unique opportunity that writing provides: I can expose thoughts that I might not recognize unless they’re separated from my mind, and engage with myself without worrying about what others think.

Deciding to print Kiss List was a different story. The piece is blunt. It lays out facts of my life that I typically keep private. In real-life interactions, I don’t flaunt my personal life. I don’t like talking about my romantic or sexual escapades. I’ve been called reserved, distant, hard to get to know. I blush easily. I hide—literally. Often, when I’m lying in bed with my boyfriend, our conversation will begin to feel too personal. When this happens, I bury my face under the covers to keep him from seeing me. I would rather talk from behind that wall. The blanket protects me from any smirk, frown, or sideways glance that I didn’t intend, and which expresses something I can’t see. Being seen is like death—we all know about it, but most of the time, we can forget. Watching someone see you is an instant reminder.

If I have to be seen, then I want people to see me exactly as I do. In my closet, I’ve gleaned an understanding of who I am from a seemingly random assortment of junk. Through writing, I can fashion this understanding into an image of myself. Every story has a main character, and in much of what I write, that character is me. I would like the character to portray the barebones facts: These are the people I’ve kissed, this is what I write in my journal, this is what I’m scared of. Once I have myself depicted, I can project the image for those standing on the other side of the door.

The door is a welcome barrier. It provides a layer of material between me and the reader that covers up the part of me that I don’t want to show. In conversation, people can see in; in print, the door remains. There are no accidental glances—or at least fewer—and I don’t have to watch their reactions. It also gives an excuse for anything I didn’t mean to reveal: It’s not me, it’s you. You’re reading into it. By publishing through the door, I can be as vain as I want to and stay in my closet.

Disclaimer: if you and I are close, I will probably make you a character, too. You may or may not know it’s you. You may have a pseudonym; your character may not be human, or even animate; but a conversation we’ve had might appear nearly word for word in something I write. If you don’t like this, I’m sorry. I write in a closet, an echo chamber, but not a vacuum. I’m influenced by everything, and everyone, I know. I like to think I’m not stealing from your closet, but that you left a bit of yourself in mine. Perhaps they share a wall. I only worry that if I make you a character, I’m doing what to you what I fear most: creating an image of you that’s different than the one you know.

Nonfiction writing creates the illusion of a single self. In each piece, I present a fragment of myself in hopes of understanding the whole. But depicting is not the same as knowing; the moment someone steps into my closet, what I’ve authored disappears. The person sees a version of me that I don’t, and suddenly, I’m a stranger to myself. The one essential me is shattered. Your character is no more real than mine is. It’s not even entirely the you I know. Take these images for what they are—less truth than fantasy, less reality than hope. Nonfiction is fiction, too. In writing a piece, I knit a blanket, build a door, and direct the audience to look at that instead. By revealing myself in print, I get to save face by not showing mine.