We were sitting in the closet of my childhood bedroom when I realized my boyfriend didn’t care about me. I already knew he didn’t love me, even though he assumed the boyfriend position unbeknownst to me during my 10-day coma after falling out of a tree in 2015, but care is the minimum requirement for keeping someone in your vicinity—let alone a relationship—and it didn’t seem he had even that.
Less than two months after my accident, my parents requested I go through old boxes they had, to decide if I wanted to keep anything. Unsentimental, I foresaw a cursory rifle followed by a trip to the trash, but an old journal from when I was 15 gave me pause.
The boyfriend, tossing books and photos to the side, noticed I stopped to flip through the pages.
“This is an old journal of mine,” I explained.
“Are you going to be doing that a while?” he asked, eyeing the doorway to the walk-in. “Because I’m going to go then.”
I threw everything out.
If you’ve spent any time writing or reading the infamous personal essay format, you’ve probably encountered the phrases “splay yourself open,” “bleed on the page,” or “cannibalize yourself.” I don’t think any other form of writing’s process is described with such masochistic verbiage. Although a seemingly general writing aphorism, Hemingway’s quote, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” becomes all the more poignant when you realize the majority of his writing was autobiographical.
Which brings us to Nick Cave, whose lyrics are far from autobiographical, focusing on myth-making rather than prescriptive pop ditties. And maybe it was the mythic qualities of “Cannibal’s Hymn” that originally captured my attention, a story reminiscent of those old oral tales replete with internal rhymes to help you remember how the words go—tales that make it where you can’t forget.
In 2004, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released an album concerned not just with dying but the moments following death, apparent in its title: Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. The album’s second track, “Cannibal’s Hymn,” is firmly in the “dying” camp, but it makes dying sound so beautiful, why wouldn’t you be okay doing it?
The song starts out with a dominating neo-funk bassline as Cave condemns the heathens by the sea, but then the bass gives way to sweeping acoustic guitar. During that first chorus, he predicts what happens when a body dines with cannibals—because, for cannibals, you are only a body. But the first chorus, with the guitar accompaniment and Cave’s gentle crooning, as it turns from death to life, meals to magic…why, it almost sounds like a love song.
At the height of the “first-person industrial complex,” Laura Bennet wrote an essay for Slate looking at predatory publications and the doe-eyed writers flaying the juiciest hunks of flesh from themselves for an increased click-through rate. Even the editors who claimed trepidation when it came to publishing some of the more sinister and exploitive stories, in the end, still commissioned these essays and put them out for consumption.
Although Bennet holds publications—brand names instead of publishers—accountable, she’s easier on the editors themselves, giving them a pass. Meanwhile, she falls dangerously close to victim-blaming when it comes to the exploited writers.
“In fact, the defining trait of the best first-person writing,” Bennet explains, “is exactly what is missing from so much of the new crop: self-awareness.”
To Bennet, if these writers had just been better writers, more experienced, more honest with themselves, it would have been different. It wasn’t the editors’ fault; they had to serve their hungry readers something, after all. More seasoned writers, adequately prepared, aren’t such quick and easy dishes.
What everyone finds most interesting about me is what I care about the least. Since my 2015 accident, I’ve written plenty of stories about it—falling out of a tree, my alcoholism, my disability—it doesn’t bother me. It’s become my own version of myth-making.
I don’t write about what hurts me the most, the bloodiest, rarest pieces—in my opinion. But the perceived “little horrors” don’t make for good literature these days. You share your most tender cuts with those who love you. Or you find out they don’t actually care to know.
And for everyone else, I’m the perfect dinner date: they take their choice pieces and I keep what’s mine.
Don’t they know all I’ve given up are non-essential organs?
“If you’re gonna dine with them cannibals,” Cave warns, “well sooner or later, darling, you’re gonna get eaten.”
In July of 2019, Lily Burana wrote an essay for Salon about her last-ditch attempt to revive her writing career at the Sirenland Writers Conference in Italy. Lured by the siren song of worthiness and slipping chances, Burana took her pages about her own sex work and laid them before her peers—and the well- published and respected writer Alexander Chee.
“I waited for Chee to speak, to pump me up with cri de coeur platitudes about fire walks and slitting wrists and bleeding all over the page,” Burana writes. “But he didn’t. He looked me in the eye and said, slowly and evenly, as if channeling from a fourth-dimensional place, ‘My concern with you publishing this is that you might retraumatize yourself.’
It’s not often a writer is told to care for herself, to be gentle and privilege her mental health over what she could, potentially, produce.
Interestingly enough, in May of 2019, Gay Magazine, a partnership between writer Roxane Gay and Medium, launched, a few months before Burana’s essay went live. Gay Magazine’s submission manager included the line, “We do not want you to cannibalize yourself. We are interested in provocative work but we are not interested in senseless provocation.”
It felt like editors were growing weary of the blood sport essay writing had become.
Burana, amazed at Chee’s words, marvels, “I had never been advised to prioritize my emotional well-being over my output.”
But the bass is always there; it’s the “Cannibal’s Hymn” through-line. Each rendition of the chorus gradually loses its adulation for the subject; the guitar wans; the bassline asserts itself; the heart goes from beating to banging, bleating to bleeding. And we remember the song’s title; Cave’s another cannibal and this is his hymn. He said he was different, but in the end, how different can a body be in these woods? He’s been singing praise to the cabal of flesh all along, just to a river instead of the sea. A body’s a body, even if it’s a body of water.
“Allow me, my love, to allay your fear/As I swim in and out of focus.”
Quietly, you hear yourself say, “But it didn’t sound like a siren’s song…”
After one year of existence, Gay Magazine went defunct. Roxane Gay tweeted, “The biggest challenge was traffic. We published great work and had regular readers but rarely anything viral. I hate that’s the metric but it is how it is.”
Sometimes, I forget the key modifier for personal essays is “personal.” It was always going to be presenting ourselves on a platter, digging into the heart of the matter, even as it—as we—bleat in despair. Even if kind-hearted editors dream of better, want to be better, it doesn’t seem to do any good. We’re all victims of our own personhood and our thirst for someone else’s. If every essay is a bleeding heart, and it has to be, it seems, to be deemed decent, then every reader’s a cannibal. And every reader’s insatiable.
The more we write, the more we learn which areas will hurt us the least to present. Well-seasoned, we decide which parts will most cleanly separate while retaining enough blood for coloring.
“And I will never desert you here/Unpetaled among the crocus.”
But there is something seductive about being consumed, internalized. And maybe—eventually—someone won’t dine and dash. So we prepare another course.
Often, I conflate tasting with knowing. And I conflate knowing with love.
To me, there’s a certain devotion that comes with consumption, especially when a person seeks out all of my pieces to cobble together a spread of my personhood. It would, in my mind, provide a reification of myself—a care for and reconstruction of the elements that are usually discarded not only as offal, awful, unpalatable, but because they lack the flash and grandeur of a prime cut.
But I’m lucky. My undercurrent, the through-line in every piece I write, the non-explicit, non-essential, non-requested elements are mine to keep. Though, eventually, I’ll have to explain myself—bruised but bleating.