I’ve kept a journal on and off for the last 25 years—since my early 20s—and when I look at that stuff, it’s agonizing. I have this churlish, aggrieved tone that would be totally unsuited to any piece of published writing. This writing is useful for remembering what happened when, and in what order, but I can’t use any of the writing itself. I hadn’t digested those experiences yet, or they mattered too much to me then.
An excerpt from my journal, written when I was 18:
I will never be quite the same after Venice because it has shown me that man can create true beauty and that I believe is Man’s purpose.
On its own, this is so pretentious and self-important. Horrible! I cringe to think of writing these words—a sign that my perceptions, thank god, have deepened since then. Had I written these words just last year, I might want to burn them or hide them in a drawer. But because I have enough distance from who I was when I was 18, I don’t have to feel ashamed of what I did or said or wrote. I can laugh.
That’s beautiful thing: As life goes on, everything that once seemed important eventually doesn’t seem that way anymore. The things that felt so serious, so crucial and agonizing, lose urgency with time; what’s left is the comedy of it. Not that laughter takes away the seriousness of one’s original experiences, of course. Important or troubling experiences stay with us—but, with time, they begin to contain humor within them, too. I think there’s something dishonest about writing that isn’t funny. I can’t engage with a piece of work without an element of humor to it. Laughter and levity are important aspects of human life, even at its darkest, and writing that lacks those qualities denies the full richness of experience.
Besides, there’s nothing funnier than looking back on a poor, pitiful version of yourself. There’s a section in the book—a little bit of it was in the New Yorker last year—about being an apprentice gondolier. As part of this section, I had an extended episode where I stowed away on the Mayor of Venice’s private boat. I interviewed him, and had a crazy conversation that I recorded the whole thing. This mayor was a slippery individual. He’s currently under house arrest for embezzlement. It was clear how crooked he was when I interviewed him, and it was a tense and strange conversation. And I could not listen to the tape. I just couldn’t listen to it for a long time, when I did it was just pure agony. But, ultimately, I realized that the whole exchange was hilarious.
As a memoirist, you have to be willing to see yourself as a little bit absurd. And it’s much easier to see yourself 20 years ago as absurd. With stuff that’s well in the past, it’s as though you become one of your characters. I’m far enough away from “Sean Wilsey” in the memoirs that I see him sort of as a journalistic subject—yet one I have deep, insider knowledge of, because I used to be him. Still, I feel very little as though he’s still me. (And that’s a relief.)
I think there would be something really sad if you continued to take yourself seriously throughout your life. It would mean you hadn’t changed at all, and the idea that you haven’t changed is a deeply tragic one. That kind of stasis is certainly a dangerous quality in an artist. If you’re just going to keep doing the same thing over and over again, how interesting is that?
Being able to grow in this way—to sustain the kind of growth that ultimately allows laughter—is a crucial skill for writers, because it allows you to move past your initial, limited conception of a project. When creative projects refuse to follow our plans for them, that’s a good thing. In my journalism, I’m surprised by how often I end up saying the very opposite of what I thought or hoped to say when I began a piece. If I think I’m going to attack on an idea or person, say, I’ll end up having a more nuanced view, perhaps even a kind of respect for what I once had hoped to skewer. That’s the definition of growth.
(This isn’t true for all subjects, of course. You know that Donald Trump is just an execrable human being, and no amount of time spent with him is going to change that.)
It happens, too, when you write about the people in your life. There are people whom I’ve known for decades now, and I’m constantly understanding new things about them as I work with them on the page. I come to new conclusions about who they are, and why they did the things that they did—especially with people who were adults when I was a child. Now that I’m raising kids of my own, I end up having totally different insight into how certain decisions end up getting made.
So, you have to be able to laugh at the scope of your ideas when you began, and let go of the ideas you thought you had before you began the work. The essay in the collection that was the was the hardest and most agonizing for me is a piece about driving across the country called “Travels with Death.” It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but I really felt like: “I’m writing this piece because I’m going to explain America.” Of course, that wasn’t possible—I had to learn to let it go.
I love the way Casanova locates his idea of “succeeding” not in amount of acclaim or size of readership—but in how well he can laugh. Well, I feel good about something when I’m at peace with it. For me, the one-word definition of success is peace. And I only feel at peace with something—like I can put it away, that I’ve understood it and am done with it—when I get to the point where I feel like I can laugh about it. There’s a funny thing that happens as I work. When I start revising, I just spend draft after draft thinking how much it sucks. Maybe there are bright spots here and there, but most of the time it’s big slash marks through every page. But, then, an amazing thing happens—as I get closer to the final copy, the prose starts to be funny. It gets to the point where it’s finally clipping along, and it becomes fun—the humor only really comes through at that moment. Suddenly, there’s this built-in amnesia where you forget how hard it was until that point—and it all becomes a pleasure. Laughter is the sign that I’m done.
I think comedy is the deepest form of release. We’re prisoners of the things that we’ve done and the circumstances we’ve lived through, and we can never change our pasts. But there’s a key that can let you out of all that, that tells you you’ve come to understand something and are at peace with it. You know when you’re holding the key—because you can laugh.