On Fragments and the Surreal

 “To call a piece of writing a fragment, or to say it’s composed of fragments, is to say that it or its components were once whole but are no longer” -Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments

As I’ve been mostly not writing these past few months, I’ve quietly searched for inspiration, for something good to say, for a way to amplify the voices I believe need to be amplified. What has ultimately ensued is a weighty silence.

I’ve looked for ways to resist in that silence, but I know I need to do more. And, I *need* to write. I am a writer. It hurts to not write.


I’ve been interested lately in fragments and brevity. What writing I have done has been fragmented, metaphor-heavy, with a necessary sense of incompletion. The writing I’ve been drawn to has been shorter – I am already a fan of short forms (essays, short stories), but reading even a regular length essay has sometimes felt exhausting recently. Now I need short articles, flash essays, blog posts. Then even smaller: Instagram captions, tweets, short poems.


On Inauguration Day I feverishly wrote:

Does everyone walk around with this terrible pain? Helplessness, hopelessness, sobbing inside yet stoic outside. Covering it all up with work and binge watching and endless scrolls through social media. Praying – all of us, even if not to a higher being; perhaps to the sun or the air around us – to make it through one more day, just this moment. Memories of joy or contentment appeasing us until the ferocity quells – but temporarily, as it’s always only fleeting. Our anger or impatience a clever ruse for the frightened naked being occupying our chest, trying to stretch out and caress all the other organs, searching for a kindness that we – again – pray that everyone tends to somewhere inside them.


Aleksander Hemon speaks to the surreal nature of the world following the election, including the suspicion clouding his day on November 9th:

The morning of November 9 I woke up, after a short night of unsettling dreams, in a revengeful country of disgruntled racists, who elected the worst person in America as a gleeful punishment for whatever white grudges had been accumulated during the Obama years, or even during the decades before. As I biked to a long-arranged breakfast with a friend, the tree leaves on the ground looked different, contaminated. Whenever I saw a white person, I could not help wondering: ‘Is s/he a Trumpist?’


My November 9th also held suspicion, but I was plagued by a different sense of betrayal that I haven’t been able to shake entirely. I wrote,

I am a sexual assault survivor. This isn’t a secret, but it isn’t something I talk about. Yet the day after the election, I felt as though everyone knew – every person who voted for Trump, every person who didn’t vote, even, and – especially – every person on social media who aggressively proclaimed get over it it’s fine stop making such a big deal of this. They knew. They saw me, like the eye of Sauron, finding me in the shadows of my living room. I became naked, shivering, betrayal filleting the scab of time clean off of me.

I cried all day. I physically hurt. The memories of assault played over and over in my mind. I was a teenager again. I gorged on Facebook, on Twitter. I gingerly walked across campus, noticing all the men, especially those whose mouths kept trumpeting Trump, all surrounding words in their sentences too quiet to hear, but that one word elevated until it flapped around me and settled on my shoulders.


I’m less affected by that betrayal now, but I know I’m not done with it. But for now I am caught up in the ongoing, daily surrealism of the new world order. Hemon, after perfectly describing Kafkaesque reality and disruption of continuity, articulates the kind of negotiations that are already underway:

People will desperately negotiate for the durability of the old for as long as they can, including forever… The negotiations with the new order accelerate precisely as it’s becoming unalterable: Maybe it won’t happen; maybe it can’t be any other way; maybe it won’t be that bad; maybe it was all a conspiracy, which, when exposed, will make people see they were wrong and go back to being their good old selves; maybe there is a position from which everything will look almost the way it used to be; maybe I won’t be affected; maybe they won’t break down my door but only my Muslim neighbor’s.


Kristen Martin discusses the pocket-size wisdom so many of us love: aphorisms. She questions our blind consumption of them:

Turning to such concise phrases for advice or comfort can lead to a dead end: a repetition of one static interpretation that serves only to self-soothe. Comfort is the enemy of inquiry, to turn an aphoristic phrase. Only when we feel unsettled, when there’s some nagging dissonance that requires looking underneath received wisdom, do we question the world around us.

Her article talks about the “new aphorism,” written by women like Sarah Manguso, which “serv[es] as an impetus rather than an endpoint…[falling] into a different class entirely from Instagram poetry and inspirational quote memes.”

Manguso is one of the authors whose books I will buy as soon as they come out. Her 300 Arguments has been sitting on my side table for a week and I’ve been slowly making my way through her brief snippets of brilliance (and, I confess, posting them on Instagram).

from  300 Arguments

from 300 Arguments


Though Manguso denies that her arguments are “fragments,” I think they fall under the umbrella of short, necessary, timely writing. Aphorisms, fragments, poetry, short pleas and sound bites – how else can we reach each other when everything moves too fast, when the rug is pulled out from under us every day, when we take a new punch to the gut or another black eye so quickly that we cannot even process one ache before moving on to the next?


Hemon ponders what art will look like now; what it should look like in the context of today’s uncertainty and strangeness. He argues,

What I call for is a literature that craves the conflict and owns the destruction, a split-mind literature that features fear and handles shock, that keeps self-evident “reality” safely within the quotation marks. Never should we assume the sun will rise tomorrow, that America cannot be a fascist state, or that the nice-guy neighbor will not be a murderer because he gives out candy at Halloween.


I’m feeling encouraged [?] by these ideas, or at least by the way they seem to connect. If I cannot write in the way I used to, that’s okay. If we need fragments and aphorisms and decontextualized quotes, poems and flash pieces and smart bloggers offering up their experiences and insights, we should embrace that. I should embrace that. I’m not the writer I expected to be right now, but this isn’t the world I expected to live in at this moment.


“Stop Making Sense,” proclaims the title of Hemon’s piece.

“[W]hile the maxims of Great Men might suggest otherwise,” concludes Martin, “there are so many ways we can still attempt to come to terms with this life, this world.”


My inauguration day writing, surprisingly, concludes with a bit of hope I don’t remember feeling.

How easy it is to forget that no one is as strong as they would like to be. No one wears confidence like a second skin – it’s instead rather ill-fitting and never quite comfortable. How easy it is to believe that strangers are uncaring and uninformed. When, really, we’re all just scared and too full of love for only those around us to open up to the world we don’t know.

What will it mean to try during this time? To refuse to give up and to embrace everything that hurts – knowing, remembering in the darkest moments – how we are more alike in our fears and our vulnerabilities than different in our loves and convictions.


I know we need to listen to each other. I believe in the power of writers, of words, of questioning and searching. I want to find where my words belong in all of this, even if I fumble and retreat sometimes.

I just want to write.