Mark Schlissel gave me writer’s block
University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel apparently lives in a beautiful white house on South University Avenue and I was going to see it. I was going to see it because I emailed a professor that I needed a building to write about, and of the hundreds in Ann Arbor, not a single one felt curious enough for a story.
“Break into Mark Schlissel’s house!” he wrote.
“Will I be arrested?” I wondered.
“I’m just an Idea Guy!” he replied.
It was an idea, and one I needed, because I signed on to write about buildings for The Daily’s Statement magazine this semester: To turn immobile structures into however many thousand romantically-tainted words on a semi-regular basis. When I applied, I felt I had a lot to say on the subject, and I wanted to force myself to write.
The weather was awful the day I first set out to see the President’s House. I left around noon and faced the September mix of warm humidity and cold wind that begs both for shorts and a flannel, and doesn’t blink an eye at the contradiction. I wore neither, and downed a Claritin instead as September not only gifts split personality weather but also searing and persistent allergies.
My goal for this visit to Schlissel’s white picket fence home was to spark some initial inspiration that I could hopefully run with, as I had an article due within a few days. I would give myself those days to complete research and finalize the writing.
I was hoping the visit would spark my inspiration because truthfully, I was lacking motivation. I was too preoccupied with the book I was reading, the boy I was seeing, the baffling strangeness of weather in September.
But by the time I reached the backside of the Hatcher Graduate Library and came upon the austere home, I had completely forgotten my intentions. Glancing through the cracks of the fence into the prim backyard with its proper glass porches stirred nothing in me. I merely checked my phone twice for texts as I passed, wondered why there were none, and wondered if it was something I said.
I failed before I began, but I refused to believe it. I would not let my emptied-headedness preclude me from finishing such important work. I had an article to write, and like any seasoned professional college journalist, I turned to the sources: Wikipedia, Google, three Advil and a large glass of wine.
The President’s House is the oldest remaining building on the University’s campus. It was constructed to be a faculty residence when the University moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor in 1837, and construction was completed in 1840. The first president to move into the home was Henry Phillip Tappan in 1852, who was also the first official President of the University.
The house has undergone extensive renovations over the last two centuries, some of the grandest of which are described in the nomination for the home’s entry into the National Register of Historic Places.
“In the 1860s the central mass assumed its present appearance. The half story became a full third story; the roof was altered to a truncated hipped roof; double brackets were added; the cupola was replaced by a balustrade; and the house took on an Italianate cast. Later, sometime after 1875, the artificial mortar courses were filled in. The house’s four chimneys and seven fire-places are original as well as the flat roofed Greek revival portico.”
Renovations continued on the home well into the 1980s. Some are documented by Anne Duderstadt, wife of James J. Duderstadt, who became University President in 1988. In a photographic essay, Anne Duderstadt describes her odyssey with the home:
“The toilet from the first floor bathroom (to be the handicapped bathroom) was on the dining porch. The front yard was totally dug up, and the side porch was gone. Cigarette butts were scattered all over the floors by the workmen. The University decorators were walking through the house with carpet salesman deciding what THEY were going to do with the house. Suddenly, the house was not as ‘beautiful’ as I had remembered.”
When I went back to the President’s House later that evening and looked at the many Italianate windows fronting the home, peered again at the large wooden fence surrounding the porch and looked between the pickets, I could not think much of Anne Duderstadt and her domestic horror. I simply could not see it: There were no toilets on the porch, no cigarette butts on the floors scattered by workmen and no University decorators with unsatisfactory ideas of their own.
I saw only how strange it was for a 22-room home to not have a single light on; felt only that it is a bit of a waste for a home so extensively and expensively renovated to sit alone, emptied, unoccupied, surrounded by a tall fence and cut off from the world. Mostly, the image of the lonesome home under the moonlight made me tired, nostalgic and wishful of my own apartment. It made me want to go home.
This is the heart of the problem. This is the reason I have not been capable of being the sort of writer I have wanted to be. I am incapable of reading about a 22-room home without thinking about my own single bedroom; incapable of counting the windows of the President’s House without waiting for my phone to ring; incapable of listing the date of the President’s House’s construction without thinking about the first time someone held my hand in public and I didn’t flinch. I am always distracted.
In my sophomore year, I misread a question on a history midterm and gave an incorrect response. In a flowing email to my professor, I apologized profusely and asked if it was at all possible to take it again, and if not, if there might be a way to make it up to him.
He responded “Focus, my boy, Focus!” and allowed me to redo the question. I have tried hard since to heed his warning. I have only ever been less successful.
Writing, at least for me, is one of those specific forms of masochism that asks for regularity but demands ingenious spontaneity. I mean writing happens only at one time of day, when the whole day has been exhausted, probably nursing a headache, and when there is absolutely nothing else to do. There are no other options. It’s when I remember, for a minute, for an hour, for an evening, that things just don’t make any sense. At least, they don’t make sense like I’d like them to. Nothing is left but to try and explain this to myself.
I am always explaining to myself, never to anyone else, no matter how often I try otherwise.
The reason this has always struck me as a bad thing, and the reason I say it prohibits me from being the kind of writer I have wanted to be, is because I have created, for right or for wrong, an ideal in my mind of the kind of person that my distractedness disallows me from being. This ideal me would not walk by Schlissel’s house and check their phone twice instead of taking notes on the number of windows and the year it was built. This ideal would not veer direly off the topic of their assignment. This ideal wouldn’t turn Schlissel’s house into a metaphor.
This ideal is an abstraction, and a vague one. I am unsure if anyone exists who truly manifests it. But I have been led to believe someone does — even many someones — and it is that belief that has made the difference. When I walk down the street, I see not a hundred students with their own anxieties running to class, but a mass of people who have it figured out and do not worry about things like empty houses and phones that don’t ring — people who do not try to explain themselves.
It is absurd to believe that, of course. Everyone experiences fears and doubts and worries, I am well aware of this. That doesn’t mean it’s not easy to fall into such a simplification when you lack the context of each person you pass.
Simply, it is impossible to know the anxieties behind every blank face, and so it is difficult to imagine those anxieties exist at all: I did not see the girl in a yellow sundress who I just passed on State Street crying in the bathroom stall 20 minutes before, then wiping her mascara slowly in the mirror. Perhaps, with some imagination, I can picture her crying. But I cannot in a way that would make it tangible, make it real; not in a way that would make me feel it quite like I would if I actually saw her wiping her makeup.
These abstractions of worriless people exist only in a present moment. They have never had pasts and they have never had futures. They are the cool-looking guy in the corner of the party who hasn’t spoken a word, and because he hasn’t spoken a word, you assume that he has it all figured out. In all likelihood, he doesn’t know what the hell is going on, or he’s just way too high to be at this party. It doesn’t matter though. I have imparted a coolness on him anyway, and already feel inferior. That cool-looking guy has always been at the party, and he will never leave it.
So writing is very uncool, because writing is trying like mad to explain yourself, and in explaining yourself, you are admitting you don’t know it all, and it bothers not to know it all; whereas “cool” is the appearance of a) not having a care in the world and b) having it all figured out. I have never met someone who liked to write who wasn’t at least a bit neurotic, or who had much at all figured out.
I have only ever felt uncool when writing, and thus embarrassed. I have only ever felt like I wished I hadn’t said what I finally ended up saying.
About two years ago, I wrote a piece for The Daily during which I came to terms with the fact that I was gay. The next day, it was colder than usual, and I had on the same red sweater I’d worn nearly every day that month. I waited for the elevator to my class in Angell Hall. It arrived, I entered and right as the door began to close, my professor stuck in his hand, and the elevator doors opened again to let him in. It was the same professor who told me “Focus, my boy, Focus!”
He looked at me. He was silent a moment, and then began to say, in a hushed, matter-of-fact tone, that he had read my article, and, well, that he did not understand what exactly I had meant by it. I told him matter-of-factly that I did not know what I meant by it either, except that it was melodramatic and best not to be taken seriously.
It would have been much harder to take myself seriously. I felt, at least, very serious when I had written it. But I had convinced myself almost immediately that I did not deserve to be taken seriously, and so I joked about how dramatic I had been, and I made fun of myself for it. To ask to be taken seriously would have been to ask to be empathized with, and in quite plain terms, I did not believe I deserved it.
Later that week, I saw a photo of myself in the red sweater I’d worn so often, and was taken aback. I had thought it fit quite well and I liked it a lot. But when I looked at myself in the photo, it looked all wrong. The sleeves were too large. My head was bloated when framed in the shade of red and the collar style. I threw the sweater out that evening. I would never be able to wear it again.
Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette comes to mind here. When she explains how she used jokes to cope with her coming out story, I felt it as if she stood there in the room, scolding me like a loving older sibling:
“I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point and I sealed it off into jokes. And that story became a routine, and through repetition, that joke version fused with my actual memory of what happened.”
Months ago, I emailed The Daily and asked them to scratch my name from that article my professor in the elevator had not understood. I understood completely what I had said in it. I only wished I had not said it. Nothing in the article was untrue. I had had those feelings. I only no longer felt that way, that it was such a big deal to be gay — perhaps no longer felt it by the time the article was even published; and to read something written by someone who was me, yet terribly and completely no longer was me, was painful, disturbing and sad. It was seeing a photo of yourself with a bad haircut years before, a haircut you loved for so long, and finally realizing that you should have just cut off the mane. Above all, it was embarrassing.
The future version of myself did not believe the prior one deserved empathy. In a more stable and assured place, I looked down upon a version of myself that was more unsure. I wanted only to erase his existence entirely, and create a “me” that had only existed in the present, like that cool-looking boy at the party: always there, never leaving.
My article was physical evidence that not only had I been late to the party, but that I would surely leave it soon enough.
But we cannot delete the person we were before we arrived. We cannot ask the kind editors at The Daily to scratch away their existence. What we are saying — what I was saying — when I tried to erase the existence of that past version of myself is that he did not deserve to be empathized with. When we preclude a prior version of ourselves from empathy, and when we know that our present will never last, we say, in short, that we have never and will never deserve it. And I can’t believe that’s true.
I tried to go to the President’s House again. This time more than ever I was hell-bent on writing the article I was supposed to. Whatever I’d find was more necessary, I knew — I thought — than whatever I’d been ranting about in my head: perhaps an in-depth history of its renovations, a telling of the process of installing its complex indoor and outdoor watering system, commentary on the time the Duderstadts spent $70,000 replacing a turquoise carpet.
It was cloudy outside, the wind was blowing, and for the first time I realized fall really was coming, global warming hadn’t created the eternal summer I’d always asked for, and there was nothing I could do about it. The trees around the President’s House swayed dangerously, and two passing students with large black backpacks, matching Michigan t-shirts and weary eyes appeared to wake up from their trance to give me an odd look; I standing in front of the building, still and starry eyed.
It didn’t look like anyone was home. I wondered if a story would appear to me if I walked up to the house, unannounced, and asked a few questions. The driveway is short. It took only a few moments to reach the door. But when I got to there and looked inside, again, it looked only emptied, and I could not for the life of me bring myself to knock.