On Leaving: A Conversation

Nonfiction / Justin Lawrence Daugherty and Jill Talbot

:: On Leaving: A Conversation ::

A confession: I think it is always me who causes the leaving. A scene: she lies in my bed. I’ve moved from an apartment we shared, and she is between that place and her next place, hundreds of miles away. She asks, can we just try again? I tell her that’s not what she really wants, that she’s the one who ended things. I’m lying when I say this: I don’t know that we’re who we want each other to be. A fear: I won’t unlearn how to ask her to leave.


I’ve been wondering for weeks how to respond—to you, to endings and unlearnings, to the way I keep finding ways to use the word “beleaguered.” I read a story of yours, lingered on that line about taking trips to get away from what we have to run from. I imagined you in an airport, seated on a stool of some bar at an under-construction gate. I don’t know why. A scene: he cries in a chair of the last apartment we shared, announcing his desertion abandon. Maybe the word is “bewilderment.”


It’s been months, but I still wake up to find my arms reaching for her, to press my nose to her hair. In that story, there’s the impulse to lock oneself away from the world until it becomes remade and we emerge into it the same, the world altered. That’s not the way. What we face is our own fear of movement. Do you ever wonder if you asked him to go? I visited her in Boston, and each night I lay on the couch, and she said goodnight, and she would leave the bedroom door open. Invitation is not what that was, but instead a lie she told. An open door can sometimes be the strictest prohibition.


I think of a question in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”: Why hold onto all that? Then: Where can I put it down? I think of your question, how it reads like a reckoning. My wondering memory unknowing (yes, that’s it) rummages through the living room where he and I lived fifteen years ago. I open a closet door and stare at his workboots (I do that often). Or I’m (again) waiting at a window in the dark, holding my breath for his headlights to pull into the drive. Or I’m shuffling to the kitchen to stop the sink’s drip, listening to loss with each note of the water’s cadence. It’s unnerving, standing inside the aftermath before the event even arrives. But I haven’t answered your question.


Leaving is a question. A question of: How did it come to this? And: What will you do now with what you hold? I don’t know if I want you to answer. My unknowing: waking up to a new daily unraveling. My unknowing: seeing in the unraveling something we expected all along. The bed I sleep in is the one we shared. It is too small, too closed in. How a thing changes in the aftermath. How that leaving is embedded. I lie down and the bed forgets her contours, her shape. A fear: I will stop feeling the unsettling.


I wrote this stanza years ago—months after he left:

I’ve seen ticket stubs in wallets, 
the way these words will be
folded up in a drawer with leadless pencils, 
the matchbook with one match left.
Statues of paper pinned to bulletin boards,
tucked into frames. A suffocation,
this poem, a memory of something we saw once, 
like the man missing his train.


I keep going back, revising the lines:

I’ve seen ticket stubs in wallets, 
the way these words will be
settled in a drawer with leadless pencils, 
the matchbook with one match left.
Faded receipts folded between book pages. Such suffocation,
a forgotten secret, a memory of something we saw once, 
like the man missing his train.


What changes—memory or its meaning?

He used to tell me I mumbled (or sometimes sang) when I wrote. He’d come to the door and listen before understanding I was somewhere else. Maybe that’s one way to ask someone to go.

One afternoon during those days in Colorado, I checked our account and found a charge from a gas station in Oklahoma. I didn’t even know he had gone.

Such mystery misery fear—the distance that arrives only after so much has been lost.



From the writer

:: Account ::

On Leaving: (A Conversation about) A Conversation

JT: Let me know if this works as a beginning. These are the words Justin wrote to me in an e-mail on the day he sent the first section of “On Leaving.” That was November 16, 2017. Usually when Justin or I send each other a segment, we respond with a day or two, sometimes within the hour, as if our words tremor across the distance until an answer settles them. Our responses are reactions, all instinct and echoes. And while I answered—Oh, yes, I can work with this. Confession, lies, fears. Definitely—I wasn’t sure. His confession felt insulated, as if an answer might unsettle his words somehow. So after almost two weeks, I typed, I’ve been wondering for weeks how to respond, then watched the cursor blink in the blank space. After a few moments I realized my words meant more than my response to what Justin had written. They were a response to this new reality, to new questions, to an anchor on a cable news show who used the word “beleaguered.” I wrote to Justin, asked if we might approach the current political moment subtextually.

JLD: So often, for me, what I compose in response to Jill feels like a reverberation. It’s not simply response, but it carries her words as they hit me and echo, ricochet. So often, these beginnings feel like they’re responses even though I’ve written the first lines, or Jill has confessed a beginning segment. As she says, this beginning was something different. I was more insulated, as Jill points out, than in earlier essays. It’s true. But, what she sent me pushed me harder and really felt like it reached into the ache I was describing and heightened it. We were writing to each other, but also writing the sort of concussive feeling of the present moment. It was early in the emergence into this reality, yet, but I think we wrote with a sort of energy that fed of that confusion. I’ve felt displaced, in a way, since November, and I think that shows here.

JT: My responses to Justin invariably rely on reflection, as in mirroring, or perhaps it’s borrowing, so in this essay I picked up the ______: of his first segment, but what I was really after was a gesture—I didn’t want him on the page alone in his loss, so I offered my own. When we write together, I bend the writing more than I do in my own work, risk the edges, so when I was grasping for the word to describe that morning, I stopped deleting words and instead crossed them out to show the struggle of my search, though still, all these years later, I’m unable to name what happened.

JLD: The crossing out and eventual landing on bewilderment feels like the heart of the essay to me, and it drove me in writing in response. I think my sections in the rest of the essay find me grappling with how to approach and live in that moment, to search for answers in Jill’s revelation. I often think that essays that work best find the author searching for something without maybe ever actually finding what they’re looking for, or not quite finding the right thing, and I think that’s what functions in our work together. We are trying to locate ourselves in the world through our work in response, and I think we both want to make sure we’re still searching in the final lines.

JT: I don’t think Justin has ever asked me a question in our collaborations, and we’ve been writing together since 2013, so when I read, “Do you ever wonder if you asked him to go?,” it was as if he stepped out of the paragraph and stood in front of me asking the question I didn’t realize I’ve been chasing in my writing for years. I couldn’t address it directly, so I turned to another writer, to her questions, then I leaned into the parentheticals to signal what lurks between our words, lingers behind them. I was also teaching “The Glass Essay” at the time, telling my students that in 7,875 words Carson mentions his name, Law, only eleven times. We write around the ache. I thought I might come back in a later segment to answer Justin, but when he wrote, “I don’t know if I want you to answer,” I felt relief, a reprieve.

JLD: Even when I asked the question, I had a hope that there wouldn’t be an ultimate answer, and I knew that Jill would write toward it even if she didn’t answer. I think the writing is stronger because we never locate ourselves in the world of the essay, but still try and fail as we do so. What matters is the ache, not its origins. What strikes me most when I re-read this essay is that we never answer each other or definitely say ______ about the world as we find it, but that we’re still attempting to answer, and that feels important. The spell is broken for me in essays that land too hard on definitive meaning, and I think this essay, as with much of our writing together, tries to maintain the spell. I want the spell to linger, and am less satisfied when I know for sure what it conjures.


Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta. His novel, You Are Alive, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2018.  He is the Co-Publisher of Jellyfish Highway Press, the Founding Editor of Sundog Lit, the Fiction Editor at New South, and he co-pilots Cartridge Lit with Joel Hans. His work has appeared in BarrelhouseCatapultElectric LitThe Normal School, and more.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull Press, 2015) and Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007).  She is the co-editor, with Charles Blackstone, of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (University of Texas Press, 2008) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2012).  

Justin and Jill’s collaborative essays have appeared in The Chattahoochee ReviewFourth GenreHobartPassages NorthThe PinchPithead ChapelThe Rumpus, and more.