I am a private person. Given that three of the eight books I’ve written are memoirs, this may come as a surprise. When people ask if I feel exposed writing about my life, it always slightly baffles me—and it baffles them that I would be baffled. “But I feel like I know everything about you,” they’ll say. My only response is to put my head down and keep writing. It may simply be denial, my own way of dealing with the peculiar public life of the memoirist, but my words, hundreds of thousands of them by now, feel somehow like the opposite of self-revelation. They are, at the very least, an attempt to push past my own singularity—chaos, randomness, loss, grief, failure, and love—and connect to the rest of humanity using the only tools I have been given.
When my husband first introduced me to Twitter, in 2009, I didn’t know what to think. Silly, mean, angry, poetic, self-promotional, inane, profound—it fascinated me even as it repelled me. I would consider tweeting something, and my fingers would hover over the keyboard, frozen. I could see that some people were developing voices particular to the medium—Susan Orlean, Gary Shteyngart, and Colson Whitehead, to name a few—and one stood out in particular: @AdamsLisa. I gleaned that she was a wife and a mom in her early forties who lived in Darien, Connecticut. Her avatar showed her to be strikingly attractive, with a shock of black hair and an easy smile. She wasn’t a published writer. She didn’t identify herself as a writer at all. But she seemed to be friends (or at least “Twitter friends”) with many writers I knew. Her style was a winning blend of directness, intelligence, humor, humility, and moxie.
Every once in a while, I’d overcome my Twitter block and post something: a quote I liked, a mention of an upcoming reading. It felt like tossing a tiny pebble on the beach into a vast, churning ocean of bon mots. As a memoirist, my work was all about control; I spent years honing each book I sent out into the world, creating, in a sense, a public persona. A me-but-not-me. Twitter seemed to require the opposite of this kind of control. Tweeters unconsciously revealed themselves to be empathetic or self-absorbed, generous or faux-generous (a quality endemic to Twitter). The speed of Twitter seemed dangerous to me; I wanted to remain in charge of what I revealed about myself, after all. But at some point during that year of reticence—the same natural reserve that had kept me on the outside looking in since kindergarten circle time—@AdamsLisa reached out to me in a direct message: “I’ll be in your part of CT to take my son to camp. Coffee?”
Lisa Bonchek Adams and I sat for hours at a small café near my home, covering intimate ground the way women sometimes can do when we find a kindred soul. It was my first experience of an online acquaintanceship morphing into a friendship. Lisa was in remission from breast cancer, nearing the all-important five-year mark. She was fiercely devoted to her husband and her kids, and was interested in honing her writing. Her blog and her Twitter feed were mostly about health advocacy, from the standpoint of a relatively young cancer survivor.
In the next eighteen months, Lisa attended workshops and retreats of mine, and I became her teacher. During the same period, she received the terrible news that her cancer had returned and metastasized, and that her diagnosis was now terminal. At a retreat in Connecticut, we sat together in front of a roaring fireplace in a high-ceilinged living room as she read aloud a series of letters saying goodbye to her husband and her children. On another occasion, we gathered around a workshop table inside a grand hotel in the Berkshires, where she shared essays about her deteriorating condition. She was incandescent that week—glowing in a way that seemed to radiate good health—but no one knew better than she how sick she was. When she read her work, her voice was steady, unwavering. Her eyes were dry. Around her, the rest of us wept.
As Lisa’s cancer continued its rampage, she amped up her Twitter presence, writing from her bed, the car, and while receiving chemo at Sloan Kettering. Her messages were an education, and their own kind of art form. She had no time for luxuries such as shape and craft. (“I get emails every day asking if there’s going to be a book,” she wrote me in a direct message. “Prob don’t have time to do traditional route.”) What she wrote wasn’t always easy or comfortable to read. Sometimes, her tweets were raw and ugly, a howl from a world full of pain. Other times, she posted an Instagram image of a flower from her garden or a cute photograph of her beloved corgi. “This, too,” she seemed to be saying. “This, too.”
Inevitably, not everyone was a fan of Lisa’s blunt accounts of dealing with illness. Emma Gilbey Keller, a journalist, wrote a piece for the Guardian last January questioning the ethics of dying out loud. Her husband, Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the Times, followed up with an op-ed of his own. These bizarre missives caused an outcry online (Meghan O’Rourke wrote insightfully about the controversy), and Emma Keller’s piece was removed from the Guardian’s Web site.
Lisa Adams died two weeks ago, at the age of forty-five, leaving a husband, three kids, her parents, many friends, and a legion of Twitter followers. Just about every obituary and tribute included reference to Kellergate. It frustrates me that this is a part of Lisa’s story. But as a memoirist, I know well the projections and insults that go with the territory, and Lisa was ultimately a memoirist. Twitter was her tool, and the aggregate of her tweets formed a kind of literature. Her fast, loose style of storytelling revealed far more than fleeting exchanges or witticisms; she allowed herself to be vulnerable, to be seen, and she made use of the material of her life to build a body of work that will have a lasting impact.
On the final night of the conference in the Berkshires, a farewell dinner was held for the twenty students, the teachers, and a few honored guests. A long table had been covered with pale-pink linen and set with silver and fine china. During a round of toasts, Lisa rose to speak. She explained how much it meant to her to tell this story that she had never wanted to tell—the story of her own leave-taking. She told us that she knew she would not be returning to the conference the following year. Lisa became my teacher that night. There wasn’t a drop of self-consciousness in her, no iota of doubt holding her back. In the face of her certain and imminent death, exposing her deepest self was no risk.
As I listened, I wondered how many years I had left. Ten? Twenty? Thirty? I thought of all the times my hands had hovered—over the page, over the keyboard, carefully crafting my stories. They are hovering even now. But I pause and think about the courage it takes to reveal oneself fearlessly, to hurl oneself out there without reservation. I think of Lisa’s hand raising her glass. “Here,” she seemed to be saying. “Learn this hard lesson. It is everything I have.”