Secrets as Tools of Connection: Thoughts on Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

ImageDave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a frenetic, darkly humorous, and tragic memoir, is a story about rebuilding. After both of his parents die when he is twenty-one, Dave is charged with caring for Toph, his precocious 7-year-old brother. He and Toph move to Berkeley where Dave starts a magazine and auditions for an MTV show. Throughout the memoir, Dave struggles to be both a parent and a brother while trying to understand tragedies in his life and his friends’ lives.

From here on out, I’ll refer to Dave Eggers as “Dave” when referring to his character in HWOSG and “Eggers” when referring to him as the author, to avoid conflating the two.

When Dave is trying out for MTV’s The Real World, he gives a moving speech about secrets: what secrets are, how giving them away doesn’t devalue them, how secrets don’t alter your identity. There are a lot of revealed secrets and personal details in Eggers’ memoir, and much of the memoir deals with the exchange of secrets, the results of sharing, and the understanding and lack of understanding he experiences. He speaks at length about his complete disdain for voyeurs, nosy people, and even well-meaning spectators of tragedy. This inclination towards privacy contrasts with his attraction towards exhibitionism. He acknowledges secrets as a powerful currency, but at the same time, spends freely.

Here he is in an interview trying to get on the MTV show:

“Because secrets do not increase in value if kept in a gore-ian lockbox, because one’s past is either made useful or else mutates and becomes cancerous. We share things for the obvious reasons: it makes us feel un-alone, it spreads the weight over a larger area, it holds the possibility of making our share lighter. And it can work either way – not simply as a pain-relief device, but, in the case of not bad news but good, as a share-the-happy-things-I’ve-seen/lessons-I’ve-learned vehicle. Or as a tool for simple connectivity for its own sake, a testing of waters, a stab at engagement with a mass of strangers.”

For Dave, secrets are a way to connect. That’s the distinction he makes between good listeners and voyeurs: the former understand the importance of connection, and the latter do not. This concept of connection makes one consider the dynamics of disconnection and connection in the  reader-writer relationship.

The Reader as Spectator

At times, Dave’s thoughts implicate the reader as a spectator. In the beginning, he expresses his complete hatred for people who look into his family’s windows at his mother, who is dying of cancer. Later on, he becomes frustrated at people who ask him insensitive questions. This anger towards the spectator complicates the reader-writer relationship.

The reader, after all, is effectively looking into the open windows at Eggers’ life by reading his memoir, taking on the role of spectator. The reader has the privileges of distance, privacy, and access to secrets, but initially shares none of Dave’s burden. In the beginning, the reader is a stranger in the street trying to figure something out, the nosy person at a party asking too many questions. But at the end, the reader-spectator becomes closer, more engaged, less strange.

That’s part of the magic of Eggers’ memoir: it opens up the reader-writer relationship through the sharing of secrets. It transforms gawking into understanding; it makes the reader uncomfortable to be comfortable and comfortable to be uncomfortable.

And the coolest part? The secrets don’t become cheaper because of it. The author’s burden is shared with the reader through narrative, and the “secrets” no longer are secrets, but tools of connection, taking on agency and purpose.

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Butt in Chair

“Butt in chair,” experts say. Be persistent. But maybe you’re starting to hate your novel. You have dark, escapist thoughts. You’re not feeling particularly pure of heart, nor steadfast of butt.

From “Novelists, You’re Doing it Right” on the Ploughshares blog by Rebecca Meacham.

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On Becoming a Writer– plus, Cheryl Strayed.

Do you ever get the feeling that someone who doesn’t even know you is speaking directly to you? That’s the feeling I got when I watched Meg Jay’s TED Talk called “Why 30 is Not the New 20.” What she says in her talk is valuable for all ages– not just 20-somethings. Her message is this:

 If you want something, you have to work towards it.

As a writer who’s just starting out, the “working towards it” part is where I am right now. Here are a few ideas for building “identity capital,” as Jay puts it, rather than identity crises, for other writers in the same place– plus, some out-of-context-yet-extremely-true-and-beautiful quotes from Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, because my love for Cheryl Strayed knows no bounds:

 1. Write outside your comfort zone. If you decide not to do any kind of writing except short story writing when you’re just getting started, you might miss out on something really good. Don’t be afraid to try different things– technical writing, poetry, noveling, screenwriting. Learn as much as you can and develop as many skills as possible. Be a writing triathlete, practicing the transitions between forms and genres over and over again, until it becomes second nature. Then ask yourself what you want to pursue further.

Cheryl Strayed says it better: “Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.”

2. Read critically. By that, I mean reading like a writer would read. Being fully engaged with whatever book/story/essay you’re reading in that moment. It’s so easy to be a Teflon reader and let everything slide over you, but when you take the time to talk to someone about a book you read, or read and respond to other peoples’ reviews on blogs, it helps you vicariously learn lessons about writing– and it helps you enjoy the book on a deeper level. Read in a way that makes things stick.

Cheryl Strayed says it better: “Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.”

3. Give back to a literary community. As I’ve said before, belonging to a creative community is an incredibly valuable thing for writers to do. But participating is easy and fun; giving back is taking participation to the next level. Volunteer to help at readings. Give rides. Clean up after a write-in. Give without expecting things in return.

Cheryl Strayed says it better: “In your twenties you’re becoming who you’re going to be and so you might as well not be an asshole.”

4. Don’t give up. I know becoming a better writer is a lifelong journey, and I’m prepared to stay in it for the long haul.

Cheryl Strayed says it better: “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.”

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Are Writers Fragile?

menaker-mistake_300MARTIN: You write in the book that the job of an editor is much like that of a therapist. That struck me. Are writers that fragile?

MENAKER: Well, I think when they’re writers – when they’re actually acting as writers – they tend to be pretty transferential to their editors. You put yourself out on a page, and you’re dealing with one person who has in his or her hands the fate of your manuscript; and you tend to transfer to them. And the writer wants attention. He wouldn’t be – or she – wouldn’t be writing if they didn’t want attention.

MARTIN: So, does the same hold true for you? Do you need attention?

MENAKER: Ah, well, here I am on NPR and…

-Daniel Menaker, author of My Mistake, in an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin.


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You Must Just Have to Be There


In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes about stalking muskrats. As she relates, muskrats are particularly elusive creatures. After seeing a muskrat for the first time, she waits and watches for a second one, even though she feels like the muskrat sighting might have just been a stroke of luck:

I began to look for them day and night. Sometimes I would see ripples suddenly start beating from the creek’s side, but as I crouched to watch, the ripples would die. Now I know what this means, and have learned to stand perfectly still to make out the muskrat’s small, pointed face hidden under overhanging bank vegetation, watching me… You must just have to be there, I thought. You must have to spend the rest of your life standing in the bushes. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and you’ve had your once.

What struck me most about this chapter was how every person, at some point, experiences the same thing. Maybe not with muskrats, but with humans, events, or ideas. All of us have things we’re trying to figure out, things that are difficult to articulate and complex, things that we’re probably going to spend the rest of our lives trying to unravel. And once in a while, we see them very clearly. And most of the time, they elude us.

To many people, these hard-to-access concepts are frustrating. They’re something we can’t quite reach, can’t quite see, can’t quite predict. That’s why most people don’t stalk muskrats– neither the real nor the metaphorical ones. It takes a significant amount of time, effort, and patience. It’s not something you can just Google. So how do you do it? Well, for most people, as Dillard says, “You must just have to be there.”

To a writer, these metaphorical muskrats are invaluable. These fleeting encounters and understandings are the types of things that make interesting stories. When the reader gets that glimmering epiphany that pulls the whole world into focus for a moment, it’s always a read-the-passage-out-loud-to-whoever’s-around, become-obsessed-with-the-author-who-just-blew-your-mind, call-your-parents-and-tell-them-you’ve-figured-out-the-meaning-of-life kind of moment. And we all love those moments.

And, of course, as Dillard laments, stalking muskrats is a kind of mind game. If you see a muskrat once, you want to wait and see another one, even though nothing guarantees that you will. You could stand by a creek your whole life and maybe never see another muskrat. You could write a very beautiful, true line once, and never, ever write anything as good again. But just as your chances of muskrat-viewing increase when you’re standing by the edge of a creek in the bushes, your chances of writing something beautiful increase when you’re writing consistently. Being there is important.

Reading about Dillard’s adventures stalking muskrats reminds me that arriving at these epiphanies takes a lot of time and patience, and that it’s worth it. Oftentimes, I read these incredible lines in novels or short stories, which sound so amazingly effortless, just like the author simply tossed them off, but they’re so true, I feel like they’ve just explained the entire world to me. Sometimes, it just drives me crazy how people can write things so authentic, so gorgeous, so articulate, and make it sound as easy as writing “hello.” But what I don’t often think about, and what I doubt other readers think about, is how much time that author spent at the side of that creek before getting to that line. As writers, we all stand at the side of our own creeks, watching.

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6,000 Extra Pieces


“Working out the structure is the hardest part, because there are a thousand ways to tell a story. It’s sort of like putting together an 8,000-piece puzzle and there are 6,000 extra pieces and you’re not sure what the puzzle is supposed to look like until you’re halfway there.”

-Allie Brosh in an interview with Bitch Magazine

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Go Where The Pain Is

“Go where the pain is… Go where the pleasure is.”

-Anne Rice

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200 Bad Poems


“We’re all born with 200 bad poems in us. This is statistically proven… And middle school and high school is a good time to get rid of those.”

-Billy Collins on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me

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Making Life More Bearable


“Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
–Kurt Vonnegut

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Let’s Not Forget This


“Books have a unique way of stopping time in a particular moment and saying: Let’s not forget this.” 
― Dave Eggers

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