Off the beat: I want you to know


In high school, I spray-painted a T-shirt to read, “We live as we dream — alone.”

With all the profundity I could muster at age 16, I felt like if I put Joseph Conrad’s most famous quote somewhere close by — across my chest, I guess — it would feel less insurmountable.

“It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence,” Conrad writes in Heart of Darkness. “It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone.”

I would like to think that the past few years have enlightened me to the injustice of having a thought as complex as Conrad’s bastardized into a six-word phrase on a shirt. But that is not to say the idea is any further from my mind now than it was then. Much of the reason why I have devoted my time to writing and this newspaper has to do with Conrad’s claim.

I am haunted by Conrad’s idea that there is something — a most important and profound something — happening inside of each of our heads that we can’t quite get into other people’s heads, the “subtle and penetrating essence” of our moments, our days and our lives.

I can’t say definitively what I think this essence is. The closest I can come to this is to say it is whatever makes a person more than a trillion molecules. It’s what would be lost if all that made up a person was skin and sinews and a brain and perfectly constructed organs connected by blood-pumping tubes.

The fact that I cannot define what it means to be human isn’t so much what bothers me. It’s that I don’t think I will ever be able to; that being human is probably different for everyone and is a sense so primal and ever-present that we have never been without it. Because we have never been without our particular life sensation, we cannot see around it and we cannot explain it. It’s that we could never give a thorough enough explication of all of the shades of feeling we have ever experienced, so that another person could fully understand the very individual and precise lens with which we all view a very shared world: a sad juxtaposition.

It is the desire to convey my “life sensation” that drives me to write. I write because you write what you cannot say. Explaining the significance of seeing someone in exactly such a light at exactly such a time would require a degree of precision I could not capture in conversation. Writing is sharp. Like people, there is an element to text beyond the way its letters connect.  It is a glimpse into a world defined by parameters I can construct, a piece of my consciousness that I can try to fit into your consciousness for a captured moment. Reading is the transferring of experience.

I write because I want you to know exactly how it feels to sleep on a borrowed pillow on the floor of an empty apartment with new brown carpet. I want you to know it precisely. I want to encapsulate you between the blocks of this text, bringing these particular moments of our existences a little closer to one another. Your response to the experience will be different from mine, but at least you will see what I see.

My love for newspapers stems from a similar place. One of the premises of newspapers, I think, is that the world contains certain happenings that are pertinent to everyone, things everyone in a community ought to know. I like that idea.

As an editor, one of the most important things I do is make sure that what we print is precise. Sometimes that’s a mundane task that comes down to making sure sentence clauses end up in the right order and that titles are complete. But news is always multifaceted. One of the keys to accurate and effective reporting is to ensure that text is always precise — being certain that the scope of a claim is not too broad, being careful not to conflate correlation and causation and drawing distinctions between conflicting and confusing reports.

I write because I am a narcissist and want to believe that the most profound experiences of my life will not disappear entirely when I do. I write because if I don’t, my own experiences might begin to feel foreign even to myself, like they belong to someone who would proudly wear a spray-painted T-shirt with a quote robbed of its context. I want to convince myself Conrad was wrong. I want to believe that though we might dream alone, we do not always live that way.