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My Year of Mirrors

By writing through my year, I don’t feel that I’ve drained my days of anything. I’ve created something new alongside thEm.

By Taylor Stout 


2022 marks my first successful attempt at keeping a notebook. I’ve tried to do this for years and failed, maybe for the same reason I struggle to read a book without interrupting it with other books until I’m “reading” seven books at once and finishing none of them. But in January, after exhausting my creative ways to pass a string of cold and dark days, I got so bored that I went out and bought a fancy notebook just to look at something beautiful. It has a midnight-blue leather cover to match the 4pm winter sky and creamy pages like a would-be novel. On 1/11, I wrote my first entry.

1/11. I can carve out this little world for myself in this winter. Pointing my camera at the darkening sky made me feel so much better. When I was framing the composition my head was finally clear. Every once in a while I can taste the future in the air like a mist of powdered sugar. Maybe I’m stealing that image from Gone Girl.

I then went on for a while about reading Gone Girl in my high school library, passing the copy back and forth with a friend as we alternated between reading chapters and working on college applications. It was a wistful memory I’d never really had reason to write about, a B-side to a more obvious story. The writing was meaningless and meandering; it was just mine. There were many moments like this floating around my head—they seemed to have no bearing on anything yet filled me with vague, intense emotion. I wanted to explore them all. I wrote the next entry on 1/14 while sitting in James Turrell’s “Meeting” at MoMA PS1. Then I wrote another on 1/17 while sitting on a friend’s couch, high and rewatching The Shining. Soon after, I became unstoppable.

So what if the border between old and new, December and January, is arbitrary? I needed it. In the final days of 2021, I changed how I parted my hair and vowed to travel internationally. I craved small transformations. I felt good potential for the first time in too long and was resolved to pull myself into a new place—only I didn’t know what that looked like, so every step I took was a shot in the dark. Keeping a notebook was a small way that I could do something concretely different. Maybe it would teach me something.

Some days saw more words than some months, and some entries consist only of scattered bullet points. However, after falling into this habit, I don’t want to go without it. It’s a way to record details—lines overheard at parties, movies, songs, text messages, outfits, the color of the sky, the fragrance of the air, emotions—I want to remember. It’s a way to sink into the memories I play on loop and map out their staying power. Why have I held onto them, and held them so close? 

I’ve often feared that recording something will kill it. In her memoir Hold Still, photographer Sally Mann writes, “I believe that photographs actually rob all of us of our memory.” She instructs, “If you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably.” I encountered these claims as a teenager—I admired Mann and wanted to take her words to heart, but I also had an unassailable urge to take pictures of everything (I assume she does as well, and this urge is the source of the conflict). She remembers photographs in place of raw memories. Would I remember my words in place of my life? The more I write, the more I think that the distortion I induce by remembering is what really fascinates me. While not sentient, our words and images take on lives of their own. It is in these acts of translation that we are able to bring our innermost experiences outside. By writing through my year, I don’t feel that I’ve drained my days of anything. Quite the opposite: I’ve created something new alongside those days. It is a mirror. My reflection shifts as I return, again and again, to its surface under different light.

Like any obsession, I started to see self-reflection everywhere—not only my own, but other people’s. Much of the art I consumed throughout 2022 examined the act of constructing narratives from life. Comedian Nathan Fielder took this concept to absurd extremes in his HBO series The Rehearsal, in which he guides participants—and ultimately himself—through meticulous “rehearsals” of stressful real-life moments. It was at the heart of Michael R. Jackson’s Broadway sensation A Strange Loop about “a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer…” My favorite musicians also addressed their own conflicted acts of creation, with the ever-prolific Alex G asking, “How many more songs am I supposed to write / Before I should turn it off and say goodnight?” and Florence + the Machine wearily declaring, “You need to go to war to find material to sing.” There was even a subplot on Euphoria’s trainwreck of a second season in which a character puts on a sloppily fictionalized school play that leads Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie to attack her double onstage.

But the self-reflecting narrative that consumed me the most was Elif Batuman’s novel Either/Or, the anticipated sequel to 2017’s The Idiot. The protagonist, Selin, exists in a novel by an author who, like her, is a Turkish-American woman who attended Harvard in the 1990s. Selin says, “Once I learned how to write, I did it all the time, filling up one notebook after another...Adults would ask if I was writing a novel. I assumed that I was: that what I was writing was already somehow a novel, or that this kind of writing would someday naturally segue into novel-writing.” 

These acts of narrative construction often seemed to cause their characters distress. Things didn’t match up the way the author-characters wanted, and other characters hated their fictional counterparts. But the impossibility of a pure reflection isn’t a failing of the art or the artist, and these works aren’t really after any “truth.” Instead, they dig into the very alteration that Sally Mann aches to avoid. It is through their self-reflecting stories that these characters ultimately make their discoveries. Recording and reflecting isn’t destruction—it’s transformation. 

In October, a friend and I went to see Elif Batuman speak at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. A lot of the girls there looked like varying versions of me, and Batuman recalled her own protagonist—she spoke like she wrote. She was more rambly and colloquial, but hearing her speak gave me similar reactions to reading her, of laughter followed by a gentle devastation. Based on what she shared, Either/Or seemed even more autobiographical than I had thought it to be while reading. I leaned forward as Batuman told us in a hushed, gossipy tone about “the real Svetlana,” Selin’s best friend in the novel from whom she slowly grows apart.

During the drive back from Red Hook, my friend and I discussed the event. What did it mean to write from one’s life? Where was the line between fiction and nonfiction, really? What’s the point of college anyway? What’s more important: facts or feelings? How much analyzing is overanalyzing?

My thoughts started to feel a little strangled. All this talk about reality and unreality and truth and fiction and me and my reflection. I was spouting words but feeling none of them—what did I really believe? We barreled down the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Desperate for space, I looked out the window at the skyline over Brooklyn Bridge Park, the artificial lights and their wavering reflections in the black river. The sky, starless and impenetrable.

“That’s beautiful,” I said. The moment I spoke it I felt the air inside the car refresh. It was something simple and true. It existed outside.

“It really is.”

We fell back into our conversation, but the horizon’s impact lingered. I no longer felt trapped—a clear thought materialized and led me to the root of my discomfort.

“I took this class freshman year,” I said, “called The Body in Philosophy.” I’d found the class mostly boring. I remembered sitting there counting the slow minutes, and feeling free whenever I stepped out of the stuffy academic building that was once the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and into the frigid spring air. But the class returned to me often, more than the ones I enjoyed.

“It was so frustrating. These philosophers, these guys, thought themselves in circles about the body, all to put it into these rules and systems,” I said. “But at the end of the day, you just feel it. Knowing something isn’t the same as feeling it—no theory will ever beat that, right?”

Which makes the notebook a wonderful form. In it, I render experiences without having to explain them, prove something, or categorize myself. Recording is different from dissecting. It can be as fleeting as a moment itself, and there is something vivid captured in that immediacy. The fragmented nature of notebook entries allows for freedom of expression as well as interpretation. Joan Didion describes a notebook’s contents as “bits of the mind’s string too short to use.” Sitting with my notebook in the Brooklyn Public Library in January, I did wonder if I’d have the skeleton of a novel, an undertaking that’s always seemed impossible to me, after writing for a year. I don’t think I do—it’s hundreds of little glimpses at different things. The only unifying threads are time and “I.”

But reading my notebook back, I noticed another thread: my writing is guided by my senses. This year, I fell in love with perfume and let it linger on my clothes for days. I saw live music and the gigantic sound filled me up till I almost couldn’t hold it and teetering on that brink was the best part. I did things that made me anxious in good ways, my heart pounding, typing frantic messages to friends for moral support. I rode a horse down a dirt road so fast all I could hear was wind cracking. I bought lotion from the drugstore and rubbed it into my skin every night. I took deep breaths purposefully. I took off my headphones on the edge of a river and let silence shock me. I waited as a thousand small sounds rose out of the silence. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to numb myself, but this was a year full of feeling. Had I not given space to these small sensations, would I have even noticed that? Now that I have, it makes me feel proud of myself. I’m glad I’ve created this document of my days. I’m grateful for my impulse to turn empty space into something.

On 11/22, the poet Bernadette Mayer passed away. Her poem “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica” had coincidentally been bouncing around my head in the days before her death, and finding out she was gone prompted me to reread it in full. Upon returning, a new line stood out to me: “Nothing outside can cure you but everything’s outside.”

I wrote it in my notebook. I thought of the Manhattan skyline from the BQE that night the month before, and all the times I’ve looked at it and felt something inscrutable bloom in my chest—a thrilling mix of unknown and known. I was amazed by how some lights a river away had guided me through my own head. What I feel in my body when I look at those lights is just as real as they are, if only more ephemeral. How I describe them to myself is more a record of a feeling than a depiction of a fixed horizon. Everything’s outside, even myself. That boundary is far less firm than we imagine it to be. I didn’t expect a year spent looking in this mirror to show me how connected to everything I feel, but that’s what prolonged focus—a nice name for my obsessive nature—brings.

In Either/Or, Selin asks her fuck-buddy Mesut, “So what do you think about love?”

“Love is to get caught on something,” he replies. “It's to be unable to forget.”

When I look back over the notebook’s pages, small images emerge and represent more than any factual statement I could’ve made. It’s a catalog of all I got caught on, even the things I wouldn’t have called “love” at the time. It functions like memory, conjuring something intangible that creates new vibrancy in the act of recollection; it’s a pleasant ache I feel seeping through my ribs, a collage that breathes life into its fragments—

The enclosed, mildewy feel of the school library, even on the sunniest days…A space of devotion, the cold, the wood, the hushed voices…A new year…All the words that can’t touch what they mean…Jacaranda trees…My softly lit bedroom at night…The ground and the worms we pulled out of it…Window open to the snow…The sky’s sea-glass cast of cerulean…Slowly unscrewing something…The absence I hold close to name what I am missing…Only parties and staying up too late…Every bar spilling out onto the street like a portal I could sink into…“So much yet to come!”...My softest skin…The sky’s light becoming mine, so bright you can’t help but see me forever...Slightly sparkly in light rain…White blossoms blotting out the sky…Tear-soaked cheeks on a hot spring day…Change is possible?...I’m 23 now…“This house was covered in glitter for years”...Two different summer evenings sinking down around us as we speak…Raw nerve…“I have done a couple BAD THIIINGS”...Laughter that leaves me breathless…I wanted the end to have happened already, I wanted it never to arrive…A group of girls all craving love and obsessed with the same band... Big fears and big hopes…Beat-up Vans with rips between canvas and rubber…Searching for her license plate number in the crowd…Every song felt right…Suddenly, I could forgive myself easily…The hills behind the strip malls…How we screamed on the beach at night just to fill open space…Jobs, friends, relationships, housekeys…“You are my little bunny”...A dove emoji and a sparkly heart to keep it light…The deepest thing I’ve ever felt…The fratty Mexican restaurant…A world not far from this one where I can let him see me…Glances, intonations, if those even count…A trap door at the bottom of my heart…The opening of a book…A new apartment and a new everyday…Love without hesitation…1 AM on a Tuesday…Honey and golden in a window reflection…Flinging myself between goodbyes…How tall shadows are in fall…Red cheeks in frigid air…I kept looking back…“I found god”...Something larger than my eyes…No illusion of immortality…“I want to know everything about you”...Tenderly reminiscing in the face of apocalypse…Things I’ve dropped many times that didn’t break till today…Leaning into dancing….Longing for suburban Starbucks…Not a villain or a fuck-up or invisible…The light through the trees, the leaves that will leave soon but are here now… 

If my notebook pages leave me with any sort of thesis statement, it’s this, in an entry I wrote about Either/Or, halfway through the book during the dead of summer: 7/19. Sometimes emotions feel like walls when really they are evidence that I am part of a system