July 26, 2013

Composing yourself: on Miranda July’s We Think Alone


Miranda July

I found out about Miranda July’s current project, We Think Alone, through her newsletter. If I signed up, she wrote, “for the next twenty weeks you will get something pretty extravagant in your inbox every Monday.” These twenty emails, sent from July 1 to November 11, are resurrected from the outboxes of ten celebrities—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lena Dunham, Kirsten Dunst, Sheila Heti, Etgar Keret, Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Lee Smolin, and Danh Vo—with each week focusing on a particular topic. Each of the emails was written before the project began, written only to its designated recipients, previously private—a look at the senders “composing themselves alone.”

My first impulse was that July’s project could have been more compelling with a focus on regular people with whom we have no connection; after all, part of what I loved about July’s previous work—particularly It Chooses You, in which July met with sellers from the Los Angeles PennySaver—has been the way it maps anonymity. July addressed this, however, in an interview with Erika Wolf for The Rumpus:

When I first thought of this project, I did want to do this with regular people— that’s always my first impulse, that everyone is interesting. But I realized that yes, everyone is interesting, but if you’re friends with them, then you’re even more interested in reading their emails…. In the past, I’ve tried to do little exchanges, like “How about we exchange an email that we each wrote to our mothers or to our boyfriends?” So I’ve done that on a mini-level with friends. I realized, though, that for other people to be interested, I’d have to use celebrities, because we feel like we’re friends with them in a certain way, or that we know them.

Though July chose the celebrities—some of whom she knew, some of whom she didn’t—and the topics, the subjects themselves chose the emails; “self-portraiture is quietly at work here.” It’s surprising, in fact, how the information given simultaneously brings us closer to and further from these famous people. Each subject is normalized and separated in turns; while the first and fourth week’s emails, “about money” and “about business,” seem to pull us further from their senders, the weeks devoted to emails that “give advice” and “mention Barack Obama” humanize. Even the potentially polarizing emails, however, reveal a tenderer aspect of money and business as abstract concepts. An email from Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte simply reads, “can we get our money back on the wrong pins?”; another they sent with the subject line “hard at work” features a cat asleep on a laptop keyboard.

These life-excerpts primarily endear us to their senders. Etgar Keret signs off as “Etgar keret” in one email and as simply “e” in another; Catherine Opie chooses “Your Aunt Cathy” for her teenage niece, to whom she also writes, “I am not your parent I love you a ton.” We see who says “yours,” who says “best,” who says “xoxo,” “love,” or nothing before their names. We see subject lines: “Re: fridge,” “—,” “Re: ,” “RE:!,” “THINKING OF YOU,” and “Becoming a Pro Basketball Player.” The week on “advice” was particularly profound; Keret wrote on uncertainty, “This is both beautiful and tiring, depending on the day.” Sheila Heti’s email that week was also quiet and lovely. Heti wrote to Kathryn Borel:

loving someone means loving their ugliness. if you do not love also what’s worst in them, you do not really love them. it’s hard in a new relationship because every bit of ugliness is a surprise; but these are the parts that must be loved. or else it’s not love.

—and later in the same email:

I met an amazing choreographer at Yaddo—an 80 year old woman; Sally Gross. From NY. She told me that I was young. That there was enough time in my life for everything; being alone, being with women, with difficult men, with not- difficult men.

This was soothing. There’s enough time in my life for everything.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.