“Transubstantiate” and the Dark Magic of the Body

February 15, 2011 § 3 Comments

Rachel Yoder, author of “Transubstantiate” in the latest issue of Brevity, discusses the origin of her brief essay:

The hair patty of “Transubstantiate” had actually made a much less prominent appearance in a longer piece, one that I was looking at again and trying to revise. But all I really wanted to write about was the hair patty, because it was weird and gross and, in some way I couldn’t articulate, magical.  I thought perhaps I’d write a piece about my Mennonite aunts’ hair and begin it with this hair patty scene.

The scene that came to me was very specific and vivid. I could actually remember (or thought I remembered) that night when I encountered the wad of hair on my aunt’s dresser.  The gospel music kept playing in the background of this scene and, as I wrote, the words started to pulse with something, that magic I couldn’t name.  I started thinking a lot about Jesus and how I used to take hymns literally when I was little and then would become terrified.  I wrote this paragraph:

If a hymn said we were walking with Jesus hand in hand in a garden, then we were walking with Jesus hand in hand in a garden, which I got nervous about because I didn’t even really know Him and what would I say. Torments of the grave involved, obviously, squirming uncomfortably at the bottom of a deep hole and getting my clothes muddy.  God was in the sky, as were birds and clouds and airplanes, although God was logically much, much higher, yet not so high He was in outer space because outer space was cold, airless, full of technology, and very lonely.  These were all matters of common sense.

But nearly as soon as I wrote it, I cut it.  This wasn’t about hymns, at least not at the beginning. It was about hair patties. Maybe the hymn section could go later in the long essay I imagined I was writing.

In the beginning, at least, I wanted somehow to write about that magic, the dark magic of the body, but I had no way at coming at this head on, of articulating it or defining it in any coherent way.  So when I came to what wound up being the last paragraph of the piece that appeared in Brevity, I flashed to whatever images were there in my mind – my father preaching, the clouds over the congregation, and then, yes!, that bright green puke.  How I felt that day after church when I looked in the coffee can and saw what had come out of my body generated an equivalent and similarly un-nameable feeling as holding a wad of my aunt’s hair in my palm. This was the sort of commentary I needed, one image to hold up against another image, a gross, funny, and hopefully poetic juxtapostion.

I stopped writing at that point and planned to come back to the work the next day to continue writing the longer hair essay. The next day, though, what I had seemed whole in and of itself. Plus, the word count was 606, which, as any good Mennonite knows, is the hymnal page number of the Mennonite anthem “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” I took this as a sign that the piece was done, at least for the moment. And so it was.

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§ 3 Responses to “Transubstantiate” and the Dark Magic of the Body

  • Liz Stephens says:

    Rachel, I remember reading this piece in the in-box…and really wanting NOT to think about that hair patty. God lord, even the words hair patty made me uncomfortable. And so I went on to read the next submission….and then went back to yours with a sigh, and thought, “Well, crud, hair patty.” I couldn’t forget it, so on it went into the next pile. it’s not just the image, obviously, that coheres all the right things in this piece; it’s the framework of the moment in the larger piece, the closeness of the room, the intimacy of the holding.

    And please note the tags here, which are priceless together, aren’t they: “Hair patty, Mennonite, Rachel Yoder.”

  • Rachel says:

    Liz, I’m glad I could disgust you into noticing the piece. Perhaps this is a strategy I should use more in the future?

    But really, thanks for your note and for ALL that reading you do for Brevity.

  • […] Rachel Yoder is in her final year of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa where she also serves as senior editor for Defunct Magazine. Her writing currently appears in the anthologies Best of the Web 2010 and The Rumpus Women, as well as The Collagist. She is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process, which features short stories, first drafts, and author interviews.  She recently blogged about this essay’s origins here at the Brevity blog. […]

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