Arse Poetica (Or, A Shitty Metaphor)

March 12, 2018 § 10 Comments

zz brandeisBy Gayle Brandeis

When I was a freshman at the University of Redlands, I took a seminar called “Construction and Deconstruction of the Self.”  The professor, Kevin O’Neill, was always asking provocative questions—how would life be different if we procreated with our hands?  What if our backs were our sex organs—how would clothing and furniture change?  What would we do if we woke up in a differently gendered body?  One morning, he asked us whether we look in the toilet after we poop.  Only one person in the class said no, claiming he had evolved to a more spiritual plane.  Kevin didn’t believe him.

“We ALL look in the toilet after we poop,” he said, “because it’s something we created.  Our bodies want to see what they have created.”

I like birth as a metaphor for the creative process, but it’s a bit of a cliché, plus it’s not accessible to everybody (make that every body). I can see how another bodily function could be an apt metaphor, too, one we all share. You may have heard of the children’s book Everyone Poops? It’s true, we do.

Think about it.  The creative process is a lot like the digestive process.  We take life into our bodies.  We let it travel through us.  We absorb what we can.  We express those things that need to come out.

Bear with me here.

Sometimes poems and stories come out in a messy, smelly, gush. Sometimes we are surprised by their colors, by the kernels of life embedded inside. Sometimes we strain and strain and all that comes out is a little pebble of language, maybe nothing at all.  Sometimes a piece of writing slides from our bodies and we feel cleansed and light.

Does this make you uncomfortable?

Shit does make people uncomfortable.

I amicably parted ways with my former agent, a woman I really like and respect, after she wanted me to remove any reference to Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, from my memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis. While the memoir is centered around my mom’s suicide, it also explores my own complicated history with illness; this aspect of the story gets to the heart of my relationship with my mom unlike anything else, but my former agent was concerned the bodily chaos in the book would make people uneasy; it made her uneasy. I was similarly taken aback when, before my book was released, I read this passage in an essay about medical memoir:  “…inflammatory bowel disease, which threatens life as well as its sufferer’s sense of self and sexuality, has never found its way into a great memoir. It seems unlikely that no worthy writer has had these diagnoses. Maybe some conditions just aren’t inherently memoir-worthy.”

I can’t say whether my memoir is “great”, but I steadfastly believe we shouldn’t declare any material from our lives unworthy of memoir—we should be able to talk and write freely about every aspect of the human experience, even the most disagreeable, shitty, ones. If we don’t, we perpetuate silence and shame.

After I had surgery to remove a length of diseased small intestine, I devoured books by authors with Crohn’s disease— Meaty by Samantha Irby and The Man Who Couldnt Eat by Jon Reiner, which both mine our shared illness for great comic and dramatic value, as well as Matthew Siegel’s poetry collection, Blood Work, and Chris Kraus’ autobiographical novel, I Love Dick, which address the authors’ Crohn’s experience with tremendous honesty and craft. These books made me feel less alone; they helped give me courage to take that part of my own story out of the shadows.

Let us embrace all parts of our lives in our work, including the parts that are uncomfortable and gross, the parts we’re told to not discuss in polite company. Polite is overrated. Polite keeps us from our truth. Let us write words that still steam from the heat of our body. Let our lives become rich, dark, fertilizer; let us see what grows from the dirt.


Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. Her other books include the poetry collection, The Selfless Bliss of the Body, the craft book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and the novels My Life with the Lincolns, Delta Girls, Self Storage, and The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize of Fiction of Social Engagement. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University Los Angeles.

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