February 3, 2014 § 1 Comment
Joey Franklin discusses how his recent Brevity essay “Girl Fight” came to be:
As a child, and even into my teens, I was what you might call a crier. One day in little league I got hit in the crotch by a ball while running from first to second base, and I cried myself off the field, pretending I was hurt to mask the shame of getting out on an interference call. On the high school football field, I once let a goliath from the opposing team scare me so badly at the line of scrimmage that I jumped off sides twice in a row and then broke down in tears during the next huddle with my frustrated teammates. I cried during snowball fights and games of tag. I cried at the chalkboard when I didn’t know the answer, at the bus stop when the big kids pulled my ears, and at home when I didn’t want to vacuum the living room or help with the dishes. I cried when a girl no longer liked me, and once, as in the case of “Girl Fight,” because a girl still did. One of the most persistent emotional memories of my childhood is the frog-throated sensation of heat that rose to my ears right before I melted into sobs.
And even though at thirty-three I don’t cry much anymore, I still suffer from acute moments of shame that haunt me for days, sometimes years after the fact. I second-guess what should be simple conversations with colleagues in the hall, I wonder what people really think of me, and wish I could take words back. And even in sports, I haven’t escaped it. I play basketball twice a week with other faculty at my university and if I have a particularly bad day on the court—miss a lot of shots, make some bad passes, foul somebody harder than I intended—I begin to wonder if I should play at all, if I’m ‘that guy’ everyone hopes won’t show up. And, of course, recognizing my own self-consciousness is an exercise in embarrassment itself—the very act of worrying about what others think quickly becomes another source of shame.
Emmanuel Levinas writes that shame is the “pure essence of being”—that moment when we can no longer stand the reality of our own existence, but find ourselves inextricably bound to the source of our own nausea. It’s that sensation of wanting to escape our own skin, but realizing that like it or not, we are stuck with ourselves. Certainly shame is partly about being naked in front of the world, but more importantly it’s about being naked in front of ourselves. And I think it’s for this that essay is so well suited. When we cannot turn away from ourselves, we can, hopefully, turn to the essay, and in some ways project that shame onto the page. When we wrestle honestly with our naked selves, we begin to mitigate the effects of shame—we begin feel, as Lopate put it, “a little less lonely and freakish.”
And this brings me to “Girl Fight,” an essay born a few years ago from a writing prompt in Jill Patterson’s CNF workshop at Texas Tech. We’d read Sonja Livingston’s short fragment, “Thumb-Sucking Girl,” and then Jill asked us to explore a traumatic childhood memory using a child’s perspective. I wrote about 75% of the essay in one sitting, and felt pretty pleased with how easily I’d worked through this moment of childhood shame. But that first draft focused too much on what I remembered (feelings of embarrassment and humiliation), and not enough on why I remembered it (it was one of the first times I failed to honor a friendship). I discovered that accessing the emotional significance of the moment meant I needed to include not only the voice of the memory, but the voice of the remembering as well. It took several more drafts, but what eventually emerged were a few moments of adult-voiced reflection on my unwillingness to put Heather’s friendship first.
In The Memoir and the Memoirist, Thomas Larson refers to this multi-voiced approach as a “layered simultaneity,” and believes the tension between the remembered voice and the remembering voice constitutes the “primary compositional conflict of a memoir.” Larson writes: “Those voices, collected over time and spoken now, may best reflect how we perceive ourselves, having lived with ourselves as long as we have.” In other words, if the essence of being is shame and our inability to escape it, then perhaps the essence of memoir is memory and our ability to reflect on it. And if that’s the case, then for those of us who feel so bound by our own shame, memoir may be our best hope for salvation from ourselves.