March 4, 2014 § 5 Comments
Sonja, a panelist, painted it for us with words. Naked railroad tracks under empty sky. Trains roaring past in stink and noise. Sonja parked down there, because who’s going to pay to park on campus? So every work day she walked past it, the saddest place on Earth. Beside the tracks. A squat, windowless, cement-block building. Its parking lot cracked and fissured. A blood-bank; a place to sell your blood. Scattered across the busted asphalt, dented cars, where people sat with a window, or maybe a door, wide open, music wafting, waiting their turn to sell their blood. Across the parking lot, Scutties. Walking past, one glance told you Scutties sold beer and lotto tickets. Convenient.
Sonja Livingston walked on, to the writing workshop she teaches. One morning, as the group sat sipping take-out coffees, waiting for workshop to begin, a student mentioned the blood bank. And it seemed someone did pay to park on campus, because a second student asked, “blood bank?”
“You know,” Sonia put in. “The saddest place on Earth.”
A third student looked up from her paper cup. “I know that place,” she said. “When I was a single mother, I used to go there to sell my blood.”
Sonja sat there kicking herself in the butt until the start of workshop let her be busy and in charge. “I’m telling this story now,” she told us, shame still in her face, “because I used to be Catholic, and I still love to confess.”
The place she had dismissively called the saddest place on Earth belonged, in a deep and intimate way, to somebody. That place was a complicated place, full of memory and resonances. A place a single mother might sit in a dented car, if she had one, maybe thinking about her little one left with a neighbor, maybe leaving with enough to get by until payday.
Locate beauty in the hard places, the panelists reminded us. Resist easy labels. One panelist recalled pearls of moonlight seeping through outhouse walls. Light and shadows on a single sunflower. Dialect? Yes, use it—to create poetry.
Panelist Karen Salyer McElmurray told us, “The first time I was a hidden population I was in 4th grade.”
Her 4th grade teacher asked the class to write about their family and their house. What is the name of the street you live on? What is your Mama’s name? Your Daddy’s name? asked the 4th grade teacher.
So great was her dread, the shy child slipped up to the teacher’s desk, desperate for a way out of the assignment. Yes, she had a mama and a papa. No, she didn’t mind telling the name of the street she lived on. But she didn’t want to tell her mother’s name. None of the others would have a mother’s name like that. A mountain name. A back-woods name.
“Don’t get above your rasin’,’” one panelist was told. But others were told: You can do anything, be anyone, in this world.
“Grandpa told me I could do anything,” blogged a student who had given permission to a panelist to share her story. “But what he didn’t tell me is that if I did it, if I made it, I would be angry almost all the time.”
Angry to be the only student at the mandatory 5 am dorm meeting called to impress upon students that dishes need to be returned to the kitchen. Her dorm-mates instead paid a $25 fine, and were sleeping blissfully. Angry as day after day she carried others’ dishes to the kitchen. Angry that the other girls never seemed to wonder, or notice, how dishes magically clean themselves away.
Angry that her classmates went to poetry readings in the evenings, as she headed to one of her jobs. That her classmates applied for unpaid editing internships while she spent the summer waiting tables and cleaning houses.
And back home? “No one wanted to hear about someone who made it out,” she wrote. Back home was a lot of anger too. Things stolen, friends gone cold, even punches thrown. Anger, she concluded, is the unspoken side effect of social mobility.
Panelist Lee Martin told us the rural working class /poor whites may be the most under-represented population on America’s elite campuses. He asked: how can we be deliberate in adopting a pedagogy of inclusion? Do we want literature to be filled with outsiders? Then start by making the writing workshop a safe place.
First generation college students, children of the working class—for whom hard work may be one of the highest values—often must deal with deep skepticism from their communities of origin that learning is truly work. “Writer” is an identity their families may not recognize or understand.
Have you ever been tempted to “pass” as some who has always had a subscription to the New Yorker? How much greater this pressure on writers from the working class, and/or below the poverty line. These writers may face even more difficulty than most of us in claiming our identity.
The rural poor, just like [insert population of your choice here], wish to be neither ridiculed nor mawkishly romanticized. Instead, as in all good writing, celebrate complexities and contradictions.
As a writer, the greatest challenge for me, and I suspect for many of us, is to both claim and critique our own heritage. If this is hard for us, how much harder might it be for a quiet woman beside us in workshop who, we may never have suspected, has sold her blood to pay the electric bill.
The panelists turned the question back to us: How do we live in a broken economy?
Creative writing, the panelists reminded us, can be that rare place of meritocracy. So invite outlaws into the classroom, they said. Kill the silence around social class. Create, says Claire Watkins, a culture of inclusion within this structure of exclusion.
One panelist recalled the ache in her legs after standing all day on hard, cold cement, bent over trays in a greenhouse. A five-dollar-an-hour ache. Exhausted, she did not write at the end of those days. Still, she saved up the stories.
Back then, she says, the question she stood on every day was never “is this worth my time?” The hard, cold, but strangely untrue question that defined her everywhere she went and every choice she made was: “am I worth it to spend this much money?”
Sitting in the audience, we had the opportunity to wonder, to notice, whether we are worth it. What might it mean for us as writers to be worth it? We sat there, silent for just less than the time it takes to poke one hole in the greenhouse tray and slip one seedling inside, pondering the worth of one human story. And of stories about places, of the human home, our planet. Of moonlight through outhouse walls, of rage, of the saddest place on Earth.
All the panelists in the “Hidden Populations” panel R223 were fabulous, and I can’t wait to get hold of their books. Dorothy Allison was unable to attend. Nonfiction panelists: Sonja Livingston (award-winning Ghostbread). Authors of both nonfiction and fiction: award-winning Karen Salyer McElmurray (memoir: Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey) and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin (latest memoir: Such a Life). Fiction panelists: Claire Vaye Watkins (award-winning Battleborn) and Carter Sickles (award-winning The Evening Hour).
Jacqueline Haskins is a biologist of wild wet places, from cypress swamps to glacial cirque swales, and has a forth-coming essay collection, Eyes Open Underwater. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart nomination and been a finalist in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Contest. Her non-fiction, fiction, or poetry appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Raven Chronicles, Cirque Journal, and elsewhere.
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.