First to my few but loyal readers I want to say mahalo, thank you, for being there. I have been working on many deadlines and so have neglected this space, thinking I need to write something different for it. For you. Now I have decided to instead share what I’ve been writing for the Institute of American Indian Arts. Not the longer works but some of the short pieces. Small essays on craft talks on campus, or on authors’ craft in books. I know I don’t do these essays “right,” but what the hell. Here’s one:
A Woman Brave
She’s small. She’s taut. She’s fit. She’s beautiful. She’s a woman who cares about how she looks, how she’s seen. I have read her bio on the IAIA website—it’s as impressive as she is, standing there before us, unshatterable confidence. Perfect perfection. She’s the kind of woman who, just by being, draws out all my insecurities. But I don’t know who she is, until she pushes a button on her PowerPoint and a list appears on the screen behind her.
Dominatrix is the first word. The last, heroin. I don’t remember the words in between.
That heroin is there among them stirs more feelings in me. Always, a form of want, mixed with the taste of bad memories. And, as with Cheryl Strayed, another version of envy: another writer building some of her success on this part of her story, when no one wants to read mine. A pitiful pity-pot response.
More importantly, but less an undercurrent, recognition comes to me. Some time ago, years perhaps, as I drove somewhere, maybe the little blue Subaru up the curves to Taos, NPR on the radio, Terry Gross’s voice recreating for the listener a story of a young woman whose deeds were much darker than mine. I sit now as I sat then, fascinated, confused, compelled, understanding. Wanting to hear each word, to know more, less, who is she, why her? Cheryl Strayed only toyed with heroin; she did not fully succumb. And she toyed with men. But this woman before me now—she’s the real deal all around.
She speaks less about craft than about purpose. She does not talk about her experiences, her past, so I wouldn’t have put it together without the list. I did not buy her book back when I heard the interview, that stupid envy preventing me from doing so. (Nor did I buy Cheryl Strayed’s, but my mother sent it to me.)
She begins her talk with Lorraine Hansberry, and Berkeley, A Raisin in the Sun. Wasn’t I living in Berkeley when I first read that book, a student at Laney College, not yet a heroin addict? Just a heroin user? She reads from Lorraine’s lists, follows her character development through some years. (Why did she die so young? I don’t remember. I barely remember A Raisin in the Sun, though I remember being ignited by it. And I remember heroin.) She talks about her own lists. I think about how simple writing a list diary would be, following Lorraine’s questions, which, sidetracked by listening, I don’t write down. What I want, what I don’t want, something like that. Heroin—what I want, what I don’t want. Publication. Rejection. Recognition. Envy.
The point she is making up there in front of us, small and powerful before the microphone and PowerPoint screen, is not about how to write memoir or personal story, but to write them. She lists, in verbal prose now, the reasons we’re not to write our stories—reasons as proffered by male biases—and she lists the reasons to. She itemizes what the critics are saying about this memoir trend, and breaks down each concept. Batters each criticism until it’s a fragment on the floor. And while she’s calling out the male critics, she’s building us, the writers, up, encouraging, telling us our value, recognizing.
Women’s stories need to be told, she says; she says this in many different ways (which I also fail to write down); she says this repeatedly. And I wonder: I have heard that the trend is nearing its end; I have heard that no publisher is interested in memoir now; I have heard that the memoirs published today were in the works six years ago, or more, when the trend was hot. Back when St. Martin’s published Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart. I have heard not to bother anymore with memoir. And so I wonder: Is what I have heard the effect of this bias? Are the writers saying the above because they believe the trend has passed because they believe the male critics? Is Melissa saying to keep pushing the trend, because we—women—still have stuff to say? Do I pull the dusty pages from the drawer and start again? I have all but deleted my story from my computer, deciding to dissect it into essays, with which I have better luck. Dare I now reconstruct my own story?
And yet, that other voice is still there. Who would want to read my story? What have I to say that young, beautiful Melissa and Cheryl and myriad others haven’t already said, and said better? Heroin addiction, and fucking many men—old hat now. I am just a . . . woman.
A woman. A mother. An ex-heroin addict, a writer. A mother working with mustangs and going back to school to write better stories at sixty, twenty-three years clean. A woman who recognizes that some of her envy is because she was once like Melissa. Not equipped with publications and awards in those young years, but with a power over men and her own sexuality that I will never have again.
Reconstructing me, at sixty.
Here’s what Melissa says about craft: Writing about yourself does not make good writing. Good writing makes good writing. She also says no craft talk can tell you how to be brave. But she just did.