Portrait of the Writer as a Young Girl

I remember being in line at the school cafeteria in elementary school and reading the menu taped to the glass. Our main course for the day was “Real Pork Chops.” As I plopped my tray on the counter and reached for a white milk I made a comment to the girl in line behind me, “REAL pork chops? What kind of pork chops have we been eating?” She smiled slightly. I tried again with the boy in front of me, “REAL pork chops!” He ignored me. I have now learned that when life presents funny shit, like the sudden appearance of the word “real” in front of a meat product we have been eating all school year, I should just pocket that morsel so I can write about it later. Thirty years later.

I wasn’t a writer then. I was quiet. I started writing when I got to high school. I had an amazing eleventh-grade English teacher who stopped me in the hall one day outside of class to tell me that I was a good writer. She put something I wrote in a student publication, and I felt haughty. I am sure whatever I wrote was not funny. I was dark and stormy in my writing back then. I kept a diary in high school, and when I read it years later my eyes darted across the page with increasing panic, and then I threw it in the trash. The girl in that diary was terrifyingly pathetic and morose. I probably should have been suicidal, but I wasn’t nearly that interesting. Mainly I just wrote about how I wanted a boyfriend, or at least just for a boy—any boy—to notice that I was alive. A smoke signal sending puffs of “You probably exist or whatever” would have sufficed. I spent four pages writing about how I wanted to get with some boy at a party, but he liked someone else. That is not a four-page story. That is a sentence. That is a clause that introduces a better sentence, “I wanted to get with him, but he liked someone else, so I said ‘fuck it’ and drank six Solos of hunch punch and then passed out in a ditch.” No, wait. “I wanted to get with him, but he liked someone else, probably because I never talked to him or expressed any interest whatsoever, so I am going to just laugh with my friends and not be a sorry loser.” Better.

The odd thing is that I remember being a mostly happy teenager. I smiled a lot. I loved my friends. I felt accepted. I did not date much, and at the time that circumstance apparently consumed me. The gist of my tragic diary was me trying to figure out who I was. I did not think I was unattractive. I wasn’t completely sure, but looking around it seemed there were certainly people uglier than me finding “love” (and by “love” I mean making out in the parking lot). Maybe my big hair and my quadro-boobs (in order to keep up with the growing rate of my breasts in high school I would have had to buy a new bra approximately every thirty seconds, so my bras were always too small) were confusing to teenage boys, or maybe I made too many wisecracks about meat products; there was no way to know for sure what was wrong with me. With my diary I was just trying to explore how I fit into the world around me.

I started to read humor writing when I was in high school. They used to run Dave Barry’s Miami Herald column in the Sunday edition of our Tallahassee paper. My mom would cut it out for me and leave it on the counter. I probably increased his teenage girl readership to one. When I was twenty-two I read Bridget Jones Diary, and I started to emulate her writing, usually while I was bored at work. I remember writing a few paragraphs about being home sick. I wrote that I was in bed shivering, so I kept layering on more clothes and by the morning I looked like a homeless snowman, and then I wrote “My mom came by to check on me and put the back of her palm on my forehead. It was official. I had a fever.” For some reason those sentences stayed with me. I saw that I had done something clever. My meaning was bigger than my actual words. I started to understand that writing was magic.

I went to college and studied creative writing. At first, I wrote entirely in comma splices, “I ran down the hill, the hot sand burned my feet, the sand spurs licked at my heels.” I had a few teachers that just let me write error-full prose, and I think they did me a service, but sort of like when you let your toddler explore the yard, you give him freedom, but you follow closely behind and grab him before he stumbles out into oncoming traffic. Eventually a teacher returned a decent story to me caked in red marks. I rewrote it and replaced all the comma splices with periods. I presented the edited version to a writing workshop in my senior year, and the class hated it because it was choppy and had no flow. One student demonstrated by reading the entire paper out loud in a robot voice. I credit my experience in those writing workshops with my ability to take criticism. I will stand naked before you, and we can talk about my flaws.

I started to read more, too. Nonfiction. Funny shit. When I lived in Austin I used to hang out at the Book People bookstore, next to the Whole Foods on North Lamar. I leaned up against shelves and slid to the floor, immersed in reading. They had a small, but eclectic humor section. I bought every copy of a book titled The Wild Goose Chronicles by filmmaker Trent Harris, which includes a clever mix of photos and text about his travels around the world. I used to give the book as a gift to guys I was dating-slash-just sleeping with. I am not sure what I meant by the gesture. Here is a book that is probably on your level—it has lots of pictures and is about a futile pursuit.  It was more of a parting gift, mainly because shortly after I gave them the book they would break up with me.

I stopped writing when I got married and started having kids. I was busy, sure, but I also no longer felt the need to relentlessly carve out my identity. Then I went back to grad school, but I still wasn’t writing anything fun. The writing I was doing for my classes was sometimes returned with comments like “great ideas, but your writing lacks clarity.” The fact that my writing was garbled, at times even weak, didn’t matter nearly as much as my ability to engage in thoughtful analysis. Writing was just a conduit, which to me seemed like using a framed two dollar bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. I even started to believe that maybe I wasn’t a writer; maybe I was just someone who was smart and had thought-provoking ideas about literature and the writing process. Then I got a grip. I put the gun back in the drawer and remembered who I really am. My dad was on Judge Judy. I serve beer at my kids’ birthday parties. I cannot be trusted.

Then I did a summer writing workshop with a group of teachers. We did some creative writing, and I cranked out more pages than I had written in years. I learned the most valuable writing lesson: I can write on demand. That was the missing piece. I used to think that I had to be punched by inspiration, only able to write if I was hunched over the keyboard with a fat lip. I thought I had to have something to actually write about. I don’t. I can make any moment write-worthy. I just have to put experiences into a kaleidoscope and then keep rearranging the pixels until the right pieces come into focus in a new frame. I have been wrestling with writing this piece all week, but it was not coming together—everything I came up with felt forced and fuzzy. Then I thought about the pork chop story while lying in bed at four a.m. I made a note in my phone and then got up this morning and the rest fell into place like a flight board that suddenly changes from delayed to now boarding. I just needed REAL pork chops.

The end.

Maybe this is right the place for a fucking poem? I wrote this on my phone in a gas station parking lot.

I am a dress code violator.
A head held high while the world is hunched in prayer.
A kick to your neat pile of leaves.
A laugh that echoes off solemn mountains.
You think this is funny?

The rules don’t apply to me.
Ask for permission later
or never.
Say Bullshit loud in quiet rooms.
Jump. Say “I will.”

Suffocate fear with words. Write.
Then write more. Be a rebel.
Make the world my metaphoric bitch.
Take what I need.
Tell no lies.

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Abort Mission

Sometimes I worry about sharing too much with my writing. Maybe because recently people have warned me by saying things like, “You should be more careful about revealing who you are,” or “You should probably get a lawyer.” Sometimes I worry they are right, and then I am overly self-conscious and my writing loses the cold shock that tends to make it strong. Today instead of writing I opened files and rearranged sentences on old pieces that have failed to take shape.

Then I played with a list of metaphors on scraps of yellow legal pad paper:

Inadequacy is a Boy Scout tent in the yard of a mansion.

Censorship is an old woman who refuses to put in her hearing aid.

Desire is a hungry alligator sunning in the soggy grass, eyes fixed on my quickening pace.

Impatience is engines revving. Boom. Backfire.

Then I went on Facebook for about an hour. Then I thought about how I would be represented if I were a set of Russian nesting dolls. I decided that my outermost doll would be Dorothy Parker with a typewriter, then a Wonder Woman doll in spandex standing with hands on hip, then Phyllis Diller with a slender cigarette, then Amanda Bynes in a platinum wig, then a Nick Nolte mug shot doll, and then the innermost doll would just be a naked fetus smoking a crack pipe.

Terrifying. Back space. Back space. Back space.

Then I remembered that this week marks the twenty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I felt a writing spark ignite—I rubbed my hands together gleefully, the way a mad scientist might when he realizes the monster he created is out there destroying entire villages. I have never had an abortion. Not because I was chaste, but because my mother, who found out she was pregnant with my sister during her first semester at the University of Georgia, stressed that the most important thing in my teenage life was not getting pregnant. She even took me to a male gynecologist when I was in high school—and still a virgin—so I could get birth control. I did not have a boyfriend or any reasonable prospects, but she thought I should be prepared for when that special day arrived, or that night when I just wanted to get it over with so I had sex with a boy I sort of liked on a picnic table.

The doctor took me into his office and asked me about my sexual history. It made me uncomfortable that this old man even knew that I had a vagina. I certainly did not want him asking me questions about what I had ever done with it. I still used maxi pads. I had no clue what was going on down there. After our terribly awkward conversation the nurse walked me down the hall and left me alone in the exam room to change into a gown. I considered crawling out of the shoebox-sized window above my head. I stood up on the chair and peeked out into the parking lot. I tapped on the glass and then hoisted up one leg to see if I could reach. I couldn’t. I hopped down and put on the paper gown with the opening towards the front.

Without birth control—preventive and reactive, accessible, affordable, and shame-free—we have no control. If we are kept fearful of unwanted pregnancy then we are sexual prey, caught in the yellow-eyed gaze of the hungry gator. Birth control is the front line of women’s rights. Somehow, I did not get pregnant until I was thirty years old and ready. This is why my career has never suffered because I have kids. Wait. This is why I have never been criticized for sexual behavior. Wait. This is why I am in complete control of my body, my sexuality, my life. Wait. This why being a woman is complicated.

I want to be fearless, but I often feel that I have to be careful about what I put forth in writing because I am a woman. Because I am a mother. I am not supposed to write about my tits (or how nice they are). I am not supposed to write about sleeping with someone on the first date (or before, most likely). I am not supposed to keep mentioning maxi pads (or the liberation I experienced when I started using tampons, except for that one time after going on a water slide). Maybe I write about these things because they allow me to play outside the neatly wrapped box of what I am supposed to be. If my voice is not heard—the voice that sees the line of what is acceptable and then backs up, revs the engine and fishtails across it—then I risk being silenced.

If I were to get an abortion the expectation is that it would be the biggest regret of my life. Even when women are granted access to legal, safe abortions, the act itself is still perceived as shameful. Bad. Disturbing. That maintains order. But what if women had complete control of their bodies, freely, readily across the globe? What if my Russian nesting dolls went in reverse? What if women’s bodies were not valued by how many times they were exposed? Order would be disturbed. An earthquake would split the ocean floor and a tsunami would crash onto shore, turning buildings into splinters. Disrupting misogynistic empires. Toppling patriarchal norms.

What if I felt free enough to write whatever the fuck I want?

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F the Grammar Police

I still sometimes use the word retarded, and I use it as a synonym for fucking idiot. Every time I do a person with a disability is marginalized and a baby dolphin dies, probably brutally murdered by a person with a disability who finally snaps after years of being discriminated against by assholes like me. I also say awesome, and I overuse the word interesting to substitute for saying that something is so completely uninteresting that it isn’t even worth the energy to say the “un” part, like if someone tells me they are going to try a new brand of dog shampoo. That is interesting. I also use interesting when something is so problematic that I cannot even discuss it, like it is interesting that the morning after pill is not effective on women who weigh more than 166 pounds. That is interesting. Real fucking interesting.

I overuse the word like, and I hedge my conversations by using umm as a placeholder while I gather my thoughts. I try not to do these things, but they are engrained in the way I speak. I have been speaking this way for so long that it is difficult to alter my patterns. I am improving. I am a teacher, so I get to practice my public speaking skills five days a week. The umms are diminishing. I am almost cleansed of the likes. I hardly ever use retarded out loud anymore, but it is always the term that is in my head, and I have to translate to something more appropriate, the way a native French speaker might have to translate poisson to fish, when ordering at Long John Silvers. I am not translating from another language, though, just from another time before the Americans with Disabilities Act was filed because people, if left to their own devices, are selfish jerks.

My language abuse doesn’t cause me any major problems. I still speak close enough to the way people in power speak. I speak like a white, middle class woman (my likes might remove me slightly from the center of power, a giveaway for my gender). My voice could probably be used in GPS software, except that I would too often want to say things like, “Jesus Christ! Making a left turn now you retard.” However, my way of speaking doesn’t keep me from getting jobs. It doesn’t make people think I am lazy or stupid. Maybe they will think that I have terrible morals, and that I am going to hell, but people will still hire me, even to answer their phones.

In my twenties I had an endless string of receptionist jobs, despite the fact that I am terrible at the actual act of answering the phone. I can’t even answer the phone on Bluetooth in my car which just requires pushing a singular button—the button with the picture of a phone being picked up. I usually almost crash because I get so flustered from the surprise that someone is actually calling me. Phones with multiple lines and hold buttons are a complete mystery to me. When I answered the phones in an office, instead of using the intercom, I would usually just scream down the hall, “You have a phone call on  . . . line 1?” I have terrible hearing and a poor short term memory, so often I would find myself staring at the blank message pad after the call. I would just make something up, “Socrates Morphine called to discuss your lunch plans next week, if you don’t have his number then obviously you aren’t that close.”  I also thought it was a fun game if I could recognize the voice of the incoming caller before they identified themselves, “Hello Mrs. Eubanks! Oh this is John Harris calling? Right. How are you today, ma’am?”

People let me be their receptionist anyway. I look and sound like I am from a tidy, although maybe slightly slutty, suburb. I grew up in a family—in a community—where “standard” English was the norm. The language was like dollar bills, and I was born in a money grabber machine. The rhythm of the speech that exists in all the big shiny office buildings was just blowing around me, getting stuck in my hair, clinging to my clothes—always available. I did not have to put in extra effort in Language Arts. I did not have to switch from the way I spoke at home to be successful in school or in the workforce.

I was terrible at most of the jobs I had in my twenties. I made it clear that the job, which I was not great at performing, was beneath me, and I did not want to be there. I had no real skills, except that I was smart and when I told people how smart, there was something about the way I said it that made them believe me. Now I am a college writing instructor at a technical college. I don’t want all my students to talk and write like me. I want them to believe that their private language is powerful. I want to change the ideology that how people speak or write reflects their intelligence or their value, especially if it is varied from what has been established as “standard” or “correct” merely because it echoes the way people who already have the power speak and write.  But I want my students to get jobs.

Honestly, most days I don’t know how to accomplish either of those goals: redefining the entire system of how we place significance on certain ways of speaking and writing or helping my students be successful writers in the unfair, mostly shitty world. Both tasks seem equally difficult. Generally, I just ignore everything outside of our cinder block walls. Today on a student’s paper I wrote the comment, “Ugly ass should probably be hyphenated because it modifies the noun mutt.” I don’t even know if that is correct. I encourage them to be creative. I told another student, “You are such a good writer, why do you want to go into nursing?” I probably ruined his life and the lives of all of the patients that he could have saved.

I just make them keep writing so they know they deserve to be heard, and usually when I read their writing, unencumbered by the voice of any real authority figure, I am in awe, and I feel confident flipping giant double birds to the shitty world and the grammar police. I am really not sure who left a retard, no a fucking idiot, like me in charge, but it is interesting.

Fantasy

This week for a bedtime story my son and I read Rocks and Minerals, and I learned everything I know about rocks and minerals from that book. Why wouldn’t the rock with the black spots be called a Dalmatian? I totally buy it. With my daughter I read a book called Forever After which includes four stories about Disney princesses and answers the question that has been lingering on all our minds since the happy couples kissed at the alter and the screen filled with hearts: how did they plan their weddings?

These weddings didn’t just happen sans adversity. Happily ever after might mean compromising by weaving the queen’s pearls into your veil because they are too heavy to wear around your neck, or it might mean surprising your former dog-beast prince by inviting all the villagers to the reception to show that he is loved (now that he isn’t a drooling, maniacal killer). Maybe, if you are the only black princess, it means catering your own wedding by cooking gumbo for all your guests.

I read with skepticism (and occasional eye rolling). I know too much. Usually my voice trails off at the last line of each story, “Cinderella had the wedding of her dreams,” and I close the book, letting out a sigh and putting up my middle finger. I still read her the book, though. I know it is wrong, and I should teach her to be offended, but those tiny-footed princesses make her smile. It is sort of like when a creepy meth addict calls out from behind a garbage can lid, “Nice tits,” and I am outwardly offended, but inwardly quite flattered as I look down and whisper, “Thanks for noticing, man.”  Then the rest of the day I have unrealistically high self-esteem.

Princesses get to be pretty and wear fancy dresses, and they have pure hearts, and they get to use all the animals as their personal servants, and they don’t really have to date. They don’t have to check their phone every thirty seconds to see if he called, when they know damn well that he didn’t because he is too busy boning a peasant. The first guy a princess meets is eternally devoted and devoid of personality, unless he is a monster who imprisons her, or a lying thief, or a womanizing frog, but she can change him. She must. She is stuck with him either way. The end! (Cue the floating, kissing hearts!)

The disney movies with their climax of walking down the aisle are dangerous because they deliver the message that the party trumps the partner and the entire partnership. That idea contributes to the systemic problem of how we market to girls. The Disney dudes are all just versions of Ken with different colored plastic hair. I was not into the princesses as a girl because they were too puritanical for me, but I loved playing with Barbie. Ken was usually just lying on the floor, face down and naked. I liked to do Barbie’s hair, and by “do” I mean that I cut her hair and tried to give her bangs, which never worked, but I kept trying with each new Barbie I received or that was left momentarily unattended by one of my sisters. I also liked to set up Barbie’s house with beds made out of maxi-pads.

For little girls, playing with dolls and watching or reading about princesses is tied up with the fantasy of being an adult. For me, being a big girl was about having killer bangs and a really absorbent bed. I have not made either one of those fantasies a reality. My daughter is fascinated with weddings and brides. Her favorite princess is Ariel, who gives up her voice to be with the man of her dreams-slash-the first and only human she has ever met. She gets her voice back, but then she has to change species in order to get married. I feel like there are some major issues here that I need to address with my daughter. For starters, I will tell her that she should never give up her voice under any circumstances, and second there are plenty of fish in the actual sea. With most major issues I like to ask myself, “Who has the most vested interest in this venture?” If the answer is, “a voluptuous octopus lady,” then maybe she should take it as a sign and gracefully swim away, tail intact.

I still read my daughter the books. I let her adore the princesses, mainly because I know she is smart enough to enjoy them without being consumed. I am going to tell her that if she ever decides to get married, she should consider eloping. Not because it is easier, but because it will be a good barometer for how she feels about the marriage itself. Does she still think it is worth it without the big white gown and party? Maybe even more controversially, I will tell her that she doesn’t have to get married at all. (Gasp! Tiny princess hands rise to cover tiny rosebud mouths. “Mouse! Go get me a paper bag! I need to hyperventilate.”) I will tell her that she doesn’t need to be rescued. I will tell her that she should not have to change herself or the person she loves to find true love. I will also tell her to avoid cursed men who attempt to trap her in a dark, damp castle filled with talking, singing dish ware. Then I will tell her that she is a beautiful princess as I brush her hair with a fork.

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