Self Portrait as My Traitor

“The work of all women writers is jeopardized when individual female authors are taken to task for the content of their writing.” –bell hooks from Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

Two months before I filed for divorce, I published an essay titled Match.com (later published in The Funny Times in November 2013). In the essay, I consider Martha Stewart’s foray into online dating, and I suggest that her profile and her appearance on talk shows where she would actually meet with men who responded to her—men with gilded silver hair who looked like they were fresh off the golf course—was all just a publicity stunt for her new book. I noted that I was a married woman who was “not necessarily looking”, but I suggested that most likely neither was Martha. At this time, my marriage was in the process of being declared a federal disaster zone. Aerial footage would show our marital home as a pile of tiny splinters, cars turned upside down, trees pulled up to expose their enormous red clay packed roots. As a former inhabitant, all I could do was stare at the aftermath. I knew everything was gone. It was over. But I did not know where to start in an effort to move forward.

I approached the Match.com essay the way I approach most essays, with a problem. As I considered the issue through the mock profile, I came to the conclusion that what I really needed was for someone to accept me despite all my flaws. Much like Martha Stewart’s Match profile, my fake one was not about going on any real dates, it was a way for me to explore what it would take, realistically and comically (often bedmates), to fix that unhappiness.

My ex-husband “discovered” the essay during our divorce process and tried to use it against me. He wanted that essay to serve as evidence that I was cheating on him before I filed for divorce. He wanted my writing to be an exposé of my character. He also just didn’t get it, which is why he never had an interest in reading my work in the first place. I rarely shared my writing with him because he did not like that version of me. That version that is in my own words. That version where I am in control of how I am perceived. He wanted to see me in a certain way, and the honest accounts of my life and my perceptions stood in opposition to his version of how he wanted me to be.

It is also about control. Using my writing as a way to call my value systems into question is a way to revise me and to alter the meaning of my words. It is also an issue that adds bricks to the immense wall of gender bias. More recently, I have been taken to task by my employer for the essay I wrote called Some Bunny to Love. As a woman—as a mother—there are ways that I should act. Adrienne Rich describes how her poetry writing suffered after the birth of her first child because she was worried that if she appeared unhappy in her work, if there were “periods of null depression or active despairing” then she could be deemed some type of monster (I published an essay about this in September 2012). Of course, Rich had her children in the 1950s, but it seems we are still persecuting women for their honest commentary. bell hooks warns:

“Critics will exercise the power to publicly judge and morally condemn the subject of women’s writing when it transgresses the boundaries of conservative convention and mainstream decorum.”

Depending on where the female author resides, the boundaries of conservative convention can usually be stretched to blanket almost anything, especially if related to female sexuality—unless the works are capitalist blockbusters, like Fifty Shades of Grey, then that is okay because it is about the economy, stupid. Oh wait, and about a man sexually dominating a woman.

There is an Afterword that Vladimir Nabokov added to the 1956 edition of Lolita titled, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” that has always interested me. I find value in reading an author, especially one such as Nabakov, reflecting on his work in his own words—it is the Inside the Actor’s Studio of my field. Also, this afterword is where we get such moments of inspiration like his declaration that “reality” is “one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes.” But what has attracted me the most from this short essay is his discussion about what inspired him to write Lolita. He simply provides this anecdote:

“As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

I interpret this passage to mean that sometimes, if we look through another’s eyes, we may not like what we see. What we see could leave us haunted. This certainly applies to Humbert Humbert because this book—to me—is mostly about the contradictions, nuances, and shock of first person narration. This small revelation from Nabakov, tacked on at the end of one of the most morally disputed novels in the canon (because it does still make it in—resolutely inside the academic tower), can be applied to the work of female authors, especially those of us who are autobiographical. As I share my experience, it may stand in opposition to how I am expected to act. Think. Feel. When a reader peers out from my eyes, he may not like what he sees. It is like viewing a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Each artist has her own bars of the cage and when depicted honestly, it just might make people squirm.

I aim to write authentically about the myriad of experiences that constitute my life, most often my personal life (or lack thereof), my role as a remedial parent, and my career as a writer. A recurring theme for me is writing about what it is like to be a single woman with two kids in a small southern town, and how that can make it difficult for me to find love. I am also a romantic, which is a real cockblocker. I recently took an online quiz to determine which Shakespeare story best matches my love life. Of course I got Romeo and Juliet. The advice I take from this important and real diagnosis is that I have unrealistic expectations, and I should go directly to the nearest apothecary so I can be put out of my misery. That is what cages me. I have nobody to blame for the fact that I have struggled to find a suitable partner—someone intelligent and kind, and not to be greedy, but also a sense of humor. And I would like to be pretty damn close to as important to him as the sun. And it would be great if he has a yacht or a helicopter or both (ISO someone with a helipad), and he should be a sommelier.

Although I love to employ humor, both in my writing and as a defense mechanism, the truth is that being alone is a major part of my life. Most nights after I put the kids to bed, I wish I had a hand to hold on the couch. In the house we have rented for the past two years, I have only had two men spend the night. One was a man I dated this past winter, and we spent time together here on a weekend when my kids were with their father. The other was a man I dated long distance for almost a year, and then he lived with us for four months. We created a happy but somewhat artificial semblance of a family life, based on a real and deeply rooted friendship, and I will never regret that time. My children laughed with him and through that experience I was able to see how generously they are able to love—without spite or jealousy or loss of feelings for their own father. They can love exponentially and that made me immensely proud.

As a woman—an educated, independent woman—I am not supposed to be sad because I am single. I cannot be the Julia Roberts character from Knotting Hill and say that I am just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her (I have learned this the hard way). I am supposed to just be amazing and live each day as if I can actually do this on my own and hope that the right person will show up when I am not looking, or when I am having a bad hair day (never going to happen). But I have never been good at doing what I am supposed to do. I am a rebel. And I will not be silenced. According to bell hooks, “Given the power of censorship and antifeminist backlash we should all be insisting that women writers continue to resist silencing.” My resistance comes in the only form I know: to just keep writing.

My craft is humor writing, and I have carved a decent niche in a difficult genre. Humor writing cannot be riddled with clichés. It has to be fresh. It must evoke recognition of shared experience but with a twist that reveals something more—perhaps something more sinister, more extreme, or even more pathetic. It has to grab people to arouse laughter. I employ a voice in my humor writing that is dangerously honest. She puts the elephant in the center of the room and decorates it with garlands of daisies and daggers. Through the process of creative expression, I am more able to accept my flaws and love myself just the way I am, which is all I have ever asked of those around me.

My ex-husband’s attempt to use the Match.com essay against me during the divorce was not the first or the last time I have been taken to task for the content of my writing. And I have no doubt that the last time will occur only after I stop writing all together. What I have to take away from this is that my writing must actually matter. People are paying attention. And there is something I am doing that is rattling the cage.

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bell hooks’ work is from her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work published by Holt and Company in 1999.

Adrienne Rich’s ideas about the intersection of writing and motherhood is from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” published in College English in 1972.

The excerpt From “On a Work Entitled Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is from “Lolita” on iBooks, Second Vintage International Edition published by Vintage Books. https://itun.es/us/FRlez.l

 

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5 comments

  1. Gris Alves · May 16, 2016

    Love this essay!! It so resonates with some of the obstacles I’ve bumped into during my creative process. Wether it is writing, singing or performing onstage. Your essay today, confirms to me that fear based creativity and self expression suppression because it is not ‘lady like’ sucks! THANK YOU!

  2. ringhillary · May 16, 2016

    Thank you. Oh yay. Yeah I think we should get to decide what lady like means on our own terms. Keep creating! And thank you for reading. [insert fist bump here]
    -Hillary

  3. Lori Paddock · May 18, 2016

    Another great blog Hilary!

  4. Rasan Tours UAE · May 28, 2016

    Beautiful Blog.. !!

  5. hbagasworoh · June 28, 2016

    good

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