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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Beet Salad Days

Last night I made a delicious salad with beets. The day after I eat beets there is usually one brief moment when I am positive I am going to die. Even if I tell myself, don’t forget you ate beets, the sight of the red pee in the toilet is hard to ignore, and I usually scream when I stand to pull up my underpants.

However, it is a great recipe. I peeled and quartered the beets and then roasted them for about an hour with salt, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Then I tossed the cooled beets with some quinoa, some fancy-ass raisins (I like this mix from Trader Joe’s that has raisins and dried berries), baby spinach, lemon juice and zest (I actually forgot to zest the lemon before I cut it, and they say it is difficult to zest a lemon after it has been cut, but screw those naysayers), olive oil, garlic, and a little bit of pomegranate vinegar. Then I added some crumbled goat cheese to the top. It was great. I ate it for dinner last night and lunch today.

I will probably have a moment tomorrow morning when I think I am going to die again, but it is worth it. I just try not to eat beets before I have to give a urine specimen, unless it is a drug test, then it seems like it would be funny.

I will also add that I am currently starving, and I ate this particular lunch less than two hours ago.

You should totally try this recipe!

I started writing about the beet salad because I am avoiding writing on a real project. I am currently working on a memoir, a not-at-all-funny memoir about a place where I grew up. It challenges me. I cannot hide behind my wit. I cannot be crude to diffuse the spotlight. I keep getting stuck, and then I abandon the project for days, but it is always lurking in the background, like a wave crashing at my door.

I was also rejected by a publisher this weekend. I received the email at five p.m. on a Sunday, which was not great timing because that is the time of the week when conditions are most favorable for an emotional tsunami as the uncertainty of my personal life and the disappointment of my career aspirations clash violently together, and I usually wind up in the bathtub, hugging my knees and crying long after all the water has drained out. I submitted an essay to a funny women column in an online magazine, and in the rejection email the editor said that even though they were passing on my column, I would still get bigger boobs just for submitting. As I read, I looked down and put my hand to my chest. They don’t seem bigger. Not yet.

Getting rejected is sort of like looking at my pee after eating beets. There is an instant when I am sure I am a goner. I am done for. I am not a writer. But then I pull up my big girl panties and get back to work.

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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! Make 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.

Muse

A good friend recently asked me how I get inspired to write, and I said that I don’t get inspired. I just sit down and start typing. I say things like that because I am a narcissistic asshole.  Secretly there are all sorts of things I do to help me feel creative. For starters, I listen to ridiculously loud music every time I drive my car. My kids scream at me to turn it down. Sometimes they cry about it. Maybe when they start driving they will rebel by listening to light jazz at a barely audible level, like a boring old grandma, but for now they are forced to ride with me. Lately, I have also been really into songs that have the word “motherfucker” in the lyrics. Saying motherfucker is great, but singing it is truly inspiring.

The result is that I love going places. Maybe I can hear one song between my house and the grocery store, but it is enough to recharge me. By the time I hit the produce section I am feeling pretty great about myself. What a bad-ass motherfucker I am picking out this bunch of kale! When I get home and sit down to start typing I remember that feeling, and I get the insane idea that I am putting on some kind of show with my words, even if I am the only one in the audience. I love it when I make myself laugh or, even better, when I make myself uncomfortable. If I cringe, then I know it is good.

I also like to go for long walks, while listening to loud music. When I am on a walk with my headphones, I feel completely transported into the music and into my own imagination. It is an absolute miracle that I have never been hit by a car. Maybe I should start wearing a helmet. Sometimes I will get a great idea, maybe just a line or two, and I will type notes into my phone, while walking and blaring music. When I get back to the house I am all revved up (happy to still be alive), and I scroll through my notes and try to craft something from the scraps. Sometimes the notes are abstract, and I don’t know how they connect, for instance right now I have a note that reads, “I saw the Pieta in a moldy porch screen.” Then after that I have a longer reflection:

“You know when you walk through a spider web and then freak out, start swatting your hair, spinning in circles, stomping your feet and screaming, and then you fall to the ground and the spider eats you alive? That is what divorce feels like.”

There is a story there. I can see a thread between seeing something beautiful in an unlikely place and the discomfort and fear that comes with getting divorced. But I also have to make it funny. Fuck. Then I scroll down and under the spider web note I see a third entry that says, “I was disappointed there were no good looking guys in my mandatory divorce class.” Somehow the pieces start to pull themselves together like magnets. If I say that I just sit down and start typing—as if it is that easy—then it is only because every other minute, when I am not writing, I am preparing to write. That is the dirty secret that is too scary to say.