Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Medusa Laughs Again, Through Me, at Ms.

I guess May is my month. "A Body Manifesto in Five Acts", which I wrote, appears today at the Ms. Magazine blog.

This essay has been cooking in me for years. Influences include Hole

, Sadie Plant

, Stephen King, Simone de Beauvoir, Laura Mulvey, and most especially Hélène Cixous.

If you haven't read "The Laugh of the Medusa", do yourself a favor. My essay is the first ten minutes of the film of Fellowship of the Ring to Cixous's boxed set of LOtR plus The Silmarillion.

I've discussed the genesis of this essay before, but there are a few things I want to note about it now that it's out in the world.

First, it was being angry at someone that kicked me in the ass to write it after years of thinking about it. Generally, I don't think being angry is much of a reason to do anything, but this particular anger was good for me. And that itself was a useful lesson: the motivation to make art may not always be lofty or noble, but whatever makes you make art is a good reason to make art.

It happened like this. I tentatively introduced in class the idea of women living in their bodies differently than men, and an older woman, in her fifties or early sixties, disagreed with me. She said she didn't think women had any particular consciousness of living in their bodies that functioned differently from that of men. I looked at her and thought - perhaps unfairly - you are interpellated. You have been fooled by the patriarchy. There is something different about women, and you can't see what it is because you've lived too long in the shadow of men, through the maddening eye of the male gaze. How would I explain to this woman, I wondered, that a woman is more aware of her body than a man is aware of his?

When I sat down, I thought initially about all the different names and adjectives under which women operate, and that's where the first paragraph came from. The first paragraph was the last time I remember thinking consciously about what I'd put on the page. It poured out of me from there.

That's about as in-depth as I can get on the process of creating it, because that's the second thing I want to note. This essay did not come from painstaking word-by-word work; it came from white heat. I wrote it in a long gasp, except for two paragraphs which I was too distracted to add at the time and added later. The foundations of feminist theory it builds on are all in my head, though, and that theory took years to acquire. I read Dworkin and de Beauvoir and Mulvey in college, fifteen years ago; I read Freud and Kristeva and "Medusa" in the last two years. All that was a primordial soup from which the words came flaming out. But that is the way I write: the painstaking work takes place over a long period of time in which nothing is produced. The production period is extremely brief, but it calls on all the thinking-work. I've tried to explain this multiple times, because my work schedule looks breezy and weird to other writers, but this essay is possibly the most extreme example of it. Fifteen years of work condensed to 2,100 words I wrote in a few hours.

Third, my vision for this manifesto is to publish it with photographs in a standalone book. I have mental sketches for what I want the photographs to be (they involve my body, red paint, my husband's clothes, other things), and I have a photographer in mind, but she is in Oregon and I'm in L.A. and I have no idea how to arrange studio space, lighting equipment, and so on to make it happen. If you have fallen in love with this piece and are in a position to help me with any part of this project, by all means let me know.

Fourth, very importantly, I am not an essentialist. I don't believe that only biological women are women. I don't believe that organs or mascara or vocal pitch make or break the status of "woman". If you are a transgender/genderqueer/gender-fluid person and you think that, with this essay, I am somehow saying there's no room for you at the woman table, please, please, please get in touch with me (kcoldiron at gmail) and let's dialogue about it. My endeavor is to demonstrate how women, in my experience, live in their bodies, and to diagnose cultural conundrums relating to life in that body. I do not desire to offend or exclude.

(A non-binary friend of mine loved this piece, so I'm proceeding on the idea that I did okay...but I'd genuinely like to hear about it if not.)

Final thought: I never wanted "A Body Manifesto in Five Acts" to find a home anywhere but Ms. I am proud and honored beyond measure that Ms. agreed it belonged with them. But this publication, this honor, was kindled by my belief in my own power to speak and think and write. I would not hold such a belief without what Ms. has been doing since long before I was born. What goes around comes around, and around, and around.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Three (Young Womanhood)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
I haven't returned to Blake Nelson's Girl since I read it, and I don't remember how I found it, unless it was a random bookstore purchase.* So, this overview comes almost completely from memory, which may be faulty.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Weekend in Frazier Park, CA

No longer protected by distance or time, we live in the whole world at once, like postmodern gods, experiencing our own flesh and surroundings only disruptively.
- R.M. Berry
On the way to the cabin, I kept seeing ghosts of myself. An eighteen-wheeler that read "Aslan Logistics". A large homemade sign that read "Kat's Bakery". The general store had one small bottle of Crown Royal Black, my favorite, next to several larger bottles of regular Crown Royal. One small bottle just for me. In the waning afternoon as I sat on the porch, the biggest crow I've ever seen flew across the yard. It was the size of a small goose. I wondered if it was a raven, if that's just the expected size of ravens, and then I heard caw caw caw and went nope, that's a crow.

(I used to think crows were bad luck, but one day I decided to think of them as good luck. My life has been lucky ever since.)

The first night, I watched Manos: The Hands of Fate while I drank whiskey and thought about the work I had to do. My hands kept reaching for my phone. But my phone didn't work. No reception, no wifi. I'd been severed from my life. So I could only pay attention to Manos, instead of Manos + four other things.

I woke to birds doing what they do in the morning. I noticed that they sang with the gray part of dawn and then quit once the light started to rise. Sunrise and sunset were different on the middle of the mountains; the light fell at imperfect angles, and the actual circle of the sun didn't appear consistently with its beams. I ate breakfast and started work. I worked all morning, listening to my iPod (a Classic, now a dead breed and an antique by technology standards. But it's the only model that holds as much music as I need) and not bothering to change out of my pajamas.

At lunchtime I touched my phone, and then looked out the window. Rabbits blended with the chaparral but for their bright white tails. Steller's jays hopped everywhere. Small mammals I couldn't identify (size and appearance of squirrels, with short, sparse tails; way too big for chipmunks, too skinny for groundhogs) dug and quivered in the yard.

I worked for most of the afternoon. I finished 2,700 words: the second chapter of the Casablanca project/the final paper for my narrative writing class. I delved my fingers into my Singin' in the Rain essay and cat's-cradled it, burrowing deeper, finding the elements I'd dashed by on the first pass and hanging them out on the line. I added something over 1,000 words.

Dinner and some wine. The heater had been running on and off all day. The cabin had no central heating and didn't warm up much during the day, and it was genuinely cold, not just cold by California standards, at night. That is a fear I've faced and defeated, and here I was facing it again, during a few days' span when my creativity was the only thing at stake.

The following morning, Saturday, I took my time getting started. I'd accomplished the two main things I needed to. Writing on my thesis could certainly have kept me for another week, but it wasn't really what I wanted to do. I need to turn in 40-75 pages of material in mid-May, and all semester, though I've been fairly dutiful about work on the manuscript, I've had the sensation that what I turn in will be nothing like a finished product. In part because 40-75 pages is not a full-length memoir manuscript by anyone's standards, and in part because I knew it would take unencumbered, untethered, untimed work, for months or years, before I had a finished product I could stand for other people to read.

And, in all honesty, I have never felt good about this project. I didn't want to do it when Chris told me he saw the book in it, and I didn't want to do it when my adviser told me she thought it was a more worthwhile project than anything else I was working on. I didn't want to do it when I'd written a project proposal, when Jesse sketched the line of music I needed to preface it, when I found epigraphs, when I got feedback on the stuff I brought in to my small group, when my adviser told me I was doing great but needed to dig even deeper, when I nailed down present-day experiences to integrate with the old ones, when I uncovered memories I'd forgotten, when I constructed a skeleton to work from, when I found a theme to anchor, when I read Heroines and understood what was missing. No amount of progress made me want to do it.

Departing from this chronological narrative of my trip to Frazier Park, I didn't want to do it when I finished the draft on Saturday (May 6), when I revised it on Sunday, when I printed it out on Sunday afternoon, when I considered how to bind it and hand it in today. I still won't want to do it when I read from it on Friday, May 12. I don't feel ready to write it, even though I've written it. I don't feel old enough. I don't know when it will see daylight as a finished project. I need to reread Bachelard and come to terms with what I've already put on the page, what remains to go on it. I need to decide whether I find myself boring, whether I want to see this book in print, what this is all for. Never have I known such uncertainty. It's good work, I know, good writing, but it feels wrong, in instinctual ways I can't defend or explain.

I drove fifteen minutes down the road, to where I had cell service, and called Matt. "I think I'm going to come home today instead of tomorrow," I said.

"Is everything all right?" he said.

"Of course," I said. "I'm very happy. I'm just finished, or almost finished, and I miss you. I see no need to stay."

"All right, then," he said. "Yay."

I refreshed my inbox. I had 17 new emails. I opened Facebook. I had 26 notifications. I put down the phone and looked up at the mountains, at the falling dust spun up by my tires, at the pines around me.

On the way back, I drove by the Jim Whitener Tree, one of the biggest ponderosa pines in California. It has been growing since before the printing press. The road was too narrow for me to stop and take a picture with my phone. I fixed the look of it in my mind: branches themselves as large as trees, a trunk extending far below the elevated route I drove on, roots so deep, I imagined, they could dig straight through the earth's mantle to its warm core.

Back in the cabin I spent, no kidding, 15 minutes on my feminist manifesto. I wrote two paragraphs, and it was finished. That's work I've been waiting to do since November. It's true that I needed to be in the right frame of mind, but I was still disgusted with myself that it took so long. The DVD player, paused on a Rifftrax short, didn't even have time to go to its screen saver between when I started the two paragraphs and when I finished them.

I went downstairs to sit on the porch and brought my notebook. Suddenly, words arrived. I wrote about the Steller's jays, and about the men working on the house next door, and about the cold I lived through in the winter of 2005. I don't know if I'm finished writing about it - this is the nth time I've done so, I've lost track - but what I wrote felt definitive. As if it was the codex entry. I wrote about the day I took my shirt off in the winter at Mount Holyoke, an incident I still don't understand. I wrote about what happened when I went to the opera in November, just after the election.

Birds. Small mammals. Sunlight.

I went inside, ate lunch, typed what I'd written. I started packing my things, which I'd strewn in disarray all over the bedroom. I gathered up the trash and washed the dishes.

I went back outside to the porch, and while I sat there, thinking, listening to the wind in the green leaves, I heard what sounded like either a small child's shout or some kind of bird's cry. As the sound got closer, I determined it was definitely a bird, although I couldn't imagine what kind. Then a man walked past the cabin with not one but two enormous white cockatoos on his shoulders. He talked in a conversational way - to the birds, I learned shortly.

The man saw me and said hello, and I walked up to the street. I wore pajama pants and flip-flops and a Star Wars t-shirt and you could have fried clams in my hair. He didn't care. He greeted me and introduced me to the more friendly of his two cockatoos, who stepped onto my arm, walked up and over my shoulders and down my other arm, and then walked back again. His feet gripped but did not pinch. His beak and tongue were both black, worn, used; only a tinge of yellow colored his white feathers.

He, the bird, was thirty years old.

After a very pleasant conversation, after the man (Greg) and his birds had headed back toward home, I returned to the porch and sat down. I looked around the yard, my head completely empty of reactive thoughts. "That sure did happen," was the closest I could come. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before.

I decided to leave. Any other possible occurrence would have been a disappointment after meeting Greg.

On the way home, I looked at the mountains. I took the same way home as I took out, but I never once checked my phone, so it all looked completely different. The wild poppies like spilled paint on a hilltop; the clover tinging the yellow grass purple. The sky, and the whipped clouds across it. A hitchhiker and a handmade cast-iron ranch gate. Two trees, one bleached and one blackened, fallen and entwined in a clearing. The leaping engine of a Camaro. An overloaded Dodge Caravan with peeling paint.

I saw the world, is what I'm trying to convey. I saw the world. I didn't see it through a screen, like a concertgoer more interested in recording the show than being present at it. I saw it at its normal pace, not scrolling by with the speed of my finger. I saw it with its own colors, not an Instagram filter. I saw the goddamn world, and nothing about it looked old or small to me. I fell back in love with it. My heart rose with the San Gabriels and fell with the sun.

And I fell out of love with screens, temporarily at least. I realized I'd been allowing the world to shrink to the size of my phone screen, and I'd been seeing everything through that little rectangle. I had missed the real thing for the sake of the simulacrum. Yes, there can be more human connection through the little rectangles than out there in the real thing, I'd be the first to agree with that. But I'd lost track of what I love about the world - its indifference to us, its thereness - in favor of something that would react to me, conform to my needs, be forever novel and new.

I got done almost everything I needed to get done to finish my M.A. that weekend, but I also picked up perspective I desperately needed. My attention had become a baby feeding on pixels, and I needed to grow up again. I owe that to a few days in a cabin, to Greg, to my own words, and to the wind in the pines.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

News & -Letter

Holy moly there's so much to share with you. I went for a writing weekend and picked up a great little shift in perspective. I finished my feminist manifesto after five months of not finishing it. I am three weeks away from completing my master's degree (AND NO I'M NOT PANICKING OR ANYTHING).

But, far more importantly, I reviewed Lidia Yuknavitch's new novel, The Book of Joan, for the Rumpus.

"Joan does not participate in the binary. She does not play the patriarch's game."

I truly do not know how this happened, except that it did. I am honored and astonished.

Also! My interview series at Entropy continues. The most recent interviewee was Teow Lim Goh, and the interview ranged into deep stuff. I've got a few more terrific thinkers lined up to interview, so stay tuned.

And finally, I've started an email newsletter, Fictator's Digest. The idea of it is that I'll email you every so often (every couple of weeks? maybe?) to let you know about publications, what's going on in my world as a writer/reader, if I'm doing events or reading anything interesting. You can subscribe to it here. (It's a free MailChimp account, so if you see ads or PRESENTED BY MAILCHIMP!!!!! all over the emails, my apologies.) I'll send out the first issue tomorrow, so roll up, roll up, roll up!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Two (Adolescence)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anais Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
Sometime during middle school, an elderly lady neighbor in our apartment complex delivered to me a brown paper shopping bag filled with books. I think she said (perhaps I heard this secondhand) she thought some of them were a little too young for me, and some of them were a little too old, so hopefully the result would be just right. I wish I could remember all the books in that paper bag, but one of them was The Cricket in Times Square, an utterly charming book which now feels like a relic from another century (which, I guess, it is). Another was The Hiding Place, which I still feel guilty about not reading. A third was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3, a mass market paperback with a forest green cover and solemn white lettering belying what lay within.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bloody Noses

Yesterday, two news stories of interest to liberal audiences broke: a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school in which two adults and one child were killed, and an incident in which a passenger was dragged forcibly off a United flight after it was oversold. My Facebook feed, which leans very far to the left, offered a ton of commentary on the United flight incident and very little about the shooting.

My husband put it thus: "It's another school shooting."

The United thing is slightly more unprecedented. Though it's part of the larger pattern of the last few years: the contempt and corruption and absurdity in institutions has torn through the last polite veil and it's on the surface now. Nepotism is plain instead of hidden. Swastikas are being spray-painted on churches. Profit comes before people, in Detroit and North Dakota and on the internet. It's always been here, roiling and charred; now it's visible.

I am not anti-gun, but I am not pro-gun. My father kept a shotgun under the bed, which my mother knew how to use. We believed in Constitutional rights in my family, but it doesn't follow that my family thought willy-nilly gun ownership was a good idea. It's kind of funny, because the two issues are at opposite ends of the political spectrum in this nation, but in my view, abortions and gun ownership should both be safe, legal, and rare.

It dawned on me a couple of years ago that plane flights, in a country as large as America, are not a luxury but a necessity. If you need to get home for a funeral, you don't have another choice but to fly. It's another way that the European model of planning a society doesn't fit America: the Eurail is reliable and useful because Europe is small. Copenhagen runs on bicycles because it's small. America can't do it the way they do it over there because our land mass is simply too big, and infrastructure planning for a place as large as America presents challenges that the Eurail doesn't face. (This doesn't excuse Amtrak for its suckiness, but it gives some sense to why lawmakers won't pour money into a rail infrastructure here. The distances are impractical.)

My opinion on gun control approaches apathy. Shootings keep happening, and we ride the roller-coaster of public outrage, and nothing changes. Why should I state and defend my position when lobbying outguns me every time?

If plane flights are a necessity rather than a luxury, why are they so unaffordable for the average person? Why do they run so unsatisfactorily, such that jokes about the unpleasant aspects of flying were already unfunny a generation ago? Why do they have to teeter between regulation (FAA) and deregulation (stockholders)?

Matt said to me once that handguns were designed for no purpose other than to kill human beings. This altered the way I view guns altogether. I see no problem with responsible gun ownership, but unless you're a collector (like some people collect decorative plates - and because of how I feel about cars, I fully understand a 100% unmurdery attraction toward guns, and whatever, you do you, but you probably have a gun safe), why on earth would you want a handgun unless you think you might kill a human being someday?

Why would you want to own a machine gun if you are not a soldier?

Why is overbooking flights okay?

"Because it's my right" is a good enough reason. I'm perfectly okay with that. Very little is more ingrained in the American perspective than my rights. But freedom and danger dance, inseparably, eternally, a tango toward the end of the world. Conscious decisions about which element to prioritize are necessary. You can't just assume you're either free or safe; you need to work it out for yourself, how much of each you want. And there's a point where I think the safety of others lands at a higher priority than the freedom of a few. That point keeps poking our nation in the temple again and again, cold and sharp, twenty children, fifty college students, a dozen moviegoers.

The opposing view on the United thing is that he should have just complied. Sure, I guess. If you think compliance will make people treat you fairly. If you think compliance is a virtue. If you think that overbooking flights is the customer's problem, not the airline's.

After Sandy Hook, I realized that the gun laws in this nation will not change. Ever. If the murder of twenty elementary school children spurs no restrictive action related to guns, nothing ever will.

As long as airlines are running a public utility for profit, shit like this is going to go down. They'll squeeze us into ever smaller sardine tins and charge us $400 for it and nothing will change. As long as we keep paying for what we have to have, and no one in a position to be heard says hey, this isn't right, and it matters to you as well as to me, we'll keep being dragged out of seats we paid for. We'll keep being given bloody noses and told to comply. For profit. For stockholders.

Guns don't cause these deaths. Illness does. If we can't fix illness - and we can't - there must be a way to limit what illness can wreak on the innocent.

The frenzy of being American contributes to it. Being male in America at a weird time, when the comfortable supremacy of men erodes daily, contributes to it. Powerlessness - like the kind that leads you to close your mouth instead of joining a union, like the kind that leads people to accept the phenomenon of overbooked flights so they can get where they need to go - contributes to it. The availability of guns, and the press coverage of prior shootings and the availability of guns to those prior shooters and the press coverage of the availability of guns to the shooters before that and the peaky emotional outpouring of rage and support after each one, these all contribute to it.

To keep the gears moving, to keep the bottom line in the black, to sell subscriptions, to generate clicks, so we can buy things and stone ourselves with television and tell each other how much better the advertisement was than the football game.

Don't you want to be famous?

Don't you want to matter?

Don't you want to get home?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Me (and Alyse Knorr) on Entropy!

Today marks the launch of an interview series I'm doing for Entropy called "Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like)". The idea is that I interview a bunch of authors about books they hate, and thus comes fruitful conversation about books and perhaps writing generally. This one's been in the works for a while, so I'm thrilled to share.

My first interview subject (and I believe the first person I have interviewed since, oh, 1999) is Alyse Knorr, a poet whose book Mega-City Redux I have been giving to all my friends since late last year. Up next on the interview docket are two more poets, which is appropriate, since 

Because this is the Fictator, and it's what I do here, I'm going to explain how this thing came together, and how what happened to me can benefit you if you are a not-yet-famous writer.