Fixin’ to Write: So What Am I?

In July 2017 my writing group started a collective blog on the creative process called Fixin’ to Write. Each week one of us posts about our experiences of finding creativity in everyday life. Here’s my fifth post for the blog, a little meditation on who the “I” is in my writing, something I’ve been trying to figure out lately. It was first published on 19 April 2018.

Illustration of a mountain peak with the words "so what am I?" above it

I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?

We used to chant this to each other at primary school, whenever someone called us a rude name.

You’re stupid!

I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?

A stupid dick!

I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?

Shut up, you’re a mean, stupid dick!

I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?

Our child-size lizard brains exploded with frustration at answering a direct question, only to have it turned back on us over and over again. We fumed. Smoke billowed out of our ears; we danced on the spot with rage. We didn’t know about logical fallacies. We thought if we could just come up with the ultimate insult, we could smote our opponent. They would be felled by the devastating completeness of their new epithet. But it was always served back.

I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?

I think of this playground chant often as I write these days. So what am I? What am I?
Four years ago I left a career in politics, exhausted and ashamed. I didn’t know then that the way back from disappointment and anxiety would be words on the page. I didn’t know that day after day they would add up to a new vocation. An essay here. A book review there. Hey, can you believe it, a book. Words, words, words. A PhD application, because why the hell not. Hey, can you believe it, another baby. A scholarship. And here I am, being paid to write full time for three years. (Let’s just conveniently forget about the baby I’m also looking after full time. She’s asleep right now so we can.)

This is the first formal creative writing training I’ve ever done. Most of my classmates have come through MFA programmes and are well-versed in the etiquette of the creative writing workshop. I’m flying blind, blithely offering thoughts on more experienced writers’ work, probably breaking all kinds of unwritten conventions.

There’s one convention I have picked up though. In a workshop, it’s polite to refer to “the narrator” or “the poet” rather than “you” when discussing someone’s work, even if it’s written in the first person and the character shares the same name and all the particulars of the author. It’s a polite fiction – we discuss “this narrator,” “the presence” in the work, (even sometimes “the watcher”) rather than assuming that these things are the same as the person who created them.

There’s an appealing distancing in this practice. It makes it easier to discuss deeply personal work, for example, if we all politely pretend that the author is at a remove from the presence on the page (or maybe they really are, and it’s just me who’s pretending). Then we can talk about a poem that describes masturbation and no-one needs to be embarrassed. I can say that I want to write about a terrible thing and it’s a “really interesting project.” Other writers get it – I’m going to mine my own life for content, then I’m going to melt it down and warp it into something separate from myself. “I” will narrate the story. But who is that?

In The Argonauts – part literary criticism, part meditation on queer theory and motherhood, part eye-wateringly honest memoir – American writer Maggie Nelson answers for herself like this:

When it comes to my own writing, if I insist that there is a persona or performativity at work, I don’t mean to say that I’m not myself in my writing, or that my writing somehow isn’t me. I’m with Eileen Myles – “My dirty little secret has always been that it’s of course about me.”

It’s of course about me. It’s hardly a secret at all. But is the me on the page really me? Or does the act of writing automatically create a separate, fictional me? Is there any way out of this?

The task ahead is to figure out. I’m up for it, though I’m also fearful about what the process will reveal, and how it will affect my relationships. I know some of my family and friends are already uncomfortable with the personal nature of my writing.

Later in her book, Nelson describes the uneasy understanding she came to with her undergraduate thesis adviser on this point:

She said she was willing to be my thesis adviser because I struck her as serious, but she made it very clear that she felt no kinship – indeed she felt a measure of repulsion – at my interest in the personal made public. I was ashamed, but undaunted (my epithet?).

Ashamed, but undaunted. I like it. But I can’t claim not to be daunted. My epithet might rather be “ashamed, daunted, but doing it anyway.” If I’ve learned one thing, it’s just to keep writing and see what – and who – emerges.