Monthly Archives: April 2015

Be Your Best You

I remember a conversation that D and I had, back when I was trying to decide between MFA programs. “I’m worried,” she told me, “that if you go to a program because you’re in love with a person, and you end up not clicking with that person, you’ll be sorry.” This was one of many influential and important conversations I had during that time, and it’s the one I come back to now—because she was right. I am sorry.

*

Rewind, three hours ago. I’m standing on the curb outside an already darkened campus with my seminar professor, T.

“She basically told me I need to be in therapy,” I conclude the story of ‘the worst workshop ever.’

T puts her face in her hands and bends over shaking her head. “You’re right.”

It feels nice to hear someone say that. “There’s this fine line between author me and narrator me. I wish the critiques could be on my work, and not on me personally.”

“It hurts,” she nodded. “And I’m sorry that happened to you, in a class. It shouldn’t have. But as a writer, it’s going to happen. People are going to ask stupid questions. It shouldn’t have happened in a classroom though. It just shouldn’t.”

We form a plan, standing there in the cold, of what my next steps will be. When we’re done, I go to the bar and listen to other students in my program talk about what a great time they’re having, and I conclude that there must be something wrong with me.

*

Rewind, two years ago. I sit in T’s office (the old T) as she says to my face, “I’m worried that you’re running away so fast that you’re going to miss something.”

*

Fast forward, one week ago. “Maybe you stop working on your book for a while,” S says. She’s upset that she hasn’t heard from me in a while. I’ve been busy and let communication slide. But when she had her knee surgery, I sent a card.

“I miss my friends back home,” is all I say in reply.

*

Rewind, four years ago. I open the flier in my undergraduate admissions packet. You get out of college what you put into college. Commuter students that don’t find ways to get involved have a higher tendency to fail and/or drop out.

*

Fast forward, to the bar. “I have a question,” I tell the group after my glass of wine is empty. “For the table.” They all turn to me, and I ask, “What is it about me that y’all are having such great experiences here and I’m not?”

Everyone is quiet for a minute, and then the girl next to me, the only one I’ve never met, says, “It’s just luck of the draw.”

*

Rewind, two weeks ago. I look down at the paper in front of me during writing workshop, at the comments I made on the given essay over the weekend. The narrator has sat down for a game of chess with a man he has already informed us is crazy. The man pulls out a hammer and starts waving it around like a weapon. The narrator does not react on the page. I raise my hand. “How did the narrator feel when he raised the hammer? The narrator doesn’t really react—”

The professor interrupts me. “You have to consider the source there,” she tells the class. Everyone laughs. “Your past experiences color the feedback that you give on everyone’s pieces.”

I am not used to be so deeply tied to my work, and it frightens me that that line is disappearing.

*

Fast forward, last night. I am sitting in ‘the worst workshop ever,’ people firing uber-personal questions at me left and right. I write in the margin of my personal copy of my work—What happened to the line between me as the author and me as the narrator? I want the critique to be on my work, on me as the narrator—not on me as the person who sits in this classroom. It’s the job of the professor to control this line, to maintain it. I put my trust in the process and it let me down. I feel like she let me down.

*

Rewind, one year ago. “I look forward to hearing about the conversations you will have with people there,” N tells me as we sit on our normal couches on the third floor of the library. “To hearing about the things you learn.”

“I’m not ready to go.” I finger the edge of the book we are studying.

“You aren’t ready to stay,” she counters.

*

Fast forward, to the bar. “Maybe y’all should write fiction for a while,” says the workshop professor I haven’t had yet, but will next semester.

I miss fiction. But I didn’t come here for that. I came here to tell a story. A very important one. Not even just to tell it. I came here to learn to tell it better, and I’m scared that I’m not learning. My student brain doesn’t feel the same as it used to. I don’t feel smart. I don’t feel like I fit.

But I know I don’t want to write anything else.

“I came here for her.”

The professor takes a sip of her wine, but the glass isn’t big enough to disguise the expression on her face. Her feelings are obvious.

“I’ll say this,” I say, so quietly she has to lean across the table to hear me. “She’s made me a better writer.”

Maybe we haven’t clicked like I assumed we would. But I AM a better writer.

*

Rewind, sometime last year. N and I stand in the parking lot on campus after our weekly TA dinner meeting. “You be you,” she told me as we walked towards our cars. “You do what you need to do, but you be you. Your best you.”

I was not my best me then, but I really, really wanted to be.

*

I am sorry that I came here for a person. But I don’t think I’m sorry that I came, because I’m a better person for it.

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Gus

I feel a wet nose on my hand as I wait in line to board the bus, and I look down to see that it’s attached to a young yellow lab. His bright eyes peer up at me, almost glittering against his bright golden fur. My first instinct is to reach out and pet it, at least until I notice the working dog harness that’s attached to it. The woman holding the other end of the harness pulls the dog back as he stretches to sniff my treat pouch belt.

“Gus, lay down,” she commands him. He persists in sniffing my treats, and she pulls him again. “Gus.”

He reluctantly lays down on the ground, careful to stay right next to her legs. He can’t be more than two years old, and I find myself impressed by his behavior. “I’m sorry,” I tell the woman, fingering my treat pouch. “I just came from walking dogs, and he smelled my treat pouch full of Chewy Louies. I’ll put them in my bag.”

Her laugh is surprisingly high for an older woman, and I smile as she turns towards me, even though she can’t see it. “It’s okay, he works for treats. You can give him one if you have an extra.” To the dog, she adds, “Gus, up!”

Gus stands up immediately, his four paws squared and his tail curved upward; his ears are perked for the next command. I bend down slightly and feed him the treat, and I swear he smiles a little as he devours it. His tail wags only slightly, as the urge to be excited loses out to his drive to work for his owner.

“What a good dog,” I say.

The bus pulls up. “What number is it?” Her hand tightens on the harness.

I look out the window, playing her eyes. “The 166. Which bus do you need?”

“Oh, any of these.” There are four buses that go down our street, and they all stop at this same part of the bus terminal.

People start to move, and Gus goes to work, leading her out to the bus. The people in front of them let the door slam back, and I reach around them quickly to stop it from ramming into Gus. He takes the first step on to the bus and then the second, seeming to know precisely where he’s supposed to go. I wonder how often they make this trip as I offer the woman my hand as she takes the first step, as Gus waits for her to move, step by step. We sit next to each other in the front seat, my favorite spot. Gus lays down between the woman’s legs, his nose on his paws, sniffing the half wall in front of our seat.

“What a good dog,” I say again.

“My old guide dog passed away last month. I’m still breaking this one in. But I trust him, and I know he’ll take care of me.” She reaches down to pat Gus on the head.

Oh, to have that, I think. Oh, to have that.

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On Agency

I was asked today about what my writing says about where women obtain their agency. I struggled with how to answer the question, because I know what I would like my writing to say, and it’s always my deepest fear that I don’t say it appropriately. Simply put, I believe that rape (and rape culture) destroy the survivor’s agency. But it’s really a lot more complicated than that, because it’s not just the act of rape itself. It’s a litany of factors.

Perhaps to answer the question, I should first define agency. I don’t mean agency as in a physical place or organization. I’m referring to agency in a sociological sense, as the capacity a person has to act of their own accord and make their own choices, freely. A person’s agency is limited by the influences, or structures, in their lives, like gender, race, religion, culture, class, etc. I firmly believe that agency is learned, that these structures and our experiences alter our ability to make choices. I believe that people alter these choices. I also believe that we, personally, alter these choices.

Which brings us to my writing.

My writing has evolved this year, yet again. My first voyage into trauma literature was a collection of rather abstract essays. Then I started graduate school, and decided I wanted to learn to be specific about my experiences, and tell a very specific story—and only that story. I wore that story as a patch to hold myself together, and crafting it was the thing that was going to make me whole. But then I started to write and got several chapters into the work—and attended several frustrating revision meetings—before I realized that I was going about the project the wrong way. My story is not one story. My story is a construction of many different stories, of many different pieces and times and structures. I was ready to give up my book and find a new project to work on, as I became more and more convinced that I couldn’t get my message right. That I had no business communicating with other survivors. I asked for a sign to tell me what to do, or, at the very least, to show me I was doing the right thing.

I found my sign in a book. Lacy M. Johnson wrote an incredibly powerful memoir entitled The Other Side. It opens as she flees the basement of The Man She Used to Live With, breaking out of a soundproof room where he had intended to kill her, and then follows a winding and not always chronological road to tell all of the pieces of Lacy’s story. The choices that she made, and the ones that were made for her. I devoured her book, and a handful of interviews she did afterwards as she was nominated for awards. I came across this:

“I discovered that I really, strongly objected to all of the rhetoric about how writing about trauma could, in effect, make a person “whole” again. It took years to articulate why this sentiment bothered me, but eventually I realized that it reinforces what I consider to be a flawed notion that after some kind of trauma … a person is somehow ‘broken.’”

I realized that I was, in fact, writing to make myself whole, when in truth, I was never broken. I let my trauma define who I was, when I needed to be the one to carve out my place in the world in the after. I looked to others to tell me what to do, to give me agency, when I needed to be the one to make that agency for myself. I let people take my choices away, because I didn’t feel like I deserved to make them on my own. I didn’t want to take my own agency, but claiming it was the solution to everything.

How the heck do we do that? Take our own agency? Whaaaaaaaaaaat?

We so often look to others to tell us how to exist. We listen to the world when it tells us we are weak. Lost. Ugly. Not good enough. We listen to the world when it tells us we are wrong, broken. But the truth is that we heal at our own pace. We are okay when we are okay. We are never broken. We are simply changed.

The original question was what my writing says about the way that women obtain agency. The answer is that the narrator of my book, the me of the past, has no agency. And she should. What took her agency? Religion. Sex. Rape. Years of never being good enough. A broken tape of thoughts on a repeat cycle that never ends. It absolutely absurd the way people tried to make my choices for me—the person (people) who hurt me, the justice system, the people who knew and assumed that I was less than because of my experience. I was desperate for someone, anyone, to tell me what to do. I stopped trusting myself to make my own decisions; I’m not sure I ever trusted myself. In my writing, in the telling of my lack of agency, I want to show how absurd it was. I think a lot of women let their agency be directed externally, or entirely taken away, when they should be telling themselves how awesome they are while doing their own thing. The social structures we have created are horribly unfair. So many times, we are chasing a mold that we can never fit into. We are all different; we should all make the choices that are right for us. And if I can show that to one reader, if I can wake just one person up, then my writing is successful. I had no power, both because it was taken and because of my own choice, and if my story helps one reader to see in themselves that all that have to do is claim their agency as their own, then that’s my writing for the win.

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#AWP15–The One Liners

The N "Weekly"

Here’s a snapshot of my experience measured in sound bites, a dozen one-line reminders, recommendations, and definitions I overheard (or synthesized) at AWP last week. Sure, they’re out of context, but isn’t that part of the fun? I’ll commit to making full pieces out of some of these soon.

12. Listicles are a legitimate form of online publication.–@JamieIredell

11. Writing (capital W) about something is actually about creating distance.–@BenTanzer

10. An essay is a unique expression of universal insight.–@AnnaMarch

9. Regardless of medium, the rules still apply.–@MarlonJames5

8. You don’t get to have a mind without a body.–Eula Biss

7. There is no self beyond the constructed self.–Claudia Rankine

6. It’s not a blog, it’s a sandwich.–@MattSailor

5. If you want to be a writer, you must become teachable–if you succeed, the piece will be your teacher.–@ElyssaEast (I think she’s paraphrasing someone else, but didn’t…

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On Being a Dog Walker

When I first started out walking dogs in New York City, it was hard. Not the dog part, but the walking part. During my training, I logged almost 25 miles of walking in two and a half days (the third abruptly cut short by a poorly planned for snow storm). The following week, my first real week, I walked at least 14 miles a day because I had my regular dogs and a handful of dogs I stupidly volunteered to help out with. I refused to acknowledge the idea that I might have a physical limit., but after getting fired from my retail job I had spent a good two months sitting on my butt in my room watching television. 14 miles a day was a lot.

*

At almost thirty pounds, Milo is pretty big for a Boston Terrier. People comment on it all the time when we’re walking. During the winter, he wore a fuzzy red puffer coat and blue snow boots, which only drew more attention to the utter adorableness that is him. In the beginning of our time together, Milo would bark at every single dog he saw, almost to the point of being uncontrollable. He’s gotten a lot better; I like to think of myself as a bit of a dog whisperer. With Milo, it’s all about the bonding.

I get to his building and get the key from the doorman, and then I head upstairs. I whistle when I step off the elevator, because Milo likes to know I’m coming—and he definitely knows. When I stick the key in the lock, I can hear him panting and scratching on the other side of the door. As I carefully open the door, he spins around and dances on his hind legs. I sit down on the brown rug just inside the door, and Milo runs away further into the apartment. He digs around in his oversized bed until he comes up with a stuffed red lobster, and then he charges at me like I’m a huge piece of steak. He skids to a stop and the game begins—he offers me the lobster, and then snatches it away from me. Again and again, he prances just out of reach, and I play like I want that lobster more than anything else in the world. Sometimes, I get a hand on it—and when I do, I throw it. Milo always brings it back. I have affectionately named the toy Mr. Lobster. Playing keep away is one of the highlights of my day, and the more we play, the less Milo reacts to other dogs.

One day, I came to the apartment to pick up Milo and Mr. Lobster wasn’t there. Milo was frantic. He ran in circles all over the apartment, digging in his bed, between the cushions on the couch, and under the dining table. He didn’t want to go outside; he didn’t want to walk around other dogs, and he didn’t want to listen. All because we didn’t spend three minutes playing a simple game with a stuffed toy before we left.

*

14 miles a day was a lot, but it was an exciting lot. I got my first unlimited subway pass, and I got to see parts of New York I hadn’t even known were there. I found Foley Square. I walked along the piers of East River. I took a selfie in front of the New York Stock Exchange. I breathed in fresh air; I was out of the house. It was a glorious feeling, and one that hasn’t gone away these last three months of walking dogs. My enjoyment of the outdoors, of being in the city, has only grown. And I’m not exhausted at the end of the day anymore—my stamina has increased. I’m getting into shape again.

*

With Teddy and Missy, the focus comes from a physical bond. Teddy and I play a game where I count down from three as I undo the latches on his kennel, and as soon as the door opens he does a flying leap into my lap and wraps his paws around my neck—a literal doggy hug. After a minute, he falls over baby-style so that I can cradle him and rub his tummy. Another minute, and he stands up to let me put his harness on.

Missy is less exuberant with her affections. I open her kennel door and she leans out. I have to be down on the floor so that she can sniff my hair. Once my hair meets her approval, she has to sniff the rest of me; I believe she gets jealous that she isn’t my only puppy friend. After the big sniff, Missy puts her head on my shoulder for a brief hug and a back scratch. Missy doesn’t like to be harnessed unless this whole process has occurred; she turns her head and tries to wander away to eat the kitty litter from the box in the corner to drown out her pain.

Missy and I walk along the East River in Chinatown. We have a specific route that we take most days so that we can encounter the maximum number of joggers and skateboarders and learn how to not bark at them. Our turn around point is this little section of pier that juts out over the only sandy strip I’ve seen on the East River. There’s a bench at the end of the pier, and we always take a few minutes to sit on it—at Missy’s insistence. If I try to walk past it, Missy stops and jumps on it, sitting down with me. Once I sit down, Missy lays down and presses against me, her two front paws draped across my lap. After a few minutes of bird watching, she takes the loose leash in her mouth and jumps down, as if to say “It’s time to go home now.”

*

I like to take new routes when I walk the dogs. It varies things up for them and for me. Sometimes I’ll go down one pier, sometimes another. One day I’ll go to the seaport, and the next day I’ll go to the stock exchange. Now that it’s spring, I see a lot of tv and movie crews filming. I saw the cast of “Law and Order: SVU” over by the courthouse, and Debra Messing from “Mysteries of Laura” picking through a staged mountain of garbage in her beige detective coat looking for clues. My life is different every day, when it used to be the same. Just like the dogs have different needs for being happy, I too have needs.

*

I went to the doggy spa to pick up Buddy the beagle puppy, my last walk on a very long Friday. He came out of the back area with one of the workers, all prancing and cute on the end of his leash. But then I took the leash, and he promptly sat down on the floor. I fumbled in the pocket of my coat and produced a piece of kibble, and moved it forward to try and get him to get up and follow. Which he did, right out the front door, where he promptly sat again. The look on his face said it all: “I’m not going to go with you.” I tried to tug him, but it was a solid no go. Buddy just stared at me with a goofy beagle smile and refused to be dragged. I ended up only making it around the block with him, me half bent over and him chasing the treats I doled out from the palm of my hand the entire way. I imagine I looked like an incredible idiot. But the best part of being a dog walker? No one cares.

*

Dogs are funny and unique creatures, and I pride myself on my ability to understand them. I was pretty lonely before I started walking dogs, and now I’m not as lonely. It’s not just because I have all these fabulous new puppy friends. It’s that I’m getting out in the world. Shaking up my routines, becoming more flexible. Learning how to make connections, how to adjust my approach for different situations. I am learning to care less, to not worry so much about what people think. And I’m better for it. The most important thing I have learned is that I need to know what my needs are. And I’m learning. 

I have the best job in the world.

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Power

Last night I was asked to consider why I present my story the way I do. Why I don’t reflect. Or rather, why me now does not reflect on me then. I suppose that’s because me now has no idea what she thinks of me then. And not just that, but I’m not sure the passage of time allows for me to get the distance I need to fully reflect. I’m still inside.

I sat in T’s office last night, and we had The Talk. She told me that in ten years, I will find a different meaning in my material. Even in one year, writing the story, I will find a different meaning than the one I find now. She asked what meaning I was trying to draw from my book as a whole.

“I…I’m not sure,” I stammered.

She sank back in her chair. “I have to ask you some difficult questions.”

“Hit me.” My arms were folded in front of me protectively, and I shifted, suddenly aware of the unconscious words my body language might be speaking.

“How did you view the relationships with the women you wrote about? I mean, back then.” That was not the question I had expected. She must have realized this, because she continued, “Let’s try again. Were you friends?”

I thought about this for a second. “Well, no. Friendly? Yeah.”

“It took me well into the first chapter to realize they were professors, not fellow students. I kept asking myself, why would a student care about this paper? Homework? A student wouldn’t, but a professor would.”

“Okay?” I had absolutely no idea what she was trying to say.

“You didn’t think it was weird that you went to professors, not peers?”

“I didn’t have peer friends.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure? It’s just really hard to connect to people, I guess. I know, I know. It’s weird. Sad.”

“You make so many mentions in the chapter about being alone. About not having anyone to go to. So what does it say about you that the people you do go to are these women? These professors?”

“I…”

T waved a hand in the air and laughed. “You don’t have to answer now. Just think about it. I told you, difficult questions.”

I nodded, saying nothing.

“It seems to me that the meaning, at least from the chapters you gave me, is about relationships, and what they mean.”

That wasn’t what I was trying for in the writing. But as I rode the subway home that night, as I lay in bed and pondered the question, I could only think about power relationships. I picked them because I wanted someone to tell me what to do. What is it about me? It’s that I have always had relationships that told me what to do next. Where to go, what to wear, who to be. And it was a default; I went to the power relationship because I was lost without it. I didn’t know how to have peer friends, and I still don’t. I feel separate from everyone, and that’s a separation I have created myself. I feel like I felt that I had a right to professor/student relationships because I was certain of my role as a student. But I didn’t have a right to peer/peer relationships because I was uncertain of my role as a person. I still am.

The MFA–a therapy program in academic clothing.

T also mentioned last night that I should find a therapist here. Not because I’m crazy, or because I’m losing it, but because therapy would help me to learn how to reflect. And when I can do that, I can make my writing better. Stronger. If that means therapy again, I guess that’s cool?

So what IS the meaning? My book isn’t just about rape. It’s about how abuse completely fucks with the course of all the things. How it screws you up irrevocably; how it’s incredibly difficult to change the tape that abuse records into your brain. It’s about power, and who does and doesn’t have it. Who we give it to, and who we take it from. And why.

In other news, I think I’ve found the thesis adviser I want. Anyone that can make me really think in this way is okay in my book.

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