Lesbian Dad

The political is personal

Buckling to the popular demand of two (count ’em: 2!) readers, I’m posting the notes I used in my talk on campus yesterday about why and how I write. I extemporized a lot, so some of what’s below didn’t get across. Plus more slipped in.  But this is the jist.

“The Political is Personal”

or, Why & How I’m Writing Myself into Existence

I. Intro and thanks

    • Worked together to start writing workshops with the Chicano Studies Dep’t in Cheríe Moraga’s writing class.
    • Moraga: a maestra of the personal, politcal essay, and an inspiration whose ground-breaking work has been instrumental to how I see the world, as a white anti-racist feminist and as an out lesbian writer.

II. Locating my work: what, why, and how

  • Start by way of anecdote, origin story for this part of my writerly life:
    • moved from someone who wanted to be writing to a writing person, maybe even a writer, when the need to get the words out of me and into other people’s brains became pressing
    • verge of parenthood, realized I had no models
    • starkly divided into a gender binary:
      • not just mothers and fathers, but feminine mothers and masculine fathers
      •  needed – didn’t just want, needed  – to create a space for myself.  so, like Harold in Harold and the Purple Crayon, I drew myself a boat and sailed off into a sea of my own creation
      • made a dictionary definition of the thing I felt I was, which just happened not to be known to anyone else but me.  yet.
  • Why I’m doing what I’m doing now:
    • like most, maybe all writers, I am writing what I need to have been able to find and read, in other words

I AM GROWING THE FOOD I NEED TO EAT

  • What I’m trying do to:
    • basically what most parents want to do:  make the world safer for my kids.   my presumption: the world will be safer for them when it understands and respects our family.   then they can get on to the very pressing business of saving it from melting or imploding.
    • create understanding where there’s now ignorance, whether benign or malignant
    • I’m trying to connect to people like me, help them feel less alone, more connected
      • also trying to learn from them, help us all sketch in the descriptive details of that sea we’re creating as we bob out into it
    • I’m also trying to connect to people quite unlike me:
      • do what I can to make our families more visible, more comprehensible, and ideally, worth supporting in times of crisis. which seem to be appearing on a near monthly basis, state-by-state
    • Finally, trying to speak into emotional spaces people know, but don’t feel enough space around them to give voice to
      •  grief, gratitude
    • The benefits to me are obvious: the examined life is well-worth living, and by writing about my parenthood I observe, and therefore live, feel, and hopefully do it more deeply
  • How I’m trying to do what I’m doing:
    • using a literary form that I have admired since I first read a master of it, in high school in a class by poet Gary Soto here at Berkeley. He fed us Joan Didion, among others, & I was hooked.
    • when done right, a good essay can bypass the ego, the organized, logical, realistic part of the brain, and get to the id, the bushy undergrowth, the uncoordinated, instinctual part, the “lizard brain”
      • that’s where all the good work can happen
    • A bit more about the essay that might help describe what I’m trying to do: Aldous Huxley, in the preface to a collection of his essays, described what he considered the bounds of the essay – that they commonly group around one of three poles: (1) the personal/autobiographical, where essayists “write fragments of reflective autobiography” and “look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description;” the objective, factual, concrete/particular, in which essayists “do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme;” and (3) the abstract-universal, in which an essayist is an “oracular” “great generalizer.”
    • Huxley felt that most essayists are at home in one, at most two of these realms but that the most satisfying are those that manage to occupy all three.  needless to say, that’s what I strive for: to hit that sweet spot in the middle of all three.
    • I try to mine my own life, render it in such detail, practice the craft of narration and description so well that not just the writing is invisible, but something about the protagonists are, too, or rather, they are simultaneously very particular, acted upon by and benefiting from very specific, political forces – this white, middle class lesbian-headed family at this point in history at this place – and yet also something about them (the thing I’m trying to describe) is also utterly universal.  From which the broadest abstract and universal truths can and do flow.
    • my subject matter lets me do this because elements of every day family life are shared across the globe – the parent worrying for the kid’s well-being, the kid being a kid, and so on. But the differences are stark, and what I want to point out as well.
    • this is because at the core, what I’m trying to demonstrate, and illustrate with as much compelling detail as possible, the flip of the old feminist adage:

THE POLITICAL IS PERSONAL

III.  Lead in to the piece I’ll read, & context

    • At this point I’d been publishing my blog for a year and a half or so
    • Had a sense of my audience, and had cultivated a clearer and clearer sense of what I was writing about and why – AUDIENCE AND MISSION/THEME
    • Was also beginning to get enough feedback to know what many readers read for, which helped to bolster my willingness to “go there,” as it were, to the tender vulnerable places

IV. Read “Thanks giving”

V.  About this piece

  • How it came to be
    • the event was noteworthy, and moving, and “nominated itself” for further reflection
    • because my overall mission as a writer is so clear to me, such material makes itself fairly clear when it appears, and if you’re observant, this stuff happens maybe not all the time but very often
    • most of the body was fairly direct journal entry
    • kept it for a long while, knowing I’d want to do something with it
    •  on the eve of Thanksgiving I wanted to post something about gratitude, and I recalled I had this moment sitting around, waiting for the right opportunity.  Added the bracketing info to bring it to the present, and then set to editing it.
  • The revision process
    • because this blogging format is a fast one, closer to journalism in the regularity of deadlines (fresh content!), I rarely have the time to do substantive, structural revisions.
    • I am naughty and do some revising on a smaller scale after publishing. leastwise I warn people in my About page (Whitman vs. Stein)
    • that said, even before publishing, I can say that I comb and labor over a piece a great deal:
      • spend hours plural on a piece (any length, though most are over 1000 words) when I first commit it to print
      • try to give myself a night to sleep on it so I can see it fresh the next day, if I’m trying to get across something subtle, or do something particularly challenging
      • comb and comb and comb at the sentence and word choice level, between 10 and 20 times, standard obsessive writer stuff:
        • repeated words or phrases
        • obvious, unimaginative verbs
        • look for places where poetry may enter (wee cracks & crevices, poetry can always fit somewhere)
        •  further research to deepen spots here & there, lead interested readers into more insight (links elsewhere)
    • the rare longer piece I can compose over the course of as much as a week and get feedback from more than one reader
    • whenever possible, I subject my beloved partner, mother of my children, to every post, and she is a merciless, heat-seeking missile for the cloying, the treacly, the saccharine, the self-conscious.  so we have her to thank for the sobriety.
      • [Later note, not incl. in chat: one of the most important, and often the only “structural” revision or edit I can manage in the timeline of blog writing is the culling of material that’s not central to the essence of the piece.  A blog post, which is essentially a short essay, can only really manage one core “point,” I think; one nugget.  The more nuggety the more clogged, the less likely any of those nuggets will be visible.  So my beloved often will help me see what is all very well and good, but oughtn’t to be cluttering up the piece. And then out goes the paragraph, and it gets marched off to the holding tank to be used another time, or forgotten about.]
  • What happened to this after publishing and what that has taught me
    • read it at the BlogHer conference in San Francisco last summer
      • national conference of an organization promoting women online; attended by over 1,000 bloggers writing across the spectrum of various topical areas; organization has its own web hub providing venue for a lot of writing; in the run-up to the election Michelle Obama even wrote for BlogHer, a buncha posts (last one a week before the election)
    • until I had the opportunity to witness the impact of the written word in person, I wouldn’t have believed the power it has to build bridges (except I knew that from my own experience — recall Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back, et al.)
    • had the opportunity to discover that plenty of heterosexual women whom I’d have assumed would be uncomfortable with a mannish lesbian like me, would look right past that to the core of the words I was reading, and would connect to their own place of feeling
    • ironic but true: my own fears project onto the inside of my eyelids, and I see THEM, and not the people before me.  So this experience taught me to blink my fears away and see the people before me.  Because when I do, I see that they have had the capacity to see me, all along. Or at least many/most have, and they are who I want to talk with
  • connection realized there was not just emotional solidarity, but material
    • Prop 8 fundraising and emotional support by allies all over the blogosphere

VI. Why I’ll Always Want to Keep Writing in this Medium

That is, online, via a blog, no matter how many books I’m able to make the time to write.

  • Readers write me offline and give me the gift of hearing that, yes indeed, either pole – those just like me, and those seemingly not much like me – are there, and reading, and the dialog is doing us both good.
  • In closing:  some of the reasons I believe writing online is not just personally liberating, but politically transformative:

1. Writing in a blog is about dialog, not monolog.

2. Writing in a blog presupposes, creates, and strengthens community.

3. Writing online speaks across barriers of difference. (No one but you knows you’re reading; not the librarian checking out the book, or the bookstore cashier, or even the person catching you in front of that section at the bookstore. I don’t think this cuts off connections, or shortcuts real understanding, I think it’s a beginning for it.)

4. Writing in a blog blurs the distinction between reader and writer; to be a credible writer, one must be an active reader.  Nice.

5. Writing in a blog is unrestricted by genre.

6. Writing online, in a self-published blog, enables a writer to find a community of readers unmediated by capital, by someone else’s notion of profitability.  Therefore: you can write what you damn well please, and the devil take the hindmost.

VII.  Q/A

 


back to top