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


  • 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:


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.



9 thoughts on “The political is personal”

  1. Awesome. awesome. Thanks for buckling 🙂 I’m excited to look at your notes most carefully. Juice for calling myself a “writer” rather than a girl who “wants to write”.

  2. What a fascinating read and yet (as a friend once commented about our two daughters playing) the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. I similarly enjoyed your recent comments about your photography.

    Which part of your talk did the students engage most with: what questions did they ask?

    • Ah, well! We only had time for three, and one was from a gal who was a former advisee/co-collaborator when I was a staffer there. But the other two were from Actual Students in the class. Okay, one was, the other was one of the student discussion leaders. Since it was the first day back from spring break, I was actually glad there were more people there than ordinarily appear at my dinner table.

      Lamentably paraphrased, and I may be missing nuances, but:

      Q1: How do you manage the challenge of trying to write to such a broad audience? Insofar as you consider what you write part of a social movement [& I do]? Essentially, who do you write to, when you’re writing?

      Q2: About accessibility: online accessibility isn’t all that widespread — public libraries, maybe, but that’s it. So if you’re trying to effect positive social change, wouldn’t you want to try to communicate in other ways?

      Q3: On a personal note: I have a friend whose sister is a single lesbian raising her child, and she’s beginning to run into issues about how to talk about “the dad,” or rather “the lack of dad.” How do you contend with this yourself?

      And again, lamentably paraphrased and definitely compacted, but here’s how I answered them (not that you asked for that, too), but I couldn’t just let only one shoe drop.

      A1: Good question! For one, it’s taken some time for me to get a good sense of who’s reading. Comments help, and [also one year I did a reader’s survey]. It helps a lot that my roots are as a teacher and a discussion facilitator. So it comes naturally for me to try to tune in to “who’s in the room” and then calibrate what I say accordingly. Not to edit, but to make the best impact.

      When I feel like I might be venturing into areas that might seem to some to be “in-groupish,” I can provide synonyms, or links. I certainly don’t censor what I feel, by any means. But I also folks know, particularly with this medium, that they enter various sub-communities, and expect a degree of unfamiliarity from time to time. What I would hope to do is keep folks reading who are at the edges, but open. I provided a Glossary to help provide some back-story for folks, for instance.

      A2: Good question! It’s definitely a medium that begins with clear bounds around it: access to a computer, ability to afford a monthly line to the internet, etc. So that’s certainly a given. I don’t know what the “penetration” (I think that’s the word used) of the internet is in U.S. households is, for instance, but it’s far from 100%, far from where general literacy is. But for me right now, given the age of my kids and my being the primary caregiver, the short, disaggregated chunks of writing that make up a blog is all I can clear time for. Or at least without great effort. And I do love what it has done for me as a writer — it’s like lifting weights in front of your living room window. It’s obvious when I’m at work, and equally obvious when I’m in the other room eating potato chips watching TV. It creates a positive imperative to keep at it.

      But I certainly value communicating in every other way — print media, which I’ve published in and, given the time to do the hustling, intend to continue to publish in in the future — and by talking. I do hope, though, that the impact our words do have online is translated, that it hops the boundary between virtual and actual. People carry what they’ve read with them as they move into the world.

      A3: [Some of this was continued after the talk one-on-one] Good question! The beautiful part of raising kids from when they’re small ’til when their big is, they’ll ask you what they need to know, when they need to know it. Whatever else is extra will spill over the dam anyway. So it starts simple. But that’s a lot of why I started writing this way, in public, with the invitation of others to join in and help. I didn’t know how to answer that question either (i.e., “Where is the dad?”).

      We simply tell our kids the truth, from early on, about everything. Our family is in the minority; most people have a mom and a dad, but by no means all. We are special. But we’re not the only ones that are special. In explaining this to our kids, it’s helpful to remember that there is a larger context for family diversity: it’s not just gay families. In the schools, with young people everywhere, education around this stuff is simple: it’s about anti-bullying, and it’s about family diversity. It’s important to know that since the 2000 census, everything other than the “nuclear norm” — one mom, one dad, both biological parents to their kids — is no longer the majority family structure in the U.S. Most of us are part of the larger amalgam of everything else: “blended” families w/ kids from different marriages; step-parents; kids being raised by an aunt or an uncle or grandparents; adopted families; donor-assisted conception within heterosexual couples where the father has fertility issues.

      I say that I’m like a fairy: not everyone can see me, who I really am; just some. Some will look at me and see “Mom,” but you — I say to my kids — you know what I am. I am your Baba. Which I really and truly and totally am. My daughter finds it so clear. She explains it so simply to kids. Just last week we were at a playground, and a kid looked at me and said “Is that your dad?” — kids totally see gender, totally — and my daughter said, “No, that’s my Baba.” That’s enough for kids, often. [They’re used to being given the names for new things that they see, but haven’t learned about yet.] But she’s also told us how she’s explained it to other kids at school: “A Baba is part-way between a Mama and a Papa.” Which again is totally true.

      We certainly provide her the tools for this: we’ve layered on the explanations gradually, provided the explanatory script. Just as we do for everything else in life [morals, ethics, social expectations, death, nutrition, the imagination, etc.]. We know she’ll be asked these things, and since long before anyone asked her, she knew they might, and knew what to say. Because it totally made sense to her.

      A last thing is: we define our family based on the social relationships in it, rather than the biological. So our donor is not an absent “father,” he’s a present “special uncle.” He is in her life, in exactly the relation to her that he occupies: not her primary parent, but someone very very close to us whose whole family — spouse and kids — holds a very special place next to ours. Parallel, but not inside. That paradigm is really very important, and once you see things that way — that biology is what made us, but our social relationships are what we live inside of — the family and parental relationships, for those of us in alternative families, become clearer.

      [Yegods. What a tome. But that’s what it’s like when you write out every word. Let’s be glad all’s I posted was an outline of the chat itself.]

  3. Thoughtful as usual. Well done, LD! I do feel that blogging has moved me from being a person who wants to write to a person who writes. I’ve even begun to think of myself as a “writer” though I’m still mostly sheepish about that. This piece, of course, makes me think I could and should be doing so much more. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  4. This was very fun to read!!!! I love reading writers on writing … and I really appreciate how thoughtfully you approach this blog. Also … I’m so glad you posted the Q&A … love the discussion of prepping your children to address “lack of dad” questions. My daughter is two and she’s started saying “daddy” sometimes when she sees men out in public, I mean, people we don’t know. At first I found this really strange, then realized some of her cohorts in daycare have fathers she’s probably seen. We’ve only barely started the “you have two mommies” talks, very very brief ones. We’re not really a butch/femme couple … more of an ’80s androgynous faerie couple, so we’re using “mama” and “mommy” … it might actually be a little more confusing than baba and mama? I dunno… but it helps to hear how carefully and counsciously you’ve given your kids the words they need for when they need them.

  5. Querida LD/Polly,

    You were amazing! Gracias for bringing your heart and mind to Other Voices. Our students left inspired, knowing that they too can “grow the food” they need to eat. The thoughtful advice you gave, your anecdotes and references, were brilliant jewels you made into an Other Voices hierloom, a lecture perfectly balanced between discussion of craft and explanation of your political passion.

    I felt honored by the warmth with which you made reference to our friendship. In truth, I realized again as I was sitting in the first row that I am now and will continue to be your student.

    Let’s meet for lunch soon.


    • ¡Mi hermano! You are officially, for sure, way too kind. And very much appreciated. For my part, it was an enormous honor to speak to this class. I would love nothing more than to know that folks might have been able to take something away from the talk of real use to themselves as writers/actors.

      Gotta let me buy lunch, though.

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