On Marxism, My Mother’s Body, and the State of Nonfiction
I wrote a memoir about my mother no one read. It won a contest no one entered. Except for ten people including myself. The memoir was published. The editors were nice people who wanted to start a press that focused on new minority writers. There was a small cash prize. There were royalties, but since no one purchased it, I didn’t make any money that way.
However, at the time, I was an Assistant Professor at a small, rural liberal arts college in Western New York. The memoir solidified my chances of tenure: the book was mentioned consistently in the chain of recommendation letters from the head of the department to the President. I was promoted with tenure. You could say that I made $50,000 a year (my salary) from a book no one read.
My own mother didn’t read it. She might not even have looked at the cover.
Revenge is never a solution. I know this. But it never stops me from trying. The striving to destroy someone feels good. If I convince myself it won’t have a positive result, I assume it’s because I’m too much of a coward (or lazy).
When I first started writing about my mother, I had to ask, “Am I doing this out of some sort of revenge?”
It wasn’t a mean book. But it did deal with her shoplifting, her disappointment with marriage, her taking me out of school just so we could go to the movies, etc.
Any decent percent asks why one reveals personal information. Once a teacher told me: “It doesn’t matter how they appear. On the page, you’re God. And you’ve got to decide how things go down.”
Another one said: “We always end up writing about people who have caused us problems. If they don’t like what you wrote, they should have behaved.”
There’re also all those other boring creative nonfiction debates that we talk about: What is a fact? Are sometimes metaphors more “accurate” than the truth? Is there an ethical issue in having direct quotations in a memoir? After all, you haven’t tape-recorded the conversations, etc.
I’m a simple person. My litmus test: if you feel like a complete asshole after you’re done writing, throw the thing away. Your heart knows the truth.
My mother is dying.
She is dying of uterine cancer and dementia and the aftereffects of a stroke. Part by part, her body and mind are dying. When people ask me what’s wrong with her, I usually choose to tell them about one of her afflictions. “Cancer,” I’ll say to one colleague. And then to a different colleague, I’ll say: “Alzheimer’s.” Sometimes I get worried that people will exchange stories and think I’m lying.
This has extended into my writing. I fear editors will think I’m piling on the illnesses to get sympathy, publication.
At the same time, I don’t give a shit. It’s the truth.
Even before my book, I wrote about my mother. My mother is my currency. People love stuff about gay men and their mothers. When I first applied to MFA programs, I turned in a portfolio that dealt with my mother. I was accepted and received a TAship. Later I applied to get my PhD. Again, the work was about my mother. I received a substantial fellowship. You could say my mother was supporting me all those years even though she never gave me a dime.
“Graduate school?” she said. “How can you still be in school if you graduated?”
She never graduated high school. Until her breakdown, she worked three menial jobs to keep us afloat.
You could say I choose graduate school, because I didn’t want to be like her. I didn’t want to ever work for a living.
I don’t use metaphors when I write. No similes. I don’t allow my students to either. I forbid them. One semester I threatened to lower their semester grade if they did.
Is this a stupid thing to do?
Yes, of course, it is.
But I get scared of them. My mother will not be here much longer, I fear. Who has time for the “lyric” essay when the end is near? You need to write as simply and as plainly as possible. Everything has to be free of any flourish, any hidden gesture. No add-ons. No substitutions. As plain and as exact as a dollar bill.
My memoir doesn’t include most of the important facts about my mother. Even in the section called “The Important Facts about My Mother.” Here are some that I left out: She has undiagnosed bipolar disorder; she could be mean and violent; she was a foster child who was abused on a regular basis.
I never thought about putting them in the memoir. They seemed unimportant, I guess. I didn’t want to pathologize her. Plus some things are personal. They shouldn’t be written for everyone to read. Now after all these years later, I can say that if I wrote a memoir, those are things that I would include. Those are the things everyone writes about. Those are the things that could possibly make money. Those are things that could make my writing be read by more than a dozen people (if that isn’t a gross inflation).
But would it be more honest? And is honesty even the issue here?
I don’t think so. Maybe less. I wrote a comedy. The naming of things would make it a drama.
Both cost you something: one dignity, the other legitimacy.
I don’t know which impacts which.
My mother threw me out of the house when I was a teenager. It wasn’t because I’m gay. It was because my father divorced her, paid little in child support, and she couldn’t support two kids. I was the older. I was the one who should leave. It sounded reasonable.
I am now in my mid 40s. I saw her two times during a twenty-six-year gap. I always convinced myself that I was too busy to make amends. I didn’t want to intrude; I was scared. She and my brother live together. She lost everything and was homeless, unable to keep a job due to her unpredictable mood swings. My brother took her in.
Once I applied for a $3000 travel scholarship when I was a PhD student. I wrote a nonfiction proposal claiming I was going to do archival work in England about Joice Heth, who was one of P.T. Barnum’s first acts. She claimed to be the 165-year-old mammy of General George Washington.
It was a lie. I never had any plans of going to England. I was going to use the money for an extended trip to see my mother. I’d take her out on the town. Every night. I’d fix everything.
I won the fellowship. I used the money to pay for my dental surgery and a new state of the art TV. I sent my mom a $50 check.
As I type this essay, I see the paragraphs and I think of each one as a body bag, each holding a part of my mother, each rolling down the page with an unaggressive deliberateness.
I wrote the bulk of my memoir when I was close to having to go on the job market for a tenure track job. My focus was on poetry. But there was no way you could get a job without a book. Or even two. I know it’s worse even now.
Now if you’re a poet, you’re writing creative nonfiction, it goes without saying. It’s almost a requirement to write cross-genre (I hate that phrase).
At that time, creative nonfiction wasn’t as big as it is now. One of my teachers was leaving to create an independent, self-sustaining creative nonfiction program in what some say may be the best in the nation. It was in the same year I was going on the job market.
When I applied for tenure track jobs, nonfiction writers could still get jobs without books. I knew you had to have published something in the genre though. So: I wrote fragments that I thought might turn into a full-length memoir. Not that it mattered. The pieces were one paragraph to seven pages long. I had dozens of them. I sent three or four fragments to a variety of magazines at a time, always simultaneously submitting. They got picked up often. I’ve never had more acceptances from editors.
And that’s how I got my job. I could put on my resume that I published all these “essays.” People don’t have time to read all your work. They didn’t know an essay was often just a page in length, if that. A number were less. All they saw was the sheer quantity that appeared on the resume. I looked like a prolific practitioner of the craft.
I was offered the job. The best prize: primo health insurance.
I hate fragmented essays. They’re annoying and lazy.
When I was an undergraduate student, I spent all my time in the library reading essays and poems and stories. There weren’t all these chopped up pieces of prose gaining entrance into major literary journals.
When I was a graduate student, there was still a semi-reluctant investment in the PhD in creative writing. They were looked down upon. Suspicion gathered around them. Some said they were frivolous and fraudulent. Now it’s almost a requirement to have one for a job.
I believe there is a direct correlation between the growing investment in creative writing PhD programs and the increase of short stories, prose poems, brief creative non-fiction. When you multiply the number of creative writing students in MFA and PhD programs, they need to prove their worth. With less space in literary magazines and a greater demand for publications for jobs, you have to find space for as many writers as possible. How do you do that when there’s economic constraints on journals funded by struggling universities, so you can’t increase the number of pages?
You make it so that the pieces are shorter in length. You can jam more people in. And if you write a fragmented essay, the editor can easily chop out a few sections and no one will notice. Who knows? You might not even notice. And if someone does notice, it doesn’t matter. You can put the publication on your resume. It might boost your chances of getting a job. As long as it doesn’t make the established faculty nervous about your productivity and ashamed of their lack.
I’m a very privileged person. Even though I am still paying off the $100,000 I took out in loans during my school years.
Now I am a full professor. I don’t need to publish with the same productivity as I did before. I’m OK. I even have a cute, bald husband who edits my stuff with a kindness he showed me before we were even officially married. We’ve been together for 20+ years. As long as I publish something every two years, I am pretty much safe. At least for now.
So: It’s a perfect time for my mother to be dying. I’m on sabbatical and I have enough money for occasional brief visits.
Still, the future is scary for gay men. No kids, estranged family. Who is going to take care of us when we get old? I won’t be inheriting anything as my mother collects $600 in social security. What will happen to us when we are solely dependent on the kindness of strangers and a paltry annuity?
I’ve only written one published essay about my mother since she got sick. I can’t bear to write anymore. It hurts too much. The only reason I can write this essay is that I’m writing about her alongside other issues: the professionalization of creative writing, an implicit Marxist bent, my career. I slip her in when I feel strong, when I feel it’s time, when this essay needs to appear to have heart.
I am not an attractive man. This is not an attempt at self-deprecation. It is a fact.
My mother isn’t a looker either.
Her illnesses have made her truly decrepit.
I was so repulsed that I took a picture of her and sent it to a friend. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t say she didn’t look too bad. My friend pitied me.
That’s why I won’t describe my mother’s body in an essay. I like someone to see the actual picture of her. I like to see their disgust. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’m not sure what. But for a few moments, I feel completed in a way that writing an essay has never made me feel.
In a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction, the celebrated essayist (and friend of mine) Nicole Walker writes about something she names as “the braided essay.” It seems to me the braided essay consists of essentially two strands: one strand which is straight-up memoir; the other one based on empirical evidence, fact, research, history. Both often rely on fragments. Think Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge. In that book, Williams shifts between two different narratives: one about her mother dying of breast cancer (memoir), the other about the destruction of environment (fact-based research). The twinning compliments, supplements, deflates, inflates, highlights, obscures. As Nicole says: “What is creative nonfiction writing but the shaping and reshaping of self against fact?”
I want to say to her: Everything.
I want to write about my mother. I don’t care about anything else. She is dying. My mother needs a miracle, not research.
I’m afraid that I see the braided essay as fraudulent. Is it a response to the anxiety one feels in writing about oneself? As if by focusing on yourself and only yourself, you’re doing something that is automatically selfish? So: I need to justify that choice by also showing myself as invested in the Great Political Issues of our times? I find that most people who practice the braided essay are almost always greatly invested in science—they can intersperse more or less random facts to give their writing gravitas. (Of course, there are exceptions. Like my friend Nicole. Like Terry Tempest Williams. Like Rebecca Solnit, etc.)
In other words, is there a cowardice embedded in the braided essay? Are those who dedicate themselves to the braided essay secretly wanting to write no holds barred memoirs, but are scared of being seen as navel gazers?
I will write about my mother until I die. I have no apologies. No Emily Dickinson here. I don’t want to tell it slant. I’m all about going forward.
Steve Fellner wrote a memoir. It was published.