Lately, as a new member of the VIDA Genre Advisory Committee for creative nonfiction, I’ve been wrestling with a paradox: I am addicted to facts, an inveterate snoop incapable of writing through the kind of invention that makes good fiction, yet I wrote nothing in creative nonfiction form until my forties. In college, I wrote what I called prose poems and fiction. I wrote poems, too, which were bad and beside the point here, but the prose poems and fiction both: a) consisted of factual material and b) often suffered as a result.
My short stories generally fell flat. In fact, a story I wrote about a teenager who fantasized about Nazis, a character based on a member of my extended family, so riled my professor she refused to discuss it. She felt it glorified violence; I wanted to explore the attraction to extreme violence I had experienced in someone close to me, but I was writing in the wrong genre. As an essayist I could have taken this story, held it up to the light at various angles to make sense of such repellant attractions. As fiction, my story collapsed into its repellant core.
This was the era before dedicated creative nonfiction programs and classes would be an answer to my genre choices. But I had never needed classes to scribble, and nonfiction remained elusive. I read little women’s poetry or fiction in college (one survey of British Literature I took included neither George Eliot nor the Brontes), though essays by women seemed not just omitted, but impossible, the proverbial dog walking on its hind legs. The quote comes from Samuel Johnson and describes a woman preaching, though it quickly became shorthand for women writing, an insult hurled by male writers and critics and a way of articulating our frustration for women writers. A.S. Byatt lamented that a woman attempting weighty literature still gets looked at as a dog trying to walk on its rear legs–unnatural, a circus trick: surprising, as Johnson said, not in that it is done well, but that it is done at all. I read Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, E.B. White, spent afternoons filled with the distinctly masculine solitudes and quips of American boys.
Here’s a quick look at my undergraduate days: late 1970s, a liberal arts college, a roommate who slept her way through a small army of married professors, a close friend in a desperate and despairing relationship with just one of her professors. Of the visiting writers who came to campus, about half of the males bedded someone I knew before leaving. There were no rules at the time about this kind of interaction, and in fact, my roommate’s lovers often traipsed through my half of our suite to get to hers. Another friend of mine surreptitiously wrapped food from the cafeteria in napkins to bring to her dorm room, to feed the visiting Irish playwright who was ensconced there for an entire semester. Male coattails swept through my college hallways, as leaders of the literary canon, as sexual others whose conquests marked out certain young women as important.
These male writers became part of the literary canon, while female writers struggled to achieve any kind of visibility. Phillip Lopate, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, a seminal text in my genre first published in 1997, explains the lack of women writers in his book by stressing its historical reach and the fact that “the personal essay, for all its protestations of littleness and marginality, in fact leans on a tone of easy, gentlemanly, ‘natural’ authority which comes from being in the world—the tone precisely most difficult for women.” Reading these comments I gain some insight regarding my earlier hesitation. I had no sense of authority at all; I came to college with a GED and a tendency to hyperventilate if I had to work up the courage to see my faculty advisor. The life stories I went on to write, even those of my twisted path to higher education, interested friends at times, but not my instructors. Lopate writes his introduction as an apologetic, tinged with regret I imagine sincere, though he dismisses an enormous body of historical women’s work in the essay form—to give a few, a very few examples, the 19th century immersion essays of Nellie Bly, Sui Sin Far’s probing of her Eurasian heritage during that same time period, the Romantic essays of Maria Edgeworth, the even earlier essays of Eliza Haywood, the extremely crafted and performative letters and diary entries of Mary Wollstonecraft and Dorothy Wordsworth. And on and on. If we have lacked the gentlemanly authority to say the word “essay” as often as our male counterparts, we have not lacked the paper and pens for nonfiction.
Authority is an ambient quality, a pre-writing validation of our stories as worth telling. What did my women friends and I have to tell? Tales of influential male lovers, a hard parsing of our sexual value, little else.
As my life went on, as writer, as reader, I saw more women enter the creative nonfiction arena. I read Annie Dillard, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, the recovered essays of Zora Neale Hurston. I was smitten with the movement of the essay, the dual role of the author as subjective experiencer and character; I loved the interaction of the self as embodied being, in a socio-historical context, with the personal story. As I have been a lifelong snoop, I have been a lifelong diarist, filling pages with description and commentary even during the worst, most drug-fueled days of my life. Though I loved that meditative walk through my own moments, the idea that I might write nonfiction in a serious way never occurred to me; it seemed to call for egoism off-limits to me, as off-limits as it would be to dominate a conversation at a party rather than politely listen.
I wrote my first book of nonfiction in a series of small moves, none of which I expected to result in a published work. I began recording the history of my family in Barbados with the genealogical material and notes on my own trip to visit relatives on that island. I had once tried to write my Barbados material as poetry, but found the material too expansive for that genre; then I tried to make it fiction, a poor choice for stories in which what I did not know loomed as large as what I did (like the tale I finally uncovered of my grandfather’s poor dead, younger brother Frederick, about whom everyone knew, though each insisted on calling my grandfather thirteenth of thirteen children). As I wrote the story, I came around to the health problems of all of us who’d stayed at two primitive cottages my Bajan grandfather built with his cousin John, along with the astonishing amount of toxic chemical dumping taking place in that area of New Jersey. I pored through EPA reports, old newspapers, and I wrote, keeping the work tucked away on a file that existed mostly to exhaust what I had left over after working on poetry. A friend, to whom I was showing various bits of my work, shared it with her literary agent, who signed my someday-to-be book. Through the mentoring of two strong women—my friend and my agent—the work found publication.
In this book, Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, and my subsequent works of nonfiction, A Mind Apart and the forthcoming Inventing Family, I mixed hard research with personal material. I mention this fact of my writing life because my own authority still seems uneasy, and when I talk about my work I mention “research” and “personal narrative” immediately, with a vague sense that one can serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card for the other. I justify telling my stories, particularly the extended family stories I gravitate to, with interviews, EPA reports, studies of evolution and autism. Research writing casts an aura of masculine authority, but part of me needs to undercut that too—I am no expert, I assure people, I rely on experts, and my personal narrative provides an entrée to the conversation.
In my classrooms, I teach nonfiction and see many women now gravitating to this form. Unlike the student I was in college, they seem to understand the essay as open to them. They read works by women, though I’ve noticed how often women writers, in other classrooms, are presented with a breezy undervaluing: constantly discussed by their first names, presented as 90% biography and 10% talent. Students absorb this; I rarely offer even my women’s studies courses without having to explain multiple times that if Dickens is not Charles, then Dickinson is not Emily.
What else do these women’s learning experiences show them? Universities, for all the litany of race-class-gender that accompanies course offerings, continue to be remarkably sexist institutions (and racist, classist and homophobic). And they are the places where most budding writers encounter the genres that fit their voices. As the VIDA website has made abundantly clear, we appear as players in the literary field who are never quite crowned with the laurels that twine through the corpus of their male counterparts. Same for my students’ teachers: my institution has had an annual prize for outstanding faculty member in the area of research/creative achievement. It has existed for twenty-eight years, and gone to exactly three women, though women make up more than one-third of our fulltime faculty.
Maybe it’s time to shake out the upright-walking-dogs image of the woman attempting male rhetorical forms. A year ago and against our better judgment, my family—husband, son and myself—got a dog. He was a Last Chance Pet Rescue dog, a small, excessively devoted thing with fur as long and white and matted as a yeti’s, and once we met him the thought that he would be injected with something fatal (he had timed out of the Humane Society) became unthinkable. So, in spite of our traveling too much for it to be practical, we got a dog. And we discovered that lo and behold, he has a surprising quirk: he loves to walk on his hind legs. Like a circus animal. He will run across the house after you, upright, if you have something interesting in your hand, dance in circles if you spin a hand around above him. If he sees a squirrel scramble up a tree, he rears up on his back paws and runs to the trunk just like that. And he does it rather well, with care, and in a series of small steps—perhaps the way the essay, with its tentative, explorative nature, is meant to be written.