My blog is not intended to be confessional. I share thoughts, musings, stories from the road… but it’s not a diary or a place to dish my secrets or a play-by-play of life. That’s why I have a private journal.
To divulge such things, despite my general openness, feels gauche and expository. We all want to be understood, no doubt, but to trot out one’s unmentionables in the form of a tell-all or memoir (especially by those under 40)… when I read them, I cringe.
We all have those stories—ones that some feel compelled to tell and others to hold in dark places. Sometimes we just need to wash our own dirty laundry and leave it at that.
I weighed that balance during Friday evening’s Hugo House Literary Series event, the topic of which was, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The last reader, Heather McHugh, who I had mentally written off as The Annoying Drunk Broad in the Front Row, took the stage and let fly a rambling soliloquy.
She opened with a few lines about why she was happy to be older in that she could say whatever she wanted without fretting consequences. What I drew from this was a sense of being so at home with the self, be it through age or artistic vision (or both) that the artist becomes a conduit for revelation—a prophet entitled to be profane.
Some of us acquire that skill with age, while others are born to it. Despite her blustery speech, I’d say she was actually the latter, now armed with justification.
Taking a page from Heather’s delivery, I can say that, for the most part, her reading was fucking irritating, MacArthur Genius or not. She was intoxicated well before her companion brought her pink cocktail to her on stage. After a few belts, her eyelids drooped and I was sure she’d pass out mid-sentence. However, like most seasoned imbibers, she went on, her reading punctuated by parenthetical comments, expletives, and nonsensical anagrams that apparently sounded amusing in the echo of her skull.
It wasn’t until Heather delivered her commissioned poem that I could see where others might have associated genius with her. Before she read it, she commented in between sips that:
“Art is what liberates meaning—not contains it. Art is the heart of the unexpected; it is what’s dis-covered.”
I liked that notion. When it is no longer about ego or need, but the uncovering of the self without fear of regret or desire for adulation—when what’s revealed shakes (or makes) a person in such a way that not revealing it would diminish its significance—then a confessional becomes art.
As I step closer towards launching Hidden City Diaries, writing grant proposals and Kickstarter campaign materials, I’ve had to ask myself in many ways what I hope to uncover during my travels. Everyone wants to know (in 250 words or less) why I’m doing this project. Each time I consider it, I find myself toeing deeper into a realm that scares me—yet, I continue to return.
I book travel. I block out vacation days. I write to teachers in New York and music industry gals in Nashville. I ask my friend, Nick, for his help with promotional photos and video clips. I write those 250-word statements… and I wonder.
It’s not just a city’s diary (or that of many cities) that I’m writing, or even a generation’s—in part, it’s my own. I’m questioning who I am and trying to ascertain how I was made: as a child of the 70s, an American, a Detroit native, an Arizona resident, and a Seattleite. It’s not all about me, but like it or not, if that shit ain’t confessional, then I don’t know what is.
There are complex questions and stories worth exploring that have been locked away until now, and I am intent on dis-covering them, as Heather put it. The force that’s driving me to ask strangers for money to help make this happen is the force that does want to know more—it wants to let fly like that drunk broad on stage.
Heather McHugh surely made me wince. Not because she slurred her words or had trouble reading her notes, but because her reading forced me to ask myself why speaking up about what’s really happening inside my head is so difficult.
I abhor showing my hand; in most cases, it’s a cat-and-mouse game. The consequence of revealing one’s secrets is far-reaching, and I’ve concluded that it’s best to put forth only what I’m comfortable losing, big or small. Yet, art is about risk; if you’re risking nothing, then what you’ve made is meaningless.
So, here goes: one short origin story to begin my collection of essays about how place and circumstance informs who we are.
My father is one of the reasons I became a writer.
Not because he encouraged me or because he wrote, too, but because my mind was the only place he couldn’t infiltrate. That’s why I’ve always journaled and why I loved to lose myself in books. That’s also why I was a horrible fiction writer, though I tried for many years: fiction is an escape when I read it, but not when I write it.
Writing what’s real is where I feel free—I just didn’t know back then that it could be art. What I chronicled felt too bright and harsh to be anything that I thought worth sharing.
He’s also the reason that I learned to contain my words, to become a good actor—to show one thing on the outside and feel another within. It became clear early on that a façade was how I’d save myself: outward obedience, inner freedom, though sometimes chaos bubbled from my lips uncontrollably and got me in trouble.
It still does, when I let it. That’s why confessionals give me hives—there’s danger in them, revelations that overflow in ways that no one can arrest once they’re released.
There was a culminating moment in my teens around the time my mother died. I can’t remember the exact circumstances of what I had said or done to provoke my father’s grip, a force that I always felt day-in, day-out, like someone’s hand on my neck, pushing me face-down to the floor.
But I do remember his words.
Looking back, that was the moment my father realized that he was manning a sinking ship. Only 16 at the time, I hadn’t figured that out yet, which is why we were standing there at all. I was Dorothy wearing the ruby slippers through the murky forest, frightened and powerless because believing it made me so.
We stood in the kitchen, the least convivial place in my house, distrusting gazes fixed on each other, predator to predator. It was about more than being petulant—I refused to be conquered.
His deep-set eyes (“shit brown” he always called them) narrowed into slits. I’d say that his face was flushed with anger, but it was always red. Growling through clenched teeth, my father mouthed each word individually as his fingertip tapped out syllables in hollow thumps on my chest bone: “Get it through your god-damned thick skull: whatever you do, wherever you go—I control you. I control everything you do.”
Two sentences. Twenty-one words. Twenty-one years later I still remember them, but in truth, they were always there. It’s just that, before we faced each other that day, they were never uttered so explicitly. They were the moors that held my hand down in class, and they hold heavy on me today.
They pull at me in meetings, in hallways, on streets and busses, at cocktail parties, during design charrettes, and in interviews. Those finger taps are the first impulse to hold my tongue, my thoughts, my questions, even if they’re later released. Each individual thud translates to my opinions being naive and uninformed; my feelings selfish; my creativity worthless; my contribution unwanted.
It doesn’t matter how many degrees I earn or how many honors are conferred upon me. Those twenty-one words hold back my tongue, make me question my worth, even if only for an instant: my right to speak, to join, to matter, to believe I offer something worthy.
Those twenty-one words will push me until the day I die. Their fate is entwined with mine.
After all, those are my twenty-one words—I own them now, for better or worse. Those words spoken in an air-conditioned ranch house on a cul-de-sac in a master planned community in Glendale, Arizona, had me convinced for a time that I’d go no further—yet they are exactly what drives me to travel and to seek. They encourage me try things like this.
No matter how they came into my life, those words have played a role in making me a better person, a better writer, a better investigator. They’ve made me more compassionate and more observant to the unspoken things that pass between people. Somehow, those twenty-one words ended up not confining me but inspiring me to reach beyond what feels comfortable or usual or politically correct.
I may not be a brilliant 60-something fag-hag drunken Irish MacArthur Genius author, but I feel good about being a late-30-something half-WOP-half Jew from Detroit who gets what she’s talking about.
The rest of it, I think I’ll dis-cover on the road.