Writing is doubt, and so I read in order to write. I look for clues in any given text, and if they are not readily present, a certain defensive boredom sets in. Then I realize that this is the place to pay attention and ask questions. How does it speak to and about women? Is the writer himself or herself gay or hangs out in circles where queerness is present? Where did he or she get the money or the time to write this? Are they assembling the work as a reflection of their generation and addressing nostalgia? I wonder, What can I learn about mothers; about maternal expectations, the elevation, the dismissal, the marginalization, the fear of going mad? And so the eye scans and red circles politics, skin color, class, motherhood, fucking, altruism, gay men and a refusal to “move on.” Finally, because this has to be a useful bridge for my work…Is this writer simply inconsolable? This/mine/their untellable story will not end, will not cease, will not pull the plug, and so the fragment, the broken little pieces played with and rearranged to agitate and soothe, then soothe and agitate again, like a roll of film being developed in a canister, may reveal some new aspect of looking at loss.
Autobiography in a piece of writing doesn’t have to be the apparent center, but it must be in there somehow. Maybe good literature is a subtle creature that sneaks up on you; is tricky without trying too hard. But I also enjoy the bite back of sarcasm, sentimentalism; aggressive and self-conscious voices, stumbling, grating, strange, unfinished, with the stage so obviously set that the paint is still drying. In fact, please, kick me out of the text, seams shown; give me my own needle and thread. Agitate the soother in me until I’m unspooled, white on black, black and blue inside.
My feminist heroes and anti-heroes are always at the center of my work. I think of Grace Paley or Bernadette Mayer as characters or placeholders for the direction of my storytelling. They are my way out of myself, but they are also my smokey mirrors. I believe CNF has many of the same tasks that poetry or fiction must deal with in order to be salient and stimulating—the rhythm, the cadence, the sensory detail, the topography, the form, and the mixture of the novel and the familiar to parent and hold the reader within what they can recognize and then push them out the nest to drop down, chest swelling before they fly off with new knowledge, with new order.
I use notecards, completely un-catalogued and strewn about maybe ten different purses, on two desks, inside books, old files, etc. They are orphans that I gather up and try to straighten out every now and then, tell them they will grow up in my competent hands and become useful someday; that they will be known and understood, maybe even loved and cared for, spoken about, and not for. But I fail. I fail at this all the time. They get lost. For the most part, no one gets to know them. I lied to the notecards and to myself. I often think of Barthes who used the card catalogue for his writing practice—this handsome gay man avoiding parties at his desk, slowed by his mother’s death, getting up and deliberately placing each card where it belongs. That is so fascinating. Such purpose, such ego, such care. I believe that must be something his mother gave him: this importance, this belief, this organization of self and objects. His words are measured, fractured by grief, but grounded in a place that tells me he was held and loved, that he was once properly managed, assembled by his mother into the person who worships her, who is unable to reduce her to a memory. Part of the new connection I recently made for myself about the act of writing came from reading Camera Lucida. I may not do this on purpose, but I have disparate parts of my writing hidden, lost to be found in old bags and notebooks because it mirrors my own process of mourning my mother, not in her death, but in what she did and did not provide me in life. He collects his thoughts on cards the way he was raised. I collect mine the way I was. I write from without, as many of us do, but that without started so very early for me, maybe in infancy, that the excavation process needs tools of poetry to get at the surreal and un-remembered, the preverbal made solid.
I am halfway through writing my first book about mothers, art, luck, immigration, and the number four. This gestation is still so murky. Explaining where I’m from will forever remain a purgatory. When we left the Soviet Union as political refugees four weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my mother, dead or alive, remained in Leningrad. Writing lyrically, writing in circles, writing around the subjects of exile, ambiguous loss and systematic poverty has been a strange and shame-ridden process. I don’t want to simply write a journalistic account of my troubles and travails as a poor, ethnic immigrant. I want to use the tools of gleaning, of collecting, of probing, of cataloguing that project and protect the fragmentation I experienced. I want to be seen, but I also wish to remain vague, hidden, lost, and so the allusions, the crutches, the women I admire or think about: Bernadette Mayer, Doris Lessing, Grace Paley, Sappho, Lydia Davis, etc., were all mothers themselves, some traumatically orphaned like I was, who write about women, about themselves, in ways that make us shake and shiver, make us see in the fog. I want to join their club so badly with books of my own. I want to be plucked and live in the daisy chain crowns on their heads. But, as Kathy Acker has said, “Every book, remember, is dead until a reader activates it by reading.” One foot in heaven and one foot in hell, but walking to you, my love.