Guest Post, Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: I Am an Animal Text

cat in studyMy writing study has become a lair. I have allowed two stray cats to take over the room, and there have been live lizards, fleas, decapitated birds, a wing with a gristled knob at one end, feathers stuck to the wall, smears of blood on the floor. One morning, I found two little objects on my desk chair: a tiny yellow-beaked baby finch head and a small, dark, licked-clean organ, possibly a gall bladder or kidney.

I don’t just leave the carnage. It smells, so I clean it up. But I don’t close the flap on the cat door. I leave the flap open. I let the kitties bring their viscera and alive-ness in here.

My manuscripts, in piles around the room, are marked by footprints, skittered with flea dirt.

The cats stink because the kibble I give them doesn’t agree with the beaks and eyes and skulls of rock doves. Also, they smell of the rain and the sun and the dirt outside, dirt that they track in on pee-flickered paws. The cats mew happily when they see me. Sometimes cobwebs hang from their whiskers. They are both tamed and wild. I am not much different from them.

I bring civilization, daily, to this room, and then I let the cats wild it again. I let this happen and I unhappen it and it happens and I unhappen it. Since they do not find their grisly work remarkable, I have to ceased to react to it as well. For example, I merely took the gifts of head and organ off of my chair, threw them away, and sat down. We are domesticated and wild. Wild and domesticated. We do both.

To be an artist is to choose to be uncivilized. I care about things that my society doesn’t necessarily value. I care about human expression, about art. I care about nuanced language, about writing true things. I care about humans pursuing their dreams. I value conversation above money. I value imagination above possessions. I value human connection. I have said fuck it fifteen thousand times in service to my art. Even though I want the cats to come inside during monsoon storms, they don’t care. The flap is open but they don’t always come in, even during the most raging summer storms. Lightning cracks hard, a block away, and I know they are out there, under bushes, great swaths of water rushing under their paws. They do not care that I am worried. They do not care that they are wet. They will visit later, washed, vigorous, hungry.

I hunt human life and I have bitten off its head, crunched its bones and left eyeballs staring blindly from the weeds. I have licked clean the organs of living. I have stunk up the confines of a predictable life.

Writing makes me vigorous and hungry.

Even when I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, I can commit. I am a writer. I have to commit to projects that only exist as inklings in my heart or imagination. I have to commit to the dream of a story I haven’t written in order to write it. I have to love a story enough to write it, knowing it may never even get finished, or published, or read by another. I have devoted my life to stray narrative, ideas, imagination, to loving that which no one else might love. I believe in things that are alive and happening. I’m quite practiced at such love, at such allowance, at such potentially pointless effort. Like the unpublished works in my study, the cats are vibrant, vital stories that haven’t found homes. Always, already worthy of love.

If I close the flap with the cats inside, they scream incessantly, shred the curtains, pluck wooden splinters from the door. There is violence here, too, in my relentless insistence on this writing life. I only took jobs that allowed the writing, until I learned to make my writing fit any job. Friends who urged me to take better care of myself, as if caring for myself in this Other way did not count, were left behind. Fierce and uncontainable, I do not tolerate a closed flap.

In my twenties, I had a series of visions that made me realize that I would be a writer. I read a line in a book titled Geography of Desire by Robert Boswell, and in a moment, everything changed for me. As a character in the book gave up storytelling, I bit into it with all of my teeth. I wrote a passage in a notebook, detailing the ferocity with which I’d decided to pursue the dream of writing. Among other impassioned things, I scratched, “I do not know what will become of my normal life. This desire to write is too huge to ignore, my insides black hot hollow with need, rushing my pen across the page, my heart overworked and pounding. This is art.”

I’m interested in the last line, This is art, where I insinuate that devoting myself to the art is the art. The violence with which I commit myself is actually a work of art itself. This uncivilized act of devoting myself to something so intangible, so ineffable marks me as different, but also stands, whether I ever publish another thing, as a work of art. It is in the living that I prove myself. As the cats bring me their slaughtered, instinctual gifts, the irrepressible violence of their love, so I must offer my own vehement gifts.

My pages are torn out of the sky and the dirt like prey. Here! I’ve dragged them in for you.

Elizabeth Frankie Rollins

Elizabeth Frankie Rollins has published a collection of short fiction, The Sin Eater & Other Stories (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013). Of this book, Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Unsettling imagery and hauntingly beautiful language characterize these stories, as ephemeral and indefinable as dreams.” Also, she has work in The Fairy Tale Review, Sonora Review, Conjunctions, and The New England Review, among others. In 2007, Rollins received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, and in 2003, she won a Prose Fellowship from the New Jersey Arts Council. She teaches fiction and composition writing at Pima Community College. She lives in a sculpture garden.

10 thoughts on “Guest Post, Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: I Am an Animal Text

  • October 4, 2016 at 8:27 pm
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    “I have to love a story enough to write it, knowing it may never even get finished, or published, or read by another.”
    This line from the post sits with me. Most of my work does not get read. I love it and write it anyway. This was a really wonderful piece on what it feels like to write as opposed to ‘the craft’ of writing.

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    • October 10, 2016 at 1:47 pm
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      Thanks for clarifying that this essay is about the feeling of being a writer, Tonissa. I didn’t really know how to explain it. I’ve been saying, this is about how writing makes you feral, which just seems, perhaps, less appealing. But you’re right. It’s about the emotional states-the violent devotion. Thank you for reading!

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  • October 5, 2016 at 7:17 pm
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    I love this idea that committing to one’s art is as important, if not more so, than the art itself. I think we have to constantly recommit ourselves to our art in order to make it priority. Such a wonderful post!

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    • October 10, 2016 at 1:49 pm
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      Oh, that re-commiting, Charlee. Over and over and over. And amen. And let’s do it forever. Thanks for reading and getting it!

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  • October 7, 2016 at 11:03 am
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    I know this feeling of being stuck in a writer’s lair. Mine is filled with dogs instead of cats though. Sometimes, it seems like leaving the lair is only a distraction from finishing your work. Passion is a double edged sword in that way.

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    • October 10, 2016 at 1:50 pm
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      Yes. I leave the lair on Mondays to teach, which is good work, to be sure, but how the lair beckons me, mourns me, cries for me. . .

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  • October 7, 2016 at 11:46 am
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    I really love the statements that Rollins makes in this post. She points out so many critical things about writing, which a lot of other people have already commented on. It’s safe to say that this post is truly enlightening!

    The comparison to the stray cats and their offerings was also extremely effective and interesting. It fit perfectly, and I especially loved this line: “Like the unpublished works in my study, the cats are vibrant, vital stories that haven’t found homes. Always, already worthy of love.” From the very start, the post catches your attention with the grit of the cats and ends on a similar note. The last line truly packs a punch: “My pages are torn out of the sky and the dirt like prey. Here! I’ve dragged them in for you.” From start to finish, this piece is both strong and powerful.

    Fantastic post – thank you, Ms. Rollins!

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    • October 10, 2016 at 1:52 pm
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      Nichol! Thank you for this attentive reading and for being open to my grit and ferocity. It helps to know that I have so many fellow animal texts out there, getting my meaning, hearing my growls~

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  • October 11, 2016 at 1:36 am
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    If this line doesn’t embody the struggle of the writing process, then I don’t know what does: “I let this happen and I unhappen it and it happens and I unhappen it”. Allowing and entering and re-entering that state of rawness as a writer as we approach the craft is so crucial. I really appreciate the honesty that is displayed here, it was a very relevant post and a great reminder to embrace the art with unfiltered passion.

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  • October 16, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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    I love the ideas that the author presents in this essay. One of my favorite lines was “To be an artist is to chose to be uncivilized, I care about things that society doesn’t necessarily value,”. I find this to be very true, writers, artists, musicians, we see the world differently, we pick up on things that others just skim over in life. We look for the deeper meaning in the smallest things.

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