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.

Guest Post, Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: How Getting on the Wrong Bus Taught Me to Be the Kind of Writer That I Am

When I was in my early 20s, I lost my grasp on what I was doing in this world. I lived in a city that didn’t fit me, a life that didn’t feel right. Often in this life, there were conversations about weather and road construction. Long, extended conversations on these topics. Traffic. This kind of talk would sink me. I noticed that the food we ate when we went out was increasingly square, increasingly marked with char lines, magic marker stripes of something desired but not real. Our friends were going to have a baby; we talked about that, too. Other friends wanted to buy a house; we talked about that, too. And better jobs. And saving money. All of which were things I felt I should want, being in my 20s. But I didn’t. What I wanted wasn’t easily squared or marked or had.

I was trying to be a writer. I lived in a small apartment with my boyfriend, and he missed me when I wrote. To avoid his loneliness, I made a cardboard box desk in the closet, took my notebook in, sat among the empty clothes and gaping shoes, and wrote. I worked at a bookstore because it seemed like it made me closer to the books I wanted to create, but ultimately, it meant I was in retail, ringing up purchases and writing poems on receipts. I was willing to try things, to squeeze art in the cracks, but still. Things always seemed slightly off to me. Slightly not right.

Bus StopOne night after work, I walked from the bookstore to a place in a mall where the buses came. I boarded a bus. It drove down the long straight driveway of the mall and turned left. My bus would have turned right. I had boarded the wrong bus. Suddenly, my heart filled with joy. I was on the wrong bus! And I was going to stay on the wrong bus! I could have stood and rung the bell and walked back down the long driveway, but no. I was going to stay and see what happened! Finally! Something happening! I was in the wrong place! I was on the wrong bus! I beamed at my fellow passengers. I thought, Let’s get fucking lost. I got out my notebook. We drove into the heart of the city, where I’d only been once or twice. I scribbled descriptions of the city, thoughts, I made up narratives about the other riders. People got on and off of the bus. We drove all the way through the city and into the outskirts, into poorer neighborhoods where there wasn’t grass or color. I stared out the window at other people’s houses and wondered what they dreamed.

Abruptly, the bus pulled over and the bus driver shouted, “Everybody out!”

I was beside myself with joy! We were being thrown off the bus! All of us, onto a patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere! The strangeness of it! The others were angry. They complained, and then we stood in silence, craning to see down the road together. I could barely contain my pleasure. How had it come to this? I had no idea where I was.

The next bus came and the driver cursed each one of us as we climbed his crowded bus. “You! Another one! You! She don’t want to be late,” he snapped, “so now I’m gonna be late.” It was crowded, and we hung from straps and took the open seats as we drove back down into the city and people got on and people got off.

I was daydreaming when the lights went out, the bus went dark, and I realized I was alone in the seats. I asked myself, Stay and hide? See what the Bus Depot is like? Go? I tried not to sound like I was happy when I stood and told the bus driver I was there. “Of course you are.” the bus driver said, shaking his head. He hurled the bus to the curb, gave me cursory instructions, and clanked the doors closed. It was dinnertime and I was on a strange curb in a strange city in the dark!

I won’t belabor the finding of the next bus stop, the woman’s long storied troubles with alcohol and her mother, the two men squinching one eye shut and asking for money claiming to be the “One-Eyed Brothers,” the man sweeping at my shoes, and so on. But it was a bus stop of many stories, and I was there, happily, for a long time.

The next bus came and I greedily wrote the world! The big guy in the Hawaiian shirt and the woman reading a book on empowerment, the sharp little moustache of my seatmate. This bus broke down right in the middle of the road. All went dark and we sat there a moment before the complaining, before the apologies, before people began scurrying on and off to go to the bright convenience store near our broken down bus. I hugged my pages, looked around wildly, suddenly frightened. We broke down! My third bus! In the middle of a dark street, with people like little bugs scurrying on and off! I was alone! I could be this alone! The world could be this big and busy and I could vanish! Or I could be right here and write! Be anywhere and write!

In the dark, I broke, too. I broke from the wrong life. I broke from expectations and assumptions. I broke from the knowledge of how things are.

Finally, a new bus came and eventually delivered me to the same place I’d started from, hours later. I used a payphone to call my boyfriend who was just getting off of work. He came to get me and we went for Chinese food, and breathlessly I told him about everything that happened. He listened and he became increasingly afraid, in awe. I had crossed some invisible border inside of myself and there would be no going back. We could both feel it.

For the next couple of days, I wrote incessantly. I filled notebooks with emphatic, clear, feverish pages of text, and I read. In Robert Boswell’s Geography of Desire, a wonderful storyteller, Ramon, decides he must give up storytelling. In the beige-carpeted bedroom of a faux-wood apartment complex, the spark of light of water he saw as he gave it all up flew straight through the pages of the book into me. Through ink and paper, through a time space continuum of one writer’s imagination to another, it hit me like a bus. I wasn’t just trying to be a writer, I was a writer, and I simply wasn’t living the right life. I didn’t want, like other people wanted, a job and a family and security. I believed in getting lost, getting on wrong buses, hearing stories, telling stories. I wanted to accept the darkness, the strangers, the unfamiliar city streets. This, to me, was the sacred fabric of life! I would get lost. Often. I would embark on stories, and then novels, where I never knew what would happen. I would live with and in the unknown. I would anchor my life not to the security of tradition, but rather, to the making of narrative in human life. I would translate the world into stories, and in this way I would always, always be found.

Guest Post: Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: Writing: A Devotional – Plus Devotional Prompts!

Elizabeth Frankie RollinsI saw an uprooted tree on the bank of the Tappahanock River in Virginia once.  It was enormous.  The underside of its body was a mass of knobs, big as newborns.  It was dense with tubers fizzling out into great hairy clumps.  There were nodules and sinuous roots re-entering the body of the tree at every juncture from which they did not originate. All of it dripped with mud and sand, an obscenity of growth.

When I saw it, I thought, this is what writing looks like in me.

Writing is, I confess, at the root of everything.  It enters at every juncture, and leaves in every exhalation.  It is connected to my meals, my health, my intelligence, my sex, my spirit.  This is, of course, vaguely dangerous and out of balance.  But it is also true.

When I was a child I read. Books were not about comfort or forgetting. They were about going everywhere, with everyone, seeing everything, feeling everything. Some nights I faked an upset stomach so that I could lie on the carpet of the bathroom and finish a library book for the third time before it had to be returned the next day.  Other nights I hung halfway off my bed, book at the end of my outstretched arms, catching the triangle of hall light for just one more sentence, just one more paragraph, just one more hour.  I was ravenous.  I grew to understand the way stories unfolded, and when they did so, an essential flesh and bone piece of me was satisfied.  Through reading, I learned my earliest method of sorting out existence. I learned how it was in the world with loss, success, curiosity, beauty, grief, love, sorrow.  I learned what it was to be human, and what that meant in connection with the larger human world.

If reading led me to my first understanding of humanity, writing broadened this education.  Where once I merely imagined the hearts and bones of other people, the act of writing allows me to inhabit them entirely.  I eat and drink them, birth them and kill them.  Evidence of humanity’s brilliance and degradation is what I seek when I write. I never cease in my desire to know more intimately the ways of women and men, and I never cease to be nourished by them.  Through writing I make sense of their history and hope.

I do this because I believe that literature represents a collective human sigh, an exhalation of existence.  Stories, all stories of the world, the ones we live by and the ones we write, repeat themselves in infinite variations, both seamless and eternally interrupted by change. I crave this exchange of stories, the infinite variety of them.  It is in their expression that I find myself most deeply alive and interested.  The infinity of what it is to be human and what it is to be a writer never ceases to beckon me.

Writing has made me complicated, like that knobbed mass of roots I saw on the riverbank.  What drives me to live is buried under the soil of the known world.  Like those huge roots, I am pulling for something far deeper, something unmapped.  I am pressing the fingers of my yearning into the mysterious regions of existence which are unknown.  Where the source of our divinity, our essence, waits to be recognized again and again.


Devotional Prompts

Since writing is clearly my religion, I created some devotionals for daily attention to this reverent act.

Transfiguration Devotional:

Turn yourself into an archetypal character of the kind you feel most aligned with today: witch, queen, prince, monster, god, mythical figure, etc.  Write a line that this character always repeats. (for example: Monsters never eat hair!) Now write an internal monologue for this character where they name what is bothering them right now.

Response Devotional:

Answer the following for you or a character you have created: Where does truth reside?  In your brain?  Heart?  Describe where you hold truth.  To whom do you lie?  To whom do you always speak the truth? Is truth possible in memory? Is the opposite of a lie always a truth? Are there absolute truths?

Devotional for Others:

Write a set of instructions for how a reader should read your work.  Have a variety of suggestions.  Perhaps hint at the content they’ll find, or what they might learn. 

Invitatory Devotional:

Write an etiological tale that explains the existence of rain, fire, ocean, human murder, redemption, the color of the sky, psychology, domesticated pets, or sin.

Research Devotional:

Write a paragraph of text.  Now add at least five footnotes that give additional information or add to the plot, character development, or theme of the story.

Confession Devotional:

Name four things you want to write about, but believe that you shouldn’t.  Name the “editors” who block this writing or any reasons why you will not write of these particular things.

Guest Post, Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: I Lost a Manuscript

Elizabeth Frankie RollinsThe Lost Manuscript: A Particular Silence

This spring I lost a manuscript. A hundred and fifty pages of handwritten text that I’d been working on for a year.

We’d suffered an upheaval of the home, a bedbug infestation. To get rid of these fiends, you must evict yourself from the rooms they have taken. Defeated as soon as you begin, you must vacuum, wash, bag, roast, poison or discard your belongings. Once you have removed all evidence of yourself, the exterminator sprays down a poison that must remain on your floor for months. The bugs don’t die easy. The poison must be set down in layers. It was not these actions alone, but the required repetition of these actions, that unhinged me.

I like to write in the morning, sitting in bed. The book I’d been working on, months of research and piles of handwritten text, was kept in a binder. I always write everything by hand first, but this time I was trying an added experiment of not entering any of it into the computer. I wanted to see how organic the structure might be if I didn’t interrupt the writing for typing.

Obviously, I kept this binder by the bed.

I think I believed that my binder would be immune. A book being created feels pristine, supernatural, imperishable. But when I opened my binder after cleaning out the bedroom, the first pages were full of blood. My blood. Also, black specks of feces. Those bugs drank my blood and then shat it out in the pages of my book.

In the hysteria that ensued, I vacuumed the pages on the back stoop, thrust them under the doormat in a vortex of ripping pages, wind, weeping. After, I heaped them into doubled plastic bags. There, memory fails.

A day or so later, I realized that I didn’t remember what I’d done with the manuscript. I remarked to my husband that it was somewhere in the sea of black trash bags we had surrounding our house, filling our shed, in the Bluebeard’s chamber of our closed-off bedroom. We fondled bags. We opened them. We looked. It wasn’t there.

We had been throwing away bags of stuff marked “bedbugs” for days. I am known for my memory, which is sometimes obscenely accurate. But I couldn’t remember anything after I’d vacuumed and bagged the thing. And if I couldn’t remember, then it was entirely possible that I’d done the unthinkable, that I had thrown it away, that it was in the landfill, baking alongside diapers and banana peels.

I had spent months researching historical Tucson. Free weekends, winter break, I spent hours in historical museums, on historical websites, in libraries. I read books on WWI, on Tucson history from 1860-1920. I wrote pages capturing the mirroring sorrows of war, epidemic, broken landscapes. I birthed a Paul, an Aggi, a family.

I mentioned the lost manuscript to friends, but my telling was impassionate, distant. Oh well, I’d say, I have lots of other books to write. The friends looked at me strangely. It must be in the shed, they’d say. Aren’t you upset, they’d ask?  Are you okay? I shrugged. They told me of Maxine Hong Kinston’s fire, Hemingway’s stories lost on a train, Dylan Thomas’ misplaced manuscript (three times!), of Flaubert, burying his book in the face of oncoming war (never found). There’s internet sites listing lost manuscripts through the ages. None of this resonated with me. These lists of absences seemed strange. The truth was, the book was simply growing silent.

One day, my husband said something to me about the main character. “Paul, who?” I responded. He blanched and stared at me in genuine alarm.

As a practice, I often imagine the book I’m writing as I fall asleep, so that I can see the characters up close. When I tried this, on our squeaky airbeds in a room with blank walls and bugs in the outlets, it was as if I looked through the wrong end of a telescope. The figures were small, smaller, tiny. I couldn’t hear what they were saying or see them distinctly at all.

People asked: Would I rewrite? Would I write about the losing? Would I write something else? I gave vague answers. I decided I’d write it in some radical format: short, sharp bursts of text. I decided that I would never write it. I decided to write it without the research. In truth, the whole story had gone faint and muffled. There was nothing to be done about it. It was sinking away. But I didn’t want anyone to know that. It seemed like such a sad failure.

Bedbugs are a shadow plague, difficult to eradicate. They linger and drink and hide. Over a couple of months, our house was increasingly dissected and strewn. Our mattress and belongings roasted in the sun. We didn’t sleep well. We touched hands at night, across the poisoned floor, our hollow beds squealing. The loss of the book fell into the folds of the loss of our home, fell into the loss of our immunity.

When the bugs were finally gone, we moved our whole house around. The bedroom was a place where creatures had crawled across my face, thrust tubes into my skin, drank from my blood. There had been too many mornings where the lasting blooms of bites on my body pointed to our continued entrapment. I could not sleep there anymore. So we created a new house. Everything came off shelves, was cleaned, set up in new rooms.

In the great rearranging, I noticed that a shelf of older, handwritten manuscripts bulged noticeably. I pulled these binders out and found some thin poetry books jammed behind them. It was strange and nesty and behind all these books, there it was. Wrapped in plastic and fragile as an infant, the pages of my book. A ferocious sense of motherhood arose and I walked around the house, weeping and holding this baby to my heart.

Without meaning to, I buried it to protect it, as amulet, as saint, as bone. Unearthed to light, it came right back. Thoughts about the text streamed in as though there had been no hiatus, no terror, no muffling, no loss. The book re-entered my vocabulary.

I am altered, knowing that what is created, invented, and conceived in the mind can be silenced.

I get back to the writing nonetheless.


What he remembers jumbles, rolls, slides. He cannot keep it organized and understandable. He has returned, but some part of him is nowhere, is vanished, a hole. At the bar, they’d told him of their wheat-less, pork-less, beef-less, sweet-less days. He listened and nodded and had no reply. He wished he’d been there. He wished he’d stayed, folded bandages, melted tin, grown gardens. He would have himself, if he had stayed. Something to go on. What would make it different now? How would he fix things? The massive weight of all that Paul did not know rose before him. 

 Italicized text from the lost and found manuscript, titled, Are There Words for Everything?