Guest Post, Kristen Arnett: Writing Queer

Writing Queer: Away from the Body and into the Interior

Kristen Arnett Bio PictureI know how I used to write, or at least I think I know. We have patterns to our work, stories shaped by our interior lives. This is not to say we’re writing our personal experiences into fiction (though sometimes we are), but our personal experiences inevitably guide how we create characters. We plumb those depths over and over again, looking for the heart of things, the messy place where the real shit lives. I find myself moving toward writing that displays an action – generally something embedded in the body. Enamored with the physical, I am constantly looking for a way to center ripeness of feeling in these movements. I like to see movement. I want to know how things hurt. Their sharpness. The ache of a bruise.

I have never been comfortable with feeling.

For the past year, I’ve examined this compartmentalization. At first, I looked to my work. Many of my stories have a propensity to showcase trauma against the body, and through the narrative I work to discover how my protagonists react to those violences. When people would ask what my work was about, I had difficulty defining this for them. I came up with blanket phrases that covered what I thought I was trying to do. I came up with “lesbian domestic,” or “body work.” It was difficult; I stumbled over my thoughts.

“You should be able to tell people what your work is about,” a friend told me. “If anyone should know, it’s you.”

So I grit my teeth and looked harder. I examined my stories and found feelings buried in every physical gesture. Every time a character moved, breathed, hit, fucked, hurt, they were feeling something deep within the motion. This startled me, but it shouldn’t have. I do the same thing in my own life. I bury feelings I find too intense behind a wealth of physical actions. If I am incapable of embracing tenderness in my own life, of cracking open the vulnerable parts and sharing them with others, how can I expect to do it in my work?

This became abundantly clear when I considered my queerness. In my writing career, I have made it a point to write about queer actions. Characters who are queer, lives that are queer. At least, I thought this was what I was doing. Looking back at these stories I’ve developed, I find people so enmeshed in their own inability to feel that they would rather destroy themselves than accept intimacy. I wrote stories that were so distanced from feeling that it was like looking at characters through a telescope. Far enough away you could see the movements, but feel very little. These characters spoke in italics. They became caricatures. I created human beings who had so little interaction with their interior worlds that they performed actions without thinking, engaged in lives that held little meaning for them outside of momentary gratification.

This work did not fulfill me. I wrote more than ever; my body of work was prolific, but I couldn’t connect with the writing. I decided to look again at what I was doing, but before I’d write anything, I’d answer these three questions with regard to intimacy:

How am I writing feelings? What feelings am I writing? Whose feelings am I writing toward?

Many of these first attempts at emotional writing frustrated me. I had difficulty writing about feelings without slipping into patterns of physical processes. Thinking more about my personal life, I considered the fact that my queerness and my feelings about romance and love were always hidden and tucked away as I was growing up. They were considered wrong; a perversion of intimacy. I wondered if my struggle with putting tenderness into my work was because to show such intimacy, out in the open, means that I am violating the terms of it. Vulnerability. Softness. To open a wound that’s not yet ready for air.

I forced myself to sit in these stories. To wallow in the kind of emotions that I don’t often allow myself. It was desperate work, and necessary. I dug through narratives and found my characters could connect, if they tried. If they wanted it enough. If I wanted it enough for them.

Opening up made my writing better. Opening up can only make me better, too.

Guest Post, Kristen Arnett: “I Come From a Family” Writing and Rewriting Familial Truth in Fiction

These words open our work, even if they’re not explicitly stated. Our fiction holds characters that come from all types of homes. We conjure blended families, multi-generational households, ones that contain fostered and adopted children; we’ve got queer families, racially diverse backgrounds, and created homes with loved ones of our character’s own choosing. There’s no limit to what we might come up with. Our characters are defined by these families. Their backgrounds tell us how they overcome crisis and trauma, or how they ultimately succumb to it. Even if we’re not writing about a character’s family, it’s always there, lurking in the background like a horrible upcoming family reunion. Characters come with domestic baggage.

Here’s where things get tricky. The intimate backgrounds of these characters can often extend from our own. Sometimes this is on accident – perhaps a family legend falls into the narrative; the time your father angrily emailed KFC because he hated their new commercials – but it can also be done with malice. Conjuring stories gives us a wild kind of freedom, and how nice would it be to get that thing on paper that’s been bothering you for years?

paper-family-1313628At a recent Tin House workshop, Dorothy Allison talked about writing truth in fiction. She discussed its hardness and its necessity; told us all to “write like a hammer.” These realities struck the audience silent – we’re all attempting to create something greater than ourselves in our work, something that will stand as testament that we were here and took up space. Dorothy expounded on this concept, shouting that it didn’t matter if something honest was hard to hear, because “it’s true, therefore I have the right to scare the shit out of you with it.” Everyone nodded in agreement; after all, the scary stuff is where we find the real meat of our work. After saying this, however, her tone softened. She stared out at the audience, made eye contact with nearly everyone, and said, “but truth is not a defense against destroying people.”

I went home from Tin House and thought about this a lot. I write fiction and essays, and I admit that sometimes the line between those two gets a little smudged. So much of what I am is because of who I was; the people who raised me and what my home was like. I write about Florida, I write about my queerness, and I write about the church. I write to know who I am now, and I keep writing because I am never the same person as I was the day before. My family is part of that process because I am incapable of maintaining an identity separate from them. It would be tantamount to carving up my body and saying, well, I am mostly just this thigh meat and the neck part. It can’t be done.

Fiction isn’t truth, but it contains elements of it. How we write is informed by our environment. I look to my parents and their traditions, and sometimes I say, there’s fodder here for something that once hurt me. Writing about it helps me look at all the sides of these issues – I can look at how they informed me, but I can also better see my own role in them: how I dealt with them at the time, what I took away from those experiences. Coming back from the work shop, I look at these instances in my writing and ask: what’s the ultimate cost of disclosing them?

Dorothy closed out her work shop panel by telling us that “you are trying to put something on the page worth what it cost you to put it on the page.” For myself, I took this to mean that my writing is not a way to exorcise demons. It is a way to confront established ideas and reassess them. In my quest for honesty in my work, I am saying that I require honesty from myself before I expect it from anyone else. I am saying that in order to write, I must look at the world I inhabit and understand that I am not the god of it. I live here, but so does everyone else. What I must do in my writing is take a hard look at how I write about family and decide if it rings true; not insert harmful narrative because I want to push it away from me. That’s the most truthful way for me to write fiction.

And yes, my father did email KFC – but he won’t mind that I told you about it. Just try not to bring up the Colonel; he’s still a little touchy about it.