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Becoming Realer: “Growing Sideways”

2011 February 17

Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.

Kelsay at Grandma Rothert's house in 1988

After reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic last semester in Contemporary Nonfiction, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of artifice in my life. Bechdel’s father spent years creating a fiction of himself as the straight, happy family man and small town English teacher, and he arranged his Gothic revivalist home into a solid, real world representation of his artifice. It’s not merely artifice in the sense of having a duplicitous nature, but also the construction and presentation of a certain image, or identity, to the world.

It’s that kind of self-construction that I relate to not only in my own identity formation, but in my writing as well. We learn early on in our writing careers that whatever “self” we put on the page is not our actual, real world self. It is a fabrication , written with specific intentions for an audience. It is, in a word, performed. But in all honesty, when I look at my actual self, I still see the artifice. In any given situation, I find myself carefully constructing my self to look or act a certain way. It’s not just vanity that causes me to never leave the house without make-up, or to sleep in pajamas that are basically clothes so I could more quickly run out in the middle of the night if I happened to get an emergency phone call saying that someone is in the hospital. Although I am vain, it goes deeper than that. It’s about actualizing the idea of myself that I have in my head (heavily influenced by pop-culture and television) every hour of every day in order to make it true.

Performance eventually becomes reality? The symbol eventually becomes truth? I readily admit that my version of symbolism comes from a conflation of the literal with the symbolic. When I look back at my childhood, all I see is the artifice that I bought in to, made my own and ultimately believed with such tenacity that I still sometimes cling to itthe artifice of whiteness. My entire family is white, as is 98% of my hometown, and I thought of myself as fitting perfectly into that picture. Growing up, what I saw in the mirror was never my actual reflection, but the reflection of what I saw around me and super-imposed onto myself. I saw Amy Jo Johnson from The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Madonna. I even told my orthodontist not to fix the gap between my two front teeth because I wanted to look like Madonna. Once I did see myself as Jennifer Lopez, but that was brief, and she was the only woman of color I saw reflected in the mirror. Any childhood instance that didn’t fit with my image of whiteness was erased until I learned about internalized racism in college. Then when I began to have racialized and racist experiences (also in college), I was forced to re-live those childhood experiences as if for the first time. I shouted to everyone that my whole life was crashing down around me, that it was all ashes and like a phoenix rising, every moment had a new meaning. But, it wasn’t my life. It was the artifice collapsing.

Unfortunately, for me, artifice and life are not that different. It’s not that I don’t live my life. I do. But, I live it the way that I try to create it, and I don’t put myself in a lot of situations where I’m not in control of how I can and should be perceived. That’s probably why I love Creative Nonfiction as a genre. That’s also probably why I’m so obsessed with “becoming realer.”

My mentor gave me a book for Christmas called The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century by Kathryn Bond Stockton. She told me that she thought I needed it, and that it reminded her of me because I write a lot about childhood. At first, I thought, ugh! What a cliché! I don’t write about childhood! But, in recent work especially, I have been writing a lot about childhood. I don’t think it’s just about the clear line I can see between growing up and my creation of artifice in my personal (and political) identity either. It goes deeper than that.

I don’t really remember my childhood and that bothers me. I don’t have typical adoptee memories of wondering about my birth parents, asking about them, or wishing I had grown up with them. But I must have. We all do.

I’m certainly thinking about it now, and that makes me feel like a child all over again. It doesn’t help that this past week I left an indoor light on in my car that killed the battery and tried to heat water in a measuring cup on my electric stove, which resulted in a shattering pool of glass and water (all over the wires). In both instances, I started taking care of it and then called my parents to see if I was doing it correctly. This is probably why my mentor thinks that I’m still a child. She once said in order to become a woman I needed to stop thinking of myself as a daughter. At first, I thought, but I am a daughter! Then I agreed. As an adoptee though, the most horrifying thought in the world is not being a daughter.

I am a method writer. If I’m not organically feeling or experiencing what I want to be writing about, I create the situation in order to better write it. For example, I wrote a long poem called “The Bowler Hat” about my identification with the character Sabina in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I couldn’t write it though, so I took my bowler hat and sat all day at a mosaic table in a coffee shop just being in the bowler hat . After the hour-long drive home, I wrote the poem. If the last phase of my writing/artifice/real life identity was the bowler hat, I thought the next would be “becoming realer.” I now think it’s being a daughter.

The ability to erase, block or forget my childhood bothers me. In order to become real, I want to remember it in detail. In his book, Adoption Healing… A Path to Recovery, Joe Soll says that one of the most frustrating things for an adoptee is the ability to conceptualize a future without knowing his or her past. My return to childhood (both in writing and in my life) is an attempt at creating a future by (re)living my past.

In The Queer Child, Stockton proposes the idea of “growing sideways.” She says:

There are ways of growing that are not growing up. The “gay” child’s fascinating asynchronicities, its required self-ghosting measures, its appearance only after its death, and its frequent fallback onto metaphor (as a way to grasp itself) indicate we need new words for growth.

Whether it’s “growing sideways” or “becoming realer,” I don’t know. But I know that I am a daughter. That’s how I’ve made it, and that’s how it is.

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