On the first day of workshop when I was in graduate school, our visiting professor walked in, put a small grayish bag down on the middle of the table, and told us her father had just died and those were his ashes. I don’t remember finding this odd. I remember thinking she was sad, and she missed her father. She then began to disparage the law that keeps us from keeping the whole (un-cremated) bones of our loved ones. In our house. The whole skeleton, leaning up against (I imagined) the livingroom wall. If we inherit anything from our loved ones shouldn’t it be at the very least their bones? She had a point.
For me what is more astounding than this story is that every writing workshop doesn’t begin like this. The material we begin with is so raw why shouldn’t the baby teeth of our children or the ashes of our fathers accompany us inside the workshop. Why shouldn’t we critique with a lock of our mother’s hair around our necks?
I googled “can I keep a human skeleton in my house?” Turns out no. I knew this already, I think, but it’s always good to check. She was right. It’s against the law. We are not allowed to possess each other’s remains unless it’s in the form of ashes. We are not allowed to possess each other’s remains unless it’s in the form of ashes. We are not allowed to possess each other’s remains unless it’s in the form of ashes. (Sometimes it’s good to say something three times just in case it’s a spell).
After I had my first son Noah, I took one semester off teaching poetry (for practically nothing) at the University of Georgia. When I asked to return I was told they had nothing for me anymore. Nothing plus nothing. I counted it all up. I loved the classroom, and I missed the classroom, and I knew I was a good teacher. I sniffed the head of my newborn and cried and when I was done crying I decided to build my own writing workshop. I hired a man, let’s call him “Names” for the sake of anonymity, to renovate my garage. Half his work was beautiful. He exposed the beams, and let in the light. He painted the old cement floor a shade called The Dreams of Mermaids. The other half of his work involved plumbing. “No problem,” he told me. When he spoke of the toilet he referred to it as a commode. For some reason this led me to believe I was in good hands. I trusted him though I knew he wasn’t a trustworthy man. I already knew things about him I tried to forget because I so desperately wanted the workshop to be beautiful. And I wanted the workshop to work. One thing, I reminded myself, had nothing to do with the other. But it does. Everything has everything to do with everything else. With my credit card he kept going back to the hardware store for more and more pipes. He kept disappearing under my house, and emerging caked and baffled. Our water began to smell like glue and dirt. To make a long story short, he built a whole bathroom that didn’t work. Like something you might find in a dollhouse I guess, but person sized. He laid down all the tiles with the wrong grout, then tried to fix it by pouring three bottles of Clorox over everything and leaving the floor to seep overnight, and then to seep the next night too, and the next night too. I asked him if the toilet would ever flush, and he looked at me like I had just asked him where god was or what happens after we die.
This went on for months.
I finally called a real plumber to check his work. Do you want to know what you don’t want to ever see a real plumber do? Emerge from under your house shaking his head muttering, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He described the intricate web of pipes like some sort of imaginary road to nowhere, and when he described the pipes I imagined them leading all the way back to the first terrible poem I ever wrote. Nothing worked. He just kept shaking his head.
Names left me with $6000 worth of damage. His assistant (who had once been my dear friend, but that story is not this story (except is is)) gave me an old mirror as an apology. Unlike the entire bathroom, the mirror worked perfectly. When I looked into it I could see my own defeated reflection.
I hung an embroidery up in my workshop that reads "Everything Will Be Okay," and then I wrote a story about Names whose name is not Names who I call King in the story. It’s called “You Are Hurting My Feelings.” You can read it here.
Often my students will ask me about writing about other people. Is it moral, we all wonder. What is off limits? What is on? Sometimes I go with Anne Lamont who says we own everything that happens to us. “Tell your stories,” she says. “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Or as I now put it, if Names didn’t want me to write a story about him he should’ve fessed up. Instead he puffed out his chest and got in my face in the way no one should ever get in the face of another. He looked like he wanted to hit me. My expectations, he insisted, were unreasonable. He told me the toilet might flush if I run the washing machine at the exact same time. He blamed the city. “Call the city of Athens,” he said. “It’s their goddamn fault. All their pipes are breaking.” When he said this all I wanted was for him to be gone and never to return. He was scaring me.
But instead of what is okay to write about and what is not okay to write about, I think the better question (with the better answer) goes something like this: What compels us to write? Why do we keep going back for more? My oldest son takes apart his toys. His favorite superheros are often missing their legs. Capes are torn off only to be replaced with little squares of gauze. He always wants to look inside things. There is the superhero, but then there is what is inside the superhero, and then there is the superhero in pieces, and then pieces are missing, and then we go looking for those pieces and sometimes we find the the pieces but often we don’t. I once found Flash’s head in my makeup bag, and it reminded me narrative is never fixed. It’s an ongoing, moveable feast. We can all end up anywhere. My son is engaged in an endless study in composition. I want to see all the inside parts too. I don’t know what I’m thinking unless I write it down. I don’t know what I’m feeling unless I write it down. Until I break off the arm and look inside. Or I write to keep myself from thinking and feeling too little. Writing increases my vulnerability to my vulnerabilities. It sharpens my focus. And when we sit in workshop and listen to each other read often what we have just – maybe even merely hours ago – written, we are experiencing each other in the most tender, fragile phase of creation. It’s like when god holds up a chicken and asks the angels “tree yet?” and the angels say “no still a chicken.” God needs those angels to check the work. I believe we need that too.
I should’ve gone under the house with Names and looked at the pipes, but I was too afraid, and I am not fluent in plumbing, and probably would not have been able to read what was there, but I should’ve looked.
As we began repairs on the workshop, I took the most solace in knowing the actual space of it began as a failure. It started off wrong as most good poems and stories do. Names wrote a whole poem with a toilet that couldn’t flush. It was the worst metaphor. We’d have to hold everything in. Or we’d have to fix it.
Once, when I was in workshop as an undergraduate I remember a tall, beautiful practically see-through student getting sick while we workshopped her poem. She stood up leaned against the wall, put the back of her hand on her forehead, and slid all the way down. Crumpling like expensive paper. Our professor without getting up kicked a small trashcan in a perfect line towards her mouth into which she started vomiting. No one asked her if she was okay including me. I remember no one helping her. I am ashamed of myself as a 20 year old thinking the poem should be bigger then the body. The woman’s name, I remember, was Barbie.
Andre Breton praised hysteria for being one of the greatest poetic discoveries of the 19th century not only because the hysteric fit could be read as one of the ultimate forms of bodily expression, but because the composition of the poem and the fit share many of the same characteristics. Barbie became the poem she was writing and instead of applauding we turned our heads away in disgust.
Helene Cixous describes the hysteric as being given images that don’t belong to her, and then she forces herself, to resemble them. (It’s not unlike the pregnant body too). Jean-Martin Charcot, who became a physician in 1862 devoted much of his practice to the hysteric, not healing her, but classifying her symptoms (symptoms that involved disturbances: motor disturbances, tremors, contractions, paralysis, difficulty in walking or standing, deafness, and tunnel vision). His graphed the fit, dividing hysteria into 4 clearly distinguished phases (see Elisabeth Bronfen's The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents), phases that very closely for me resemble the poem or story in mid-composition:
1) debut / described by Charcot as follows: “lower abdominal pain, moving into the area of the stomach, then heart palpitations, the sensation of a lump in the throat, buzzing in the ears, beating and pounding in the temple, and finally an impairment of vision. With the ensuing fainting spell the actual fits sets in."
2) the clown phase / where the hysteric would exhibit an extraordinary expenditure of muscle power – eccentric body turnings, bizarre body postures – all marked by unusual flexibility, mobility, fluidity, and sheer physical force. The patient would bend completely so that her body made a bridge, and only her head and feet would rest on the bed. Charcot marked this phase as being illogical, while interpreting it as a theatrical miming of anxiety, fear, or a fit of anger directed against oneself or a stranger.
3) The third phase involved fragments of sentences. In this phase Charcot understood the hysteric to be converting her psychic drama into a personal drama – in which she believed she was playing the main part. Whether these performances were comic or tragic, Charcot claimed they were representations of the patient’s psychic reality: love scenes, fires, wars, revolutions. Charcot would then record and transcribe these fragments of sentences in order to construct a coherent narrative that would then impose order on what appeared to be at first grotesque and incoherent.
4) The final phase, when the hysteric regains consciousness, is marked by loud crying and sobbing or laughter.
Here the body of writing and the body become inseparable: there is interruption, paralysis, caesura, (breaking the line with a pause in the middle like the bodily acrobatics of the hysteric, a curve in her stomach), delay of consciousness, ellipticism, circular movements, repetition, fragmentation, ultimately some kind of closure that implies an inevitable reopening at a later time so that the sobbing or the laughter is never fully completed. Elisabeth Bronfen refers to the entire fit as an awful rowing. She could’ve easily called it a poem too.
Charcot had his patients reenact these fits during his Tuesday lectures – so that they ultimately took on a kind of theatrics. These women won fame in Paris, as they performed their language of hysteria as a public spectacle, becoming more and more dramatic as they saw the effect of their performance on their audience.
I think about Barbie a lot. Someone should’ve helped her up. I should’ve helped her up.
My 6 year old son tells me his friend – who is an only child – told him he once had a baby brother but the baby brother was hit by a car in a parking lot and died. The story isn’t true. He was, he told my son, holding his baby brother’s hand when this happened. The trauma of being alone for the boy was worse than his imaginary baby brother’s death. It’s like his childhood is a story or a poem he is writing, but he has no one there to read it / experience it beside him as he is experiencing it. And so he invented a dead baby brother. A ghost workshop. An angel witness. An audience.
When my sons cry I hold them and say don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry / when really I should say cry, cry, cry or I should just hold them and say nothing.
It is very difficult to witness each other in pain, but I believe one of the reasons we’re all in so much pain in the first place is because we don’t give enough witness to each other. My workshops are where we can spill our guts, and then learn how to re-arrange the guts formally in lines or sentences, making certain that these lines or sentences still have on them the faint scent of those same guts. I grew up in a lot of workshops where we were told to ignore the guts. No guts here. No crying allowed. Only thing of worth here is the poem born from virgin after virgin. Something, I’m sorry, happens before a poem happens. My workshops leave open the space to return to that something.
I’ve collected from writers the strangest things they ever experienced happening in a workshop as a student or a prof:
Literal smoke rising from typewriter in corner of room.
Student pulled out a box of action figures and started posing them on his desk during workshop.
Everyone started crying.
An instructor gave a student some feedback she didn't like on a poem, and so she ate it.
One day a student came to a summer poetry workshop I was teaching with a tight rubber band stretched over the bridge of his nose and the tops of his cheeks. The next day he came back to class without the rubber band, but with a line of deep red welts where the rubber band had been. A student asked him, "Jack, what happened to your rubber band?" He said, "What rubber band?" She said, "The rubber band you were wearing on your face yesterday." He said, "I wasn't wearing a rubber band on my face yesterday."
A woman pulled an electric frying pan out of her bag and fried eggs in the middle of workshop, and then ate them.
A woman removed her pants and started applying salve to a burn.
45 minute conversation about what it might feel like to shit feathers.
In Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Molloy (who is in his mother’s room) cannot remember how he got there, cannot remember if his mother was dead when he arrived, or dead after, or even dead enough to bury. Molloy cannot remember his own name, has a thing for sucking stones and wants to establish the best way to distribute the sixteen sucking stones he has to suck among his four pockets so he sucks each stone equally. So no stone is sucked less than another stone.
I have read and reread the sucking stone scene one thousand times, and each time I think oh, this is workshop. You suck the stone, and then you put the stone back in your pocket but never the same pocket you retrieved it from. It’s a mathematical nightmare. It is about doubt (did I forget to suck one stone / have I sucked one stone too many times), and it is about procedure and order and pleasure. And it is about failure. But why stones? Stones are minerals pushed up from the earth’s core, as the earth’s crust grows and erodes. Stones are the earth’s heart of the matter. They come from the center. I am reminded of Lot’s Wife who turns to stone, well salt, a hard mineral, because as she fled Sodom she looked back, perhaps for her daughters, perhaps to see again the city, she turned back and looked like a poet looks, to remember, or see again, or like Charcot’s hysterics who all know the story is always left half open, who return over and over again.
Lot’s wife is left there, forever, looking back. It’s horribly unfair. And as I listen to Molloy, and think why stones, what is he after, I imagine Molloy putting his mouth around Lot’s wife, and loosening her out of her petrified state, because I believe in Beckett Molloy sucks to remember, because right after Molloy casts off the sucking as hopeless, after he says “the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed” / right after this Molloy begins to see black specks in the distance (like memory), and we begin to understand that this unbearable seemingly ridiculous strange maddening sucking brings Molloy to this: “not only did I see more clearly, but I had less difficulty saddling with a name the rare things I saw.”
Maybe I should’ve hired Molloy to build my workshop. Or maybe I did.
While writing this lecture, a tree fell on my house. No one was hurt. And everything was repaired relatively quickly. Later we found out a microburst tore through our neighborhood, taking down dozens of trees. A microburst is a small downdraft that moves in a way opposite to a tornado. They go through three stages in their cycle, the downburst, outburst, and cushion stages which sounds like phases Charcot’s hysterics might go through if they were weather, or a craft assignment, as in: write one downburst, and one outburst. Our neighbor hired an artist to carve one of the fallen trees across the street from our house into a totem pole. Owl on top, Fox below her, and Snake below Fox. A little science, a little art, a little myth, a little gratitude, a little apology, a little thank you Mother Earth. The artist stared first at the tree for a very long time, like he was sucking on a stone, and I watched him watch the tree, and then I watched him carve these stories into the tree, and the finished totem pole is beautiful, but what I find more beautiful is being in the storm, and being afraid, and all the trees falling down, and watching the tree people come to carefully remove the trees, and then watching the artist watch the tree, and then carve the tree, and watch the owl appear, and then the fox appear, and then the fox’s eyes appear, and then the eyes are slightly changed, and then the snake appear, and what I find more beautiful than the finished totem pole which is incredibly beautiful is the story that lives inside the totem pole. My workshops are designed for writers to tell the whole story. And yes, at the end you leave with a totem pole. You might even publish the totem pole. But I remember thinking I should only ever enter workshop with the totem pole. The storm, and the tree guys, and the damaged roof, and the fear should stay outside the workshop. But in my workshops you bring all that in. It gets crowded. And uncomfortable. As it should. It’s a way for us to possess each other’s remains (in more than just the form of ashes).
Also, we should’ve helped Barbie up.