Archive for September, 2012

Things My Aunt Taught Me

Posted in The Blog on September 26, 2012 by chateaucone

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief…and unspeakable love.
–Washington Irving

Things My Aunt Taught Me

how to accept a compliment graciously
how to swaddle a baby doll in a blanket
how to scratch around a scab so you don’t make it bleed
how to throw a baseball like a boy
how to play skully on the kitchen floor on a rainy day
how to keep your mouth shut and when to open it
how to spend a muggy summer night on the stoop of the house in Brooklyn
how to soothe a headache with two aspirin and a cool cloth on your forehead
the grace of a hand holding a cigarette
the beauty of lined skin
how to die
how to grieve
how to live anyway

Ann Paganelli
July 7, 1934 – September 19, 2012

Uncle Bob, me and Aunty Ann, 1967

Memory and Other Fluids

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , on September 16, 2012 by chateaucone

Memory is another word for story, and nothing is more unreliable.

–Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fall on Your Knees

It doesn’t matter who my father was. It matters who I remember he was.

–Ann Sexton

We narrate; therefore we are. And yet, we are all unreliable narrators.

The memories and stories in “Bedtime Stories,” and in all narrative, in all of this project, from all narrators, primary and secondary, are always and already interpretations of experiences. There is no pure memory, just as there is no pure self.

I am an unreliable narrator, as an essayist, as a theorist, as a graduate student, as an English professor, as a adoptee, as a daughter, as a hundred other subjectivities, relying on my always and already interpreted, perspective-laden, interested, partial, through-a-specific-lens, rhetorical, always-in-the-process-of-formation, pregnant with, infused with, negotiated with ideological and ethnic and religious and community and national values and beliefs, performed . . . memory.

Angel Guardian is an unreliable narrator. I am interpreting Helen Negri’s letter which is interpreting a file which is an interpretation of an interview which is an interpretation of a performance of a birth mother, a role that was interpreted by both my birth mother and by everyone watching that performance, each according to her own perspective, her own values and beliefs and discourses, the ideologies in which she was raised, in which her lives were transcripted and interpellated.

The voices in my mother’s adoption story: unreliable narrators; there is no center there, nothing to hold on to.

My father, in all his good will, the will-to-family, is an unreliable narrator.

My cousins: unreliable narrators.

There is no center at all. Memory, story, identity, subjectivity: molten, fluid, protean, kaleidoscopic.

We Narrate: Therefore We Are

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , on September 14, 2012 by chateaucone

As I said in my last post:

A million other Lizs exist, subjects I have hidden from you, the reader, consciously or unconsciously, for reasons of genre, of appropriateness, of repression—

Of Just. Not. Knowing.

All these voices. And each can be called into question. None is reliable.

And they circle around the adoption story, changing constantly as they consider, reject, reconsider, consider from another perspective. But do they ever break the narrative? Do they stop short? Is there a Liz able to take it any further? And which Liz is that Liz?

I can do this, play with these narratives and narrators, but there’s a part of me that all the play can’t touch. I have set out to write something that illustrates the ways in which the center does not hold, but I can’t, because the center will always hold inside me. I can do this as an academic, but inside me there’s always a little voice saying, “But really, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” The stranglehold of the metanarrative wins.

Has this Liz chosen to stand in this one spot in the adoption narrative, and just not move from it? I am looking for a place to stand in Angel Guardian, on E. 2nd St., a center for the adoption story, something to  hold on to. There is nothing there. But “Hymns to the Lares” Liz resolves that too—makes it okay.

And what if I did break the narrative of the adoption story, of my identity as, at once, a Cone and a Chosen Baby? What does that do to who I am?

It unwrites me.

No. It revises me.

But first, yes, it unwrites me. And that’s scary.

The physical fact, as well as the narrative fact, of our family is working to keep the narrative alive. We are. We narrate, therefore we are.

And we narrate everything.

I sit on Jaci’s deck on a summer night and listen to five of my first cousins tell stories, one sliding seamlessly into the next, and I realize that we are a family rich in narrative. We narrate, therefore we are. I wonder how I can be the only writer, because I am certainly not the only storyteller. In fact, I am not an oral storyteller at all.  Joni, Jaci, Dave, Steve and Adrienne narrate. My father narrates. And therefore I am. And therefore I know who I am. And this is how it has always been. My father, and now my cousins.

My Aunty Ann nods toward me in the light of citronella torches and says, “Look at Elizabeth, taking it all in. Watch out–this will all be in print someday.”

The I of the Moment Writing, the You of the Moment Reading

Posted in The Blog with tags , , on September 12, 2012 by chateaucone

Can, and will, readers extrapolate from all the different Lizs narrating this project?

Bedtime Stories Liz—who couldn’t quite break the narrative. And the Liz who smoothed it over quite well by the end of the essay

Dear Biographer Liz, AKA doctoral student, dissertating Liz—who is having a good time playing with theory

Alternative Letters from Angel Guardian Liz—who is having a good time, too, although she then gets a bit angry, which you might not get from her writing, calmly juxtaposing fantasy identities for her birthmother with primary source material from professionals in the adoption field in the 1960s

The Chosen Baby Lizs–both of them–Little Liz reading the book, or having it read to her, and grown up Liz re-examining the book and confronting Valentina Wasson with her anger over the story and how it makes grown up Liz, with Little Liz inside her still, feel

And this Liz. Blogger Liz.

Will readers embrace that I am not limited to the Lizs represented here, all coherent and knowing only in the moment of writing I? That there are, for every Liz represented here, a million fragments of Lizs who have been left unrepresented?

Will they let Epstein’s wound stand open and bleeding? Will they look into the abyss of subjects?

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. But it is what I’m asking.

My friend SS admits that because of her participation in, belief in, indoctrination into, and place within, the academy, she automatically credits the analysis voice, the scholarly voice, the theory, over anything personal and creative, although she does acknowledge that she does so–she acknowledges her subjectivity. She connects most strongly to a scholarly discourse community, an academic discourse community, especially if told this is a “dissertation” and not a novel, or a memoir, or whatever else. Expectations.

My friend AP, however, reading the DB letter and Bedtime Stories, relates to the creative voice, finds the most authority in the creative voice. But AP is a poet, and thinks theory is bullshit.

I want AP and SS to keep “Bedtime Stories” and its refractions in their heads all at one time, and to give it all equal importance. Accept the contradictions and the gaps they create. But AP and SS will each come away with their own closure, their own choice of authoritative voice, their own conclusions.

How do I convince my readers that the unified voice, the “I” of any single point of my narrative, exists only at the moment I type it? And is no more reliable than that?

And make them want to stay, nonetheless?

I don’t know.

Can you be a p/s in the moment of reading anything? Or do you have to choose a place to stand?

Does the genre, does coherence, always win?

The Wall

Posted in The Blog with tags , on September 10, 2012 by chateaucone

As we used to say in grad school, I have hit the wall.

Oh. Right. Still in grad school.

How do you know if you’ve finished a project? I mean, I can’t just chant “Words on a page. Words on a page,” until the deadline hits, like I could in my MA program, and expect that to work.

Although it somehow did work then.

But seriously.

How do you know, when all of your instincts are saying, “Put the pen down and back away from the desk,” if it means that:

a. your instincts are good, and you are finished, or

b. your instincts suck, and you’re not finished at all; in fact, you’re close but you need to push through no matter how tired you feel, or,

c. your just need to walk away for a few weeks and come back refreshed, or

d. you’ve been watching too many episodes of Criminal Minds?

How do you know?

I went, overnight, from being totally excited about this to feeling as though I can’t even proofread the Works Cited page without strangling someone.

Now someone will turn up strangled and I’ll be hauled into the BAU and profiled. (See d. above.)

Which would be a welcome break from writing.

Introducing Pamela

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , on September 7, 2012 by chateaucone

Is the essay inherently post-structural?

My readerly friend, let’s change direction for a bit on this Friday afternoon–which is of course, from a networking/public relations standpoint, a terrible time to post. But there you have it. Today is the day this post is demanding to be born.

I’ve been having this conversation in my head and the in margins of various books for years now (yes, I’m that girl, the one that writes all over books), and I’m going to try to reproduce it in some coherent (ahem! with all that entails!) form.

Is the essay inherently a post-structural form, because it acknowledges the fragmentedness of the subject, the gaps and silences of traditional narrative? Does the fact that the essay acknowledges the subject’s lack of knowledge of itself make it in fact post-structural?  Or does the essay rely too strongly on the notion of a reliable narrator, one coherent self telling the story? Is it enough that the essay often acknowledges that that particular self exists only in that particular moment of telling the story?

Am I even asking the right questions here? Is this another case of a post-structural piece of work versus a post-structural reading of any piece of work? Am I wasting my time? I don’t know. Let’s see. Let’s essay. And let’s begin with the narrator and her reliability.

Philip Lopate, in The Arto f the Personal Essay, tells us, “The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity.” You see the problem there? Reliable. Sincere. Lots of non-post-structural implications there. Sounds like that darn liberal humanist self again. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, in The Fourth Genre, as well, privilege the unified voice, saying of the essay, “Its writers share a common desire to speak in a singular voice.”

Lopate, though, throws a bit of a wrench in things with this:

Part of our trust in good personal essayists issues, paradoxically, from their exposure to their own betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust. Their sincerity issues from an awareness of their potential for insincerity—see Max Beerbohm’s telling aside, “But (it seems I must begin every paragraph by questioning the sincerity of what I have just said)”—and it gives them a doubled authority. 

Well, there’s an interesting thought—an awareness of our potential for insincerity gives us even more authority. It’s true the essay does this—monitors its subjectivity constantly—but does that make it any more self-aware? Any more authoritative? I have to think about that. Does that mean that each reflection/refraction I write about “Bedtime Stories” makes me more authoritative? Hmm . . . but what if those subjects occur outside/after the essay? Which Liz does it make more authoritative? Are the collective Is more authoritative than each individual I, even if they are contradicting themselves, showing their fragmentedness?

Lopate tells us that essayists are “adept at interrogating their ignorance. Just as often as they tell us what they know, they ask at the beginning of an exploration of a problem what it is they don’t know—and why.”

Unlike the traditional biographer, and the autobiographer, essayists, according to Lopate, have “realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality.”  That’s the p/s good news. On the flip side, however, “The hope is that in the end, when an essayist’s lifework has a been accumulated, all those personae will add up to a genuine unmasking.” And we’re right back to the knowable, representable self. de Man. de Faced.

But then Lopate backs out again. (I have to say, the guy is a little slippery. Fragmented, I might even say. Next time I see him at a conference . . .) “In the meantime, the personal essayist tries to make his many selves dance to the same beat—to unite, through force of voice and style, these discordant, fragmentary personae so that the reader can accept them as issuing from one coherent self.”

Why? Why does the reader have to accept the essay as issuing from one coherent self? This is exactly what I want my readers NOT to do. What happens if the reader is asked to accept multiple, fragmented subjects all in one instance? What happens if the essay is chaotic? The (auto)biography is chaotic?

I swear I want to pin this guy down, and I can’t. Maybe I can. I think, I think he’s saying that over a lifetime, we have these multiple and fragmented personae that we are trying to represent as coherent, and we hope that over many, many essays, we end up “unmasking” the real self. Is that what you’re getting from Lopate? Because frankly, I’m starting to think he’s on the fence about the self and the subject. I mean, there is a self to unmask or there isn’t. And it’s representable or it isn’t.

If I follow Lopate’s logic, then, my post-structural autobiography can exist; I can just paint a million different pictures of my subjectivity, pile them all up, and then I’ll be represented. At which point I will have tossed out the post-structural. Because then even my million subjectivities will have become fixed. Ahh, but there’s where Lopate and I disagree. I don’t think the stable, knowable self exists prior to, or after, language at all, no matter how much material you pile up.

Vivian Gornick, in The Situation and the Story, skips this discussion and jumps right into the construction of the persona. There’s no fooling around here with whether or not the coherent self exists. For Gornick, that debate doesn’t matter. What’s important to Gornick, and, she argues, to the essay, is the creation, or selection, of the appropriate narrator to tell the story; “the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or memoir. It is the moment of illumination.”  Just prior to this, Gornick tells us:

Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona. Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator—or persona—sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.

Gornick calls this  “a narrator who was me and at the same time not me.” For Gornick, as opposed to Lopate, the creation or selection of a persona is a conscious choice of the position and angle, the perspective, the subjectivity, to tell a story.

And this is what I’ve been talking about–this persona, the subject represented in writing, always has a particular perspective, is fixed–for the moment, anyway.

Now, what about the “I” of “Bedtime Stories,” the center of this little project of mine? Poor girl, she’s all confused, but not unlike a half-hour sitcom, she straightens it all out in the end. Paves over the cracks. Stops the disintegration of the narrative with some trusty spackle. Trustworthy? All-knowing? Exposing her own bewilderment? Illustrating a knowable mental journey?

You could almost argue that there are two subjects writing that essay–the confused Liz confronting the broken narrative, and the safe, secure Liz who comes around at the end and shuts up the confused Liz. Maybe this is an example of Epstein’s wound being enacted–the confused Liz who sees the broken narrative being shoved into the abyss of silence by the Liz who doesn’t want to see. The bad Liz.

I should start giving these other Lizs other names. Like Pamela.

Pamela is not very nice. She’s maybe a little bit bad. Certainly less naive. She might watch Criminal Minds for the wrong reasons.

Moving on. Root and Steinberg give us this: “Creative nonfiction is reliably factual, anchored in real experience, whether the author has lived it or observed it and recorded it.”

But experience is always and already interpreted. Haven’t we agreed on that much? And therefore, that poor girl in “Bedtime Stories,” is just presenting her already interpreted, but not yet consciously, version of the story.

Annie Dillard tells us, “The nonfiction writer thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically. In either case, he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts” (xxvii).

I think I’m reaching a conclusion here. The personal essay, the genre of creative nonfiction, is not inherently post-structural, or not. But we can read it with a post-structural lens, and interrogate it further, even, than its own narrator does, because it gives us the room to do so.

Was this just an exercise in futility?

The personal essay is inhabited, yes, by a coherent voice, presenting itself as a knowing self…but there’s no one to say that that subjectivity—the one presenting itself as a coherent, unified, knowing self, exists for a second beyond the moment it speaks. Right? I don’t think the essay, as a genre, goes so far as to make that claim.

So, then, the subject of “Bedtime Stories,” just the essay, not all the other material, is perhaps unified, coherent, or was at the moment of writing, but the refractions remind us that that particular subjectivity (and we’ve seen how it might be fractured itself) existed only at that moment, and was, even in the moment, fragmented, unknowable, unrepresentable, AND, AND, AND has since changed, fragmented, and, THUS, it became fictional the moment it was fixed, anyway. Defaced.

The I of the essay is only the I of the moment writing.

So can you, or I, or Pamela, write a post-structural autobiography?

Lying

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , , on September 4, 2012 by chateaucone

Ask yourself, my readerly friend, was I, your faithful (ahem) narrator adopted? Or is adoption a metaphor for my life, for a life, for an autobiography built out of the constant adoption and re-adoption of particular subjectivities, of narratives, of metanarratives?

Ask yourself–was I literally, actually, legally adopted, or was adoption a useful metaphor I adopted to talk about post-structural notions of identity construction and narrative?

And then, once you’ve answered, or perhaps just considered the question, ask yourself this: how does it matter?

In her memoir Lying, Lauren Slater adopts the metaphor of epilepsy (and possibly the real life ailment–it’s never made clear) to describe what she calls a life of “falling down;” adoption as the main focus of my project turns out to be sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy–or a self-fulfilling metaphor–or an epic metaphor–yes! an epic metaphor! how Greek! how tragic!–because not only was I adopted, and was my mother adopted, but our identities were adopted, each of the narrators I’ve used were adopted, each of the narratives, each of my Is.

While Slater’s neurological disturbances create (include?) a compulsion to lie, I could tell you that my supposed adoption, my (new/alternative) identity construction at the age of five months, create in me an inordinate ease, to create, to adopt, identities. To adapt. To change voices. To change narrators and subjectivities with not so much as the blink of an eye.

I could tell you that I am playing with you.

I have been telling you about the various Is that narrate my work:

  • the early 1990s Liz, trying on the voices of various Long Island Democrats, writing their speeches and press releases and radio spots–although she’s not in this story, is she? Maybe she should be.
  • the 1996 Liz, MA student, writing about the adoption story for a personal essay class
  • the 2011 Liz, doctoral student, writing about the 1996 Liz writing the personal essay
  • the 1994 Liz, standing by the mailbox in Lindenhurst, opening the letter from the adoption agency
  • the 2006 Liz, rediscovering The Chosen Baby
  • the 2012 blogger Liz, of questionable truthiness

And so on. And so on.

I could tell you that each of these Lizs were created by the discourses available to us at the time–my age, my psychological and emotional development, my movement toward/away from Catholicism, the random occurrence of events that shake the narratives by which I live my life–and recorded in, the moment these Is existed captured by, these various artifacts.

Or I could tell you this:

I wrote them all yesterday.

Each of my subtly different narrators is nothing more than a fiction created by me. A character in a cleverly written novel. A coming of age story.  Here’s Liz figuring out the adoption thing at 21, at 28, at 30, at 45. Notice the subtle changes in awareness of the self as adopted child, in values and beliefs, in the use of language, in epistemological concerns.

It’s fiction, I tell you. Brilliantly. Constructed. Fiction.

(Totally. Overused. Periods.)

Paul de Man says that all autobiography produces fictions or personas, characters, instead of the self-knowledge that one expects from an autobiography.

He says: “Voice assumes mouth, eye and finally face, a chain that is manifest is the etymology of the trope’s name, prosopon poien, to confer a mask for a face (prosopon). Prosopopeia is the trope of autobiography, by which one’s name . . . is made as intelligible and memorable as a face. Our topic deals with the giving and taking away of faces, with face and deface, figure, figuration and disfiguration.”

Which is a fancy way of saying (and I’m being a bit reductive here), that because we can’t represent the self in language, and we can’t know the self, and yet the self exists only in language, language is metaphor, the persona we create in autobiography is at once a face, a mask, and a defacement. I’m thinking “defacement” works because it’s a face, but it’s the wrong face, because it can never be the right face, not in language anyway. It’s a face removed. It’s a face with at least one degree of separation–and that degree is the abyss that is the space between the signifier and the signified, the break between the self and other, between autobiographer and autobiographical subject, the wound, to paraphrase my friend William Epstein.

It’s always a metaphor. Always a representation.

Always a fiction.

So let me rephrase my original question: is my adoption story fiction, à la Stephen King, or fiction, à la Paul de Man? And how does it matter?