On Writing "I"
In the winter of 2016, I found out I won a Mentorship sponsored by Plenitude Magazine. For four months, I would be able to work with a queer author who wrote creative non-fiction with the hopes of creating, revising, and learning how to better create my own work. That year, the author was Michael V. Smith—a big deal author who I was slightly star-struck by when I first met him in a cafe in downtown Toronto.
I'd entered the contest on a whim. Most Friday nights, instead of getting drunk and texting my exes, I drink too much coffee and browse call for submission pages. I feel no need for anonymous sex—but random short story calls, poetry prompts, pitch fests, and literary contests? I'm all in. I enter a lot of things and sometimes I win them. Most of the time, I lose, but then I start the process again on another night.
When I found the Plenitude Mentorship, I already had an essay to submit. I'd written my 3,500 word piece as part of a class assignment the previous semester, one where the teacher had encouraged us to "dig deep" and talk about ourselves. Considering this was a 700 level PhD class, I thought it was some kind of academic trick: by talking about ourselves, we wouldn't be able to cite anyone, and therefore, we'd commit plagiarism. So my essay was a mix of the personal and the academic; I flitted between composition theory from Jacqueline Jones Royster, my past experiences writing, and growing up queer and gender non-conforming. I expected to not do well, but I received a grade of 95 on the essay. To me, that meant it was good enough to submit to Plenitude, a magazine I highly respected.
When I won, I was surprised—but it wasn't because I didn't already know the essay was good. Or that I wasn't smart. I knew all of those things already. But I was shocked because now it meant I'd have to write more essays in creative non-fiction—something I had virtually no experience in.
This is the nature of my "impostor syndrome": I don't doubt I'm smart or that I'm good. But I worry that, somehow deep down, I am only smart or good because of other people.
This was why academia appealed to me. Everything I said must be cited, quoted, and if not—then I was a plagiarist and would be punished for my crimes. I worried that without the institutional support of someone else saying what I already wanted to say (and citing them for it), everything out of my mouth would be wrong. Fundamentally, I would be wrong. Even if I could separate my own neurosis and appreciate other people's creative nonfiction—like Michael's—I felt as if I couldn't do it for myself.
After our meeting in Toronto, Michael told me to be vulnerable in my writing. Which, of course, meant writing about my experiences. Using "I" when I spoke again—and not "like Royster, I argue that..." or "I compare this to that."
I had to talk about me.
Habits were hard to break. The first thing I did was research. I read almost every single memoir I could find that was either queer (Carrie Brownstien's Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl), gender non-conforming (Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote's Gender Failure), or published by Michael's publisher Arsenal Pulp Press (Amber Dawn's How Poetry Saved My Life). Oh, and Joan Didion too. Everyone always recommended her, and I managed to comb through three of her works (The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem) in one week.
It wasn't until I found Wendy C. Ortiz's work that something changed. Even months after reading it, mentioning the title still gives me chills. Excavation is a poetic memoir that darts between the present moments of Ortiz living in California with her young daughter and past moments of the five year relationship she had with her high school English teacher. The book is not sensationalist, but introspective. Ortiz has re-constructed scenes from diary entries, but she doesn't deliver them verbatim. Instead, she recreates the 1980s world the story exists in, imbuing the experiences with a lyrical aura, while also not endorsing the teacher's behaviour or judging herself at that age. A stark feeling of honesty—and vulnerability—melts onto each page. When Ortiz describes the present, there is no pontificating, either. She acknowledges the abuse—but she does it through her art of excavation. Like an archeologist who digs under the dirt, Ortiz decides to excavate this experience from her life so she can look back on it and understand like a relic. The fossil is beautiful as it is destructive, and it's part of her.
She treats herself and her life like an academic text, but she uses "I" from the position of expert and participant. She never fumbles towards understanding, either, because she has the last say; no one else can tell her what this experience means to her but her.
At the time, that was a message I deeply needed to hear. Every other memoir I read already held the assumption that their life experience was enough to speak from, no examination required. Ortiz's flitting between authoritative and emotive made it okay for me to do the same, and for me to etch out the type of author—and expert—I wanted to become in my own life.
At the end of those four months with Michael, I produced a manuscript. I wasn't exactly an archeologist on a dig like Ortiz; more like a folklorist hunting for a mythology that had been long forgotten. The manuscript was strange and twisting—almost dream-like, but like Ortiz's next work, Bruja, I think I'll be able to find a place for it now that I know I can.
Evelyn Deshane has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Lackington's Magazine. Their chapbook, Mythology, was released in 2015 with The Steel Chisel. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and currently studying for PhD at Waterloo University. Visit them at: evedeshane.wordpress.com