“Be like Flannery,” the late, great Barry Hannah said to our creative writing class at the University of Mississippi, looking at me. It was the fall of 1995. I was twenty-one, there as a visiting student to write with him, drink and smoke at City Grocery, moon around the aisles of Square Books, and hang out with whatever Faulknerian ghosts I could find. “She is a tough gal. Be a tough gal.”
Every artist has to figure out what being “tough” means for herself and her work. As a young Southern woman, I found myself working under a strange kind of double bind: the region that enshrines Scarlett O’Hara’s practicality and savviness, and has produced Lucinda Williams, Bessie Smith, the joyous and tough-minded Zora Neale Hurston, and Flannery herself is also the region that still rewards, in practice, like much of the non-Southern world, Melanie Wilkes. Life requires at least some toughness from women even as it often discourages our overt expression of it – mental or physical. We have to be nice. After all, we might intimidate somebody by mistake. This requires us at some level to at least make a stab at being small: lower your voice, couch your opinions in helpful qualifiers, round your shoulders forward. Overuse of commas in students’ writing (particularly female students’), where it lends a feeling of breathiness and hesitation, can be less about confusion of the rules than about a personal reluctance to claim authority, a lack of belief in having any authority at all. And I see much less of it since I address issues of voice and confidence in my writing classrooms directly, early on. The lisp from which I suffered until I was in college was, I now believe, largely psychosomatic for just this reason. A tall girl since third grade, I was routinely advised by my dear, now-deceased, petite grandmother to disguise my size with tasteful prints, as if I were a sofa. In school pictures, I was the girl in the back row with the boys, who kept their distance despite the photographer’s urging: “Y’all scrunch in! I can’t make all y’all fit back there!” No wonder. There’s a big ol’ girl in the middle. And no fifth-grade boy in his right mind wants to touch her shoulder with his.
Yet there is just no way to hide it: I’m the reverse of small, and I like it. I state my height as six feet even, because 5’11” and 3/4 just sounds like you’re dissembling. I do yoga and bike. I wrestle a tiller into and out of the back of my car and up and down my garden rows. I used to be inordinately proud of outdrinking the men at the table, believing, like the worst sort of male cliche, in the power of this as some perverse mating call. Only once in my now-thirteen-year college teaching career – as a newbie MA student – have I ever had classroom discipline issues. In high school I could climb the tall stack of square bales on our flatbed trailer, snatch a haybale up with both hands, lift it at least as high as my chest, and throw it – not just sling it – through the open hayloft door in one motion, for one of the boys working inside to catch and stack. Lots of men have been intimidated by this. Others have been respectful. Some have been romantically intrigued, in creepy and non-creepy ways. I’ve found a version of strong femininity I can live inside, even if — I think sometimes, cynically — I had to leave the South to do it.
Yet my mama, who does literally every kind of work there is to do on our farm, wept when some redneck dude blurted, out of what he thought was her hearing, “Damn! Look at the forearms on that woman!” Mama cautioned me against “striding like a field hand,” warned me, with a sigh, not to tell my grandmother I’d been helping with the hay crop although my family needed everyone to help: “she just has old-fashioned ideas about these things.” This week, watching myself on the laptop of a student video-interviewing me, I realized: it’s not just the angle, I really do have large hands. And although I am proud of my long fingers and show them off with big rings (like my famous tiger’s-eye stone from a shop outside Harvard Square, which covers the upper and lower knuckle on my fourth finger), I did feel a flicker of chagrin, from some place I thought I’d outgrown. Be strong, women are regularly enjoined in greeting cards and Lifetime movies. I wonder: what would this world look like if we really wanted women to be strong in every way, really had a notion of what that looked like? If we really wanted a woman to be able to be a tough gal?
Now, at age 36, after 25 years of serious writing, one PhD, two novels and a story collection, one and a half broken hearts, a long-gone smoking habit, $50,000 of killed-off consumer debt, and one pair of vintage Tony Lama cowboy boots, I know there’s a particular kind of vulnerability involved in being a tough gal. It comes from the same place of (perhaps even more geniuine) fearlessness. Because it involves brushing past a deep fear that stands in front of you, the way you brush past a big man in a dark hallway. Keep walking toward, then past, him. Don’t let him back you down. Don’t avoid his gaze or let him hinder you from getting to the brighter place at the end, where your friends are waiting. Serious writing means self-confrontation, over and over again. What keeps you scared? How do you become complicit in your own oppression, your own silence, perfectionism, fear?
In creative writing class this week, following the fine essays by Peter Rock and Jim Shepard in the Tin House craft essay collection The Writer’s Notebook, we talked about the intersection of self and subject, how to speak with authority that comes from vulnerability that comes from deep connection with your subject at the level of the things both of you share – authority being perhaps the root of 90% of the problems students have with writing, particularly at the beginning of their careers. In a Skype chat with Tin House editor Rob Spillman earlier that week, we’d heard about Shepard’s model of “the Venn diagram” of you and the thing you write about because you’re kind of obsessed with it – if you’re Jim Shepard, how do you overlap with Creature from the Black Lagoon? Kind of nerdy, Spillman recounted Shepard saying, insecure, can’t get a date – and even though I don’t know everything about what it’s like to be the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I know that, and then I can find out the rest. But writing from that place of intersection and truth gives my work an authority that makes it feel true. This is the slice of territory that I know, that I can stand on. The rest, I can find out in research.
I’d say that authority comes from, can be surprisingly rooted in and sourced from, vulnerability. A writer’s toughness and honesty and what you are willing to go to the mat over, what you will throw down to protect, comes from the vulnerability you admit and confront. It’s a kind of strength that does not come under the heading of a “toughness” that too often focuses only on the physical.
And that place of vulnerability can also help us shape art out of the random things that attract our attention – writing about which can build our authority as writers by giving us the confidence that can come with our own take on “objective knowledge” and a little disguise. I asked students to compile, individually and then as a class, on the board, a list of things we were “experts” in – ranging from walking sheep (no more than 3 sheep per person, making sure someone has gone up ahead to be sure all the gates and the barn are open for them to go in, because sheep are highly distractable) to foot placements described as “pizza” for stopping and french fries” for going faster when skiing to making paper cranes (“birds emerge from the creases in the paper”) to listening: “let the other person talk till they’re out of breath,” deadpanned the student, “and take good notes.” The class cracked up – and she’d just written the first line of a story! Then we made a second list of some piece of objective knowledge we knew a little about but wanted to know more.
“Here’s an example,” I said. “Y’all can see I’m not a small person. I grew up in a region where the ideal is a woman about this high and about this [I raised my pinky finger] or maybe at most this [I raised my middle finger, to student laughter] big around. My dad used to watch me putting butter on my biscuit and then put his hand over mine to stop me. I always felt watched, monitored, anxious about my body. Now I’m writing a story in which a character has Prader-Willi syndrome. I saw something about it on TV years ago and never forgot it. You eat uncontrollably, sometimes until your stomach bursts, because your brain can’t recognize when you aren’t hungry anymore. It’s connected with other disorders like autism and developmental delay. Parents whose kids have Prader-Willi have to tie them up sometimes to keep them from running into the street after the ice-cream truck, or sitting outside to beg food from strangers, or put chains and padlocks on their refrigerators. Why do I remember that? Because at one time in my life” – that big man suddenly loomed large, right next to me, my breath coming a bit short, although students couldn’t see, but keep going, keep walking, don’t lok down – “I weighed, oh, about 40 pounds more than this.” I stopped, let it sink in, let them look at me and do the math. Invisible wheels turned in the air, invisible walls dropped, students leaned almost imperceptibly forward in their seats. “But the highest point of that weight was about halfway through a long-distance grad-school relationship with a man I really did love. He was 900 miles away. I would go to the Harris-Teeter [all Southern grocery stores have funny names, don’t they? Harris Teeter, Winn-Dixie, Jitney Jungle?] and buy a dozen cupcakes with that lard frosting and eat them all either that night or by the next night. Y’all tell me. What was I really hungry for?” Let that pause, sink in too; they know I don’t expect an answer. “And so I have a reason to be interested in hunger that’s uncontrollable, that takes you over – and ways to write about it.”
I thought about Barry Hannah, that great teacher whose legendary toughness was built on a big vulnerable heart just as his work was built there too. And I thought I heard his raspy, amused whisper deep in my brain: Way to go, tough gal.