Friday, March 11, 2011. A woman in large sunglasses and chunky jewelry, straight out of a movie’s end credits as “Arts Patron Doyenne,” plants her heels in front of me, as if hitting a mark. She looks down on the desk, up to the lamp, plant, and card file in front of me.
“Just what exactly,” she asks, “does this Memoir Office mean?”
Her severe manner reminds me of my English mother-in-law. I smile in my best performance artist way.
“I am The Memoirist,” I say, “and this is The Memoir Office. I will write my memoir while I am here, and visitors are invited to help me with my work, or discuss their own memoir. Or just ask questions.”
“I see,” she says, and walks away. The twirl of her long tan coat leaves a soft, perfumed breeze.
It’s my last day as a performance artist in an art gallery in Troy, NY. By the end of a two-week residency, I’d grown used to this sort of exchange: some skeptical, others trusting, a person on display, a ritual of confrontation or acceptance.
All writing is performance and persona, a suspension of one’s own disbelief. What has appealed to me about writing is its essential connection to the body (hands on keys, pen in hand) as well as its essential disconnection (the paper, screen, book, far away from the author). I’ve always regarded my own physical presence as something to overcome, usually by ignoring it, while writing. Writing is physical fact, a made thing-slash-transcription of mind; it isn’t a just symbol or stand-in of my body or anyone else’s. It’s been my way out of my husky costume.
Lately, I’ve thought about this thing called mindfulness, embracing this whole mind-body problem and thinking about my arms and legs while I write. It sounds simple, maybe even stupid, but you can only transcend so much until you fall back on your ass in the chair, the screen in front of you.
What I am saying is: I had a writer’s block and it wasn’t just my mind’s fault. It was my body’s.
So I thought about making a public issue out of it, performing writing with my body, if that makes sense. Creating a spectacle while I try to figure this shit all out.
I’ve always admired public art with live human beings, and wondered if I could work up the courage to do something like that myself. Once, on a subway platform, I took up on an offer of “free bouncy rides” from a guy, Nate Hill, who dressed up as blue duck. Christine Hill constructs artworks that integrate into her everyday life. Her Volksboutique projects, first in Brooklyn and now in Berlin, range from a flea market to a tour guide business to a library project with writer Shelley Jackson. When you walk into one of her spaces, you become part of the artwork, always in progress. Last year, Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramović set up The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art. Visitors lined up and sat silently across from the Artist, and by doing so became part of the Artwork. An online gallery online features participants, some of them famous, like Lou Reed, Bjork, and Antony Hegarty.
I like how these projects seem to either inspire people or piss them off. I got to wondering whether I could do something like this and maybe it would lead to new writing about myself, with others on for the ride. A writer-slash-performance art project, with me sitting at a desk, would probably fail, and part of that attracted me. Why not fail in public, make failure part of the show? What would it mean to formalize public writing? My friend Mark and I designed letterhead and logos. I sent off proposals to a couple local galleries. One of them, The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY, accepted a proposal to be part of a group show called “Text as Art.”
Me sitting at a desk would be the “Art” part. Whether I could come up with “Text”would be another story.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011. Before I head off to Troy for my first full day at The Memoir Office, I talk with Richard, a professor at my college who teaches Native American literature. We talk about our daughters—we both have two young girls. I want to write about first memories on my first day. Memoirists seem to address their earliest memories as historical record, with detailed tales from when they’re, like, two years old.
“I could always say I am a superhero of some sort,” I tell him. “Maybe I was dipped in radioactive goo or something, and now have the superhuman strength of remembering when I popped my head out during my birth.”
“You could always say you fell from the sky,” Richard says. “It’s mostly females who do it in the Eastern tribes. But I’ll let you do it, too.”
The Native American origin stories go like this. A woman falls from the sky and lands in the water. The animals notice this, and work together to make ground for the Sky-Woman. It’s usually a bunch of badgers who go out into the water and get mud and pack it on top of a turtle, and the turtle forms this little island. They carry Sky-Woman over, and there you have it: origin story.
Every child relies on someone else to make ground for their origin story, where their body comes from. My first memory takes place in my grandparents’ backyard, where my mother is showing me a broken milk bottle. She tells me that I “have to use big people glasses now.” No more bottles. It’s one of those maternal dupes, a necessary deception to move things along. My mother denies this ever happened. I remember it vividly, down to the poison ivy under the bush, brushing against my legs.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011. I spend a couple hours sitting at my desk, taking down notes on index cards. I used to write reviews of every book I read on a card and file it in a metal box. For my time here, I write down notes. They’re also make good props, something to fiddle with when people actually come to visit.
A friend who lives in town, Marcus, comes in and sits in front of the desk. He puts his hand under his chin, author photo-style. I have to giggle, even though I fear it means me breaking character. He’s 29, with a short pompadour of red hair and expressive eyebrows. I always thought I knew Marcus, a gregarious guy with a blog who makes faces for cameras, shares wisecracks on Twitter, writes about pop culture stuff, internet memes, multiple martial arts. He is also, as my grandmom would say, “wise beyond his years.” I figure we would have a laugh and that would be that. Tonight he’s serious. Without prompting, he talks how difficult it is to write about his own life. He tells me about growing up in public housing a couple blocks from the gallery, eight people packed in a three-bedroom, a father who worked from job to job and drank himself into an aneurism, and a mother who oversaw several dramas and family fights and alliances. Marcus got himself out of the house and went to a nearby college on scholarship. Once he got there, he drank, didn’t read the books, skipped classes, and grifted his way to a B-average. He lived on-campus during the summers to keep away from home.
And then he just left. He didn’t fail out. He just didn’t feel the need to finish. He works at another college now in a decent office job. I can tell he wants to do more. I’m not really worried about him so much as think about what I was like when I was his age.
When we write memoir, critic Paul John Eakin writes, “we repeat in our imaginations the rhythms of identity experience that autobiographical narratives describe.” Eakin thinks the “identity narrative impulse” maybe be grounded in the “neurobiological rhythms of consciousness.”
When we write about our life, in other words, we relive it.
As our conversation dies down, Marcus says he’s going to wait until his father dies so he can write about it without worrying, as he puts it, about “feeding into any bullshit martyrdom complexes.” His eyes redden. He curls one arm around his neck. I tell him that, last summer, I had sent my father a big chunk of the memoir I was trying to write. He was not pleased about his portrayal, particularly how I wrote about his own father, who I never met but did a number on him growing up. He dubbed it “so insightful & mistaken at the same time” in an email. It stopped me cold, and led to the biggest writer’s block I’ve ever had. My body had become the same as my father’s, hairy and hulking, and yet I couldn’t write about my relationship with him.
Marcus tells me one last story. It’s about a guy named Steve Ditko, who was Stan Lee’s partner at Marvel comics. He came up with the Spiderman concept, among other things, and then left the business entirely. Someone asked Ditko why he never came back to comics, why he became a recluse.
“Ditko grabs a piece of paper, folds it in half, and fills one side with black ink,” Marcus says. He reenacts this drawing on one of my index cards and a ballpoint pen.“He lifts it up to Wolman’s face,” Marcus says, meeting my eyes, “and he said, ‘You’re either this, or you’re this.’ And that was the end of the conversation.”
Ditko couldn’t explain why he didn’t want to return to comics. He had to draw it. You’re either blank or filled-in, with me or against me, yes or no.
What’s funny is that Marcus doesn’t explain why he tells me the story. Maybe he didn’t need to. The black-and-white Ditko story reminds me of how I tell my students we should find nuance and compromise or common ground: the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s head at the same time and all that. It also reminds me I do not practice what I teach. I require complete loyalty. I crave approval and spurn criticism. I alternate open arms with a turned head. I either hate you or love you. Like my father before me, I regard you as a phony or you’re on my shit list. Nothing in between. Someone like Richard is a better father than me and I am not a good father. I retrace the rhythms of identity and experience writing at a desk in public, or I am an empty suit, a show-off.
A middle-aged artist couple walks by. They don’t need me to explain my office. They know it’s performance art. I talk to the woman, a tall redhead with cowboy boots. She’s a printmaker who lives in North Adams, Massachusetts by way of New Orleans after Katrina. The man works in Massachusetts politics, asks about places to eat, and Marcus leads the couple out into the cold streets to point out where the nearest restaurant is. He’s off for his regular “Western Wednesdays” movie get-together. Tonight it will be either Django or Once Upon a Time in the West. I picture Marcus as a father with a wife and kids—things he told me he’d never want for himself. He doesn’t want to “continue the cycle,” as he puts it.
Maybe some woman will fall out of the sky and badgers will put mud on his back.
Friday, March 4, 2011. An older guy and his son walk up to the front counter and ask about writing classes. Alana, the gallery assistant at the counter, tells him about the memoir class going on upstairs, then points to my Memoir Office in the lobby.
The older guy, John, comes over ansits down. He had taken a class at Kripalu, a center in the Berkshires with classes on everything from yoga certification to macrobiotic cooking.
“The facilitator was a real jerk,” he says, and tells me how they all were asked to “write a disturbing story” from their childhood, and then took turns reading them aloud.
I had been there for nine hours straight. “It doesn’t sound like anything I would make a class of mine do,” I do. I hold a half-smile.
“The lady next to me didn’t want to read what she wrote,” John continues, ignoring me, “and the facilitator kept pressing her and pressing her until she burst out into tears and ran out of the room. I was next to her, and was supposed to be next to read my thing. I told her she was way outta line and I wasn’t going to read anything until she apologizes to the class. The facilitator said she’d do no such thing, that she’d been teaching for 16 years.”
John says he needs help with a memoir that he wants to get published. He names one literary journal, asks if I know about it. I do. He tells me that for the past seven years he’s written a column for the Troy Record. I’m starting to think I am getting hustled in some way, or tricked into teaching him for free. I tell him how my nonfiction classes work—from published models and try to imitate them, free-writing exercises, peer workshops. This doesn’t interest him much, and to tell you the truth I don’t really mind.
His son slouches in a chair with sunglasses on.
John continues to tell me about himself: he helped Vietnam vets, lived in New York for ten years. He teaches community college year-round, with four classes in the summer, and plans on cutting back soon and ease into retirement. I think about putting him in touch with other people I had met so far in the Office: there’s Deb the Black Panther Imposter, a couple of Stoner Art Students who talked to me about the mind-body problem, a guy who had five Ayn Rand novels in his hand and a small notebook. I don’t. John talks for a good half-hour about Troy, then and now; that is the title of his column, “Then and Now.” We talk about self-publishing and tell him about how the bookstore across the street has a state-of-the-art print-on-demand machine, one of a few in the country.
I tell him he should get a good graphic designer first.
“For the cover, you mean,” John asks.
For the interior, too, I tell him.
“Thank you,” he says. “That was good advice.”
I almost say “thank you” back to him.
I forgot I told my wife I’d be going home early. I’m glad I didn’t, but I’m tired.
Just another day at The Memoir Office.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011. Yesterday at my daughter’s music class, the teacher talked about how kids’ memories work. “Up until three years old or so, a child doesn’t have any specific memories,” he says. “It’s more like a card catalog file, and with each kind of experience the child puts another card in.” In the case of music, he says, the more kinds of music a child experiences, the more cards go into the card file.
I think about this now at my Office, as I try to get down as many memories as I can while I am in a different physical space.
A truck drives by and shines its lights at me.
Out in the world of writing, everyone is talking about fragments, collage, disruption, everything except the inevitability of the body and how all of this falls along a narrative line. This day will end, I will leave the desk, and put my notecards in the cabinet.
Thursday, March 10, 2011. I buy a challah loaf and a bottle of water from the baker around the block, and walk around the streets of Troy. I go down an alley, just me and my bread, and think about how my body always gets in the way of how I think, how I remember, even how I cry. The alley reminds me of Jersey Street, an alley just south of Houston between Crosby and Lafayette, which every NYU student used for an “urban location.” When I worked at the film department as a secretary and went to student screenings, you could play a drinking game how many times that little street was used: a confrontation with a gun, a drug addict shooting up smack, a hooker negotiating over a trick, all these performances and underbellies that none of these kids encountered. I remember the hairstyles of all the actors, how immaculate they all were. They would act in these films for free, hoping that producers would see them and hire them for real work. Their headshots would litter the tables where I would put out forms and class schedules. I ended up putting them in a stack somewhere. I think that I should have kept them for some sort of coffee table book or a website.
When I get back to my desk, I take out a camera and make a video of the cards I’d written on. As I read them, I feel as if I have written about someone else’s life instead of mine.
One card: “Our narrative eventually constructs us, not the other way around; to avoid this means avoiding ourselves.”
Another: “The fragments have fallen along the way.”
Another: “I don’t want to avoid myself anymore.”
Still another: “I long to jettison that which is in the way of my self. This includes my self.”
Last one: “I have continued on this agonistic path—mind, text, body, objects, pens, office supplies—all figures, all ethos.”
As I start to put my things away for the last time, a montage flashes in my head of all the people who had sat with me there in the past two weeks, all the hours spent alone alone in the gallery, the people passing by and staring, the janitor in the white jumpsuit who dragged his mop right up to the desk’s legs. I thought again how imagination relies on past experience to tell our stories, how like impossible objects—like the doodles of 3D cubes I put in my notebooks—our stories really are.