by Marya Summers
In the summer of 2003, poets from around the world converged in Chicago for the National Poetry Slam. One densely packed nightclub was electric with anticipation for the group poem showcase, a highlight of the annual event. You could have supplied power to a small town with the energy my own body was generating as I took the stage with two women on my team to deliver the poem “Penis Envy.” It had received perfect scores the night before in preliminary bouts.
For any team, but particularly for our small-to-middling town team from Delray Beach, Florida, this showcase was The Big Leagues. Because it wasn’t part of the competition (it was a “best of”), all we had to do is exactly what we did the night before – deliver our bawdy, satiric conjecture on what we would do if we had penises. We were only a few seconds into our poem when the room began to hiss as if giant, terrible snakes were about to strike. I recognized the sound immediately. I’d heard other poets call it “the feminist hiss.”
To all appearances, we continued, undeterred, delivering our lines with all the gesticulating and funny faces we had the night before. We made our way through both serious social commentary (if we had penises we could walk at night without fear of rape) and comic conjecture (having penises would allow us to insert – that is, assert – ourselves in social situations in a whole new way).
But that’s not how I experienced it. Already lit up with stage fright, I responded to the threat by lapsing into what I now recognize as a dissociative state. The hissing shifted my consciousness into an insulated bubble, distancing mind from body. Instead of being in my body, I was above it, a detachment that kept “me” out of the body that felt unsafe. The body was going through the motions, but I wasn’t really “there.”
In the days that followed that three-minute performance, I felt ostracized from the very group to which I’d most wanted to belong – the feminist poets. Some articulated their contempt, saying that the writing was terrible and that what we had expressed was demeaning to women and offensive to any real feminist. In other words, not only was our writing bad, but we were bad, too. It felt like an assault. Part of me wanted to curl up, part wanted to fight back.
I won’t launch a defense of that poem, because the point isn’t whether it was a good poem or an enlightened poem. My point is not about the poem.
My point is about the double bind, two conflicting impulses creating a no-win situation: the pains of silence and of speaking out. I am talking about the need to be both invisible and seen. I’m talking about abandoning myself – my writing, my desires, my body – because it doesn’t feel safe to be.
One way to create safety is to keep silent. If we don’t reveal our position, we won’t draw fire. Silence also allows us to view ourselves through only our potential and intentions; there’s no actual bad writing to prove us ridiculous for having dared dream of being a writer. In silence, we are protected from being wrong, ridiculous, and bad. Even in our own minds.
Silence also has an important role in art and communication: the pause, for instance. Silence can be an opportunity to think before expressing. But it’s easy to find oneself forever in limbo, figuring things out and never speaking or writing. Breaking the silence takes courage.
When I first started writing, I didn’t understand why I was doing it or what was at stake – all I knew is I was compelled to write and to be seen. I took every opportunity I was given to make a scene and to make it memorable. I ventured into tawdry scenarios, I advanced unpopular opinions, I was a smartass. I was rewarded with a series of columns (theater, sex, nightlife) in increasingly bigger markets and lots of stage time in front of increasingly larger audiences.
It should not have been surprising that I kept drawing fire – like when my weekly nightlife column about a Russian dance party drew outraged responses from Soviet expats or when I got hauled down to HR at the day job because a column had generated workplace discussion (which I took no part in) that a co-worker felt created a hostile work environment. But I kept at it, even when I felt threatened and even when it threatened my livelihood.
Figuring out the why of things was something I could only do, I think, as I did it. I discovered that I write myself into existence, finding my thoughts and feelings and giving them shape and form on the page. For me, someone who had been chronically out-of-body as the result of childhood trauma, embodiment has been both a challenge and a necessity. I need to write. It makes me inhabit the world by using my senses. It makes me pay attention and brings me into the scenes of my daily life rather than floating through or above them. Early on, writing made each experience memorable and made the world real. It made me real.
Most people would agree: writing gives ideas form. Until they are written, ideas are vague, slippery, and ephemeral – like spirits haunting the mind. I can tell you from experience: a writer who does not embody her role by doing the work of writing becomes like an abandoned building inhabited by ghosts. This limbo, being neither alive nor dead, is painful. The writer aches to come into being, to let her words become corporeal — perhaps this is why our writing is called “a body of work.”
A natural part of our embodiment, of human being, is our need for community and a need to be witnessed. Though our work often requires us to be reclusive, writers also need to be recognized. Where writing is solitary, publishing and performing are social, and a necessary and validating part of any writer’s development. If I ever doubted this is true, it is proven to me time and time again when I hit “send” and submit my work to a reader or editor. Only then do I see the errors in my writing I hadn’t noticed even on several proofreads.
Publishing and performing my work – being witnessed by others – was a first step in claiming my identity as a writer and poet. But it was also problematic. Good feedback meant I was good and my writing was good, and I had tacit permission to continue writing. But what about rejection? Relying on external validation made me feel like hot shit or a piece of shit, depending on how my work was received.
What I am saying is, in submitting my work, I can give others the power not only to decide the value of my work but to control who I am and what I express. I suppose that’s why it’s called submission, because while on the one hand I am stepping up and into my power, I am also in the submissive position of asking for someone else’s approval.
It’s more than just people-pleasing. It’s a struggle for the right to take up space in this world as more than an empty shell going through the motions. This means experimentation is risky. It means that questioning commonly held ideas or the ideas of my peers feels like I’m going into battle, even before I’ve ventured the first word. It means that criticism or other indications of failure often feel life-threatening.
Recently, I was asked to speak in Southern California, where I now live, on addiction and recovery. Often as I write and talk about my experiences extemporaneously, I touch on some previously undiscovered vein of what I have learned is writer’s gold: an ugly truth previously unrecognized. During my 45-minute talk, I struck pay dirt, unearthing a rich deposit of my own arrogance.
As I grappled with its public discovery, I felt my consciousness prepare for emergency evacuation. The fact that I remember the battered wooden podium, the ambient lighting, the fold of a woman’s arms, a cowboy hat against the wood-grain paneling and other specific details assures me that I did not.
Afterwards, I suffered what I can only describe as a 24-hour vulnerability hangover. Though the audience had been gracious, in the day that followed I experienced rolling bouts of acute shame as I became my own worst critic: not only was my writing bad – questions unanswered and conflicts unresolved – but I was bad, too. It took me some time to separate the real experience from the imagined threat and to comfort the panicked child in me who wanted to be both a real girl (seen) and a good girl (loved).
Writing and submitting have nurtured deep personal and spiritual development. I attribute this partially to the paradoxes within writing the writing life, including that of the double bind. In Zen Buddhism, the master gives the student a koan, which is a statement with two contradictory ideas – in essence, a double bind. The purpose of the koan is to frustrate the mind, exhaust the ego, and bring the student into enlightenment with the release of the duality. Which is to say, I find “the real me” neither wholly in the speaking out nor the staying silent, but in the space in between.
Marya Summers lives and writes in Los Angeles. She also coaches other writers in practices that develop a joyful, powerful and sustainable writing life. Learn more at whollycreative.com.