In this first-person novel I’m working on now, I told myself I wouldn’t write about clothes, I wouldn’t write about vanity, I wouldn’t write about depression, and I wouldn’t write about feminism, because these are all the things that I kind of got taken to task for in Heroines. And I find in my next book, which is called Switzerland, I’m doing all this more intensely, but in framing it as a novel, I’m allowed to play more with the unreliable or heightened narrator, that was already present in Heroines. It was Cocteau who said: “Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like—then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” I think in Heroines, what I was really saying was that these great men, whose literature I also tremendously admire, at least Eliot and Flaubert, were allowed to channel hysteria in the works. That because these writers didn’t feel the threat of being labeled in such personal ways. They could distance their art from their lives, and then didn’t also, in that era, feel the very specific, punitive threat of being institutionalized. And something that I still think is very real in our culture is that many of the young women writers I teach and know, they’re very afraid of writing autobiographically or writing fiction that comes from a place of the self, that comes from some nonfiction impulse. I don’t think it’s about fiction or nonfiction. I think we’re afraid of being somehow wrong or unliterary or not serious or not transformative enough. Still illegitimate.
—Kate Zambreno, interview with Stephanie LaCava for The Believer
Looking back over my blog posts this month, I notice that I’ve primarily been referencing memoirs and non-fictional texts written by women. Although I’ve also quoted from men whose writing has influenced me, I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid certain canonical works—most notably perhaps, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which looms large in discussions of memoir and literature right now and which I not only read but devoured. Perhaps because I identify with Kate Zambreno’s assessment that women writers are “afraid of writing autobiographically or… from a place of the self,” a determination to embrace the women writers whose personal narratives have allowed me to defend the confessional impulse has asserted itself. I certainly position my writing and my work within feminist politics and I celebrated Suzanne Buffam’s description of my poems as “dauntless, erudite and defiantly feminist.”
But Zambreno’s warning that women writers who work with unreliable, heightened, hysterical narrators are in danger of being labeled in “personal ways” points to another anxiety I have—not only in writing from a place of the self but, further, in positioning my work within the realm of “women’s writing”—a label often wielded against women as a way to reduce and marginalize the work. After my last blog post about self-harm and healing, I have to admit I felt drained and vulnerable. A friend asked before I posted, “Are you sure this is a story you want to make public?” Her question was devoid of judgement—it arose out of concern for how I might be pathologized following such a public admission. The truth is, I wasn’t sure at all that I wanted to publicly discuss such intimate and potentially damning material, but ideas tend to have a life of their own and after feeling compelled to write the piece, and subsequently believing that the piece had merit, I found I couldn’t prevent myself from putting it out there to stand paradoxically, simultaneously, as an item of internet ephemera—a blog post destined to be subsumed and forgotten in the wake of future texts—and a permanent document—forever discoverable, eternally on record.
Contemplating my misgivings about writing confessional work, and puzzling at the drive to nevertheless publish that work, I realize that the only way through the feeling of marginalization is to assert the value of women’s personal narrative in spite of the anxiety. In Heroines, Zambreno does exactly this in her exploration of the “mad wives of modernism” and their disenfranchisement in the face of their husbands’ privilege and power. The act of writing and publishing is move to seize a voice and thus to seize a place in the public arena—not a gendered place, a place full stop. Even in writing the abject self, one asserts one’s role as a speaker: the miserable, pitiful, pathological self claims a reason to be seen and heard and, in the very act of speaking, declares purpose, takes hold of a medium designed to elevate.
Of course, to go back to Vivian Gornick, one of the writers whose thinking has formed a backbone for ideas I’m pursuing in this blog, that medium is only able to elevate the voice of the speaker through fashioning. Once again to quote Gornick, “the narrator becomes a persona,” “transforming the low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.” Zambreno’s Heroines is both a confessional text and a constructed one. Zambreno is both in the narrator and divorced from the narrator, as the act of creating an unreliable speaker, a speaker who exists in shades of hysteria, presents readers with the opportunity to read women such as Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald through a contemporarily relevant filter, the present-day faculty wife.
Likewise, in speaking of grief or mourning or self-harm or madness, I’m aware, always, of constructing the universe in which these ideas can “be of value to the disinterested reader”—or, I’m trying to anyway. Where these ideas strike a chord is then beyond my control. As for the danger of being pathologized, I've decided I’m going to ignore it.
I’m on a train to Winnipeg, headed toward a poetry reading at which I will share language-driven poems and prose poems—confessional poems. I don’t have Zambreno’s Heroines with me, but if I’m remembering the end of the book correctly, it’s a call to action. Keep working. Write.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Brecken Hancock's poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom, was published by Coach House Books in 2014. She lives in Ottawa. Visit www.breckenhancock.com for more information.