Guest Muse Series | On Losing and Finding my Words: Reflections on Autobiographic Writing
The Muse Letter No. 102
Occasionally I publish essays by fellow Muses. This one is by Vivian Sper.
Vivian Sper holds an M.A. in Gender Studies and currently works as an editor at a publishing house for the social sciences where she can continue to love academia from a distance. She lives in Cologne and spends her days obsessing about celebrity feuds, apologizing for answering texts very late, and growing out a perm. Once, she framed a diary entry as a birthday gift for her friend: It was a heartfelt analysis of why Twilight is a reflection of human nature. She semi-regularly blogs about all things pop culture here: estutmirnichtleid.blog.
If you enjoyed her writings why not buy her a coffee.
“I know why you haven't written (And why I didn't write before the age of twenty-seven). Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it's reserved for the great – that is, for "great men"; and it's "silly". Besides, you've written a little, but in secret.”
When I left university after handing in the obligatory 80-page-thesis, I was speechless; I had no words. It was not like my achievement, the big milestone that is graduation, left me searching for the right words. I actually did not know how to write, when, or why. I only knew, in my heart, that I wanted to write. Badly.
Why was I not able to write? The truth is, university had not taken away my right to write – and I had written, of course, countless term papers and essays. Rather, university had supplied me with a different set of vocabulary, it had altered my grammar, formatted my thoughts, adjusted the spacing. And the limits: Always point at the limits of your work.
It had taught me what I could and should say in order to receive good grades, very good grades. University language had me criticize neoliberalism while chasing after Credit Points. It had me analyze media representations of sex workers while cuddling up in a rocking chair. And in this very moment, it makes my eyes wander to the word 'truth' at the beginning of the paragraph and consider putting it in quotation marks.
University had me use phrases such as “As you can see in figure 4” – even though no one would see figure 4, except for me, the lecturer (who has to come up with a grade within what amounts to a 12-hour-work-day), and eventually the garbage can.
Maybe the gap between what I wrote for university and what my writing had been like and is to this day – frantic notes on scraps of paper or notebooks that I try to decipher years later – was just too big. It made me wonder, if objective writing, which we aspire to in university, was in fact superior to subjective impressions like poems and diary entries.
“And why don't you write?“ (Hélène Cixous)
But my distrust in my own writing is rooted deeper than that. I have always been skeptical or even scared of autobiographical writing especially. Even though jotting down thoughts on life events has been at the core of my writing since I could hold a pen. The orange Diddle diary that I got for my 6th birthday marked the beginning of my most consistent writing endeavors, the beginning of all stories that would unfold. I see it as a bad sign today, that the book had a lock (albeit with a ridiculously tiny key that could easily be replaced with a hairpin). Unknowingly, the feeling that my written words were not only something to be kept secret but should be locked away, never to be read by somebody else's eyes, was cemented. That feeling has remained with me to this day. Quarrels with friends and family, impressions, poems, and songs stay with me, and me alone.
Autobiographic writing at times feels dirty and hedonistic, like fast food or trash TV, something I can never keep my hands off. And then it feels good rather like Yoga or green bowls. And what is the point of autobiographic writing, when you are a twenty-something year old? What's the point of dwelling in the past, when you cannot see the grander scope of things? After all, I am not Jane Fonda looking back on a life of activism and creativity.
“I think journal implies a 13-year-old girl who rides horses and is obsessed with her mom.” Hanna Horvath, Girls
When my mother and I lived at her boyfriend’s house – it had been his house and it very much felt like it living there – I imagined myself returning back to that house once again as an adult. I pictured myself returning
by car, parking in front of that dark mansion, leaning against the car, and just – breaking into tears. I was a very dramatic teenager. This scene has not been realized so far. But the notion of ‘returning to that house’ has continued to fascinate me, much like autobiographic writing. When my mother and I finally agreed to move out, we had to ride our bikes over to our new apartment. It was our last act, our last time at the old house. And my mother told me, as she has often would: “Don’t look back.” We got on our bikes and didn’t.
I have always wondered about that advice. It is quite life-affirming. It derives from the mindset of letting go of what is already lost and gone, of accepting change and endings. You cannot move forward when your gaze is fixed on monuments of the past. And I have gotten very good at following that advice. In fact, I have gotten so good at not looking back, that sometimes I forget that there is something to look back at. Maybe that’s the same for all of us. We are well trained in moving on because we have to get into survival mode fast or because everyone tells us to turn our back to things that have been bad for us all along, and we’re not worthy of us blah blah #empowerment. Looking back seems unproductive so obviously, it is frowned upon. But the image of returning back to my mom’s ex’s house or my childhood home or the student dorm my ex-boyfriend lived in or the university library haunts me, more so, it tickles me. There is beauty in looking back as there is in writing about it.
And of course, living is not just looking ahead and continuing as if nothing has happened. Life is not linear, it constantly looks back. Why else did my mother, in fact, return to that house and that man – even just for a while, even without me? It's ironic but I wish someone had told me that I would spend my late twenties trying to remember. Old childhood dreams, crucial conflicts with my parents. Maybe I would have noted down more helpful stuff in that orange diary. Stuff for any future therapists or the hobby therapist that I am to myself, triggered by thoughtful Instagram content that continuously asks me: Who are you? You know, at the core? And is your inner child aligned with your future dreams?
Though I do believe in professional therapy and healing, I am skeptical of the thought that there is a core that is so crucial to our identity, that we only need to uncover it, spend a bunch of money on self-help, literature, apps, and Yoga retreats and boom: we'll be fixed.
“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time.” (Hélène Cixous)
During the second wave of feminism and in Black feminism, much was written about women writing themselves back into history. Hélène Cixous was at the forefront of French feminists urging women to pick up the pen and called for it in her beautifully bizarre essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”.
Cixous coined the term écriture feminine, not so that women could find out who they truly are and what is essential to their femininity through writing. Rather, she asked to write in order to confuse male notions of linearity, story structure, genre. She wanted to get rid of definite meanings such as the idea of one history, or a fixed gender identity for that matter. She wanted to cut the storyline. She equated the assertion of writing with the assertion of the body, something that has been equally suppressed or regulated.
I read Cixous' essay for the first time when I was in the first semester of my Master’s program. It spoke so much to me because I believe that much of the writing conventions laid upon us by university are part of that. When you’re a student, academic writing can ruin you forever: How to get blocked completely. I mean think about it: Your career depends on it, your life depends on it. No theses? No graduation, no job, no paying back the loans, disappointing your parents or that childhood friend you lost touch with (who does not actually think of you, ever). How much more pressure could there be? On something that is supposed to nurture.
“Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” (Hélène Cixous)
And of course, these rigid conventions are both a means of grasping the reality around us and producing knowledge that can have and has had positive impacts on society. Yet, they are also an invitation to break with the rules, question them, or at least let go of them once your home is not in academia anymore. And I am going to start with this process of returning to that house through subjective writing, being my own Hélène and telling myself to write, telling you to write. Not to find the truth, not to suggest I have an answer to anything. I will do it for the connection, the body, the pleasure.
This is the first step, a draw of breath, me picking up the pen.
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IN CASE YOU MISSED LAST WEEK’S MUSE LETTER
It’s Spring without you. It’s the green leaves emerging and the air tasting like fresh cut cucumbers: moist, cold, pure. I want to put them in a gin and tonic to drown.
I walk by a bookshop and find a used version of Marcelle Sauvageot’s Laissez-moi: Commentaire. I pay 4€ and read it the whole afternoon at Schillerpark. The lilacs are slouching forward filling the air with their rich sweet scent, I break off a few branches to bring home.
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