Marcia Woodard

Summer 2003



Whose Body is it Anyway? : Eating the Autotheoretical

History

"The body never lies."
—Martha Graham

     This group is fleshy—furrowed and bumpy like 3D topographical maps. We want to lose weight, but our motto is “aim low,” which does not refer to a lower number on the scale, but to low expectations so as not to tip the scale. We’re called the “eating concerns” group. Much safer. This puts the focus on trying to understand why we do what we do, which is killing ourselves with food. We talk about why our self-images are so screwed up, and we’re learning how to like ourselves, our bodies. This can be difficult to put into practice.

     I hate the way I look. I’m shocked when I look in the mirror; my reflection manages to exceed even my poor self-image. My doctor originally put me on anti-depressants several years ago because I was crazy about my weight. Up five pounds and I was fat and it was all over and I might as well just give it up. He said, “You can go to years of therapy or try these pills and see if they work.” I opted for both. The pills shaved the bristles off my obsession. I gained weight. I’m unhappy about the extra pounds, but, with the pills, not unhappy enough to shed them. The pills put a little halo on things. I’m still going to therapy.

     What are the effects of reading through the body? For the reader, the possibility of immediate and intimate connection. For the writer, the possibility of writing the truth. Susan Suleiman argues in Risking Who One Is, “since all writing is done by some-body for some-body, it is not merely permitted, but downright valuable, to remember who you are as you write” (2). I’ve spent the last six years learning how to write creatively through the body. I’ve got a Post-it note attached to my computer with a reminder of my goals: See, Hear, Touch, Taste, Smell.

     I entered the MFA program at the University of Washington as a fiction writer. When I graduated, in June 2002, my genre of choice was creative nonfiction. The more I learned about writing and reading through the body, the more I wanted to be able to write through my body. The turning point from fiction to nonfiction was the month I spent in Rome in 2001 on a creative writing summer seminar. 100 degrees in the shade. My sweating body. My smelly body. Coming from covered-up Seattle, I was more body conscious then ever before in my life. I wallowed in an overload of art and Italians and the realization that I simply needed to write it all down rather than make it up. I found my writing voice amongst pizza, gelato, ruins, and an aura of sensuality.

     During the last year of my MFA, I wrote only creative nonfiction and I started to attend an eating concerns group on campus. Writing through the body, working on the body.

     “Remember, this is not a weight loss group.”

     Pam, our therapist and group leader, says this because we’re all obsessive-compulsive perfectionists and an overt focus on weight loss will send us into orbit: anorexics refusing to eat, bulimics reverting to furtive retching, bingers stopping by the store on the way home to stock up on carbohydrates, eating the tops off of maple bars at red lights, discovering sticky spots when we grab the steering wheel the next morning.

     Now, just over a year later, I’m on the third chapter of a personal memoir about the eating concerns group. My writing digs deeper than I’ve ever dared to go. My writing is personal, it’s about my body, and it scares me. But I also love it. To find your voice, to write about what matters to you, to have readers connect. This feels good. It’s the level of good stuff you think only happens to others.

     Then I signed up for my first class in critical theory because I wanted to investigate the possibility of getting a PhD. As happy as I was with my creative writing, I felt like I wasn’t done yet—like when you pull a cake out of the oven and put a toothpick in the middle to see if it’s cooked all the way through—my toothpick wasn’t clean. I discussed my plans with the graduate studies adviser.

     “So you saw the light and you’re coming over to our side, huh?”

     I got this uh-oh feeling. I didn’t know there were sides, or that I had been on the “dark” side. Would she next pull out a form in which I’d need to denounce creative writing?

     “Let’s have a look at your transcripts.” She swiveled to look at her computer screen. “Nope, none of your MFA credits will count; you’ll need to start from scratch.”

     More uh-oh.

     I blurted, “I got my BA in English,” thinking this would indicate I could speak their language.

     “Doesn’t matter. The graduate level courses are different.”

     Really bad uh-oh.

     I’d already had to struggle out of the fiction “jail” to find my way to creative non-fiction. Now what was I getting into?

II.   Culture Shock

"The distance is nothing; it’s only the first step that is difficult."
—Mme. Du Deffand

     The eating concerns group had been meeting throughout fall quarter before I joined them in winter. It’s a delicate act of projecting the appropriate behaviors when you join a group of people who have already bonded. You want to prove you are just like them—whether you are or aren’t is not important, it’s their acceptance you want—while simultaneously differentiating yourself, establishing your uniqueness. A balanced mix of “I know just what you mean” and body language—arms crossed unobtrusively over chest—that says “I know I’m on probation here.” You don’t want to buddy up too much the first meeting because they need you to respect their togetherness. You are the visiting cousin who needs to prove herself before she’s accepted as one of the family. So no matter how much you want to chime in on each new subject, no matter how uncharacteristic for you to keep your mouth shut, you do just that. Acceptable behaviors as a new group member include facial expressions of empathy, heartfelt sighs, controlled laughter, well-timed smiles, and the occasional head inclination to signal agreement.

     On the first day of English 506, “Critical Conversations in Literary Studies,” we received the following assignment: “Read Dianne Chisholm’s essay ‘Obscene Modernism: Eros Noir and the Profane Illumination of Djuna Barnes’ and Walter Benjamin’s ‘Surrealism.’ Typed paper due in class on Wednesday that outlines the arguments of the essay and details the critical moves the author performs as she makes her arguments.”

     I’d never heard of these people. I had less than forty-eight hours to write a paper.

     Reading the critical essays felt like being sent to my room to be punished. I reacted like I always have when I’m forced to do something that makes me crazy: I ate my way through.

     If I were sneaking food that required more than a few chews, I’d transport it up to my bedroom and shut the door. Then I’d sit on the floor in front of the heater vent to stay nice and warm, and I’d eat it slowly. Later I would ferry the wrappers back to the kitchen garbage under the sink and bury them under coffee grounds.

     The best stuff to sneak was in the big chest freezer in the garage. Mom shopped at the Hostess bakery outlet, and on Tuesdays the bakery snacks were twenty for a dollar. We always had frozen cupcakes, Twinkies, and Snoballs—they were supposed to be for our lunches. If Mom was in the sewing room and I could hear the thrum of the machine, I would sneak through the kitchen and out to the garage and slip a frozen Scooter Pie down the front of my pants. Freezer burn. I’d tried this with Twinkies before, but they were too obvious unless I was wearing a big sweatshirt. So I mostly went for the flatter items, like fruit pies and Scooter pies, in case I ran into Mom. Most of the stuff wasn’t as good frozen, especially the fruit pies, which seemed to change chemical properties, but it did make it easier to eat all the way around the filling on the occasional Twinkie and save the sticky core for last.

     On that first night reading Chisholm’s article, I got up for a cup of tea, then sugar free gum (I ate the entire PlenTPak), then I found a sucker (works like a pacifier), and when I got to the Benjamin article, I brought an entire box of cookies up to my office. I could not connect with this writing. And as I finished each page and wondered what I’d just read, I started to think I should drop the class. This was obviously not for me. I felt warm and nauseous from cookies and dread. But oddly exhilarated too—the exhilaration of being around words, books, and other writers kept me going. That, and the realization if going for a PhD didn’t work out, I’d have to get a job. I had to ask myself, though, just how much I wanted to suffer for the ten percent of exhilaration. In class, Carolyn asked for volunteers to write Chisholm’s main argument on the board. I had no idea; too many new terms, names, and concepts fought for recognition in my brain. When two other classmates nailed Chisholm’s argument, I felt like an outsider. Maybe MFAs didn’t belong here. Maybe I was too old. Worst of all, my pants felt tight.

     “Why?” responded my writing mentors when I told them I was investigating a PhD, their interrogative accompanied by the type of facial expression one uses to indicate a foul smell. I had avoided talking to these naysayers of critical writing for a while, preferring to form my own opinion. But now I did check in—perhaps because I wanted to be talked out of a PhD. They tried:

     “You’re just procrastinating on your novel.”

     “Be careful or you’ll find yourself using all those big words that end with “-ality” that us regular folk don’t understand.”

     “Those who can write, do. Those who can’t, critique.”

     “A woman wrote a critical article about one of my books of poetry and it was published in one of those PMLA type things. I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about. She should try writing a poem first and then she can have an opinion about what I do.”

     I lingered in limbo between creative writing and literary studies. The land of Either/Or.

     The initial reaction I got from the lit side hadn’t been much better. When I confessed I was a creative writer, they cut a wide swath around me. Next I called myself a writer taking classes towards a PhD. This gave them pause, and they made eye contact after that, but not much else. They still considered me an alien life form in a pre-doc shell. I didn’t blame them.

     Then, subtle changes.

     “So, you’re taking a class, huh?” At the copy machine, a lit professor made a cautious inquiry. Word got around.

     I was reading my course packet at my desk (I work part time in the English department), and a lecturer wanted to know what the reading was for the day. We commiserated about Walter Benjamin’s inaccessible writing style.

     And just when I was wondering what the deal was with French men, philosophy, and if it was something in the wine, another lecturer asked me, “What class are you taking?” I confessed to be struggling with Foucault.

     “Really? I got my PhD in literary theory.”

     “Really?”

     We talked about carceral societies and internalized surveillance, and I began to make connections between my body and this theory, between eating and PhD-ing.

     I ensure a seat to myself on the bus by huddling against the window, putting my backpack and extra bag on the seat next to me, and refusing to make eye contact with oncoming passengers. You aren’t supposed to eat on the bus, so I wait hungrily until we’re on the freeway where it’s noisy and everyone is zoning before I slip my hands inside my pack and open the wrapper—slippery plastic wrappers are much easier to sneak than the old crinkly paper ones. I adopt a nonchalant “I’m not doing anything” facial expression and synchronize bites of peanut butter cup with the bus driver’s attention on the traffic. I nervously imagine the driver discovering my transgression and leaning over to reprimand me through his microphone: “Would the woman in the second seat please stop eating the Reese’s peanut butter cup?” If he catches me, it will take more than three peanut butter cups to recover from my embarrassment. So I surreptitiously feed my treat into my mouth little by little, letting each bite dissolve, waiting until I’ve exited the bus to chew the last bits of chocolate off the tangy paper.

     Even as I connected with bits and pieces of theory, the inaccessible writing still had me eating too much, inspecting fingernails and toes, twirling hair, rocking back and forth robotically like “Rain Man.” I stared blankly at the floor of my home office, littered with critical reading detritus: nail clippings, gum wrappers, split ends, dead skin, and used paper plates.

     “I spoke about my frustration in class and found some of my fellow grad students in agreement with me. One woman reported she had gone to the head of graduate studies to voice her concern.

     “He told me to think of it this way: other disciplines, for example the natural sciences, have a specialized language that is inaccessible to an ‘outsider.’ So we’re sort of ‘keeping up with the Joneses by having a specialized language for English graduate study.” She paused. “That made some sense to me.”

     This explanation didn’t make me feel any better. It felt like males pissing on trees. It felt like building the World Trade Center memorial so it’s higher than the original. Phallic competition. At least I wasn’t the only one standing at the base of this theory, aching neck craned upwards towards the sky.

 

III.   The Journal Project

"It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it."
—Oscar Wilde

     One of our class projects was to read the last eight issues of a critical journal in our area of study and make a presentation to the class. I wasn’t exactly sure what “area of study” meant, nor how to narrow down my interests; I’d only read literary magazines. My professor suggested a/b: Auto/Biography. Jackpot.

     The first essay I read in a/b was “Autobiography as a War Machine (or, Wild Titties I Have Known),” by Annette L. Murrell. On the bus home, I was skimming the table of contents and the “Wild Titties” reference grabbed me. I started reading. Murrell’s essay combines creative nonfiction with literary theory, using her large breasts (44DD) as a frame. She starts with a memory of watching a National Geographic film about Africa in grade school and recalls that her fellow classmates laughed at the bare, sagging breasts of the women. Her intuition told her that to laugh then would be to laugh at herself in the future (141).

     The essay segues into a meditation of how we—with an emphasis on women—come to construct our identity; in particular, the way in which our own autobiographical narrative can shape the sense of who we are. Murrell is in her school office where she’s trying to explain her developing theory of autobiography as a war machine (from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) to a student from her composition class. Murrell defines war machines as “agents of desire and resistance, agents that seek to define themselves against the parameters the State authorizes.” Murrell applies the concept of war machine to art, particularly to autobiographies of marginalized people whom the State defines as inadequate, or “other.” Their autobiographies function as “a means of creating an identity that allows them to inscribe themselves in a positive and empowering way on the larger social text” (146-47). The student in Murrell’s office exemplifies the war machine theory and the link to women’s body identity through entries she has made in her class journal where she attempts to define herself and her fight against bulimia. Murrell defines her own various identities and her link to the war machine when she says, “Look, I’m African-American, a woman, I’m fat, a single mother, a teacher, a singer, a writer, a member of the middle class” (144).

     Murrell is in her house in the rest of the piece, writing and thinking about her body identity and self-hatred. Then she transforms the women in the original National Geographic piece into Black Amazons and imagines herself as part of the tribe—a bit of positive war machine revision (150). She manages to bring her mother, grandmother, and son into the essay—all around the breast theme, and breasts abound in this piece—and ends by connecting back to the Black Amazons/National Geographic. At the end of the essay, we see Murrell’s pride in her identity through this positive Black Amazon narrative. Just as she predicted earlier in the essay, her autobiography allows her to “inscribe [her]self in a positive and empowering way on the larger social text.”

     I was thrilled. Ecstatic. The bus got to the Park and Ride before I finished the article, so I sat in my car in the parking lot and kept reading to the end, my mind spinning with possibility. Could I write this way and have it “count” as criticism? Murrell’s piece brought up all sorts of possibilities for my writing. War Machine. Big breasts (40 DD, thank you very much). Fat. A compelling political reason to write my eating concerns novel. An amazing technique for writing about theory. And yet it seemed so simple, so obvious: write a critical essay on autobiography using the autobiographical form. Form follows function. As I continued to explore the journal, I realized Murrell’s essay was not typical of the essays in a/b. In fact, Rebecca Hogan, one of the editors of a/b, calls it “one of our most sensational pieces in all senses of the word.” But it was there. It had been through a peer review, and it was published.

     I looked at another journal, Biography—based at the University of Hawai'i—that also publishes critical articles on issues of life writing. Their web page advertised an e-mail discussion list for anyone interested in the discipline. The middle of winter in Seattle is gray, drizzly, and I thought it would be nice to have emails from a sunshine state. So I signed up. The very next day, when I opened my inbox, I found a call for papers from Women Writers: An E-Zine. The subject line was “Autobiographical Lit Crit.” Catchy. “The special issue will be devoted to experimental work in the “autotheoretical” realm, a hybrid genre that mixes autobiography with rigorous critical analysis of literary and cultural texts.” Could it get any better? Yes. The call for submissions specifically asked: “What is the effect of reading through the body?” When I visited the Women Writers website, I found a selected bibliography of autobiographical literary and cultural studies. I love these women.

     Our term paper for English 506 needed to be a response to a call for papers. The Women Writers CFP seemed perfect, but I worried an autotheoretical paper would give the impression of trying to get away with something. As much as I wanted to argue for autotheoretical writing, I feared it wasn’t the real thing—maybe I wouldn’t be suffering enough. After all, even Jane Tompkins in her essay “Me and My Shadow,” in which she can’t face up to the task of writing yet another critical article without including personal connections, says at the end, “This one time I’ve taken off the straitjacket and it feels so good” (40). If Tompkins, who feels so strongly about embracing the personal, feels it’s only legitimate one time, then I figured I was doomed. Tompkins seemed to say it was only okay to play with the autotheoretical genre. Since I’d already chosen to analyze an article on Kathie Lee Gifford for class this quarter, I feared I’d used up my play time. I hesitantly confessed my interest to my professor, ready to jump ship and make fun of it at any second if she appeared to think it less than worthy.

     “That sounds fine.”

     Oh!

IV. Let the Games Begin

"See me, feel me, touch me, heal me."
—“See Me, Feel Me,” The Who

     I found all the books on the Women Writers’ bibliography at our library and shuttled them home three at a time on the bus. The first time I made the connection that inaccessible essays are a patriarchal form of writing was in Stacey Young’s Changing the Wor(l)d: Discourse, Politics, and the Feminist Movement. I thought, “Wow, a new and political reason to dislike inaccessible writing. Cool.” I mentioned this to a friend of mine who got her MA in English in 1990, and she said she’d always found Derrida oppressive.

     I discovered that autotheoretical feminist texts illuminate diverse voices in the women’s movement and spotlight differences in women’s identities and subjectivities based on race, sexuality, class, ethnicity, religion, etc. These texts argue there isn’t one feminist identity—all voices must be heard. It seemed to me the same could be said for autotheoretical literary criticism: the accessible writing opens up criticism to diverse voices, both writers’ and readers’.

     Young’s book also introduced me to the key concept in women’s theory: the “personal as political.” As I read, I expected to run into more theory, words I’d need to look up in the dictionary, references to the scholarly work of French men. It never happened. While I respected the feminist approach of declining to seek the support of a “higher authority,” I wanted a balance of the personal and literary theory. I kept reading.

     Nicole Griffith defines herself as both a literary/modern studies scholar and a mother. In “Mother Writes: My Scholar, My Self,” Griffith shares that when she writes an academic paper she will usually block out the mother part of her personality because she thinks her scholarly efforts will improve. This time, however, she incorporated the mother self into her academic paper to “examine what that might mean.” Griffith calls for scholarly women writers to “think through the body” (quoting Adrienne Rich), and to join the “personal and concrete to the public and abstract.” For me, however, the essay took a disappointing turn when Griffith worried how incorporating emotion would affect her scholarly writing. She quoted her instructor, Jane Gallop, and Gallop’s theory about including the personal in critical writing: “the personal can only be supplemental to theory, and should only be employed if it renders the theory more clearly.” The hairs on the back of my neck came to attention, like my dog defending her territory. First, it’s that word “only”—used twice and in such a disciplinary manner—it feels like Gallop is saying, “we’ll only let you play if you do it our way.” Then there’s the idea of the personal being “supplemental.” My question: What is the problem with prioritizing the personal in order to make theory accessible to a wider audience? Is there a fear that theory might attract people like me? Annette Murrell’s essay in a/b prioritized the personal, and her breasts provided me with a breakthrough into the world of theory.

     Although I found reason to argue with these essays, I identified with the authors’ excitement over finding and using their voices. Their embrace of autotheoretical writing paralleled my epiphany over creative nonfiction. When they confess relief at finding and using their personal voices, I know just what they mean. For example, in Jane Tompkins’ “Me and My Shadow” (the essay that ends with Tompkins telling us she’s going to write this way “just this once”) she writes:

The thing I want to say is that I’ve been hiding a part of myself for a long time. I’ve known it was there, but I couldn’t listen because there was no place for this person in literary criticism. The criticism I would like to write would always take off from personal experience. Would always be in some way a chronicle of my hours and days. Would speak in a voice which can talk about everything, would reach out to a reader like me and touch me where I want to be touched. (28)

     To write in such a way that you communicate intimately with your reader, to have your reader say, “That’s exactly how I feel,” to shine a new light on an old subject so that your reader never looks at it the same way again. I thought those were the goals of all good writing. I kept reading.

     The first thing I did after picking up Diane Freedman’s An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics was look up “alchemy” in the dictionary: “Any seemingly magical power or process of transmuting: ‘that alchemy…by which women can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles’ (Hawthorne)” (American Heritage Dictionary). Ooh, I liked it, I really liked it. If you think of poison as a good thing, which I am (think Weed ‘n Feed), then the Hawthorne quotation connects directly to what Freedman writes in chapter one: “feminist critics’ reliance on narrative, testimony, anecdote, poetry—on a self-conscious mixture or patchwork of genres—is one powerful way of re-vising the conventional academic modes they would criticize” (15). Right on. But would Freedman turn against the autotheoretical as so many others had? No. In fact, she writes that she was drawn to this mode of writing because she wanted more than the power given to people who don’t make waves. She wanted more than what Elizabeth Janeway labels the “power of the weak” (11). She wanted more than the power accorded to those who kiss ass and perpetuate oppression. Now we’re starting to sound like autobiography as war machine.

     “I had a really bad incident this week,” said Andie. She tucked her hands under her thighs as she spoke, tilting herself to one side and the other to accomplish the maneuver, then she glanced nervously at the ceiling. “It was Saturday morning and I knew I wanted some sugar. I thought about exactly what I wanted and decided on a Reese’s peanut butter cup. I told my girlfriend I was going across the street to the convenience store.”

     Andie’s shirt strains its buttons and I see she’s wearing a white bra this week. I think about what it would feel like to poke my index finger in the roll of fat that starts under her bra and goes to the waistband of her skirt. Smushy.

     “Another tenant on our floor got on the elevator with me,” she continued. “We don’t talk much but he seems nice enough. He’s got a different girl with him every time I see him.” She giggled.

     Her hands are now repeatedly tucking strands of hair behind her ear while she talks. She alternates between this and playing with the silver hoops that occupy her right lobe. “I got the peanut butter cup, King size, since there were two of us. When I came back across the street, the other tenant was getting on his motorcycle and putting on his helmet. He saw the Reese’s in my hand—god, how could he not?” She shook her head and momentarily searched the ceiling for answers again. Then she giggled. “It’s so big and bright orange; did you know that orange is the easiest color for the eye to see? And it’s got that yellow diagonal banner like some sort of Miss America thing except it screams “King Size” (here Andie’s giggle picks up pace and we start to laugh too, but then she switches tone), and the guy shook his head at me as if to say ‘no, you shouldn’t be eating that’ and he wagged a finger at me like ‘Tsk, tsk. ’”

     A groan of understanding makes the circle of the group like the wave at a sports event, followed by an “oh, no” from therapist Pam. I’m shaking my head as if to say, “What a pity.” We all know exactly what Andie is talking about.

     “But I didn’t defend myself. Even worse, I hung my head when I walked past him. God, I hate that I did that! His reaction, and mine, brought back all the restrictive feelings about eating that led to my anorexia in the first place.”

     “I went up to my apartment and I wanted to hide,” continued Andie. “I was crying and I needed a place to be alone, but…” she started to giggle, then laugh, longer this time, and we all picked up on it. We didn’t know what we were laughing about, but we couldn’t help it. When Andie laughs, you have to follow suit. She continued: “… I have a studio apartment and there wasn’t any place to get away.” She thought that was hilarious. And that’s one of the reasons I like Andie: no matter how bad it gets, she can still laugh. Say you’re running jingle bells through a coin sorter on high speed. That’s the sound of Andie’s laugh.

     “Anyway, I ended up on the floor in the corner of the kitchen, and I cried for an hour. I sat there clutching that orange wrapper, feeling the candy getting softer, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to eat it, or anything else, again. Why did I let this guy get to me?” She tucked her hands under her thighs again and looked directly at us.

 

IV. Her Story

"The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning."
—Ivy Baker Priest

     I’m forty-seven years old. At age forty I had been playing the corporate game for eighteen years without a college degree. I served men—I was an executive assistant—but I spoke up enough to convince myself I wasn’t a victim. I don’t think I minded perpetuating oppressive policies as long as they benefited me. I’m not sure if I thought I was happy. Then I lost my job and wrote my first story. I went back to school. I see things differently now.

     Freedman’s Alchemy of Genres brings up the possibility that “women may learn more through personal narratives—their own and others’—than through an argumentative discourse based on generalities and abstractions alone” (7). While this theory gets into the sticky territory of essentialism, and in another setting I might argue against such a generalization, right now it’s helpful. The theory would explain why I have such a hard time following the critical essays that don’t give real world examples, why I skim through the theory and look for the concrete. When I think of autotheoretical writing this way—that it’s a structure more naturally accessible to women, that it could be how the “female” brain works—it has a calming effect on me. I reason that just as women aren’t “less” than men, autotheoretical writing isn’t “less” than theoretical writing. Different but equal approaches. It feels like I don’t have to fight so hard for the personal. It feels like I found my home. (Yes, yes, I know anything thought of as “other” is seen as “less than” in this culture, and, yes, I know I’m not going to convince traditional theorists with this argument, but it goes a long way in satisfying my anxiety. )

     Susan Suleiman, in Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature, calls her essays “mediated autobiography” because her autobiography is “mediated” through writing about other artists. In my master’s essay for the MFA, I wrote about this same concept, expanding on Philip Lopate’s idea that a requirement of the personal essay is “the need to go beyond the self’s quandaries, through research or contextualization, to bring back news of the larger world” (44). I argued that the intensity of the self-revelatory “I” is most effective when it’s balanced by actual and virtual white space: breathing room for both the writer and the reader away from the “I.” My term “white space” could be interchanged with Suleiman’s “mediated autobiography” or Lopate’s “news of the larger world.” In the introduction to my paper, I wrote: “The departure from the “I” usually comes in the form of weaving other outward-focused narratives along with the I-centered narrative, but I discovered it can also be achieved through the use of actual white space, or virtual white space in the form of non-linear time, diary format, and the inclusion of various genres in one work.” It’s the mixture, the balance, the right poison that’s the goal. Autotheoretical writing works because it contains the right ingredients: you take the personal and mix in critical theory and contextualization to bring back “news of the larger world.” Theory needs autobiography; autobiography needs theory. Like peanut butter and chocolate, they can exist independently, but they explode when they are combined.

     My research on autotheoretical writing brought me back to my own intuitive preferences. But the difference is now I’m going forward with a deeper sense of connection and purpose. I’m going forward with more history. Her story. My story. I think of what Annette Murrell said about her autobiography allowing her to “inscribe [her]self in a positive and empowering way on the larger social text.” I think of courage vs. the power of the weak. I think of how I might just want to get that PhD. I draw a line under the five senses on the Post-it note on my computer and add a sixth sense: War machine. Sixth senses are intuitive and extrasensory. I’d like to nurture that ability.

     Andie brought us back to the peanut butter cup incident. “I still feel the fact that I didn’t say anything gave him the power.”

     We’re silent as we digest this statement, as we think of how we’ve felt in the past.

     Pam asks, “Does anyone have a suggestion for this type of situation?”

     And then we really do try to come up with ideas that we can all use in the future. Like asking the guy to repeat himself. Putting him on the spot. “Except he didn’t say anything,” says Judy. So the suggestion comes up to make him speak: confess you don’t understand what he’s getting at with his pantomime; could he put it into words? Or, no, better yet, ask him to go through the motions again; you’d like to see it one more time so you could try to figure it out. Andie giggles. Or blow it off, a non-reaction. Then Judy says, “I know, next time you see him with the girl-of-the-day, you can do what he did: wag your finger and say ‘tsk, tsk. ’” Now we’re all laughing. And it’s times like this I think I belong in this group of smart, funny women.

 

Epilogue: Spring Quarter 2003

     I have a confession. After I finished this paper winter quarter and spent spring break depressed and exhausted, I wasn’t sure that a PhD would be good for my body. Although I was excited about autotheoretical writing, my future as a grad student depended on the amount of traditional theory I would be required to read and the amount of stuffing myself I’d have to do as compensation—both were body hating gestures that fed off of one another.

     I signed up for my second literature course spring quarter with the intent of dropping it during the first two weeks if things looked bad (i. e. , if I began to stop at the donut shop both mornings and afternoons). Lucky for me, American Auto/Biography is offered this quarter. I love it. Now instead of not being able to put down the cookies, I can’t put down the books we’re reading—even the theory, all of which falls on the autotheoretical side. Now I can do my reading on the recliner or the couch or even in bed, instead of the less comfortable office chair, because I don’t have to worry about falling asleep. Now my dogs curl up with me on the couch and don’t bother me because I’m not eating as I read. What a difference it makes when your reading and writing feeds you.


About the Author

Marcia Woodard received her MFA in fiction in 2002 and is in the pre-pre-doctoral phase of her graduate career at the University of Washington with a total of 15 literature credits accumulated towards a PhD. At this pace she expects to be wheeled from the PhD ceremony to the rest home. Marcia does not normally write in a hammock in the rain, but she wanted to portray how she had imagined the writing life. Besides, the hammock turns out to be a slimming photographic device.


Works Cited

 

“Alchemy.” Def. 2. The American Heritage Dictionary. 4th ed. 2000.

Biography. 9 Feb. 2003 <http:www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/journals/bio/index.html>.

Freedman, Diane. An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992.

Griffith, Nicole. 9 Feb. 2003 “Mother Writes: My Scholar, My Self.” http://www.womenwriters.net/archives/nged1.htm

Hogan, Rebecca. E-mail to the author. 10 Feb. 2003.

Lopate, Phillip. “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character.” Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Eds. Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard. Cincinnati: Story P, 2001. 38-44.

Murrell, Annette L. “Autobiography as War Machine (or, Wild Titties I Have Known).” a/b: Auto/Biography 16. 1 (2001): 141-155.

Suleiman, Susan. Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

Tompkins, Jane. “Me and My Shadow.” The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Eds. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. 23-40.

Women Writers: An E-Zine. 3 Feb. 2003 <http://www.womenwriters.net>

Young, Stacey. Changing the Wor(l)d: Discourse, Politics, and the Feminist Movement. London: Routledge, 1997.

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