Anthony Easton is a critic, from Edmonton, and now living in Hamilton. They have written about class, gender, and sexuality—including for the Globe and Mail, Pitchfork, the Atlantic Online, Spin, CBC, among many other publications.
I was wondering which essays I was going to read at Brockton, and I have kept returning back to this problem of the confessional. The essays that keep coming to me, are deeply personal, and it made me nervous. The following blog entry is intended to do two things: a) it is a defense of the confessional essay b) it positions the eventual public performance. If I was being truly honest, it also means that I cannot get out of reading it out loud.
Seven Anecdotes concerning the Queer Confessional:
“ Indeed to speak or write of homosexuality at all is to run the risk of being taken as a gossip. Given that historical events have conspired to make homosexuality a subject of scandal, then gossip, as that “low” discursive practice drawn to scandalous subjects, has come to enjoy a particular affinity with homosexuality. ”
Gavin Butt, “Gossip: The Hardcore of History,” in Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963
To be queer is to be confessional. It’s genealogies are coded, underground—the wink, the nod, the hint and the bump. It’s subtle discourses are self protective, and that self protection has encased in endless layers of discourse and code. When a queer writer (when I) speak of self, these layers refuse singular meaning, the gossip and the code–is text and subtext, surface text and under layers of desire. I am planning on reading a work of autobiography, a confession of desire, at Brockton, here are seven anecdotes about confession to prime the pump—think of it as proto confession. Think of it like when you pass along a story so others don’t get the juice first.
Heterosexuality is compulsory (thank you Adrienne Rich.) Everyone will assume you are straight, unless you tell them otherwise. They will often assume that you are gay, if you tell them you are not straight. Even in this age of the pan, the post, the non, the other—where the liquidity of gender and sex seem constantly reified, the binary continually reasserts itself. The self and the body are policed into a concordance that is profoundly discordant. My body reads masc, myself refuses my body. Having sex with men does not preclude having sex with anyone else.
Self identity is wily. Who we are is made by construction, I wonder if there is any permeance in it, I am not sure that it is something that we are born into. I think that we have this recency bias, and so that we assume that the stories we tell about our own sex, are stories of our time and place–but we assume that time and place is universal, but it is deeply and heavily localised, a concretion of tiny choices and small geographies–as for me, it is growing up out west a decade after the plague years, or going to high school the same year as Matthew Shepard, or growing up Mormon, or those weeks I spent in Vancouver in my late teens, or moving to Toronto in my mid 20s—this might suggest an atomized, personalized sexuality, but think of it as a set of nodes–sometimes repelling, sometimes attracting, floating into the ether. Maybe not enough to build a movement on, but we try.
This atomized, confessional mode, means that identity is constructed by how we tell stories. It is about the crafting stories–queerness is defined by a few explicit narratives. The coming out story. The first time one had sex story. The stories of discovering what turns you on, and how that turn on is different than what might turn others. The stories about the farce of cruising. The more tragic stories–we still have this internalized homophobia, the stories of rejection, of loathing, of the spit word from a passing car, from the violence of a culture. The secret of these tales is not that they exist, but that they are traded. Each time they are told, they are edited, polished to a fine sheen. When Didion tells us that we tell each other stories to live, it is not the stories that save us, it is the telling.
These are my stories. I tell them to you. These are your stories. You tell them to me. There is this idea that the act of storytelling will bring us together. That the individual stories will magically create empathy, and that it will be an act of delightful bridge building. Here are other reasons why people tell stories: To seduce, to humiliate, to belittle, to claim space, to enact violence, to show empathy, to explain complicated truths, to entertain, to shock, to turn on, to disgust, to cause division. When a story is anthologized as an act of identity creation, one must be careful of motives.
Each of those reasons to tell a story, each of those reasons to confess is an example of craft. This idea that I will tell my truth, denies the idea of craft. Craft can be done poorly, or be completed with technical skill, crafting a confession does not mean that one is lying. Think about the first story that one tells of one’s queerness (my queerness, your queerness.) Queerness requires finesse. The initial coming out, is practiced–first in front of a mirror, alone; then in front of a community. The story is told again and again. Queer confessional is an act of deliberate self fashioning. When I read at Brockton–the piece that I will write has been edited by professionals, but even before I wrote it down on paper–I told the stories of it everywhere that people might confess: in doctor’s offices, on the therapist’s couch, at church, in bar rooms. The informal networks, online and off, the gossip that allows the self to emerge, is all on the page. Every queer act of writing centers on good dish.
I hope the writing is refined. The corners knocked off, the drafts well constructed. Everything smoothed out, and then afterwards, a bit of roughness abraded, as a kind of decorative prettiness. Roughness is as much of an aesthetic strategy as smoothness.
In this question of what we tell, in the crafting, remind yourself that this is not the whole store. That the confession, the crafted story, so much is cut off. Sometimes it is self censoring, sometimes it does not fit the culture, sometimes the tangent distracts from the central narrative. There is so much discussion of fraud, of the confessional not being real, of people faking what could be considered real. Part of me wants to ask, do you want something real, or do you want something good; part of me wants to remind someone that the memory is fallible; sometimes one wants to remind an audience that editing is removing as much telling. The tell all’s power rests on the hint, or the ellipse.
Maybe these aren’t anecdotes as much as thoughts about how to craft a queer identity now, maybe they are ways of indicating what I am presenting will be ambivalent.
I have always done a bad job at sales.
Anthony Easton visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Priya Ramsingh, Glynis Guevara, Rocco de Giacomo, and guest speaker Anne Laurel Carter presents us with tips on “Writing for Younger Readers: Three Essential Strategies.”