Why I Write: An Introduction

as read aloud to the 2D Co-op, 12 January 2011

I wrote my first book in the summer of 1994. I was four. It was before my mother had a computer at home, and we sat together in her study in the basement of our house in Atlanta, in front of the electric typewriter on which she’d written her dissertation. I dictated; she touch-typed. The book is called “Emily’s Book.” It has four chapters: about the human body, the solar system, tap-dancing, and the movie Aladdin. It is bound in blue cardboard, with a hand-illustrated cover. It includes such priceless gems as “It is great to have a body. I like everyone’s body,” and “The Milky Way is a vast group of stars. I don’t know so much about stars.” I wrote about what was important in my four-year-old world. I wrote about what I thought and felt. I constructed a self I could publish to the world, one who wanted to be a doctor or an astronomer, who liked “A Whole New World” but not the Cave of Wonders, and who, by virtue of omission, didn’t come home from school every day in tears.

All my life, I have written stories about myself. When I was a child, they were often false, either unconscious lies—like the time that I convinced my first-grade classmates as well as myself that I was born in Scotland—or old-fashioned fiction, like when I wrote myself into the leading role of school stories that turned classrooms that were sites of trauma into places of camaraderie and adventure. In my efforts of self-fashioning, I became a pirate, a musketeer, a posh public-school boy out of some mid-twentieth-century British novel that I was probably too young to read.

When I was a teenager, I finally got the picture that trying to be those things didn’t make me cool and glamorous. It just made me—as I was known in seventh grade—”the smart girl who wears the weird clothes.” It got me intellectual authority, but it didn’t get me friendships, or relationships. Maybe that’s why, in high school, I started to interrogate who I really am, and what I have to give to the real world. Instead of writing about “swords, ships, and Scotland”—for so I named my “obsessions” when I was twelve—I wrote about what it was like to be the sole conscientious objector in a knights-and-armor-themed summer camp, about how I felt when my high-school boyfriend would say to me, “You’re such a guy!” and about how much the poetry of Allen Ginsberg meant to me.

These became my college application essays, and what primarily seemed significant about them was that they were the only thing that I could point to that justified my acceptance to Princeton—which, for a few years, I was extremely preoccupied with justifying. The road to ending that preoccupation began, in fact, in the spring of my freshman year, when I started a blog. I still write that blog, and I know some of you read it. I do two things on my blog, and have since the beginning of freshman spring: I post quotes from my reading that speak to me, and sometimes brief responses to them; and I post longer personal essays about my thoughts, desires, and aspirations that help me to envision myself as an academic in control of my life. This year, for instance, I’ve written about my experiences studying at Oxford and then doing thesis research in England in the summer; about my increasingly complicated relationship to LGBT identities and politics; about spirituality; about the books I love and why I love them; and of course (quelle surprise!) about John Addington Symonds.

I promised my mother I would make this particular essay be as little about Symonds as possible, but I think I’m going to have to mention him. You see, in thinking about the craft of self-fashioning and life-story-writing, I’ve gotten a bit closer to understanding what it is that draws me to Symonds and the other men “of the Greek persuasion” I study. There’s a thin but very powerful strand running through modern intellectual and literary history that I like to call “the homoerotic literary tradition.” It involves well-to-do, highly educated men in Europe and North America who discover that there is something fundamentally different about how they connect with other people: not by desiring a school classmate or having paying sex with a soldier, but by reading about desire and love. They use their reading—of Plato and other Greeks, of Walt Whitman, of Michelangelo and maybe Shakespeare—and their knowledge of the lives and life-works of people whom we now consider part of the gay canon, like Oscar Wilde or Christopher Isherwood—to make sense of who they are and what they want. What brings me back to Symonds is that he, like many other, later men, wrote his own life story in the form of a long manuscript of his memoirs, and moreover that he wrote it as a narrative of self-discovery through the lens of reading and writing first, and life experiences second. It was 1889, though, and like E.M. Forster’s 1914 homosexual novel Maurice, Symonds’ Memoirs couldn’t be published until long after his death.

Maurice is about as fictionalized as Symonds’ Memoirs are true, which is to say not entirely. Both, in effect, are ways of advancing an idea of who a homosexual man is and what it’s like inside his head. Because Symonds and Forster both saw themselves—to a certain extent—as homosexual men, the Memoirs and Maurice are both ways of saying, “Here is my message to the world about what I feel and desire and about how to understand people like me.”

People often ask me why I study literary gay men, and it’s a question I find very difficult to answer. As I’ve grown up, I’ve ceased to ally myself with identity politics based in nonnormative sexual identity, and yet my attachment to what people like Symonds and Forster do as readers and writers has grown stronger than ever. So I don’t just do this to be a liberationist, to “uncover the gay past.” Of course, there’s the fairly obvious point that my study of sex and sexuality stems from the sublimation of my repressed sexual desires. Now, that may explain why when I was a teenager I’d read all of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s seminal sexological text Psychopathia Sexualis before I’d ever seen so much as a frame of pornography. But at the risk of disappointing the Freudians among you, I don’t think repression is the whole story about the homoerotic literary tradition and me. Both the identity politics and the repression theories risk reducing the HLT to sex, and to a fairly specific set of sex acts and sexual identities at that. I’ve realized recently that a literary tradition that proposes to think seriously, and beautifully, about who we are and what we want has a broad ability to move people coming from all kinds of different places with respect to loving and connecting.

One of the reasons I realized this is that over the winter break, I read Forster’s novel Howards End. The way I read it, the book is about how we fall in love, and the kinds of connections (that’s his word) that we form: family-love, sex-love, friendship-love, and even place-love. Forster shows us all these kinds of connections in all their complexities. Not every attempted connection comes to an entirely happy ending. There is tragedy in Howards End. And there is quotidian compromise and unfulfillment, which is in some ways far worse. Yet, Forster gives us to understand, we are far, far better off for having made connections at all, regardless of their eventual outcome. He voices this thought in the words of one of the novel’s protagonists, at its conclusion:

It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them…. And others—others go further still, and move outside humanity altogether. A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow. Don’t you see that all this leads to comfort in the end? It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences—eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily gray.

The notes in the Penguin edition of Howards End say, “with the hindsight given by Maurice, it is hard to help seeing [this] speech as a concealed plea for charity towards homosexuals.” But I don’t read it like that at all. I do think that it matters that Forster was preoccupied throughout his life with understanding his own sexual identity, and I certainly think that he wrote with care and emotion about being a homosexual man who started to understand himself through books and only then moved on to life experiences. I also think that it matters that there were things in 1910 that Forster couldn’t say in print, because there are things that we all—however confessional our styles—are scared to tell the world.

But what makes Forster one of my favorite writers is that the bit I just quoted comes out of the mouth of Margaret Schlegel: a woman, who marries a man, and altogether is a very different person who makes very different romantic choices to those that Forster himself made. I find it extraordinary that out of writing about one life—which he did prolifically, in fiction but also in a series of famous diaries and journals—Forster came to write about all our lives, about the imperative that we all “Only connect!”

It’s a tall order comparing oneself to Forster. But I write essays these days because I, too, hope that out of my one life someone else who reads or listens to what I have to say will take something of value. And I also write essays for the same reasons that I wrote a book when I was four. That I care so much about all the wonderful things in the world that I can’t keep my words to myself; and also that I am still trying to find ways of explaining myself and my peculiarities. I am given to understand that such voyages of self-discovery last a lifetime: Symonds wrote his Memoirs four years before he died, and even then—an attentive historian will note!—they are far from accurate or comprehensive. But I also believe that I owe it to myself, to Symonds, to Forster, and to all who have ever found themselves through reading and writing, to keep sailing: onwards, and upwards, and better.

2 thoughts on “Why I Write: An Introduction

  1. This is a wonderful essay / speech / whatever. It’s taken me until this year to finally acknowledge that my contribution to the world will be through the written word. I’ve at various times fashioned myself a leader and an activist and a protester, but in the end, I feel that, for some of us, writing will always be our most powerful tool both for impacting society and for fashioning ourselves. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks so much, Alex. I really appreciate that coming from you. And, of course, it takes all kinds of voices saying all kinds of things to make the world better. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

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